Congress Enacts Law of Unintended Tax Consequences

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We welcome back occasional guest blogger and frequent commenter, Bob Kamman.  Bob has a practice in Phoenix that provides both representation and return preparation.  Today, he comes to the rescue of the PT team that has struggled to produce content this past week due to other obligations and provides us with insights on some of the quirks created by the legislation designed to provide relief for taxpayers impacted by the pandemic.  Keith

As the latest Covid-relief legislation makes its way through the Congressional meat grinder, a couple of tax inequities continue to be overlooked. Maybe it’s not too late to correct them.

One is mostly of interest to college students and the low-income taxpayer clinics where they may seek help. The other might interest college professors considering a sabbatical year abroad.

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I) The Unemployment Trap

Many people who lost their jobs in 2020 qualified for federally-funded unemployment benefits that were more generous than those allowed by state programs. Recipients were paid $600 a week for up to 17 weeks, in addition to normal state benefits. Even college students with part-time jobs qualified, in many cases. It didn’t matter if they were under 24 years old, and still being claimed as dependents by their parents.

The $600 weekly checks ended on July 31, 2020, and would not resume until this year. Meanwhile, some people had continued eligibility for state benefits, and for other Covid-related compensation.

Enter the dreaded Kiddie Tax.

Since 1986, children with unearned income of more than a certain amount have been taxed on it at the same marginal rate as their parent(s). This prevented high-bracket adults from shifting investment income to their low-bracket kids. But back then, it only applied to children under age 14.

Congress eventually applied the law to older “children,” including full-time students up to age 23 who were not providing at least half of their support with their own earned income. Their earnings are taxed at the usual rates, but their unearned income is taxed at the higher parental rate. And unemployment is considered unearned income.

Tax practitioners this filing season are finding it not unusual for young unemployed college students to bring in Forms 1099-G showing five-figure amounts for unemployment compensation. If federal tax was withheld at all, it was mostly at a 10% rate. If $10,000 was received, $1,000 was withheld. But if the student must use the higher tax rate of, for example, 24%, the tax could approach $2,400 and the balance due IRS even after withholding, nearly $1,400.

If earned at a job and reported on a Form W-2, none of the $10,000 in wages would be taxed because of the $12,400 standard deduction.

Is this what Congress intended? Probably not.

Will it be fixed by pending legislation? Predictions are welcome in the Comments section below.

II. Welfare for Expatriates

If our unemployed students in the example above must pay IRS another $1,400 on their “unearned” unemployment compensation, what will the federal government do with it? Maybe, send it to one of their instructors.

Suppose you have a job offer from the Sorbonne to teach in Paris for a year at a salary of $180,000. Would it help, if the Treasury added another $1,400 tax-free? And that much for your spouse, also. That’s how the “Economic Impact Payments” have worked in the last two rounds.

They are based on AGI, after the exclusion for income earned abroad. That amount in 2021 is a maximum of $107,600. Then the $1,200 and $600 payments were not reduced unless this post-exclusion AGI exceeded $75,000 – or $150,000 on a joint return. All you must do to claim the exclusion is meet the “physical presence test:” stay overseas more than 330 days out of any 12-month period. (You also have to show that you have not kept your “tax home” in the United States, but for many academics those rules are not onerous.)

Paris is too expensive on $180,000 a year? Try Auckland. Cost of living in New Zealand is lower, and there is less virus around once they let you in.

Of course, educators are just a small minority of the Americans who benefit from this loophole. Half a million taxpayers claim the Section 911 exclusion each year, according to IRS estimates based on 2016 returns.

Are Covid disaster-relief payments for well-paid Americans living abroad what Congress intended? Probably not. A bipartisan group of 16 senators in early February sponsored a budget resolution amendment that promised to target stimulus checks to low- and middle-income families. It passed 99-1.

How simple would this be to fix, with a sentence that defines AGI as the amount before the foreign earned-income exclusion? Very.

Will that happen? Again, your predictions are welcome.

Comments

  1. Robert Nassau says

    I was surprised that there wasn’t a Section 911 carve-out in the Stimulus Legislation. I only learned about that omission when my son who lives/works in England told me he’d gotten a check. There are a lot of places in the Code where Section 911 is taken into account to avoid unintended benefits (e.g., the Section 86 social security inclusion calculation). Sorry son, but this should be fixed in Round 3. 🙂

  2. Norman Diamond says

    “Half a million taxpayers claim the Section 911 exclusion each year, according to IRS estimates based on 2016 returns.”

    That’s because 90% of US non-resident citizens don’t even know about Cook v. Tait, or for other reasons find that it’s safer to ignore it instead of trying to file a US return. Most countries practice source based taxation (taxed at source of income) and residence based taxation (taxed at place of residence). Only the US and Eritrea still attempt citizenship based taxation.

    Fortunately the 9th Circuit recognized that Congress, by enacting 28 USC section 1402, revoked the power that it had been given by Cook v. Tait. The US no longer makes the benefit of US citizenship complete on the citizen and his property wherever found. US non-resident citizens cannot get jury trials in refund suits. US non-resident citizens have the same constraint as US non-resident aliens, with refund suits limited to Court of Federal Claims.

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