Alternative Minimum Tax (AMT) for Individuals

Many tax deductions were intended for the middle class so that they can afford a minimum living. However, most of these also benefited the wealthy. Indeed, during the 1970s and the 1980s, many wealthy people paid no income tax whatsoever. To prevent that, the tax law provides for an alternative minimum tax (AMT) system, first implemented in 1969, that is parallel to the regular tax system. The AMT is calculated based on the alternative minimum taxable income (AMTI) that includes all income taxable under the regular tax system plus some income tax exempt under the regular tax system. There are also restrictions on claiming itemized deductions, accelerated depreciation, and certain other specialized deductions and credits. After calculating the tax liability under the regular tax system and under the AMT system, the taxpayer pays the greater amount.

According to the Urban-Brookings Tax Policy Center, the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act greatly reduced the number of taxpayers liable for the AMT, from about 5.1 million taxpayers in 2017 to about 200,000 taxpayers in 2020. Consequently, AMT tax revenue declined from $38.5 billion in 2017 to $5.2 billion in 2020. (T21-0214 - Aggregate AMT Projections, 2017-2031 | Tax Policy Center)

There is no specific formula to determine if a taxpayer must pay regular income tax or the AMT. However, the following common items are not deductible under the AMT system:

Moreover, some additional income may be includable under the AMT system that was excluded under the regular system, such as:

There are some deductions still available under the AMT:

Therefore, if the taxpayer has substantial deductions under the regular tax system that are not deductible under the AMT system, such as the above items, and if the taxpayer's income, after adding back the disallowed deductions, exceeds the AMT exemption amount, then it is likely some AMT will be owed.

Hence, the only way to determine AMT liability is to calculate taxable income using standard procedures and then using the AMT procedures on Form 6251, Alternative Minimum Tax for Individuals. The end result of the AMT calculation is a tentative AMT tax from which the regular tax is subtracted. If the result is positive, then this AMT tax is added to the regular tax on Form 1040; if the result is negative, then there is no AMT.

The AMT includes many of the same types of income and deductions as the regular tax system. For instance, private activity bonds issued by state, county, or local governments are excluded in computing taxable income but are included in computing AMTI. Both tax systems allow depreciation, but the depreciation period is generally longer under AMT. Some deductions have a floor which is higher under AMT than under the regular tax system. For instance, the floor for medical expenses under the regular tax system for taxpayers at least 65 is 7.5%, but 10% under the AMT system.

However, the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act reduced the difference between regular tax liability and AMT liability for many taxpayers because under the regular tax system, personal exemptions and miscellaneous itemized deductions subject to the 2%-of-AGI limit were eliminated and deductions for state and local taxes were capped.

None of the elements of the AMT are indexed for inflation. Instead, Congress periodically increases the exemption amounts when it starts increasing the tax liability of many more voters.

A child subject to the kiddie tax who files Form 8615, Tax For Certain Children Who Have Unearned Income may also be liable for the AMT if some income comes from accelerated depreciation, tax-exempt interest from private activity bonds, passive activity losses, certain distributions from estates or trusts, or from other preference items under the AMT tax system. In such cases, the AMT exemption amount may be much lower for the child than it is for other taxpayers. For instance, in 2020, the AMT exemption amount is limited to the lower of the child's earned income + $7900 or $72,900, while the exemption amount for other single taxpayers is $72,900.

The Rich Do Pay More under the AMT System

On November 2, 2017, the House Republicans presented their tax proposal, containing a provision eliminating the AMT, which has been part of the tax code since 1969. Although the AMT is complicated and there are far easier ways to make the rich pay their share of taxes, the AMT does work. In 2005, Donald J Trump, the current president of the United States, paid $31 million more in taxes because of the AMT. He paid $38 million in federal income taxes on $153 million of reported income. Without the AMT, Donald Trump would have only paid $7 million in taxes, yielding an effective tax rate of 4.6%, a much lower effective tax rate than a single taxpayer with no dependents would pay on income of $15,000.

Alternative Minimum Taxable Income Formula

Form 6251 starts with adjusted gross income, which is the income before deductions for itemized deductions or the standard deduction. Because these deductions are not included in the AMT calculation, they do not have to be subtracted.

Adjustments

AMT tax is generally calculated by first calculating AMTI. There are 2 types of changes that modify AMTI: adjustments and tax preferences. Adjustments can be either positive or negative – positive adjustments are added to AMTI and negative adjustments are subtracted from it. There are 2 types of adjustments: deduction adjustments and income adjustments. A deduction adjustment arises when an allowable deduction is different under the AMT and regular tax system. As can be seen from the following formula, if the regular deduction exceeds the AMT deduction, then the adjustment is positive; otherwise, it is negative.

Deduction Adjustment = Regular Deduction – AMT Deduction

Likewise, if the AMT income exceeds the regular income, then the income adjustment is positive; otherwise, it is negative.

Income Adjustment = AMT Income – Regular Income

This accords with the objective of the AMT system — that the taxpayer pays the highest tax. When the AMT deduction is smaller than the regular deduction, then the difference is added to AMTI, which, of course, increases the AMT. If AMT income exceeds regular income, then this positive adjustment is added to AMTI, which also increases the AMT.

The most common results of these adjustments include:

However, net capital gains that qualify for the reduced capital gain rates is the same under the regular and AMT tax system.

Tax Preferences

Tax preferences are specified in IRC §57 and are always positive, so they are always added to AMTI. Tax preference items are deductions that may provide large tax savings under the regular tax system. Some of the more common tax preferences include the interest on private activity bonds, and the difference between accelerated depreciation and straight-line depreciation on both real property and leased personal property.

The definition of private activity bonds as defined by IRC §141 is complex, but generally private activity bonds are issued by states or municipalities where more than 10% of the proceeds are used for private business use. Private activity bond interest is reported in box 9 of Form 1099-INT.

Example: Tax-Exempt Interest from Private Activity Bonds Increases AMTI

How the Regular and AMT System Interact over Time

The time period for deducting many expenses differs under the regular tax and the AMT system. To see how adjustments work, consider the simple case of circulation expenditures. Under the regular tax system, circulation expenditures can be deducted in the same year they arise; however, under the AMT system, only 1/3 of the circulation expenditures can be deducted per year, so the entire expense can only be deducted over a 3-year period.

Year Regular
Deduction
AMT
Deduction
AMT
Adjustment
2020 $60,000 $20,000 $40,000
2021 $0 $20,000 -$20,000
2022 $0 $20,000 -$20,000

Note that the adjustment for deductions is usually positive in the first year, meaning it adds to income, and negative for subsequent years.

Gain or Loss

The tax basis of property may differ under the regular tax system and under the AMT system, most commonly because of differences in depreciation of the property. Therefore, when property is sold or if there is a casualty loss of income-producing or business property, then the gain or loss may differ under the 2 tax systems. The gain or loss adjustment is calculated similarly to the calculations for deduction and income adjustments:

Gain Adjustment = AMT Gain − Regular Gain

Loss Adjustment = Regular Gain or Loss − AMT Loss

Alternative Tax Net Operating Loss Deduction (ATNOLD)

The alternative tax net operating loss deduction (ATNOLD) is the net operating loss as calculated by AMT rules, which may be less than the regular net operating loss (NOL) because preferences and adjusted items have to be added to the regular income tax NOL. Thus, the ATNOLD is the excess of allowable AMT deductions over AMTI.

ATNOLD = NOL ± Deduction Adjustments − Tax Preferences

The ATNOLD, like the NOL, can be carried back or forward to other tax years. If the taxpayer chooses not to carry back the NOL, then that choice must also apply to the ATNOLD. As the NOL and ATNOLD are carried back or forward, their value is diminished until they are used up. Both the NOL and the ATNOLD must be calculated for each tax year under the appropriate tax system, regardless of which system the taxpayer uses for any given year.

Example: Carrying Forward NOL and ATNOLD

AMT Exemption

Each taxpayer is entitled to an AMT exemption amount, adjusted for inflation, that reduces the amount of income subject to the AMT. Children subject to the kiddie tax also receive an AMT exemption, equal to the lesser of

For instance, the adjustment amount for 2020 was $7,900, so if the child had earnings of $10,000, then her AMT exemption would be $17,900; if her earnings were $100,000, then her AMT exemption would be limited to the AMT exemption for a single taxpayer, which in 2020, was $72,900.

AMT Exemption Amounts
Filing status Exemption
Amount
Phaseout
Amount
26%/28%
Dividing
Line
2022 (Source: Rev. Proc. 2021-45)
Single, Head of Household $75,900 $539,900 $206,100
Married Filing Jointly,
Qualifying Surviving Spouse
$118,100 $1,079,800
Married Filing Separately $59,050 $539,900 $103,050
Estates and Trusts $26,500 $88,300 $206,100
Children with Preference Items
Subject to the Kiddie Tax
Same AMT exemption as other taxpayers.
2021 (Source: Rev. Proc. 2020-45)
Single, Head of Household $73,600 $523,600 $199,900
Married Filing Jointly,
Qualifying Surviving Spouse
$114,600 $1,047,200
Married Filing Separately $57,300 $523,600 $99,950
Estates and Trusts $25,700 $85,650 $199,900
Children with Preference Items
Subject to the Kiddie Tax
Earned Income
+ $7,950
$523,600 $199,900
2020 (Source: Rev. Proc. 2019-44)
Single, Head of Household $72,900 $518,400 $197,900
Married Filing Jointly,
Qualifying Surviving Spouse
$113,400 $1,036,800
Married Filing Separately $56,700 $518,400 $98,950
Estates and Trusts $25,400 $84,800 $197,900
Children with Preference Items
Subject to the Kiddie Tax
Earned Income
+ $7,900
$518,400 $197,900
2019: IRS provides tax inflation adjustments for tax year 2019
Single, Head of Household $71,700 $510,300 $194,800
Married Filing Jointly,
Qualifying Surviving Spouse
$111,700 $1,020,600
Married Filing Separately $55,850 $510,300 $97,400
Estates and Trusts $25,000 $83,500 $194,800
Children with Preference Items
Subject to the Kiddie Tax
Earned Income
+ $7,900
$518,400 $197,900
2018: Tax Cuts and Jobs Act
Single, Head of Household $70,300 $500,000 $191,500
Married Filing Jointly,
Qualifying Surviving Spouse
$109,400 $1,000,000
Married Filing Separately $54,700 $500,000 $95,750
Estates and Trusts $24,600 $82,050 $191,500
Children with Preference Items
Subject to the Kiddie Tax
Earned Income
+ $7,900
$518,400 $197,900

Example: How AMT Exemption Amounts Are Reduced When Income Exceeds the Phaseout Amount

Under the new tax package passed by the Republicans at the end of 2017, known as the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act, new provisions, starting in 2018, eliminate the corporate alternative minimum tax and raises the exemption for individuals: $70,300 for singles and $109,400 for joint filers. The phaseout threshold also increases to $500,000 for singles and $1 million for joint filers. Except for the elimination of the corporate AMT, these provisions expire after 2025.

Calculating AMT from AMTI

Subtracting the AMT exemption from the AMTI equals taxable AMT income. AMTI is then multiplied by the applicable AMT rates to arrive at the tentative AMT. The AMT rate is 26% on the AMT income not exceeding the 26%/28% dividing line (26% limit), and 28% for income above that.

The only credit that can be applied to the tentative AMT tax on Form 6251 is the AMT foreign tax credit (AMTFTC), so the tentative AMT minus the AMT foreign tax credit is the AMT. The foreign tax credit cannot offset more than 90% of the minimum tax.

AMT Tax = Tentative AMT − AMT Foreign Tax Credit

The excess of the AMT over the regular tax is the AMT liability reported on the alternative minimum tax line on your tax return. You pay the higher tax.

Example: How the AMT Is Reported

Other credits available under the Tax and Credits section of Form 1040, such as the child tax credit and education credits, can be subtracted from the AMT. Total tax liability is then determined by adding the additional taxes, such as the self-employment tax, under the Other Taxes section of the Form 1040.

Summary AMT Calculation

  1. Adjusted Gross Income (Line 38 on Form 1040)
    • ± Adjustments
    • + Tax Preferences
  2. = Alternative Minimum Taxable Income
    • − AMT Exemption
  3. = Alternative Minimum Tax Base
    • × AMT Rate
  4. = Tentative AMT
    • − AMT Foreign Tax Credit
  5. = AMT
  6. Payable Tax = Greater of Regular Tax (1) or AMT (5)

The AMT is more of a Burden for the Upper-Middle-Income Class than it is for the Wealthy Because it Mainly Targets Working Income

The tax burden in the United States, as it is in most parts of the world, is placed mostly on working people, and the AMT system does not change that. It is a needlessly complicated system that does not achieve its objective, because it mostly increases taxes on working income. Inheritance remains largely untaxed and investment income is taxed at a much lower rate than working income, even though there is a much larger deadweight loss of taxation on working income than on investment income, and no deadweight loss of taxation on inherited income. That the wealthy pay a far lower tax rate than the working class has recently been evinced by Warren Buffett, one of the richest men in the world, and by Mitt Romney, the 2012 Republican nominee for the United States presidency. For instance, Mitt Romney earned $45 million for 2010 and 2011, and paid an average effective tax rate of less than 15%. By contrast, a self-employed worker with no dependents who earns a mere $20,000, would pay more than 18% of his income in taxes.

Even on working income, the AMT does not increase taxes for people with extremely high incomes, because there are already phaseout rules for deductions and exemptions and lowering income with losses from investments is limited by passive activity and at-risk rules. Furthermore, the 3 top marginal tax brackets — 32%, 35% and 37% — are higher than the top 28% AMT rate, so the marginal tax rate is actually higher for people earning at least the 32% bracket amount (2019: $204,100 or $408,200 for married filing jointly).

No wealthy person should pay an effective tax rate less than the average rate paid by the middle class, especially considering the fact that the marginal utility of money is much higher for poorer people than it is for richer people. Poorer people need the money to buy life's necessities, such as food, housing, and health insurance, while the wealthy use their money to create asset bubbles and to influence politicians. The AMT system does not rectify this inequitable tax treatment, while at the same time, making the tax system unjustifiably complex.

A more equitable tax, and one much simpler to calculate, is to impose a graduated marginal tax on all income — not just working income, or what the tax code refers to as earned income! Employment taxes, a major burden on poor people, should also be eliminated. Social Security and Medicare can be paid out of the taxes collected from the marginal tax, as it is done in most of the world. After all, there is no reason why employment taxes should just apply to employment! And with a graduated marginal tax on all income, there would be no need for a separate AMT tax system.

Historical Notes

AMT Exemption Amounts of Previous Yearsaption
Filing status Exemption
Amount
Phaseout
Amount
26%/28%
Dividing
Line
2017: Rev. Proc. 2016-55
Single, Head of Household $54,300 $120,700 $187,800
Married Filing Jointly,
Qualifying Surviving Spouse
$84,500 $160,900
Married Filing Separately $42,250 $80,450 $93,900
Estates and Trusts $24,100 $80,450 $187,800
Children with Preference Items
Subject to the Kiddie Tax
Earned Income
+ $7,500
2016
Single, Head of Household $53,900 $119,700 $186,300
Married Filing Jointly,
Qualifying Surviving Spouse
$83,800 $159,700
Married Filing Separately $41,900 $79,850 $93,150
Estates and Trusts $23,900 $79,850 $186,300
Children with Preference Items
Subject to the Kiddie Tax
Earned Income
+ $7400
2015
Single, Head of Household $53,600 $119,200 $185,400
Married Filing Jointly,
Qualifying Surviving Spouse
$83,400 $158,900
Married Filing Separately $41,700 $79,450 $92,700
Estates and Trusts $23,800 $185,400
Children with Preference Items
Subject to the Kiddie Tax
Earned Income
+ $7400
2014
Single, Head of Household $52,800 $117,300 $182,500
Married Filing Jointly,
Qualifying Surviving Spouse
$82,100 $156,500
Married Filing Separately $41,050 $78,250 $91,250
2013
Single, Head of Household $51,900 $115,400 $179,500
Married Filing Jointly,
Qualifying Surviving Spouse
$80,750 $153,900
Married Filing Separately $40,375 $76,950 $89,750
2012
Single, Head of Household $50,600 $112,500
Married Filing Jointly,
Qualifying Surviving Spouse
$78,750 $150,000
Married Filing Separately $39,375 $75,000