On February 17, 2009, President Obama signed into law the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009. This $787 billion law was intended to jump start the US economy by triggering a surge of direct spending and tax incentives. Overall, the new law creates over 300 changes to the Internal Revenue Code. So, how do these changes impact you? Here are some of the highlights.
Making Work Pay Credit
Individuals with earned income will qualify for a credit equal to the lesser of 6.2% of his/her earned income or $400 ($800 for married couples). The credit is phased out at a 2% rate once Modified Adjusted Gross Income exceeds $75,000 ($150,000 for married couples).
The 2009 AMT “Patch” raises exemption amounts to $70,950 for married couples (up from $69,950 in 2008) and $46,700 for singles (up from $46,200 in 2008). This is designed to shield approximately 26 million middle-income taxpayers from being subject to AMT or Alternative Minimum Tax.
First-Time Homebuyer Credit
This popular credit expands the original first-time homebuyer credit enacted in 2008 by increasing the maximum credit to $8,000 with phase-outs starting for taxpayers with AGI over $150,000 for married couples and $75,000 for single filers. A “first-time home buyer” is someone who has not owned a principal residence during the three-year period prior to the purchase.
Because it had to be repaid, the previous 2008 credit was basically an interest-free loan from the IRS. This 2009 incentive is a true tax credit and does not have to be repaid to the government. However, home buyers must use the home as a principal residence for at least three years or face recapture of the credit amount.
New Car Deduction
An unexpected provision of the new legislation allows an above-the-line deduction for state and local taxes paid on the purchase of a new vehicle. In other words, the deduction is available whether or not a taxpayer itemizes deductions on Schedule A. Ordinarily, the sales tax deduction was based on available income for spending using table amounts.
Qualified vehicles must first be used by the taxpayer and can include cars, SUVs, light trucks, motorcycles, and motor homes. A deduction is allowed for taxes paid on multiple purchases, since there is no limit on the number of vehicles that may be purchased. However, the deduction per vehicle is limited to the tax on up to $49,500 of the purchase price. The deduction is phased out to the extent the taxpayer has AGI over $250,000 for joint returns ($125,000 single).
The existing Hope Credit got a temporary makeover with the new law and was renamed the “American Opportunity Tax Credit”. The credit amount was boosted from $1,800 to $2,500, was extended to all four years of college, and the cost of course materials were added as qualifying expenses. Additionally, 40% of the credit became “refundable”, meaning that the government will send you a check for the credit amount even if you have no tax liability.
Keep in mind that the credit may only be taken in the year the expenses are actually paid. So, if tuition is paid in 2008 for a semester beginning in 2009, the expenses would qualify under 2008 rules.
Unemployment benefits were traditionally included in the recipient’s gross income for tax purposes. The new legislation provides some relief by excluding the first $2,400 from taxable income in 2009. However, any amount received in excess of $2,400 remains fully taxable.
Transit Fringe Benefits
Before the new law passed, certain transportation fringe benefits, such as bus passes, van pooling and parking, were not included in an employee’s income up to $120 per month. For 2009, the excluded amount is increased to $230 per month and will be adjusted for inflation in 2010. The employer is responsible for taking the initiative to sponsor a plan.
Qualified Tuition Program (Section 529 Plans)
A Qualified Tuition Program is used to pay a recipient’s qualified education expenses using tax-free distributions. Distributions for nonqualified expenses are included in the beneficiary’s taxable income and are subject to a penalty.
For 2009 and 2010, beneficiaries are allowed to use these tax-free distributions to pay for computer expenses, including Internet access. Family members are also allowed to use the computer technology, as long as there is some student use.
Bonus Depreciation and Section 179 Limits
The new law makes some important changes to depreciation rules that apply exclusively to 2009. First, the 50% first-year bonus depreciation deduction is extended through the end of 2009. Bonus depreciation is only available on new assets that are depreciable under MACRS with a recovery period of 20 years or less. Keep in mind that a large depreciation deduction taken in the current year reduces the amount of future deductions.
Second, the highest amount of depreciation that can be immediately expensed under Code Section 179 has been increased to $250,000. This amount will begin to be phased out if over $800,000 of assets are purchased. Unlike bonus depreciation, this expensing election is available on both new and used property.
Third, the first-year depreciation limit on passenger automobiles has been increased by $8,000, from $2,960 to $10,960. Similarly, the first-year depreciation limit on light trucks and vans was increased from $3,160 to $11,160.
The new law presents small businesses with the option to carryback a 2008 NOL three, four or five years as opposed to the usual two years. This election is only available to qualified small businesses with gross receipts of $15 million or less.
Prior to the new legislation, taxpayers had to make estimated quarterly tax payments based on 100% of the prior year’s tax liability in order to avoid underpayment penalties. For 2009, these estimates can be based on 90% of 2008’s liability, rather than 100%. However, the taxpayer must be able to prove that at least 50% of his/her income was from a small business, and the AGI must be less than $500,000.
COBRA Health Insurance
The new law allows an individual who is involuntarily unemployed between September 1, 2008 and January 1, 2010 the choice to pay 35 percent of his/her COBRA coverage and have it count as paying 100 percent. The former employer will be responsible for paying the remaining 65 percent, but will receive a credit against payroll taxes for the amount.
Residential Energy Property Credit
The new law raises the residential energy property tax credit from 10 to 30 percent and caps the credit at $1,500 for combined improvements in 2009 and 2010. The law also eliminates the requirement that purchases cannot be made with money from subsidized energy financing.
Improvements must be certified and can include insulation, exterior windows, exterior doors, central air conditioners, natural gas equipment, propane or oil water heaters or furnaces, hot water boilers, electric heat pump water heaters, some metal roofs and stoves, and advanced main air circulating fans.
Residential Energy Efficient Property Credit
For tax years 2009 – 2016, the annual maximum credit cap for solar hot water, geothermal heat pumps, and wind energy property is removed. Again, the requirement that purchases cannot be made with money from subsidized energy financing is eliminated.