Lessons Learned From Mitt Romney’s Tax Return

Republican candidate Mitt Romney recently bowed to pressure last week and released his 2010 tax return.  What it showed is that Romney paid a little less than $3 million in taxes on $21.6 million of income.  This equates to an affective tax rate of less than 14%–far below what the average taxpayer pays.

The Wall Street Journal printed an interesting piece which offers a “rare glimpse into how the ultra-wealthy can use the tax code to their benefit and [other] important lessons…” While the average taxpayer may not benefit from these tax positions, it is nonetheless interesting and important to be aware of.  The following list is what the experts have discovered from combing through Romney’s return:

A. Avoid salary, wages and tips to the extent possible. The Romneys reported no such compensation, which is taxable at rates up to 35%. In addition, these types of pay are subject to payroll taxes: a 6.2% Social Security tax (lowered to 4.2% in 2011) and 1.45% in Medicare tax, both of which the employer matches. While the Social Security tax is capped each year at a certain income level ($110,100 for 2012), the Medicare tax isn’t.

Some experts believe “carried interest,” or profits such as those from investments that Mr. Romney received as a partner at Bain Capital, should be taxed as compensation at rates up to 35%. Currently, those profits usually count as capital gains and are taxed at a top rate of 15%.

B. Muni-bond interest isn’t the be-all and end-all. Many wealthy people turn to municipal bonds for tax-free income, but the Romneys reported only $557 of tax-free interest in 2010—and $3.3 million of taxable interest.

Kenneth Brier, an attorney at Brier & Geurden in Needham, Mass., notes that Massachusetts has a flat tax of 5.3%, making munis less attractive there than in high-tax states with graduated rates such as New York or California. And because the Romneys’ overall tax rate is so low, the after-tax difference between munis and taxable bonds might not be large enough to justify investing in munis, Mr. Ochsenschlager says.

Some of the taxable interest on the Romney’s 2010 return came from U.S. Treasurys; such interest isn’t subject to state taxes.

C. Strive for “qualified” dividends. The Romneys’ 2010 return reports $3.3 million of qualified dividends, which are taxed at a top rate of 15%. (There is another $1.6 million of nonqualified dividends, taxed like interest income.)

What makes a dividend “qualified”? In general, the dividend must be from a stock held at least two months and paid by any domestic corporation or most foreign corporations. The dividend can’t come from a stock that a brokerage firm has lent as part of a short sale, says Robert Willens, an independent tax expert in New York.

D. If you have a “Schedule C” business, think twice before claiming a home-office deduction. The Romneys didn’t take one on either of two Schedule C forms, which are for business results reported on personal returns. The Romneys used their Schedule C forms for director’s fees and speaking fees.

Not only do home-office deductions raise red flags at the IRS, but they can come back to haunt taxpayers when the home is sold: Part of the gain on the home’s sale may not be eligible for the $250,000 or $500,000 tax exclusion because taxpayers who took depreciation deductions in prior years have to reduce the exclusion by that amount.

In addition to raising taxes in many cases, this poses a record-keeping problem, Mr. Ochsenschlager says.

E. Generate income from long-term capital gains. The biggest factor in the Romneys’ super-low tax rate is their outsize income from capital gains: $12.6 million in 2010. Most of that consisted of long-term gains, which, like qualified dividends, are taxed at a top rate of 15%.

The benefits don’t end there. While the tax code gives wage earners almost no flexibility as to timing, the capital-gains rules offer unparalleled flexibility. Investors can often time when they take a gain or loss, and losses may be used to offset gains so that no tax is due. There are few restrictions: For example, a loss on land held as an investment can offset the gain from a stock.

Net capital losses can shelter up to $3,000 a year of ordinary income from tax, and losses can be carried forward indefinitely to shelter future gains. Canny investors or their advisers often “harvest” losses during market downturns, reacquire the investment after 30 days and use those losses to offset future gains, Mr. Willens says.

On Schedule D of their 2010 return, the Romneys’ original long-term capital gain of $16.8 million was reduced by $4.8 million of carried-over long-term capital losses.

F. Know the score on itemized deductions. One way the Romneys resemble many other taxpayers is that they didn’t get a medical-expenses deduction. Only expenses above 7.5% of adjusted gross income are deductible; for the Romneys, that hurdle amounted to $1.6 million, while they reported medical expenses of just $14,176.

The Romneys did make tax-wise charitable contributions. They gave away nearly $3 million, almost 14% of their adjusted gross income, about half in cash and half in other forms.

All of their contributions were fully deductible, whereas the biggest givers are subject to limits. Billionaire Warren Buffett, for example, gives away such vast sums each year that much of it can’t be deducted from his income tax (though the gifts will be out of his estate).

Making noncash gifts—such as appreciated stock or other assets—often is a smart move for people like the Romneys because they can skip paying capital-gains tax on any appreciation, while getting a full deduction.

For example, say a higher-bracket taxpayer has 100 shares of stock bought years ago for $30 a share that is worth $80 when he donates it. If he sold the stock, paid tax and gave the remaining cash to charity, it would receive $7,250 and he would have a deduction of the same amount. If he gives the stock directly to the charity, it would receive $8,000, and he could deduct the full $8,000. (Some restrictions apply.)

G. Capital gains and dividends can help trigger the AMT. Long-term capital gains and qualified dividends are taxed at 15% and aren’t subject to the alternative minimum tax.

The AMT takes away the value of deductions, such as the one for state taxes, when taxpayers are deemed to have too many write-offs. But a large percentage of capital gains and dividends in a taxpayer’s overall income mix can cause a taxpayer to owe AMT.

The reason: With capital gains and dividends off limits, deductions loom large relative to other income, and that triggers AMT. The Romneys paid $232,989 in AMT in 2010 and lost the value of their state tax and other deductions, according to Jay Starkman, a CPA in Atlanta. “Without that, their tax rate would have been even lower,” he says.

H. Beware of small benefits requiring large tax-prep efforts. The oddest line on the Romneys’ 2010 return is a tax credit for $1 of “General Business Credit.” Don Williamson of American University’s Kogod Tax Center says the credit could be for hiring a disadvantaged youth or qualified veteran and it flowed through from an investment partnership.

But likely it cost far more than $1 just to fill out the three-page Form 8300 for the return. Mr. Williamson says he sees this problem all the time. Often tax-prep fees are disproportionate to an investment’s tax benefit or the income it produces, he says—especially with larger investment partnerships.

One other lesson: For the wealthy, offshore investments can save onshore taxes. Robert Gordon, head of Twenty-First Securities in New York, a firm specializing in tax strategies, points out that the Romneys’ 2010 return has 17 different filings of IRS Form 8621. Each indicates an investment, perhaps a hedge or private-equity fund, held in an offshore corporation.

These are legal arrangements, Mr. Gordon stresses. They can have significant tax advantages for the wealthy who live in high-tax states—especially Massachusetts, because its flat tax allows no deductions.

Investments held offshore in what is known as a “blocker corporation” can allow U.S. taxpayers to pay less tax than if the same investment were made through an onshore entity, Mr. Gordon says.

He offers an example. Say a partnership based in the U.S. invests $100, $80 of which is borrowed. It earns $5 of profits and has $4 in interest expense, for $1 of net pretax profit. In Massachusetts there isn’t an interest deduction, so the entire $5 would be taxable.

If the investment were held in a fund based in the Cayman Islands, however, only $1 would be taxable in Massachusetts. Federal deductions subject to limits would also be preserved, Mr. Gordon says.

Source: The Wall Street Journal