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Explainer: Breaking down the tax compromise

  • Image: President Barack Obama speaks during a news conference at the White House briefing room on the tax cut deal
    Getty Images

    The tax cuts compromise between the White House and congressional Republicans still must be passed. But here is how it would affect major categories of government, and personal, finance.

  • Income tax rates

    Image: Tax forms

    By extending the current rates across the board, you’ll see no change in the basic tax you pay on earned income: those rates will top out at 35 percent. The Obama administration had wanted to let the rate rise for wealthy taxpayers, but under the deal struck with Republicans, everyone gets to keep the current rate for two years.

    "If this package does indeed pass, it's going to make a significant difference over the coming year for middle-class taxpayers," said Melissa Labant, a tax manager for the American Institute of Certified Public Accountants.

    Economists expect the combination of maintaining current tax rates, reducing payroll taxes and boosting other tax benefits will induce consumers to spend more and investors to turn more bullish.

  • Capital gains and dividend

    Image: Counting money

    Current tax rates on long-term capital gains will remain in place for two years. The tax applies to profits from the sale of an asset, such as stock, held more than a year. The highest rate of 15 percent was expected to rise to 20 percent next year.

    Investors will also benefit from an extension of the historically low tax rates on dividend income, which top out at 15 percent. Had no action been taken, dividend payments would be taxed as regular income. This would raise the tax rate to as much as 39.6 percent for top earners. The extension means a savings of nearly a quarter on every dollar of dividend income for this group.

    Individuals with dividends paid to taxable accounts can collectively expect to save nearly $75 billion over two years, according to an analysis by Standard & Poor's analyst Howard Silverblatt.

    Cliff Caplan, a financial planner and president of Neponset Valley Financial Partners in Norwood, Mass., said the extension of the lower tax rates could lift prices of dividend-paying stocks as they become more popular with investors who can now avoid the higher tax rates for at least two more years.

  • Estate taxes

    Image: Mount Vernon estate
    AP file

    Wealthy taxpayers also benefit from other provisions of the deal. The estate tax on inherited money, which was eliminated altogether in 2010, was scheduled to return to 2001 levels of taxing estates above $1 million at 55 percent. Under the proposed deal, for the next two years, a new 35 percent estate tax will kick in on estates over $5 million ($10 million for couples).

    Except for the temporary repeal of the estate tax this year, the rate has not been less than 45 percent since 1931.

    Only about 4,000 to 5,000 estates will likely owe the estate tax under the plan, based on last year's tax filings. That compares with roughly 7,000 under Obama's earlier proposal of a 45 percent tax on value exceeding $3.5 million. Although that may not sound like a big difference, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said the new estate tax proposal will add about $25 billion to the deficit.

  • Tax credits

    Image: Child

    Tuition tax credit
    Families with kids in college can benefit from a tax credit for tuition and fees. A maximum of $2,500 will remain in place for two years. A credit reduces taxes owed, versus a deduction which reduces taxable income.

    Parents familiar with 529 college savings plans may question what to prioritize. A 529 account encourages savings by enabling account holders to make tax-free withdrawals for eligible college expenses.

    Parents should set aside $4,000 per year to maximize the tax credit before contributing to a 529 plan, says Mark Kantrowitz, a college financial aid expert and publisher of FinAid.org. That's because directly lowering their tax bill exceeds the financial benefit of tax-free distributions.

    The extension is welcome assistance: The average annual cost of in-state public four-year schools rose to $7,605 this fall and private college expenses increased to $27,293.

    Child tax credit
    There's more good news if you're a parent: The $1,000 child tax credit is being extended for two years. Taxpayers with income of less than $75,000 — or $110,000 for married couples filing jointly — qualify for the full amount.

    Wealthy taxpayers also benefit from other provisions of the deal. The estate tax on inherited money, which was eliminated altogether in 2010, was scheduled to return to 2001 levels of taxing estates above $1 million at 55 percent. Under the proposed deal, for the next two years, a new 35 percent estate tax will kick in on estates over $5 million ($10 million for couples).

  • Payroll taxes

    Image: Payroll taxes

    Everyone will also get a break on their payroll taxes, but wealthy taxpayers will get a slightly better break. In exchange for dropping the so-called Making Work Pay tax credit, all taxpayers will get a two percent break on their Social Security payroll taxes for one year. The old tax credit, which maxed out at $400 ($800 for couples), was limited to people who made less than $95,000 (or couples making $190,000.)

    Currently, the government takes 6.2 percent out of your paycheck, up to $106,800, for the Social Security payroll tax. That would drop to 4.2 percent in 2011 and give you an immediate increase in take-home pay. So the more you earn, the more you save.

    If you make $50,000 a year you will pay $1,000 less. If you get paid twice a month, you will have an extra $41.67 in your paycheck starting in January.

    Anyone who makes more than $106,800 a year will receive the maximum savings of $2,136.
    "That certainly provides an added level of dollars to do whatever people were planning on doing, whether that's saving or spending," said Greg Rosica, a tax partner at Ernst & Young LLP.

  • Alternative Minimum Tax

    Image: AMT
    Getty Images file

    Middle class taxpayers get continued protection from a perennial monster called the Alternative Minimum Tax. Under the proposed deal, the existing AMT “patch” will be extended for two more years, saving some 21 million middle class taxpayers from getting hit with these higher rates.

    The AMT was enacted in 1969 to make sure wealthy people couldn't avoid taxes altogether, but it wasn't indexed for inflation. This means Congress has to raise the amount of income exempt from the AMT each year to spare millions from tax increases averaging about $3,900.

    Had no adjustment been made, taxes would have gone up for individuals making as little as $33,750, and married couples making $45,000.

    Similarly, a married couple making $85,000 a year with two college-age children would have had to pay $4,500 more in taxes, according to an analysis by The Tax Institute at H&R Block. A married couple making $100,000 a year with two young children would have faced a tax increase of more than $6,100.

  • Unemployment insurance

    Image: Help Wanted sign
    AFP - Getty Images

    Million of job seekers will benefit from an extension of their benefits at current levels through the end of 2011. The extension applies to workers laid off for more than six months, and less than 99 weeks. Seven million Americans would have lost their benefits through next year without the 13-month extension. Obama's Council of Economic Advisers estimates the provision will create 600,000 jobs next year.

    That's because the unemployed live on the edge, and tend to spend every dollar they get, rather than save. That spending flows to businesses, putting them in better position to hire.

    The average weekly payment for the roughly 8.5 million people receiving unemployment benefits is $302.90. But it varies widely by state, from as little as $119 in Puerto Rico to nearly $420 in Hawaii. Each state sets the amount through a formula meant to replace a portion of an unemployed person's old income.

Video: Lawmakers make last-minute rush on earmarks

  1. Transcript of: Lawmakers make last-minute rush on earmarks

    BRIAN WILLIAMS, anchor: On Capitol Hill tonight in Washington , a sudden firestorm over an old issue, earmarks, the pet projects that lawmakers hang onto must-pass bills; pieces of legislation like ornaments on a Christmas tree . Our own Kelly O'Donnell 's with us tonight from the Capitol . Kelly , good evening.

    KELLY O'DONNELL reporting: Good evening, Brian . Well, we're still waiting for a vote on that tax compromise to keep everybody's rates the same, and then this unfolded, a drama over government spending across all the agencies. As you said, many lawmakers have pushed for these special projects, now say they won't do it anymore. And it turns out there appears to be one last giant effort to get thousands of these projects through. With time running out, Republicans are complaining loudly that a massive spending bill just hit their desks late today.

    Senator MITCH McCONNELL (Republican, Minority Leader): In this case, almost 2,000-page bill that no one has seen, at least on my side of the aisle.

    O'DONNELL: The measure would spend $1.1 trillion of your money, and it's packed with those special earmarked projects lawmakers of both parties added on, the kind of spending many promised to stop. Senator John McCain says Congress failed to get the message.

    Senator JOHN McCAIN (Republican, Arizona): Which is a direct -- a direct betrayal of the majority of the voters of November 2nd who said stop the earmarking, stop the spending, stop the outrageous pork barrel projects.

    O'DONNELL: Senator McCain 's staff pointed to a few examples they call

    unnecessary spending: $208,000 for beaver management in North Carolina , $235,000 for noxious weed management in Nevada , $413,000 for peanut research in Alabama , and $247,000 for virus-free wine grapes in Washington state . Taxpayer advocates say many see this as a last chance before earmarks are banned.

    Mr. STEVE ELLIS (Taxpayers for Common Sense): A lot of it comes down to the same way that Washington works, pay to play. People make campaign contributions to a variety of lawmakers who then advocate on their behalf and essentially then are able to get their provisions taken care of.

    O'DONNELL: Democratic Majority Leader Harry Reid defended the bill and will fight to pass it.

    Majority Leader HARRY REID: I think that the people on the Appropriations Committee worked very, very hard. I think they have a very good piece of legislation, and I think we're going to move forward with that.

    O'DONNELL: The estimated total for these earmarks is $8 billion, less than 1 percent of the whole total, and it actually is a smaller number than years past. Now, Republicans like McConnell say they've got some of these in here too, but they will fight to stop this bill. Brian :

    WILLIAMS: Kelly O'Donnell on the Hill for us tonight. Kelly , thanks


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