Under the federal individual alternative minimum tax (AMT)The Alternative Minimum Tax (AMT) is a separate tax system that requires some taxpayers to calculate their tax liability twice—first, under ordinary income tax rules, then under the AMT—and pay whichever amount is highest. The AMT has fewer preferences and different exemptions and rates than the ordinary system. , many taxA tax is a mandatory payment or charge collected by local, state, and national governments from individuals or businesses to cover the costs of general government services, goods, and activities. payers are required to calculate their income tax liability under two different systems and pay the higher amount. Established in 1969, the federal AMT was created when Congress discovered that 155 high-income taxpayers were eligible to claim so many deductions that they ended up with no federal income tax liability at all. Under the federal AMT, the standard deductionThe standard deduction reduces a taxpayer’s taxable income by a set amount determined by the government. It was nearly doubled for all classes of filers by the 2017 Tax Cuts and Jobs Act as an incentive for taxpayers not to itemize deductions when filing their federal income taxes. is disallowed, and certain itemized deductionItemized deductions allow individuals to subtract designated expenses from their taxable income and can be claimed in lieu of the standard deduction. Itemized deductions include those for state and local taxes, charitable contributions, and mortgage interest. An estimated 13.7 percent of filers itemized in 2019, most being high-income taxpayers. s—including the state and local tax (SALT) deductionThe state and local tax (SALT) deduction permits taxpayers who itemize when filing federal taxes to deduct certain taxes paid to state and local governments. The Tax Cuts and Jobs Act (TCJA) capped it at ,000 per year, consisting of property taxes plus state income or sales taxes, but not both. —are added back, recapturing income from taxpayers who would otherwise be eligible to claim them.
While the federal AMT was originally intended to be a narrow fix to a narrow problem, it was not indexed for inflationInflation is when the general price of goods and services increases across the economy, reducing the purchasing power of a currency and the value of certain assets. The same paycheck covers less goods, services, and bills. It is sometimes referred to as a “hidden tax,” as it leaves taxpayers less well-off due to higher costs and “bracket creep,” while increasing the government’s spending power. . As a result, it wasn’t long before many middle-income taxpayers found themselves having to calculate and pay an AMT. After the federal AMT was adopted, several states followed suit. This meant that some taxpayers were required to calculate their tax liability four times: twice under the federal code and twice under their state’s code.
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Today, six states have an AMT in their individual income taxAn individual income tax (or personal income tax) is levied on the wages, salaries, investments, or other forms of income an individual or household earns. The U.S. imposes a progressive income tax where rates increase with income. The Federal Income Tax was established in 1913 with the ratification of the 16th Amendment. Though barely 100 years old, individual income taxes are the largest source of tax revenue in the U.S. code: California, Colorado, Connecticut, Iowa, Minnesota, and Wisconsin. (Wisconsin adopted AMT repeal in 2017, effective starting in tax year 2019.)
Additionally, the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act increased the federal AMT’s exemption amounts and phaseout thresholds through 2025, meaning fewer taxpayers will be required to calculate and pay the federal AMT in forthcoming years. In states that conform to the federal provision or use it as the basis for their own calculation, fewer filers will be subject to the AMT—for now. Unless Congress chooses to extend it, the higher exemption amounts will sunset after 2025, a change that will also impact state tax codes.
The original goal of AMTs—to prevent deductions from eliminating income tax liability altogether—can best be accomplished not through an alternative tax (which adds complexity and lacks transparency and neutrality), but through simplifying the existing tax structure.