The New 3.8 Percent Net Investment Tax Continues to Challenge
Questions over the operation of the new 3.8 percent Medicare tax on net investment income (the NII Tax) continue to be placed on the IRS’s doorstep as it tries to better explain the operation of the new tax. Proposed “reliance regulations” issued at the end in 2012 (NPRM REG-130507-11) “are insufficient in many respects,” tax experts complain, as the IRS struggles to turn its earlier guidance into final rules.
A public hearing on the existing regulations, held at IRS headquarters in Washington, D.C., in early April 2013, only confirmed how the application of the NII Tax to certain categories of income—particularly income arising from “passive activities”—is challenging even the experts. Nevertheless, taxpayers are not getting a reprieve from the immediate application of this new tax. The 3.8 percent Medicare surtax on net investment income (NII) became effective January 1, 2013. Current confusion over exactly how the 3.8 percent operates can impact on tax strategies that should be put into motion in 2013. Any misinterpretation can also bear on 2013 estimated tax that may be due to cover any 3.8 percent NII Tax liability.
NII Tax Thresholds
For tax years beginning after December 31, 2012, the NII surtax on individuals equals 3.8 percent of the lesser of: net investment income for the tax year, or the excess, if any, of:
• the individual’s modified adjusted gross income (MAGI) for the tax year, over
• the threshold amount.
The threshold amount in turn is equal to:
• $250,000 in the case of a taxpayer making a joint return or a surviving spouse,
• $125,000 in the case of a married taxpayer filing a separate return, and
• $200,000 in any other case.
Trusts and estates are also subject to the NII surtax, to the extent of the lesser of: (i) undistributed net investment income, or (ii) the excess of adjusted gross income over the dollar amount at which the highest tax bracket begins (which, for 2013, is $11,950).
Net Investment Income
The primary confusion over application of the 3.8 percent NII Tax revolves around finding a precise definition of “net investment income” as enacted by Congress. To appreciate the complexity of the task, just look at the applicable Internal Revenue Code provision. Code Sec. 1411(c)(1) defines net investment income as the sum of:
• Category (i) income: Gross income from interest, dividends, annuities, royalties, and rents, other than such income which is derived in the ordinary course of a trade or business not described in Code Sec. 1411(c)(2);
• Category (ii) income: Other gross income derived from a trade or business described in Code Sec. 1411(c)(2); and
• Category (iii) income: Net gain attributable to the disposition of property, other than property held in a trade or business not described in Code Sec. 1411(c)(2); over
Deductions properly allocable to such gross income or net gain.
A Code Sec. 1411(c)(2) trade or business includes a passive activity under Code Sec. 469 with respect to the taxpayer or trading in financial instruments or commodities.
Comment. Code Sec 1411 effectively creates a new tax and a new tax base, on top of the income tax, alternative minimum tax, self-employment tax and payroll taxes. Nevertheless the Preamble to the proposed regs states that, except as otherwise provided, the income tax rules should apply to Code Sec. 1411 unless good cause otherwise exists. Practitioners have asked the IRS that the final regulations give greater reassurance of this general rule.
The IRS has stated that the principal purpose of Code Sec. 1411 is “to impose a tax on unearned income or investments of certain individuals, estates, and trusts.” Unfortunately, Code Sec. 1411 is not so direct and simple, with its three categories of income (that is, (i), (ii) and (iii), above), complicating matters, albeit in an effort to close every door to those who try to “game the system.”
Application of the 3.8 percent NII Tax to capital gains and dividends from a personal stock portfolio is clear under this rule of thumb. But clarity breaks down when a “trade or business” is thrown into the mix and the concept of “passive activity” is added to it.
If gain or other income is the result of an active business activity, it generally escapes NII Tax. However, when the “active” business is a passive activity (for example, a rental business), it may be deemed to generate income that is subject to the NII Tax. Furthermore, when a passive activity is not merely incidental to a business however otherwise active that business should be, the NII Tax also becomes an issue.
Any revised or additional rules from the IRS on the application of the NII Tax on passive activities should be made more user friendly to the broad middle range of taxpayers and their advisors, one expert at the hearing recommended. The IRS should err on the side of explaining things clearly and simply, even at the expense of not covering every possible nuance of interpretation.
At the same time, however, other experts are asking for more detail, at least in the way of clarification. For example, the IRS has stated that passive activity for NII Tax purposes should be applied within a narrower scope than the passive activity loss rules under Code 469. Those Code Sec. 469 rules restrict “passive losses” from reducing income that is not “passive income.” Experts want the IRS to explain exactly what they mean by a “narrower scope.”
The self-rental recharacterization rule under Code Sec. 469 affects taxpayers who rent property to a trade or business in which they materially participate. Concern has been expressed over the possibility of interpreting net investment income under Code Sec. 1411 to include rental income from a self-rental activity grouped with a trade or business activity in which the taxpayer materially participates.
The material participation and trade or business requirements should be tested on the grouped activity as a whole rather than on a component basis, one expert in particular stressed at the hearing. If that test is passed, he argued, the trade or business income and rental income from the grouped activity should be excluded from the reach of the NII Tax. For example, the owners of self-rental properties should not have that rent considered as separate from their overall business activity and subject to the net investment tax simply because properties are held in a separate LLC to avoid tort liability.
The proposed regulations permit businesses subject to the NII Tax to elect to regroup their activities for passive-loss purposes in 2013 or 2014. This regrouping election allows taxpayers with a fresh start to accommodate the new NII surtax. Without permitting regroupings, taxpayers would be bound by their original grouping decisions, some of which may have been made as many as 20 years ago, only for purpose of Code Sec. 469 passive loss rules and not the NII Tax. Some small business representatives are also concerned that, because of the complexity of the rules, the final regulations should extend the deadline for a regrouping election through 2015.
Application of the net investment income tax is particularly difficult to get a handle on in a variety of situations. Unfortunately, however, at 3.8 percent, it is costly enough not to be ignored.
If you have any questions about how the NII Tax may apply to your business, rental operations, or overall investment strategy, please do not hesitate to call our office.