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What You Need to Know About The “New Tax Reform Framework”

Tax written on blocksOn September 27, 2017, the Trump Administration and select Republican members of Congress released a “unified framework” for tax reform. The document provides more detail than a number of other tax reform documents that have emerged from the Administration over the past few months, but it still leaves many specifics to be worked out by the tax-writing committees. The term “framework” means it is not the finished bill or a draft of actual legislation. The framework is subject to change after the September 27, 2017 issuance of the framework.

The so-called Republican framework is the result of several months of discussion among the “Big Six”—House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis., Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., Treasury Secretary Steven Munchin, White House adviser Gary Cohn, House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Kevin Brady, R-Texas, and Senate Finance Committee Chairman Orrin Hatch, R-Utah. It’s worth noting at this point that the framework does not have the weight of the full House and full Senate, which is something that will still have to happen before the framework can evolve into final legislation. This fact equates to a lot more discussion, debate, and voting. [Update: On Oct. 26, 2017, the House passed a budget that clears the path for finalizing and passing the tax reform, though many details must still be decided before it becomes final legislation.]

According to CNN Money, the following tax reform provisions are addressed within the Republican Tax Reform Framework, though again, as noted above, there is still time for Congress to negotiate, adjust and change the details before anything is set in stone.

How Individual Taxes Will Change

Reduce individual income tax rates: The framework shrinks the number of tax rates to just three from seven today. The proposed rates are 12%, 25% and 35%. But it will be up to the tax committees to assign income ranges to each rate. Also, the drop in the top rate to 35% from 39.6% may not stick. The framework gives tax legislators the "flexibility" to add a fourth rate above 35% to ensure reform keeps the tax code at least as “progressive” as the current system.

[CNN points out that if 35 percent remains the top rate, Democrats will charge that reform is just giving a big tax cut to the wealthy. That’s not necessarily true. For example, the other tax rates in the new plan could potentially allow some middle class earners in the current 25 percent bracket to drop down to the new 12 percent bracket, depending on how Congress defines the income range for each new bracket. Those in the current 15 percent could also have their taxes reduced to 12 percent. Nothing is known for sure yet, however, and both sides are trying to score political points. At this point it is pure speculation until Congress decides on income ranges and releases the final details.]

Increase standard deduction: The plan doubles the standard deduction, to $24,000 for married couples and $12,000 for single filers. Doing so would drastically reduce the number of people who opt to itemize their deductions, since the only reason to itemize is if your individual deductions combined exceed the standard.

Increase child tax credit: The framework calls for a "substantially higher" child tax credit, which today is worth $1,000 per child under 17. It will be up to lawmakers to determine how much higher to make it. In addition, it would raise the income thresholds for eligibility for the credit, meaning more people would qualify for it.

Get rid of certain tax breaks: In CNN’s report linked above, they mention that the framework initially proposed the elimination of most itemized deductions, including the state and local tax deduction. However, Congress is still negotiating these terms. Several important Republicans want to keep the state and local deduction and a compromise is reportedly in the works.

CNN also notes that the tax reform might eliminate personal exemptions, worth $4,050 per person. So a family of four could no longer reduce their taxable income by more than $16,000.

However, the family of four’s standard deduction would also be doubled to $24,000, they could qualify for a lower tax bracket and their child tax credit would also be substantially increased, according to the report above about what might be in tax reform. It’s possible, therefore, that the tax reform could still lower the overall tax obligation for the family.

The point here is that it’s difficult to condemn or praise the tax reform (which also largely depends on your political worldview) until the legislation is finalized.

Preserve some deductions: Again without specifics, the framework calls for lawmakers to retain tax incentives for home ownership, retirement savings, charitable giving and higher education. But that doesn't mean lawmakers won't seek to modify the tax breaks that currently exist in these areas.

Repeal the Alternative Minimum Tax: The AMT most typically hits filers making between $200,000 and $1 million. It was originally intended to ensure the wealthy pay at least some tax.

Kill the estate tax: What Republicans refer to as the "death tax" only affects about 0.2% of all estates--and only those worth more than $5.5 million.

How Business Taxes Will Change

Cut corporate tax rate to 20%: Such a drastic drop from today's 35% rate would put the U.S. rate below the 22.5% average in the industrialized world. But doing so will be expensive. It's estimated to cost roughly $1.5 trillion over a decade.

Drop tax rates on small businesses and other pass-throughs: The top rate would be 25% down from 39.6% on the profits of so-called pass-through businesses. The framework will recommend the committees include measures to prevent gaming, in which people try to recharacterize their wages as pass-through profits to get the lower rate.

There’s no indication of when the tax reform provisions would go into effect (other than an expensing provision that would apply after Sept. 27, 2017). Presumably, the changes would apply next year (2018).

In conclusion, we recommend taking the wait and see approach. There is much back and forth that still must take place, though at this point it appears that Congress might have finalized legislation before Thanksgiving 2017.

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