Beginning January 1, 2013, a new 3.8% unearned Medicare income tax will be levied under IRS Section 1411(a)(1) on some "net investment income." This tax is designed to raise an estimated $210 billion to help fund Medicare and health care reform. The tax will apply to the lesser of "net investment income" or the dollar excess of "Modified Adjusted Gross Income over the applicable threshold amount". The 3.8% tax applies in addition to any other taxes that otherwise would apply to the associated income.
It is not true, as some frightening emails have suggested, that the new tax is a sales tax on the total sale price, nor is it true that it will affect all home sales or even most home sales. It is not true, as the emails have reported, that it would cost an additional $3,800 (3.8% x $100,000) in taxes to sell a $100,000 home.
What is Net Investment Income?
The first test for determining the amount of income subject to the 3.8% tax is determining the "net investment income," which includes income from capital gains (less capital losses), rentals (less expenses), dividends, annuities, and royalties. It also includes income derived from a passive activity such as real estate investing and from income derived from a net gain attributable to the sale of property including a home. Income associated with a normal business in which the individual materially participates is not subject to the tax. Also, distributions from a retirement plan are not subject to the tax.
What is the Modified Adjusted Gross Income over the applicable threshold amount?
The second test for determining the amount of income subject to the 3.8% tax is the dollar amount of Modified Adjusted Gross Income (MAGI) greater than the applicable threshold amount. For an individual filer the applicable threshold amount is $200,000 and for a married couple filing jointly the threshold is $250,000. Modified Adjusted Gross Income (MAGI) = Adjusted Gross Income + "net investment income." Home sale profits are capital gains and are considered to be investment income.
What About Code Section 121, Which Permits an Individual to Exempt $250,000 in Capital Gains from the Sale of a Primary Residence?
If certain ownership and occupancy requirements are met, capital gains from the sale of a primary residence less than $250,000 for an individual and less than $500,000 for a couple filing a joint return are currently exempt and will continue to be exempt from taxation. The vast majority of home sellers will not be subject to the new 3.8% tax. In July 2012, the median sales price for existing homes was $181,500. Homes that sold for more than $500,000 accounted for only 11% of home sales. To qualify for the home sale profit exemption, the sale home must be a primary residence which the seller owns and has lived in for two-of-the-last-five years prior to the sale. Husbands and wives can each claim a $250,000 exemption on a joint tax return if both spouses meet the two-of-the-last-five year occupancy test, although only one spouse need meet the ownership test. Two co-owners not married to each other who meet the ownership and occupancy tests can each claim up to $250,000 tax-free home sale profits. Those homeowners who cannot meet the full ownership and occupancy requirements for capital gain exclusion may qualify for a partial exclusion equal to the fraction of the time that the ownership and occupancy requirement are met.
Note, the home sale profit exemption does not apply to second homes or to property owned solely for investment purposes. In those cases, the usual ordinary income or capital gains rules apply.
Are Canadians or Other Non-US CItizens Subject to the New 3.8% Tax?
Canadians, or other foreign nationals owning a second home in the U.S. would not qualify for the exemption, but nor are they subject to the new 3.8% tax.
What About Estates and Trusts?
The new 3.8% tax will also apply to estates and trusts. For estates and trusts, the tax is equal to the lesser of the estate's or trust's undistributed net investment income, or the excess of the estate's or trust's Adjusted Gross Income (AGI) over the dollar amount at which the highest tax bracket begins for such taxable year.
We'll run through some examples, in Part 2....