Additional 0.9 percent Medicare tax on wages starts January 1st

President Obama’s health care package enacted two new taxes that take effect January 1, 2013. One of these taxes is the additional 0.9 percent Medicare tax on earned income; the other is the 3.8 percent tax on net investment income. The 0.9 percent tax applies to individuals; it does not apply to corporations, trusts or estates. The 0.9 percent tax applies to wages, other compensation, and self-employment income that exceed specified thresholds.

Additional tax on higher-income earners

There is no cap on the application of the 0.9 percent tax. Thus, all earned income that exceeds the applicable thresholds is subject to the tax. The thresholds are $200,000 for a single individual; $250,000 for married couples filing a joint return; and $125,000 for married filing separately. The 0.9 percent tax applies to the combined earned income of a married couple. Thus, if the wife earns $220,000 and the husband earns $80,000, the tax applies to $50,000, the amount by which the combined income exceeds the $250,000 threshold for married couples.

The 0.9 percent tax applies on top of the existing 1.45 percent Hospital Insurance (HI) tax on earned income. Thus, for income above the applicable thresholds, a combined tax of 2.35 percent applies to the employee’s earned income. Because the employer also pays a 1.45 percent tax on earned income, the overall combined rate of Medicare taxes on earned income is 3.8 percent (thus coincidentally matching the new 3.8 percent tax on net investment income).

Passthrough treatment

For partners in a general partnership and shareholders in an S corporation, the tax applies to earned income that is paid as compensation to individuals holding an interest in the entity. Partnership income that passes through to a general partner is treated as self-employment income and is also subject to the tax, assuming the income exceeds the applicable thresholds. However, partnership income allocated to a limited partner is not treated as self-employment and would not be subject to the 0.9 percent tax. Furthermore, under current law, income that passes through to S corporation shareholders is not treated as earned income and would not be subject to the tax.

Withholding rules

Withholding of the additional 0.9 percent Medicare tax is imposed on an employer if an employee receives wages that exceed $200,000 for the year, whether or not the employee is married. The employer is not responsible for determining the employee’s marital status. The penalty for underpayment of estimated tax applies to the 0.9 percent tax. Thus, employees should realize that the employee may be responsible for estimated tax, even though the employer does not have to withhold.

Planning techniques

One planning device to minimize the tax  would be to accelerate earned income, such as a bonus, into 2012. Doing this would also avoid any increase in the income tax rates in 2013 from the sunsetting of the Bush tax rates. Holders of stock-based compensation may want to trigger recognition of the income in 2012, by exercising stock options or by making an election to recognize income on restricted stock.

Another planning device would be to set up an S corp, rather than a partnership, for operating a business, so that the income allocable to owners is not treated as earned income. An entity operating as a partnership could be converted to an S corp.

If you have any questions surrounding how the new 0.9 percent Medicare tax will affect the take home pay of you or your spouse, or how to handle withholding if you are a business owner, please contact this office.

If and only to the extent that this publication contains contributions from tax professionals who are subject to the rules of professional conduct set forth in Circular 230, as promulgated by the United States Department of the Treasury, the publisher, on behalf of those contributors, hereby states that any U.S. federal tax advice that is contained in such contributions was not intended or written to be used by any taxpayer for the purpose of avoiding penalties that may be imposed on the taxpayer by the Internal Revenue Service, and it cannot be used by any taxpayer for such purpose.

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