Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney has been getting blasted for months about the fact this effective tax rate is so incredibly low. As an Enrolled Agent, I find the discussion surrounding Romney’s tax situation to be particularly interesting, because there isn’t a single taxpayer on the face of the Earth that personally wants to pay more taxes than they have to. If such a strange person does exist, there is no government that won’t happily cash your check (in fact, the U.S. government happily accepts credit cards for donations).
I’d really like to get on the phone with all these reporters and news anchors blasting Romney for his tax reduction strategies. I’d bet $100 that you can’t find one that would, themselves, personally agree to pay more taxes than they need to. Yet, they will happily ridicule somebody else for doing so.
Actually, I need to back up, because there is actually one person I know of that voluntarily pays more taxes than he’s required to. Guess who that is? Mitt Romney.
That’s right. In order to keep a campaign promise earlier this year stating that he has paid at least 13% in taxes each of the past 10 years, Mitt Romney voluntarily failed to claim $1.75 million in charitable contributions on his 2011 Form 1040. In other words, he only deducted $2.25 million of the total $4 million he actually donated to non-profits. If he had claimed the full deduction, his 2011 effective tax rate would only have been 12%.
Mitt Romney’s strategy for only paying an effective tax rate in the low teens is perfectly legal.
The Internal Revenue Code requires every American citizen, at home or abroad, to pay taxes on all income, from whatever source derived, whether that money is made in America, or overseas. The law requires everybody to pay their mandatory tax amount, and not a single penny more. The tax laws are the tax laws, and the law is the same for every citizen. Just because you are rich does not magically change the tax laws (just ask Wesley Snipes, serving three years for tax fraud).
Some people complain that the tax code favors the wealthy. This simply isn’t true. The tax code provides equal opportunity for all. Equal opportunity to minimize, but also equal opportunity to get screwed.
What does this mean, and and how can you take advantage of it?
First of all, realize that Congress typically makes thousands of changes to the Federal tax code each and every year. Just about every bill passed has some minor tweak to the tax code associated with it.
Second, understand that the tax code is used by the government as a tool for social engineering and economic stimulus. This isn’t a secret — it’s a well documented fact. Certain elements of the tax code exist for the sole purpose of wealth redistribution, such as the Child Tax Credit and Earned Income Credit, both of which are social welfare programs that the government simply chose to implement via the income tax system. Other elements of the tax code exist in order to encourage small business investment, such as tax credits for research and development and domestic production activities. Other pieces of the tax code are intended to attempt to create jobs, such as payroll tax credits for hiring veterans or displaced workers.
The secret behind Mitt Romney paying such a low effective tax rate has to do with his income sources. As I write this, I’m looking at Romney’s 2011 Form 1040, page 1. This return lists the following major income sources and amounts:
- $4.1 million in taxable interest
- $3.2 million in taxable dividends
- $10.8 million in capital gains
- $2.8 million partnership and trust income
Romney’s tax on all this income isn’t figured using the regular tax tables, and not just because the numbers don’t go that high. Currently, his interest and partnership/trust income is taxed at normal income tax rates, but the $14 million in dividends and capital gains are taxed at much lower rates, currently only 15%.
That 15% tax rate is scheduled to expire at the end of 2012, as part of the expiring Bush tax cuts. However, the U.S. has a long history of creating special reduced tax rates for dividends, capital gains, and other forms of investment income, and there is a perfectly valid reason for doing so: Investment income derives from putting your money to work within the company, which generally creates jobs.
Economic investment has long been the primary source of jobs within modern economies. Without investment, most economies would grind to a screeching halt (been to Greece lately?). In order to encourage people with money to put that money to work within the economy, rather than just saving it under a mattress, governments offer incentives for investment. One such incentive is a reduced tax rate on the investment earnings. Those investments stimulate the economy, create jobs, and keep the economic engine churning for the rest of us. It’s a very critical component of keeping a modern economy operating.
When I flip to page 2 of Romney’s 1040, I see $5.7 million in itemized deductions. Looking at his Schedule A, I can see $4 million in charitable donations alone, of which he only claimed $2.25 million. He paid $2.6 million in tithing to his church. He also deducted $1.5 million in state and local taxes he paid.
Romney could have claimed the entire $4 million in charitable donations. I also see that he claimed absolutely zero business expenses on his Schedule C, and thus paid income tax and self-employment taxes both on every dime of speaking fees he collected.
I’m not going to review every line of this 104 page tax return. What becomes readily apparent, however, is that a tax minimization strategy is possible for everybody, no matter how much or how little your income. I’ll recap the “Mitt Tax Reduction Strategy” in a short list of steps, in case you didn’t pick them up through the course of this article:
Step 1: Own and operate your own small business.
Step 2: Invest in dividend-generating securities.
Step 3: Invest in activities that will produce capital gains.
Step 4: Invest in tax-free investments, such as municipal bonds.
Step 5: Donate a large percentage of your income to non-profit organizations.
Not only does this strategy work for rich people, it works for working class stiffs like us, also. If you’re self-employed, you get to write off an amazing array of things that people that work for other companies can’t, including deductions for business use of your home and your vehicle. Everybody can invest in securities that provide tax-free interest income, generate dividends, and produce capital gains. And everybody can donate to their favorite worthy causes.
Even people earning $30,000 per year can make this sort of thing happen: I’ve not only seen it with clients, I’ve done in myself.
No matter how much or how little money you make, the tax code can either work for you, or against you – the choice is really up to you. Prudent investment management, careful personal financial management, and proactive tax planning can all work together together to drastically reduce your effective tax rate, also.
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