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AMT changes to benefit small business

Small-business owners who didn't bother taking full advantage of tax deductions and credits in the past—because they knew they would have to pay the Alternative Minimum Tax—should take a closer look at what's available to them now.

While the rulesfor calculating the AMT didn't change much last year, the increase in the top marginal tax bracket can make a big difference from a tax-planning perspective, particularly for small-business owners, according to Paul Gevertzman, a partner with accounting firm Anchin, Block & Anchin.

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"The 4.6 percent increase [to 39.6 percent] in the top marginal rate is huge," he said. "For the first time, we're able to look at a lot more potential tax benefits for clients."

While taxpayers with more than $400,000 in income—including small-business people owning pass-through corporations—might have previously been hit by the AMT, they may now avoid it because their regular tax liability is higher. (Taxpayers pay the higher of the two figures.)

That being the case, small-business owners can now potentially take advantage of a wider array of credits and deductions to keep their ultimate tax bills down.

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Gevertzman suggests small-business owners pay particular attention to the following five tax credit and deduction opportunities:

1. Research-and-development credits. You don't need guys in lab coats to qualify for the R&D credit. Based on when you incorporated your business and the nature of your activities, a portion of legitimate R&D expenses can be claimed as a credit for tax purposes. "People are always tweaking, fixing and improving their product designs and business processes," said Gevertzman. "There is no cap on legitimate expenses, and it applies to a broad spectrum of industries."

2. Work Opportunity Tax Credit. Employers hiring veterans can take a tax credit of up to 40 percent of the first $6,000 in paid compensation. The eligible credit can be as high as $9,600 if the individual employed is disabled and/or unemployed for an extended period prior to being hired.

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3. Incentive stock options. The difference between an individual's regular tax liability and his or her AMT liability makes compensation in the form of incentive stock options relatively more attractive when marginal income-tax rates rise.

As options to purchase company stock are exercised by employees, the difference between the exercise price and the prevailing price of the underlying stock is taxable at the employee's marginal tax rate for AMT purposes, but not for regular tax liability.

When and if the stock is ultimately sold, the difference between the sale price and option-exercise price is taxed as long-term capital gains. "The bigger gap between regular and AMT tax liability makes the options more attractive," Gevertzman said.

4. Accelerated depreciation. For many kinds of assets, the rates of depreciation can be accelerated for regular tax purposes but not for the AMT calculation. Again, the bigger difference between regular tax liability and the AMT could provide opportunities to apply accelerated rates of depreciation—which individuals formerly couldn't do without getting hit by the AMT.

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5. Tax-advantaged investments. Income from investments in tax-preferenced securities, such as master-limited partnerships or private activity bonds, may be taxable for AMT purposes and, as such, not as attractive for many taxpayers.

"People have to determine whether they're benefiting from the deduction to understand their real rate of return on the investment," Gevertzman said.

If an individual's regular tax liability is now significantly higher than their AMT figure, those investments may make relatively more sense.

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