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The unearned income (interest, dividends, investments, etc.) of a child under the age of 18 will be taxed at the parents' highest marginal tax rate, unless the parents make a special election to include the child's income on the parents' return. If the election isn't made, and the child files a separate return, no personal exemption is allowed if the child could have been claimed as a dependent on his or her parents' return.
However, the child can use up to $950 for 2011 of his or her standard deduction to offset unearned income. Thus, only unearned income in excess of $1,900 for 2011 is taxed at the parents' top marginal rate. These amounts are indexed annually for inflation.
In computing the parents' top marginal rate, all unearned income of children under age 18 in 2011 in excess of $1,900 is added to the parents' otherwise taxable income. The result is that, in some circumstances, the unearned income of a child under age 18 may be taxed at the 35 percent rate, while the parents' top rate would otherwise (based on their actual income) be lower.
The Tax Increase Prevention and Reconciliation Act of 2005 (TIPRA) raised the "kiddie tax" age threshold from 14 to 17. This provision became effective for the entire 2006 tax year and afterward.
This change seriously impacted some existing tax planning opportunities. Parents who had planned to sell a child's college stock portfolio after age 13 and before entering college have no opportunity now to accelerate that planning technique if the child is over 13. If the family was planning to postpone a sale until 2008, when the top rate for capital gains would be zero, that's a loss of 15 percentage points on the tax otherwise not due on the sale of stock or other portfolio assets.
Additional changes. The Small Business and Work Opportunity Tax Act of 2007 extends the reach of the kiddie tax by raising the age limit to include all children under age 19 (previously under age 18) and students under age 24. Both changes are effective for tax years beginning after May 25, 2007.
The effective date for the new kiddie tax provision brings with it some good news and some bad news. For calendar-year taxpayers, the higher age limit starts in 2008.
However, because this provision is effective for tax years beginning after May 25, 2007, there is also some bad news. It is not until 2008 that capital gains for those in the 15 percent or lower tax brackets fall to zero rather than 10 percent. That zero no-tax rate remains through 2012. Many lawmakers earlier this year called for preventing dependents under age 24 from using the zero percent rate. The new law covers this loophole and more by expanding the kiddie tax.
The actual computation of the "kiddie tax" remains the same. The net unearned income of the child (for 2011, generally unearned income over $1,900) is taxed at the parents' marginal tax rates, if the rates are higher than the child's tax rates. Only last year, TIPRA raised the reach of the kiddie tax from under age 14 to under age 18.
The main downside of the new kiddie tax provision is that college age students will no longer be able to sell off their appreciated investment accounts set up by the parents to cover current tuition. At a minimum, taking out student loans with interest until the year the student turns 24 will be necessary now to carry forward such a plan. However, the maximum tax of capital gains imposed on any stock sales might rise from 15 to 20 percent after 2012, adding another price tag to postponing income recognition.