What Is a Tax Preference Item/

A tax preference item is a type of income, normally received tax-free, that may trigger the alternative minimum tax (AMT) for taxpayers. Tax preference items include interest on private activity municipal-bonds, qualifying exclusions for small business stock, and excess intangible drilling costs for oil and gas - if the amount of these items exceeds 40% of AMT income. Tax preference items are added to the amount of AMT income in the IRS' tax formula.

Understanding Tax Preference Items

Alternative minimum tax (AMT) is the least tax that an individual or corporation must pay after all eligible exclusions, credits, and deductions have been taken. AMT is a mandatary supplement tax alternative to the standard income tax. It uses many common itemized deductions and, therefore, impacts high income earners mostly because it eliminates many of those deductions. A taxpayer that makes more than the AMT exemption amount and uses the deductions must calculate his taxes twice – one calculation for the regular income tax, and another for the AMT. Individuals that have an adjusted gross income higher than the exemption ($70,300 for single/head of households and $109,400 for married filing jointly, as of 2018) must calculate the AMT, and pay the higher of both taxes calculated.

Items that must be included when calculating the alternative minimum tax are called tax preference items. The tax preference item is income that subjects an individual to the AMT, and is treated differently for regular tax and AMT purposes – it is excluded when calculating one's ordinary tax liability but is included when calculating one's liability for the alternative minimum tax. Thus, a tax preference item would be tax-deductible under normal circumstances but is not for purposes of the alternative minimum tax. If the amount of tax preference items exceeds a certain percentage of the taxpayer's income, the taxpayer must add these items back to his or her taxable income to compute the amount of tax owed, thus, creating a higher tax bill. To calculate the AMT, then, calculate the taxable income the usual way and then add back preference items for minimum tax purposes. Tax preference items include:

Like the AMT itself, tax preference items are designed to prevent high-income taxpayers from avoiding too much income tax through participating in certain activities. For example, investors who own private-activity bonds (PAB) issued after August or September of 1986 must declare all income received from these bonds, minus investment expenses. This rule, thereby, prevents taxpayers from shielding all of their investment income in this type of bond issue.

Key Takeaways

  • Tax preference items are special cases on income received that may be included in the calculation of the alternative minimum tax (AMT).
  • AMT is designed to prevent certain taxpayers from escaping their fair share of tax liability through tax breaks such as with preferential items.
  • Tax preference items may include net income from oil and gas deposits, deductions from accelerated depreciation, the exercise of stock options, and investment tax credits, among others.

Calculating AMT

To determine if they owe AMT, individuals can use tax software that automatically does the calculation, or they can fill out IRS Form 6251. This form takes medical expenses, home mortgage interest, and several other miscellaneous deductions into account to help tax filers determine if their deductions are past an overall limit set by the IRS.

The form also requests information on certain types of income such as on tax refunds, investment interest and interest from private activity bonds, as well as numbers corresponding with capital gains or losses related to the disposition of property. The IRS has specific formulas in place to determine which portion of these income and deductions the tax filers need to note on Form 6251, and it uses another set of formulas to determine how these numbers lead to AMTI.