'Fiscal cliff' deal: What will it mean for you?

Some aspects of the fiscal cliff deal are well-known – such as rising tax rates on the rich. But, actually, everyone will be paying more taxes. Here's a look at the deal's details.

Jacquelyn Martin/AP
The Capitol is reflected in a skylight of the Capitol Visitor's Center in Washington Tuesday. Congress passed a 'fiscal cliff' deal this week.

Your taxes are probably going up, but not as much as they would have without a "fiscal cliff" deal.

That's the short summary of what's in store for US households now that a fiscal bargain between the White House and Congress has been reached.

The welcome news for personal pocketbooks is that most Americans will see no change in their income-tax rates.

But the amount of taxes paid will still rise, for two major reasons: First, workers will owe 2 percent more of their paychecks to the government in 2013 because Congress is allowing a temporary payroll-tax cut to expire. Second, tax rates are rising for households that earn more than $450,000.

The goal of the legislation was to reduce federal deficits while also avoiding the so-called "cliff" of big tax hikes and federal spending cuts that had been scheduled for Jan. 1. If Congress took no action, the resulting shock to consumer pocketbooks could have thrown the US into recession, economists warned.

How will the fiscal bargain affect you? Here are some of the big possible ways, with income taxes listed last (but not least in importance):

The long-term unemployed. Emergency unemployment insurance benefits will be extended for a year, helping an estimated 2 million out-of-work Americans. 

Milk drinkers. Dairy prices won't spike, thanks to this legislation. Without action to extend 2012 policies, milk prices appeared set to surge as US law reverted to a 1949 pricing system. To families that already feel as if milk is a personal budget-buster, this prospect was so fearsome that it had its own name: the "dairy cliff."

Home sellers. For legions of would-be sellers whose mortgage balances are larger than the home's market value, the legislation extends important tax relief. Borrowers will still be able to arrange a "short sale," when the lender agrees to accept less than the full balance due on the mortgage, without having to treat the forgiven debt as taxable income. That's good news for the housing market, because short sales are a major alternative to foreclosure for would-be home sellers.

Working people. The expiration of a temporary payroll-tax cut means that workers will again pay 6.2 percent of their paychecks toward Social Security, up from last year's level of 4.2 percent. When Medicare taxes are added in, and the share paid by both employers and employees is included, payroll taxes devour more than 15 cents of every dollar in wages.

Inheritors. The estate tax rate will rise to 40 percent, from 35 percent in 2012. The tax will affect estates valued above $5 million.

Income tax filers. Most Americans will see no change in their income-tax rates, and they'll enjoy relief from annual worry about whether Congress will "patch" the Alternative Minimum Tax (AMT). The deal includes a permanent provision for adjusting AMT liability for inflation. That protects millions of Americans from being snared with higher taxes by a tax provision designed to ensure that the very rich don't dodge too many taxes. The deal also includes a five-year extension of Obama's American Opportunity Tax Credit (for college costs) and of his expanded Child Tax Credit and Earned Income Tax Credit.

Individuals making $250,000 or more, and couples making $300,000 or more, will have new limits on their personal exemptions and itemized deductions. 

The Tax Foundation has created a calculator designed to allow individuals to see a rough estimate of what they will pay in taxes under the deal.

Upper-income income tax filers. Individuals making more than $400,000, and couples earning more than $450,000, will pay higher taxes in 2013 than they would have under 2012 policy. The top tax rate on ordinary income will jump to 39.6 percent, where it stood in 2000.

Capital gains for these households will be taxed at a pre-Bush-era rate of 20 percent, up from 15 percent. When you add in an extra tax on high-earner investment income related to President Obama's health-care reforms, the top federal tax on long-term capital gains will be 23.8 percent.

The nonpartisan Tax Policy Center offers a preliminary estimate of what this might mean at the personal level. In this case, it's complicated. You could call it a "tax hike" compared with 2012 policy. But high-income taxpayers still enjoy significant tax relief in the legislation, compared with what they would have faced if Congress had done nothing and the Bush tax policies had expired outright.

Shown here is the change compared with a continuation of the Bush-era tax rates:

  • $500,000 to $1 million in income: Households in this income category will see their after-tax income drop by 1.4 percent, compared with 2012 tax policy. They'll pay an average of $6,689 more in taxes.
  • More than $1 million in income: Households in this income category will see their after-tax income drop by 5.7 percent, compared with 2012 tax policy. They'll pay an average of $122,560 more in taxes.
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