Cutting the “Kiddie Tax” Down to Size

The “kiddie tax” is a bit of a misnomer. This tax provision may actually apply to children well into their twenties. Nevertheless, with some advance planning, you can minimize or even eliminate the tax damage.

Basic rules: Income is generally taxed at the tax rate of the individual who receives it. For example, if you are in the 35% tax bracket, your top dollars are taxed at the 35% rate. On the other hand, if your child is in the 10% bracket, the child pays tax at a maximum rate of only 10%.

However, a special rule applies to younger children who receive unearned income above an annual threshold. In this case, the excess is taxed at the top tax rate of the child’s parents. Thus, instead of being taxed at the 10% rate, your child may be taxed at the 35% rate on the excess.

The annual threshold is adjusted for inflation, but increases have been small or nonexistent. For 2011, the threshold is $1,900, the same as it was in 2010 and 2009.

Another problem: Initially, the kiddie tax only applied to children under age 14, but the limit has been raised several times. Currently, the age limit is 19, or age 24 for a full-time student if the child doesn’t have earned income in excess of half of his or her annual support. In other words, if your dependent child is in college, the kiddie tax most likely still applies.

How can you lessen the impact? Although every situation is different, here are four ideas to consider:

  1. Keep your child’s unearned income below or near the $1,900 threshold. For instance, you might wait until next year to give your child some income-producing property. This technique works especially well if you do not expect your child to pay the kiddie tax in 2012.
  2. Utilize tax-deferred investments that don’t produce current income. This may include investments in growth stock and U.S. Savings Bonds. Similarly, if the child buys certificates of deposit (CDs) or Treasuries that will not mature until next year, you can avoid or minimize the kiddie tax for 2011.
  3. Allocate a portion of your child’s investment portfolio to municipal bonds (“munis”) or muni bond funds. Generally, the income received from these investments is completely free from federal income tax, so your child can pocket any amount without kiddie tax worries.
  4. Hire your child to work for your company.  Because the wages constitute earned income, this will not trigger any kiddie tax complications. As long as the child is paid a reasonable salary for the services performed, your company can deduct the wages. This is a good way to help a child save money for college without adverse tax consequences.

Final advice: Keep one eye on your child’s portfolio and the other on the kiddie tax. But take all the relevant factors—not just taxes—into account when you make investment decisions.