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Will you see higher tax rates in 2011?

The year was 2001. The top marginal federal income tax bracket was 39.6%, and the tax rate that applied to most long-term capital gains was 20%. Then came the Economic Growth and Tax Relief Reconciliation Act of 2001, followed two years later by the Jobs and Growth Tax Relief Reconciliation Act of 2003. By mid-2003, the top marginal tax rate was 35%, and the 20% capital gains rate had dropped to 15%. But this tax relief was designed to be temporary--the provisions that established lower rates were crafted to self-expire after a period of time. And now, in 2010, we're only months away from seeing those provisions expire.

Federal income tax brackets

Right now, there are six marginal income tax brackets: 10%, 15%, 25%, 28%, 33%, and 35%. For 2010, these brackets apply to married couples filing joint federal income tax returns in the following manner:

As it stands now, these marginal tax brackets will expire at the end of 2010. There would be no 10% bracket for 2011, and the remaining bracket rates would return to their original 2001 levels: 15%, 28%, 31%, 36%, and 39.6%.

Long-term capital gain tax rates

For 2010, if you sell shares of stock that you've held for more than a year, any gain is long-term capital gain, generally taxed at a maximum rate of 15%. If you're in the 10% or the 15% marginal income tax bracket, however, you'll pay no federal tax on the long-term gain (a 0% tax rate applies). That means if you're a married couple filing a joint federal income tax return, and your taxable income is $68,000 or less, you'd pay no federal tax on the gain.

However, these rates are also scheduled to expire at the end of 2010. Absent new legislation, in 2011, a 20% rate will generally apply to long-term capital gains. Individuals in the 15% tax bracket (remember, there won't be a 10% bracket in 2011) will pay the tax at a rate of 10%. Special rules (and slightly lower rates) will apply for qualifying property held for five years or more.

Finally, while qualifying dividends are taxed in 2010 using the same capital gain tax rates described above (i.e., 15% and 0%), in 2011 they'll be taxed as ordinary income.

Will Congress take action?

In the proposed 2011 budget submitted to Congress in February, President Obama asked for a permanent extension of the current 10%, 15%, and 25% marginal income tax brackets, and an expansion of the current 28% tax bracket. The current 33% and 35% brackets would be allowed to expire, resulting in the top two marginal rates for 2011 returning to 36% and 39.6%. The expanded 28% bracket would be calculated in a way that would allow individuals earning less than $200,000 (less the standard deduction amount and one exemption) and married couples filing jointly earning less than $250,000 (less the standard deduction and two personal exemptions) to escape taxation at the top rates.

The President also proposed making the current tax rates that apply to long-term capital gain (i.e., the 0% and 15% rates) permanent, but adding a new 20% rate for those in the newly reestablished 36% and 39.6% brackets.

Will Congress act, or will it simply let current rates expire? There's plenty of time before 2011, so stay tuned…