Well, it's a start.
The Bush administration has begun making baby steps toward its grandiose promise of simplifying the tax code. But like most toddlers, the White House could stumble over several obstacles and fail to reach its goal very gracefully, if at all.
Determinedly, though, the administration has -- in the first of what will be a series of proposals -- asked Congress to create a uniform definition of "child" throughout the tax code.
There are now, under the current tax code, five different definitions of a child. Parents use one definition to determine if a child is a dependent, another to determine if they're eligible to claim the child tax credit, and yet another to claim the child- and dependent-care tax credit. There also are differing definitions of "child" associated with "head of household" filing status and the earned income tax credit.
But consider this example -- courtesy of the Treasury Department -- of a home shared by a woman, her two daughters and one grandchild, under the new proposal. The grandmother who provides more than half the costs of maintaining the home in which the child resides could claim head-of-household filing status. The child's aunt, who provides more than half the child's support and cares for the child as her own, may claim the dependency exemption and the child tax credit.
The child's mother, meanwhile, can claim the earned income tax credit. None of them, however, would be eligible to claim the child- and dependent-care tax credit -- that credit is restricted to a single taxpayer who both supports the child and maintains the household in which she and the child reside. Under the proposal, though, the child's mother (or, if the family prefers, the grandmother or aunt) would be able to claim all four tax benefits.
Then again, no idea that requires congressional agreement is ever simple. In fact, the proposal still employs different criteria in determining eligibility for the various child-related tax breaks.
"They haven't totally unified the definition of child like they claim," says Mark Luscombe, a CPA with CCH, a provider of tax and business law information.
Indeed, to qualify for the dependency exemption, a child must be under age 19, or under age 24 if a full-time student, or any age if permanently disabled. But to qualify for the child and dependent care credit, a child must be under age 13, unless permanently disabled, in which case age doesn't matter. To qualify for the child tax credit, though, a child must be under age 17, regardless of disability status.
Whether or not all this meets
definition of "simplification" may not even matter. Congress likely won't get to this issue until next year. "It could be added as an amendment this year," Luscombe says. "But I don't hear any of the leadership in Congress standing up and saying 'We need to fix the definition of child immediately,' particularly since it's an election year."
Undeterred, the Treasury Department has announced that the next proposals to be rolled out will further address the tax treatment of families and children, including determining a taxpayer's filing status, the earned income tax credit and the taxation of dependents. Subsequent proposals will focus on business.
Let's hope these "simpler" proposals are a little simpler.