Benjamin Franklin wrote that "nothing is certain but death and taxes," but that is only half-true. There is absolutely nothing dead-certain about taxes this year.
Unless Congress acts soon, almost all of the "Bush tax cuts" and credits that were enacted in 2001 and 2003 will expire at the end of this year. Most financial analysts and Washington insiders say they don't expect that to happen. But if it does, you -- the American taxpayer -- are in for a tax hike. A big one.
Here's what it will mean to you:
-- The standard percent rates -- the baseline percentage of your income that goes to the government -- will universally rise, at an estimated cost of roughly $157 billion annually; from 10 percent to 15 (for lowest-income earners), from 25 percent to 28, from 28 percent to 31, from 33 percent to 36, and from 35 percent to 39.6 percent (for highest-income earners).
-- Indexing of the alternative minimum tax (AMT), which ensures that taxpayers who benefit from itemized reductions and/or credits pay a separately calculated minimum tax, will expire.
-- Taxes on capital gains and dividends will increase, potentially costing investors an estimated $35 billion annually.
-- Married couples who saw their standard deduction raised to that of double the single amount will go back to paying higher rates, at a cost of roughly $32 billion a year.
-- Expanded tax credits like the child tax credit, which previously increased to $1,000 from $500, will expire, costing American families an estimated $26 billion a year.
-- The already-expired estate tax would revert back to 2009 levels, translating to a minimum estimate of $26 billion to heirs and heiresses.
-- The personal exemption phase-out (PEP), which allowed high-income filers to deduct the full value of their personal exemptions and itemized deductions, will expire, potentially costing wealthy households about $21 billion.
"As a general matter, everybody is affected, maybe except for certain seniors," said Chuck Marr, director of federal tax policy for the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. "All taxpayers have something at stake."
For the family of four bringing in a combined income of $75,000, the expiration of all Bush-era tax cuts will amount to a tax increase of $2,143 next year, according to the Tax Foundation's 2011 Income Tax Calculator.
A family of four earning $150,000 would see its income tax burden increase by $4,510 to $23,150, according to the Tax Foundation.
Single filers, meanwhile, would see their taxes rise by $605 at the $50,000 income plateau and by $1,355 at $75,000. A single filer earning $150,000, including $15,000 in long-term capital gains, would pay an extra $3,269, with a total tax liability of $28,340.
A single parent of one child earning $25,000 would see his tax liability rise by $955, decreasing his tax refund of $1,856 to just more than $900. A low-income family of five earning a total of $45,000 would see their taxes increase by $2,538, equating to a total tax liability of $1,028.
An upper-middle income family of four with two earners pulling in $150,000, including $15,000 in long-term capital gains, would see their taxes increase by $3,802. That family's total tax burden? Roughly $21,600.
A high-income family of four, meanwhile, with a combined income of $300,000 and $20,000 in itemized deductions, would see their taxes jump by more than $11,000 if Congress allows all of the Bush-era tax cuts to expire. That equals a total tax liability of $68,392.
For even higher earners -- such as a married couple with no children making $420,000 in total income and with $20,000 deductions apiece for state and local taxes, mortgage interest and charitable contributions -- that total tax liability grows to $106,815, or an increase of more than $16,600 from 2010.
Further up the income ladder, a married couple earning $700,000 in wages with $300,000 worth of long-term capital gains and qualified dividends and $95,000 in deductions for mortgage interest and state/local income taxes would see their tax share grow by $61,206.
Finally, a retired married couple with a combined income of $60,000 -- including $10,000 in qualified dividends, $25,000 in Social Security benefits and $10,000 in 401(k) distributions -- would see their tax liability increase by $2,676.
"If all the tax cuts expire, everyone stands to lose," said Mark Robyn, a staff economist for the Tax Foundation. "A lot of people like to paint the Bush tax cuts as having only benefited the rich, which is not true -- you can simply look at the estimates."
Citing estimates from the Office of Management and Budget, Robyn said letting the Bush-era tax cuts expire only for high-income people would raise $630 billion over 10 years, compared to $3 trillion during the same period if all the tax cuts were to expire.
Robyn said one of the biggest tax cuts for middle-income earners was the creation of the 10 percent bracket, which will rise to 15 percent if Congress doesn't act. He also cited the significant impact of doubling the child tax credit to $1,000. That, too, will expire unless a compromise is reached in Washington.
"That's a pretty significant tax cut," Robyn said. "If that were to go back, I think a lot of people would feel that. That's a dollar for dollar decrease in your tax liability."