Presidential Taxes


If you saw your 2012 tax return splashed all over the internet, you'd probably be pretty unhappy. Maybe you don't want your family, friends, or colleagues to know just how well you did last year. Or maybe you'd want them all to think you had done better than you really did. Regardless, most of us would rather put our most embarrassing eighth-grade class photo online than our taxes.

Well, President Obama and his family don't have that luxury. Legally, presidential tax returns are as private as anyone else's. However, presidents, vice-presidents, and major party nominees dating back to Richard Nixon have released at least some of their tax return information in the spirit of transparency. The Obamas released their 2012 returns on Friday, and they reveal an intriguing snapshot of presidential finances.

For 2013, the Obamas reported $608,611 in adjusted gross income. This included $400,000 for leading the Free World, $258,772 in book royalties, $11,462 in interest, and a whole $2 in dividends. They also reported $3,000 in long-term capital losses, with an additional $115,516 to carry over to future years or offset future gains. Of course, they enjoy some nifty tax-free perks, too – helicopters, airplanes, personal chefs and other staff. They also enjoy the use of a 132-room mansion in the heart of Washington, DC, which has been appraised at anywhere from $110 million to $302,021,348.

On the "deduction" side, the Obamas stashed $50,000 into a retirement plan. They also deducted $45,046 in mortgage interest, $63,305 in state and local tax, and a total of $150,034 in charitable gifts to 33 separate organizations (the largest single gift, $103,871, went to the Fisher House Foundation, which provides free or low-cost lodging to veterans and military families receiving treatment at military medical centers).

The Obamas finished up with $335,026 in taxable income. The regular tax on that amount is $87,465, which is more than most voters make in a year. But they got whacked for another $21,221 in Alternative Minimum Tax, plus $6,930 in self-employment tax on the book royalties. Subtract $3,402 in foreign tax credits, and the total bill settles in at $112,214.

What's ahead for next year? Well, if the Obamas report the same income and expenses in 2013, they'll avoid the new 39.6% bracket that kicks in for taxable incomes over $450,000. But they'll lose 3% of their itemized deductions and 2% of their personal exemptions for each dollar of adjusted gross income over a $300,000 threshold. They'll pay an extra 0.9% payroll tax on earned income over $250,000, plus a 3.8% "unearned income Medicare contribution" on their investment income.

Presidents usually find themselves solidly in the "top 1%" that dominated the conversation in last year's election. George W. and Laura Bush reported $784,219 in AGI in the fourth year of his presidency, including nearly $400,000 in interest and dividends. Bill and Hillary Clinton reported $1,065,101 in AGI in the fourth year of his presidency, including $742,852 in Hillary's book royalties that went to charity. And who can forget 1991, when George and Barbara Bush's dog Millie "earned" $889,176 in royalties for "her" memoir, Millie's Book? Of course, the big money comes after leaving office – these days, Bill Clinton earns as much as $10 million per year from speaking.

While you may not be required to release your tax return for all to see, it might be a good exercise to prepare and file it as though you do have to show everyone, as this can help you ensure your return is accurate and complete. After all, though the IRS won’t release it to the World Wide Web, they can decide to audit you, which can be very invasive and leave you feeling more than a little exposed!