Year-end tax planning – 2019 update on using the tax laws to save you money

we hope your planning does not look like this!

Last year, we provided a three-part series explaining the impact of the new tax law.  In our first part, we discussed the impact of the new law on personal taxes and in our second part, we discussed planning for small businesses.  In this part, we update the third part posted last year, which is our guide for year-end moves to reduce total taxes between 2019 and 2020. 

Can you act at all?   

Each year we advise that you be practical, focusing on where you can actually take action. 

For many, the new $24,000 standard deduction for married couples, $12,000 for single taxpayers, means you will not itemize (i.e., your total for itemized deductions is less than the standard amount so you take the higher, standard deduction).  The standard deduction goes up when you reach 65. 

If you are not itemizing, you have fewer ways in which to affect change in the taxes due in either year (but you can also stop collecting receipts for those deductions!). 

Some possible deduction strategies

One technique for getting around the limit is to bunch deductions from two or more years into one year.  The one deduction that you can easily move is for charitable donations.  Your state, local and real estate taxes are limited to a $10,000 maximum and you cannot accelerate, or delay, significant amounts of mortgage interest. 

If you do not want any one charity to receive the full amount in a single year, you can still use this bunching strategy.  Donate to a donor advised fund, from which you may be able to designate donations to particular charities in future years.

IRA donations:  If you are 70½ or older, you have the option of distributing up to $100,000 from your IRA or other qualified plan to an IRS-approved charity and having none of the distribution taxed. 

Capital Gains:  Review your portfolio.  You may be able to “harvest losses” to offset capital gains realized on stock sales or mutual fund capital gains distributions.  If you have substantial unrealized gains, consider donating to a charity.  See below. 

The tax planning steps

If you are able to itemize, determine what income and deductions you can move from 2019 to 2020 or vice versa.  You want to minimize total taxes for both years.  Make sure your planning includes the 3.8% Medicare tax on high income and review Roth conversions (Roth distributions are not taxed, so converting a traditional or roll-over IRA to a Roth could be beneficial, as long as the tax cost now is not too great).  And business owners will want to review our post on planning under 199A for QBID

Next, review the impact of moving income and expense to see what happens if you shift any of these amounts from one year to the other year.

But, watch for the Alternative Minimum Tax (“AMT”):

  • The exemption for the AMT and the threshold above which that exemption gets phased out are now higher than before 2018, so fewer taxpayers will owe the AMT.  

Finally, if you have not maxed-out your 401(k) plan, IRA, Health Savings Account or flex plan account, consider doing so before the end of the year.

Capital gains

Your mutual funds may have large capital gains distributions.  Christine Benz says, “Brace yourself: 2019 is apt to be another not-so-happy capital gains distribution season, with many growth-oriented mutual funds dishing out sizable payouts.”  

Review your unrealized losses to see if you can “harvest” those losses to offset or “shelter” realized gains, reducing your total taxable income.  If you have more losses than gains, you can take up to $3,000 of capital losses against other income. 

If you sell an asset that you would prefer to retain, in order to realize gains in 2019, make sure you do not run afoul of the wash-sale rule (any loss on an asset that you repurchase in 30 days will be disallowed, so you have to either wait 30 days or purchase a similar asset that fits your asset allocation while not counting against the wash sale rule). 

If you have significant unrealized gains, consider using appreciated stock for charitable donations – that way you avoid the tax on the gain while still getting the full fair market value for your charitable donation.  

Some reminders on itemized deductions

As you may recall, mortgage interest on new home purchases is deductible only for loans of up to $750,000 used to purchase or improve your primary or secondary residence.  Interest on home equity loans will not be deductible, except when the home equity indebtedness is used to purchase or improve the residence.

Also, all miscellaneous deductions were eliminated.  This includes investment and tax preparation fees, safe deposit box charges and unreimbursed employee business expenses.  And moving expenses are no longer allowed (except for military personnel in certain cases). 

Check taxes paid

Make sure your total paid in withholdings and estimates meets the safe harbor rules.  If not, you could owe interest for under-withholding. 

Estate plan review

While you review your taxes, consider reviewing your estate plan and beneficiary designations.  The federal exemption is just over $11 million in 2019, so fewer people will owe any federal estate tax.  However, many states still impose estate taxes on smaller estates.  If you have “excess wealth” and want to reduce your taxable estate by gifting assets to children or others, you can give $15,000 per person, per year.  If your spouse joins you, that is $30,000 per person.  This includes funding a 529 plan for education costs – expanded to provide for more than just college. 

Note, however, that holding appreciated assets for the step up in basis at death may be better for your heirs than gifting. 

Check on 2018

Check to see if you over-paid a penalty for under-withholding.  If you filed early, the penalty calculation may have over-stated the total you owe, so you will want to review your 2018 filing. 

Summary

Carefully review any income and deductions that you can still shift to see if moving will lessen the total taxes you pay for 2019 and 2020. 

Good luck and best wishes for the holidays!

Do you need to amend for tax extenders, SALT workarounds, state tax domicile and empowerment zone gains?

This tax update may give you reasons to amend your tax returns regarding the tax extenders, SALT workarounds, domicile audits and empowerment zones. Let me know if you need help.

Tax Deduction Superhero?

Tax extenders

Many tax returns were prepared assuming that Congress would pass a law for the “tax extenders” as it has in past years. However, the bill extending deductions and credits for 2018 and 2019 has not passed. Other matters have the attention of Congress.

The tax extenders include 26 tax breaks that expired at the end of 2017 and 2018. Some are for businesses, such as motor speedway depreciation, biodiesel credits, and disaster relief. Others are for individuals, such as retaining the 7.5% threshold instead of 10% for medical expenses, the private mortgage insurance (PMI) deduction, exclusion of up to $2 million from income from mortgage debt forgiveness on your home, and an above-the-line deduction college tuition and qualified expenses.

If you filed your 2018 returns relying on passage, and the extender bill does not pass, you could face an inquiry form the IRS. If you filed without relying on the extenders, and the bill does pass, you may be able to amend your 2018 filing to obtain a refund.

SALT and work around attempts by states

As you know from the first post in our series on the Tax Cut and Job Act (“TCJA”), the new tax law places a $10,000 cap on state and local taxes, or “SALT.” This includes state and city income taxes, property taxes, sales taxes and excise taxes.

Some states, including New York and New Jersey, felt that TCJA targeted them and responded with workarounds. One such measure provides that certain payments of state income taxes would be treated as charitable contributions, so that the full amount would be allowed as part of your Schedule A deductions.

The IRS reacted by indicating that only the IRS determines what are allowable Schedule A deductions and this workaround was not one of them. As Christy Rakoczy Bieber wrote recently on creditkarma.com:

If you’re counting on a SALT cap workaround from your state to keep your federal taxes low, you may face an unpleasant surprise at tax time since the IRS has made clear it won’t allow you to take deductions for charitable donations if you received tax credits.

Trying to avoid the state taxes

Some people with homes in more than one state have taken another approach to SALT limits by claiming to be residents of the state imposing less income taxes. For example, if you have homes in Massachusetts and in Florida, you would clearly pick Florida because there is no state income tax.

If you do pick a no or low-income tax state, be careful. The state that is missing out on tax revenue may conduct a domicile audit. Having the documentation to prove your residency is key. While residency is based on your “state of mind,” an audit would focus on a list of facts, including where you spend more time, the state in which you have a driver’s license and vote, where you receive your mail, and where you worship. Be sure to take the necessary steps and retain proof.

Empowerment Zone rollovers and Qualified Small Business Stock Sales (QSBS)

There are provisions for favorable treatment of certain capital gains transactions. Here are two:

  • If you purchased stock in a qualified small business, you may be able to exclude gain on the sale. The exclusion is even higher for certain empowerment zones, and;
  • You can roll over gain from certain sales into investments in an empowerment zone, delaying or even reducing the tax on the gain. There are opportunity funds into which you can invest for this deferral. If you think you need to amend, or if you have any questions on this post or any other matter, let me know. I am here to help.
thinking about a refund?

If you think you need to amend, or if you have any questions on this post or any other matter, let me know. I am here to help.

Getting unbiased advice on your finances

Unlike many sources of financial planning guidance, we do not charge a fee based on your assets or a commission for purchasing investments or insurance. We will help you set up investments and find the insurance that you need. For all our help, we simply charge for our time.

Why pay for financial advice when you can get it on the internet for free

(she’s thinking about the question)

Many investment firms have websites offering free advice on managing your finances. However, nothing on the internet is truly free. The advice may direct you to investments from which the firm receives a commission or the website may be a lead generation site.

What is lead generation?

Awhile back, I did a post on how a website that provides “free” use of a gamified retirement calculator. Using the calculator was fun and free. However, when you delved deeper, reading the company’s ADV disclosure, you learned that the website may receive referral fees from vendors for referring users to financial products, such as lenders for a user who needs to refinance her mortgage or Schwab, Fidelity or TD Ameritrade for users who want to rollover a 401(k). In other words, the site generates leads for which it gets paid. That hardly sounds free!

When to pay

If free is not the answer, that means you pay for advice. That can be good, because when you are the sole source of compensation, then planner has no hidden agenda – she serves your needs only.

I know finances are not fun and planning sounds like bad homework, so paying only makes it worse. At the same time, I see how spending the time to plan can make peoples lives so much better.

I hope you contact me and let me know what you think.

Robo-Advisors may be just what we need!

Should you really fear Robo-Advisors?

Reading financial news, you see many posts warning of robo-advisors, telling you how you really need a human advisor, how you can robo-proof your investment business, or how robo-advisors are merely a fad and will die off when everyone realizes how evil they are.

All these posts have it backwards. They are apologists for entrenched firms attempting to protect their turf when individuals need help.

Shift from pensions to 401(k) plans hurt individuals

Last century, many large employers provided pensions as a benefit. These were large portfolios that could hire good advisors and thus performed well. However, by the end of last century, retirement funds had shifted to 401(k) and similar plans, where individuals managed their own portfolios.

Institutional portfolios hire great managers so many are able to beat their various market indices. In contrast, individual investors historically achieve less than half the returns of their related indices.

Poor performance by individuals managing their own retirement funds is a key factor in the current crisis facing Boomers who are under-funded for retirement. (Note to Millennials: don’t just speak to your parents, do your own planning so this doesn’t happen to you!)

Why do individuals invest poorly?

Individual investors are seen as a contrary indicator:

  • If they are buying, then the market is near its peak and it is time to sell; and
  • If they are selling, the market has reached its bottom and it is time to buy.

Here is a case in point:

We saw the regret and pride response in action beginning in March 2000, the largest purchase of mutual funds in the history of the stock market. Fast forward to 2008, just before the “Great Recession” market downturn, and stock prices were falling, but investors refused to sell at a loss. As the market continued to fall, investors held off until they simply couldn’t take it any longer. Many sold their stock near the bottom and missed the following upswing that began March 2009. Forbes – Why average investors returns are so low.

To summarize, individual investors perform poorly due to these factors:

  1. Lack of access to good investment advice; and
  2. Investment psychology. For more on the psychological factors to which individuals fall prey, see Seven deadly sins of investing to avoid.

There is a third factor: High expenses in form of commissions and other fees.

Robo-advisors address all three factors. 

  • First, automating advice permits good advisors to offer services to small investors. Betterment with automated rebalancing and tax-loss harvesting is a good example.
  • Second, automation lowers costs, so fees charged can be reduced. Combine that with use of ETFs and you have dramatically reduced expenses.
  • Last, robo-advisors are immune to greed and fear so their performance will not suffer the way performance of individuals may. No robo-advisor would wait until the market hit bottom to sell, as in the case of 2008 summarized above.  

Bring on the Robos!

What is my conclusion? Not only are robo-advisors here to stay, they may be just what individual investors need so they can retire well!

7 things to do when starting a business to avoid nasty surprises

(also seen online at IRIS.xyz)

The only thing that hurts more than paying an income tax is not having to pay an income tax. Thomas Dewar

When you decide to start a business, taxes may be the last thing you think about. However, not realizing that you owe the self-employment tax as well as income taxes can lead to a nasty surprise when you file your taxes. This post is aimed at avoiding that costly surprise.

But, before we discuss the self-employment tax, there are other important steps to take when you become self-employed. Here are the 7 things to do after you start your own business to avoid nasty surprises:

Avoid nasty surprises – set up bookkeeping, form your entity, get licensed, buy insurance, and pay taxes

Bookkeeping – set up bookkeeping using software like QuickBooks (either online or on your laptop). You don’t want to be scrambling to find receipts at tax time or not be able to tell somebody if you are making money or not.

You can save time by downloading from your bank and credit card companies. If you set up things well, all income and every expense will be properly categorized for your profit and loss statement, or P&L. The P&L and balance sheet help you monitor your business to see how well you are doing and are essential for preparing your tax returns. The balance sheet will also come in handy if you need to apply for financing.

For all these steps, you may want to hire an accountant or speak to an attorney.

Entity – for many small businesses, being a sole proprietor is appropriate. You avoid paying corporate excise taxes and filing annual reports. However, if you have partners, you may want to form a partnership, corporation or LLC (details on choosing are beyond the scope of this post).

If your business involves risks that could lead to law suits, form a corporation or LLC to shelter your personal assets from liabilities of the business that insurance may not cover. Make sure that any actions you take for the business are in your capacity as an officer or manager – i.e., never sign personally.

Remember, you may want to consult with an attorney.

Get licenses, file annual reports and pay local taxes – certain businesses require a license to operate. Most entities are required to file annual reports. And, your city may impose taxes on the personal property in your business. Be sure to find out so you don’t owe penalties for failing to file and pay.

Buy health and other insurance – in addition to liability insurance, you will want to obtain health insurance if you are no longer working for another employer. You may get favorable treatment for this expense on your income taxes. You can also purchase insurance to cover damage to equipment, loss of data, identity theft and so on.

File payroll taxes – if you hire people to work for you and pay them over $600 per quarter in any year, you need to report the compensation. If they are independent contractors, you file a form 1099 with the IRS. If they are employees, you file a W-2 with the Social Security Administration. You also provide these forms to your people for the income tax filings.

You may need to withhold and remit FICA and Medicare taxes. Also, your employees may request that you withhold and remit federal and state income taxes (unless you live in a state that does not impose income taxes). Failure to withhold and pay to the IRS and state can lead to serious penalties.

Pay your income tax – one big shock for many who start a business is how much they owe in taxes. When you received a paycheck, you probably did not focus much on the fact that your employer withholds federal and state income taxes and FICA and Medicare taxes. And, you never had a chance to spend what was withheld.

However, when you run your own business, you have full access to the pre-tax income, so you must diligently allocate funds ahead of time so that you don’t come up short at text time. To avoid owing interest on the taxes due, you make estimated tax payments each quarter to the IRS and state.

Pay the self-employment tax – when you were an employee, your employer withheld FICA and Medicare taxes from your paychecks. The employer also contributed FICA and Medicare taxes on your behalf

When you become self-employed, you are responsible for both the employee and employer amounts. This tax is based on your net self-employment income

A lot to remember, right?

Maybe, but knowing and planning is far better than trying to scrape together money in April to cover taxes you did not expect.

Good luck with your new business!

In future posts, we will examine partnering with others, assessing your profitability, rules on deducting expenses, and entry into the real estate market.