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!

Brace for the Holidays! Have a plan

As Halloween passes, we know that the season of over-buying and over-eating is approaching, so it’s time to prepare.  You want to enjoy being with friends and family without having the hangover of overspending, or worse, going into debt to finance all the fun. 

Make the gift giving fit with your cash management

Over-buying does not make you happier and usually makes the recipient uncomfortable.  Also, over-spending is likely to make achieving your long-term goals more difficult, which can add to the depression some feel at this time of year.

For gifts, “it’s the thought that counts” rings true.  Most recipients appreciate being remembered for who they are and what they do.  Think back to what you enjoyed most in past holidays and let that guide you.  This can help you stick to your values as you think through the entire process and devise your holiday shopping plan.  The time spent together may be far more important and rewarding than unnecessary giving.

Have a plan

Technology and social media can make shopping easier, but they also make it easier to overspend and end up with credit card debt from funding your gift giving.  

Part of the reason is that many such purchases are spontaneous.  People often regret these unplanned purchases.  Over 70% of people in one survey exceeded their budget and over half bought items not on their list.  This can make the new year bleak (More than 3 in 4 Americans are stressed about going into debt over the holidays — and technology’s not helping ) Counter this by creating a realistic budget, lookout for sales, review your budget to make sure you are on track. 

Budget – If you determine what you can reasonably spend and allocate that to people for whom you want to buy gifts, or give holiday tips, then you have a spending plan that should get you through.  When devising your plan, go back to your financial goals to remind yourself why staying on track is so important.  Include time for present wrapping to avoid time pressure that encourages splurge buying.  Also, you may want to have small gifts on hand for unexpected guests.  You can use budget apps, such as NerdWallet, to create a budget.  When you do, stick to it! 

If the people for whom you are shopping have wish lists, follow them for ideas.  And leave items in your shopping cart overnight to take a second look and avoid regretting a splurge purchase.  Ask “does the person really want or need this?,” especially if you are shopping for yourself!  (It may be wise to avoid, or at least substantially limit, any buying for yourself.) 

Be Wary of Black Friday, Cyber Monday and other retailer tricks

If you do your homework, you can determine if waiting in line or buying on line will be best.  As stated above, create a budget and stick to it.   

Be on the lookout for retailer other tricks like flash sales, loyalty cards, incentives to return for more purchases, misleading refund policies.  Similarly, procrastinating can lead to splurge buying ruled by emotions such as the need to please everyone and get the shopping done.

Avoid scams

With the pressure of the holidays to address all the gift giving, parties and thank yous, stay vigilant for scams.  These can come in the form of bogus IRS and social security calls, credit card offers, computer software deals and fake invoices.  There are many phishing sites you can use to check out whether the offers are legit

Review our Holiday Tipping Guide

As for tipping, see our post Guidelines for Holiday Tips and Gift.

Remember, if you’re unable to tip or give a gift, a thoughtful thank you note will acknowledge those people who are important to you.  You can even make a donation in their name. 

Brace for over-eating and possibly even depression

This blog is does not profess to have any expertise in psychology.  Nonetheless, we have all heard how holidays can be disappointing if not depressing from some.  The Hallmark gatherings promised on TV or social media rarely happen in real life. 

If the holidays are depressing, consider volunteering somewhere, such as a soup kitchen, or getting out for some serious exercise.  Both can lift your mood as well as either help others or improve your health.  Allow time to rest and recover!  And try a warm drink, tea not bourbon, or a warm bath. 

Take care of yourself – it’s hard to help anyone else if you are not in good shape yourself.  But if you are really experiencing holiday depression, speaking to people can help, be that family, friends or professionals.

We wish you all the best for financially sound, and fun, holidays!  And let us know if we can help you plan.

Will you leave a mess or a legacy? Don’t die without a plan

“where did they leave it?”

Estate planning is not fun.  You have to face what the world will be like after you leave it.  You want to leave a legacy so your survivors are happy.  However, less than one in five of you have taken the steps needed. 

If you completely ignore creating a post-death plan, then you will leave a chaos and confusion for others to sort out at a time when they will be grieving from your loss.  They will have to find where you put everything and sort out where you wanted everything to go. 

If people depend on you financially, not providing enough on which they can survive will mean major lifestyle changes for them.  Not something you want. 

You want survivors to focus on cherished memories, not on probate courts.  Take action! 

Now, what do you do?

First, leave enough so survivors can survive

Make sure you have provided for those who depend on you.  Usually, that means purchasing some form of life insurance.  You want to replace your earning power from now until the time that they are independent, either when a spouse or partner retires or when your children become gainfully employed. 

If you have been saving for retirement, those accounts may be enough so you don’t need to purchase life insurance.  Reviewing your potential estate with an advisor is wise to make sure survivors have enough. 

Second, sign the documents

Execute documents that ensure that your estate goes to the people who you want to benefit.  This usually means signing beneficiary designations for retirement plan accounts and executing a will.  You may even need a trust for young survivors.  We wrote this post detailing the steps a few years back.  If that’s too technical, ask me questions. 

You may want to consult an advisor to get all the proper documents in place.  Here is a good checklist to review.

Third, have the conversations

Talk to your spouse, to your adult children and to the people you name in your documents.  Make sure they understand your wishes.  Do you want to be buried or do you want to be cremated?  Do you want donations made to charities? 

What if you have a catastrophe the doesn’t kill you, but leaves you hooked up to machines forever?  Have a conversation so your loved ones know your wishes.  And, make sure you sign a health care proxy or medical directive, living will and even a “do not resuscitate” or DNR order. 

Fourth, leave a trail

Make sure the key people know how to find everything.  One way is to write a memorandum listing your passwords, where to find the safe deposit box key, and where you stored the life insurance policies.  Give copes to key people, such as the personal representative named in you will or the trustee of your trust. 

Finally, leave a legacy

When you take care of all you can, in advance, your survivors don’t have to suppress feelings while they clean up a mess:

“WE WERE WORRIED ABOUT MY MOM after my dad died, but he had everything in order. It allowed us to focus on our grief instead of being bogged down in financial paperwork and family bickering.” That’s one of the candid responses Merrill Lynch and Age Wave received when they interviewed more than 3,000 Americans 55 and older for a comprehensive look at attitudes and practices surrounding legacy planning.  From How do you want to be remembered…

planning and taking action

You will need to review and update your plan over time.  But, just knowing you took all these steps should improve matters for you and your family now!  Contact our office if you have questions so you can “don’t worry, be happy!”

Riding the Pan-Mass Challenge again in 2019, please donate if you can

Before diving in to my Pan-Mass Challenge update, here is the recent Facebook post from on our pedal partner, Maddie Carlson, who survived cancer twice:

I just wanted to take a second to share the amazing things that have happened in the past year that have been so insane and i can’t help but feeling extremely blessed and grateful. This time last year my cancer was out of control, I was living at BCH, severely depressed and not even looking forward to the future. Fast forward to now and I can’t even believe how much my life has changed. Here’s a few things that have happened since I was severely hospitalized that have gave me a reason to not give up. First, I transferred to Emmanuel College in Boston which was without a doubt the best decision I could have ever made. I love this city and love my cute little school. Next, since I started school, I’ve made some of the greatest people who have become my family and teach me how to be a better person and have helped me grow (y’all know who you are). In high school I didn’t really get the opportunity to get involved so I started to take advantage of that since I’ve been here. The second month of school I started an on-campus job, joined a couple clubs AND recently found out that I received an RA position for next year!!! LASTLY AND THE BEST OF IT ALL, I recently found out I am 9 months cancer free!! Though I have my off days and have a lot to conquer with my health, I am happy. Cancer was a horrible thing that happened to me but I survived (twice) and am taking advantage of the amazing opportunities presented to me, since I couldn’t for so long and many others don’t have the chance to. Again, thank you to everyone that has followed my journey and those that continue to support me 💛💛

(we posted this before from Maddie’s video when she battled cancer the first time)

She was at the Dana Farber Cancer Institute (DFCI). I hope you never have to see those facilities. Or if you do, I hope it is from curiosity and not because you or a loved one is receiving treatment.

Although was a bit challenging to go, being a cancer survivor myself and not wanting to be reminded, we accepted an invitation to tour the DFCI in late January. The facilities are amazing.

So much attention is paid to how those with cancer are treated and what resources they can access. There are even places like the indoor gardens where they can experience nature that’s otherwise off limits due to their treatments. The tour guide even made mention of the unseen researchers and physicians working tirelessly to innovate new approaches for fighting cancer, to save lives, and to make a difference to all of us.

On the tour, we also felt the impact of the PMC, from donor plaques to the amazing PMC bridge, all of which brings home the message that cancer can be fought “one mile at a time.”

Over the past 40 years, 121,264 PMC riders (and 68,044 volunteers) have raised over $550 million to fight cancer at DFCI and in 2019, over 6,000 riders will aim to raise $58,000,000.  With your help, we can make a real difference, saving lives.  We can stand up and do something about this unrelenting and ever-changing affliction.

This will be my fifth year and I’m asking for your support. I am off to a good start, having raised over $3,900, but I need your help. Please support my ride so others won’t suffer as Maddie did in the past. Click on “why I ride” and donate. Remember, 100% of funds raised by the PMC go to Dana Farber for care, treatment and research.

Thank you,

Steven

Tax Planning Hacks for your Itemized Deductions and more

The Tax Cut and Jobs Act brought the most significant changes to our income taxes in the last thirty years.  We continue to assess its impact in this post, which provides updates and some strategies for items discussed at the end of 2018 in these three posts:

As a quick summary of the posts, in the first post, we discussed the impact of the new law on personal taxes; in the second post, we discussed planning for small businesses; and in our third post, we provided a practical guide for year-end action.   

Itemized deduction strategies

As we noted in these tax planning posts, far fewer US Taxpayers will itemize because of the increased $24,000 standard deduction for married couples ($12,000 for individuals).  One estimate is that the number will be about 6% of all taxpayers for 2018, down from over 30% in prior years. 

Bunching your itemized deductions into a single year is one way to push your total above the standard deduction amount, and thus restore the tax deduction benefit for such items as charitable donations.  We discussed bunching and giving to donor advised funds in our third post.  As we noted then, charitable donations are the easiest Schedule A items to which to apply bunching.

Miscellaneous deductions are gone;
Or are they? 

Now that the miscellaneous itemized deductions are gone, can you do anything with tax prep and investment fees? 

Take tax prep fees on other schedules

For the tax preparation fees, you can deduct those amounts on Schedule C, Schedule E (page 1), or Schedule F.  And, if you have K-1s, input the fees as unreimbursed expenses so that the fees flow to Schedule E (page 2).

Capitalize investment fees

As for investment fees, there is support for capitalizing these costs, but the support is not dispositive.  This interpretation of the Treasury regulations is that you can capitalize the cost of evaluating the value of stocks purchased and sold.  You would need to elect to capitalize the related fee for each transaction, so this could be a great deal of work, depending on the amount of fees and number of stocks purchased or sold in a given year.  Taking this approach seems fair, as the treatment parallels treatment of fees in mutual fund, where the advisory fees are netted out before capital gain and dividend distributions to shareholders. 

Notes:  First, that there is a Treasury memorandum that says you cannot add carrying costs to basis.  Second, even if you could, capitalizing takes a great deal of work so it may not be worth the effort. 

Kiddie tax

The first $1,050 of unearned income for children who are dependents is not taxed in 2018.  Amounts above that level are taxed at the same rate as trusts and estates.  Those brackets are quite compressed compared to individual brackets.  Nonetheless, a child of a parent in the 37% tax bracket can still have $12,500 of income taxed at a lower rate.  That could save taxes on college funds (but compare to sheltering in a 529 plan).

Child tax credit

The $2,000 child credit phases out at much higher adjusted income levels for 2018:  over $400,000 for married couples, $200,000 for single taxpayers.  If your child is age 17 or over, you lose the $2,000 credit, but you may qualify for the $500 dependent credit.   This credit could not only applies to college students, it covers disabled children, elderly parents and other family that are your dependents.      

QBID for rental real estate

The IRS regulations provide a safe harbor for people who spend 250 or more hours a year on activities related to their rental properties.  You will need to keep records of your time and maintain separate bank accounts for the activities. 

Enterprise Zone rollovers  

You can roll over gain from stock or other capital assets to investments in an enterprise zone, delaying tax on the gain, and even eliminating tax on a portion.  We will post more on this at a future date.

Estate taxes

With the doubling of the federal gift and estate tax credit, few estates will be subject to federal estate tax.  This means that gifting is not nearly as important as retaining low basis assets for the step at death.  By this we mean that keeping assets in your name results in those assets are treated as having basis equal to the fair market value at death, so your heirs only pay tax on any gain that occurs after your death. 

Conclusion

There have been many changes to our tax law, so if you are not sure how you are affected, contact me for some planning. Maybe we can help you save on taxes!

Steven