Don’t Rush to Pay off Your Student Loan – make a plan first

This may surprise you: you should worry more about saving for retirement than paying off your student loan. Yes, there are many bloggers testifying to how they paid off their loans, and many trying to tell you that you need to too. The frequency of such posts does not mean that they are right, or that they have factored in all that you need to for a “best use of cash flow over time” plan. In fact, paying off student loans that have relatively low interest rather than investing will be a costly mistake.

Compare student loan payoff blog posts to the many advisors who encourage paying off your mortgage. The urgency to retire your mortgage belongs to the Silent Generation, who survived the Great Depression and are risk adverse. Paying off a mortgage is usually not the way to maximize your net worth. (Watch for a post on “rent vs. buy” discussing investing and use of mortgage debt.) Furthermore, tying up so much capital in a house lacks for diversification and liquidity – you cannot sell your daughter’s room to cover tuition when she goes off to college.

How do you decide what loan to pay off when? Start with this rule:

Whenever the interest rate on debt is less than the annualized return on investments, only pay the minimum on the loans

because the investments will grow faster than using the same cash to pay off debts

The term “annualized” returns is key here, as one good year is not a good measure, nor is a recent bad year; you want the 5 or better 10 year average return.

Next, when applying this general rule to yourself, be sure to use after-tax values. You can deduct home mortgage interest in most cases, a portion of student loans in some cases, and credit card debt in almost no cases, while you can deduct your investment in your retirement plan and what you invest grows tax-free until withdrawn. Roth IRAs do not give you a deduction now, but do grow tax free and withdrawals are tax-free.

Here is a quick example: say your retirement plan is all in ETFs, so it grows at about 7% per year over time, say you have a student loan with an interest rate of 3%, because you consolidated all your undergrad loans, and it has a minimum payment of $500 per month, and say you have $1,000 per month for which you want to devise the best plan. Apply no more than the required minimum to student loan and invest all the rest, maxing out your 401(k) or 403(b) plan first, and then investing in a Roth IRA next. In 10 years, you will be so much better off than the person who used the full $1,000 to pay her student loan. What if you had a loan with an interest rate of 8%? Tough call. However, because the loan is compounding over time at a higher rate, that persuades me to apply more to the loan, provided that doing so did not give up an employer match on a 401(k) plan.

These examples are overly simple, I realize. Many of you face the quandary of student loan vs. retirement funding vs. rent or buy a home and more. I am working on that …. (Watch for a post on integrating decisions on buying a home, paying off student loans, investing for retirement and all the other issues you are likely to face.)

Achieving a Better Life Experience Act – first look

President Barack Obama recently signed the Achieving a Better Life Experience Act (ABLE Act). The ABLE Act allows individuals and families to open tax-free savings accounts to save for long-term needs associated with an individual’s disability.

These accounts are modeled after 529 college savings accounts. To qualify, a person must be diagnosed with a disability resulting in “marked and severe functional limitations” by the age of 26. An account can be established for an individual without jeopardizing that person’s eligibility for federal programs such as Medicaid. The funds saved in these accounts can be used for a variety of expenses including transportation, housing, employment support and health care.

Like 529 plans, earnings in these accounts grow tax-free, but contributions are made with after-tax dollars. Accounts can be set up at financial institutions and the annual contribution limit is $14,000. ABLE accounts are allowed to accrue up to $100,000 in savings without affecting a person’s eligibility for government aid such as Social Security. This is a great improvement for ABLE account holders over the current asset limit of $2,000. Medicaid coverage would continue no matter how much money is in the accounts.

These accounts can be a useful planning tool for those living with or caring for someone with a physical or developmental disability.

Plan now to avoid surprises from the Affordable Care Act when filing 2014 taxes

2014 was the first year Americans had access to health insurance options through the Affordable Care Act (the “ACA”). With this new access to insurance came the obligation to purchase it or face new tax consequences. If you opted not to buy health insurance in 2014, you may be faced with a penalty when you file your 2014 tax returns. Even if you did buy insurance through one of the insurance marketplaces, you may have new tax forms to complete and some surprises when it comes to your refund or tax bill.

For most taxpayers, the impact on their tax filing will be minimal, requiring those who were covered to simply check a box indicating they had insurance throughout the year. Those who received subsidies to purchase insurance and who later had increases in their 2014 salary may be required to pay back some of that subsidy. Those whose salary decreased may receive a larger than expected refund.

As these provisions are new to everyone, there may be confusion for taxpayers and tax preparers alike. Unfortunately, due to recent budget cuts, the IRS expects to be able to speak with only half of the people who call in for assistance.

While gearing up for the 2014 tax season, it’s helpful to understand some the most important provisions of the ACA:

  • 1. Exemptions: The ACA provided some exemptions that allow taxpayers to opt out of purchasing insurance without any penalties, including hardship, affordability and religion. There are different methods for applying for an exemption depending on the type of exemption you are requesting. To learn more, go to: https://www.healthcare.gov/fees-exemptions/apply-for-exemption/
  • 2. Penalties: Those who do not qualify for an exemption, were insured for only part of the year, or remain uninsured will be required to pay a penalty called “The Individual Shared Responsibility Payment.” The penalty is set to increase over the coming years, so compare not to see if it is more beneficial for you to pay the penalty or buy insurance. The Tax Policy Center has designed a calculator to help you determine your penalty is you opt to remain uninsured: http://taxpolicycenter.org/taxfacts/acacalculator.cfm.
  • 3. Reconciling: Those who purchased subsidized insurance on the exchanges received an advance on a tax credit. At the time of requesting the subsidy for insurance in 2014, the amount of the subsidy was calculated based on the taxpayer’s 2012 income. The amount of the subsidy granted will be reconciled in the taxpayer’s 2014 filing using the taxpayer’s actual 2014 income and that will affect the taxpayer’s refund or bill. Changes in an individual’s personal circumstances, such as divorce, marriage or a new child can also impact those numbers.
  • There’s still time to plan. Taxpayers facing a loss in premium subsidies because of an increase in income can reduce their income to qualify for the credits. For example, they can contribute to an IRA by April 15, 2015, for the 2014 tax year.

    Year-end tax planning – how to minimize the total tax paid in 2014 and 2015

    This year, when projecting your potential taxes, you have to factor in the changes from 2013 that affect 2014 and 2015, which can be daunting. That is:

    • You have the standard plan: “defer income/accelerate deductions unless you are in the alternative minimum tax (“AMT”)” (see below).
    • But then you also have the new 3.8% surtax, with rules that do not play well with the others!
    • Finally, the tax rates changed again for 2014 (see the table below).

    If any of this is not clear, please ask questions.

    Can you act?
    To make your review of 2014 planning less daunting, take these separate steps: (1) ask “can you act?” – determine what you can do reviewing the “what can you act on” list below; then (2), if you can act on any of the items in 2014 or 2015 – moving from one year to the other, or delaying further – then ask “what impact does your acting have?” ; and finally, ask “what happens if I take all of these actions?” – determine the impact of all possible moves in concert, especially vis a vis the AMT. Preparing tax projections for both years is the best way to find out how to act most effectively to reduce taxes. It permits you to see which moves have the best results in which years, so that the total tax paid in the two years is minimized.

    What can you act on?
    Wages – Can you defer or accelerate between years or even convert income into deferred income, such as stock options, or income to be received at retirement? Can you convert compensation into tax-free fringes?

    AMT – the AMT is the 28% flat rate calculated differently than the marginal rate of up to 39.6%. If your deductions bring the regular tax down too low, the AMT kicks in, so that the deductions are wasted and need to be moved to another year, if possible. Otherwise, you will want to increase income for that year to “pull yourself out of the AMT.” The AMT exemptions amounts for 2014 are $52,800 for individuals and $82,100 for married couples filing jointly.

    The 3.8% Medicare surtax – This affects all income for 2014 and beyond, but only to the extent of the lesser of (a) net investment income or (b) the excess of modified adjusted gross income (“AGI”) over the threshold, which is $250,000 ($200,000 for single taxpayers). Investment income includes interest, dividends, capital gains, annuities, royalties and passive rental income but excludes pensions and IRA distributions. The 3.8% surtax must be covered with your withholdings and estimated payments to avoid penalties and interest. See our post at Update on the impact of the 3.8% Medicare surtax .

    Standard Deduction – up in 2014 to $6,200 for single taxpayers and married taxpayers filing separately, $12,400 for married couples filing jointly, and $9,100 for heads of household.

    Schedule A itemized deductions – can you shift income and deductions for the maximum benefit, given the income-based deduction thresholds?

    • //Miscellaneous// – only the amount above 2% is allowed on Schedule A. Miscellaneous expenses include items such as unreimbursed employee expenses, tax preparation fees and investment-related expenses.
    • //Other Deductions// – certain itemized deductions are phased out once your AGI exceeds $305,050 for married filing jointly ($254,200 for singles), so that your itemized deductions are reduced by 3%, on up to 80% of the deduction, for the excess of your AGI above $305,050 ($254,200 for single filers).

    N.B. – (a) many of the deductions affected by the phase-out are the ones not allowed in the AMT calculation and (b) investment interest is not subject to reduction on Schedule A.

    Schedule C income and expenses – can you defer or accelerate between years so that the net income falls in the best year?

    Investment income – can you shift interest, dividends, and capital gains? The tax rate on capital gains was as low as 0% in 2013, with a cap at 15%. However, that cap went up to 20% in 2014 for AGI over $457,600, for married filing jointly ($406,750 for single; $12,150 for trusts and estates). You net losses against gains, with up to $3,000 of an excess loss over gains being allowed to shelter other income and losses you do not use carry to the next year.

    Notes

    • (a) capital gains include the sale of a primary residence (above the $250,000 per owner shelter);
    • (b) if you sell to recognize a loss, and want to hold the stock again, be aware of the wash sale rule which bars recognition of the loss if you re-purchase substantially the same security within 30 days, even if it is in different accounts you own, including repurchasing in your IRA;
    • (c) an installment sale that spreads gain over several years; a like-kind exchanges involve investment property, which means you can swap, rent and later convert to residential; and
    • (d) purchasing mutual funds late in the year can lead to dividend and capital gains distributions where the mutual fund price changes but your investment does not, such that you have no economic gain for the distribution on which you pay taxes – you are effectively pre-paying taxes because you did not purchase after the declared distribution date.

    Investment income also includes passive income and losses (rental property, limited partnerships and LLCs). If you can re-characterize any activities as material participation rather than passive by grouping together to meet the material participation rules, you have a one-time election to regroup (see final regulations on when and how you elect issued early in 2014).

    Roth conversions – can you convert an IRA to a Roth IRA, so that future distributions are not subject to tax? Be sure to pay the tax with funds outside of the IRA so that the conversion has maximum benefit.

    Stock options – can you exercise a non-qualified option (“NQ”), which is treated as ordinary income, or instead exercise ISOs, which can be investment income (but create an AMT)? Disqualifying an ISO converts it into a NQ, so that you have control over the type and timing of the income.

    Required minimum distributions (“RMD”) – If you turned age 70½ in 2014, you can take a distribution in 2014 instead of next year to decrease your 2015 income – but the IRA distribution is not subject to the surtax so this would be done for the Schedule A phase outs (see below).
    A direct distribution from an IRA to a charity allows you to give up to $100,000 (per person) of your RMD and lower your AGI for purposes of determining taxes.

    Estate taxes – Federal Estate Tax Exemption for estates of decedents who die in 2014 is $5,340,000, up from $5,250,000 for 2013.

    Gifting – can you shift assets by gifting within the $14,000 per year/per person annual gift tax exclusion, or even by filing a gift tax return to use some of your unified credit now, so that income is in the lower tax bracket of new owner? You may want to combine this estate tax savings strategy with income tax savings ideas so that you shift an income-producing asset to someone in a lower tax bracket.

    Inherited IRA – be sure to divide an inherited IRA among beneficiaries to get the maximum life expectancy for RMD calculations for each.

    If you made it this far, I hope you have a good idea of your 2014-2015 tax plan, or else a set of questions to ask so we can help devise one for you! //Please contact us//.

    Federal Tax Rates for 2014:
    [[image:2014-federal-tax-rates.jpg|large|link=source]][[file:2014-federal-tax-rates.pdf]]

    Massachusetts enacts the Massachusetts Uniform Probate Code (“MUPC”) Many other states have or will do the same

    (While the following applies to Massachusetts, there are many other states that have recently made the same changes)
    Massachusetts adopted the “MUPC” on March 31, 2012. It affects almost every aspect of the law of wills and the administration of estates including changes outlined below:
    • Personal Representative: The law does away with classifications of executors, temporary executors, administrators, special administrators and the like by adopting the one-size-fits-all title of “personal representative.” The personal representative acts for people with a will (“testate”) or people without (“intestate”).
    • Descendants: Any portion of the estate which passes to the decedent’s descendants will pass under a new system of distribution called “per capita at each generation.” Under this rule, living children inherit equally. If a child pre-deceases the parents, and has living children, the shares of all deceased children are combined and divided equally among all the surviving children.
    • Effect of Divorce on the Estate Plan: The impact of divorce is broadened from partially revoking wills and unfunded revocable trusts to expressly apply to non-probate transfers, such as life insurance policies and trusts, whether funded or unfunded, in the case where an individual has the sole power to make certain changes to at the time of the divorce or annulment. The new law also operates to revoke bequests to relatives of the ex-spouse, as well as appointments of such relatives of executor or trustee under certain situations.
    • Effect of Marriage on Will: Where marriage used to automatically revokes a prior will, the MUPC does not provide for such automatic revocation. Instead, the will survives, and any legacy to descendants of the decedent (who are not descendants of the new spouse) is preserved. If any part of the estate is left to persons other than such descendants, the new spouse would receive his or her intestate share under law, to be satisfied from the assets left to such other persons (and from any bequests made to the surviving spouse, if any, in the premarital will). The testator’s choice of personal representative and guardian of minor children is also preserved. Note that this rule can be avoided by updating the will after marriage.
    Because of these changes to the MUPC, it is important that your estate planning documents are up to date. If you have not updated your estate plan recently, be sure to do so as soon as possible.