Facebook page for our law firm

We are excited to announce the Facebook page for our law firm.

We hope you use this to keep informed about changes in the tax law and other financial planning issues.

Please check it out and “like” the new page.  Also, feel free to give us feedback.

Thank you

2017 year-end tax planning – a year of uncertainty (updated)

(as also seen online at IRIS)

The Republican Congress is in the process of passing the Tax Cut and Jobs Act, a new tax law. President Trump is expected to sign it by Christmas.

The law was created and passed hastily and affects many aspects of the federal tax code, so many details are still not clear. Furthermore, regulations have yet to be issued. Also, while the provisions affecting corporations are permanent, most affecting individuals expire in 2026. Thus, tax planning is complicated.

How do you plan? Very carefully – you need to augment your traditional year-end planning by anticipating the impact of the many changes.

Note: many proposed changes did not make the final law, so be sure you are referring to the final version when making your planning decisions!

Planning steps

First, be practical:

  • Determine what income and deductions you can move from 2017 to 2018 or vice versa.

Second, review the impact:

  • What happens if you shift any of these amounts of income and deductions to the other year?

Finally, watch for the impact of the Alternative Minimum Tax (“AMT”):

  • The exemption for the AMT and the threshold above which that exemption gets phased out both rise next year, so some deductions lost to the AMT in 2017 could have value in 2018. Others simply vanish next year, so you need to plan carefully!

Income

The new law lowers the tax brackets, so income will be generally subject to less tax in 2018.

Conclusion: You probably want to move income to next year if you can.

Exemptions and standard deduction

The new law eliminates personal exemptions and raises standard deductions to $12,000 for single filers and to $24,000 for married couples. These amounts will be indexed for inflation. The increased standard deduction may offset deductions that you lose, as discussed below. If you have children and others who are dependents, those tax credits are increased, which may help as well.

Conclusion: You probably want to move itemized deductions to 2017.

Itemized Deductions and Credits

The deduction for property taxes and for state and local income taxes is capped at $10,000.

Mortgage interest on new home purchases is deductible only for loans of up to $750,000 used to purchase your primary residence. Interest on home equity loans will not be deductible. (It is not clear if converting any part of home equity indebtedness that was used to purchase or improve your primary residence to a mortgage would make that interest deductible, subject to the cap.)

All miscellaneous deductions are eliminated. This includes investment and tax preparation fees, safe deposit box charges and unreimbursed employee expenses.

The casualty loss deduction is also eliminated and the bike to work exclusion ends.

Moving expenses will no longer be allowed (except for military personnel in certain cases).

The deduction of alimony will be eliminated for divorces occurring after 2018.

What survived? The deduction of student loan interest and medical expenses survived. The latter is subject to a 7.5% rather than a 10% floor. And, the new law repeals the reduction applied to itemized deductions for high-income taxpayers, which may help with some deductions.

Here are several items that were considered for limitation or elimination that remain unchanged:

Dependent care accounts, adoption expenses, tuition waivers and employer paid tuition, capital gains on the sale of your personal residence, the teacher deduction, electric car credit, Archer medical accounts and designating shares of stock or mutual funds sold.

Conclusion: you will want to move any of the eliminated deductions that you can prepay into 2017.

Note: a last-minute provision added to the new law makes prepaying 2018 income taxes in 2017 non-deductible.

Pass-through businesses

If you have income from a sole proprietorship, LLC, partnership or S Corporation, you may be able to deduct 20% of that income, subject to certain rules on wages and a phaseout beginning at $157,500 for singles and $315,000 for married taxpayers. These rules are designed to avoid abuse seen when Kansas enacted a similar law.  (Watch for a post on this soon.)

Conclusion: read the fine print (e.g. rules for personal service firms) to see if there are any opportunities you can exploit.

Estate taxes

The credit before estate or gift taxes are due is doubled to $10,000,000, indexed for inflation.

Conclusion: you may want to postpone your year-end gift planning.

Summary

Carefully review any income and deductions that you can still shift to see if moving will lessen the total taxes you pay for 2017 and 2018.

Good luck and best wishes for the holidays!

If you have any questions, please contact me.

Tax Law change under the new Trump Administration? Maybe, but too soon for planning

Enacting Major Changes Will Take Time

(as also appeared online in IRIS.xyz)

President Trump made tax reform a key issue in his campaign. He is now president and Republicans are in charge of the House and Senate, so the likelihood of overhauling the federal tax system is better than they have been for decades.

However, President Trump and Congress are trying to enact changes to the Affordable Care Act as well as addressing budget issues and foreign relations. Also, dealing with all the recent hearings involving the FBI have diverted attention. Finally, there are many details that need to be worked out, making it unlikely that major changes will happen until 2018.

Change in IRS Regulations

President Trump has already made changes in IRS regulations. On his first day in office, he temporarily froze tax regulations and then shortly thereafter, ordered that two existing regulations had to be removed for each one that was added. What is the impact?

  • The Trump administration has stated that the two-for-one exchange rule only applies to significant regulatory actions. The rule may not affect the many IRS regulations that are procedural in nature or are needed by taxpayers.
  • One new regulation that has been threatened is the Department of Labor’s new fiduciary rules for retirement advisers. This updated regulation requires retirement advisers to act in their clients’ best interests, which is a stricter standard than was previously required.
  • Also affected are the new partnership audit procedure. A 2015 law streamlined the exam process of large partnerships. The IRS released proposed regulations which implemented the regime on January 18. However, it later pulled the regulations in response to the freeze.

Possible Tax Law Changes – Lower Corporate Tax Rate

Currently, the corporate tax rate tops out at 35%. House Republicans want to lower it to 20% with 25% for businesses that pass income through their owners and for those that are self-employed. President Trump is calling for a 15% corporate tax. In 2014, nearly 25 million Americans filed taxes as sole proprietors (Schedule C), so the change affects many taxpayers.

Tax strategy: Under this change, individuals who are high-earning could become independent contractors or set up LLCs to shift income and advantage of the lower corporate tax rate. Additionally, those who own pass-through businesses could reduce their salaries and take higher profits.

This is how residents of Kansas responded to a similar state law. The state is now working to repeal a law passed in 2012 that exempted pass-through firms from state income tax. The result was that many individuals and businesses in the state restructured their business as pass-through entities or created new businesses to take advantage of the tax break. In just a few years, the number of pass-throughs in the state almost doubled. The state is now facing a large budget deficit as a result because the pass-through exemption is estimated to have cost the state $472 million in 2014 alone. The cost for 2015 was even higher.

The impact of this tax strategy on the 15% tax at the federal level would be expensive. It is estimated to cost up to $1.95 trillion in lost tax revenues over the next ten years. The Trump administration is considering ways to prevent abuse of this low tax rate but any attempt to prevent gaming the system will likely add more complexity to the tax code. Tax-savvy practitioners will likely still be able to find loopholes.

Tax only on Income Earned inside the US

Worldwide income is taxed presently, with credits for foreign taxes paid. The proposed law would generally tax only income that is earned within U.S.

Multinational Tax: A new, low tax on multinationals is part of the proposed tax, added to raise revenue to fund other rate reductions.

Estate Tax Repeal

Republicans would like to repeal the estate tax. President Trump would impose a tax on pre-death appreciation of assets, with a $10 million per couple exemption. There would be no step up in basis at death. And it is likely that gift tax rules would be retained.

Even if the federal estate tax law is repealed, many states will continue to impost a tax. Massachusetts only exempts $1 million of assets passing to someone other than a spouse, such as a trust. New York and other states have higher exemptions. Thus, planning is still important for most people.

Planning Opportunities

With the uncertainty of any change being enacted, this is not an easy year for planning. For example, this may not be the year for a Roth conversion, if tax rates will go down next year. It may not be the time for complex estate planning techniques involving irrevocable transfers, if the estate tax is eliminated in 2018.

We will keep monitoring this to assess any moves that do make sense and update this post when the likelihood of real changes becomes clear.

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!

Cancer, I try not to talk about it

I had cancer. If you have had cancer, or know anyone who has, you know it changes your life – forever.

If you are lucky, and you live, each day is special in a new way.

When I first wrote this, I had just attended a wake for a friend who was 51 and in great health, or so we thought. He played basketball, rode a mountain bike, trained in karate … then died from heart attack.

It’s over a year later, so why am I talking about this now? I don’t want anyone to starve themselves today for a future they may never see.

I am not saying spend everything living today. But I am saying find a balance!

Yes, “balance,” that mindfulness term that applies to financial planning. Enjoy what you can today without making your future a mess, and make your future good enough so you can enjoy today.

Got it? I hope so.

P.S – please see my Pan-Mass Challenge profile for more on my response to having had cancer and losing a dear friend. (The answer is obvious: I ride to raise money to save others!)
Great photo of some young PMC riders!