2017 year-end tax planning – a year of uncertainty

President Trump and the Republicans Congress are working to pass a new tax law. However, not all details are known. Furthermore, the current House and Senate bills differ on many significant provisions. Also, more revisions are expected as the two bills are reconciled and brought to the floor for votes. Finally, the Republicans failed to repeal the Affordable Care Act, so many provisions could change, if any changes are ever enacted.

With all the uncertainty, how do you plan? Very carefully – you need to augment your traditional year-end planning by anticipating likely changes.

Practical 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”):

  • If the AMT is repealed next year, how does that change your analysis? Deductions lost to the AMT this year could have value in 2018.

Income

Both the House and Senate bills lower the tax brackets, so income should be subject to less tax in 2018. Furthermore, if the Medicare tax is eliminated, pushing income into 2018 could save significantly.

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

One possible exception is the sale of your home: both bills move the residency requirement from two of the last five years to five of the last eight years. So, if you are selling to sell a home you lived in less than five years, try to close in 2017.

Exemptions and standard deduction

Both bills raise the standard deductions to $12,000 single/$24,000 married. This may offset deductions that you lose, as discussed below.

Conclusion: You probably want to move deductions to 2017.

Itemized Deductions and Credits

The deduction for state income taxes would be eliminated and deduction of property taxes either eliminated or capped at $10,000 (the current amount).

Mortgage interest on new home purchases would be deductible only on loans of up to $500,000 on the primary residence only.

And these deductions could be eliminated: student loan interest, moving expenses, tax preparation fees, casualty losses, medical expenses. Also, the deduction of alimony could be eliminated for divorces occurring after 2017 and electric car credits and bike to work exclusions could end.

Conclusion: If these deductions are capped or eliminated, you will want to move these amounts into 2017.

Pass-through businesses

Income from an LLC, partnership or S Corporation could see a top tax rate of 17.4 to 25%. However, to avoid abuse (as seen with a similar law in Kansas), rules would be applied so that taxpayers will not simply create entities to have all of their income tax at the lower rate.

Conclusion: wait and see, read the fine print, then see if there are any opportunities to exploit.

Estate taxes

Either the tax on estates would be eliminated or the credit doubled.

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

 

Summary

Carefully review any income and deductions that you can still affect 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

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!

Year-end planning, 2016 version

The election of Donald J. Trump could have a significant impact on your finances. Individual and corporate tax laws may change, the Affordable Care Act may be eliminated, trade war may ensue, infrastructure building may boost jobs and sectors of the economy, and national defense and diplomacy could lead almost anywhere – your guess is as good as anyone else’s.

So then, how do you incorporate this into year-end planning? Very carefully!

Corporate Taxes

Our analysis starts with a review of his proposal to limit corporate income taxes to 15% as a way to illustrate how tricky planning is:

Analysis of the way this limit applies to pass-through entities suggests that the 10-year cost could be anywhere from $4.4 trillion, assuming owners of pass-throughs pay 33% tax, to $5.9 trillion, assuming owners only pay a 15% tax.

Those are hefty cost numbers, which is why it is tricky to assume that any major tax changes will be enacted in 2017.

Income Taxes

There could be three rates on ordinary income: 12%, 25% and 33%, with the latter starting at $225,001 for married filers and $112,501 for single filers. The 0.9% and 3.8% Affordable Care Act surtaxes on upper-incomers would be eliminated. So would the AMT (“alternative minimum tax”). The 20% maximum capital gains tax would remain. Standard deductions would go up, personal exemptions would be eliminated and breaks for dependent care would be increased.

Check here for 2017 tax rates.

Estate taxes

The President Elect has revised his estate tax proposal, calling now for pre-death tax on appreciation in assets of large estates, subject to a $10-million-per-couple exemption. This may be accomplished by limiting the step-up in basis for heirs who inherit capital assets from large estates.

Another change would be elimination of the IRS’s proposal to restrict the use of valuation discounts for gift and estate tax purposes on intrafamily transfers of closely held firms.

Investing and retirement

Infrastructure building could boost certain investments, while conflicts on trade agreements could hurt many.

His proposed tax changes for retirement plans include extending the age for which contributions to IRAs are allowed and delaying required minimum distributions (RMDs).

Okay, enough, how does one act now?

Some moves still make sense

Tax plan – deferring income into 2017 and adding deductions to 2016 should work well, unless doing so puts you in the AMT, in which case the reverse will work best.

Most of our suggestions from our 2015 year-end planning post still work, including RMDs, 3.8% Medicare surtax, itemized deductions, stock options, investment income and sole proprietor and small business income. Also check out our estate planning post for more ideas.

If your deductions include donating to charities, gifting appreciated assets leverages your donation. That is, you can avoid the income tax on capital gains while still benefiting from the charitable deduction. Watch for the rules on exceeding 30% of your adjusted gross income and donating to private charities.

Research Your Charities

Check out websites like such as ImpactMatters and GiveWell to make sure what you donate has the best impact. Other tools include Agora for Good, a tool to track donation impact over many sectors.

Investing – your strategy should not be altered in any dramatic way now.

If you do sell mutual funds, be sure to wait to buy replacement funds until after the dividend distribution date, so you do not end up with a taxable distribution on gains in which you did not participate

Summary

Many of the income and estate tax rules may change during 2017. However, for now, your safest plan is to assume little changes and stick to the “traditional” techniques outlined above.

If you have any questions, please contact me!

The real problem facing retirement plans? Not saving enough

Recently, two debates have been brewing over 401(k) plans. Specifically, are they too expensive and should we cap the amount Americans can accumulate in the total balance of their defined benefit and defined contribution plans as well as IRAs. Is that really where the debate should be?
A recent PBS.org retirement study revealed some alarming statistics about Americans’ retirement savings habits. Specifically 30% of workers have $0.00 in retirement savings and 40% are currently not saving anything for retirement. Even factoring in Social Security, the average savings shortfall of a U.S. household will be $250,000 at retirement.
For many, if they are contributing to their retirement plans, they are contributing too little. The current belief that contributing just enough to maximize an employer’s contribution will fund your retirement is irresponsible. Only a small number of Americans will amass $1million in their retirement plans by the time they retire. According to Don Phillips in his recent Morningstar article, Fighting the Wrong War, “At a 4% withdrawal rate, $1 million in savings will provide just $40,000 a year.”
While the cost of the plans and amount we can accumulate in our retirement plans can be interesting debates, they don’t address the real issue. Will we, as future retirees, be able to fund our own retirement?