October 23, 2014
Year-end planning will be more challenging than normal this year. Unless Congress acts, a number of popular deductions and credits expired at the end of 2013 and won’t be available for 2014. Deductions not available this year include, for example, the election to deduct state and local sales taxes instead of state and local income taxes and the above-the-line deductions for tuition and educator expenses, generous bonus depreciation and expensing allowances for business property, and qualified charitable distributions that allow taxpayers over age 70½ to make tax-free transfers from their IRAs directly to charities.
Of course, Congress could revive some or all the favorable tax rules that have expired as they have done in the past. However, which actions Congress will take remains to be seen and may well depend on the outcome of the elections.
Before we get to specific suggestions, here are two important considerations to keep in mind.
Here are a few tax-saving ideas to get you started. As always, you can call on us to help you sort through the options and implement strategies that make sense for you.
Employ Your Child. If you are self-employed, don’t miss one last opportunity to employ your child before the end of the year. Doing so has tax benefits in that it shifts income (which is not subject to the Kiddie tax) from you to your child, who normally is in a lower tax bracket or may avoid tax entirely due to the standard deduction. There can also be payroll tax savings since wages paid by sole proprietors to their children under age 18 are exempt from social security and unemployment taxes. Employing your children has the added benefit of providing them with earned income, which enables them contribute to an IRA. The compounded growth in an IRA started at a young age can be a significant jump start to the child’s retirement savings.
Remember a couple of things when employing your child. First, the wages paid must be reasonable given the child’s age and work skills. Second, if the child is in college, or is entering soon, having too much earned income can have a detrimental impact on the student’s need-based financial aid eligibility.
Check Your Partnership and S Corporation Stock Basis. If you own an interest in a partnership or S corporation, your ability to deduct any losses it passes through is limited to your basis. Although any unused loss can be carried forward indefinitely, the time value of money diminishes the usefulness of these suspended deductions. Thus, if you expect the partnership or S corporation to generate a loss this year and you lack sufficient basis to claim a full deduction, you may want to make a capital contribution (or in the case of an S corporation, loan it additional funds) before year end.
Avoid the Hobby Loss Rules. A lot of businesses that are just starting out or have hit a bump in the road may wind up showing a loss for the year. The last thing the business owner wants in this situation is for the IRS to come knocking on the door arguing the business’s losses aren’t deductible because the activity is just a hobby for the owner. Surprisingly, the IRS has been fairly successful recently in making this argument when it takes taxpayers to court. Thus, if your business is expecting a loss this year, we should talk before year-end to make sure we do everything possible to maximize the tax benefit of the loss and minimize its economic impact.
Many tax deductions and credits are subject to AGI-based phase-out, which means only taxpayers with AGI below certain levels benefit. [AGI is the amount at the bottom of page 1 of your Form 1040—basically your gross income less certain adjustments (i.e., deductions), but before itemized deductions and the deduction for personal exemptions.] Unfortunately, however, the applicable AGI amounts differ depending on the particular deduction or credit. The following table shows a few of the more common deductions and credits and the applicable AGI phase-out ranges for 2014:
Managing your AGI can also help you avoid (or reduce the impact of) the 3.8% net investment income tax that potentially applies if your AGI exceeds $250,000 for joint returns, $200,000 for unmarried taxpayers.
Managing your AGI can be somewhat difficult, since it is not affected by many deductions you can control, such as deductions for charitable contributions and real estate and state income taxes. However, you can effectively reduce your AGI by increasing “above-the-line” deductions, such as those for IRA or self-employed retirement plan contributions. For sales of property, consider an installment sale that shifts part of the gain to later years when the installment payments are received or use a like-kind exchange that defers the gain until the exchanged property is sold. If you own a cash-basis business, delay billings so payments aren’t received until 2015 or accelerate paying of certain expenses, such as office supplies and repairs and maintenance, to 2014. Of course, before deferring income, you must assess the risk of doing so.
You might want to consider two charitable giving strategies that can help boost your 2014 charitable contributions deduction. First, donations charged to a credit card are deductible in the year charged, not when payment is made on the card. Thus, charging donations to your credit card before year-end enables you to increase your 2014 charitable donations deduction even if you’re temporarily short on cash.
Another charitable giving approach you might want to consider is the donor-advised fund. These funds essentially allow you to obtain an immediate tax deduction for setting aside funds that will be used for future charitable donations. With these arrangements, which are available through a number of major mutual fund companies, as well as universities and community foundations, you contribute money or securities to an account established in your name. You then choose among investment options and, on your own timetable, recommend grants to charities of your choice. The minimum for establishing a donor-advised fund is often $10,000 or more, but these funds can make sense if you want to obtain a tax deduction now but take your time in determining or making payments to the recipient charity or charities. These funds can also be a way to establish a family philanthropic legacy without incurring the administrative costs and headaches of establishing a private foundation.
Harvest Capital Losses. There are a number of year-end investment strategies that can help lower your tax bill. Perhaps the simplest is reviewing your securities portfolio for any losers that can be sold before year-end to offset gains you have already recognized this year or to get you to the $3,000 ($1,500 married filing separate) net capital loss that’s deductible each year. Don’t worry if your net loss for the year exceeds $3,000, because the excess carries over indefinitely to future tax years. Be mindful, however, of the wash sale rule when you jettison losers—your loss is deferred if you purchase substantially identical stock or securities within the period beginning 30 days before and ending 30 days after the sale date.
Consider a Bond Swap. Bond swaps can be an effective means of generating capital losses. With a bond swap, you start with a bond or bond fund that has decreased in value, which might be due to an increase in interest rates or a lowering of the issuer’s creditworthiness. You sell the bond or fund shares and immediately reinvest in a similar (but not substantially identical) bond or bond fund. The end result is that you recognize a taxable loss and still hold a bond or shares in a bond fund that pays you similar or more interest than before.
Secure a Deduction for Nearly Worthless Securities. If you own any securities that are all but worthless with little hope of recovery, you might consider selling them before the end of the year so you can capitalize on the loss this year. You can deduct a loss on worthless securities only if you can prove the investment is completely worthless. Thus, a deduction is not available, as long as you own the security and it has any value at all. Total worthlessness can be very difficult to establish with any certainty. To avoid the issue, it may be easier just to sell the security if it has any marketable value. As long as the sale is not to a family member, this allows you to claim a loss for the difference between your tax basis and the proceeds (subject to the normal rules capital loss and wash sale rules previously discussed).
Take Your Required Retirement Distributions. The tax laws generally require individuals with retirement accounts to take withdrawals based on the size of their account and their age beginning with the year they reach age 701/2. Failure to take a required withdrawal can result in a penalty of 50% of the amount not withdrawn. If you turned age 701/2 in 2014, you can delay your 2014 required distribution to 2015 if you choose. But, waiting until 2015 will result in two distributions in 2015—the amount required for 2014 plus the amount required for 2015. While deferring income is normally a sound tax strategy, here it results in bunching income into 2015. Thus, think twice before delaying your 2014 distribution to 2015—bunching income into 2015 might throw you into a higher tax bracket or bring you above the modified AGI level that will trigger the 3.8% net investment income tax. However, it could be beneficial to take both distributions in 2015 if you expect to be in a substantially lower bracket in 2015. For example, you may wish to delay the 2014 required distribution until 2015 if you plan to retire late this year or early next year, have significant nonrecurring income this year, or expect a business loss next year.
It May Pay to Wait until the End of the Year to Take Your Distributions. If you plan on making additional charitable contributions this year and you have not yet received your 2014 required distribution from your IRA, you might want to wait until the very end of the year to do both. It is possible that the Congress will bring back the popular Qualified Charitable Distributions (QCDs) that expired at the end of 2013. If so, IRA owners and beneficiaries who have reached age 70½ will be able to make cash donations totaling up to $100,000 to IRS-approved public charities directly out of their IRAs. QCDs are federal-income-tax-free to you and they can qualify as part of your required distribution, but you get no itemized charitable write-off on your Form 1040. That’s okay because the tax-free treatment of QCDs equates to an immediate 100% federal income tax deduction without having to itemize your deductions or worry about restrictions that can reduce or delay itemized charitable write-offs. However, to qualify for this special tax break, the funds must be transferred directly from your IRA to the charity. Once you receive the cash, the distribution is not a QCD and won’t qualify for this tax break.
Maximize Contributions to 401(k) Plans. If you have a 401(k) plan at work, it’s just about time to tell your company how much you want to set aside on a tax-free basis for next year. Contribute as much as you can stand, especially if your employer makes matching contributions. You give up “free money” when you fail to participate to the max for the match.
Take Advantage of Flexible Spending Accounts (FSAs). If your company has a healthcare and/or dependent care FSA, before year-end you must specify how much of your 2015 salary to convert into tax-free contributions to the plan. You can then take tax-free withdrawals next year to reimburse yourself for out-of-pocket medical and dental expenses and qualifying dependent care costs. Watch out, though, FSAs are “use-it-or-lose-it” accounts—you don’t want to set aside more than what you’ll likely have in qualifying expenses for the year.
If you currently have a healthcare FSA, make sure you drain it by incurring eligible expenses before the deadline for this year. Otherwise, you’ll lose the remaining balance. It’s not that hard to drum some things up: new glasses or contacts, dental work you’ve been putting off, or prescriptions that can be filled early.
Adjust Your Federal Income Tax Withholding. If it looks like you are going to owe income taxes for 2014, consider bumping up the federal income taxes withheld from your paychecks now through the end of the year. When you file your return, you will still have to pay any taxes due less the amount paid in. However, as long as your total tax payments (estimated payments plus withholdings) equal at least 90% of your 2014 liability or, if smaller, 100% of your 2013 liability (110% if your 2013 adjusted gross income exceeded $150,000; $75,000 for married individuals who filed separate returns), penalties will be minimized, if not eliminated.
For 2014, the unified federal gift and estate tax exemption is a historically generous $5.34 million, and the federal estate tax rate is a historically reasonable 40%. Even if you already have an estate plan, it may need updating to reflect the current estate and gift tax rules. Also, you may need to make some changes for reasons that have nothing to do with taxes.
Through careful planning, it’s possible your 2014 tax liability can still be significantly reduced, but don’t delay. The longer you wait, the less likely it is that you’ll be able to achieve a meaningful reduction. The ideas discussed in this letter are a good way to get you started with year-end planning, but they’re no substitute for personalized professional assistance. Please don’t hesitate to call us with questions or for additional strategies on reducing your tax bill. We’d be glad to set up a planning meeting or assist you in any other way that we can.
Sitkoff/O’Neil Accountancy Corporation
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