One important step to both reducing taxes and saving for retirement is to contribute to a tax-advantaged retirement plan. If your employer offers a 401(k) plan, contributing to that is likely your best first step.
If you’re not already contributing the maximum allowed, consider increasing your contribution rate between now and year end. Because of tax-deferred compounding (tax-free in the case of Roth accounts), boosting contributions sooner rather than later can have a significant impact on the size of your nest egg at retirement.
A traditional 401(k) offers many benefits:
- Contributions are pretax, reducing your modified adjusted gross income (MAGI), which can also help you reduce or avoid exposure to the 3.8% net investment income tax.
- Plan assets can grow tax-deferred — meaning you pay no income tax until you take distributions.
- Your employer may match some or all of your contributions pretax.
For 2017, you can contribute up to $18,000. So if your current contribution rate will leave you short of the limit, try to increase your contribution rate through the end of the year to get as close to that limit as you can afford. Keep in mind that your paycheck will be reduced by less than the dollar amount of the contribution, because the contributions are pre-tax so income tax isn’t withheld.
If you’ll be age 50 or older by December 31, you can also make “catch-up” contributions (up to $6,000 for 2017). So if you didn’t contribute much when you were younger, this may allow you to partially make up for lost time. Even if you did make significant contributions before age 50, catch-up contributions can still be beneficial, allowing you to further leverage the power of tax-deferred compounding.
Employers can include a Roth option in their 401(k) plans. If your plan offers this, you can designate some or all of your contribution as Roth contributions. While such contributions don’t reduce your current MAGI, qualified distributions will be tax-free.
Roth 401(k) contributions may be especially beneficial for higher-income earners, because they don’t have the option to contribute to a Roth IRA. On the other hand, if you expect your tax rate to be lower in retirement, you may be better off sticking with traditional 401(k) contributions.
Finally, keep in mind that any employer matches to Roth 401(k) contributions will be pretax and go into your traditional 401(k) account.
For many people today, income tax planning offers far greater tax-saving opportunities than gift and estate tax planning. A record-high gift and estate tax exemption — currently $5.49 million ($10.98 million for married couples) — means that fewer people are subject to those taxes.
If gift and estate taxes aren’t a concern for your family, it can pay to focus your planning efforts on income taxes — in particular, on basis planning.
Benefits of a “stepped-up” basis
Generally, your basis in an asset is its purchase price, reduced by accumulated depreciation deductions and increased to reflect certain investment costs or capital expenditures. Basis is critical because it’s used to calculate the gain or loss when you or a loved one sells an asset.
Under current law, the manner in which you transfer assets to your children or other beneficiaries has a big impact on basis. If you transfer an asset by gift, the recipient takes a “carryover” basis in the asset — that is, he or she inherits your basis. If the asset has appreciated in value, a sale by the recipient could trigger significant capital gains taxes.
On the other hand, if you hold an asset for life and leave it to a beneficiary in your will or revocable trust, the recipient will take a “stepped-up” basis equal to the asset’s date-of-death fair market value. That means the recipient can turn around and sell the asset tax-free.
Undoing previous gifts
What if you transferred assets to an irrevocable trust years or decades ago — when the exemption was low — to shield future appreciation from estate taxes? If estate taxes are no longer a concern, there may be a way to help your beneficiaries avoid a big capital gains tax hit.
Depending on the structure and language of the trust, you may be able to exchange low-basis trust assets for high-basis assets of equal value, or to purchase low-basis assets from the trust using cash or a promissory note. This allows you to bring highly appreciated assets back into your estate, where they’ll enjoy a stepped-up basis when you die. Keep in mind that, for this strategy to work, the trust must be a “grantor trust.” Otherwise, transactions between you and the trust are taxable.
Is your basis covered?
Before making any changes to your estate plan, be aware that, if an estate tax repeal is signed into law, it’s possible the step-up in basis at death could go away, too. We can keep you apprised of the latest developments and help you determine whether your family would benefit from basis planning.
Charitable giving allows you to help an organization you care about and, in most cases, enjoy a valuable income tax deduction. If you’re considering a large gift, a noncash donation such as appreciated real estate can provide additional benefits. For example, if you’ve held the property for more than one year, you generally will be able to deduct its full fair market value and avoid any capital gains tax you’d owe if you sold the property. There are, however, potential tax pitfalls you must watch out for:
Donation to a private foundation. While real estate donations to a public charity generally can be deducted at the property’s fair market value, your deduction for such a donation to a private foundation is limited to the lower of fair market value or your cost basis in the property.
Property subject to a mortgage. In this case, you may recognize taxable income for all or a portion of the loan’s value. And charities might not accept mortgaged property because it may trigger unrelated business income tax. For these reasons, it’s a good idea to pay off the mortgage before you donate the property or ask the lender to accept another property as collateral for the loan.
Failure to properly substantiate your donation. This can result in loss of the deduction and overvaluation penalties. Generally, real estate donations require a qualified appraisal. You’ll also need to complete Form 8283, “Noncash Charitable Contributions,” have your appraiser sign it and file it with your federal tax return. If the property is valued at more than $500,000, you’ll generally need to include the appraisal report as well.
Sale of the property within three years. The charity must report the sale to the IRS, and if the price is substantially less than the amount you claimed as a tax deduction, the IRS may challenge your deduction. To avoid this result, be sure your initial appraisal is accurate and well documented.
Sale of the property to someone related to you. If the charity sells the property you donated to your relative (or to someone with whom you negotiated a potential sale), the IRS may argue that the sale was prearranged and tax you on any capital gain.
If you’re considering a real estate donation, plan carefully and contact us for help ensuring that you avoid these pitfalls.
At back-to-school time, much of the focus is on the students returning to the classroom — and on their parents buying them school supplies, backpacks, clothes, etc., for the new school year. But let’s not forget about the teachers. It’s common for teachers to pay for some classroom supplies out of pocket, and the tax code provides a special break that makes it a little easier for these educators to deduct some of their expenses.
The miscellaneous itemized deduction
Generally, your employee expenses are deductible if they’re unreimbursed by your employer and ordinary and necessary to your business of being an employee. An expense is ordinary if it is common and accepted in your business. An expense is necessary if it is appropriate and helpful to your business.
These expenses must be claimed as a miscellaneous itemized deduction and are subject to a 2% of adjusted gross income (AGI) floor. This means you’ll enjoy a tax benefit only if all your deductions subject to the floor, combined, exceed 2% of your AGI. For many taxpayers, including teachers, this can be a difficult threshold to meet.
The educator expense deduction
Congress created the educator expense deduction to allow more teachers and other educators to receive a tax benefit from some of their unreimbursed out-of-pocket classroom expenses. The break was made permanent under the Protecting Americans from Tax Hikes (PATH) Act of 2015. Since 2016, the deduction has been annually indexed for inflation (though because of low inflation it hasn’t increased yet) and has included professional development expenses.
Qualifying elementary and secondary school teachers and other eligible educators (such as counselors and principals) can deduct up to $250 of qualified expenses. (If you’re married filing jointly and both you and your spouse are educators, you can deduct up to $500 of unreimbursed expenses — but not more than $250 each.)
Qualified expenses include amounts paid or incurred during the tax year for books, supplies, computer equipment (including related software and services), other equipment and supplementary materials that you use in the classroom. For courses in health and physical education, the costs for supplies are qualified expenses only if related to athletics.
An added benefit
The educator expense deduction is an “above-the-line” deduction, which means you don’t have to itemize and it reduces your AGI, which has an added benefit: Because AGI-based limits affect a variety of tax breaks (such as the previously mentioned miscellaneous itemized deductions), lowering your AGI might help you maximize your tax breaks overall.
Contact us for more details about the educator expense deduction or tax breaks available for other work-related expenses.
If your estate plan includes a revocable trust — also known as a “living” trust — it’s critical to ensure that the trust is properly funded. Revocable trusts offer significant benefits, including asset management (in the event you become incapacitated) and probate avoidance. But these benefits aren’t available if you don’t fund the trust.
A revocable trust acts as a will substitute, although you’ll still need to have a short will, often referred to as a “pour over” will. The trust holds assets for your benefit during your lifetime.
You can serve as trustee or select someone else. If you choose to be the trustee, you must name a successor trustee to take over as trustee upon your death, serving in a role similar to that of an executor.
Essentially, you retain the same control you had before you established the trust. Whether or not you serve as trustee, you retain the right to revoke the trust and appoint and remove trustees. If you name a professional trustee to manage trust assets, you can require the trustee to consult with you before buying or selling assets.
The trust doesn’t need to file an income tax return until after you die. Instead, you pay the tax on any income the trust earns as if you had never created the trust.
Asset ownership transfer
Funding your trust is simply a matter of transferring ownership of assets to the trust. Assets you should transfer include real estate, bank accounts, certificates of deposit, stocks and other investments, partnership and business interests, vehicles, and personal property (such as furniture and collectibles).
Certain assets shouldn’t, however, be transferred to a revocable trust. For example, moving an IRA or qualified retirement plan, such as a 401(k) plan, to a revocable trust can trigger undesirable tax consequences. And it may be advisable to hold a life insurance policy in an irrevocable life insurance trust to shield the proceeds from estate taxes.
Don’t forget to transfer new assets to the trust
Most people are diligent about funding a trust at the time they sign the trust documents. But trouble can arise when they acquire new assets after the trust is established. Unless you transfer new assets to your trust, they won’t enjoy the trust’s benefits.
To make the most of a revocable trust, be sure that, each time you acquire a significant asset, you take steps to transfer it to the trust. If you have additional questions regarding your revocable trust, we’d be happy to answer them.