Why You Should Boost Your 401(k) Contribution Rate Between Now and Year End

Why You Should Boost Your 401(k) Contribution Rate Between Now and Year End

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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.

Traditional 401(k)

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.

Roth 401(k)

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.

How much and which type

Have questions about how much to contribute or the best mix between traditional and Roth contributions? Contact us. We’d be pleased to discuss the tax and retirement-saving considerations with you.

Save More for College Through the Tax Advantages of a 529 Savings Plan

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With kids back in school, it’s a good time for parents (and grandparents) to think about college funding. One option, which can be especially beneficial if the children in question still have many years until they’ll be starting their higher education, is a Section 529 plan.

Tax-deferred compounding

529 plans are generally state-sponsored, and the savings-plan option offers the opportunity to potentially build up a significant college nest egg because of tax-deferred compounding. So these plans can be particularly powerful if contributions begin when the child is quite young. Although contributions aren’t deductible for federal purposes, plan assets can grow tax-deferred. In addition, some states offer tax incentives for contributing.

Distributions used to pay qualified expenses (such as tuition, mandatory fees, books, supplies, computer equipment, software, Internet service and, generally, room and board) are income-tax-free for federal purposes and typically for state purposes as well, thus making the tax deferral a permanent savings.

More pluses

529 plans offer other benefits as well:

  • They usually have high contribution limits.
  • There are no income-based phaseouts further limiting contributions.
  • There’s generally no beneficiary age limit for contributions or distributions.
  • You can control the account, even after the child is a legal adult.
  • You can make tax-free rollovers to another qualifying family member.

Finally, 529 plans provide estate planning benefits: A special break for 529 plans allows you to front-load five years’ worth of annual gift tax exclusions, which means you can make up to a $70,000 contribution (or $140,000 if you split the gift with your spouse) in 2017. In the case of grandparents, this also can avoid generation-skipping transfer taxes.

Minimal minuses

One negative of a 529 plan is that your investment options are limited. Another is that you can make changes to your options only twice a year or if you change the beneficiary.

But whenever you make a new contribution, you can choose a different option for that contribution, no matter how many times you contribute during the year. Also, you can make a tax-free rollover to another 529 plan for the same child every 12 months.

We’ve focused on 529 savings plans here; a prepaid tuition version of 529 plans is also available. If you’d like to learn more about either type of 529 plan, please contact us. We can also tell you about other tax-smart strategies for funding education expenses.

Watch Out for Potential Tax Pitfalls of Donating Real Estate to Charity

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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 yearsThe 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.

The ABCs of the Tax Deduction for Educator Expenses

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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.

Yes, You Can Undo a Roth IRA Conversion!

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Converting a traditional IRA to a Roth IRA can provide tax-free growth and the ability to withdraw funds tax-free in retirement. But what if you convert a traditional IRA — subject to income taxes on all earnings and deductible contributions — and then discover that you would have been better off if you hadn’t converted it? Fortunately, it’s possible to undo a Roth IRA conversion, using a “recharacterization.”

Reasons to recharacterize

There are several possible reasons to undo a Roth IRA conversion. For example:

  • You lack sufficient liquid funds to pay the tax liability.
  • The conversion combined with your other income has pushed you into a higher tax bracket.
  • You expect your tax rate to go down either in the near future or in retirement.
  • The value of your account has declined since the conversion, which means you would owe taxes partially on money you no longer have.

 

Generally, when you convert to a Roth IRA, if you extend your tax return, you have until October 15 of the following year to undo it. (For 2016 returns, the extended deadline is October 16 because the 15th falls on a weekend in 2017.)

In some cases it can make sense to undo a Roth IRA conversion and then redo it. If you want to redo the conversion, you must wait until the later of 1) the first day of the year following the year of the original conversion, or 2) the 31st day after the recharacterization.

Keep in mind that, if you reversed a conversion because your IRA’s value declined, there’s a risk that your investments will bounce back during the waiting period. This could cause you to reconvert at ahigher tax cost.

Recharacterization in action

Nick had a traditional IRA with a balance of $100,000. In 2016, he converted it to a Roth IRA, which, combined with his other income for the year, put him in the 33% tax bracket. So normally he’d have owed $33,000 in federal income taxes on the conversion in April 2017. However, Nick extended his return and, by September 2017, the value of his account drops to $80,000.

On October 1, Nick recharacterizes the account as a traditional IRA and files his return to exclude the $100,000 in income. On November 1, he reconverts the traditional IRA, whose value remains at $80,000, to a Roth IRA. He’ll report that amount on his 2017 tax return. This time, he’ll owe $26,400 — deferred for a year and resulting in a tax savings of $6,600. If the $20,000 difference in income keeps him in the 28% tax bracket or tax reform legislation is signed into law that reduces rates retroactively to January 1, 2017, he could save even more.

If you convert a traditional IRA to a Roth IRA, monitor your financial situation. If the advantages of the conversion diminish, we can help you assess your options.

How to Determine If You Need to Worry About Estate Taxes

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Among the taxes that are being considered for repeal as part of tax reform legislation is the estate tax. This tax applies to transfers of wealth at death, hence why it’s commonly referred to as the “death tax.” Its sibling, the gift tax — also being considered for repeal — applies to transfers during life. Yet most taxpayers won’t face these taxes even if the taxes remain in place.

Exclusions and exemptions

For 2017, the lifetime gift and estate tax exemption is $5.49 million per taxpayer. (The exemption is annually indexed for inflation.) If your estate doesn’t exceed your available exemption at your death, then no federal estate tax will be due.

Any gift tax exemption you use during life does reduce the amount of estate tax exemption available at your death. But every gift you make won’t use up part of your lifetime exemption. For example:

  • Gifts to your U.S. citizen spouse are tax-free under the marital deduction. (So are transfers at death — that is, bequests.)
  • Gifts and bequests to qualified charities aren’t subject to gift and estate taxes.
  • Payments of another person’s health care or tuition expenses aren’t subject to gift tax if paid directly to the provider.
  • Each year you can make gifts up to the annual exclusion amount ($14,000 per recipient for 2017) tax-free without using up any of your lifetime exemption.

 

What’s your estate tax exposure?

Here’s a simplified way to project your estate tax exposure. Take the value of your estate, net of any debts. Also subtract any assets that will pass to charity on your death.

Then, if you’re married and your spouse is a U.S. citizen, subtract any assets you’ll pass to him or her. (But keep in mind that there could be estate tax exposure on your surviving spouse’s death, depending on the size of his or her estate.) The net number represents your taxable estate.

You can then apply the exemption amount you expect to have available at death. Remember, any gift tax exemption amount you use during your life must be subtracted. But if your spouse predeceases you, then his or her unused estate tax exemption, if any, may be added to yours (provided the applicable requirements are met).

If your taxable estate is equal to or less than your available estate tax exemption, no federal estate tax will be due at your death. But if your taxable estate exceeds this amount, the excess will be subject to federal estate tax.

Be aware that many states impose estate tax at a lower threshold than the federal government does. So you could have state estate tax exposure even if you don’t need to worry about federal estate tax.

If you’re not sure whether you’re at risk for the estate tax or if you’d like to learn about gift and estate planning strategies to reduce your potential liability, please contact us. We also can keep you up to date on any estate tax law changes.

Sell an Investment and Pay No Taxes with a 1031 Exchange

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Internal Revenue Code Section 1031 is one of my favorite code sections.  That is saying something coming from a tax geek like myself.  What is a 1031 exchange? Generally speaking, a 1031 exchange is a swap of one business or investment asset for another.  If you follow the 1031 rules, you’ll either have no tax or limited tax due at the time of the exchange which allows your investment to grow tax deferred.  The rules can get complicated so the following are some things you should know if you are considering an exchange.

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How to Maximize the Value of Your Business

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Many small business owners wait too long to prepare their business for sale and consequently leave money on the table when selling.  Some owners never plan to sell and others simply get caught off guard by an unexpected illness or unfortunate event.  It is best to start preparing your business for sale as soon as possible.  Here are several tips to help you increase the value of your business over the next year or two.

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IRS Audit Red Flags

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Many clients are concerned about “red flags” that can trigger an IRS audit.  Since the IRS audits less than one percent of all individual tax returns annually, the odds are pretty low that your return will be chosen for review.  I believe that you should take every legitimate deduction that is available to you, so I am not suggesting that you pay more in taxes than you should just to avoid the small risk of a potential audit.  That being said, the presence of the following factors in your return increases the chances that the IRS will come calling.

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Is the Roth Right for you?

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Many financial advisors and accountants suggest contributing as much money as possible to your workplace 401k or traditional IRA.  The money put into these retirement vehicles reduces taxable income and saves taxes today.  For many people, funding a Roth IRA may be a better strategy.

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