Investing and Backdoor Taxes

It’s been a pretty good year so far for the stock market, and you may have locked in some nice capital gains on investment sales, and/or received some hefty dividends from mutual funds (or may yet receive year end fund distributions). While all of this is good stuff (more money in your pocket), the additional gains and income could put you in the position of paying even higher taxes than you may anticipate.

In my practice, this past tax season was a “perfect storm” for a bunch of my clients, who got hit with additional/higher taxes, as well as the loss of various deductions. Let me run down a few things from last year that are still lurking out there this year.

Net Investment Income Tax – this was a new tax in 2013, and is a 3.8% tax on income such as capital gains, dividends, interest, and a few other items. Once income goes above certain levels, this additional tax will kick in.

Personal Exemption Phaseout – while this isn’t an additional tax per se, the fact that personal exemptions (for self, spouse, dependents) can be reduced literally to zero if income is high enough, which has the effect of raising taxable income, obviously creating a higher tax.

Itemized Deduction Phaseout – this works similarly to the exemption phaseout, in that when income is high enough, itemized deductions will be reduced. And as with the exemption phaseout, this exposes more income to taxation.

Higher Long-Term Capital Gains Rate – for taxpayers in the top tax bracket, long-term capital gains will be taxed at 20% and not 15% for most other taxpayers.

Alternative Minimum Tax – I’ve covered this in previous articles, but it’s something that’s also still hanging around, and shouldn’t be forgotten.

From a tax planning perspective, if you feel some or all of these could be applicable to you in 2014, and you don’t want surprises at tax time, I recommend that you contact your favorite CPA (maybe one whose name starts with “Jay The…”?) to crunch some numbers and get some additional guidance on ways to reduce the sting of some of these stealth taxes.

Advertisements

The Penalty of Marriage

It’s June, and what better time for love, weddings, and marriage penalties? Yes my friends, while you’re busy picking out flowers, caterers, and tacky bridesmaid dresses, start thinking about how much more tax you’re going to be paying, come tax time. That’s right, I said more tax, and if you’re in the majority of taxpayers, you’ll most probably wind up paying more tax as part of a married couple than you would as a single bachelor(ette). I wrote about this a couple of years ago, but a recent meeting with a new client reminded me of how often this subject has come up over the years, so I thought I’d revisit it.

You may or may not have heard of the term “marriage penalty”. What this refers to is combining two spouses’ incomes on one married tax return which will result in a higher tax than the same amount of income split between the two spouses on two single tax returns. In one of the more recent tax law changes within the last few years, Congress had attempted to eliminate the marriage penalty, but the problem is, they didn’t do it for all the tax brackets. For the lowest (10%) and next lowest (15%) tax brackets, the amount of joint income that falls into each bracket is exactly double the amount of single income that falls into each bracket. And that’s where marriage penalty relief ended. Taxable income for a single taxpayer in the next bracket (25%) falls between $36,250 and $87,850, while married joint taxpayers will find that bracket only covers income between $72,500 (double the single amount) and $146,400, (only 167% of the single amount). So if you have two taxpayers with taxable income of $87,850 each, they’ll both be in the 25% bracket, but add those up ($175,700), and on a joint return they’ll now be in the 28% bracket…penalty! For those in the uppermost tax bracket (39.6%), single taxpayers will hit that bracket with taxable income of $400K, while joint taxpayers will hit that bracket at $450K.

This may have you thinking “what about married filing separately?” Unfortunately, the answer is that the tax brackets are even less forgiving than the single ones, and you’ll be in the top tax bracket with only $225K of taxable income, compared to $400K single and $450K joint. There are reasons to file separately that are more legal and protective than tax saving (e.g. divorcing couples who want to keep their taxes/finances separate), and in my experience, in a majority of cases, filing jointly will be cheaper than filing separately, so for the happily married couple, filing jointly will probably be the best course of action.

There are limited ways to try to reduce the effect of the marriage penalty, but that wasn’t the goal of this article. The idea here is to make you aware that the marriage penalty is “out there”, so if you’re planning on tying the knot this year (or know somebody who is), when the dust has settled from the wedding, and the honeymoon is (literally) over, the next thing to think about is meeting with your friendly neighborhood CPA, and do some tax planning early, to help avoid a major tax headache next April 15th.

Summertime Child Care

No more pencils, no more books, no more teacher’s dirty looks…school’s out for summer. If you’re old enough to remember the Alice Cooper song, you can blame me when you’re still humming it six hours from now!

Now that another school year is coming to a close, how are you going to keep the kiddies occupied and out of trouble for the next few months? Chances are, you and your spouse will both be working during the lazy hazy crazy days of summer, and you’ll have to pay for child care, so why not have Uncle Sam pay for part of the cost? The federal Child and Dependent Care Tax Credit is applicable for summertime child care too, so take advantage of it, but first you need to know how it works. Here are some important points:

1-you have to pay for care so you (and your spouse if filing jointly) can work or actively look for work. The spouse can meet this test for any month that he/she is a full-time student or physically or mentally incapable of self-care.

2-you must have earned income, and if you’re filing jointly, your spouse must have earned income too. Earned income is generally wage and self-employment income.

3-the care must be for one or more qualifying people. In the case of this article, since I’m writing about children, they must be under age 13 and be claimed as a dependent.

4-the care can be provided at home, at a daycare facility, or even at a day camp. If it’s inside your home, then you also have to think about the household employer requirements.

5-the credit is a percentage of the qualified expenses that you for the qualifying person. This percentage starts at 35% and drops to a minimum of 20%, depending on income.

6-up to $3,000 of expenses for one person or $6,000 for two or more qualifying people can be used to compute the credit.

7-the cost of overnight camps or summer school tutoring doesn’t qualify, nor does anything paid to a spouse or other dependent. If either spouse receives dependent care benefits from an employer, special rules apply.

8-the credit is claimed on Form 2441, and basic information on the provider will need to be entered on this form, so make sure you have the provider’s name, address, and identifying number (social security or employer i.d. number). Keep good records to substantiate the credit claimed.

I’ve had many clients over the years who had unrealistic expectations of how much money they were going to save by claiming this credit. Realistically, if you have two or more eligible kids, $6,000 is the maximum amount of child care expenses you can use to compute the credit, and if your income is over $43,000, the percentage for the credit will be 20%, so the maximum credit you can get is $1,200, which isn’t a lot. Obviously it’s better than nothing, and it’s a credit so it will reduce your tax dollar for dollar, as opposed to a deduction which will only reduce your tax by whatever marginal tax rate you’re at. But with good record keeping you’ll save a few bucks, and will be able to afford to give each of your kids (and your spouse) their very own copy of Alice Cooper’s “School’s Out”.

Please forward this article to all parents who incur child care expenses, and have a good summer.

No more pencils, no more books…

Cliff Diving 101

Who needed to watch the ball drop in Times Square, if you were looking for New Year’s Eve excitement? We had Congress giving us plenty of excitement (and heart attacks) with their dillydallying about the “fiscal cliff”. For better or for worse, the American Taxpayer Relief Act of 2012 was signed into law on January 2, 2013, and thank you very much, but I’ll stay out of any political discussion as to whether it’s good or bad for American taxpayers. What I will do is summarize a few of the key provisions of the “Act”, for your reading pleasure/misery.

Individual Income Tax Rates

The Act retains the 10%, 15%, 25%, 28%, and 33% marginal tax rates that had been in effect previously. The 35% tax bracket will end at $400K of taxable income (single) and $450K taxable income (joint). Above those thresholds, the 39.6% rate that was in effect “pre-Bush-tax-cuts” will kick in.

Estate and Trust Tax Rates

The top rate for estates and trusts rises to 39.6%, for taxable income over $11,950. As you can see, the top tax rate kicks in at a comparatively low taxable income amount, so executors and trustees are advised that whenever possible/practical, the income should be distributed out of estates/trusts to beneficiaries, especially when the beneficiaries are in a lower tax bracket than the estate/trust.

Long-term Capital Gains and Qualified Dividends

In recent tax years, long-term capital gains and qualified dividends have generally enjoyed a relatively low 15% tax rate. This will continue under “The Act”, but (always a but, eh?!) in cases where taxpayer’s taxable income (including the gains and the dividends) exceeds that magic threshold of $400K single/$450K joint, long-term gains and qualified dividends will be taxed at 20%.

15% Tax Rate Bracket for Joint Filers

The size of the 15% bracket for joint filers remains at 200% of the size of the 15% bracket for single taxpayers. Before all you single taxpayers run off to get married, keep in mind that this 200% amount does not apply to higher brackets, and remember what as I said above, about the top 39.6% bracket for joint taxpayers being only $50K higher than it is for single taxpayers, so there will definitely be some “marriage penalty” effects.

Standard Deduction For Joint Filers

The standard deduction for joint returns will remain at 200% of the standard deduction for single taxpayers, woo hoo!

Itemized Deduction Phase-Outs

This is something that we haven’t had to face for a few years, and it’s baaack! Beginning in 2013, when Adjusted Gross Income, (not taxable income) exceeds $250K single/$300K joint, itemized deductions will generally be reduced by 3% of AGI. The net effect here is to actually increase your effective tax rate. It’s been estimated that taxpayers in the 33% bracket will effectively pay 33.99%, those in the 35% bracket will effectively pay 36.05%, and those in the 39.6% bracket will effectively pay 40.79%!

There are a lot more provisions to the Act, but I think I’ve been more than sadistic enough by telling you about the items above. For CPAs like me, each of these tax acts should really be called “The Tax Preparer Job Security Act”, since it keeps all of us busy, sorting through provisions, and advising our clients.

Questions? Comments? Gripes? Feel free to leave a comment. Stay tuned for more “stupid Congress tricks”!