Effective Planning Now Can Lower Your Tax BurdenTax planning is inherently complex, with the most powerful tax strategies often relying as much on clairvoyance as they do on calculations.
As 2013 begins to wind down, the need for a crystal ball lessens, and the ability to strategize with more certainty is upon us. This developing certainty provides opportunities for individuals and businesses to manage tax liabilities through tax-planning techniques.
Year-end tax planning has always been arduous, but early 2013 legislation complicated the tax structure by layering in new tax brackets and income buckets, bringing a multi-dimensional complication to tax planning this year.
In this article we focus on tax-planning techniques that can be executed during the remainder of 2013, but specific facts and circumstances may open up other opportunities or limit some of the tactics discussed.
Tax Strategies for Business Owners
Business equipment. Significant tax benefits remain available for business equipment purchases during 2013. A 50% bonus depreciation deduction is available for qualified property placed in service during 2013. The deduction is set to expire for 2014. To qualify for bonus depreciation, equipment must be new and placed in service by year-end.
Section 179 expensing rules provide full expensing for up to $500,000 of qualifying property placed in service during 2013. However, the full deduction is available only if the total amount of qualifying property placed in service in 2013 does not exceed $2 million. The Section 179 deduction limit is scheduled to be drastically reduced in 2014.
• Planning point: If you are planning to purchase a significant amount of machinery and equipment for your business in the next year or two, consider accelerating your order so the assets are delivered and placed into service by Dec. 31, 2013. To take full advantage of the Section 179 deduction, monitor total purchases to prevent its phaseout.
Deduction for qualified production activities income. Taxpayers can claim a deduction, subject to limits, for 9% of the lesser of (1) the taxpayer’s ‘qualified production activities income’ for the tax year (i.e., net income from U.S. manufacturing, production, or extraction activities; U.S. film production; U.S. construction activities; and U.S. engineering and architectural services), or (2) the taxpayer’s taxable income for that tax year, before taking this deduction into account. This deduction generally has the effect of a reduction in the taxpayer’s marginal rate and, thus, should be taken into account when making decisions regarding income-shifting strategies.
Net operating losses and debt-cancellation income. A business with a loss this year may be able to use that loss to generate cash in the form of a quick net operating loss carry-back refund. This type of refund may be of particular value to a financially troubled business that needs a fast cash transfusion to keep going.
There also are a number of different kinds of debt-cancellation or debt-reduction transactions that may generate taxable income in 2013 if not deferred until 2014.
Retirement Plans. Starting a small-business retirement-savings plan is easier than you think and offers significant tax advantages. Employer contributions are deductible from the employer’s income, employee contributions are not taxed until distributed to the employee, and investments in the program grow tax-deferred. Further, the tax law offers a small incentive of a $500-per-year tax credit for the first three years of a new SEP, SIMPLE, or other retirement plan to cover the initial setup expenses for certain small employers.
Individual Tax-rate Management
In prior years, the main concern was that, if you reduced your regular income tax too far, the alternative minimum tax (AMT) would step in to appropriate your hard-earned tax savings. There are now additional dynamics to consider, when certain thresholds are exceeded, in the form of a 3.8% net-investment-income (NII) tax levied on investment income, a 0.9% Medicare payroll tax levied on wages and self-employment earnings, and a multi-tiered, long-term capital-gains tax-rate structure.
These new taxes, beginning in 2013, apply when adjusted gross income exceeds certain thresholds ranging from $200,000 for single filers to $250,000 for married taxpayers. For these thresholds and most others mentioned in this article, married filing separate uses one-half the married threshold.
Additionally, the 39.6% tax bracket returns this year after a long hiatus for taxpayers above thresholds ranging from $400,000 of taxable income for single filers to $450,000 for married filers.
Net investment income tax. The 3.8% NII tax now applies to most investment income. For individuals, the amount subject to the tax is the lesser of (1) the net investment income; or (2) the excess of modified adjusted gross income (MAGI) over the applicable threshold amount.
NII includes dividends, rents, interest, passive-activity income, capital gains, annuities, and royalties. Passive pass-through income will be subject to this new tax, but non-passive will not. Self-employment income, income from an active trade or business, and portions of the gain on the sale of an active interest in a partnership or S corporation with investment assets, as well as IRA or qualified plan distributions, are not subject to the NII tax.
• Planning point: Weighing a decision about selling marketable securities to meet current cash needs? Consider using margin debt for replacement securities. The interest on the debt will be deductible, subject to the investment-interest limitation, which could reduce your NII for purposes of the new tax.
• Planning point: To the extent your NII is income from a passive activity, increasing your material participation in the activity between now and the end of the year can reduce the amount of income subject to the NII tax. Proceed with caution, though, because a change in participation level may impact other short- and long-term tax obligations.
• Planning point: As you near the applicable threshold, consider revising the timing of distributions from retirement plans to manage your net investment income. While the distributions themselves are not NII, the distributions increase your MAGI, which could subject more of your investment income to the NII tax.
Increased maximum tax rates on long-term capital gains. While avoiding or deferring tax may be your primary goal, to the extent there is income to report, the income of choice is long-term capital gain income thanks to the favorable tax rates available. The available rates differ depending on the taxpayer’s tax bracket.
Taxpayers in the 39.6% bracket will now pay a 20% long-term capital gains and qualified dividends rate. Additionally, those above the previously noted thresholds will pay the 3.8% tax in addition to the increased capital-gains rate.
• Planning point: The netting rules provide an opportunity to manage the net gain or loss subject to taxation, making it prudent to review your investment gains and losses before the close of year to determine whether additional transactions prior to year-end may improve your tax outlook.
Recognition of same-sex marriage for federal tax purposes. Beginning in 2013, legally married same-sex couples must file a joint or married-filing-separately return. The rules do not extend to cover domestic partnerships. The ruling is retroactive, opening up a refund opportunity in certain circumstances for those who were previously prohibited from joint filing. Amended returns may be, but are not required to be, filed for tax years still open by statute of limitations.
Year-end Timing Strategies
Managing the alternative minimum tax. The AMT applies when income, as adjusted for certain preference items, exceeds certain exemptions, but the rate applied to that income falls below the AMT rate, essentially acting as a tax-leveling mechanism. Residents of states with high income and property taxes, like Connecticut and Massachusetts, are more likely to be subject to the AMT because these state taxes are not deductible when computing AMT income.
The AMT exemptions are subject to phaseouts when AMT income exceeds $115,400 for single filers and $153,900 for married joint filers.
Delaying or prepaying expenses. As a cash-method taxpayer, you can deduct expenses when you pay them or charge them to your credit card. Payment by credit card is considered paid in the year the charge is incurred. Expenses that are commonly prepaid in connection with year-end tax planning include:
Charitable contributions. A tax deduction is available for cash contributions to qualified charities of up to 50% of adjusted gross income (AGI) and up to 30% (20% for gifts to private operating foundations) of your AGI for charitable gifts of appreciated property.
• Planning point: Consider contributing appreciated securities that you have held for more than one year. Usually, you will receive a charitable deduction for the full value of the securities, while avoiding the capital-gains tax that would be incurred upon sale of the securities.
State and local income taxes. Consider prepaying any state and local income taxes normally due on Jan. 15, 2014, or with the filing of the return if you do not expect to be subject to the AMT.
• Planning Point: If you expect to owe state and/or local income tax when you file your return for 2013, consider paying that amount before Dec. 31, 2013. Although you relinquish your cash in advance, the benefit from accelerating the tax deduction and lowering your current federal income tax could be significant. It is particularly powerful if the deduction could be lost through the AMT in 2014. Just be careful that your prepayment does not make you subject to AMT in 2013.
Real-estate taxes. Like state and local income taxes, real-estate tax levies due early in 2014 can often be prepaid in 2013. For real-estate taxes on your residence or other personal real estate, just be mindful of the AMT in both years. Real-estate tax on rental property is deductible whether or not you are subject to AMT, and it can be safely prepaid.
Mortgage interest. There are limits on your ability to deduct prepaid interest. However, to the extent your January mortgage payment reflects interest accrued as of Dec. 31, 2013, a payment prior to year-end will secure the interest deduction in 2013.
Other itemized deductions. Miscellaneous itemized deductions, like many deductions, are deductible only if you itemize your deductions and are not subject to AMT. Where miscellaneous itemized deductions differ is with the requirement that the total deductions exceed 2% of your AGI to be deductible.
Itemized deduction phaseout. After a three-year hiatus, 2013 marks the return of the phaseout of certain itemized deductions for higher-income taxpayers. For affected taxpayers, itemized deductions are reduced by 3% of the amount by which AGI exceeds thresholds ranging from $250,000 for a single filer to $300,000 for married joint filers.
However, deductions for medical expenses, investment interest, casualty and theft losses, and gambling losses are not subject to the limitation. Taxpayers cannot lose more than 80% of the itemized deductions subject to the phaseout.
Exemption phaseout. A personal exemption is generally available for you, your spouse if you are married and file a joint return, and each dependent (a qualifying child or qualifying relative who meets certain tests). In 2013, the exemption amount is $3,900, subject to a reinstated phaseout of the exemption for higher-income taxpayers. These phaseout thresholds begin at the same AGI limits discussed for itemized deductions above.
Retirement-plan distributions. If you are over age 59½ and your 2013 income is unusually low, consider taking a taxable distribution from your retirement plan, even if it is not required, to use the unusually low tax rate for the period. More powerful still, consider converting the funds to a Roth account.
• Planning point: If you expect to be in a higher tax bracket in the future, consider converting your traditional IRA into a Roth IRA during your lower-income years. You will be paying taxes early, but future appreciation of the assets in your account may escape income taxes entirely.
IRA distributions to charity. If you are over age 70½, you can make a tax-free distribution of up to $100,000 from your IRA to a qualified charity before Dec. 31, 2013. Under current law, this opportunity will not be available for 2014.
Note that this opportunity is doubly powerful beginning in 2013. In addition to prior tax benefits, now the IRA is not included in your MAGI, and thus this strategy may reduce exposure to the new 3.8% NII tax.
Worthless securities and bad debts. Both worthless securities and bad debts could give rise to capital losses. Since no transaction generally alerts you to this deduction, you should review your portfolio carefully.
• Planning point: If you own securities that have become worthless or made loans that have become uncollectible, ensure that the losses are deductible in the current year by obtaining substantive documentation to support the deduction.
Contributing to a retirement plan. You may be able to reduce your taxes by contributing to a retirement plan. If your employer sponsors a retirement plan, such as a 401(k), 403(b), or SIMPLE plan, your contributions avoid current taxation, as will any investment earnings until you begin receiving distributions from the plan. Some plans allow you to make after-tax Roth contributions, which will not reduce your current income, but you will generally have no tax to pay when those amounts, plus any associated earnings, are withdrawn in future years.
You and your spouse must have earned income to contribute to either a traditional or a Roth IRA. Only taxpayers with modified AGI below certain thresholds are permitted to contribute to a Roth IRA. If a workplace retirement plan covers you or your spouse, modified AGI also controls your ability to deduct your contribution to a traditional IRA. There is no AGI limit on your or your spouse’s deduction if you are not covered by an employer plan. If your modified AGI falls within the phaseout range, a partial contribution/deduction is still allowed.
• Planning point: If you would like to contribute to a Roth IRA, but your income exceeds the threshold, consider contributing to a traditional IRA for 2013, and convert the IRA to a Roth IRA in 2014. Be sure to inquire about the tax consequences of the conversion, especially if you have funds in other traditional IRAs.
Other Personal Tax-planning Considerations
Withholding/estimated tax payments. With higher rates in effect for 2013, more taxpayers may find themselves exposed to an underpayment penalty. Underpayment penalties can be avoided when total withholdings and estimated tax payments exceed the 2012 tax liability or, in the case of higher-income taxpayers, 110% of 2012 tax.
• Planning point: If you expect to be subject to an underpayment penalty for failure to pay your 2013 tax liability on a timely basis, consider increasing your withholding between now and the end of the year to reduce or eliminate the penalty. Increasing your final estimated tax deposit due Jan. 15, 2014 may reduce the amount of the penalty, but is unlikely to eliminate it entirely. Withholding, even if done on the last day of the tax year, is deemed withheld ratably throughout the tax year.
Losses from pass-through business entities. If your ability to deduct current-year losses from a partnership, LLC, or S corporation may be limited by your tax basis or the ‘at-risk’ rules, consider contributing capital to the entity or, in some cases, making a loan to the entity prior to Dec. 31, 2013, to secure your deduction this year.
• Planning point: If you anticipate a net loss from business activities in which you do not materially participate, consider disposing of the loss activity by Dec. 31, 2013. Assuming sufficient basis exists, all suspended losses become deductible when you dispose of the activity. Even if there is a gain on the disposition, you may still benefit from having the long-term capital gain taxed at 23.8% (inclusive of the NII tax) with the previously suspended losses offsetting other ordinary income.
American opportunity tax credit (AOTC). The AOTC for college costs has been extended for five years through 2017. A credit of up to $2,500 may be claimed during the first four years of college. The credit phases out for AGI in excess of $80,000 for single taxpayers and $160,000 for married taxpayers filing a joint return.
• Planning point: If your income is too high for you to qualify for the AOTC, consider gifting your children the funds necessary to pay the qualified education expenses, making them eligible to claim the AOTC.
Energy credit. The $1,500 credit for new windows and doors has expired, but a credit of up to $500 for residential energy property is still available if prior years’ credits were not taken.
Estate and gift taxes. For 2013, taxpayers are permitted to make tax-free gifts of up to $14,000 per year, per recipient ($28,000 if married and using a gift-splitting election, or if each spouse uses separate funds). By making these gifts annually, taxpayers can transfer significant wealth out of their estate without using any of their lifetime exclusion.
• Planning point: Consider making similar gifts early in 2014. Each year brings a new annual exclusion, and a gift early in the year transfers next year’s appreciation out of your estate.
• Planning point: Additional gifts can be made using the lifetime gift exclusion, which is $5.25 million ($10.5 million for married couples) in 2013. Future exclusions are indexed for inflation. The recent increases to the exclusion make it a good time to review any existing estate and gift plans to ensure they best meet your needs.
• Planning point: When combined with other estate and gift-planning techniques, such as Section 529 plans to help fund your children’s or grandchildren’s college education, the potential exists to avoid or reduce estate and gift taxes while transferring significant wealth to other family members.
The changes initiated during 2013 added layers of complexity to an already difficult tax system, but with a purposeful, informed plan in place, taxpayers can still reap significant benefits. Consult your tax advisor so they can best support you in building your plan for 2013 and beyond.
Kristina Drzal Houghton, CPA, MST is a partner with the Holyoke-based accounting firm Meyers Brothers Kalicka, and director of the firm’s Taxation Division; firstname.lastname@example.org