Individual Tax briefs

Does prepaying property taxes make sense anymore?

Prepaying property taxes related to the current year but due the following year has long been one of the most popular and effective year-end tax-planning strategies. But does it still make sense in 2018?

The answer, for some people, is yes — accelerating this expense will increase their itemized deductions, reducing their tax bills. But for many, particularly those in high-tax states, changes made by the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act (TCJA) eliminate the benefits.

What’s changed?

The TCJA made two changes that affect the viability of this strategy. First, it nearly doubled the standard deduction to $24,000 for married couples filing jointly, $18,000 for heads of household, and $12,000 for singles and married couples filing separately, so fewer taxpayers will itemize. Second, it placed a $10,000 cap on state and local tax (SALT) deductions, including property taxes plus income or sales taxes.

For property tax prepayment to make sense, two things must happen:

  1. You must itemize (that is, your itemized deductions must exceed the standard deduction), and
  2. Your other SALT expenses for the year must be less than $10,000.

If you don’t itemize, or you’ve already used up your $10,000 limit (on income or sales taxes or on previous property tax installments), accelerating your next property tax installment will provide no benefit.

Example

Joe and Mary, a married couple filing jointly, have incurred $5,000 in state income taxes, $5,000 in property taxes, $18,000 in qualified mortgage interest, and $4,000 in charitable donations, for itemized deductions totaling $32,000. Their next installment of 2018 property taxes, $5,000, is due in the spring of 2019. They’ve already reached the $10,000 SALT limit, so prepaying property taxes won’t reduce their tax bill.

Now suppose they live in a state with no income tax. In that case, prepayment would potentially make sense because it would be within the SALT limit and would increase their 2018 itemized deductions.

Look before you leap

Before you prepay property taxes, review your situation carefully to be sure it will provide a tax benefit. And keep in mind that, just because prepayment will increase your 2018 itemized deductions, it doesn’t necessarily mean that’s the best strategy. For example, if you expect to be in a higher tax bracket in 2019, paying property taxes when due will likely produce a greater benefit over the two-year period.

For help determining whether prepaying property taxes makes sense for you this year, contact us. We can also suggest other year-end tips for reducing your taxes.



What will your marginal income tax rate be?

While the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act (TCJA) generally reduced individual tax rates for 2018 through 2025, some taxpayers could see their taxes go up due to reductions or eliminations of certain tax breaks — and, in some cases, due to their filing status. But some may see additional tax savings due to their filing status.

Unmarried vs. married taxpayers

In an effort to further eliminate the marriage “penalty,” the TCJA made changes to some of the middle tax brackets. As a result, some single and head of household filers could be pushed into higher tax brackets more quickly than pre-TCJA. For example, the beginning of the 32% bracket for singles for 2018 is $157,501, whereas it was $191,651 for 2017 (though the rate was 33%). For heads of households, the beginning of this bracket has decreased even more significantly, to $157,501 for 2018 from $212,501 for 2017.

Married taxpayers, on the other hand, won’t be pushed into some middle brackets until much higher income levels for 2018 through 2025. For example, the beginning of the 32% bracket for joint filers for 2018 is $315,001, whereas it was $233,351 for 2017 (again, the rate was 33% then).

2018 filing and 2019 brackets

Because there are so many variables, it will be hard to tell exactly how specific taxpayers will be affected by TCJA changes, including changes to the brackets, until they file their 2018 tax returns. In the meantime, it’s a good idea to begin to look at 2019. As before the TCJA, the tax brackets are adjusted annually for inflation.

Below is a look at the 2019 brackets under the TCJA. Contact us for help assessing what your tax rate likely will be for 2019 — and for help filing your 2018 tax return.

Single individuals

10%: $0 - $9,700
12%: $9,701 - $39,475
22%: $39,476 - $84,200
24%: $84,201 - $160,725
32%: $160,726 - $204,100
35%: $204,101 - $510,300
37%: Over $510,300

Heads of households

10%: $0 - $13,850
12%: $13,851 - $52,850
22%: $52,851 - $84,200
24%: $84,201 - $160,700
32%: $160,701 - $204,100
35%: $204,101 - $510,300
37%: Over $510,300

Married individuals filing joint returns and surviving spouses

10%: $0 - $19,400
12%: $19,401 - $78,950
22%: $78,951 - $168,400
24%: $168,401 - $321,450
32%: $321,451 - $408,200
35%: $408,201 - $612,350
37%: Over $612,350

Married individuals filing separate returns

10%: $0 - $9,700
12%: $9,701 - $39,475
22%: $39,476 - $84,200
24%: $84,201 - $160,725
32%: $160,726 - $204,100
35%: $204,101 - $306,175
37%: Over $306,175



Mutual funds: Handle with care at year end

As we approach the end of 2018, it’s a good idea to review the mutual fund holdings in your taxable accounts and take steps to avoid potential tax traps. Here are some tips.

Avoid surprise capital gains

Unlike with stocks, you can’t avoid capital gains on mutual funds simply by holding on to the shares. Near the end of the year, funds typically distribute all or most of their net realized capital gains to investors. If you hold mutual funds in taxable accounts, these gains will be taxable to you regardless of whether you receive them in cash or reinvest them in the fund.

For each fund, find out how large these distributions will be and get a breakdown of long-term vs. short-term gains. If the tax impact will be significant, consider strategies to offset the gain. For example, you could sell other investments at a loss.

Buyer beware

Avoid buying into a mutual fund shortly before it distributes capital gains and dividends for the year. There’s a common misconception that investing in a mutual fund just before the ex-dividend date (the date by which you must own shares to qualify for a distribution) is like getting free money.

In reality, the value of your shares is immediately reduced by the amount of the distribution. So you’ll owe taxes on the gain without actually making a profit.

Seller beware

If you plan to sell mutual fund shares that have appreciated in value, consider waiting until just after year end so you can defer the gain until 2019 — unless you expect to be subject to a higher rate next year. In that scenario, you’d likely be better off recognizing the gain and paying the tax this year.

When you do sell shares, keep in mind that, if you bought them over time, each block will have a different holding period and cost basis. To reduce your tax liability, it’s possible to select shares for sale that have higher cost bases and longer holding periods, thereby minimizing your gain (or maximizing your loss) and avoiding higher-taxed short-term gains.

Think beyond just taxes

Investment decisions shouldn’t be driven by tax considerations alone. For example, you need to keep in mind your overall financial goals and your risk tolerance.

But taxes are still an important factor to consider. Contact us to discuss these and other year-end strategies for minimizing the tax impact of your mutual fund holdings.