Individual Tax briefs
3 traditional midyear tax planning strategies for individuals that hold up post-TCJA
With its many changes to individual tax rates, brackets and breaks, the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act (TCJA) means taxpayers need to revisit their tax planning strategies. Certain strategies that were once tried-and-true will no longer save or defer tax. But there are some that will hold up for many taxpayers. And they’ll be more effective if you begin implementing them this summer, rather than waiting until year end. Take a look at these three ideas, and contact us to discuss what midyear strategies make sense for you.
1. Look at your bracket
Under the TCJA, the top income tax rate is now 37% (down from 39.6%) for taxpayers with taxable income over $500,000 (single and head-of-household filers) or $600,000 (married couples filing jointly). These thresholds are higher than for the top rate in 2017 ($418,400, $444,550 and $470,700, respectively). So the top rate might be less of a concern.
However, singles and heads of households in the middle and upper brackets could be pushed into a higher tax bracket much more quickly this year. For example, for 2017 the threshold for the 33% tax bracket was $191,650 for singles and $212,500 for heads of households. For 2018, the rate for this bracket has been reduced slightly to 32% — but the threshold for the bracket is now only $157,500 for both singles and heads of households.
So a lot more of these filers could find themselves in this bracket. (Fortunately for joint filers, their threshold for this bracket has increased from $233,350 to $315,000.)
If you expect this year’s income to be near the threshold for a higher bracket, consider strategies for reducing your taxable income and staying out of the next bracket. For example, you could take steps to accelerate deductible expenses.
But carefully consider the changes the TCJA has made to deductions. For example, you might no longer benefit from itemizing because of the nearly doubled standard deduction and the reduction or elimination of certain itemized deductions. For 2018, the standard deduction is $12,000 for singles, $18,000 for heads of households and $24,000 for joint filers.
2. Incur medical expenses
One itemized deduction the TCJA has retained and — temporarily — enhanced is the medical expense deduction. If you expect to benefit from itemizing on your 2018 return, take a look at whether you can accelerate deductible medical expenses into this year.
You can deduct only expenses that exceed a floor based on your adjusted gross income (AGI). Under the TCJA, the floor has dropped from 10% of AGI to 7.5%. But it’s scheduled to return to 10% for 2019 and beyond.
Deductible expenses may include:
- Health insurance premiums,
- Long-term care insurance premiums,
- Medical and dental services and prescription drugs, and
- Mileage driven for health care purposes.
You may be able to control the timing of some of these expenses so you can bunch them into 2018 and exceed the floor while it’s only 7.5%.
3. Review your investments
The TCJA didn’t make changes to the long-term capital gains rate, so the top rate remains at 20%. However, that rate now kicks in before the top ordinary-income tax rate. For 2018, the 20% rate applies to taxpayers with taxable income exceeding $425,800 (singles), $452,400 (heads of households), or $479,000 (joint filers).
If you’ve realized, or expect to realize, significant capital gains, consider selling some depreciated investments to generate losses you can use to offset those gains. It may be possible to repurchase those investments, so long as you wait at least 31 days to avoid the “wash sale” rule.
You also may need to plan for the 3.8% net investment income tax (NIIT). It can affect taxpayers with modified AGI (MAGI) over $200,000 for singles and heads of households, $250,000 for joint filers. You may be able to lower your tax liability by reducing your MAGI, reducing net investment income or both.
What you can deduct when volunteering
Because donations to charity of cash or property generally are tax deductible (if you itemize), it only seems logical that the donation of something even more valuable to you — your time — would also be deductible. Unfortunately, that’s not the case.
Donations of time or services aren’t deductible. It doesn’t matter if it’s simple administrative work, such as checking in attendees at a fundraising event, or if it’s work requiring significant experience and expertise that would be much more costly to the charity if it had to pay for it, such as skilled carpentry or legal counsel.
However, you potentially can deduct out-of-pocket costs associated with your volunteer work.
The basic rules
As with any charitable donation, for you to be able to deduct your volunteer expenses, the first requirement is that the organization be a qualified charity. You can use the IRS’s “Tax Exempt Organization Search” tool (formerly “Select Check”) at https://www.irs.gov/charities-non-profits/tax-exempt-organization-search to find out.
Assuming the charity is qualified, you may be able to deduct out-of-pocket costs that are:
- Directly connected with the services you’re providing,
- Incurred only because of your charitable work, and
- Not “personal, living or family” expenses.
Supplies, uniforms and transportation
A wide variety of expenses can qualify for the deduction. For example, supplies you use in the activity may be deductible. And the cost of a uniform you must wear during the activity may also be deductible (if it’s required and not something you’d wear when not volunteering).
Transportation costs to and from the volunteer activity generally are deductible, either the actual cost or 14 cents per charitable mile driven. But you have to be the volunteer. If, say, you drive your elderly mother to the nature center where she’s volunteering, you can’t deduct the cost.
You also can’t deduct transportation costs you’d be incurring even if you weren’t volunteering. For example, if you take a commuter train downtown to work, then walk to a nearby volunteer event after work and take the train back home afterwards, you won’t be able to deduct your train fares. But if you take a cab from work to the volunteer event, then you potentially can deduct the cab fare for that leg of your transportation.
Transportation costs may also be deductible for out-of-town travel associated with volunteering. This can include air, rail and bus transportation; driving expenses; and taxi or other transportation costs between an airport or train station and wherever you’re staying. Lodging and meal costs also might be deductible.
The key to deductibility is that there is no significant element of personal pleasure, recreation or vacation in the travel. That said, according to the IRS, the deduction for travel expenses won’t be denied simply because you enjoy providing services to the charitable organization. But you must be volunteering in a genuine and substantial sense throughout the trip. If only a small portion of your trip involves volunteer work, your travel expenses generally won’t be deductible.
Keep careful records
The IRS may challenge charitable deductions for out-of-pocket costs, so it’s important to keep careful records. If you have questions about what volunteer expenses are and aren’t deductible, please contact us.
Home green home: Save tax by saving energy
“Going green” at home — whether it’s your principal residence or a second home — can reduce your tax bill in addition to your energy bill, all while helping the environment, too. The catch is that, to reap all three benefits, you need to buy and install certain types of renewable energy equipment in the home.
Invest in green and save green
For 2018 and 2019, you may be eligible for a tax credit of 30% of expenditures (including costs for site preparation, assembly, installation, piping, and wiring) for installing the following types of renewable energy equipment:
- Qualified solar electricity generating equipment and solar water heating equipment,
- Qualified wind energy equipment,
- Qualified geothermal heat pump equipment, and
- Qualified fuel cell electricity generating equipment (limited to $500 for each half kilowatt of fuel cell capacity).
Because these items can be expensive, the credits can be substantial. To qualify, the equipment must be installed at your U.S. residence, including a vacation home — except for fuel cell equipment, which must be installed at your principal residence. You can’t claim credits for equipment installed at a property that’s used exclusively as a rental.
To qualify for the credit for solar water heating equipment, at least 50% of the energy used to heat water for the property must be generated by the solar equipment. And no credit is allowed for solar water heating equipment unless it’s certified for performance by the nonprofit Solar Rating & Certification Corporation or a comparable entity endorsed by the state in which your residence is located. (Keep this certification with your tax records.)
The credit rate for these expenditures is scheduled to drop to 26% in 2020 and then to 22% in 2021. After that, the credits are scheduled to expire.
Document and explore
As with all tax breaks, documentation is key when claiming credits for green investments in your home. Keep proof of how much you spend on qualifying equipment, including any extra amounts for site preparation, assembly and installation. Also keep a record of when the installation is completed, because you can claim the credit only for the year when that occurs.
Be sure to look beyond the federal tax credits and explore other ways to save by going green. Your green home investments might also be eligible for state and local tax benefits, subsidized state and local financing deals, and utility company rebates.
To learn more about federal, state and local tax breaks available for green home investments, contact us.
Factor in state and local taxes when deciding where to live in retirement
Many Americans relocate to another state when they retire. If you’re thinking about such a move, state and local taxes should factor into your decision.
Income, property and sales tax
Choosing a state that has no personal income tax may appear to be the best option. But that might nte in your preferred locality in State 1 is 5%, while it’s only 1% in your preferred locality in State 2. That difference could potentially cancel out any savings in state income taxes in State 1, depending on your annual income and the assessed value of the home.
Also keep in mind that home values can vary dramatically from location to location. So if home values are higher in State 1, there’s an even greater chance that State 1’s overall tax cost could be higher than State 2’s, despite State 1’s lack of income tax.
The potential impact of sales tax can be harder to estimate, but it’s a good idea at minimum to look at the applicable rates in the various retirement locations you’re considering.
More to think about
If states you’re considering have an income tax, also look at what types of income they tax. Some states, for example, don’t tax wages but do tax interest and dividends. Others offer tax breaks for retirement plan and Social Security income.
In the past, the federal income tax deduction for state and local property and income or sales tax could help make up some of the difference between higher- and lower-tax states. But with the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act (TCJA) limiting that deduction to $10,000 ($5,000 for married couples filing separately), this will be less help — at least through 2025, after which the limit is scheduled to expire.
There’s also estate tax to consider. Not all states have estate tax, but it can be expensive in states that do. While under the TJCA the federal estate tax exemption has more than doubled from the 2017 level to $11.18 million for 2018, states aren’t necessarily keeping pace with the federal exemption. So state estate tax could be levied after a much lower exemption.
As you can see, it’s important to factor in state and local taxes as you decide where to live in retirement. You might ultimately decide on a state with higher taxes if other factors are more important to you. But at least you will have made an informed decision and avoid unpleasant tax surprises. Contact us to learn more.