Wealth Management Blog

Posts tagged Taxes

4 Social Security Mistakes That Can Lead to Higher Taxes

By JJ Burns

April 15, 2015

The decline in investors' retirement funds during the economic downturn has made everyone less certain about their future.  Now that we've had some time to replenish savings, it's a good time to think about the role Social Security plays in retirement income.  It's never too early to plan properly to maximize your benefits.

For many of us, we’ve worked since we were teenagers—at a movie theater, grocery store, restaurant or in a family business. Then we went on to develop careers. All the while contributing to the Social Security system. Still, Social Security remains a bit of a financial mystery for most people.

Here are four main issues to understand about Social Security—and how not to make the most common mistakes:

Mistake #1: Not recognizing how much you may receive. The good news is you may receive more than you anticipated from Social Security. You can receive an annual statement of benefits and plan your benefits here.

Mistake #2: Taking your Social Security benefits too early. “Full retirement age” is an important term. If you were born in 1954 or before, the full retirement age is 66 years old; it gradually rises to 67 for those born after. Of course, you can still work and collect Social Security no matter what your age. However, in the year you reach full retirement age, the government deducts $1 in benefits for every $3 you earn above the limit ($41,880 in 2015).

Mistake #3: Misunderstanding how Social Security can affect you (and your spouse). Whether you are still married, divorced or widowed, you may be entitled to Social Security benefits that are based on:

  • Your own earnings record;
  • A spouse or ex-spouse’s earnings record;
  • A deceased spouse’s or deceased ex-spouse’s earnings record; or
  • Whether you are disabled.

It’s complicated to say the least given the wide range of relationships and situations that people experience—coupled with the fact that laws regularly change.

There’s a strategy called “file and suspend” that you can use if you have reached full retirement age, but are not yet age 70. You can ask Social Security to suspend your retirement benefit payments. This way you can receive delayed retirement credits, which can increase your benefits from 5.5 percent to 8 percent per year depending upon when you were born.

Another tactic is to use the “restricted application.” If you are married, or eligible for a benefit on an ex-spouse’s record, once you have reached full retirement age but have not yet claimed your Social Security benefits, you can use the restricted application to claim a spousal benefit. This allows your own benefits to continue to grow up to age 70.

Or, you can combine both strategies. If you and your spouse are of full retirement age, but one wants to work until age 70, a spouse can file for retirement benefits now and have the payments suspended, while the other files a restricted application for only the spousal benefits. This strategy allows both of you to delay receiving Social Security benefits on your own records so you can earn delayed retirement credits. Note that the IRS requires that, in order to file for spousal benefits, the other spouse must have established a filing date.

Because everyone’s situation is different, we suggest that you consult a qualified advisor to help you plan your Social Security strategy.

Mistake #4: Not realizing how Social Security may impact your taxes. In a perfect world, being eligible for Social Security would exempt you from taxes. Think again. Some people may have to pay federal income taxes on their Social Security benefits if they have qualifying income, such as wages, self-employment, interest, dividends and other taxable income.

What’s important to know is that you can lose up to 85 percent of your Social Security benefits if you don’t plan ahead. It’s called the “tax torpedo,” and it can eat up a significant portion of your hard-earned money.

You don’t have to be making a substantial income to be subjected to this tax torpedo – even those with modest incomes can take the hit. Once a low-income threshold is met ($25,000 for singles and $32,000 for married couples), up to 50 percent of Social Security benefits will be taxed. At a second threshold ($34,000 for singles and $44,000 for married couples), up to 85 percent of Social Security benefits will become taxable.

Depending on your situation, there’s a high likelihood that your Social Security benefits will be taxed. However, delaying your Social Security benefits may help avoid the tax torpedo. You will also gain from building a substantially larger Social Security fund for yourself, as well as your spouse. This may mean relying more heavily on your retirement investments, though. A qualified financial advisor can help you determine how taxes may impact your Social Security benefits and when is the best time to take them.

We’ve all paid into Social Security and it can be a substantial income resource in your retirement years. You can choose to live off the proceeds, invest your Social Security income, or help fund an educational or other type of trust. Navigating the Social Security landscape—in addition to your other investments—can be a challenge, but with proper financial planning it doesn’t have to be.

Tax-Cutting Moves To Make Now

By JJ Burns

December 19, 2013

Decisions you make between now and Dec. 31 will directly affect what you pay on your income taxes on April 15.  Here are six ideas to trim your taxes.

  1. Make those charitable deductions by Dec. 31. To the United Way, to your college, your child's college or school, the local Humane Society, your church or synagogue, the local non-profit theatre company. Basically, any group that qualifies as a 501 (c)(3) organization. You can contribute cash. You can also contribute stock, mutual funds or other securities that you've held for more than a year.
  2. Fund your retirement plan and, if you're a business owner, overfund your company's pension plans. If you have a 401(k) plan, try to max out your contributions. That reduces adjusted gross income. The 2013 limit is $17,500.  If you're 50 or older, you can add an additional $5,000. A business owner should look at making contributions to Keogh, SEP-IRAs, IRAs and the like. (For more, check this Internal Revenue Service release. Yes, sometimes the government IS here to help.)
  3. Defer income. Got a big bonus coming? Tell your company to defer the payment until next year so it's not 2013 income. If you're self-employed, send out invoices on Jan. 1. Have a big stock gain? Don't sell and defer the gain until next year.
  4. Pay next month's mortgage and 2014 property taxes now. Mortgage interest is deductible. Make your January payment on Dec. 31, and that month's interest is deductible. Pay your property taxes for 2014 on Dec. 31.
  5. Buy that new equipment. Are you expecting to add a new machine to your factory, put a new printer or buy a new dental or medical equipment? Buy it before Dec. 31, and you may be able to take advantage of the bonus depreciation and section 179 deductions available in 2013.
  6. Don't forget the AMT. This alternative -- and dreaded -- method of computing an income-tax bill is supposed to ensure everyone pays some tax. In New York, Connecticut and other high-tax states, too many deductions can trigger the AMT. Go through your income and expenses to see if these could trigger the AMT. You may want to push some deductions into 2014.

One last tip. Start thinking about your 2014 tax bill. Your income tax return for 2013 offers a guide to what your 2014 taxes may look like. Planning now can keep your taxes under control. Here's what we mean. If you need surgery and expect big-out-pocket expenses, maybe wait until next year. You can only deduct the expenses that exceed 10 percent of adjusted gross income.

On behalf of our team we wish you health and happiness this holiday season!

Roundup of New Estate Tax Changes

By JJ Burns

April 8, 2013

For more than a decade, estate planning has harkened back to the “wild, wild west,” a time when even the best hired guns didn’t know what would happen next. Now, finally, there’s more certainty, thanks to the estate tax provisions in the American Taxpayer Relief Act (ATRA). The new law, signed as the country teetered on the brink of the “fiscal cliff,” extends several favorable tax breaks, with a few modifications.

Before we explore ATRA’s main provisions, let’s recap the events dating back to 2001, the year the Economic Growth and Tax Relief Reconciliation Act (EGTRRA) was enacted. Among the changes, EGTRRA gradually increased the federal estate tax exemption from $1 million to $3.5 million in 2009 while decreasing the top estate tax rate from 55% to 45%. It also severed the unified estate and gift tax systems, creating a lifetime gift exemption of $1 million unrelated to the estate tax exemption. Then the law repealed the estate tax completely, but just for 2010. After that year, the estate tax provisions were scheduled to “sunset,” restoring more onerous rules that had been in effect before EGTRRA, unless new legislation dictated otherwise.

The Tax Relief Act of 2010 generally postponed the sunset for two years. It hiked the estate tax exemption to $5 million (indexed for inflation), lowered the top estate tax rate to 35%, and reunified the estate and gift tax systems. That law also allowed “portability” of exemptions between spouses.

Now, at long last, ATRA brings permanent clarity. Here are the key estate changes:

  • The estate tax exemption remains at $5 million with inflation indexing. For 2013, the exemption is $5.25 million. Also, portability of exemptions between spouses is made permanent, so a married couple can effectively pass up to $10.5 million tax-free to their children or other non-spouse beneficiaries, even if the exemption of the first spouse to die isn’t exhausted.
  • The top estate tax rate is bumped up to 40%. Not as low as the 35% rate in 2011 and 2012, but still better than the 55% rate slated for 2013 prior to ATRA.
  • The estate and gift tax systems remain reunified. This means that the lifetime gift tax exemption is equal to the estate tax exemption of $5.25 million in 2013. (That’s now the maximum exemption for combined taxable lifetime gifts and estate bequests.) Other provisions, including the generation-skipping tax that applies to most bequests and gifts to grandchildren, are coordinated within the system.

As a result of these changes, now is a good time to examine wills, trusts, and other aspects of your estate plan. Depending on your situation, revisions may be required or you might create a new trust to take advantage of the current estate tax law.

Get a Quick Fix on Estate Tax Rules

By JJ Burns

March 13, 2013

Estate planning is especially complex in 2012. Due to a series of tax law changes—most recently under the Tax Relief, Unemployment Insurance Reauthorization, and Job Creation Act of 2010 (the “2010 Tax Relief Act”)—wealthy families can benefit from generous estate tax exemptions, a lower estate tax rate, reunification of the estate and gift tax systems, portability of estate tax exemptions, a return to “step-up in basis” rules, and other changes. But it may be all for naught.

Why is that? The latest set of estate and gift tax provisions are scheduled to “sunset” after 2012. Barring any new legislation, the estate and gift tax law generally will revert to the way it was prior to the passage of a 2001 law that phased in today’s favorable rules.

Of course, Congress still could act late this year, or even impose retroactive provisions next year, but there are no guarantees, and without further action, the family of someone who dies in 2013 will face much stiffer estate planning challenges than if the death had occurred the previous year.

How well do you understand the current state of affairs? Here’s a brief quiz to test your knowledge.

1. The maximum estate tax exemption for someone who dies in 2012 is:

  1. $1 million.
  2. $3.5 million.
  3. $5 million.
  4. $5.12 million.

2. The maximum estate tax rate in 2012 is:

  1. 25%.
  2. 35%.
  3. 45%.
  4. 55%.

3. The portability provision for estates allows for the:

  1. Transfer of an unused exemption between spouses.
  2. Transfer of an unused exemption to a child.
  3. Carryover of the exemption to the following year.
  4. Extension of the exemption to gift tax.

4. The generation-skipping tax generally applies to any:

  1. Transfer from a grandparent to a grandchild.
  2. Transfer from an estate to a trust.
  3. Transfer from a parent to a child.
  4. Transfer to a younger individual.

5. The lifetime gift exemption in 2012 is:

  1. The same as the estate tax exemption.
  2. Half of the estate tax exemption.
  3. Equal to the gift tax exclusion. 
  4. Repealed.

6. Barring new legislation, which of the following will occur in 2013?

  1. The estate tax will be repealed.
  2. The top estate tax rate will be 55%.
  3. The estate tax exemption will be $500,000.
  4. The generation-skipping tax will expire.

7. Barring new legislation, which of the following will NOT occur in 2013?

  1. The portability provision will be repealed.
  2. The generation-skipping tax exemption will be reduced.
  3. The lifetime gift tax exemption will be reduced.
  4. The carryover basis rules will be reinstated.

Answers: 1-d; 2-b; 3-a; 4-a; 5-a; 6-b; 7-d

When Do You Need an Appraisal?

By JJ Burns

March 12, 2013

Are you planning to donate real estate to charity? The tax law allows you to claim deductions, within generous limits, for giving property to qualified charitable organizations. But you have to meet strict requirements, including the necessity to obtain an independent appraisal for property valued at more than $5,000.

In fact, in a new case, a taxpayer who donated real estate worth approximately $18 million failed to provide the required appraisal, and after an audit, the IRS challenged his charitable deductions. The Tax Court’s verdict? His deduction was zero!

The basic rules for deducting gifts of property say you can’t use those donations to write off more than 30% of your adjusted gross income (AGI). Overall, your charitable deductions can’t exceed 50% of your AGI for the year. But if you exceed those levels, you can deduct the rest in future tax years.

If you donate property that has gained value, the deductible amount is equal to the fair market value (FMV) of the property at the time of the donation, as long as you’ve owned it for more than one year. For shorter-term gifts of property, the deduction is limited to your “basis” (usually, what you paid for it).

However, the IRS requires you to jump through a few hoops before you can pocket any tax deductions. When you file your tax return, you must include a detailed description and other information for property valued at more than $500. Also, if you claim the FMV is more than $5,000, you must obtain a written appraisal of its worth.

In the case of the above disallowed deduction, Mr. Mohamed was a prominent entrepreneur, real estate broker, and certified real estate appraiser. He donated several parcels of property to a charitable remainder trust during a two-year period. When he completed his tax returns for those two years, he attached Form 8283 (Noncash Charitable Contributions). Based on his own appraisals, the total FMV of the properties exceeded $14 million (although his initial deduction was “only” $3.8 million due to the AGI limits).

But Mohamed didn’t read the form’s instructions explaining that self-appraisals aren’t permitted. He also omitted important information such as the basis of the properties. The IRS challenged the deductions. When Mohamed appealed to the Tax Court, the IRS disallowed the entire deduction, despite subsequent independent appraisals establishing the total FMV at more than $18 million. In the end, the Tax Court agreed with the IRS, although it acknowledged the result was harsh.

The moral of this story is that if you donate appreciated property, you need to make sure you observe the strict letter of the law.