Taking the Mystery Out of Alternative Minimum Tax

office pictures may 2012 002This year many taxpayers were faced with the unwelcome surprise of Alternative Minimum Tax on their income tax return. Alternative Minimum Tax (AMT) is a complex, parallel income tax system to the standard income tax calculation.  AMT was started in 1969 in an attempt to prevent very wealthy people from using large deductions and exemptions to avoid paying income tax.  At that time it was discovered that 155 households with income over $200,000 were able to avoid paying any income tax.  AMT was originally aimed at the very rich but over the years it has come to impact millions of middle and upper income taxpayers.

Until you are hit with AMT, you may be unaware that behind the scenes your tax software runs two sets of numbers to determine how much income tax you will owe.  Your return is calculated using the standard income tax rules and it is calculated using the AMT rules.

AMT recalculates your taxable income by adding back many commonly used deductions and exemptions.  Some of the most common AMT add-backs include state and local taxes including real estate taxes, miscellaneous itemized deductions, home equity loan interest that isn’t used to buy or improve a home, and medical expenses.  AMT also adds back exemptions for dependents and the standard deduction, if you don’t itemize.  Tax-exempt interest from most private activity bonds becomes taxable under AMT and if you exercise Incentive Stock Options, the gain becomes taxable upon exercise. Under the standard income tax calculation, tax is due when the stock is sold.

If there is a possibility you will be subject to AMT, I recommend having your taxes professionally prepared or using tax preparation software.  Your software will calculate AMT by adding the items listed above to your adjusted gross income to arrive at your Alternative Minimum Tax Income (AMTI).  You are allowed to exempt some of your income from AMTI.  For 2016 the exemption for single filers is $53,900 and for joint filers is $83,800, the exemption is reduced for higher income taxpayers.  AMT is calculated by subtracting your exemption from your AMTI and multiplying your first $186,300 by 26% and anything over $186,300 by 28%, these figures are adjusted every year.  Your total income tax for the year will be the higher of your standard income tax calculation or AMT.

Taxpayers who are most likely to fall into AMT are those who live in a state with high income taxes, those with high deductions and those with large families. While there are limited opportunities to reduce the likelihood of paying AMT, one option is to reduce your adjusted gross income by maximizing tax deferred retirement plans such as 401k and 403b plans.  You also may be able to reduce AMT by moving to a state with no or low income tax or by managing the timing on when you pay state and local taxes.

Tax Diversification Can Stretch Retirement Dollars

Jane Young, CFP, EA

Jane Young, CFP, EA

Most investors understand the importance of maintaining a well-diversified asset allocation consisting of a wide variety of stock mutual funds, fixed income investments and real estate.  But you may be less aware of the importance of building a portfolio that provides you with tax diversification.

Tax diversification is achieved by investing money in a variety of accounts that will be taxed differently in retirement.   With traditional retirement vehicles such as 401k plans and traditional IRAs, your contribution is currently deductible from your taxable income, your contribution will grow tax deferred and you will pay regular income taxes upon distribution in retirement.  Generally, you can’t access this money without a penalty before 59 ½ and you must take Required Minimum Distributions at 70 ½. This may be a good option during your peak earning years when your current tax bracket may be higher than it will be in retirement.

Another great vehicle for retirement savings is a Roth IRA or a Roth 401k which is not deductible from your current earnings.  Roth accounts grow tax free and can be withheld tax free in retirement, if held for at least five years. If possible everyone should contribute some money to a Roth and they are especially good for investors who are currently in their lower earning years.

A third common way to save for retirement is in a taxable account.  You invest in a taxable account with after tax money and pay taxes on interest and dividends as they are earned.  Capital gains are generally paid at a lower rate upon the sale of the investment.  In addition to liquidity, some benefits of a taxable account include the absence of limits on contributions, the absence of penalties for early withdrawals and absence of required minimum distributions.

Once you reach retirement it’s beneficial to have some flexibility in the type of account from which you pull retirement funds.  In some years you can minimize income taxes by pulling from a combination of 401k, Roth and taxable accounts to avoid going into a higher income tax bracket.  This may be especially helpful in years when you earn outside income, sell taxable property or take large withdrawals to cover big ticket items like a car.  Another way to save taxes is to spread large taxable distributions over two years.

Additionally, by strategically managing your taxable distributions you may be able to minimize tax on your Social Security benefit.   Your taxable income can also have an impact on deductions for medical expenses and miscellaneous itemized deductions, which must exceed a set percentage of your income to become deductible.  In years with large unreimbursed medical or dental expenses you may want to withdraw less from your taxable accounts.

Finally, there may be major changes to tax rates or the tax code in the future.  A Tax diversified portfolio can provide a hedge against major changes from future tax legislation.

Tax Implications of Gifting to Children

 

 

Jane Young, CFP, EA

Jane Young, CFP, EA

Many of you have worked hard and have saved all your life to achieve financial security and a comfortable nest egg.  However, due to current economic conditions your children may be struggling to pay their bills, buy their first home, or start saving for retirement.  You may want to help them right now, when they really need it, but you aren’t sure about the tax consequences.  There is good news! Over the last few years, the tax consequences to gifting have become much less onerous.  

Taxation on gifts is regulated as part of a combined gift and estate tax.  In 2014 everyone has a lifetime combined estate and gift tax exemption of $5.34 million.  If you are married, you have a combined exemption of $10.68 million dollars.  

Additionally, you can annually gift up to $14,000 to any number of recipients without chipping away at your lifetime exclusion of $5.34 million.  Generally, gifts to your spouse or a qualified charity are not subject to gift and estate tax.  If you exceed the annual gift limit of $14,000 to a single individual, you are required to file a gift tax return (Form 709) to report your gift.  However, you will not owe any taxes until you exceed your lifetime exclusion of $5.34 million.  Once the combined exclusion of $5.34 is exceeded, tax is imposed on the person gifting or transferring the assets, not the recipient.

You may want to make gifts to various friends or family members to help them through a rough patch or you may want to reduce your net worth to avoid or minimize estate tax.  By gifting up to $14,000 per year to several different individuals, you can reduce the amount of money that may ultimately be subject to estate tax.  For example, if you are married and have married children with a total of five children, both you and your spouse can each give $14,000 to each child, $14,000 to their spouses and $14,000 to each one of your grandchildren – every year.   This comes to a total of $252,000 in gifts per year that can be legally removed from you estate and avoid estate taxation.

According John Buckley, a nationally recognized Estate and Business Planning Attorney, gifts that are used for most education and medical expenses are not subject to the $14,000 annual gift tax limit.  Direct payment must be made to the educational institution or medical provider and not to the recipient. This is a huge benefit since many gifts are given to cover education expenses. 

Gifting can be a great way to minimize estate tax if you have a large net worth.  However, most of us save just enough to cover our retirement needs.  The desire to help family and friends is very natural, but avoid the temptation to gift money, especially to children, at the expense of your own financial security and retirement.

Saving for College with a 529 Plan

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Jane M. Young CFP,EA

A 529 Savings Plan is a tax advantaged college savings plan sponsored by a state or educational institution. The plan is named after section 529 of the Internal Revenue Code, created in 1996. Every state offers at least one 529 plan. Investment in a 529 plan enables the owner to save money, tax free, for future college expenses on behalf of a student or “beneficiary”. Although 529 plans are generally sponsored by specific states, they may be used at any eligible college, university, or trade school throughout the country.
Funds invested in 529 plans grow tax free if they are used for qualified education expenses. Qualified education expenses include tuition, required fees, room and board, required books, and required supplies. Although contributions are made with after tax dollars, residents of Colorado can deduct contributions made to the Colorado plan from their state income taxes.
The owner of a 529 plan has full control over the account. The owner has the freedom to select or change the beneficiary and select from the investment choices. Many find 529 plans preferable over custodial accounts for minors where the assets are held in the child’s name, and are irrevocable. Once funds are transferred to a custodial account, the funds must be used for the benefit of the minor. This can have unintended consequences. Here is an example, your daughter reaches the age of majority and decides she would rather have a corvette than a college education. Unfortunately, the money is hers to spend however she pleases.
Additionally, gains on custodial accounts are fully taxable. Custodial accounts can also be detrimental to financial aid because they are viewed as assets of the student. In comparison to a custodial account, a 529 plan has less impact on a student’s eligibility for need-based financial aid. A 529 plan is viewed as an asset of the parent rather than an asset of the student.
A common concern with 529 savings plans is your child may not need the funds for college expenses. Fortunately, if your designated beneficiary gets a scholarship or decides against a college education, you can change the beneficiary to another family member or to yourself. If you don’t need the money for college expenses, you can withdraw the money from the 529 plan. However, if the funds are not used for qualified education expenses you will have to pay a 10% penalty and taxes on the gains. This in not entirely bad, you have a lump sum of money that may have been spent years ago, if you weren’t saving for college.
Investing in most 529 plans is simplified by using age weighted portfolios. These portfolios gradually transition into less risky investments as the beneficiary reaches college age.
When purchasing a 529 plan, be aware of high fees and commissions. Most states offer direct programs that don’t charge sales commissions. Colorado offers the choice of an inexpensive program directly through Vanguard, without a sales load.

Pitfalls in Taking Early Social Security

Jane M. Young CFP, EA

 

You can begin taking Social Security at age 62 but there are some disadvantages to starting before your normal retirement age.   The decision on when to start taking Social Security is dependent on your unique set of circumstances.  Generally, if you plan to keep working, if you can cover your current expenses and if you are reasonably healthy you will be better off taking Social Security on or after your normal retirement age.  Your normal retirement age can be found on your annual statement or by going to www.socialsecurity.gov and searching for normal retirement age.

Taking Social Security early will result in a reduced benefit.  Your benefits will be reduced based on the number of months you receive Social Security before your normal retirement age.    For example if your normal retirement age is 66, the approximate reduction in benefits at age 62 is 25%, at 63 is 20%, at 64 is 13.3% and at 65 is 6.7%.  If you were born after 1960 and you start taking benefits at age 62 your maximum reduction in benefits will be around 30%.

On the other hand, if you decide to take Social Security after your normal retirement age, you may receive a larger benefit.  Do not wait to take your Social Security beyond age 70 because there is no additional increase in the benefit after 70.  Taking Social Security after your normal retirement age is generally most beneficial for those who expect to live beyond their average life expectancy.  If you plan to keep working, taking Social Security early may be especially tricky.  If you take benefits before your normal retirement age and earn over a certain level, the Social Security Administration withholds part of your benefit.   In 2012 Social Security will withhold $1 in benefits for every $2 of earnings above $14,640 and $1 in benefits for every $3 of earnings above $38,880.  However, all is not lost, after you reach full retirement age your benefit is recalculated to give you credit for the benefits that were withheld as a result of earning above the exempt amount. 

Another potential downfall to taking Social Security early, especially if you are working or have other forms of income, is paying federal income tax on your benefit.  If you wait to take Social Security at your normal retirement age, your income may be lower and a smaller portion of your benefit may be taxable.  If you file a joint return and you have combined income (adjusted gross income, plus ½ of Social Security and tax exempt interest) of between $32,000 and $44,000 you may have to pay income tax on up to 50% of your benefit.  If your combined income is over $44,000 you may have to pay taxes on up to 85% of your benefit. 

The decision on when to take Social Security can be very complicated and these are just a few of the many factors that should be taken into consideration.

 

 

 

Should I Invest in Variable Annuities?

Jane M. Young CFP, EA

Due to the high costs, lack of flexibility, complexity and unfavorable tax treatment variable annuities are not beneficial for most investors.  Traditional retirement accounts and Roth IRAs meet the tax deferral needs for most investors.  In some instances a variable annuity may be attractive to a high income investor who has maximized all of his traditional retirement options and needs additional opportunities for tax deferral of investment gains.  This is especially true for an investor who is currently in a very high tax bracket and expects to be in a lower tax bracket in retirement.

Generally, money in retirement accounts should not be invested in variable annuities.  The investor is already receiving the benefits of tax deferral.

A variable annuity may also be an option for someone who is willing to buy an insurance policy to buffer the risk of losing money in the stock market.  For most investors, due to the long term growth in the stock market, this guarantee comes at too high a price.  However, some investors are willing to pay additional fees in exchange for the peace of mind that a guaranteed withdrawal benefit can provide.  A word of warning, guaranteed minimum withdrawal benefits (GMWB) can be very complex and have some significant restrictions.  Do your homework, make sure you understand the product you are buying and read the contract carefully.

According to a study conducted by David M. Blanchett – the probability of a retiree actually needing income from a GMWB annuity vs. the income that could be generated from a taxable portfolio with the same value is about 3.4% for males, 5.4% for females and 7.1% for couples. The net cost is about 6.5% for males, 6.1% for females and 7.4% for couples.

Advantages and Disadvantages of Variable Annuities

 

Jane M. Young, CFP, EA

 

What is a Variable Annuity?


A variable annuity is a contract with an insurance company where you invest money into your choice of a variety of sub-accounts, similar to mutual funds. Non-qualified, variable annuities provide tax deferral on gains until the funds are withdrawn. Upon distribution your gains are taxed at regular income tax rates as opposed to capital gains rates. Variable annuities generally charge fees twice those charged by mutual funds. Additionally, you will be to subject to substantial early withdrawal charges if you purchase an annuity from an advisor who is compensated through commissions. Most variable annuities provide the option to buy a guaranteed death benefit option and/or a Guaranteed Minimum Withdrawal Benefit. These do not come without a cost and can be very complex.  Below are some advantages and disadvantages of Variable Annuities.
Advantages and Disadvantages of Variable Annuities:

Advantages:

  • Tax Deferral of gains, beneficial if you have maximized limits on other retirement vehicles such as 401ks and IRAs.
  • No Required Minimum Distribution at 70 and ½ as with traditional retirement accounts. There is no Required Minimum Distribution on Roth IRAs.
  • Death benefit and Guaranteed Lifetime Withdrawal Benefits (GLWB) riders can be purchased for additional fees. However, the death benefit is rarely instituted due to long term growth in the stock market. GLWBs can be very complex and not without risk.
  • Trades can be made within annuity without tax consequences – this is also true within all retirement accounts.
  • Non-taxable transfers can be made between companies using a 1035 exchange.
  • No annual contribution limit. Traditional retirement plans have annual contribution limits.

Disadvantages:

  • Gains taxed at regular income tax rates as opposed to capital gains rates on taxable mutual funds.
  • Higher expense structure –Mortality and Expense fees substantially higher than mutual funds.
  • Substantial surrender charges for up to 10 years on commission products
  • 10% penalty on withdrawals prior to 59 ½, this is also true with most traditional retirement accounts.
  • Complex insurance product
  • Lack of liquidity due to surrender charges and tax on gains
  • No step-up in basis, taxable mutual funds and stocks have a step-up in basis upon death
  • Loss of tax harvesting opportunities

Watch Out for These Pitfalls with Social Security and IRA Rollovers

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Jane M. Young, CFP, EA

Here are a couple issues on Social Security and IRA Rollovers that frequently catch people by surprise.

Think twice about taking your Social Security at 62 or before your regular retirement age, if you plan to work during this timeframe. In 2011, if you earn more than $14,160, Social Security will withhold $1 for every $2 earned above this amount. However, all is not lost, when you reach full retirement age Social Security will increase your benefits to make up for the benefits withheld. Once you reach your full retirement age there is no reduction in benefits for earning more than $14,160. However, the amount of tax you pay on your Social Security benefits will increase as your taxable income increases. This may be a good reason to wait until your full retirement age or until you stop working to begin taking Social Security.

If you are thinking about moving your IRA from one custodian to another I strongly encourage you to do this as a direct transfer and not as a rollover. We frequently use these terms synonymously but I assure you the IRS does not! A transfer is when you move your IRA directly from one IRA trustee/custodian to another – nothing is paid to you. A rollover is when a check is issued to you and you write a second check to the new IRA Trustee/Custodian. This must be done within 60 days or the transaction is treated as a taxable distribution. You can do as many transfers as you desire in a given year. However, you can only do one rollover per year, on a given IRA. This is a very stringent rule and there are very few exceptions even when the error is out of your control. Whenever possible be sure to use a direct transfer not a rollover to move your IRA Account.

You Are Invited to our 1st Fireside Chat of 2011 on Thursday, February 10th

Please join us at Pinnacle Financial Concepts, for our first Fireside Chat of 2011. This is a great opportunity to join us in a very relaxed atmosphere to ask questions, and get prepared for filing your tax return. On Thursday, February 10, from 7:30 to 9:00 a.m. our topic will be “There’s No Such Thing as a Stupid Investment Question” with a bonus (apologies to David Letterman) of “The Top 10 Things to Think About During Tax Season”. We’ll have a basic overview of investment definitions and things to know about investments to spur a discussion on the topic.

Please call 260-9800 x2 to reserve your spot at this chat. There is no charge, but we will limit the number of available seats and schedule an overflow date if needed.   Free coffee and donuts will be served and, as always, this is purely educational, no selling!!

Attend a Financial Fireside Chat with Jane and Linda on December 2nd to discuss “Year End Financial Planning Tips and Money Saving Ideas for the Holidays”

 

You and a guest are invited to a Financial Fireside Chat with Jane and Linda at our office, from 7:30 – 9:00 am on Thursday, December 2nd to discuss “Year End Financial Planning Tips and Money Saving Ideas for the Holidays.”

A Financial Fireside chat is an informal discussion over coffee and donuts, where our clients and guests can learn about various financial topics in a casual non-threatening environment. This is free of charge and purely educational. There will be absolutely no sales of products or services during this session. We will provide plenty of time for informal discussion.

The Fireside Chat will be held at the Pinnacle Financial Concepts, Inc. offices at 7025 Tall Oak Drive, Suite 210. Please RSVP with Judy at 260-9800.

We are looking forward to seeing you on Thursday, December 2nd to learn about and discuss some great year end financial planning ideas.

A Money Moment with Jane – A Few Financial Planning Suggestions for the Fall

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By Jane M. Young, CFP, EA

 

  • Required Minimum Distributions were not required for 2009.  However, if you are at least 70½ you will be required to take a distribution in 2010.

 

  • If you are planning to convert some of your regular IRA to a Roth IRA, do so in 2010 to spread the taxes over 2011 and 2112.

 

  • Have you maximized your Roth IRA and 401k contribution?  The 2010 contribution limit for the Roth is $5,000 plus a $1,000 catch-up provision if you are 50 or older.  The 2010 contribution limit for 401k plans is $16,500 plus a $5,500 catch-up provision if you are 50 or older.

 

  • This is a good time to do some tax planning to make sure your withholdings or estimates are adequate to cover the taxes you will owe in April. 

 

  • Do you have any underperforming stocks or mutual funds that should be sold to take advantage of a tax loss in 2010?

 

  • Now is the time to go through your home for items to be donated to charity.  These can provide a nice deduction on your 2010 tax return.

 

  • Start planning for Christmas now and save money by working to a plan. 

 

To Convert or Not Convert – Looking Beyond the Roth IRA Conversion Calculator

Jane M. Young, CFP, EA

As I mentioned in the previous article on Roth IRAs, with a Roth IRA you pay income tax now and not upon distribution. With a traditional IRA you defer taxes today and pay income taxes upon deferral. When you convert a Traditional IRA to a Roth IRA you must pay regular income taxes on the amount that is converted. The advisability of converting to a Roth depends on the length of time you have until you take distributions, your tax rate today and your anticipated tax rate upon retirement and your projected return on your investments.

When you run your numbers through one of the numerous calculators available on the internet you may or may not see a big savings in doing a Roth Conversion. However, there are several other factors that may tilt the scale toward converting some of your money to a Roth.

• Income tax rates are currently very low and there is a general consensus that they will increase considerably by the time you start taking distributions. With a Roth conversion you pay the tax now at the lower rates and take tax free distributions when the tax rates are higher.

• The stock market is still down about 25% from where it was in August of 2008. There is a lot of cash sitting on the sidelines waiting to be invested once consumer confidence is restored. You can pay taxes on money in your traditional IRA while the share prices are low and take a tax free distribution from your Roth down the road when the market has rebounded.

• You may have a sizable portion of your portfolio in tax deferred retirement accounts on which you will have to take required minimum distributions (RMD). This could put you into a much higher tax bracket. By converting some of your traditional IRA into a Roth you can get some tax diversification on your portfolio. This will lower your RMD– because there is no RMD on a Roth IRA. Diversifying your portfolio between a traditional IRA and a Roth IRA enables you to take your distributions from the most appropriate pot of money in any given year.

For more information on Roth IRAs and the new tax laws for 2010 please review the articles previously posted under Roth IRAs.

Ten Things You Can Do Now To Save Taxes in 2009

Jane M. Young, CFP, EA

Whew!! The 2008 tax season is finally over and we can relax. Well not exactly; this is a great time to prepare for 2009 taxes. A little effort now can help you save in 2009 and will make the process a whole lot smoother. Below are some ideas to help save taxes in 2009.

1. Create a folder for your 2009 tax documents and receipts. Create a file right now, and keep it somewhere convenient, to keep track of all those expenses and donations as they occur.

2. Start going through your old clothes and junk in the garage and donate it to a charity of your choice, if you itemize this can provide a sizable deduction. Remember, keep a log of everything you donate and get a receipt!

3. If you anticipate a substantial change in your 2009 income or if you owed a lot in 2008, now is the time to adjust your withholdings or your estimated payments. There is nothing worse than owing an unexpected $5000 at the end of the year.

4. Maximize your contribution to tax deferred retirement plans. Limits on the 401k, Simple and SEP have all increased this year. If you turned 50 this year you can now make catch-up contributions to your retirement plans including your IRA (assuming you are otherwise qualified).

5. Do you anticipate a decrease in income this year? You may be eligible to contribute to a Roth IRA or for a conversion from a Roth IRA to a traditional IRA. The recent drop in the stock market has made conversion to a Roth IRA very appealing. You can pay income taxes on your account now, while the balance is low. Then during retirement, when the market has recovered, you can take tax free withdrawals. In 2009 your AGI must be less than $100,000 to be eligible for a conversion.

6. Will you be paying college expenses sometime soon? If you live in Colorado you can invest the money you will be spending on college expenses in a 529 plan and deduct the contribution from your state income tax. If you have a couple kids in college this can be significant. Don’t worry; you can invest the money in something very safe within the 529 if you are worried about market volatility.

7. If you are a first time homeowner you may be eligible for a 10% credit up to $8000 if you buy a home by December 1, 2009. This is really more like an interest free loan because it must be paid back over 15 years. Additionally, it is subject to income limits. The credit begins to phase-out for joint filers with modified adjusted gross income of $150,000 or more.

8. Are you thinking about buying a new car? You may be able to deduct the sales and local tax if you buy the car this year. This is subject to an income phase out if your adjusted gross income exceeds $125,000. I know they take all the good stuff away from middle class wage earners.

9. If you own a business or work as a consultant, be sure to keep accurate and complete records. Don’t forget to track your mileage, the current deduction for business mileage is $.55 per mile. This is frequently overlooked or understated due to poor record keeping. Additionally, if you work in your home and have a dedicated work area you may want to claim a home office deduction.

10. Take advantage of the drop in the stock market to do some tax harvesting. Tax harvesting is taking advantage of a market decline to sell some of the dogs in your investment portfolio while taking a capital loss or reduced capital gain. Prior to the market drop, the sale of a particular security may have been prohibitive due to capital gains. Now you can take advantage of the drop in the market to clean up your portfolio or do some re-balancing of your asset allocation.