Year-End Tax Planning Moves for Individuals
Game Generous Standard Deduction Allowances. For 2019, the standard deduction amounts are $12,200 for singles and those who use married filing separate status, $24,400 for married joint filing couples, and $18,350 for heads of household. If your total annual itemizable deductions for 2019 will be close to your standard deduction amount, consider making additional expenditures before year-end to exceed your standard deduction. That will lower this year’s tax bill. Next year, you can claim the standard deduction, which will be increased a bit to account for inflation.
The easiest deductible expense to accelerate is included in your house payment due on January 1. Accelerating that payment into this year will give you 13 months’ worth of interest in 2019. Also, consider state and local income and property taxes that are due early next year. Prepaying those bills before year-end can decrease your 2019 federal income tax bill because your itemized deductions will be that much higher. However, the maximum amount you can deduct for state and local taxes is $10,000 ($5,000 if you use married filing separate status).
Warning: This can be a bad idea if you owe Alternative Minimum Tax (AMT) this year. That’s because write-offs for state and local income and property taxes are completely disallowed under the AMT rules. Therefore, prepaying those expenses may do little or no good if you’re an AMT victim. Contact us if you’re unsure about your exposure to AMT.
Accelerating other expenditures could cause your itemized deductions to exceed your standard deduction in 2019. For example, consider making bigger charitable donations this year and smaller contributions next year to compensate. Also, consider accelerating elective medical procedures, dental work, and vision care. For 2019, medical expenses are deductible to the extent they exceed 10% of Adjusted Gross Income (AGI), assuming you itemize.
Carefully Manage Investment Gains and Losses in Taxable Accounts. If you hold investments in taxable brokerage firm accounts, consider the tax advantage of selling appreciated securities that have been held for over 12 months. The maximum federal income tax rate on long-term capital gains recognized in 2019 is only 15% for most folks, although it can reach a maximum of 20% at higher income levels. The 3.8% Net Investment Income Tax (NIIT) also can apply at higher income levels.
To the extent you have capital losses that were recognized earlier this year or capital loss carryovers from pre-2019 years, selling winners this year will not result in any tax hit. In particular, sheltering net short-term capital gains with capital losses is a sweet deal because net short-term gains would otherwise be taxed at higher ordinary income rates.
What if you have some loser investments that you would like to unload? Biting the bullet and taking the resulting capital losses this year would shelter capital gains, including high-taxed short-term gains, from other sales this year.
If selling a bunch of losers would cause your capital losses to exceed your capital gains, the result would be a net capital loss for the year. No problem! That net capital loss can be used to shelter up to $3,000 of 2019 ordinary income from salaries, bonuses, self-employment income, interest income, royalties, and whatever else ($1,500 if you use married filing separate status). Any excess net capital loss from this year is carried forward to next year and beyond.
In fact, having a capital loss carryover into next year and beyond could turn out to be a pretty good deal. The carryover can be used to shelter both short-term and long-term gains recognized next year and beyond. This can give you extra investing flexibility in those years because you won’t have to hold appreciated securities for over a year to get a preferential tax rate. Since the top two federal rates on net short-term capital gains recognized in 2020 are 35% and 37% (plus the 3.8% NIIT, if applicable), having a capital loss carryover into next year to shelter short-term gains could be a very good thing.
Key Point: If you still have a capital loss carryover after 2020, it could come in handy if the general election results in increased tax rates for 2021 and beyond.
Take Advantage of 0% Tax Rate on Investment Income. For 2019, singles can take advantage of the 0% income tax rate on long-term capital gains and qualified dividends from securities held in taxable brokerage firm accounts if their taxable income is $39,375 or less. For heads of household and joint filers, that limit is increased to $52,750 and $78,750, respectively.
While your income may be too high to benefit from the 0% rate, you may have children, grandchildren, or other loved ones who will be in the 0% bracket. If so, consider giving them appreciated stock or mutual fund shares that they can sell and pay 0% tax on the resulting long-term gains. Gains will be long-term, as long as your ownership period plus the gift recipient’s ownership period (before the sale) equals at least a year and a day.
Giving away stocks that pay dividends is another tax-smart idea. As long as the dividends fall within the gift recipient’s 0% rate bracket, they will be federal-income-tax-free.
Warning: If you give securities to someone who is under age 24, the Kiddie Tax rules could potentially cause some of the resulting capital gains and dividends to be taxed at the higher rates that apply to trusts and estates. That would defeat the purpose. Please contact us if you have questions about the Kiddie Tax.
Give away Winner Shares or Sell Loser Shares and Give away the Resulting Cash. If you want to make gifts to some favorite relatives and/or charities, they can be made in conjunction with an overall revamping of your taxable account stock and equity mutual fund portfolios. Gifts should be made according to the following tax-smart principles.
Gifts to Relatives. Don’t give away loser shares (currently worth less than what you paid for them). Instead, you should sell the shares and book the resulting tax-saving capital loss. Then, you can give the sales proceeds to your relative.
On the other hand, you should give away winner shares to relatives. Most likely, they will pay lower tax rates than you would pay if you sold the same shares. As explained earlier, relatives in the 0% federal income tax bracket for long-term capital gains and qualified dividends will pay a 0% federal tax rate on gains from shares that were held for over a year before being sold. (For purposes of meeting the more-than-one-year rule for gifted shares, you can count your ownership period plus the gift recipient’s ownership period.) Even if the winner shares have been held for a year or less before being sold, your relative will probably pay a much lower tax rate on the gain than you would.
Gifts to Charities. The principles for tax-smart gifts to relatives also apply to donations to IRS-approved charities. You should sell loser shares and collect the resulting tax-saving capital losses. Then, you can give the sales proceeds to favored charities and claim the resulting tax-saving charitable deductions (assuming you itemize). Following this strategy delivers a double tax benefit: tax-saving capital losses plus tax-saving charitable donation deductions.
On the other hand, you should donate winner shares instead of giving away cash. Why? Because donations of publicly traded shares that you have owned over a year result in charitable deductions equal to the full current market value of the shares at the time of the gift (assuming you itemize). Plus, when you donate winner shares, you escape any capital gains taxes on those shares. This makes this idea another double tax-saver: you avoid capital gains taxes while getting a tax-saving donation deduction (assuming you itemize). Meanwhile, the tax-exempt charitable organization can sell the donated shares without owing anything to the IRS.
Convert Traditional IRAs into Roth Accounts. The best profile for the Roth conversion strategy is when you expect to be in the same or higher tax bracket during your retirement years. Given the current political environment, that’s certainly a reasonable expectation for many folks! The current tax hit from a conversion done this year may turn out to be a relatively small price to pay for completely avoiding potentially higher future tax rates on the account’s earnings. In effect, a Roth IRA can insure part or all of your retirement savings against future tax rate increases.
A few years ago, the Roth conversion privilege was a restricted deal. It was only available if your modified AGI was $100,000 or less. That restriction is gone. Even billionaires can now do Roth conversions!
Take Advantage of Principal Residence Gain Exclusion Break. Home prices are on the upswing in many areas. More good news: Gains of up to $500,000 on the sale of a principal residence are completely federal-income-tax-free for qualifying married couples who file joint returns. $250,000 is the gain exclusion limit for qualifying unmarried individuals and married individuals who file separate returns. To qualify for the gain exclusion break, you normally must have owned and used the home as your principal residence for a total of at least two years during the five-year period ending on the sale date. You’ll definitely want to take these rules into consideration if you’re planning on selling your home in today’s improving real estate environment.
Don’t Overlook Estate Planning. Thanks to the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act (TCJA), the unified federal estate and gift tax exemption for 2019 is a historically huge $11.4 million, or effectively $22.8 million for married couples. Even though these big exemptions may mean you’re not currently exposed to the federal estate tax, your estate plan may need updating to reflect the current tax rules.
Warning: In 2026, the estate and gift tax exemption is scheduled to revert to the much-lower pre-TCJA level. Depending on political developments, that could happen much sooner than 2026. However, late last year, the IRS issued proposed regulations that would protect estates that make large gifts while the ultra-generous TCJA exemption is in place. These rules haven’t been finalized, so place your bets and act accordingly. We can help you assess the various risks.
This only covers some of the year-end tax planning moves that could potentially benefit you, and not all the planning ideas will apply or make sense for your particular situation. To learn more, check out our comprehensive 2019 Year-End Tax Planning Guide. You can also read our Year-End Tax Planning for Small Businesses article. If you’d like to explore any of the suggestions above, or any other year-end planning options, please contact us. We can help in designing a year-end planning package that delivers the best tax results for your particular circumstances.