This year’s tax guide brings both good news and bad news. The good news is that tax rates, deductions and exemptions are mostly unchanged from last year. The bad news is that some key items are uncertain for 2012.
As of press time, Congress has yet to pass legislation extending the payroll tax cut, the deduction for state sales taxes or higher alternative minimum tax exemptions into 2012. Social Security taxes for employees will revert back to 6.2% of salaries in 2012 from the reduced 4.2% rate charged this year. The deduction for state sales taxes is also slated to expire on December 31, 2011. Exemptions for the alternative minimum tax will revert back to pre-2011 levels next year without new legislation.
Potentially complicating matters more is the Congressional Super Committee. The bipartisan committee had a November 23 deadline for reaching an agreement on how to reduce the U.S. federal deficit. At press time (November 22), the committee has failed to reach a compromise agreement. It is likely that taxes will become a campaign issue, resulting in eventual changes to rates, deductions and exemptions.
This would be the case particularly for 2013. The Bush-era tax cuts are scheduled to expire on December 31, 2012. Though we report in Table 1 what the 2013 tax rates are currently projected to be, these numbers seem likely to change. To put things bluntly, long-range tax planning remains difficult.
Regardless of what changes Congress makes (or does not make) to the tax laws, one thing will be constant—you will still have to pay taxes. Furthermore, even a simplified tax code is still likely to be too complex; hence the need for tax guides. As has been the case in years past, our tax guide provides an overview of the tax rates and deductions likely to impact the majority of AAII members. Since there are many details, loopholes and pitfalls within the tax code, it is impossible for this guide to provide enough details to cover specific tax situations. Thus, if you have questions, please consult a tax professional. It is your tax return, and the IRS will hold you responsible for any errors made on it.
You can now estimate your 2011 and 2012 tax liability on AAII.com. In response to a member’s request, we adjusted our Tax Forecasting Worksheet to allow you to enter your data at our website. The fillable PDF document will calculate the results. Once you are finished, you can print a copy for your records. (Be sure to print the document if you want to preserve your work since the document cannot be saved to AAII.com. See the inside front cover of this issue, opposite the Table of Contents, for more details.)
Based on existing tax law, the federal income tax rates will stay unchanged in 2011 and 2012 at 10%, 15%, 25%, 28%, 33% and 35%.
Payroll taxes (for Social Security) paid by employees are reduced by two percentage points for 2011. This cut also applies to those who are self-employed. The reduction is limited to the first $106,800 in salary, capping the value of the cut at $2,136. Those who earn less than $106,800 can only keep an extra 2% of their salary. In other words, a worker earning $50,000 per year will receive an extra $1,000 this year. Taxpayers who are not employed will not be eligible to take advantage of this tax break.
The payroll tax cut is temporary and is set to expire on December 31, 2011. President Obama has proposed extending the tax cut into 2012 as part of a broader job creation package, but Congress has yet to pass legislation authorizing the extension.
A “fix” to the alternative minimum taxthat increased the size of exemptions for 2011 was included in last year’s tax bills. The exemptions will be significantly lower for 2012 if Congress does not pass new legislation.
The repeal of the phase-out for the personal exemption is extended through 2012. Prior to 2010, the personal exemption was reduced after adjusted gross income exceeded certain levels (e.g., $250,200 for married couples filing joint returns). This penalty was rescinded for 2010 and 2011 now will continue to be so through 2012.
Families will continue to benefit from three tax breaks in 2011 and 2012. First, an adjustment for the so-called “marriage penalty” puts the standard deduction for married couples filing jointly at double the standard deduction for those filing single. Married couples can claim a standard deduction of $11,600 and single filers can claim a standard deduction of $5,800 on their 2011 tax returns. In 2012, those amounts will increase by $300 and $150, respectively.
The $1,000 maximum child tax credit is maintained in 2011 and 2012. The credit is phased out for married couples filing jointly with modified adjusted gross incomeabove $110,000 in 2011 (stays the same in 2012). If the child tax credit exceeds the tax liability, the difference will be paid to the taxpayer subject to certain requirements.
The estate tax is reinstated with larger exclusions. Specifics are discussed below.
Capital gains and dividend taxes are staying at 2010 levels in 2011 and 2012. Both long-term capital gains and qualified dividends are taxed at 15% if incurred for securities held within a taxable account. (There is no capital gains tax or dividend taxes for securities held within a retirement account, such as an IRA. See Robert Carlson’s article, “Do’s and Don’ts of IRA Investing,” in the March 2010 AAII Journal for investments that can cause an unexpected tax problem.) Collectibles, which include gold coins and bars, will be taxed at a 28% rate. Short-term capital gains will be taxed as ordinary income. If you are in the 10% or 15% tax bracket, long-term capital gains and qualified dividends are not taxed.
|Long-Term Capital Gains Rate||2011||2012||2013*|
|Tax Bracket Above 15%||15%||15%||20%|
|Tax Bracket 15% or Below||0%||0%||10%|
|Qualified Dividends Rate|
|Tax Bracket Above 15%||15%||15%||taxed as income|
|Tax Bracket 15% or Below||0%||0%||taxed as income|
|Marginal Income Tax Rates|
|Child Tax Credit||$1,000||$1,000||$500|
|Marriage Penalty Relief|
|Standard Deduction (% of S.D. for singles)||200%||200%||na|
|15% Tax Bracket (% of bracket for singles)||200%||200%||na|
Repeal (%) of Personal Exemptions Phase-outs
|Repeal (%) of Limitation on Itemized Deductions||100%||100%||na|
|Married Filing Joint||$74,450||$45,000*||$45,000|
|Head of Household||$48,450||$33,750*||$33,750|
|Exemption||$5 million||$5.12 million||$1 million|
|*Based on existing law and could be altered.|
There are two primary aspects to last year’s revisions to the estate tax code. The first is a higher exclusion amount. The first $5 million of an estate is excluded from taxes. (The exemption will increase to $5.12 million in 2012.) This a per spouse exclusion and it is portable, meaning if one spouse passes away, the surviving spouse can claim the exclusion, resulting in a total effective exclusion of $10 million in 2011 ($10.24 million in 2012). The large figures will prevent most families from having to pay estate taxes.
The second aspect is the reinstatement of the step-up basis rule. Should an inherited asset be sold, the capital gain resulting from the sale is calculated as the difference between the proceeds at the time of the sale transaction and the value of the assets at the time of inheritance.
Though heirs were able to chose between the old and the new estate tax laws in 2010, only the new law, which includes the step-up basis rule, applies to the estates of those who pass away in 2011 or 2012.
Effective January 1, 2011, brokers are required to report the cost basis for stocks sold by their clients and bought during 2011 or later. This is a change from 2010 and previous years, when brokers only reported the proceeds from the sale of the stock. In 2012, brokers will be required to report the cost basis for mutual fund and exchange-traded fund shares. Similar requirements for options and bonds go into effect in 2013. If you sold a capital asset in 2011, you will need to fill out the new Form 8949. See the special write-up in the “New Reporting of Capital Gains” box for details on the new rules.
Medical insurance premiums for the self-employed are deductible and can be used to reduce adjusted gross income for 2011 and 2012 on Form 1040. This is a change from 2010, when health insurance premiums could be used as a business expense that reduced self-employment income.
Two new changes affect how capital gains are reported: Brokers will now list the cost basis and taxpayers will use Form 8949.
First, as of the start of 2011, brokers are required to report both the cost basis of and the proceeds from stocks sold by investors. This rule applies specifically to stocks purchased after January 1, 2011; it does not apply to stocks purchased on December 31, 2010, or earlier. Mutual funds and exchange-traded funds (will be covered by this new rule beginning on January 1, 2012, and options and bonds will be covered beginning on January 1, 2013.
This is a change from what brokers have historically reported. Previously, only proceeds were listed on Form 1099-B. As of January 1, 2011, brokers must now list the cost basis. In addition, brokers must also state whether the gain or loss was short-term or long-term. The rule applies to all brokers, including online and full-service brokers.
The change is the response to a 2008 law passed by Congress. The law is intended to limit the loss in revenues caused by investors who underestimate their capital gains on tax returns.
A default accounting methodology known as first-in, first-out () will be used when the purchase of a stock involves more than one transaction. The FIFO method treats the first shares purchased (“first in”) as also being the first shares sold (“first out”). Depending on how the stock has performed, this treatment can result in a larger tax bill (the shares appreciated in value) or a bigger capital loss (the shares fell in value).
You can, however, specify to your broker which shares are to be sold first. For instance, if you built a position in a stock over the course of three days (say, Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday), you can sell the shares you bought on the last day (Wednesday) first. In order to do this, you must provide written instructions to your broker detailing your intentions before the order is executed, not afterward.
Dustin Stamper at Grant Thorton’s National Tax Office emphasized the importance of providing these instructions in writing. If you give your broker specific instructions and your broker reports a different methodology to the IRS, the only way you can dispute what is on Form 1099-B is to provide a dated copy of your instructions. Stamper said that investors will not be able to retroactively determine which shares were sold; they must provide written instructions at or before the time the shares are sold.
The second change is Form 8949. This new form has two parts: one for listing short-term sales (assets held less than one year) and one for listing long-term sales (assets held for longer than a year). The totals calculated on Form 8949 are entered on Schedule D.
Although the tax rates, deductions and exemptions for 2011 are mostly known, if you use a software program (e.g., TurboTax), book (e.g., “J.K. Lasser’s Your Income Tax 2012”) or related aid, check for updates before filing. Doing so will ensure that you are using the most up-to-date information.
Be sure to check for updated information regarding 2012 as well, if you intend to plan for next year. Since some of the rates are currently unknown, the first versions of the aids will have incomplete or outdated information. Check with the provider of any software, book or guide to see if a download or a supplement is available.
Here is a list of the tax rates, deductions, exemptions, credits and other related items that may apply to your 2011 taxes. These numbers are based on what has been published by the IRS as of the time of publication and assumptions based on the new tax law.
For 2011, the standard deduction is $11,600 for married couples filing a joint return, $5,800 for those who are single or those who are married filing separate returns, and $8,500 for heads of household.
For 2012, the standard deduction will be $11,900 for married filing a joint return, $5,950 for singles and married individuals filing separate returns, and $8,700 for heads of household.
The 2011 personal exemption is $3,700. The exemption can be claimed for yourself, your spouse (if filing a joint return) and any qualifying dependents. There is no phase-out for the personal exemption—regardless of your income level, you can claim the full amount.
Last year’s legislation extended the repeal of the phase-out through 2012. The personal exemption will be $3,800 in 2012.
The maximum allowed IRA contribution is unchanged in 2011 at $5,000 ($6,000 for any individual who is age 50 or older). The contributions can be fully deducted for modified adjusted gross incomes (modified AGI) below $90,000 for joint returns and below $56,000 for single filers. In 2012, the maximum contribution amounts will remain the same. The maximum modified AGI levels will rise to $92,000 and $58,000 for married filing joint and single returns, respectively.
In 2011, the maximum annual contribution limit for 401(k)s is $16,500 ($22,000 if you are age 50 or over); in 2012, those amounts will rise to $17,000 and $22,500 respectively.
In 2011, the maximum annual contribution for SIMPLE plans is $11,500 (those age 50 or over can make a maximum catch-up contribution of $2,500); in 2012, those amounts will remain the same.
In 2011, the maximum annual contribution for qualified plans, including SEP and Keogh plans, is $49,000 or 25% of your compensation, whichever is less; in 2012, the maximum contribution will be $50,000 or 25% of your compensation, whichever is less.
The estate tax was revised in 2010. A $5 million exemption that is portable to the surviving spouse was created. This exclusion will increase to $5.12 million in 2012. See the previous section about the estate tax for information on calculating taxable gains from the sale of the inherited assets.
The annual gift tax exclusion is $13,000 in 2011 and $26,000 for consenting couples. (You will need to file Form 709). These limits will remain unchanged in 2012.
Individuals age 70½ and older are required to take a distribution from their retirement accounts by December 31, 2011. These accounts include 401(k) plans, 403(b) plans, 457(b) plans, traditional IRAs, SEP IRAs, SARSEP IRAs, SIMPLE IRAs and Roth 401(k) plans. Roth IRA plans are exempt while the owner is alive.
You must also take a required minimum distribution (in 2012 if you are 70½ or older during the calendar year.
If you turned 70½ in 2011, you have until March 30, 2012, to take your first RMD. You will need to take a second RMD during 2012 to satisfy that year’s distribution requirement.
According to the IRS, “Generally, a RMD is calculated for each account by dividing the prior December 31st balance of that IRA or retirement plan account by a life expectancy factor that IRS publishes in Tables in Publication 590, Individual Retirement Arrangements (.”
In 2011, the maximum child tax credit for dependent children younger than 17 is $1,000. The amount remains the same for 2012.
In 2011, the “kiddie tax” applies to children up to age 18 and could apply to children up to age 23—depending on how much earned income they have and whether or not they are full-time students.
Under the kiddie tax rules, children with investment income above a certain amount may have part or all of their investment income taxed at their parents’ income tax rate.
For 2011, the kiddie tax applies if the child is 17 or under by the end of the year and the child’s total investment income for the year was more than $1,900. It is projected that this amount will remain the same for 2012.
In addition, the kiddie tax can apply to older children, depending on how much earned income they have and whether or not they are full-time students:
Donations of clothing and other personal items must be in “good condition” or better in order to be deducted. Form 8283 must be filled out if your total deduction for all noncash contributions exceeds $500.
In addition, charitable contributions of cash (regardless of the amount) to any qualified charity must be supported by a dated bank record (such as a cancelled check) or a dated receipt from the charity that must include the name of the charity and the date and amount of the contribution.
Congress also extended through 2011 the provision allowing tax-free distributions from IRAs to qualified charities for individuals over age 70½. The maximum contribution limit remains at $100,000. A qualifying transfer, or qualified charitable distribution, counts toward the IRA’s required minimum distribution. You cannot claim a deduction for a qualified charitable distribution excluded from income, however.
When Congress voted to extend the provision until December 31, 2011, it allowed taxpayers to make a qualified charitable distribution in January 2011 and have it be characterized as a 2010 contribution. Contributions characterized in this manner do not count against the 2011 limit of $100,000 on qualified charitable distributions.
As of press time, it is uncertain as to whether Congress will extend the qualified charitable distribution provision into the 2012 tax year.
For a complete tax guide to the buying and selling of your personal investments, go to our Personal Investments 2011 Tax Guide in the online version of this article.
Taxpayers who itemize deductions can deduct (as a medical expense) the premiums they pay for Medicare Part B supplemental insurance and Medicare Part D prescription drug insurance. Premiums for voluntary coverage under Medicare Part A are only deductible by those over the age of 65 and not covered by Social Security. Medical expenses must exceed 7.5% of adjusted gross income to qualify for deductions.
The phase-out of itemized deductions for taxpayers with adjusted gross income above a certain amount was fully repealed in 2010. This repeal remains in place for both 2011 and 2012, allowing the full benefit of itemized deductions to be applied.
Planning Considerations: Married taxpayers filing jointly will need to calculate whether taking the increased standard deduction or itemizing deductions will generate the most tax savings overall. When doing so, make sure to consider whether state law restricts the ability to itemize to only those who itemize for federal purposes. The higher deductions may also require more couples to pay alternative minimum tax.
As stated previously, the provision allowing taxpayers who itemize deductions the option of choosing between a deduction of sales taxes or income taxes when claiming a state and local tax deduction was extended into 2011. This deduction will expire at the end of 2011, unless Congress moves to extend the state sales tax deduction into the 2012 tax year.
State and local governments are required to report interest paid on tax-exempt state and local bonds on Form 1099-INT, Interest Income. This amount must be shown on your tax return and is for information only.
You may be able to take a deduction if you contributed to a Health Savings Account (. To qualify, you must be covered by a “high-deductible health plan.”
More information on this can be found here.
You may be able to deduct contributions to a Health Savings Account (HSA). These tax-free savings accounts were established under the Medicare Act of 2003, and can be used to pay for medical expenses incurred by you, your spouse or your dependents. They are used in conjunction with high-deductible health plans, where your basic health insurance does not cover first-dollar medical expenses.
HSAs may be established by anyone who is covered by an HSA-qualified “high-deductible health plan,” is not covered by any other health insurance and is not enrolled in Medicare. Qualified high-deductible health plans must have an annual deductible of at least $1,200 for self-coverage and $2,400 for family coverage in 2011; these minimum deductibles will remain the same in 2012.
Tax-deductible contributions can be made to the health savings account up to a maximum of $3,050 for self-coverage and $6,150 for families in 2011. In 2012, these amounts will increase to $3,100 and $6,250, respectively. If you are over age 55, you can also make a “catch-up” contribution to your account of up to $1,000 and still enjoy the same tax advantages.
Individuals can also make a one-time transfer from their IRA to an HSA, subject to the contribution limits applicable for the year of the transfer.
Contributions to HSAs can be made by you, your employer or both. You can fully deduct your own contributions to an HSA, even if you do not itemize, and contributions made by your employer are not included in your taxable income. The interest and investment earnings generated by the account are also not taxable while in the HSA.
Amounts distributed from the HSA are not taxable as long as they are used to pay for qualified medical expenses. They can be used to:
Amounts distributed that are not used to pay for qualified medical expenses will be taxable, plus a 20% penalty will be applied.
HSAs are similar to IRAs in that they are owned by individuals—you are not dependent on a particular employer to enjoy the advantages of an HSA. And if you change jobs, the HSA goes with you.
What if you already have an existing medical savings account (MSA)? In that case, you can either retain it or roll the amount over into a new HSA.
For more information on HSAs, read IRS Publication 969, available at www.irs.gov.
The 2009 stimulus bill expanded the Hope education credit into the American Opportunity education credit. The maximum credit is $2,500 per year for the first four years of post-secondary education for tuition and related expenses (including books). However, the credit phases out for higher income taxpayers. This credit was extended for both 2011 and 2012.
The Lifetime Learning credit can be claimed for education expenses beyond the fourth year of post-secondary education and for non-degree courses intended to improve job skills. The maximum credit is $2,000 annually and is subject to income phase-outs.
You can make non-deductible contributions to qualified tuition plans, also known as section 529 plans. (However, the contributions may be deductible from your state income tax, depending on where you live.) These accounts, offered by states or their designees, are maintained solely for the qualified higher education expenses of a beneficiary. Distributions are tax-free, provided that the distributions are used to pay qualified expenses. Though the definition of “qualified education expense” has included computers, computer technology and Internet service, this is no longer the case in 2011.
For both 2011 and 2012, the contribution limit to a Coverdell Education Savings Account was kept at $2,000 per beneficiary, as part of the 2010 tax law. The contributions are not deductible, but they grow tax-free in the IRA. Coverdell accounts may be used to fund qualified elementary, secondary and higher education expenses. However, the amount that can be contributed is limited for higher-income taxpayers.
Given the nature of the changing tax rates in the past few years, and the likelihood that changes will be made in the near future, tax planning opportunities are difficult to assess.
Listed below are traditional tax planning strategies that can help keep your tax bill down under various tax scenarios. It is important, however, to keep in mind that your goals and risk tolerance, not just the income tax impact of an investment, should drive your investment decisions.
You have the option of converting all or part of your traditional IRA into a Roth IRA, regardless of your adjusted gross income. Roth IRAs can provide certain advantages: The converted assets can be withdrawn tax-free at any time, future earnings are also tax-free (with some limitations), and Roth IRA owners are not required to take any minimum distributions in retirement. The downside, however, is that the conversion amount is taxable in the year it occurred.
An exception existed in 2010 that allowed the taxes from the conversion to be paid in equal amounts in 2011 and 2012. If you opted for two-year deferral in 2010, you must report one-half of the taxable conversion on your 2011 tax return, and the other half on your 2012 tax return.
Conversions made in 2011 must be reported in full on your 2011 tax return. The same rule applies for conversions made in 2012—they must be reported on your 2012 tax return. You cannot defer taxes on conversions made in either in 2011 or 2012.
While the benefits of a Roth IRA conversion could be considerable, taxpayers must carefully weigh the upfront tax costs against the long-term tax advantages. For more on this, see “Retirement Plans: Evaluating the New Roth IRA Conversion Opportunity” by Christine Fahlund in the November 2009 AAII Journal and “New Rules for Converting to a Roth IRA” by William Reichenstein, Alicia Waltenberger and Douglas Rothermich in the January 2010 AAII Journal. Though the articles discuss the 2010 option for delaying the taxes from the conversion, their suggestions regarding whether to convert or not continues to be applicable. You may also want to consult a tax advisor for the best strategy.
Deferring income that is taxed at higher ordinary tax rates makes sense. However, currently qualified dividends and long-term capital gains are taxed at the same rate—and the rates are at a rock bottom 0% for taxpayers in the 15% or below marginal tax brackets. The 2010 tax law extended these rates until the end of 2012, at which time Congress will have to act to prevent them from resetting to a higher level, if it does not act sooner.
The current tax environment continues to present the opportunity to sell low-basis stock held for more than one year, because long-term capital gains rates may eventually be reset higher from the maximum rate of 15% (0% for the two lowest income brackets). Though tax considerations should never be the primary reason for selling a security, if you have large positions in either gifted or inherited stocks, or stocks received from a sale of a business, you should consider using the proceeds from selling the stock to diversify your portfolio. This is particularly the case if a large portion of your wealth is concentrated in just a few securities.
You may be able to exclude up to $250,000 of gain ($500,000 for married taxpayers filing jointly) when you sell your main home. The exclusion is allowed each time you sell your main home, but no more than once every two years.
To exclude the gain, you must have owned the home and used it as your principal residence for at least two out of the five years before its sale. Periods of use include short absences (such as summer vacations), but not longer breaks (such as one-year sabbaticals). You also must not have excluded the gain on another home sale during the two years before the current sale.
Married taxpayers filing a joint return can exclude gains if either qualifies for the year of the sale, but both spouses must meet the use test to claim the $500,000 maximum exclusion.
If you do not meet the ownership and use tests, you may be allowed to exclude a reduced amount if the sale was due to health, a change in employment or certain unforeseen circumstances.
A widow or widower can take up to two years after the death of a spouse to sell a home and claim the $500,000 exclusion, as long as the survivor has not remarried and the sale would otherwise meet the requirements.
Be aware that under a change in tax laws that took effect in 2009, if you convert a second home into your main home, you may not be able to exclude all of your gain on the subsequent sale of that home even if you meet the ownership and use requirements. The portion of the gain that is no longer excludable is based on the ratio of the time after 2008 that it was a second home relative to the total time you owned it.
Excluded gains are not reported on your federal tax report; unexcluded gains are reported on Schedule D, Capital Gains or Losses.
For a complete description of the rules, see IRS Publication 523, Selling Your Home, available at www.irs.gov.
While tax considerations should not drive your investment decision, you can take advantage of losses in holdings that you would prefer to either sell or reduce from an investment standpoint.
Capital losses first reduce capital gains: long-term losses reduce long-term gains first, and short-term losses reduce short-term gains first. Any long-term losses left over reduce short-term gains, and vice versa. If you still have losses remaining after offsetting capital gains, you can reduce your “ordinary” income by up to $3,000. Losses not used this year can be carried forward to future years until they are used up. For more information, see “Capital Pains: Rules for Capital Losses” by Julian Block in the September 2010 AAII Journal.
When planning, make sure you don’t run afoul of the wash-sale rules. If you sell an investment at a loss and then acquire substantially identical securities during the 30-day period before or 30-day period after the sale, the loss will be disallowed. If your loss is disallowed by the wash sale rule, you can reduce the cost basis of the new stock by the amount of the disallowed loss. The holding period for the new stock is also adjusted to include the holding period of the stock sold at the disallowed loss. You cannot adjust the cost basis or holding period if you acquire the investment in a IRA or Roth IRA, however.
Selecting tax-aware managers of mutual funds may be important to maximizing your aftertax rate of return in your taxable investment portfolio.
You may choose when to sell shares of the fund and may, therefore, create long-term versus short-term capital gains. But you don’t control the investments within the fund. Should an equity manager fail to extend the holding period on a stock, it could cost you 20% of your gain (35% ordinary rate for short-term capital gains versus 15% long-term capital gains rate).
Some mutual fund dividends will qualify for the 15% rate, while others will not. Dividends paid by stocks held by the fund and passed through to the shareholder will qualify for the dividend tax rate. However, capital distributions and bond interest will not. These payments are reported on Form 1099, which specifies the type of distribution.
For more on mutual fund distributions, click here.
Investment returns generated by a mutual fund or an exchange-traded fundcan take the form of dividends, interest or capital gains and losses. Funds are required to distribute dividends, interest and net realized gains to you each year. (However, both mutual fund and ETF managers can use strategies to limit distributions and offset realized capital gains; therefore, it is possible for a fund not to distribute a realized gain for a given year.)
Distributions are taxable whether you take them in cash or reinvest them in fund shares, unless they are income dividends from tax-exempt municipal bond funds, or if they are within a tax-sheltered account such as an IRA or other retirement account (where they are tax-sheltered until withdrawn).
The status of any capital gain or dividend distributed to you by a fund depends on how long the fund owned the securities that produced the gain or dividend—not on how long you owned shares in the fund. The information you will need to determine how your distributions are taxed will be on your fund’s Form 1099.
A fund’s capital losses are never distributed to shareholders, but are used to offset capital gains realized by the fund during the year. Any additional losses are carried forward by the fund to apply against gains realized in the future. The only losses you can claim are those you may have incurred when you redeemed your own shares of a fund.
Because fund distributions are taxed even if they are reinvested, it is important to remember that you should add reinvested income, dividends and capital gains (from both taxable and tax-free funds) to your original cost basis when it comes time to figure gains or losses on any fund shares that are sold. If you do not, you will, in effect, be paying taxes twice on those distributions. (Beginning on January 1, 2012, mutual funds and brokers will be required to report the cost basis for mutual fund shares and ETFs bought and sold after that date.)
In addition, consider delaying an investment in a fund if you are investing close to the fund’s ex-dividend date. When a distribution is made, it is subject to tax, even if you reinvest it in that fund (although the reinvested amount increases your tax basis in the fund).
Most funds commonly make distributions toward the end of the year. Investors must be wary of this distribution date. Generally, you should not invest in a fund shortly before its distribution date, because a portion of your investment will be immediately returned to you with an accompanying tax liability. Most mutual fund and ETF providers should be able to give you a good idea of when their year-end distributions will take place, so calling the fund company prior to investing can be a wise move.
AAII’s “Individual Investor’s Guide to the Top Mutual Funds” and “Individual Investor’s Guide to the Top Exchange-Traded Funds” list tax-cost ratios for all covered funds. The February 2012 AAII Journal will include the latest mutual fund guide; the ETF guide was published in the August 2011 AAII Journal.
Interest from tax-free municipal bonds is generally exempt from federal income taxes, unlike the interest from taxable bonds, which is taxed as income. Like any bond, credit quality matters as you want to ensure that the issuer will not default. Changing yields can also alter the aftertax yield advantage, making municipal bonds more or less attractive to taxable bonds.
Additionally, private-activity bonds (a type of tax-free bond) could increase your exposure to the alternative minimum tax since their interest income is taxable for purposes of the alternative minimum tax. There are exceptions, including qualified 501(c)(3) bonds, New York Liberty bonds, and Gulf Opportunity Zone bonds. Furthermore, the interest on qualified bonds issued in 2009 and 2010 is not subject to the alternative minimum tax. Check with the bond issuer for the bond’s tax status.
You should review your bond and money market accounts to make sure that you are earning the highest aftertax return. But don’t forget to consider the state tax implications of switching from tax-free to taxable bonds before making any final portfolio decisions.
Increasing retirement savings makes sense from a financial planning standpoint and, depending on your adjusted income, may reduce your tax bill. You have until April 17, 2012, to make an IRA contribution for the 2011 tax year.
At press time, it is uncertain whether Congress will extend this year’s payroll tax cut into 2012. Social Security taxes for workers were reduced by two percentage points, to 4.2%, in 2011, but the cut is slated to end on December 31, 2011.
|Below $25,000 Single & Head of Household||0%|
|Below $32,000 Married Filing Jointly||0%|
|$25,000 to $34,000 Single & Head of Household||up to 50%|
|$32,000 to $44,000 Married Filing Jointly||up to 50%|
|Above $34,000 Single & Head of Household||up to 85% of benefits + other income|
|Above $44,000 Married Filing Jointly||up to 85% of benefits + other income|
The spread between capital gains and ordinary income rates has important implications with respect to your asset allocation between taxable and tax-deferred (retirement) accounts. For example, from a tax perspective, holding individual stocks in tax-deferred accounts and bonds in taxable accounts could be expensive, because the long-term gains resulting from stocks held in tax-deferred plans such as IRAs or 401(k) plans will be taxed at ordinary rates when taken as a distribution. By reversing that structure, taxable bonds and other tax-inefficient assets will be shielded from taxation in the deferred accounts, while equities will enjoy the reduced rates for dividends and capital gains in personal accounts. Tax-free municipal bonds should, of course, remain outside of retirement accounts. Individuals should also consider the cost of commissions and taxes, as well as current cash flow needs, before making any investment moves between taxable and tax-deferred accounts.
If you are receiving Social Security benefits, you may have to pay taxes on them if your modified adjusted gross income (primarily your taxable income plus any tax-exempt interest income plus half of your Social Security benefits) exceeds certain levels. To protect your benefits, watch the amount of interest you receive from municipal bonds, since this amount is included in your modified adjusted gross income when determining the Social Security benefit taxability. In addition, you may want to delay taxable distributions from a retirement plan or IRA.
It is important to remember that taxes are not the key to investment planning. And the temporary duration of the current tax law provisions should motivate individuals to reconsider existing strategies in the coming years. However, one thing is certain: There will be more tax changes coming, and everyone should consider how the changes directly affect their overall tax and investment strategies.
At the end of each year, you should take the time to assess your tax situation. Doing so will give you the opportunity to shift certain items around, should that be beneficial in terms of your tax liability. Taking a few initial steps now and using year-end planning strategies can result in significant tax savings.
How can you effectively plan?
Here are the basic steps you should take to help start your personal tax planning:
Make sure you determine your 2012 tax liability as early as possible, as well as the due dates for paying those taxes (including the self-employment tax and the alternative minimum tax), so that you avoid underpayment penalties.
Federal tax law requires the payment of income taxes throughout the year as you earn your income. This obligation may be met through withholding, quarterly estimated tax payments, or both. If you do not meet this obligation, you may be assessed an underpayment penalty.
If your total tax due minus the amount you had withheld is less than 10% of your total tax due, you will not be assessed an underpayment penalty. The disadvantage of overpaying throughout the year, though, is that you are in effect making an interest-free loan to the government. However, the underpayment penalty can be high, and it is calculated as interest on the underpaid balance until it is paid, or until the regular filing date for the final tax return, whichever is earlier.
You can avoid underpayment tax penalties by adopting one of the safe harbor rules. The basic rule is to pay the required amount by the end of the year through withholding and quarterly estimated payments. The required amount will be one of the following, depending on your individual situation:
Penalties are based on any underpayment, which is the difference between the lowest amount required to be paid by each quarterly payment date and the amount actually paid by that date. The annual required amount, based on either of the first two alternatives, is paid in equal installments. In the case of the third method, which is based on annualized income, the amount due each quarter is based on actual income received for each installment period. The third method is typically more beneficial if you do not earn income evenly throughout the year (e.g., you operate a seasonal business) or had an unexpected increase in income, because it allows for lower required payments in the early quarters.
Income tax payments made through withholding from your paycheck (or from your pension or other payments) are given special treatment. The IRS treats income tax that is withheld as having been paid equally throughout the year (unless you prefer to use actual payment dates). This lets you make up for underpaid amounts retroactively, because amounts withheld late in the year may be used to increase the amounts paid in earlier quarters.
State and Local Rules: Be aware that many states have underpayment rules that vary from the federal requirements.
You have opportunities to reduce your taxes if you can control the timing of either your income or expenses. However, it is important to make sure you understand whether you may be subject to the alternative minimum tax (here for more information.)before adopting these strategies. (Click
Your income is generally taxed in the year of receipt, so having the ability to control when you receive it affords a strategic tax planning opportunity. Deferring income until a later year will, in most cases, delay the payment of tax. You cannot defer taxation by merely delaying receipt of the income if the funds are available to you and the time of payment is subject to your unrestricted discretion. Any decision to defer income must be weighed with the lost time-value of the money and other risks that could alter or forfeit your right to the income.
The timing of bonuses, recognition of capital gains from the sale of stocks, and the exercise of non-qualified stock options are all events that can easily be delayed into a subsequent year. You should also consider the deferral of compensation through the use of various retirement plans and deferred-compensation arrangements. If you operate a business or collect rental income and report that income on the cash receipts and disbursements method, you have an opportunity to delay or accelerate the billing to your customers or tenants and determine the timing of the related income.
Are you subject to the alternative minimum tax? This tax comes as a surprise to many taxpayers. You may be subject to this tax, especially if any of the following criteria apply to your situation:
The alternative minimum tax is calculated by first determining the tentative minimum tax. The tentative minimum tax is 26% of the first $175,000 ($87,500 for married filing separately) of alternative minimum taxable income in excess of the exemption amount, plus 28% of any additional alternative minimum taxable income. However, for alternative minimum tax purposes, dividends and capital gains will be taxed under the same rules as those used for regular tax calculations. The alternative minimum tax is the excess of the tentative minimum tax above the regular tax calculated.
Alternative minimum taxable income adds back certain preference items to regular taxable income—including state income taxes, real estate taxes and miscellaneous itemized deductions—and can cause the alternative minimum tax to be larger than the regular tax.
In addition, although the tax rate on capital gains and dividend income is the same for both the regular tax and the alternative minimum tax, the disparity in rates between the alternative minimum tax and the regular tax may result in a higher effective rate on all income, including capital gains and dividends.
The IRS offers the AMT Assistant, an electronic version of the AMT Worksheet in the 1040 Instructions. By filling in a few simple questions, you can determine whether or not you owe the alternative minimum tax. Go to the AMT Assistant at www.irs.gov (found in the Individuals section).
You can reduce taxes by controlling the payment of deductible expenses. If paid by December 31, you may deduct certain expenses that are due the following year on your current year tax return. This strategy helps when you have a higher tax liability in the current year than you expect to have in the coming year. Again, you must balance this decision with the time-value of money and other inherent risks.
For example, if you paid a deductible expense in December 2011 instead of April 2012, you reduced your 2011 tax instead of your 2012 tax, but you also lost the use of your money for three-and-one-half months. Generally, this will be to your advantage, unless you have an alternative use for the funds that will produce a very high return in that three-and-one-half-month period. You must decide whether the cash used to pay the expense early should be used for something more urgent or more valuable than the accelerated tax benefit.
For those who will pay 2012 estimated taxes based on their 2011 tax liability, reducing your 2011 taxes has another advantage: Your 2012 estimated tax payments may be smaller.
If accelerating deductions makes sense for you and you choose to claim a deduction on your state and local income taxes, you may want to prepay the balance on your estimated state tax liability in December, rather than waiting until 2012. This secures that deduction on your 2011 tax return, even though the payment might not be required by the state until January 17, 2012, or April 17, 2012.
If you are planning on making a gift to a charity in 2012, consider making the gift in 2011 to accelerate the tax benefit of the contribution. However, it is important to note that certain limitations exist with respect to deductions for charitable contributions.
You should also consider the benefits of gifting appreciated stock to a charity. If you donate long-term appreciated stock directly to the charity, you get a deduction for the full fair market value of the stock; whereas, if you sell the stock first and donate cash, you only get a deduction for the aftertax cash donated. (If you have an unrealized loss in the stock, however, it might be more beneficial from a tax standpoint to sell the stock and then donate the cash proceeds. Doing so would give you deductions for both the capital loss and the charitable donation.)
When making a gift to charity, you must have an appropriate record of the gift in order to properly support the deduction. In addition, cash contributions of any amount must be supported by a written record, either in the form of a bank record (for example, a cancelled check) or a written receipt from the charity. The record must include the name of the charity, the date, and the amount of the contribution.
If you are expecting a refund on your 2011 income tax, you can check on its status if it has been at least three to four weeks since the date you filed your return by mail, or 72 hours if you filed electronically. You will need to supply the following information: your Social Security number or IRS Individual Taxpayer Identification number, your filing status, and the exact whole-dollar refund amount as it is shown on your return.
You can check the status of your refund in two ways:
If you are unable to get information on your refund through either of these two automated services, you can call the IRS for assistance at 800-829-1040.
The IRS website also allows you to start a trace for lost or missing refund checks, or to notify the IRS of an address change when refund checks go undelivered. Taxpayers can avoid undelivered refund checks by having refunds deposited directly into a personal checking or savings account. This option is available for both paper and electronically filed returns.
A cash basis taxpayer may not deduct prepaid interest before the tax year to which the interest relates. However, there is some flexibility to prepay year-end interest that is due early in the following year. For example, if a mortgage payment is due on January 10, a taxpayer can accelerate the deduction of the portion of the interest relating to the period up to January 1 by mailing the check in December.
The most significant interest deductions currently available are for home mortgage interest and for investment interest expense to the extent of current-year investment income. Interest paid in relation to investments that earn a tax-free return is not deductible.
If the timing of certain medical and dental expenditures is flexible and your overall medical expenses are high in the current year, you may want to accelerate the timing of these expenses. Because unreimbursed medical expenses are only deductible to the extent that they exceed 7.5% of adjusted gross income, it is best from a tax standpoint to incur expenses—such as replacement eyeglasses or contact lenses, elective surgery, dental work, and routine physical examinations—in a year in which you have already gone over (or the added expenses would take you over) the 7.5% threshold.
Miscellaneous Itemized Deductions
Miscellaneous itemized deductions are only deductible to the extent that they exceed 2% of adjusted gross income. This category is large but includes:
Accelerating miscellaneous itemized deductions only benefits taxpayers who accumulate expenses sufficient enough to exceed the 2% threshold. If possible, it may be advantageous to pay these types of expenses in one year if, because of the 2% floor, you would not receive a benefit of the deduction in each of the two consecutive years.
The alternative minimum tax (was originally designed to ensure that everyone would pay his or her fair share of income taxes. In 1987, only 140,000 taxpayers were subject to the AMT. Since then, however, it has evolved into a separate tax regime that could affect millions of unsuspecting taxpayers at some time in the future.
The wisdom of conventional tax planning advice to defer income and accelerate certain types of deductions may not hold true if an individual expects to be subject to the AMT. Accordingly, during the tax planning process, it is critical that you determine whether you are subject to the AMT in both the current year and the following year. This analysis is even more complicated because the AMT exemption level must be “fixed” on nearly an annual basis. (Last year’s tax bill provided AMT exemptions for only 2010 and 2011; Congress will have to act on the 2012 exemptions to prevent a large number of taxpayers from being hit by the AMT.)
If you are continuously subject to the AMT, avoid investing in private-activity (municipal) bonds. Income from these bonds is taxable for AMT purposes. (There are exceptions, including qualified 501(c)(3) bonds, New York Liberty bonds, and Gulf Opportunity Zone bonds. Also, the interest on qualified bonds issued in 2009 and 2010 is not subject to the alternative minimum tax. Check with the bond issuer for the bond’s tax status.) Furthermore, you should be aware that unusual combinations of income and deductions might require AMT planning that runs contrary to conventional tax-planning advice.
Although the exercise of an incentive stock option) does not give rise to regular taxable income for the employee, the difference between the exercise price and the market price of a stock must be recognized for AMT purposes for the year in which the option is exercised. Accordingly, the exercise of incentive stock options with a large bargain element often causes a tax liability under the alternative minimum tax regime.
The AMT arena is extremely complex, so generalizations are difficult to make. If you think you may be subject to the alternative minimum tax you should consult with a tax professional to determine how to minimize your exposure.
Year-end planning from an estate planning perspective typically involves ensuring that “annual exclusion” gifts are completed by the end of a calendar year.
Under the federal gift tax system, each donor is permitted to make non-taxable gifts of a certain amount each year to any donee. These gifts are called “annual exclusion” gifts and do not count against the donor’s lifetime gifts exemption. The annual gift tax exclusion level is $13,000 for both 2011 and 2012. To the extent not used, the annual exclusion evaporates at the end of each calendar year.
Annual transfers that take advantage of this exclusion can both diminish the donor’s estate tax liability and improve the lives of the recipients. These gifts can take many forms (cash, stocks, real estate, partnership interests) and can be given outright through Uniform Transfers to Minors accounts, and even through a trust—provided it contains special provisions designed to allow the gift to qualify for the annual exclusion.
A special note of thanks goes out to Mark Luscombe, JD, LLM, CPA, a principal federal tax analyst at tax authority CCH (www.cch.com), a Wolters Kluwer business, for answering detailed questions about the current and prospective rules. In addition, “J.K. Lasser’s Your Income Tax 2012” (John Wiley & Sons, 2011) was extremely helpful in creating this year’s guide.