Start Thinking about End-of-Year Tax Planning Now

David Garcia

David L. Garcia, CPA, CFP®, ADPA® Principal, Wealth Manager

Most folks hate to think about paying taxes, let alone end-of-year tax planning strategies. Unfortunately, ignoring tax planning can lead to paying Uncle Sam more than is required. The last four years have seen the introduction of new income-based Medicare premium increases along with increases in the top income tax, capital gains, and dividend rates. Starting to plan as early as possible is crucial since most strategies need to be completed prior to year end. Depending on your situation, it may make sense to either accelerate or delay deductions and income. This blog post briefly discusses some of the most often used tax planning strategies, but is by no means an exhaustive list. Tax planning strategies can be complex and should always be considered in close consultation with your accountant and financial advisor to make sure decisions are made with your unique tax situation in mind.

Harvesting Losses

At first glance, it may seem silly to intentionally sell an investment for a loss. However, opportunistic tax loss harvesting can boost after-tax returns. Suppose you have a $50,000 investment in the U.S. stock market via a broad market index fund that loses 10% of its value this year. You can sell this index fund and turn around at the same time and buy a very similar U.S. index investment, losing no market exposure but banking a $5,000 loss for tax purposes. This can be a beneficial tool for reducing taxes while maintaining your asset allocation and risk/return profile. Even if you do not have any gains to apply the loss to in the year of sale, up to $3,000 can be used against ordinary income items such as wages. Further, any excess unused loss is carried forward to be used in future tax years.

There are some important limitations to tax loss harvesting that should be kept in mind. The IRS will not let you sell an investment and at the same exact time buy back that identical investment just to create a tax loss. IRS rules state you must wait 30 days to purchase the identical investment sold for the loss or you violate what is commonly referred to as the “wash sale rule.” A wash sale disallows the loss for tax purposes. However, IRS rules do allow you to purchase a very similar investment, preferably one that is highly correlated with the investment sold for a loss, without breaking the wash sale rule. For example, selling the S&P 500 SPDR and replacing it with the Vanguard total stock market index would give almost identical market exposure while not violating the wash sale rule.

The bottom line is that actively managing capital gains and losses near year end can increase after-tax returns over time. Just be sure to consult with your accountant or investment advisor to make sure you do not run afoul of any limitations.

Medicare Premiums for High-Income Earners

In 2016, some Medicare recipients began to see an additional 16% base premium increase set into motion by two different laws. One law says that ordinary recipients can’t have their standard premium go up by more than the Social Security cost of living increase for that year. Since there was no cost of living increase in 2016, this benefited about 70% of beneficiaries. Unfortunately, another law shifted the burden of increasing Medicare costs onto the remaining 30% of beneficiaries. This unlucky 30% includes folks who don’t deduct Medicare premiums from their Social Security checks, those who didn’t receive Social Security in 2015, and high-income earners.

If that wasn’t bad enough, on top of the 16% base increase, Medicare also penalizes about 5% of high-income beneficiaries with premium surcharges. The surcharges begin at adjusted gross income levels above $85,000 for singles and $170,000 for married folks filing jointly. To make matters worse, the income thresholds are currently not indexed for inflation, so more people will be affected by the surcharges in coming years. Tax planning can help reduce the bite of surcharges.

The Medicare surcharges are determined by a taxpayer’s modified adjusted gross income (MAGI). For most folks, this is adjusted gross income plus tax-exempt interest. This number is calculated before itemized deductions, so the usual deductions like charitable donations and mortgage interest won’t help. However, if you are charitably inclined, there is one strategy that might help reduce your MAGI. If you have to make a required minimum distribution (RMD) from your IRA every year, the distribution goes on your 1040 as ordinary income and increases your MAGI. The IRS allows you to give up to $100,000 of your RMD to charity and have it avoid your 1040 all together, thereby directly reducing your MAGI. Other strategies beneficiaries may want to consider include harvesting capital losses to offset gains that increase MAGI, moving forward or putting off income events in the current tax year, and utilizing Roth accounts for income. The bottom line is that a little planning could save you a lot in Medicare premiums.

Roth Conversions

In 2010 Congress repealed the income limit on Roth IRA conversions affording taxpayers, regardless of their income, the opportunity to pay off the embedded tax liabilities in their IRAs. Taxpayers who take advantage of Roth conversions should consult with their tax professionals and financial advisors to make sure converting to a Roth IRA makes sense for their particular situation. Even though converting traditional IRA assets to a Roth IRA creates current income tax, there are several situations where it may make sense to perform a Roth conversion. Perhaps you have retired recently and find yourself in a low tax bracket, making a Roth conversion less expensive. Many people convert IRA assets because they want to create a tax-free retirement asset for their heirs or to use up operating losses from their business. Whatever your reason, your future tax bracket, time horizon, estate plans, and whether you have cash outside of your IRA to pay the conversion taxes should all figure into your decision.

Conclusion

Tax planning is an important part of everyone’s financial plan. Most people approach tax issues in a reactive manner instead of being proactive. By starting to think about your current tax circumstances before year end, you may save yourself taxes and take advantage of opportunities on which you may otherwise miss out.

Feel free to contact David Garcia with any questions by phone 305.448.8882 ext. 224 or email: DGarcia@EK-FF.com.

 

Kitces, Michael E. “Planning for the New 3.8% Medicare Tax on Unearned (Portfolio) Income.” Nerd’s Eye View. N.p., Apr. 2010. Web. <www.kitces.com>.

“Medicare Premiums: Rules for Higher-Income Beneficiaries.” Social Security Administration. N.p., Jan. 2016. Web. <www.socialsecurity.gov>.

“Advanced Tax Strategies Using a Roth IRA Conversion.” Putnam Investments. N.p., n.d. Web. 19 July 2016. <www.putnamwealthmanagement.com>.

Cubanski, Juliette, Tricia Neuman, Gretchen Jacobson, and Karen E. Smith. “Raising Medicare Premiums for Higher-Income Beneficiaries: Assessing the Implications.” Kaiser Family Foundation. N.p., Jan. 2014. Web. <www.kff.org>

Taxes: It Pays to Treat Them Right

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Harold Evensky CFP® , AIF® Chairman

I know how most people feel about taxes: don’t tax me, don’t tax thee, tax the man behind the tree. Unfortunately, ultimately we gotta pay. Everyone’s interested in minimizing the pain and that’s why I’m sitting here trying to put together a talk on tax planning for our local Rotary Club. It’s a great group of sophisticated professionals, and I don’t want to talk down to them, but I do want to provide some useful information.

Trying to balance those issues reminded me of a complaint one of my client’s accountant had about how we had selected some of his bond investments. I remembered that sophisticated doesn’t necessarily mean knowledgeable. So here’s what I came up with:

Don’t Let the Tax Tail Wag the Dog

The accountant’s complaint about our choice of bonds was a result of his focusing on the tax tail. Our client was in a moderately high tax bracket; however, we had his short-term, fixed-income investments in corporate bonds. “Move ’em to tax-free municipals” was the accountant’s advice. Well, it’s true, our clients would have paid less tax if we’d invested them in municipal bonds, but they would also have had a lower after-tax return. Why? At the time, taxable bonds were paying 5 percent and similar quality and maturity municipals were paying 3¼ percent. That meant our 30 percent marginal tax bracket client had a choice of earning 3¼ percent with no tax obligation or 5 percent with the obligation of paying 30 percent of his interest payments to Uncle Sam. Which would you choose? I hope the 5 percent.

Even if you peel off the 30 percent tax bite, that would leave 3½ percent in your pocket. It’s not rocket science to see that 3½ percent is better than 3¼ percent. The moral? When choosing between equivalent-quality taxable and tax-free investments, don’t worry about how much you’ll have to pay Uncle Sam (even if painful). Instead, keep your eye focused on how much you’ll have after paying taxes.

Turnover Doesn’t Tell All

It’s common for investors to use turnover as a measure of tax efficiency. Don’t do it. When you look at an investment’s turnover number, it’s natural to think it represents a pro-rata turnover of all the securities in the portfolio. For example, a 60 percent turnover would mean that 60 percent of the positions in the portfolio are sold in one year. Sound reasonable? As my brother, the economist, would say, au contraire. A 60 percent turnover doesn’t necessarily mean that 60 percent of the stocks have been traded. It might well mean 20 percent of the stocks have been traded three times. All of those trades may have been the sale of stocks with losses, not gains, so the manager not only generated no tax bite, he also realized losses that can shelter future gains.

And the Rest of the Story (the Most Important Part)

Taxes are a function of something called a holding period, not turnover. The holding period is the average number of years it would require to turn over all of the positions in the portfolio. To explain: let’s assume that the manager has a portfolio chock full of stocks with taxable gains and he is trading all of the stock in his portfolio pro rata. So a 20 percent portfolio turnover would mean one-fifth of the stocks would be sold each year, or 100 percent in five years. That means, on average, the manager holds stocks for two and a half years.

Obviously, a portfolio with a 90 percent turnover would realize pretty much all of the gains in the first year, which means lots of taxes; consequently, a 50 percent turnover sounds a lot better. But if you think about it, 50 percent means selling one-half this year and paying the taxes, and one-half next year with more taxes. The difference between paying all of the taxes in year one versus one-half of them in year one and one-half in year two is negligible. The graph below shows the relationship. Unless turnover is very low—less than 10–15 percent, there is no real tax efficiency.

The moral? Avoid the murky middle. A few years ago, my partner, Deena Katz, and I co-edited a book called the Investment Think Tank (Bloomberg Press). We invited several friends (practitioners and academics) to contribute chapters on subjects they believed were of vital importance for advisors.

Recognizing the importance of the holding period, Jean Brunel, managing principal of Brunel Associates, introduced the concept of the murky middle. He noted that the more active the manager, the more you’d expect him to add value. After all, why would you want to pay the trading cost and suffer the tax inefficiency of active trading if you weren’t rewarded with extra net returns? He also noted the reality of the elbow graph above: no matter the manager’s intention, as turnover increases a tax-efficient manager will be no more tax efficient than a tax-oblivious manager.

Brunel’s excellent advice is to avoid the murky middle—hire very low-turnover managers (indexes and ETFs) when you want to just capture market returns. Hire go-go, active managers with the funds you’re prepared to invest at higher risk to earn better-than-market returns. Stay away from those managers who, for marketing purposes, try to straddle the fence, going for both tax efficiency and extra return. They may have performance numbers that look good before taxes, but after taxes, the numbers don’t look so good. Here’s how Brunel depicts the murky middle:

I think my Rotary audience will like this talk. For more on the murky middle, check out Chapter 3, “Net, Net, Net: Expenses, Taxes, and Inflation Can Eat Your Nest Egg – What To Do?”

This blog is a chapter from Harold Evensky’s “Hello Harold: A Veteran Financial Advisor Shares Stories to Help Make You Be a Better Investor”. Available for purchase on Amazon.

Pay Taxes Now or Later? Traditional 401k vs. Roth 401k

Katherine Sojo

Katherine Sojo, CFP® Financial Advisor

If your employer offers you a traditional 401k and a Roth 401k, you might find yourself wondering what the difference is and why it matters. Traditional and Roth 401ks have several similarities such as that they are only offered by employers, the contribution limits are the same ($18,000 for 2017 plus $6,000 if you are over the age of 50), and the employer match is always pretax regardless of which option you choose. The biggest difference between a Traditional 401k and a Roth 401k is the timing of payment of taxes. In a Traditional 401k, your contribution is termed as pre-tax dollars; you receive an upfront tax break, reduce your taxable income, and pay the taxes when you take the funds out during retirement. The money withdrawn at retirement from a Traditional 401k is taxed as ordinary income using your tax rate at that time. A contribution to a Roth 401k is termed as after-tax dollars; this means you pay taxes on the contribution now, at your current tax rate, and therefore during retirement you withdraw the money and the earnings tax-free.

How do I decide? Ask yourself the following questions:

  1. Do I want to pay taxes now or later? What is my tax rate differential? If you believe you are in a lower tax bracket today and will be in a higher tax bracket during retirement, then paying the taxes now by funding a Roth 401k is a good option. If you believe you are in a higher tax bracket today and will be in a lower tax bracket during retirement, then funding a Traditional 401k and paying the taxes later is a good option.
  2. Can you afford to pay the taxes now? Knowing what the actual tax dollar benefit of a pre-tax or after-tax contribution means for your pocket is also a deciding factor (your tax advisor can help with this calculation). If you pay the tax now (Roth 401k), then your paycheck will decrease; therefore, you will have less money to cover expenses and/or less money for additional outside savings. A traditional 401k provides for a current tax deduction that results in some extra cash in your pocket now.
  3. Do you distrust future tax regulations? Do you believe taxes will increase in the future? If so, then taking advantage of a lower tax bracket now will signify contributing to a Roth 401k. Do you believe taxes will decrease in the future? If so, then hold off on paying taxes on the contribution until retirement and utilize a Traditional 401k.

There is also an argument for using a combination of both a traditional 401k and a Roth 401k to diversify your tax exposure. A combination of the two can provide some upfront tax benefit and also some protection on any tax rate changes in the future. It is not a simple decision, but truly thinking about your answers to the questions above can help you make the best decision possible for your retirement planning.

Feel free to contact Katherine Sojo, CFP® with any questions by phone 305.448.8882 ext. 243 or email: KSojo@EK-FF.com.

Understanding Estate Exemption Rules

DavidGarcia_175x219

David L. Garcia, CPA, CFP®, ADPA®

In the beginning of 2013, Congress made the estate tax exemption permanent at $5 million per person, the 2012 rate, but adjusted the amount for inflation each year going forward. For 2016, the estate and gift tax exemption stands at $5.45 million per person. Congress also made another very popular component of the estate tax law, called “portability,” permanent. Portability allows spouses to combine their estate tax exemptions, effectively letting married couples give away or leave almost $10.9 million without owing estate tax.

Couples and their advisors must be diligent in making sure they get the benefits of portability since it is no longer automatic. The IRS recently issued final rules concerning the requirements for electing portability of a deceased spouse’s unused exemption amount. There still exists an unlimited marital deduction which allows you to leave all or part of your assets to your surviving spouse free of federal estate tax. However, to use your late spouse’s unused exemption, you must elect it on the estate tax return of the first spouse to die. This rule applies even if the first spouse doesn’t owe any estate tax. Generally, an estate tax return is due nine months after the date of death. A six-month extension is available if requested prior to the due date. This makes it imperative that high-net-worth people educate themselves on what portability is and how to elect it. Failure to follow the finalized rules may result in considerably higher estate taxes.

Of course, just because the estate exemption was made permanent in 2013 doesn’t mean the government can’t change the law in the future, but the current makeup of Congress makes it unlikely in the short-to-intermediate term. There has been a lot of activity in this area of the law over the last decade, so if you haven’t had your current estate strategy reviewed by your attorney in the last five years, it’s probably time for an estate checkup.

Feel free to contact David Garcia with any questions by phone 305.448.8882 ext. 224 or email: DGarcia@ek-ff.com