- Accelerate Deductions and Defer Income – It sometimes makes sense to accelerate deductions and defer income. There are plenty of income items and expenses you may be able to control. Consider deferring bonuses, consulting income or self-employment income. On the deduction side, you may be able to accelerate state and local income taxes, interest payments and real estate taxes.
- Bunch Itemized Deductions – Many expenses can be deducted only if they exceed a certain percentage of your adjusted gross income (AGI). Bunching itemized deductible expenses into one year can help you exceed these AGI floors. Consider scheduling your costly non-urgent medical procedures in a single year to exceed the 10 percent AGI floor for medical expenses (7.5 percent for taxpayers age 65 and older as of the end of 2016). This may mean moving a procedure into this year or postponing it until next year. To exceed the 2 percent AGI floor for miscellaneous expenses, bunch professional fees like legal advice and tax planning, as well as unreimbursed business expenses such as travel and vehicle costs.
- Make Up a Tax Shortfall with Increased Withholding – Don’t forget that taxes are due throughout the year. Check your withholding and estimated tax payments now while you have time to fix a problem. If you’re in danger of an underpayment penalty, try to make up the shortfall by increasing withholding on your salary or bonuses. A bigger estimated tax payment can leave you exposed to penalties for previous quarters, while withholding is considered to have been paid ratably throughout the year.
- Leverage Retirement Account Tax Savings – It’s not too late to increase contributions to a retirement account. Traditional retirement accounts like a 401(k) or individual retirement accounts (IRAs) still offer some of the best tax savings. Contributions reduce taxable income at the time that you make them, and you don’t pay taxes until you take the money out at retirement. The 2016 contribution limits are $18,000 for a 401(k), 12,000 for a SIMPLE IRA and $5,500 for a traditional/Roth IRA (not including catch-up contributions for those 50 years of age and older).
- Reconsider a Roth IRA Rollover – It has become very popular in recent years to convert a traditional IRA into a Roth IRA. This type of rollover allows you to pay tax on the conversion in exchange for no taxes in the future (if withdrawals are made properly). If you converted your account this year, re-examine the rollover. If the value went down, you have until your extended filing deadline to reverse the conversion. That way, you may be able to perform a conversion later and pay less tax.
- Get Your Charitable House in Order – If you plan on giving to charity before the end of the year, remember that a cash contribution must be documented to be deductible. If you claim a charitable deduction of more than $500 in donated property, you must attach Form 8283. If you are claiming a deduction of $250 or more for a car donation, you will need a contemporaneous written acknowledgement from the charity that includes a description of the car. Remember, you cannot deduct donations to individuals, social clubs, political groups or foreign organizations.
- Give Directly from an IRA – Congress finally made permanent a provision that allows taxpayers 70½ and older to make tax-free charitable distributions from IRAs. Using your IRA distributions for charitable giving could save you more than taking a charitable deduction on a normal gift. That’s because these IRA distributions for charitable giving won’t be included in income at all, lowering your AGI. You’ll see the difference in many AGI-based computations where the below-the-line deduction for charitable giving doesn’t have any effect. Even better, the distribution to charity will still count toward the satisfaction of your minimum required distribution for the year.
- Zero out AMT – Some high-income taxpayers must pay the alternative minimum tax (AMT) because the AMT removes key deductions. The silver lining is that the top AMT tax rate is only 28 percent. So you can “zero out” the AMT by accelerating income into the AMT year until the tax you calculate for regular tax and AMT are the same. Although you will have paid tax sooner, you will have paid at an effective tax rate less than the top regular tax rate of 39.6 percent. But be careful, this can backfire if you are in the AMT phase-out range or the additional income affects other tax benefits.
- Use Your Gift Tax Exclusion – You can give up to $14,000 to as many people as you wish in 2016, free of gift or estate tax. You get a new annual gift tax exclusion every year, so don’t let it go to waste. You and your spouse can use your exemptions together to give up to $28,000 per beneficiary.
- Leverage Historically Low Interest Rates – Many estate and gift tax strategies hinge on the ability of assets to appreciate faster than the interest rates prescribed by the IRS. An appreciating market and historically low rates create the perfect atmosphere for estate planning. The past several years presented a historically favorable time, and the low rates won’t last forever.
Probate is the legal process that takes place after someone dies of proving the validity of a will or establishing who is entitled to receive the decedent’s property under state intestate succession laws if there is no will. The probate process is handled by the local surrogate’s court and governed by state law. Probate involves paperwork and court appearances by lawyers, which costs money.
As a general rule, a will has no legal effect until it is probated. Probate includes proving in surrogate’s court that a decedent’s will is valid, identifying and collecting the decedent’s property (also referred to as the decedent’s estate), paying debts and taxes of the estate, and distributing the remaining property as the will (or state intestate law, if there is no will) directs. In effect, probate is the process that enables heirs to receive property that is rightfully theirs.
Advantages of Avoiding the Probate Process
Wills and probate proceedings are matters of public record. If you would like to keep your affairs private, and prefer that people don’t know how your estate was distributed, avoiding probate through a trust or other mechanism is the only way to do so.
The probate process can be complicated and time consuming, so it may take several years to completely resolve everything. Typically, assets are frozen and unavailable to beneficiaries (including the surviving spouse) for a period of time without prior court approval. Avoiding probate can speed up the process of settling your estate.
Probate costs, including attorney’s fees, can be expensive. This is especially true if you own real estate in a different state, because probate proceedings would be required in both states. A trust can help to correct this problem.
“What Is Probate?” is discussed in more detail in my book “Nothing But The Truth About Estate Planning, Probate And Living Trusts”. Download your copy here: Nothing But The Truth About Estate Planning, Probate And Living Trusts by Larry Israeloff CPA & tax attorney.
You should always work with a lawyer when setting up a trust. A poorly created trust can be confusing, expensive, and/or ineffective. The trouble with do-it-yourself planning is that even if your situation seems simple, you are not aware of and won’t think of the many unusual things that can go wrong, especially with wills and trusts. These mistakes can end up costing you or your heirs a lot more than you saved in legal fees.
If you have a unique situation, need a special needs trust for a disabled beneficiary, or are overwhelmed by a complex or large estate, hiring a trusts and estates lawyer will help you answer any questions and ensure that a legal and effective trust is created.
As both an attorney and a CPA, I am a “one-stop shop” for legal, accounting, tax and financial planning services. I can help people more effectively manage their wealth and establish an estate plan that is coordinated with and fits neatly among all the pieces of their personal lives – household budget, cash flow, investments, education planning, taxes, and retirement planning.
“Why Retain An Attorney To Establish A Trust?” is discussed in more detail in my book “Nothing But The Truth About Estate Planning, Probate And Living Trusts”. Download your copy here: Nothing But The Truth About Estate Planning, Probate And Living Trusts by Larry Israeloff CPA & tax attorney.
It is never too early to begin retirement planning. Unfortunately, many people put it off. If you are wondering what you can do now to ensure you are set for retirement – even if it is decades into the future – consider these five tips.
Consider Your Retirement Activity Plans
People dream of their retirement, expecting to be comfortable. But many are unsure how to make the transition to a “life of leisure” once the time arrives. In order to make sure you have enough money to truly have leisure time, you need to determine how that time will be spent.
Are there dreams you have postponed until after you stop working? Do you want to travel? Are you hoping to stay active in your community? Will you be sharing the activities of your retirement with an also-retired spouse? The important thing is to get a handle on your retirement activity plans, so you can do what it takes now to make these dreams a reality.
Create a Savings Goal
Once you know how you intend to spend your retirement years, you can begin planning how much money it will take to live that way without a steady employment income.
Questions to ask yourself:
- Realistically, how much will it take to maintain your current lifestyle?
- Do you plan to drastically change that lifestyle once you retire?
- What will you add and subtract from the way you live now?
- What does your retirement income future look like, including savings, social security, pensions, etc?
Your goal is to create a ballpark figure you can work toward that will allow you to make your retirement dreams a reality. Once you have a number range in mind, you can better plan to accomplish that savings nest egg goal.
In addition to saving money for healthcare costs as you get older, there are a few specific things you can do now and in the years leading up to retirement that will help you ease the financial burden of your health as you get older. Investing in long-term care insurance is one of the best moves you can make now to protect you in the future. Some say it can be costly, but should you become seriously ill in your senior years long-term care insurance will help protect your savings by paying for a large part of the medical expenses. Plans vary so shop around.
The sooner you begin to pay down your debts the better your retirement funds will be. Avoid taking on any high-interest debt as you near retirement and focus on paying your higher interest loans as soon as possible. Ideally, you will have no debt by the time you reach retirement, but if this is unreasonable, focus on reducing it as much as possible.
Hire a Financial Advisor
If you are not already working with an expert to help you plan for retirement, now is the time to find someone. Your investment needs are going to change over the years and having a professional in your corner can really make things easier. Discuss the plans you have for retirement with your financial planner and let him or her help you create a plan that will get you to the point you want to be by retirement age.
The most important thing to remember about retiring is there are very few rules that are hard and fast that apply to every situation. Some people don’t even want to retire because they enjoy working and fear they will get bored with no job. Others want to retire earlier than usual or are willing to work just a few extra years to build up additional savings. Every individual has his or her own unique situation and should plan accordingly so retirement can be an exciting life transition.
Everyone has been talking about it, but it still seems some are unaware of the stipulations of the Affordable Care Act. The ACA mandates that all Americans have qualifying health insurance coverage or pay a penalty to the IRS. The penalty in 2014 was 1% of your household income or $95 per person. But in 2015, the penalty increases to 2% of your total household income or $325 per person.
There are also a few 2015 changes regarding flexible spending accounts for healthcare costs that relate to rollover savings. If you carried over the allowed $500 into 2015, you are ineligible to save in a general purpose FSA this year. Unfortunately, it’s too late to spend what was left in your 2014 account to qualify, but now is a great time to discuss your health savings situation with your employer and/or your tax advisor.
As of the first of this year, you can only make one rollover from an IRA to another IRA within a 12 month period. A rollover counts as withdrawing funds from one IRA, holding them for fewer than 60 days, and then depositing them into another IRA.
There are also changes to 401(k) limits this year. The limit on employee contributions increases to $18,000, so you are eligible to deposit $500 more than last year into retirement savings. In order to do this, you must let your employer know you want to increase your contribution. If you haven’t already, make the change now to take advantage of the most savings available.
Other increases are also available this year, including:
• Employees over the age of 50 are now allowed an additional $500 ($6,000 total in addition to the standard amount) for 401(k) “catch up” contributions
• Increases also apply to 403(b) and 457 retirement accounts
• Employees can now contribute $2,550 to their flexible spending accounts to put toward healthcare costs
There are a few additional changes to be aware of that relate to the amount of money you earn in 2015.
First, the AMT exemption has increased to $53,600 for individuals and $83,400 for joint filers, which is a 1.5% increase from last year.
Income tax thresholds have been adjusted for inflation, too. The highest tax rate (39.6%) applies to single filers earning at least $413,200 annually and joint filers earning $464,850. This is an increase of about 1.6%.
Finally, 2015’s standard deduction increases to $6,300 for single filers and $12,600 for joint filers. The standard deduction for heads of household rises to $9,250. Keep in mind that itemized deductions such as medical costs, taxes, interest expense and charity donations provide a tax benefit only if in total they surpass the amount of the standard deduction.
Estate planners are often asked whether trusts are only for the wealthy. Though it is not necessary for some people of modest means to establish a trust, it can be a useful estate planning tool, even if you are not rich.
Trusts establish a legal relationship whereby property is held by one party for the benefit of another. Trusts offer peace of mind that your assets will be dispersed according to your wishes once you are gone. Like a will, trusts can be used for any type of property and allow flexibility in the distribution of this property.
When you create a trust, you transfer ownership of some or all of your property to the trustee, who holds that property for the trust’s beneficiaries. For instance, if you want to place real estate in a trust, you would have that property titled in the name of the trustee. Trustees can be family members, friends, a trust company, a law firm, or a specific attorney or advisor.
Who Needs a Trust?
Anyone can avoid court administered probate upon death with use of a trust, but you should carefully consider if the expense connected with forming a trust is worth the investment. You should consider a trust if you have:
• Privacy or probate concerns
• Substantial real estate assets
• Large life insurance policies
• Specific instructions for how your estate is to be distributed once you are gone
• Desire to minimize estate taxes
• Need to protect your estate from creditors or lawsuits
If your accounts are held in joint tenancy or you have named beneficiaries for specific accounts or property, a trust might not be necessary. These assets automatically become the property of the beneficiaries upon your death without probate. For instance, if you own a home jointly with your spouse and both of your names are on the deed, your spouse will automatically become the full owner once you are gone.
An attorney can help you determine if a trust is the best option for you and your family.
What are the Benefits of a Trust?
The primary benefit of using a trust is to provide direction for managing your assets if you become incapacitated and upon your death.
A trust offers a great deal of flexibility. It can be revocable, which means you can make changes to any part of it or terminate it until the moment you are no longer capable of making decisions or communicating.
A trust also ensures your beneficiaries avoid dealing with probate at your death, thus saving time and money. Probate is the court process by which your will is proved valid, and through which your estate is administered after your death.
Finally, trusts are private, so the value and contents of the trust do not become a matter of public record once you die.
Have questions about your personal need for a trust? Then just call us to discuss your situation.