Time is running short for year-end tax moves, and it now seems clear that any money-saving maneuvers must be based on what’s likely—not what’s certain. That’s the ridiculous position taxpayers confront, thanks to the ongoing stalemate in Congress over how to resolve the fiscal cliff.
Some strategies could ultimately backfire depending on the outcome of negotiations. So consider planning only around changes that seem most certain, like higher payroll taxes for everyone, higher capital gains taxes for everyone, and higher income taxes for the wealthy.
Here are seven moves that financial planners say individuals are making right now as, from a tax perspective, the most confusing New Year in memory fast approaches:
- Beefing up trusts The estate tax and lifetime gift tax exemption is set to drop to $1 million from $5.12 million at year-end. Meanwhile, the maximum estate tax is set to jump to 55% from 35%. In any fiscal cliff deal, some middle ground likely would prevail. But bank on a lower exemption level and higher estate tax rate. Families with more than $1 million in assets are setting up irrevocable trusts at a blinding speed in order to get some of these assets out of their estate by year-end. “We’re working 12 to 15 hour days,” says Jeffrey Gonya, an estate-planning lawyer in Baltimore. Such trusts can be complicated. Don’t wait until the last minute.
- Forgiving family loans Forgiving debt is treated as a gift to the borrower. Some well-off souls who loaned money to a struggling family member or friend are taking advantage of the more generous exclusion this year to wipe out that debt.
- Contributing to charity With all the talk about wiping out or capping the charitable deduction next year, taxpayers who itemize have been speeding up their donations to claim the deduction this year. This could backfire. If you accelerate giving into this year and the deduction remains you risk sheltering less total income should your tax rate rise next year.
- Converting to a Roth Taxpayers who are eligible have been converting their traditional IRA or 401(k) assets into a Roth IRA. These taxpayers are expecting their income tax rate to rise next year and remain elevated for the foreseeable future. By converting now they are taking advantage of 2012’s favorable tax rate even though the conversion triggers an immediate tax liability. The good news is that they can always change their minds and reverse the conversion next year if they find that their tax rates did not go up.
- Selling appreciated assets Most financial planners are preparing their clients for a higher capital gains tax next year. The current rate for most individuals is 15%, which is set to rise to 20% and could go even higher. Investors are reviewing their portfolios with an eye toward selling big gainers that they no longer want to hold for the long term. A capital gains tax increase would apply at all income levels. The wealthy also face a 3.8% investment gain surtax to pay for Obamacare. Selling by year-end could bring a tax savings. This is also true for the sale of a business, or even a house where a couple’s gain exceeds $500,000. Some are paring stocks that pay a big dividend because the tax on dividend income is set to rise to a top rate of 39.6% next year, vs. just 15% currently.
- Speeding up retirement account distributions With income tax rates likely to rise, wealthy retirees who take regular distributions from an IRA or 401(k) are fast-forwarding next year’s income. Rather than risk pulling money out every month next year at a higher tax rate, they have decided to take a year’s worth of income before 2013 and place it in a separate account for monthly withdrawals.
- Paying next year’s school tuition now The American Opportunity Tax Credit, worth up to $2,500, is set to disappear and there is no evidence Congress will save it.
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