Despite all the recent tax law changes, most taxpayers aren't aware of the steps they should take between now and the end of the year to improve their position.

By taking appropriate measures, it is possible to minimize the effects of new taxes and higher rates. The problem isn't the same as last year at this time when no one knew what the tax landscape would be after the first of the year. The problem now is that much is new, and more complex.

"The end of last year was a disaster for tax planning," said Grafton "Cap" Willey, managing director of Top 100 Firm CBIZ. "There was a lot of year-end planning last year, but it was done without any certainty as to what would happen. Some of the planning was needed, while some was not. For example, we did a lot of accelerating of capital gains. With the increase in capital gains rates from 15 percent to 20 percent for people making more than $250,000, plus the new Medicare tax of 3.8 percent, this year we're taking a hard look at net investment income. With the potential increase from 15 percent to 23.8 percent, it's an effective increase of 57 percent."

"It's become a complicated calculation," he said. "If someone is in the threshold area, we try to keep their net investment income down to get below the threshold. If not, we try to minimize the impact of the increased rates. We might use municipal bonds, or take a look at tax-deferred annuities, which could take income out of the current year. For example, if someone is near retirement but still has a high income, they might put some of their income in tax-deferred annuities until their income rates decrease when they stop earning wages."

There are a number of new thresholds coming into play, Willey indicated. The new Medicare 3.8 percent tax applies to net investment income of taxpayers with AGI above $200,000 for single taxpayers or $250,000 for joint return filers. The 3 percent phase-out of itemized deductions and the 2 percent phase-out of exemptions have been re-instated. "In the area between $200,000 and $400,000, managing AGI is helpful because you can save tax on phase-outs and net investment income surcharges," said Willey. "Look at things that can affect those; for example, the opportunity to max out retirement contributions, and anything that's tax-deferred. Also, you have to be concerned about taking distributions from retirement plans because they can increase AGI."

Another tool to use is an installment sales agreement, Willey observed. "It spreads out gains over future years, and lowers AGI in a particular year. And if there is any state estate tax due, it might be better to pay it before the end of the year so you get the deduction for it in the current year."

 

WALK THE LINE

"This year's tax planning is going to be heavily focused on reducing above-the-line amounts," said Monic Ramirez, senior tax manager at Sensiba San Filippo LLP. "There are several thresholds for adjusted gross income that taxpayers should manage in order to avoid the Medicare tax hike of 3.8 percent on investment income, the Medicare high-earner tax of .9 percent, and the Pease limitation on itemized deductions. And in California, managing taxable income will have an added benefit of avoiding the higher tax brackets enacted by Proposition 30."

Ramirez suggests maximizing contributions to tax savings and retirement vehicles such as 401(k), 403(b), 457 and 529 plans, as well as HSA, SEP and Keogh plans. "If self-employed, set up a self-employed retirement plan, and revisit decisions to contribute to a traditional versus a Roth retirement plan. Since distributions from Roth IRAs and 401(k)s are not subject to regular tax or the Medicare investment tax, they are a more attractive retirement savings vehicle for high-net-worth individuals."

"On the contrary, if a taxpayer is hovering around the threshold for the new Medicare tax, the taxpayer should consider moving Roth contributions to a traditional retirement plan," she said. "Maximizing contributions to a traditional plan could reduce taxable income below the threshold and, therefore, avoid an additional 3.8 percent tax on investment income."

"Long-term capital gains still maintain their preferential rates," Ramirez observed. "However, long-term capital gains received a 5 percent increase and are subject to the additional 3.8 percent Medicare investment tax. Even worse, short-term capital gains are subject to ordinary income rates and the 3.8 percent Medicare investment tax. Therefore, tax-deferral mechanisms for significant tax gains should be considered, such as a Section 1031 exchange for real property sales or structuring the sale as an installment sale."

"An installment sale spreads the gain over several tax periods in order to minimize or entirely avoid the Medicare tax on investment income," she said. "Taxpayers should also consider realizing losses on existing stock holdings while maintaining the investment position by selling at a loss and repurchasing at least 31 days later, or swapping it out for a similar, but not identical, investment."

Taxpayers might also consider reducing income by taking advantage of other tax-exempt investment vehicles, such as municipal bonds, which are still tax-free, she noted. "And in most states, home-state bonds are also state tax-exempt."

If a loss in a flow-through has been incurred, make sure that it's deductible, suggested Ramirez. "Taxpayers can increase their basis in a partnership or S corporation if doing so will enable them to deduct a loss from it this year."

If a taxpayer has self-employment income, they should consider any capital expenditures that will be needed in the coming year, Ramirez suggested. "Favorable Section 179 deductions and bonus depreciation have been extended through the end of 2013. Purchasing qualified property and placing it in service before the year end will accelerate the depreciation deduction allowed on the assets into 2013 and reduce the earnings potentially subject to the .9 percent Medicare surtax."

 

WATCH THE RATES

The big difference between last year and this year is that the rates are "quite a bit higher" now for upper-income taxpayers, noted Robin Christian, a senior tax analyst at Thomson Reuters.

"For most individuals, the ordinary federal income tax rates for 2013 will be the same as last year: 10 percent, 15 percent, 25 percent, 28 percent and 35 percent," she said. "However, the fiscal cliff legislation passed in January increased the maximum rate for higher-income individuals to 39.6 percent - up from 35 percent. This change only affects taxpayers with taxable income above $400,000 for singles, $450,000 for married joint-filing couples, $425,000 for heads of households, and $225,000 for married individuals who file separate returns."

Where taxpayers are near the standard deduction amount, Christian recommends bunching together expenditures for itemized deduction items every other year, while claiming the standard deduction in the intervening years. "For example, say the taxpayer is a joint filer whose only itemized deductions are about $44,000 of annual property taxes and about $8,000 of home mortgage interest. If the taxpayer prepays their 2013 property taxes by December 31 of this year, they could claim $16,000 of itemized deductions on their 2013 return. Next year, they would only have the $8,000 of interest, but they could claim the standard deduction, which will probably be around $12,500 for 2014. Following this strategy will cut taxable income by a meaningful amount over the two-year period. The drill can be repeated all over again in future years."

Taxpayers should take advantage of the Section 179 deduction this year, since the maximum deduction is scheduled to drop from $500,000 to $25,000 for tax years beginning in 2014. Likewise, she urges, take advantage of the 50 percent first-year bonus depreciation, since it will expire at year's end unless it is extended by Congress. She also advises updating estate plans to reflect the current estate and gift tax rules, with the exemption pegged at a "historically generous" $5.25 million, and the rate at a "historically reasonable" 40 percent for 2013.

John Vento, a New York-based CPA and CFP, advises clients to check with their HR department to fully understand the extent of benefits available to them. "For employees, the bulk of write-offs they can get is through their employer," he observed. "If they can get tax-free benefits they should try to maximize them. They should take advantage of their tuition reimbursement plan, and fully fund their 401(k) plan. If they're 50 or older, they should take advantage of the catch-up provisions, which allows them to contribute an additional $1,000 to their IRA. They should also check out the provisions where benefits are paid out in pre-tax dollars, such as tax-free reimbursement of child care, and even transit passes."

The energy efficiency credit, which was slated to expire at the end of last year, has been extended for one more year, Vento indicated. "While it may be renewed, there is no guarantee, so clients should be advised to make any necessary improvements that qualify for the credit this year."

Vento noted that if you find a job for your dependent children to help fund some of their living expenses, each child can earn up to $6,100 in 2013 without having to pay any federal income tax. "Consider establishing a Roth IRA in the child's name," suggested Vento. "The child can withdraw money from it to pay for college, and the withdrawal will be taxed at the child's tax rate, which could be as low as zero if structured properly."

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