Q&A: Thrift Savings Plan

Dear Liz: I turned 50 last year but did not make the catch-up contributions I was eligible to make to my government Thrift Savings Plan. This mistake cost me approximately $5,000 in additional taxes in 2014.

To make matters worse, my wife also did not make catch-up contributions in 2014 or for the previous four years for which she was eligible to do so. Can we retroactively make catch-up contributions for the last three tax years and file amended tax returns so we can get additional tax refunds?

Answer: It’s highly unlikely you cost yourself $5,000 in additional taxes, since the catch-up contribution for people 50 and older in 2014 was only $5,500. Your federal tax rate would have been limited to your tax bracket, which is likely somewhere between 15% and 28%. You could have cost yourself $5,000 if you didn’t make any contribution to the plan, since last year’s limit was $17,500 or a total of $23,000 with the catch-up.

The short answer to your question about whether you can catch up with catch-ups is no.

Contributions to workplace retirement plans typically have to be made before the end of the plan year. IRAs, meanwhile, allow contributions until the due date for filing your returns, so that contributions for 2014 could be made until April 15, 2015, and contributions for 2015 could be made until April 15, 2016.

Presumably you’re now signed up to contribute the maximum to each plan.

If you have extra cash to invest, both you and your wife could open IRAs even though you’re covered by workplace plans. If your modified adjusted gross income (MAGI) as a married couple is $96,000 or less, you can deduct the full contributions of $6,500 ($5,500 plus a $1,000 catch-up) each. You can get a partial deduction if your MAGI is between $96,000 and $116,000.

If you can’t deduct your contribution, consider putting the money in Roth IRAs if you can. Roths don’t allow upfront deductions — but the money is tax free when withdrawn in retirement. You and your wife could contribute $6,500 each to a Roth if your MAGI is under $181,000.

Q&A: American Opportunity Credit for college expenses

Dear Liz: I am confused regarding my ability to take advantage of the American Opportunity Credit for college expenses in filing my 2014 tax return.

My accountant told me I didn’t qualify because my adjusted gross income exceeds $80,000. Yet when I researched on the IRS website, I seem to qualify. I paid qualified education expenses for my son to get an MBA and am claiming him as a dependent on my return, since he is unemployed and I support him. My adjusted gross income was $84,905.

The IRS rules discuss modified adjusted gross income less than $90,000. Is my accountant thinking of another tax credit that I don’t qualify for? Can I take advantage of any credit for providing educational expenses for my son to obtain a graduate degree? I filed for an extension in order to resolve this issue.

Answer: Education tax breaks can be baffling because each has different income limits, eligibility requirements and qualifying expenses.

Three of them — the American Opportunity Credit, the Lifetime Learning Credit and the tuition and fees deduction — are mutually exclusive. That means you can take only one per year, and you can’t use any of them for expenses paid with a tax-free 529 plan withdrawal.

It’s no wonder that many people who may be eligible to take these breaks don’t take advantage of them, even though they could shave thousands of dollars off their tax bills.

The American Opportunity Credit is usually the most valuable credit. It reduces taxes by up to $2,500 per student and is 40% refundable, which means people can get up to $1,000 back even if they don’t have any taxes to offset.

But the credit can’t be claimed for more than four years, and any year in which the old Hope Credit was claimed counts toward that limit. Since your son was in graduate school, it’s possible you already used up your ability to claim the credit.

You can qualify for the full tax break if your modified adjusted gross income is below $80,000 as a single filer or $160,000 for a married couple filing jointly. The credit gets smaller as your income goes up. After $90,000 for singles — and $180,000 for a married couple filing jointly — the tax break is no longer available.

If you can’t take the credit, your son might be able to claim it — if he had taxable income last year and you opt not to take a dependency exemption for him. Discuss this possibility with your tax pro.

You make too much money for the other two options: the Lifetime Learning Credit and the tuition and fees deduction. The Lifetime Learning Credit offsets 20% of tuition and certain other required expenses up to $2,000 per tax return.

In 2014, the credit was gradually reduced for modified adjusted gross incomes between $54,000 and $64,000 for singles, and $108,000 and $128,000 for married couples filing jointly.

The tuition and fees deduction reduces taxable income by a maximum of $4,000 for incomes up to $65,000 for single filers and $130,000 for joint filers, and by up to $2,000 for incomes over $65,000 for singles and $130,000 for joint filers. There’s no deduction for incomes over $80,000 for singles and $160,000 for joint filers.

Q&A: Capital gains taxes

Dear Liz: My wife owns a house that was separate property before our marriage. She has since fallen ill and needs round-the-clock care. I am selling the house to support this and will net about $250,000 at close. Will we have to pay capital gains taxes, or can I claim a one-time exemption, based upon this not being community property?

Answer: If your wife lived in the property as her principal residence for at least two of the five years prior to the sale, the profit would qualify for the capital gains exemption of up to $250,000 per owner.

People who have to sell their principal homes before they meet the two-year residency requirement may qualify for a partial exclusion if the sale was triggered by special circumstances such as a change in health or employment or “unforeseen circumstances.” You’ll want to talk to a tax pro about whether your wife’s situation qualifies.

Even if the gain is taxable, she may not owe tax on the entire amount netted from the sale. When figuring home sale profit, her basis in the home — essentially, what she paid for it, plus any qualifying improvements — is subtracted from what she nets from the sale.

There’s another way to avoid paying taxes on home sale gains, and that’s to hold on to the property until your wife’s death. At that point, the home would get a “step up” in tax basis to the current market value. An inheritor who sold the home at that market value wouldn’t owe any tax, said Mark Luscombe, principal analyst for Wolters Kluwer Tax & Accounting U.S.

Q&A: Filing joint tax return while not married

Dear Liz: Is it possible to file a joint tax return if you are not married but have lived together for more than seven years? We’ve owned property together for nine years.

Answer: What matters to the IRS is how your state treats your arrangement. Most states don’t recognize common law marriages, in which two people live together but don’t have a marriage license. But a few do.

The states that currently recognize common law marriages under some circumstances include Colorado, Iowa, Kansas, Montana, New Hampshire, South Carolina, Texas and Utah, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

States that recognize common law marriages entered into prior to certain dates include Pennsylvania before Jan. 1, 2005; Ohio before Oct. 10, 1991; Indiana before Jan. 1, 1958; Georgia before Jan. 1, 1997; and Florida before Jan. 1, 1968, according to the NCSL.

Also, most states do recognize common law marriages from those states where they are recognized, said Mark Luscombe, principal analyst for Wolters Kluwer Tax & Accounting. In other words, if you move from a state where common law marriage is recognized to one where it isn’t, your union may still be considered a legal marriage.

Same-sex marriages are somewhat different, Luscombe said. The U.S. Treasury and the IRS have ruled that same-sex couples who were legally married in jurisdictions that recognize their marriage are considered married for tax purposes, even if the state where they currently live doesn’t recognize their union.

Confused yet? Talk to a local tax pro who can advise you about the status of your arrangement.

Q&A: Tax credit for Roth IRA contributions

Dear Liz: You told a reader that “contributions to a Roth are never deductible.” This statement is a common misconception and is not correct. You can get a tax credit for Roth IRA contributions as long as you fall under the income limits and itemize on your taxes. The credit phases out at $30,000 for singles and $60,000 for married couples.

Answer: A credit is different from a deduction, but thank you for pointing out a tax benefit that many people don’t know exists.

This non-refundable credit, sometimes called a Saver’s Credit, can slice up to $1,000 per person off the tax bill of eligible taxpayers. The credit is available to people 18 and older who aren’t students or claimed as a dependent on someone else’s return. The lowest income taxpayers — those with adjusted gross incomes under $36,000 for marrieds filing jointly or $18,000 for singles in 2014 — can get a tax credit of 50% of up to $2,000 per person ($4,000 for married couples) contributed to retirement plans. Those plans can include traditional or Roth IRAs, 401(k)s or 403(b)s, 457(b)s and SIMPLE IRAs, among others. The credit drops to 20% and then 10% before phasing out. The average amount saved isn’t spectacular: The IRS said credits averaged $205 for joint filers in 2012 and $127 for single filers, but every bit helps.

One of the problems with this tax break, besides so few people knowing about it, is that many low-income people don’t owe income taxes, so they have nothing to offset with this credit. Another issue is that taxpayers need to file a 1040 or 1040A and use Form 8880 to claim it. Low-income taxpayers often use the 1040EZ form, which doesn’t allow them to claim the credit or alert them that it exists.

Q&A: Bonus taxing

Dear Liz: You recently answered a question from someone who wondered whether to pay off tax debt or credit cards with a $10,000 bonus. You asked why the person planned to put only about half the bonus toward debt instead of all of it. I think I know the answer. A bonus is considered taxable income, so someone in a high tax bracket likely would net only about half of the gross amount.

Answer: That’s a good point. Many people fail to factor in the tax bite when they get a windfall or cash in a retirement plan. The more money you make, the more painful that bite can be.

Q&A: Taking a mortgage for the tax deduction

Dear Liz: My wife and I are both 66 and in good health. Currently we have about $1.2 million in IRAs. We’re receiving about $80,000 a year from a pension and $110,000 in salary. We have been aggressive about reducing any lingering debt. So we think we are in good shape for me to retire within the next year or so. If we decide to stay in our home rather than move, we will need to make some significant repairs and improvements. We were thinking of taking out a $200,000 mortgage to pay off our last remaining debt ($50,000 on a home equity line of credit) and fund the renovations. This would give us a better tax deduction and not incur the high taxes we would pay by making an IRA withdrawal. Our grown children have expressed no interest in the home after we die, so it probably would be put up for sale at that time. Does this seem like a reasonable approach if we choose to go that route? Anything we haven’t considered?

Answer: Considering the tax implications of financial moves is smart, but you shouldn’t make decisions solely on that basis. You especially shouldn’t take on mortgage debt just for the tax deduction. The tax benefit is limited to your bracket, so for every dollar in mortgage interest you pay you would get at best a federal tax benefit worth 39.6 cents. State income tax deductions might boost that amount, but you’d still be paying out more than you get back in tax benefits. You also would be locking yourself into debt payments at a time in life when most people prefer the flexibility of being debt-free.

If you’re comfortable having a mortgage in retirement, though, you might want to consider a reverse mortgage. Although once considered expensive loans of last resort for people who were running out of money in retirement, changes in the federal reverse mortgage program caused financial planners to reassess the no-payment loans as a potential wealth management tool. The idea is that homeowners could tap the reverse mortgage for funds, especially in bad markets, instead of depleting their retirement accounts.
Reverse mortgages are complex, though. The upfront and ongoing costs can be significant. Because you don’t make payments on the money you borrow, your debt grows over time and reduces the amount your heirs might get once the home is sold. You’d be smart to find a savvy, fee-only financial advisor to assess your situation and walk you through your options.

Q&A: The tax implications of downsizing

Dear Liz: My mother just turned 75 and wants to downsize from her four-bedroom house. My father passed away six years ago. She owns her home outright, and at the time of my father’s death the value of the house was estimated at $1.2 million. Right now she has enough income from retirement accounts and investments to live comfortably. She could even buy another smaller property if need be. As the executor of her estate, I’m trying to help her decide what to do with the house. She could let another family member live in it who couldn’t pay rent but could help with upkeep; she could rent it out for market value; or she could sell. We see advantages and disadvantages with all three options. What do you think?

Answer: If she hasn’t already, your mother needs to hire a good estate-planning attorney who can help her evaluate her options. Consulting a fee-only financial planner and a tax pro may be a good idea, as well.

If she sells, your mother could face a sizable capital gains tax depending on where she lives. Federal law allows a certain amount of capital gains on the sale of a primary residence — $250,000 per person — to be excluded from income, but after that, capital gains taxes apply.

The gain would be the difference between the home sale proceeds and your mother’s tax basis in the home. At least half of the home received a “step up” in basis to the then-current market value when your father died. If your mom lives in a community property state, such as California, both halves of the property would have received this step up at his death. Any increase in value since then would be subject to capital gains tax (minus, again, the $250,000 federal exclusion).

There’s another tax issue to consider. If she dies owning this house, her heirs would get a tax basis equal to the property’s value at her death. In other words, regardless of the state where she lives, none of the house’s appreciation during her lifetime would be taxable.

The tax issues alone shouldn’t dictate what your mother does. But she should be aware of them to make an informed decision about what to do next.

Q&A: Student loan forgiveness and taxes

Dear Liz: You recently wrote about student loan forgiveness. After 15 years as a public defender, my wife was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis and could no longer pursue her career as a lawyer. She applied for forgiveness of the federal student loans she used to attend law school. About three years later, the loans were forgiven. The caveat is that she was required to pay income taxes based on the balance that was erased. The taxes amounted to $63,000. Getting the loan forgiven was easy compared with coughing up the money for the IRS. I thought this should be mentioned.

Answer: The IRS generally considers forgiven or canceled debt as income to the borrower. There are several exceptions, however.

Borrowers don’t have to pay income taxes on student loans forgiven through programs that require them to work for a specific number of years in a certain profession. So public service loan forgiveness, law school repayment assistance, teacher loan forgiveness and the National Health Service Corps’ loan repayment program won’t trigger taxes. Forgiven debt also may be excluded from income if the borrower was insolvent at the time.

Student loan discharges for death, disability, closed schools, false certification and unpaid refunds typically are considered taxable income, however. Forgiveness of remaining balances under income-based repayment programs after 20 or 25 years of payment is also considered taxable.

The taxes owed will be a percentage of the amount forgiven, based on your tax bracket. If you’re in the 25% federal bracket, for example, you’d pay $25,000 for $100,000 of forgiven debt, plus any state and local income taxes. It’s less than the tab you owed, of course, but as you note it can still be a tough bill to pay.

Q&A: How to calculate your estimated quarterly taxes

Dear Liz: I recently retired and started my own consulting business, which is doing very well. My question is on taxes. I have been told that I must pay quarterly taxes, but I have no idea if I will make $10 this month or $10,000. How do I estimate my income if I have no idea? Can I just wait till the end of the year and figure it out then?

Answer: You don’t want to do that. If you owe a significant amount at the end of the year, you’ll owe a substantial penalty on top of your tax bill.

The good news: The IRS requires you to figure your estimated quarterly taxes, not your “guesstimated” taxes. You’ll make the calculations based on what you actually earned that quarter, not what you expect to earn in the upcoming quarter.

Tax software programs such as TurboTax and TaxAct can help you make the calculations, but you’d be smart to hire a tax pro with experience advising small-business owners. The pro will have ideas about how to minimize and manage your tax bill. He or she also will be available to answer the many questions you’ll have about taxes, incorporation and other matters as your business grows. If you should be audited, a tax professional such as an enrolled agent or a certified public accountant would be able to represent you. (Even the most avid do-it-yourselfer should understand that representing yourself in an audit is not a good idea.)

You can get referrals from the National Assn. of Enrolled Agents at http://www.naea.org and the American Institute of CPAs at http://www.aicpa.org.