Q&A: Accessing Social Security account data

Dear Liz: I read your answer to the gentleman trying to locate his W-2 forms to add missing years to his Social Security account. I wonder why, even as you give advice about keeping old W-2 forms indefinitely, you didn’t mention that the Social Security Administration allows everyone who has paid into the system to receive an annual report showing the income, year-by-year, that was subject to Social Security taxes. I have been receiving that report for most of my adult life (I’m 60 now) and I don’t find the need to keep old W-2’s past seven years if I’ve already compared their totals against the annual SSA report. I wonder why this gentleman didn’t do likewise over the years.

Answer: You may not have noticed, but those annual statements went missing for a few years.

Social Security began mailing annual reports to workers 25 and over starting in 1999 but suspended those as a cost-saving measure in 2011. The suspension saved the government about $70 million each year in printing and mailing costs, but workers lost easy access to information about their future benefits and their earnings.

People with access to the Internet could create online accounts to check their earnings records, and about 26 million have done so. But that still left the majority of workers in the dark about whether their earnings were being properly credited to their accounts.

In 2014, mailings resumed but only for workers reaching ages 25, 30, 35, 40, 45, 50, 55 and 60 and over.

Q&A: How to retrieve old W-2 forms

Dear Liz: I have several years missing from my Social Security earnings history, dating back to 1999. I have been filing income taxes jointly with my wife but we only kept our files for five years. How do I go about retrieving past income documents like my W-2s? I contacted Social Security and the IRS but can only get tax transcripts dating back to 2009.

Answer: Social Security says you ordinarily have three years to report mistakes. (Actually, being Social Security, it’s “three years, three months and 15 days.”) But you can correct mistakes further back if you have sufficient proof, such as tax forms, W-2s or pay stubs.

You can try contacting old employers to see if they can produce the W-2s you’re missing. Otherwise, write down as much as you can remember about where you worked, including the name of the employer, the dates you worked there and how much you earned. Then contact Social Security again, provide the information you’ve gathered and ask for help in filling in those missing years.

This is one reason why it’s smart to hang onto tax returns indefinitely. Even though you can (and probably should) shred backup documentation after seven years or so, you should keep copies of anything filed with the IRS, including W-2 forms.

Q&A: Spreading out the tax hit from capital gains

Dear Liz: We are in the lowest tax bracket. If we sell a capital gains asset worth several hundred thousand dollars, does that put us in a higher bracket and we pay 20% or do we remain in the lower bracket and pay 15%?

Answer: In the two lowest federal income tax brackets, the capital gains rate is actually zero. For a married couple filing jointly, taxable income below $18,550 in 2016 would put you in the 10% tax bracket, while income between $18,550 and $75,300 would put you in the 15% bracket. Both 10% and 15% income tax brackets pay no federal tax on long-term capital gains.

But capital gains count as income in determining your tax bracket. So a big capital gain can push you into a higher bracket, which means you would pay a higher capital gains rate.

Let’s say your normal taxable income is $75,000. You sell an asset with a $25,000 capital gain. Now you’re in the 25% tax bracket with taxable income between $75,300 and $151,900, which means your long-term capital gains rate will be 15%.

A really big gain would put you in the top 39.6% bracket, which applies to taxable income above $466,950. In that bracket, your capital gains rate would be 20%. Also, an additional 3.8% surtax applies for taxpayers with adjusted gross incomes over $250,000 for married couples and $200,000 for singles. The surtax is applied to the lesser of the taxpayer’s net investment income or the amounts over those limits.

There may be ways to alleviate or spread out the tax hit. You could sell losing investments to offset some or all of the gain. Another option for some assets is to sell a portion at a time over several years, or use an installment sale. A tax pro can walk you through your options.

Q&A: Options for paying a big IRS bill

Dear Liz: I sold one mutual fund to invest in another fund with the same company. The tax statement shows this as a capital gain so large that I cannot afford to pay it all in one payment to the IRS. This is a disaster. Is there anything I can do?

Answer: Absolutely. File your tax return on time, since the failure-to-file penalty is much higher than the failure-to-pay penalty. Pay as much as you can when you file the return, and then consider your options.

If you can come up with the remainder within 120 days, then do so. There’s no need to arrange a formal payment plan, but you will owe interest and penalties on the balance until it’s repaid.

If you can’t pay within 120 days, you can ask for an installment agreement. You’ll find an application in most tax software or you can find Form 9465 on the Internal Revenue Service website. You also can try calling the IRS at (800) 829-1040, but prepare for a long time listening to hold music. Budget cuts have left the agency severely short-handed and wait times are considerable.

You also should consider borrowing the money from another source, such as a low-cost personal loan. Another option is to charge what you owe to a low-rate credit card. You’ll pay a small fee for the privilege, but ultimately it may be cheaper than paying interest and penalties to the IRS.

Q&A: Income tax vs. capital gains tax

Dear Liz: I was wondering about the disabled vet who wanted to sell his home, which had increased in value by about $1 million. You mentioned that “[S]ingle people with incomes over $415,050 in 2016 are subject to the 39.6% marginal tax rate. Most people pay capital gains tax at a 15% rate, but those in the top bracket face a 20% rate.” Would he have to pay federal income tax on the non-exempt portion of the equity as well as paying 20% capital gains on the non-exempt portion?

Answer:
You may pay income tax or capital gains tax on a source of income, not both. If an investment has been held less than a year, the gain is considered short term and subject to income tax. Investments held more than a year are considered long-term and qualify for capital gains treatment.

When you’re selling your primary residence, the first $250,000 in profit is typically exempt from tax. The rest of the gain would be taxed as a capital gain.

Q&A: Gift tax returns

Dear Liz: You recently answered a question about gift taxes and mentioned gift tax returns. Who is supposed to report the gift, the one giving or the one receiving the money? It seems like the one receiving the gift should, but in the answer it seemed the one giving the gift was subject to taxes.

Answer: The giver would file the return. The gift tax rules require people to report any annual gift over $14,000 to any one person, although the givers don’t owe gift taxes until those aggregate amounts exceed a certain limit (currently $5.45 million). The gift tax rules are designed to keep wealthy people from circumventing estate tax laws by giving vast amounts to their heirs before they die.

Q&A: Tax break for helping out son

Dear Liz: Our son bought a house and lost his job two months after the purchase. We have helped him stay afloat. Thankfully he has a new job. We don’t expect to get the money back — he is still trying to get out from under — but we have given him close to $10,000. Can we claim this as a “gift” to him on our income taxes?

Answer:
The IRS doesn’t view money given to family members as a charitable donation. In other words, there’s no tax break for bailing out your kids.

If you’re so wealthy that estate taxes might be an issue — which means estates worth more than $5.45 million a person in 2016 — then you might be concerned about gift tax rules. You’re allowed to give a certain amount to any person annually without having to file a gift tax return. In 2015 and 2016, that amount is $14,000, so you and your wife together could give up to $28,000 to your son without needing to file a gift tax return. It’s only when the total value of gifts over this annual exclusion hit $5.45 million that you’d have to worry about paying gift taxes. Clearly, this isn’t an issue for most families.

Q&A: Capital gains tax on mutual funds

Dear Liz: My mother, who is approaching 100 and in good health, has a significant mutual fund holding. It is mostly made up of capital gains. She does not need this fund for her daily living expenses. The question she has: Are the taxes on disposition the same before or after she dies? I am thinking of things like the capital gains tax exemption (never used) as well as inheritance taxes.

Answer: The capital gains tax exemption applies to the sale of a primary residence — a home, not a mutual fund. If your mother sold the fund today, she would owe capital gains tax on the difference between the sale price and her “cost basis.” Her cost basis is what she paid for the fund originally plus any reinvested dividends. The top federal capital gains tax rate is 20%, although most taxpayers pay a 15% rate.

If her objective is to get the maximum amount to her heirs and minimize the tax bill, she should bequeath this investment to them at her death. Then the mutual fund will get a “step up” in tax basis to the current market value. When the heirs sell the investment, they’ll only owe taxes on the appreciation that occurs after her death (if any).

You asked about inheritance taxes, but only a few states levy taxes on inheritors. Typically, it’s the estate that would pay the taxes, and only those above certain amounts. In 2016, the federal estate taxes exemption is $5.45 million

Q&A: Long-term capital gains tax

Dear Liz: I’m very confused about the long-term capital gains tax. Several years ago, I bought a house for $525,000 in Texas. I’ve been thinking about selling, and my real estate agent informed me that my home is now worth $1.5 million. I am a disabled veteran and have no tax liability because my income is tax-free. Since this is my primary residence, I know that the first $250,000 in gains is exempt from tax. What I just don’t understand is what my tax liability will be on the rest of the money.

Answer: If you sell this house, you’ll essentially go from the bottom tax bracket to the top. Single people with incomes over $415,050 in 2016 are subject to the 39.6% marginal tax rate.
Most people pay capital gains tax at a 15% rate, but those in the top bracket face a 20% rate.

Improvements you’ve made to the house and some other expenses, such as selling costs, can reduce the amount of gain that’s subject to tax.

This big windfall could have other effects on your taxes, so you’ll want to consult a tax professional before proceeding.

Q&A: Why your W-4 forms are likely ‘wrong’

Dear Liz: After being an unmarried couple for 15 years, we were married in February 2014. Though I sent this information to my company’s benefits department, I neglected to change my W-4 status from “single” to “married.” I’m crossing my fingers that when all is said and done, we have paid the correct taxes when we filed for 2014 (we filed jointly as married) regardless of what was withheld pursuant to the W-4. Or do I need to inform the IRS of the oversight for the 2014 and 2015 tax years?

Answer: Best wishes on your marriage, and don’t worry. Since you were married as of Dec. 31, 2014, and you filed as a married couple for 2014, you’re good — assuming, of course, you used current tax software or IRS tax tables for married filing jointly.

The W-4 form is meant to tell your employer how much of your paycheck you want withheld. Most people’s W-4s are “wrong” in the sense that they have the government withhold too much. They get fat refunds that average close to $3,000, but they aren’t penalized for doing so (other than not having access to their own money until they get that refund, of course).

If you’re getting refunds, you can tweak your withholding when you visit your benefits department to update your W-4. The IRS and TurboTax, among other sites, have online calculators to help you figure out what you should have withheld.

While you’re there, check your beneficiaries for any workplace retirement plans and life insurance. Federal law says your spouse must be the beneficiary of your retirement plan unless he or she signs a waiver. Life insurance, by contrast, goes to the named beneficiary even if you subsequently marry.