Q&A: Federal estate tax exemption

Dear Liz: You mentioned that the federal estate tax exemption limit this year is $5.49 million per person. Can I double that if married?

Answer: Essentially, yes. Married couples can double the amount that can be given or bequeathed to heirs tax free. If one spouse doesn’t use up his or her exemption, the surviving spouse can use the remaining amount in addition to the surviving spouse’s own exemption.

You also should know that you can leave an unlimited amount of money to a spouse who is a U.S. citizen. (The rules for non-citizen spouses are different and could fill a whole column on their own.) This is known as the unlimited marital deduction.

Q&A: These heirs worry their parents aren’t doing enough to minimize estate taxes

Dear Liz: My parents, ages 75 and 76, have established an irrevocable gift trust for my five siblings and me. Wonderful! With the single trust, they have maxed out their lifetime gifting exemption. What else can they do with their other investments to minimize the inevitable estate taxes that will come with their deaths? They have lived a frugal life of caution and reserve, but before their nest egg can be distributed to their heirs, the government will extract millions of dollars.

Answer: If your parents maxed out their lifetime gift exemption, that means they contributed more than $10 million to the trust. It also probably means they employed an estate-planning attorney, since such trusts aren’t typically do-it-yourself projects. If that’s the case, the attorney probably has reviewed with them their other options for minimizing taxes.

They could, for example, give each sibling $28,000 ($14,000 from each parent) each year — and make similar gifts to each sibling’s spouse and children, if they were so inclined. This annual exemption limit is separate from the lifetime gifting exemption they’ve already used. If each of you is married with two kids, that would move $672,000 out of their combined estates each year.

Another way to move money out of their taxable estate, either now or at their deaths, is to donate to charities.

If they opt not to take further steps, you can take comfort in the fact that the top estate tax rate is 40%, which means the bulk of their estate will still reach their heirs. Also keep in mind that you’re in rare company — only about two estates out of 1,000 are large enough to trigger an estate tax return, now that exemption limits have been raised to $5.49 million a person.

Q&A: Your gift won’t get you a medical deduction

Dear Liz: A couple I’ve known for years recently adopted 2-year-old twins. Both will need considerable medical care, as they were born to a drug-addicted mother. In sending out announcements, my friends suggested sending funds for the twins’ medical needs, rather than toys. I took note and sent a check earmarked for their healthcare. My question is: Can I include the gift in my own medical deduction for this year’s income taxes?

Answer: No. Only medical expenses paid for yourself, your spouse and your dependents typically qualify for the medical expense deduction on your income tax returns.

The expense isn’t a charitable deduction either. Contributions have to be made to qualified charities to be deductible, and individuals don’t qualify.

Q&A: Claiming an adult child as a dependent

Dear Liz: I am paying rent for my adult son in another state. He gets occasional help from various services, but if I don’t want him to sleep on the street, I have to pay his rent and send some emergency food. I don’t see this changing. Can I claim him as a dependent or would that make me responsible for his health insurance, which I cannot afford?

Answer: Yes, you would be responsible for your son’s health insurance coverage if you claimed him as a dependent, said Carolyn McClanahan, a certified financial planner with Life Planning Partners in Jacksonville, Fla. That would mean either paying for coverage or paying the fine for not having coverage. The fine for 2016 is $695 per adult or 2.5% of your household adjusted gross income, whichever is greater. The penalty is capped at $2,085, which is likely much more than what you’d save with an additional exemption. If you’re in the 25% tax bracket, a $4,050 personal exemption is worth a little over $1,000.

The IRS has many rules about dependents, and standards for claiming adult children are much higher when they’re over 19 (or over 24 for full-time students). To qualify, your son would have to earn less than the amount of the personal exemption ($4,050 in 2016) and you must have provided more than half of his support, among other rules. The IRS has an interactive tool to help people determine dependents’ eligibility at https://www.irs.gov/uac/who-can-i-claim-as-a-dependent.

Q&A: Sheltering home profits

Dear Liz: I understand that the profit realized on the sale of a home is not subject to tax, as long as that money is reinvested in another home. What if the couple divorces before or after the sale? If they split the profit from the sale and one or both put those funds into another house as single buyers, is each exempt from the tax? Does the fact that both are in their 70s have any effect on this matter?

Answer: Your information about home sale profits is about 20 years out of date. In 1997, Congress changed the law that once allowed people 55 and older to roll up to $125,000 of home sale profits into another home tax-free. That was a one-time tax break.

Now you can shelter up to $250,000 per person in home sale profits before owing any tax, and you can use the tax break repeatedly. You have to live in the home for at least two of the previous five years to qualify for the exemption.

Divorce can change your tax situation dramatically, and you don’t want to make decisions based on obsolete information. Please consult a tax professional to make sure you understand all of the implications of your split.

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.