Dear Liz: I am grandmother to two girls ages 10 and 14. I contribute to their Section 529 college funds and pay for expenses such as dental bills, dance lessons and so on. Is there a way I can deduct these contributions from my income tax?
Answer: Most states offer at least a partial tax deduction for 529 college plan contributions, said Mark Kantrowitz, publisher of the financial aid sites FinAid and FastWeb. The exceptions are California, Delaware, Hawaii, Kentucky, Massachusetts, Minnesota, New Hampshire, New Jersey and Tennessee, which have state income taxes but no deduction; and Alaska, Florida, Nevada, South Dakota, Texas, Washington and Wyoming, which don’t have state income taxes.
To get a deduction, you typically have to contribute to the plan offered by your home state rather than ones offered by other states. For more details, visit www.finaid.org/savings/state529deductions.phtml.
In general, you can’t take deductions for other expenses paid on behalf of your grandchildren. (If they’re your dependents — they live with you and you provide more than half their support — you could claim exemptions and possibly tax credits, but that doesn’t sound like the case here.) However, any medical or tuition expenses you pay directly on their behalf don’t count toward your annual gift tax exclusion, as discussed here last week.
Dear Liz: My husband and I have given our daughters gifts over the years, but we have never exceeded the $26,000 gift tax limit for a married couple. Do we need to file IRS Form 709 to split the gifts? If so, how to do we file for past years?
Answer: The gift tax system exists to help prevent wealthy people from transferring large amounts to their heirs during the donors’ lifetimes in an attempt to avoid estate taxes. Each person, however, is allowed to give a certain amount each year to any number of recipients.
The current gift tax exemption is $13,000. Each of you could give each of your daughters $13,000 annually. That means the two of you could give the two of them a total of $52,000 a year without having to file a gift tax return. Tuition or medical expenses you pay directly on behalf of another person do not count toward the limit.
The $13,000-per-recipient limit has been in place since Jan. 1, 2009. The limit was $12,000 from 2006 to 2008 and $11,000 from 2002 to 2005.
Only if donors give more than the annual exemption amount are they required to file gift tax returns. Even then, the givers typically don’t owe gift taxes. The lifetime gift tax exemption is currently $5.12 million. In other words, you would have to give away more than $5 million above and beyond the $13,000 per recipient limit to incur a tax. The lifetime limit is scheduled to fall back to $1 million in 2013, but it will still affect relatively few givers. If you did inadvertently exceed the annual limits, you can talk to a tax pro about filing the 709 form.
Dear Liz: My wife and her brother are selling their parents’ home. The parents transferred the deed to their children’s names years ago. My wife should receive about $85,000 from the sale. Our yearly income (one salary; she’s a stay-at-home mom) is around $75,000. My wife is worried about capital gains taxes and wants to reinvest in another real estate property because she’s heard that that will eliminate the capital gains tax. Is that correct? I would really rather invest that money in our current home (finish the basement into a family room, update some items) and pay off our car loan than worry about another property to take care of. What do you think?
Answer: A 1031 exchange is a tax maneuver that allows owners of business or investment property to swap the real estate they have with another property, a transaction that can defer (but not necessarily eliminate) capital gains taxes.
It’s questionable whether your in-laws’ home would qualify as business or investment property, said Mark Luscombe, principal federal tax analyst for tax research firm CCH.
“Were the parents paying rent to the children after the title was passed to the children? If the kids owned the property and the parents were living there without paying rent, I do not think that would constitute investment property,” Luscombe said. “Perhaps if the parents were still paying upkeep expenses and real estate taxes, that might approach the equivalence of rent.”
If there’s a chance the property might qualify, your wife should consult a tax pro experienced with 1031 exchanges for details. Otherwise, she’ll need to write some good-sized checks to the tax authorities. Currently the federal capital gains tax rate is a maximum of 15%, although it will rise to 20% on Jan. 1 if Congress doesn’t reach a compromise on the so-called fiscal cliff. Add to that any state or local taxes on capital gains.
You may think of these taxes as a small price to pay compared with the risk of owning a piece of rental property. Your wife may have another concern that she has not voiced, however: She may not want this legacy from her parents to disappear into the general family budget. She may feel an obligation to preserve and try to grow the money, rather than sinking it into home improvements and other consumption. Legally, gifts and inheritances are considered separate property owned only by the spouse to whom they were given, even in community property states where most other assets are considered jointly owned.
If she wants to keep this money separate, in other words, that’s her right. It would be nice if she carved out a small chunk for family consumption, but she’s under no obligation to do so. If a 1031 exchange isn’t possible or feasible, then she could consult a fee-only planner about other ways to invest the money for the future.
By the way, it needs to be said: This tax bill was avoidable. If your in-laws had, instead of gifting the property, waited and bequeathed it at their deaths, the home would have received a so-called step-up in tax basis. Such a step-up in effect eliminates the need to pay capital gains taxes on any home price appreciation that occurred during the parents’ lives. Any parent thinking of adding a child’s name to a real estate deed should first consult an estate planning attorney to understand the ramifications, since gifting property this way can be an expensive mistake.
Dear Liz: My wife and I are trying to sell our home, which has been our primary residence for six years. I am very concerned about the $500,000 capital gains exclusion. As I understand it, the exclusion would mean we wouldn’t have to pay taxes on our home sale profit. But we are confused about this exemption being tied to the “Bush tax cuts” that could expire Dec. 31. If we sell our home after that, could we lose the exemption?
Answer: No. The law creating a capital gains exemption for home sales went into effect May 6, 1997. It’s not tied to the tax cuts approved during President George W. Bush’s tenure that are set to expire at the end of the year.
So people who live in a home for at least two of the previous five years will still be able to avoid paying capital gains on their first $250,000 of home sale profit (or $500,000 for a married couple).
Another tax you likely won’t have to pay is a new 3.8% levy on what’s called “net investment income.” Some emails circulating on the Internet falsely claim that the tax, which is scheduled to kick in Jan. 1, is a real estate sales tax. In reality, it’s a potential tax on home sale profits that exceed the capital gains exemption limit, as well as on other so-called unearned income, including investment and rental income.
If your home sale profit doesn’t exceed the capital gains exemption limit, you won’t owe the new tax. If your profit does exceed the limit, the excess amount would be added to your adjusted gross incomes to determine whether you’d have to pay it. The 3.8% tax would be levied only on people whose adjusted gross incomes are more than $200,000 for singles and $250,000 for married couples.
Dear Liz: My mother will be 88 in August. She owns her own condo, which is worth about $95,000, and has $5,000 in life insurance. She is in good health and lives comfortably on a monthly pension. She wants to put her condo in the names of my brothers and myself. What is your advice?
Answer: This is probably a bad idea for a couple of reasons. You and your siblings wouldn’t get the “step up” in tax basis that would be available if you inherited the property. In other words, you might owe capital gains taxes when you sell that could have been avoided if you had inherited the property rather than received it as a gift.
A potentially bigger issue: Medicaid look-back rules. If your mom needs nursing home care, her eligibility for the government program that pays for such care could be compromised by such a transfer. Many elderly people transfer their homes to children hoping to “hide” the asset from Medicaid, but all such transfers typically do is delay the older person’s eligibility for help.
Before she does anything, take her to an elder-law attorney who can help her — and you — plan sensibly for her future. You can get referrals from the National Academy of Elder Law Attorneys at http://www.naela.org.
Dear Liz: My cousin had his house broken into a little over a year ago. A lot of things were taken, but insurance replaced most of what he thought was missing. This year after he filed his return he was contacted by the IRS, which told him that a return using his information had already been filed and the refund check cashed. The IRS is investigating the situation now, but I really worry about what is going to happen to his Social Security in the future if someone else is using his numbers or those of his children. Do you have any information on what steps he should take?
Answer: Theft of tax refunds is a growing problem. In fact, tax identity theft is the No. 1 fraud on the IRS’ list of Dirty Dozen Tax Scams of 2012.
The fraud is often perpetrated by organized criminal gangs that con, steal or buy people’s personal information to create bogus returns. Some people fall right into the bad guys’ hands by responding to emails that purport to be from the IRS. (The IRS doesn’t email people to request personal or financial information.)
If the problem isn’t resolved within a few months, your cousin should contact the agency’s Identity Protection Specialized Unit at (800) 908-4490.
Since the criminals already have his Social Security number and other important financial information, he also should put security freezes on his credit reports at all three bureaus. Links to the bureaus and other information for identity theft victims can be found on the IRS’ site at http://www.irs.gov.
Dear Liz: Last year I bought an electric vehicle, motivated in part by the $7,500 federal tax credit. I consulted with my tax preparer, a CPA, to ensure I would generate enough income to fully use the one-time, use-it-or-lose-it credit. In December 2011, I informed her of the exact type of that year’s income (earned income, capital gains, dividends, interest and so on) and detailed all my deductions. She assured me that based on those numbers my tax burden was $8,600, more than sufficient to use the credit. It was enough, in fact, that I could use more deductions and losses, so I made some charitable contributions and sold a losing investment. The final numbers were very close to the estimates she received from me in December. Now that she has completed my federal tax return, however, my tax burden turns out to be far less than she estimated. In fact, it’s zero. Ordinarily I’d be delighted, but I specifically consulted with her to ensure I had a large-enough tax burden to use up the credit. I could have sold some winning investments to generate a bigger tax burden, but have now lost that credit forever. So far she has not responded fully to questions about what happened, and I now suspect she may simply have guessed at the tax burden and not run the numbers through any tax preparation software. I feel that she has in effect cost me $7,500. Am I right to be aggrieved and do I have any recourse?
Answer: Of course you’re right to be aggrieved. One of the reasons to hire a tax professional is to get good advice about managing your tax bill.
Human beings make errors, of course. No one is perfect. But it’s disturbing that your CPA hasn’t told you clearly why she made the mistake she did or, apparently, offered any kind of recompense.
When tax pro mistakes cost you money, it’s typically because the preparer underestimated your tax burden and the IRS catches the error. In that case, your tax pro shouldn’t be expected to pay the extra tax, since you would have owed the money anyway if she’d done the return correctly. But many tax preparers will offer to pay any penalties or interest the taxpayer owes because of their errors, said Eva Rosenberg, an enrolled agent who runs the TaxMama.com site.
In this case, of course, your pro overestimated your tax burden, ultimately costing you a valuable credit. You could always ask her to compensate you for some or all of that lost credit. At the very least, she should be willing to refund any fee she charged you for her advice, Rosenberg said.
You may want to review your own behavior to make sure you didn’t contribute to this situation. Given the amount at stake, you should have called to set up a formal appointment in which the two of you could go over the numbers and your previous year’s tax return, if she didn’t prepare it. That would ensure she had enough information to make a reasonable prediction. If instead you called her up with a “quick question” — tax questions are rarely quick, by the way, and the answers almost never are — then you helped set yourself up for a disappointing outcome.
In any case, you should find another tax pro, since this incident — and her handling of it — indicates she’s not quite up to the job of being your advisor.
Dear Liz: With tax time coming up, I have an important question. For years I have been told that the IRS has three years to audit you and after three years, supporting documentation can be shredded. But I read from other sources (including you) that we should wait seven years. So, which is it?
Answer: Your biggest risk of audit is definitely in the first three years after your tax return is due or the date it was filed, whichever deadline is later. But the IRS has another three years to audit you if it suspects you have underreported your income by 25% or more. (There’s no limit if it suspects you deliberately committed fraud.)
The seven-year recommendation stems from how we file tax returns — our 2011 return will be filed by April 2012, for example. Adding seven years to the year on the tax return should help most law-abiding taxpayers remember how long they need to hang on to supporting documentation.
Consult with your tax pro, but you may be able to save time and space by scanning your documents and keeping electronic, rather than physical, copies. The IRS accepts digital data as long as it can’t be altered.
Dear Liz: I am a 20-year-old college student with a stable, part-time job. I haven’t contributed to a 401(k) with this company because I don’t plan to be working for it for two years, which is how long I’d have to wait for my contributions and earnings to be 100% mine. I’d like to open a Roth IRA, but I’m not sure I’m eligible. I’m listed as a dependent and our household adjusted gross income is between $145,000 and $155,000. Can I open a Roth?
Answer: The short answer is yes, although you may want to reconsider contributing to your workplace 401(k) as well.
As long as you have earned income that’s less than the Roth limits, you can contribute to a Roth account, said Mark Luscombe, principal analyst for tax research firm CCH Inc. Your status as a dependent and your parents’ household income aren’t factors.
This fact allows many wealthier parents who make too much for their own Roth IRAs — the limits are $179,000 for a married couple filing jointly and $122,000 for singles — to give money to their lower-earning children to fund the kids’ Roth accounts.
“The dependent would need to have earned income for the year at least equal to or greater than the amount of the Roth IRA contribution,” Luscombe said. But “the Roth IRA contribution would not have to come from that earned income.” The money could come from the parents’ gift.
All that said, you should reconsider your aversion to your company’s 401(k), especially since you may be misunderstanding how it works. You typically would be able to leave with your own contributions, and the earnings on those contributions, at any time. What you may not be able to take with you is your employer’s full match, since it may take several years for you to be fully vested. Still, you may be able to leave with part of the match, which would make it free money that you shouldn’t turn down.