Q&A: Big severance creates a tax problem

Dear Liz: My husband is being laid off with a severance package equal to seven months’ pay. What’s better for tax avoidance in California, a 529 college savings plan contribution or investing in an IRA?

Answer: A 529 college savings plan contribution won’t save you taxes in California. There’s no federal deduction for such contributions, and unlike most other states, California doesn’t offer a state tax break, either.

Your husband can contribute up to $5,500 to IRAs for each of you, plus an additional $1,000 per person if you’re 50 or over. Whether the money will reduce your 2018 tax bill depends on your income and whether you’re covered by workplace retirement programs.

If your husband had a 401(k) or similar plan, he would be able to deduct his contribution only if your modified adjusted gross income as a married couple filing jointly is under $101,000. A partial deduction is available until the tax break phases out at $121,000.

If you aren’t an active participant in a workplace plan, however, higher income limits apply. Your husband can make and deduct a spousal IRA contribution for you as long as your joint modified adjusted gross income is under $189,000. A partial deduction is available until the tax break phases out at $199,000.

Even if you’re able to reduce your taxable income with such contributions, you’ll still probably owe a sizable tax bill on this severance. Please consult a tax pro about how much of the money to put aside and whether you’ll need to make any payments before next year’s tax deadline.

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Comments

  1. I was a laid off worker with a large severance.

    I took a contract job and added a SEP IRA to my portfolio, then made a large contribution to it. SEP contributions limits vary based on your income, but since I had a contract job and severance, I was able to take advantage of the larger contribution limit.

    SEP IRA account holders can contribute up to 25% of their compensation or a maximum of $55,000 for 2018. You combine that and max out your IRA contribution and if you have one, an HSA contribution (plus if over 55 an HSA catchup contribution) and your tax liability will go down a lot.