Q&A: Is the ‘tax torpedo’ coming for you? Here’s what you need to know

Dear Liz: I am pondering the best time to begin drawing Social Security. I have no debt, am 61, retired and fortunate enough to have retirement funds that are projected to last until I’m 95 without Social Security. That said, when I begin drawing Social Security, I understand I am likely to get taxed at the full 85% rate based upon the monthly income I receive. Does it make sense to hold off on applying until 67 or later knowing that I’ll be taxed more on the higher income, or should I draw sooner, understanding the tax liability would be less? Or, when I begin receiving Social Security, would I cut back on the amount of retirement funds I receive monthly?

Answer: The way Social Security benefits are taxed is somewhat convoluted and easy to misunderstand. Just to be clear: You would never lose 85% of your Social Security benefit to taxes. But if you have income outside of Social Security, up to 85% of your benefit can be taxable at your regular income tax rates.

The taxes are based on what’s known as your “combined income,” which is your adjusted gross income plus any nontaxable interest plus half of your Social Security benefits. If you’re single and your combined income is between $25,000 and $34,000, up to 50% of your benefits may be taxable. If your combined income exceeds $34,000, you may owe tax on up to 85% of your benefits.

If you’re married filing jointly, combined income between $32,000 and $44,000 could trigger taxes on up to 50% of your benefit. If your combined income is more than $44,000, up to 85% of your benefit may be taxable.

Because of this unusual structure, people can face what’s known as a tax torpedo, which is a sharp rise and then fall in their marginal tax rates. If your income is high enough, you won’t be able to avoid the tax torpedo.

However, many middle-income people can mitigate its effects by delaying Social Security and drawing down their retirement funds instead. You can get some understanding of how this works by searching on the phrase “tax torpedo.”

For a more in-depth analysis, search for the research paper by William Reichenstein and William Meyer titled “Understanding the Tax Torpedo and Its Implications for Various Retirees.”

Consider discussing your situation with a fee-only financial planner who can model different scenarios and give you personalized advice.

Q&A: Inherited IRA taxes

Dear Liz: I have about $16,000 in a Roth IRA that I plan to leave to my daughter. When she collects this on my death, does she pay tax on the withdrawals?

Answer: No. She would have to pay taxes on withdrawals if the money were in a regular inherited IRA, but not if the money is in a Roth. She will be required to withdraw the money within 10 years, though. Congress eliminated the so-called “stretch IRA” for most inheritors, so non-spouse beneficiaries can no longer stretch withdrawals over their own lifetimes.

Q&A: Consider taxes before retirement

Dear Liz: I began converting two 401(k)s from previous employers to Roth IRAs. To lessen the huge tax hit, I decided to do the conversions over the course of seven years. Even with that, the tax hit is higher than I realized and too painful. Now that partial conversions have begun annually, am I required to complete the total conversion to 100%? Or can I stop midway and leave the remainder in the original accounts? Also, is there an age limit before which Roth conversions must be completed?

Answer: You don’t have to continue making conversions. (Before 2018, you could have even reversed conversions you already made, but that’s no longer possible.) There’s also no age limit for conversions, but the older you get, the less likely conversions are to make financial sense.

Conversions are a good bet if you expect to be in the same or a higher tax bracket in retirement. If you’re young and in a low tax bracket now, you can reasonably expect that to be the case.

As you approach retirement, though, the opposite may be true. Many people find their tax bracket drops once they retire. Why pay a big tax bill now if you can access the money at a lower tax rate later?

Then again, if you’re a good saver, you may discover you’ve accumulated so much that your tax bill will soar once you’re required to start taking minimum distributions at age 72. If that’s the case, then converting some of your retirement money might save you on taxes overall.

But you’ll want to discuss this with a tax pro or financial planner who can model how the conversions are likely to affect your overall finances, including any Medicare premiums, since those can increase with income.

Q&A: IRS changes on required withdrawals

Dear Liz: When informing me of my required minimum distribution for 2022, my brokerage has apparently used a distribution period that differs from the one used in past years. This results in a distribution amount that’s noticeably smaller. I recall there was some talk of revising the IRS tables, but has this been done?

Answer: Yes. The IRS has updated the life expectancy tables used to calculate how much people must withdraw from their retirement accounts to reflect longer lifespans. That’s good news for people who withdraw only the minimums each year, since their required distributions will be smaller and the rest of their balances can continue to grow tax deferred.

Q&A: How a ‘like-kind’ 1031 exchange can help you defer real estate capital gains taxes

Dear Liz: My husband and I are selling a commercial property for $600,000 and we have capital gains questions. Our Realtor said that we have 90 days to buy another property but suggested we don’t make a purchase due to the state of the economy at this time. We are looking for any suggestions to lessen our capital gains. Do you have any suggestions that we could look into or articles to read?

Answer: Your Realtor is referring to what’s known as a “like-kind” or Section 1031 exchange. These exchanges allow people to defer capital gains taxes when they sell commercial, rental or investment real estate as long as the proceeds are used to purchase similar property.

Section 1031 exchanges happen all the time, in all sorts of economic conditions, so your Realtor’s attempt to dissuade you based on “the state of the economy” is a bit odd. Also, like-kind exchanges don’t have to be completed in 90 days. Owners have 45 days to identify potential replacement properties and a total of 180 days to complete the transaction. There are a number of other rules you must follow, so you’ll want to use companies known as exchange facilitators that specialize in handling these transactions.

Your first step, though, should be finding a qualified tax professional. You’ve just experienced what can happen when you turn to non-tax professionals for tax advice.

While your desire to educate yourself is laudable, and you certainly can find books about taxes at your local bookstore, there’s no substitute for consulting an experienced tax pro who can give you personalized advice.

Q&A: Newlyweds’ home sale taxes

Dear Liz: You recently wrote about how home sales are taxed but I have a question. My son was single when he bought his condo. He is now married and planning on selling it. Does he qualify for the $250,000 exclusion or the $500,000 exclusion?

Answer: As you know, the exclusion allows home sellers to avoid capital gains taxes on a certain amount of profits as long as they owned and lived in the home at least two of the previous five years. With married couples, only one spouse needs to meet the ownership test but both must meet the “use” test. In other words, both your son and your son’s spouse must have lived in the home for at least two years before the sale for the couple to qualify for the $500,000 exclusion. The couple must file a joint return in the year they sell the condo, and neither spouse can have excluded gain from the sale of another home during the two-year period before selling this home.

Q&A: Capital gains tax

Dear Liz: I am selling my house. After subtracting all selling costs, stepping up the basis for capital improvements over the years, and using the $500,000 capital gains exclusion from the IRS, I will still have a significant capital gains tax due. Does this tax need to be paid via the quarterly estimated tax in the quarter the house closes, or can I wait and pay the capital gains tax with the yearly tax filing?

Answer: If you are the sole owner of the home, then you can exclude up to $250,000 of capital gains from a home sale. If you’re married then the exclusion amount is doubled to $500,000.

Ours is a “pay as you go” tax system, which means you’re supposed to withhold the appropriate taxes as you earn or receive income. If you don’t withhold enough, you can owe penalties. People who don’t have regular paychecks or who experience windfalls, such as your home sale, may have to make quarterly estimated payments to ensure they’ve paid enough to avoid the penalties.

One way to avoid penalties is to make sure your 2022 withholding at least equals your 2021 tax bill, if your adjusted gross income is $150,000 or less. If your adjusted gross income is more than $150,000, your withholding needs to equal 110% of your 2021 tax bill. Another is to pay 90% of your 2022 tax bill. It’s tough to know what your tax bill is going to be before the year ends, though, so most people choose to withhold based on their 2021 tax bill. If your 2022 bill will significantly exceed your withholding, however, you’ll want to make sure you stash the appropriate cash in a safe, FDIC-insured savings account so it’s available when you have to pay Uncle Sam next year.

Q&A: How previous home sales might affect your capital gains taxes

Dear Liz: I am selling my house and will not be buying another one. I believe that I know the rules of capital gains taxes in general. However, must I include the capital gains of previous homes, even those experienced many years ago?

Answer: Possibly.

Before 1997, homeowners could avoid capital gains taxes by rolling their profits into another home, as long as the purchase price of the new house was equal to or greater than the home they sold. Homeowners 55 and older could get a one-time exclusion of up to $125,000.

The rules changed in 1997. Now homeowners can exclude up to $250,000 of home sale gains as long as they have owned and lived in the home at least two of the prior five years. A married couple can exclude up to $500,000.

If you have not sold a home since the rules changed, however, any previously deferred gains would lower the tax basis on your current home.

Let’s say you bought your current home for $300,000 prior to 1997. Normally, that amount (plus certain other expenses, including qualifying home improvements) would be your tax basis. If the net proceeds from your sale were $500,000, for example, you would subtract the $300,000 basis from that amount for a capital gain of $200,000.

But now let’s say you rolled $200,000 of capital gains from previous home sales into your current home. That amount would be subtracted from your tax basis, so your capital gain would be $400,000 — the $500,000 net sale proceeds minus your $100,000 tax basis.

Before selling any home, you should consult with a tax pro to make sure you understand how capital gains taxes may affect the sale. You don’t want to find out you owe a big tax bill after you’ve spent or invested the proceeds.

Q&A: How to get tax return copies

Dear Liz: Isn’t it the duty of an accountant to send their client the final tax forms that they filed with the IRS and the state? My accountant keeps “forgetting” to do so, and I’ve called him twice to do this. I’m not sure if his constant “forgetfulness” is due to laziness or a health issue such as dementia. I suspect it might be the latter, as he never used to be this way in past years.

Is there another way to get a copy of my returns? I will obviously be looking for a new accountant.

Answer: Yes, you can request copies or transcripts of your returns from the IRS and your state tax agency.

Transcripts are free, and are available for the previous three years. Personally identifiable information such as your name, address and Social Security number will be hidden, but you’ll be able to see all the financial entries, such as your adjusted gross income, taxes paid and so on. You can request transcripts online at irs.gov/individuals/get-transcript, by phone at (800) 908-9946 or by mail using either Form 4506-T or Form 4506-T-EZ and using the IRS address listed on the form.

Copies of your actual tax returns will cost you $43 each. You can request those by filling out and mailing Form 4506.

Your state will have similar procedures, which you can find by searching for your state’s name and the phrase “How do I get a copy of my state tax return?”

Q&A: Homeownership and taxes

Dear Liz: Five years ago I co-signed on a mortgage for my daughter’s condo in another state. I provided the down payment and paid to upgrade the water, HVAC and kitchen appliances. She paid the mortgage and all other expenses. She also claimed the mortgage interest on her taxes every year. She just sold the condo and is moving to another state. The net proceeds will mostly be used for the down payment on the next property. My name will not be on that one. She will pay me back for the down payment in installments.

I’m aware that the year a property is sold is the only time to claim the upgrades for a deduction. I haven’t been claiming any part of the condo in the last five years. Is there some way to do that on my 2022 taxes? Or should she take the deduction and pay me back in more installments down the road? Obviously, I don’t want to make a claim that will hurt her 2022 taxes, but it would be nice to recoup some of it.

Answer: Home improvements on a personal residence aren’t deductible. If your daughter had paid for the upgrades, she could use the cost to reduce the amount of home sale profits that might otherwise be subject to capital gains taxes. These upgrades can be added to the home’s tax basis, which is typically the amount that was paid to purchase the home. The basis is what is deducted from the amount realized from the sale. It’s the sales price minus any selling costs, such as real estate commissions.

People who live in a home for two of the five years prior to the sale can exclude up to $250,000 of those profits from taxes. (Married couples can exclude up to $500,000.) Unfortunately, those limits haven’t changed since 1997 even as the average home sale price has nearly tripled.

Too often, people don’t discover they owe a tax bill until after they’ve invested the money in another home or otherwise spent it. If your daughter hasn’t already, she should consult a tax pro so she understands what, if any, taxes she may owe on her sale.