How filing taxes could generate your coronavirus stimulus check

Dear Liz: My adjusted gross income in 2019 was too high for me to get a stimulus relief payment. However, my income this year will be much lower and I would qualify. Will I automatically get the stimulus payment when I file my 2020 return or is there something I must do to get the money?

Answer: Just file your 2020 taxes and you’ll get the money.

The recent relief checks of up to $1,200 per adult were created using a refundable credit that will apply to 2020 taxes. (Refundable credits reduce your tax bill dollar for dollar, with any excess refunded to the taxpayer.)

The structure of this refundable credit has created some confusion. Many people thought the payments would reduce the refund they would normally get, but that’s not the case. Rather, the relief checks are an advance on a credit that has been added to their 2020 taxes. When people file their 2020 tax returns, they’ll deduct their relief payments from that new credit. (And although the credits are refundable, the money doesn’t have to be paid back if you got a payment but your 2020 income turns out to be too high.)

If you didn’t get a payment but you qualify based on your 2020 income, you’ll get the credit when you file.

Q&A: Where’s my refund?

Dear Liz: I filed a paper 2019 federal tax return in mid-February. It’s been more than nine weeks, and they haven’t electronically deposited my refund yet. Last week, I called the “Where’s My Refund” IRS number and got an automated response that basically they couldn’t help me. I then called the taxpayer advocate number listed in the IRS booklet, and they couldn’t help me but transferred me to the IRS’ toll-free number. After taking my information, the service person couldn’t find my return and suggested I resubmit my forms. The whole process took over two hours. Then my brother told me IRS offices are closed or have limited staff and they aren’t processing the tax returns. Why don’t they just say that at the beginning of all of their messages, instead of saying you should get it within six weeks of filing?

Answer: Over the last decade, Congress has cut the IRS’ budget by more than 20% after factoring in inflation, even as the population grew and tax law got ever more complicated. The agency was limping along with ancient technology and too few people to help the public even before the pandemic sent most of its workers home, without the ability to telecommute.

The agency has been trying to recall its workforce as quickly as it can, but there is a truly massive backlog of paper returns that has yet to be processed. Sending out stimulus relief checks has taken priority, and that Herculean effort is still in process.

You may be frustrated by what you perceive as poor customer service, but this situation didn’t develop overnight and taxpayers are reaping what they sowed, or at least reaping what their lawmakers sowed. You should let those lawmakers know how you feel if you want this to change.

And you should change, as well. It is not smart to send a tax return through the U.S. mail. Electronic filing is a much more secure alternative, and it’s quicker. With direct deposit, you can get your refund within days. Even with the pandemic, most e-filers have gotten their refunds promptly.

Q&A: Taxes when inheriting a home

Dear Liz: My sister recently passed, and I acquired her home, which I’m selling (it’s now in escrow). I was looking at state tax forms for real estate transactions, and there is nowhere to check for a person who was given a home through death. Does this mean it is taxable? I was told since it was an inheritance that it was not taxable.

Answer: Technically, you weren’t given a home. You inherited it, and you’re correct that inheritances are typically not taxable. (Only six states impose inheritance taxes, and your state, California, is not one of them.) When you inherited the home, the property received what’s known as a step-up in tax basis, so that the appreciation that occurred during your sister’s lifetime is not taxed. You would owe tax only on any appreciation that occurred since you owned the property. A tax pro can help you figure out what you might owe.

Q&A: Withdrawing after-tax retirement funds

Dear Liz: I have been contributing to retirement accounts for many years, starting back in the early 1980s. Back then, there were no deductions for contributions. I made about $50,000 of after-tax contributions, meaning I’ve already paid taxes on that money. Later I switched to before-tax contributions. Now that I am retired and approaching 65, in my feeble mind, I believe I should be able to withdraw that $50,000 without having to pay any taxes on it. However, things that I’ve read indicate that it may not be that easy. Can you help with this question, or at least point me in the right direction?

Answer: You will escape taxes on a portion of any withdrawal you make from a retirement plan that has after-tax money in it, said Mark Luscombe, principal analyst at Wolters Kluwer Tax & Accounting. However, only Roth IRAs allow you to make totally tax-free withdrawals of your contributions at any time.

With a Roth IRA, any withdrawals are considered first to be a return of contributions. For example, if you contributed $50,000 to an account that’s now worth $200,000, the first $50,000 you withdraw would be tax- and penalty-free, regardless of your age, Luscombe said. If you were under 59½, additional withdrawals could be subject to taxes and penalties.

With regular IRAs and 401(k)s, the tax treatment is different. Withdrawals are considered to be a proportionate return of your after-tax money, Luscombe said. If you contributed $50,000 after tax and then withdrew the same amount from an account now worth $200,000, only one quarter of the money would escape tax.

Q&A: Coronavirus aid law lets you more easily tap retirement savings. That doesn’t mean you should

Dear Liz: You recently mentioned that a person can withdraw money from their 401(k) and spread the taxes over three years. If 401(k) is paid back, they can amend their tax returns to get those taxes refunded. Because of some major home repairs, I asked our accountant about this before we proceeded. He said that he hasn’t read anything official about the above. Would you please provide where you obtained your information, so we can decide if that’s an avenue we can use?

Answer: It’s possible you had this conversation before March 27, when the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act became law.

Otherwise, it’s kind of hard to imagine an accountant anywhere in the U.S. who hasn’t heard of the emergency relief package that created the stimulus checks being sent to most Americans, as well as the Paycheck Protection Program’s forgivable loans for businesses and the new coronavirus hardship withdrawal rules for 401(k)s and IRAs.

Those rules allow people who have been affected financially or physically by COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus, to get emergency access to their retirement funds if their employers allow it.

Even if you do have access to such a withdrawal, you should consider other avenues first.

The income taxes on retirement plan withdrawals can be substantial, even when spread over three years. Perhaps more importantly, you probably would lose out on future tax-deferred returns that money could have earned because few people who make such withdrawals will be able to pay the money back.

A home equity loan or line of credit is typically a much better option for home repairs, if you can arrange it.

Q&A: Those IRS coronavirus-extended deadlines apply to more than just taxes

Dear Liz: Now that we’re not required to file our taxes until July 15 this year, has anything been said about pushing back the 2019 contribution deadline for IRAs and Roth IRAs?

Answer: The IRS recently confirmed that the deadline for making contributions to IRAs has also been extended to July 15. The deadlines were pushed back from April 15 because of stay-at-home orders and other disruptions stemming from the coronavirus outbreak.

You can contribute up to $6,000 to IRAs for 2019 if you’re under 50, or $7,000 if you’re 50 or older. The limits are the same for 2020.

You didn’t ask, but the deadline for contributing to a health savings account also has been extended.

HSAs allow people with qualifying high-deductible health insurance plans to put away money that can be used tax-free for eligible medical expenses. The maximum amount individuals can contribute to an HSA is $3,500 for individual coverage and $7,000 for family coverage. The “catch up” provision for people 55 and older allows an additional $1,000 contribution.

Q&A: How IRS Free File works

Dear Liz: I wanted to alert you to the fact that online tax preparation companies are up to their old tricks again this year despite being called out last year for deceptively hiding their free tax filing from eligible filers. My son, who qualifies for free filing, was redirected to the paid “deluxe” version when it turned out he qualifies for a “Savers Tax Credit.” He makes modest tax-deferred contributions through an employer that matched contributions. (He’s a low-income student who works in retail.) He logged out of that website and instead successfully used a competitor provider for free.

Answer: The way to access the IRS’ Free File program is through the IRS website, which directs people to the private tax preparation companies that have agreed to offer this service. Unfortunately, many of those same companies spend a lot of money trying to obscure that fact that most Americans can file for free.

Independent news organization ProPublica reported last year that tax preparation companies were hiding their free file options from online search engines and steering people instead into paid tax preparation. A government report in February confirmed that more than 14 million taxpayers paid for tax preparation last year that they could have received free.

The companies have since been banned from hiding the free option and are supposed to include a link that returns people to the IRS Free File site if they don’t qualify for the company’s free offer. But ProPublica found that they continue to steer people away from free filing in various ways, including advertising that misuses the word “free.”

Also, many people like your son discover only late in the tax preparation process — often after they’ve added most of their information — that they don’t qualify for that company’s free option, although they would qualify elsewhere.

Here’s what people need to know about free filing:

People with adjusted gross incomes under $69,000 a year can qualify for free filing, but they should start their search at the IRS Free File webpage.

People in the military and their families can use MilTax, provided by the Department of Defense.

They can also get advice from a tax professional at (800) 342-9647.

In addition, people may qualify for the IRS’ Volunteer Income Tax Assistance if they make less than $56,000, live with a disability or speak limited English. Use the Volunteer Income Tax Assistance locator tool or call (800) 906-9887.

People who don’t qualify for the above services can still use free fillable forms. In addition, some tax preparation companies may have free options for people filing basic forms. The types of income and credits that allow someone to file for free should be prominently displayed on the company’s free file page.

Q&A: Tax tips for hybrid owners

Dear Liz: Not a question, but a tip for your readers. I bought a plug-in hybrid in 2018. I couldn’t take advantage of the $7,500 federal tax credit because my income was too low to pay much in federal taxes. So I converted $30,000 of my IRA to a Roth IRA, which added that money to my income for 2018, allowing me to take full advantage of the credit. Hey, I even got some money back. I can’t touch that Roth account for five years, or else the income it generates won’t be tax-free, but when the time comes for my mandatory withdrawals, I’ll tap into the remainder of my regular IRA. This might be of help to some of your readers.

Answer: Normally conversions from a regular IRA to a Roth trigger a hefty tax bill, but your credit allowed you to convert tax-free. Leasing is another option to consider with hybrids and other cars that offer a federal tax credit. The value of the credit typically is built into the deal, so you benefit even if you don’t have a federal tax bill to offset.

Q&A:Don’t make this mistake with your retirement savings

Dear Liz: My wife and I are in our mid-40s and planning to buy what likely will be the last house we’ll purchase. I’ve decided to withdraw around $15,000 from my IRA to buy down the rate, which will guarantee returns in the form of interest savings, even if those will be less than the returns I would earn if I left the money in the account. My real question is about our current house. We owe around $77,000 on a house that could likely fetch in the low $200,000 range. I’ve looked at it up, down and sideways. Would it make more sense to rent, sell, or rent then sell after a couple of years to avoid the capital gains tax?

Answer: Sometimes it can make sense to buy down a mortgage interest rate by paying more upfront if you plan to stay in the home for many years. The deals vary by lender, but you might pay 1% of the loan amount (one point) to get a rate that’s 0.25% lower, or 2% (two points) to get the rate reduced by 0.5%. For example, paying two points on a $200,000 mortgage, or $4,000, could lower the rate from 4.5% to 4%. You would drop the monthly payment about $59, and it would take you nearly six years for the slightly lower monthly payments to offset what you paid upfront.

You complicate the math, though, when the money used to buy down the rate comes out of a retirement account. That money is taxed as income and would likely be penalized as well because you aren’t yet 59½. (There’s an exception to the penalty for first-time home buyers who withdraw up to $10,000, but they’ll still owe income tax on the withdrawal.) The tax bill varies according to your tax bracket and your state, but you can expect it to equal roughly one-quarter to one-half of the amount withdrawn.

In addition to the tax bill, you’ve also given up future tax-deferred returns on the money. And because most people’s incomes drop in retirement, you’re probably paying a higher tax rate than you would if you withdrew the money later.

A good rule of thumb is to consult a tax pro before you take any money out of a retirement account. The rules can be complex and it’s easy to make an expensive mistake. A tax pro also could advise you about the tax implications of renting vs. selling, although you might also want to talk to anyone you know who’s a landlord about what’s involved with renting out a property.

The simplest solution may be to sell your current home and use the equity to reduce the size of the loan you’ll need on the next residence, rather than raiding a retirement fund to get a slightly lower rate.

Q&A: How to keep tax benefits when renting out your primary residence

Dear Liz: If my wife and I sell our primary residence of 12 years, I understand we can exclude up to $500,000 in home sale profits from taxes. But if we rent it for a year or two, then sell, have we lost that tax break by converting it to income property?

Answer: As long as you lived in the property at least two of the five years before the sale, you can use the home sale exclusion that allows each owner to protect $250,000 of profits from taxation.

You would pay capital gains rates on profits above that amount, but a big home sale profit could have other tax implications.

If you’re covered by Medicare, for example, profits above the exclusion amounts could temporarily increase your monthly premiums. This is because the income-related monthly adjustment amount, which is added to premiums when modified adjusted gross income exceeds $87,000 for singles or $174,000 for married couples.

If you might be affected, you’d be smart to consult a tax professional to see if there’s a way to structure the sale to reduce these effects.

Also, renting property has its own set of tax rules, making it even more important to have a tax pro who can assist you.