Q&A: Reducing taxes in retirement

Dear Liz: It appears required minimum distributions will force me to take an additional $3,500 per month from my retirement funds starting in four years at age 72. This added taxable draw will greatly impact my income tax liabilities as I’m now fully retired. Are there any strategies at this time to reduce the hit? As my current income tax rate is 12% federal and 9% state, perhaps I should convert some of these funds to Roth IRAs?

Answer: Partial Roth conversions when your tax bracket is low can be an excellent way to reduce future mandatory withdrawals and save on taxes in the long run.

Let’s say you’re married filing jointly and have $60,000 in taxable income. The 12% federal tax bracket ends at $83,550, so you could convert more than $23,000 of your retirement funds without increasing your marginal federal tax rate. Conversions can affect other aspects of your taxes and finances, so consult a tax pro before proceeding.

Another way to potentially lower your tax bill may be to temporarily suspend your Social Security payments and take more from your retirement funds. Because of the peculiar way that Social Security is taxed, people often face a sharp rise and then fall in marginal tax rates when they have other income, something known as the “tax torpedo.” A tax pro should be able to determine if delaying or suspending Social Security payments could help you reduce the effects.

Q&A: Friend’s write-offs might be fraud

Dear Liz: I have a friend who is driving me crazy because she keeps telling me that I need to start a company. She claims she writes off “everything” from her two companies and a nonprofit. She says her accountant encourages this and that she doesn’t pay taxes. However, when my friend had to claim unemployment benefits during the pandemic, her weekly amount was very small. She kept complaining that she “paid into the system” but thought she should get a higher amount. Maybe she didn’t pay into the system, or isn’t paying enough?

Answer:
People who write off “everything” are often committing tax fraud. Although businesses can write off a number of different expenses, those expenses must be both “ordinary” — common and accepted in the business’ specific industry — and “necessary,” or helpful and appropriate for that particular business or trade. Nonprofits, by IRS definition, are supposed to be organized and operated exclusively for religious, educational or charitable purposes — not the benefit of a single individual.

Your friend could face a substantial tax bill plus serious penalties if she’s audited. She may be counting on the IRS not noticing, but all it may take to trigger an audit is a tip from a disgruntled employee or someone who hears her bragging about not paying taxes. If her accountant is in the habit of filing dubious returns, the IRS might catch on to the pattern and start looking more closely at all that accountant’s customers.

Your friend’s strategy of minimizing her taxable income has already bitten her once when she applied for unemployment and may bite her again when she applies for Social Security. If she doesn’t pay Social Security taxes, or pays only a small amount, her retirement benefits will reflect that. By the time many people realize the enormity of that particular mistake, it’s too late to fix.

Q&A: How to reduce capital gains taxes on a home sale

Dear Liz: We’re retired and living in California. We are planning on selling our home, which is paid for, and moving to Tennessee in a couple of years. I think we qualify for a “one time” capital gains exemption. Our home is worth over $1 million and we paid only $98,000 in 1978. We plan on buying a home in Tennessee for around $800,000. Will we have to pay capital gains tax?

Answer: Before 1997, a homeowner could defer paying taxes on home sale gains as long as they rolled the proceeds into the purchase of another home of equal or greater value. In addition, there was a one-time exclusion for homeowners over age 55, who could exclude up to $125,000 in home sale gains.

Those rules were replaced in 1997 with the current law. Now homeowners of any age can exclude up to $250,000 each in capital gains on the sale of their primary residence, as long as they’ve owned and lived in the house for at least two of the previous five years. As a married couple, you can exclude up to $500,000 of gain — but that still leaves you with more than $400,000 of potential capital gains.

The capital gains calculation doesn’t factor in the value of your replacement home or whether you have a mortgage. However, you can use the value of home improvements you’ve made over the years to reduce your taxable gain — assuming you kept those receipts. The IRS defines home improvements as expenses that add to the value of your home, prolong its useful life or adapt it to new uses. Examples would include additions (bedrooms, bathrooms, decks, garages, etc.), heating or air conditioning systems, plumbing upgrades, kitchen remodels and landscaping, among other costs.

Improvements don’t include maintenance required to keep your home in good condition, such as painting, fixing leaks or repairing broken hardware, or improvements that are later taken out. If you put wall-to-wall carpeting and then removed it to install hardwood floors, only the cost of the hardwood floors would count.

Many of the costs you incur to sell the home, such as real estate agent commissions and notary fees, also can be used to reduce the capital gain. You can find more details in IRS Publication 523, Selling Your Home. A big home sale gain can affect other areas of your finances, such as your Medicare premiums, and may require you to pay quarterly estimated taxes. Consider talking to a tax pro before the sale so you know what to expect.

Q&A: How to minimize taxes after you retire

Roth conversionsDear Liz: In preparing my 2021 tax returns, I was dismayed to find out that my first required minimum distributions from my retirement account have pushed me into the highest tax bracket ever in my life and caused 85% of my modest Social Security benefit to become taxable. Since I retired five years ago at full retirement age, I never had to pay taxes on my Social Security as it was the majority of my income. In my remaining years, I wonder if there is anything I can do to avoid paying about $8,000 to $9,000 a year in income taxes!? Even a partial conversion from a 401(k) to a Roth IRA would surely increase my Medicare Part B premium, another financial problem. I am not rich, just average middle class, and my financial goals are to carefully plan my necessary expenses so that I will not run out of funds. I do not need to leave an inheritance to my two adult children.

Answer: You’re probably correct that Roth conversions aren’t the answer now, although they may have been helpful earlier. You also may have been able to reduce the overall taxes you pay by waiting until age 70 to claim Social Security and taking distributions from your 401(k) instead.

You can discuss your situation with a tax pro to see if there are any other opportunities for reducing your taxes. Mostly, though, your situation is a good illustration of why it’s so important to get professional financial planning and tax advice well before you retire. Even if you think you’re well informed, you’re inexperienced — you’ve never retired before, whereas experienced financial planners and tax pros have guided many people through this phase of their lives.

Some of the decisions you make around retirement are irreversible and can have a profound effect on how much money you can spend. Ideally, you’d meet with a fee-only, fiduciary financial planner five to 10 years in advance of your retirement date and have several check-ins to make sure your financial plan is sound before you give notice.

Q&A: Figuring taxes on Social Security

Dear Liz: How will our Social Security payments be affected by any passive income such as from rental properties? We have two properties, which add $3,000 monthly to our current income. I plan on retiring at 72, which is six years away. My husband may retire earlier due to health problems. We will have savings as well as my 401(k) when I retire. Although my retirement income “pencils out,” I don’t know exactly what to expect from Social Security. How should I calculate my net income in retirement?

Answer: You could pay income taxes on up to 85% of your Social Security benefits if you have other taxable income. Examples of taxable income include wages, interest, dividends, capital gains, rent, royalties, annuities, pension payments and distributions from retirement accounts other than Roths.

To determine how much of your benefit is taxable, you would first calculate your “combined income,” which consists of your adjusted gross income plus any nontaxable interest you receive plus half of your Social Security benefits. If you file a joint return, you typically would have to pay income tax on up to half of your benefits if your combined income fell between $32,000 and $44,000. If your combined income was more than $44,000, up to 85% of your benefits would be taxable.

Q&A: How to figure your capital gains tax bite so the IRS doesn’t zap you

Dear Liz: We had big capital gains this year, and we owe taxes plus a penalty for not paying estimated taxes. Is there a way to plan ahead for taxes since every year is different regarding gains or losses? I know one option is to just pay estimated taxes quarterly based on the previous year’s gains. Apparently the mutual fund companies don’t automatically withhold the taxes.

Answer: Our tax system is “pay as you go,” which means the IRS expects you to pay taxes as you earn or receive income. If you fail to do so and your tax bill is more than $1,000, you may face penalties.

As you rightly note, though, you won’t know what your total capital gains or losses will be until year’s end. You wouldn’t want to pay taxes on a big gain one quarter only to have a big loss the following quarter. You can avoid the penalties by making sure your withholding and estimated tax payments equal at least 100% of the total tax you paid in the previous tax year if your income is $150,000 or less. If your income is over $150,000, your payments and withholding should equal at least 110% of last year’s taxes.

The alternative is to pay at least 90% of the tax you’ll owe on your estimated income for the current year. A tax pro can help you figure out how much you need to pay as well as offer tips for reducing your tax bill.

Q&A: When institutions won’t go paperless

Dear Liz: I have for years insisted on being paperless, not only for credit card statements and utility bills but also for tax documents such as the 1099-INT and 1099-DIV. My problem is that I receive income from two lifetime annuities and those of course generate 1099-R forms each year, which are mailed to me. I have requested to receive those as PDFs from the companies that execute those annuities, and they claim they cannot do so and are not required to. Are they right, or is there some federal regulation I can quote to force the issue?

Answer: The idea that a business can’t generate an electronic form for a customer is a little ridiculous, but there’s not much you can do to force these companies to get with the times.

The IRS requires that any person or entity that files more than 250 information returns — 1099s, W-2s and other forms that report potentially taxable income — do so electronically. But that requirement applies only to forms being sent to the IRS, says Mark Luscombe, principal analyst for Wolters Kluwer Tax & Accounting. There’s no requirement that such forms be issued electronically to individuals.

Which is unfortunate, since as you know getting forms electronically is much safer than having your private financial information sent through the mail. Since these companies are so insistent on clinging to paper, consider sending a letter — certified mail, return receipt requested — to the companies’ chief executives requesting that they join the 21st century.

Q&A: Reporting caregivers’ pay to the IRS

Dear Liz: We have a gardener, pool man and caregivers. We pay the gardener, pool man and some of the caregivers directly, while we pay an agency for the other caregivers. Do we have an obligation to report payments to the IRS?

Answer: As an individual taxpayer, you typically don’t have to report payments to businesses. Your gardener and pool cleaner probably either are self-employed or work for a company that takes care of reporting requirements for its workers. Likewise, the caregiving agency should handle reporting requirements for its employees.

The caregivers you pay directly, however, are generally considered your household employees. That means you may be responsible for reporting their wages to the IRS and paying their employment taxes. That responsibility kicks in if a caregiver receives at least $1,000 in any calendar quarter or at least $2,400 per calendar year for 2022 (or $2,300 per calendar year for 2021), says Mark Luscombe, principal analyst for Wolters Kluwer Tax & Accounting. IRS Publication 926, Household Employer’s Tax Guide, has details.

Q&A: Taxes on trust’s income

Dear Liz: My father passed away last year leaving an estate that will make us comfortable through the foreseeable future. His holdings are mostly securities that are traded either on the NYSE or the Nasdaq. From our investments, we currently have non-earned income of between $75,000 and $100,000 annually without any other income. After estate taxes are paid for my father’s estate, the annual yield (mostly dividends) will be in the $225,000 to $250,000 range. My question for you is should we keep my father’s holdings within his trust and let the trust pay the taxes on the income, or should we take the income and pay the taxes ourselves?

Answer: Tax rates on trusts are notoriously high. If you have a choice, you probably would want to pay the taxes yourself rather than letting the trust do so. The question is whether you have a choice, and that will be determined by the wording of your father’s trust, Los Angeles estate planning attorney Burton Mitchell says.

Speaking of estate planning attorneys, you need to hire one, along with a tax pro and a fee-only financial planner, so you can get solid, personalized advice on questions like this. You already had substantial income, and you just inherited an estate worth multiple millions, so you’re long past the point when doing it yourself makes sense.

Q&A: What is the capital gains tax, and how big a bite does it take?

Dear Liz: We own stocks with enormous capital gains — as in, six figures or more. The tax would be a lot. Any advice on how to limit the tax bite? Our income consists of Social Security and a teacher’s pension.

Answer: Capital gains taxes may be less of a problem than you fear. If your taxable income as a married couple is less than $83,350 in 2022, your federal tax rate on long-term capital gains is zero. (Long-term capital gains apply to profits on stocks held one year or more.) If your taxable income is between $83,350 and $517,200, your federal capital gains tax rate is 15%.

In addition, you may owe state taxes. California, for example, doesn’t have a capital gains tax rate and instead taxes capital gains at the same rate as ordinary income.

Capital gains aren’t included when determining your taxable income, by the way, but they are included in your adjusted gross income, which can affect other aspects of your finances. A big capital gain could determine whether you can qualify for certain tax breaks, for example, and could inflate your Medicare premiums. That’s why it’s important to get good tax advice before selling stocks with big gains.

A tax pro can discuss strategies that might reduce a tax bill, such as offsetting gains with capital losses by selling any stocks that have lost value since you purchased them. You also could consider donating appreciated shares to qualifying charities. If you itemize your deductions, you can deduct the fair market value of these shares. The write-off is typically limited to 30% of your adjusted gross income for the year, although if you donate more you can carry forward the excess deduction for up to five years.

All this assumes that these shares aren’t held in retirement accounts. Withdrawals from retirement accounts are typically taxed as ordinary income and don’t benefit from the more favorable capital gains rates. If the stocks are in an IRA and you’re at least 70½, however, you could make qualified charitable distributions directly to nonprofits and the distributions wouldn’t be included in your income. Again, this is something to discuss with a tax pro before taking action.