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: Should you keep paying Medicare premiums if you’re moving abroad?

Dear Liz: We are thinking of retiring to Paris. What would be the repercussions if we stop paying Medicare premiums? We’re concerned about the possibility of returning to the U.S. at some future date and the costs of reinstating it. Do we just pay back the past due payments plus a penalty?

Answer: You wouldn’t make up the missed payments, but you would owe a penalty that would permanently increase your premiums for Medicare Part B, which covers doctor’s visits, and Part D, which covers prescriptions. The penalty for Part B is 10% for every 12 months you were eligible but not enrolled. The penalty for Part D is determined by multiplying 1% of the “national base beneficiary premium” ($33.37 in 2022) by the number of months that you were eligible but didn’t enroll.

Many retirees who plan to eventually move back to the U.S. or make frequent visits opt to keep up their Medicare coverage. Consider discussing your options with a fee-only financial advisor — preferably one who has experience advising would-be expatriates. Another option when you have Medicare questions is to contact your State Health Insurance Assistance Program, which can provide free counseling.

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: Riding the market waves

Dear Liz: Today’s stock market is one of the most volatile of all time. So many issues affect it, and there seems to be no end in sight to war in Ukraine, inflation, high fuel prices, the pandemic, China conflict concerns and more. Any one of these would cause the market pain, but together it’s scary. I have a broker who’s used to riding ups and downs, and says to me to be patient. In the meantime I’ve lost 25% of a portfolio that was extremely fruitful until January of this year. Please give me guidance on working with a broker, finding one who knows how to navigate this market and isn’t mired in some tradition of riding waves. I need one who sees opportunity and knows how to take advantage and get out appropriately.

Answer: The reason your broker is “mired in some tradition of riding waves” is because that’s the one approach that consistently works. It’s the advisors who promise you that they can “see opportunity” and “get out appropriately” that can cost you big time. Advisors who try to time the market — which is what you’re asking them to do — inevitably fail. They might get out in time to avoid the crash but rebounds happen so swiftly that they’ll miss a good chunk of the recovery before they get back in.

There is no reward without risk, and riding out inevitable downturns is how investors get ahead over time. Trying to outsmart the market just leads to extra costs that lower your ultimate returns.

Q&A: Finding divorce papers

Dear Liz: My ex passed three years ago. I have done everything to try to get a copy of our divorce papers. I’ve lost out on three years of divorced survivor benefits. Social Security said I must have a copy of the papers before I apply. I have contacted the last places where he lived and sent money orders to the capital cities of those states to no avail. I’m at a loss.

Answer: You need to contact the court clerk in the county where your divorce was finalized and ask for instructions on getting a copy of the documents. Sending out money orders at random won’t do anything but waste your cash. (You may be able to get some money back if the money orders haven’t been cashed, however. You’ll need to contact the issuer, provide a receipt and pay a cancellation fee.)

Q&A: How contribution rules differ for IRA and 401(k) accounts

Dear Liz: I recently changed jobs. Typically I max out my 401(k) contributions each year. I contributed $20,700 to my previous company’s plan before quitting. Eligibility for my new company’s 401(k) doesn’t kick in until after 12 months of continuous employment, so I won’t be able to access this benefit until 2023. Can I set up an IRA or Roth IRA to reach the $27,500 limit for people 50 and older? I am married, filing jointly and our combined income exceeds $214,000.

Answer: Please talk to your company about fixing this outmoded requirement, which is costing its workers enormously in lost matching funds and compounded returns. Most companies have much shorter waiting periods, and the most enlightened employers enroll workers immediately. It’s hard enough to save adequately for retirement without an arbitrary yearlong delay.

The limits for contributing to workplace plans are separate from those for IRAs and Roth IRAs. For 2022, the limits for 401(k)s are $20,500 for people under 50 and $27,500 for people 50 and older. The contribution limits for IRAs (regular or Roth) are $6,000 for people under 50 and $7,000 for people 50 and older.

If you had access to a workplace plan at any point during the year, your ability to deduct your contribution would phase out with modified adjusted gross income between $109,000 and $129,000 if you are married filing jointly, said Mark Luscombe, principal analyst for Wolters Kluwer Tax & Accounting. The phaseout is between $68,000 and $78,000 for single taxpayers.

Normally when you can’t deduct an IRA contribution, you’re better off contributing to a Roth IRA. Contributions to a Roth aren’t deductible but withdrawals are tax-free in retirement.

However, the ability to contribute to a Roth IRA phases out with modified adjusted gross incomes between $204,000 and $214,000 for married joint filers and between $129,000 and $144,000 for single filers.

If you can’t contribute directly to a Roth, you could consider what’s called a “back door” Roth contribution, in which you contribute to a regular IRA and then convert the money to a Roth. Although direct Roth contributions have income limits, Roth conversions do not. However, you are required to pay income taxes on a typical conversion, so this maneuver works best if you don’t already have a large pretax IRA.

Q&A: Mortgage payoff or emergency savings?

Dear Liz: My husband was laid off recently, and he quickly took a new job with a 25% pay cut to continue insurance benefits and the same retirement program. We regularly pay $500 to $1,300 extra on our house payment. We cannot keep that up. However, with his severance package and vacation day payout, we now have more in our bank account than we owe on our mortgage. If we paid off the $80,000 mortgage now (house is valued at $600,000), we’d have an emergency fund of only $10,000, but we could replenish those savings slowly each month with no house payment. We have no other debts. How do we know when is the right time to pay off the mortgage?

Answer: Think about what would happen if you paid off the mortgage and your husband were to be laid off again or you suffered some other financial setback. The $10,000 left in your emergency fund could be depleted quickly. If you don’t have stocks or other assets you could sell, you might have to raid your retirement accounts or turn to high-cost loans.

This is why financial planners recommend having an emergency fund equal to three to six months’ worth of expenses if possible — and why using your savings to pay off a low-rate debt might not be the best use of your money.

If you’re determined to pay off your mortgage, consider setting up a home equity line of credit first. That will give you a relatively inexpensive source of credit in an emergency.

Q&A: Identity theft fears? Get a credit report, credit freeze

Dear Liz: I divorced 32 years ago. Recently, I received calls from a collection agency about a debt that has not been paid. I discovered that my ex used my phone number as one of his contact numbers. My number is supposed to be unlisted and unpublished, but he found it online. I have stopped receiving calls from the agency, but how do I stop this from happening again?

Answer: Please check your credit reports to make sure your ex didn’t swipe even more sensitive digits: namely, your Social Security number. If his credit is bad, he may be tempted to pretend to be you in order to get credit cards, loans or other accounts. That’s identity theft, and there are steps you should take now to protect yourself.

You can access your credit reports for free at AnnualCreditReport.com. (If you’re asked for a credit card number, you’re on the wrong site.) Look for any accounts that aren’t yours and consider freezing your credit reports at each of the bureaus. Credit freezes prevent someone from opening new accounts in your name. You can thaw the freeze whenever you need credit, also for free.

You can’t prevent someone from adding your phone number to their credit applications, but under federal law you can tell a collection agency to stop contacting you, and it must comply. Make the request in writing.

Q&A: How to start an IRA for your new Gen Z college graduate

Dear Liz: My son is about to graduate from college and, as a present, I want to use $10,000 to start an IRA for him. But which is better? A Roth or a standard IRA?

Answer: Congratulations to both of you! Starting a retirement account is a great idea, but you should be aware of the numerous rules that limit who can contribute and how much.

Let’s start with the annual contribution limit, which for 2022 is $6,000 for people under 50. (People 50 and older can make an additional $1,000 “catch up” contribution.) Also, your son needs to have earned income — such as wages, salary or self-employment income — that is at least equal to the size of the contribution you want to make. In other words, he needs to earn $6,000 for you to contribute $6,000. If he’s about to start a full-time job, that probably won’t be an issue, but if he’s not working, or working only part time before starting graduate school, that might further limit how much you can contribute.

For all of those reasons, a Roth IRA contribution may be best. He won’t get an upfront tax deduction but withdrawals in retirement will be tax free. He can withdraw Roth contributions at any time without taxes or penalties, so the Roth can serve as a de facto emergency fund. Obviously, it’s better to leave the money alone to grow, but having access to the cash could be helpful while he builds a regular emergency fund.

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?”