Wednesday’s need-to-know money news

Today’s top story: How COVID-fueled crowdfunding can revive small businesses. Also in the news: How point and mile values have changed over the pandemic, the one trick to traveling cheaply, and this tool tells you what you owe the IRS before they come looking for it.

How COVID-Fueled Crowdfunding Can Revive Small Businesses
Tips for launching an effective campaign.

How Have Point and Mile Values Changed Over the Pandemic?
For the most part, airline miles are worth more than they were last year, while hotel points are worth less.

There’s Just One Trick to Traveling Cheaply: Flexibility
To fly for the lowest price, you should try searching without a specific destination or date in mind.

This Tool Tells You What You Owe the IRS Before They Come Looking for It
Beating the IRS to the punch.

Q&A: Here’s how taxes work on estates and inherited money

Dear Liz: Are all assets entitled to a stepped-up basis upon the death of the owner? My father died about a year ago, leaving my sister and me an estate of a little over $1 million. He had a Thrift Savings Plan that is apparently like a 401(k) for federal government employees. This is getting taxed at 37%. Also he had U.S. Savings Bonds and the interest on those is apparently taxable. I was under the impression all assets in an estate under $11 million were not taxable. Is this not correct?

Answer: That’s not correct. You’re confusing a few different types of taxes.

Estate taxes are levied on certain large estates when the owner dies, and those taxes are typically paid out of the estate. The current estate tax exemption limit is $11.7 million, up from $11.58 million last year. After 2025, the limit is scheduled to drop to $3.5 million, but even then very few estates will owe the tax.

Another type of tax is the capital gains tax. This essentially taxes the profit someone makes when they sell a stock or other asset. Capital gains tax rates are typically 15%, but they can be as low as zero or as high as 20%, depending on the seller’s income.

Inherited assets that qualify for capital gains tax treatment also can qualify for the “step up in basis” that may reduce the tax bill, sometimes dramatically. If your dad paid $10 for a stock that was worth $100 when he died, you could sell it for $105 and owe taxes only on the $5 in appreciation since his death. The $90 appreciation that occurred during his lifetime would never be taxed.

Not all assets qualify for capital gains treatment, however. Retirement accounts, including 401(k)s and IRAs, are a good example.

People usually get tax breaks when they contribute and the accounts grow tax deferred. When the money comes out, however, the withdrawals are taxed as income regardless of whether it’s the original owner getting the money or the heir. Whoever makes the withdrawal pays the taxes.

Federal income rates currently range from zero to 37%. The 37% rate applies for singles with taxable income of $523,601 or more and married couples filing jointly with taxable incomes of $628,301 or more.

Tuesday’s need-to-know money news

Today’s top story: A Roth IRA could help you avoid taxes like the ultrawealthy. Also in the news: How one DUI can nearly double your car insurance, the Child Tax Credit scam, and flying first class for cheap(er) right now.

A Roth IRA Could Help You Avoid Taxes Like the Ultrawealthy
You, too, could lower your tax burden with the right investment account.

One DUI Can Nearly Double Your Car Insurance — Here’s How to Save
On average, auto insurance rates skyrocket 96% after a DUI, our 2021 rate analysis found.

Scam Alert: Child Tax Credit Is Automatic; No Need to Apply
The IRS won’t call, text or email you so beware of unsolicited communications.

You Can Fly First Class for Cheap(er) Right Now
Luxury travel is a bit more accessible.

Q&A: Taxes on a home sale

Dear Liz: My wife wants to sell our home of three years for a $300,000 profit after an extensive remodel and move into our rental home. She wants to stay there for two years and then sell to take advantage of the capital gains exemption. If we do it her way, we lower our monthly mortgage payment but lose the yearly rental income of $30,000. Our income is around $130,000. Any input?

Answer: Each homeowner can exclude up to $250,000 of home sale profits from capital gains taxes if they have owned and lived in a property as their primary residence for at least two of the previous five years. Married couples can exclude up to $500,000. This tax break can be used repeatedly.

The federal capital gains tax rate is currently 15% for most people, so the full $500,000 exemption could save a seller $75,000 in federal capital gains taxes. If your state or city has an income tax, you could save there as well. California, for example, doesn’t have a capital gains tax rate, so home sale profits would be subject to ordinary income tax rates of up to 13.3%.

The math is a little different when you move into a property you’ve previously rented out, said Mark Luscombe, principal analyst for Wolters Kluwer. Over the years, you’ve taken tax deductions for depreciation of your property. When you sell, the Internal Revenue Service wants some of that benefit back, something known as depreciation recapture.

When you sell a former rental property, some of the gain will be taxed as income, even if you’ve converted the home to personal use, Luscombe said. The maximum depreciation recapture rate is 25%.

A tax pro can help you figure out the likely tax bill. Any tax savings would be offset by the net result of a move, such as the lost rental income (minus the lower mortgage payments) and the substantial costs of selling, including real estate commissions and moving expenses.

It’s not clear if you’ve already remodeled your current home. If you haven’t, please think twice about an extensive remodel if you plan to sell, because you probably won’t get back the money you spend. Home improvement projects rarely return 100% of their cost. You’ll typically get a better return by decluttering, deep cleaning, sprucing up the yard or putting on a new coat of paint.

Monday’s need-to-know money news

Today’s top story: Haven’t filed your taxes yet? Act soon to avoid penalties. Also in the news: A new episode of the Smart Money podcast on free health insurance, a tax guide for small business owners, and Americans fear highest inflation in nearly a decade.

Haven’t Filed Your Taxes Yet? Act Soon to Avoid Penalties
Dealing with taxes can be a pain, but it’s better than the penalties you’ll face if you don’t file or pay on time.

Smart Money Podcast: Free Health Insurance and Finding Scholarships
A discussion about a provision in the American Rescue Plan that qualifies millions of Americans for free or lower-cost health insurance.

A Tax Guide for Small-Business Owners
Practicing good financial hygiene throughout the year takes some of the headaches out of filing business taxes.

Americans fear highest inflation in nearly a decade
Growing fears.

Q&A: Protecting home sales proceeds from taxes

Dear Liz: My friend has been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s and is now living in a secure assisted living facility. After a year in this home, his sister finally sold his condo. Her tax person says he will take a big tax hit. I say it is totally medically ordered and he’ll need the money for his current housing ($5,000 a month) until he dies. I also question whether part of that $5,000 should be deductible because it is only ordered because of his illness. Your thoughts?

Answer: Your friend may not be able to protect all of his home sale proceeds from taxation, but he likely will be able to protect some.

If your friend lived in his condo for at least two of the previous five years before the sale, he will be able to avoid tax on up to $250,000 of home sale profits. Even if he fell short of the two-year mark, he likely would benefit from IRS rules that allow partial exemptions when the sale is due to “unforeseen circumstances.”

Meanwhile, medical expenses, including some long-term care expenses, are potentially deductible if they exceed 7.5% of someone’s adjusted gross income. Assisted living expenses may qualify as deductible medical expenses if the resident is considered chronically ill, which means they cannot perform at least two activities of daily living (eating, toileting, bathing, dressing, getting in and out of bed and remaining continent) or they require supervision because of cognitive impairment, such as Alzheimer’s disease or other forms of dementia. The personal care services must be provided according to a plan of care prescribed by a licensed healthcare provider. Typically, assisted living facilities prepare such care plans for their residents.

Q&A: Filing taxes after a spouse’s death

Dear Liz: I am writing this email on behalf of my 88-year-old dad. He wanted to ask you this question: “My wife passed away Jan. 7, 2020. In filing my 1040 income tax for 2020, am I allowed to file as a married couple or required to file as a single person?”

Answer: Your dad can use “married filing jointly” with his deceased spouse for the year of her death, assuming he didn’t remarry in that year.

If your dad claimed one or more qualifying dependents — a child, stepchild or adopted child — he might be able to file as a qualifying widower for the following two years as long as he paid more than half the cost of maintaining his home and it was the main home of the dependent or dependents. Most people your dad’s age no longer live with their kids or claim them as dependents on their tax returns. But if he did, this could preserve the larger standard deduction and other benefits of filing jointly for another couple of years.

Q&A: Paying taxes with plastic

Dear Liz: I am selling a rental property that I have owned for several years. I know I could do a 1031 exchange, which would allow me to put off the tax bill by investing in another commercial property. But I just want out. I’ll pay the capital gains tax and invest the rest of the proceeds. I am considering paying the taxes by credit card and taking on the 3% premium to get rewards points offered through the card issuer. Is this a dumb idea, or does it have some merit?

Answer: The companies that process federal tax payments have processing fees of just under 2%, not 3%. You’ll still want to make sure you get more value from your rewards than you pay in fees, and that’s not a given. If your card offers only 1.5% cash back, for example, charging your taxes doesn’t make a lot of sense. But the math changes if you can get more than 2% in rewards, or if you could use the charge to help you meet the minimum spending requirements for a new credit card with a generous sign-up bonus.

If you do charge your taxes, you’ll obviously want to pay the balance in full before incurring any interest.

Q&A: Don’t file an amended return after the stimulus tax break. The IRS is begging you

Dear Liz: You might want to inform your readers that they do not need to file an amended return if they filed before Congress passed its most recent stimulus plan, which excludes the first $10,200 of unemployment benefits. The IRS will automatically recalculate their taxes and refund the taxes paid on that amount of benefits.

Answer: In fact, the IRS is begging people not to file amended returns. (An exception, the IRS has said, is for those who the tax reduction would make newly eligible for the earned income tax credit or other tax breaks for lower income people.) The agency is still processing a backlog of returns and correspondence while issuing a third wave of stimulus payments and gearing up to send monthly child credit payments to millions of families.

You may need patience, however. The IRS has promised to refund any taxes paid on the first $10,200 of unemployment benefits earned last year, but has said the money will go out “this spring and summer.”

If you need to find tax help, try DIY first

Getting help from the IRS this tax season is going to be a challenge.

The IRS has finally opened the 23.4 million pieces of mail that piled up after the pandemic shuttered its processing centers last spring. But the agency still has a backlog of paperwork from last year even as it ingests this year’s returns, issues a third round of relief payments and gears up to send monthly child tax credit payments to millions of families.

The tax deadline has been moved from April 15 to May 17, giving people more time to file. Getting help is another matter. Callers face long wait times with no guarantee they’ll reach a human being. Meanwhile, many tax help sites are closed or working at reduced capacity because of COVID-19 restrictions.

In my latest for the Associated Press, common questions and answers that could save you some time or point you to resources that will help.