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.

Q&A: IRAs and tax considerations

Dear Liz: I’ve been researching the backdoor Roth IRA and I am finding some conflicting information regarding taxes owed on the conversions. I have two sizable rollover IRAs and one small ($1,600) traditional IRA. Can I make an after-tax contribution to the traditional IRA and convert that to a Roth and pay tax only on that IRA or do I have to consider all three IRAs?

Answer:
Sorry, but you have to consider all three. The tax on your conversion will be based on the pre-tax portion of all your IRAs combined, not just the IRA where you make your contribution.

Backdoor Roths allow people to get money into a Roth when their incomes are too high to make a direct contribution. Instead, they contribute to a traditional IRA and convert that to a Roth because conversions don’t have income limits. Conversions require paying taxes proportionately on your pre-tax contributions and earnings, however, so the technique may not be advisable when you have sizable pre-tax IRAs that will trigger a large tax bill.

Thursday’s need-to-know money news

Today’s top story: Start early to get your house retirement-ready. Also in the news: Why these federal student loan borrowers are out of luck, 5 options for people who can’t afford their tax bills, and why big tax refunds aren’t as great as they seem.

Start Early to Get Your House Retirement-Ready
Most homes aren’t ready for “aging in place,” but you could take steps now to make your home better for retirement.

These Federal Student Loan Borrowers Aren’t Getting Relief
FFEL borrowers are out of luck.

5 Options for People Who Can’t Afford Their Tax Bills
If you can’t afford your tax bill, consider an installment plan or an offer in compromise if you qualify.

Why Big Tax Refunds Aren’t As Great as They Seem
You’re giving the IRS a loan.

Friday’s need-to-know money news

Today’s top story: Ready player two? How couples maximize their credit card rewards. Also in the news: The new stimulus package helps ore college students, common tools that can save you time and money on taxes, and how to qualify for 100% subsidized COBRA payments.

Ready Player Two? How Couples Maximize Their Credit Card Rewards
These couples work together to double their rewards by engaging a “two-player” credit card strategy.

This Time, the Stimulus Package Helps More College Students
Things are different for the third round of payments.

Common Tools Can Save You Time, Money on Taxes
Some of these tools are already on your phone.

How to Qualify for 100% Subsidized COBRA Premiums
Find out what you need to qualify.

Thursday’s need-to-know money news

Today’s top story: COVID-19 relief for homeowners facing a payment crisis. Also in the news: Common tools that can save you time and money on taxes, why you might treat your third stimulus check differently, and how borrowing for emergencies and moving rose in 2020.

COVID-19 Mortgage Relief for Homeowners Facing a Payment Crisis
Forbearance and loan modifications can help with your mortgage if your pay has been reduced or you’re unemployed.

Common Tools Can Save You Time, Money on Taxes
Help is just an app away.

Why You Might Treat Your Third Stimulus Check Differently
Immediate needs come first, then savings. Consider gifts to those in need and teaching your children about money.

Borrowing for Emergencies and Moving Rose in 2020
NerdWallet data shows what was on some consumers’ minds when getting a personal loan during a chaotic year.

Common tools can save you time, money on taxes

Receipts, like memories, tend to fade with time. That’s just one reason to digitize and track tax-related information. The right apps and habits can save space, time, money and hassle — but only if you use them.

“Apps should make things easier, not more complicated,” says Clare Levison, a certified public accountant in Blacksburg, Virginia. “The definition of a good app is what works for you, not the one that’s the trendiest.”

In my latest for the Associated Press, how to use the tools you already have to make your life easier come tax time.

Thursday’s need-to-know money news

Today’s top story: Why you should stop waiting to sell your home. Also in the news: How to find a Black financial advisor, sharing renters insurance with a roommate, and why you need to start claiming crypto on your taxes.

Why You Should Stop Waiting to Sell Your Home
Now maybe a good time to sell your home. First, decide whether to sell before or after finding your next place.

How to Find a Black Financial Advisor
There are a few ways, but understanding the “why” may be just as important as the “how.”

Can I Share Renters Insurance With My Roommate?
Many companies permit it, but there’s no guarantee it’ll save you money in the long run.

Why You Need to Start Claiming Crypto on Your Taxes
The IRS wants to know.