Minimize Net Investment Income Tax
Higher-income earners must be wary of the 3.8% surtax on certain unearned income. The surtax is 3.8% of the lesser of: (1) net investment income (NII), or (2) the excess of modified adjusted gross income (MAGI) over a threshold amount ($250,000 for joint filers or surviving spouses, $125,000 for a married individual filing a separate return, and $200,000 in any other case). As year-end nears, a taxpayer’s approach to minimizing or eliminating the 3.8% surtax will depend on his estimated MAGI and NII for the year. Some taxpayers should consider ways to minimize (e.g., through deferral) additional NII for the balance of the year, others should try to see if they can reduce MAGI other than NII, and other individuals will need to consider ways to minimize both NII and other types of MAGI. An important exception is that NII does not include distributions from IRAs and most other retirement plans.
Minimize Additional Medicare Tax
The 0.9% additional Medicare tax also may require higher-income earners to take year-end action. It applies to individuals whose employment wages and self-employment income total more than a threshold amount ($250,000 for joint filers, $125,000 for married couples filing separately, and $200,000 in any other case). Employers must withhold the additional Medicare tax from wages in excess of $200,000 regardless of filing status or other income. Self-employed persons must take it into account in figuring estimated tax. There could be situations where an employee may need to have more withheld toward the end of the year to cover the tax. For example, if an individual earns $200,000 from one employer during the first half of the year and a like amount from another employer during the balance of the year, he or she would owe the additional Medicare tax, but there would be no withholding by either employer for the additional Medicare tax since wages from each employer don’t exceed $200,000.
Plan for Capital Gains Rates
Long-term capital gain from sales of assets held for over one year is taxed at 0%, 15% or 20%, depending on the taxpayer’s taxable income. If you hold long-term appreciated-in-value assets, consider selling enough of them to generate long-term capital gains that can be sheltered by the 0% rate. The 0% rate generally applies to the excess of long-term capital gain over any short-term capital loss to the extent that, when added to regular taxable income, it is not more than the maximum zero rate amount (e.g., $80,000 for a married couple). If the 0% rate applies to long-term capital gains you took earlier this year for example, you are a joint filer who made a profit of $5,000 on the sale of stock held for more than one year and your other taxable income for 2020 is $75,000 then try not to sell assets yielding a capital loss before year-end, because the first $5,000 of those losses won’t yield a benefit this year. (It will offset $5,000 of capital gain that is already tax-free.)
Evaluate Timing of Income and Deductions
Postpone income until 2021 and accelerate deductions into 2020 if doing so will enable you to claim larger deductions, credits, and other tax breaks for 2020 that are phased out over varying levels of adjusted gross income (AGI). These include deductible IRA contributions, child tax credits, higher education tax credits, and deductions for student loan interest. Postponing income also is desirable for taxpayers who anticipate being in a lower tax bracket next year due to changed financial circumstances. Note, however, that in some cases, it may pay to actually accelerate income into 2020. For example, that may be the case for a person who will have a more favorable filing status this year than next (e.g., head of household versus individual filing status), or who expects to be in a higher tax bracket next year. It may be advantageous to try to arrange with your employer to defer, until early 2021, a bonus that may be coming your way. This could cut as well as defer your tax.
Evaluate Roth vs. Traditional IRA’s
If you believe a Roth IRA is better than a traditional IRA, consider converting traditional-IRA money invested in any beaten-down stocks (or mutual funds) into a Roth IRA in 2020 if eligible to do so. Keep in mind, however, that such a conversion will increase your AGI for 2020, and possibly reduce tax breaks geared to AGI (or modified AGI).
Understand the Standard Deduction vs. Itemized Deductions
Many taxpayers won’t be able to itemize because of the high basic standard deduction amounts that apply for 2020 ($24,800 for joint filers, $12,400 for singles and for marrieds filing separately, $18,650 for heads of household), and because many itemized deductions have been reduced or abolished. Like last year, no more than $10,000 of state and local taxes may be deducted; miscellaneous itemized deductions (e.g., tax preparation fees and unreimbursed employee expenses) are not deductible; and personal casualty and theft losses are deductible only if they’re attributable to a federally declared disaster and only to the extent the $100-per-casualty and 10%-of-AGI limits are met. You can still itemize medical expenses but only to the extent they exceed 7.5% of your adjusted gross income, state and local taxes up to $10,000, your charitable contributions, plus interest deductions on a restricted amount of qualifying residence debt, but payments of those items won’t save taxes if they don’t cumulatively exceed the standard deduction for your filing status. Two COVID-related changes for 2020 may be relevant here: (1) Individuals may claim a $300 above-the-line deduction for cash charitable contributions on top of their standard deduction; and the percentage limit on charitable contributions has been raised from 60% of modified adjusted gross income (MAGI) to 100%. Some taxpayers may be able to work around these deduction restrictions by applying a bunching strategy to pull or push discretionary medical expenses and charitable contributions into the year where they will do some tax good. For example, a taxpayer who will be able to itemize deductions this year but not next will benefit by making two years’ worth of charitable contributions this year, instead of spreading out donations over 2020 and 2021. The COVID-related increase for 2020 in the income-based charitable deduction limit for cash contributions from 60% to 100% of MAGI assists in this bunching strategy, especially for higher income individuals with the means and disposition to make large charitable contributions.
Prepay Tax Deductions
Consider using a credit card to pay deductible expenses before the end of the year. Doing so will increase your 2020 deductions even if you don’t pay your credit card bill until after the end of the year.
Prepay State Taxes Due
If you expect to owe state and local income taxes when you file your return next year and you will be itemizing in 2020, consider asking your employer to increase withholding of state and local taxes (or pay estimated tax payments of state and local taxes) before year-end to pull the deduction of those taxes into 2020. But remember that state and local tax deductions are limited to $10,000 per year, so this strategy is not good to the extent it causes your 2020 state and local tax payments to exceed $10,000.
Update for RMD Changes
Required minimum distributions (RMDs) that usually must be taken from an IRA or 401(k) plan (or other employer-sponsored retirement plan) have been waived for 2020. This includes RMDs that would have been required by April 1 if you hit age 70½ during 2019 (and for non-5% company owners over age 70½ who retired during 2019 after having deferred taking RMDs until April 1 following their year of retirement). So if you don’t have a financial need to take a distribution in 2020, you don’t have to. Note that because of a recent law change, plan participants who turn 70½ in 2020 or later needn’t take required distributions for any year before the year in which they reach age 72.
Consider Qualified Charitable Distributions
If you are age 70½ or older by the end of 2020, have traditional IRAs, and especially if you are unable to itemize your deductions, consider making 2020 charitable donations via qualified charitable distributions from your IRAs. These distributions are made directly to charities from your IRAs, and the amount of the contribution is neither included in your gross income nor deductible on Schedule A, Form 1040. However, you are still entitled to claim the entire standard deduction. (Previously, those who reached reach age 70½ during a year weren’t permitted to make contributions to a traditional IRA for that year or any later year. While that restriction no longer applies, the qualified charitable distribution amount must be reduced by contributions to an IRA that were deducted for any year in which the contributor was age 70½ or older, unless a previous qualified charitable distribution exclusion was reduced by that post-age 70½ contribution.)
Contribute to IRA for Future Year QCD’s
If you are younger than age 70½ at the end of 2020, you anticipate that you will not itemize your deductions in later years when you are 70½ or older, and you don’t now have any traditional IRAs, establish and contribute as much as you can to one or more traditional IRAs in 2020. If these circumstances apply to you, except that you already have one or more traditional IRAs, make maximum contributions to one or more traditional IRAs in 2020. Then, in the year you reach age 70½, make your charitable donations by way of qualified charitable distributions from your IRA. Doing this will allow you, in effect, to convert nondeductible charitable contributions that you make in the year you turn 70½ and later years, into deductible-in-2020 IRA contributions and reductions of gross income from later year distributions from the IRAs.
Evaluate Withholding Shortfall with Rollover Distribution
Take an eligible rollover distribution from a qualified retirement plan before the end of 2020 if you are facing a penalty for underpayment of estimated tax and having your employer increase your withholding is unavailable or won’t sufficiently address the problem. Income tax will be withheld from the distribution and will be applied toward the taxes owed for 2020. You can then timely roll over the gross amount of the distribution, i.e., the net amount you received plus the amount of withheld tax, to a traditional IRA. No part of the distribution will be includible in income for 2020, but the withheld tax will be applied pro rata over the full 2020 tax year to reduce previous underpayments of estimated tax.
Maximize Your FSA Contributions
Consider increasing the amount you set aside for next year in your employer’s health flexible spending account (FSA) if you set aside too little for this year and anticipate similar medical costs next year.
Maximize Your HSA Contributions
If you become eligible in December of 2020 to make health savings account (HSA) contributions, you can make a full year’s worth of deductible HSA contributions for 2020.
Make Annual Gifts
Make gifts sheltered by the annual gift tax exclusion before the end of the year if doing so may save gift and estate taxes. The exclusion applies to gifts of up to $15,000 made in 2020 to each of an unlimited number of individuals. You can’t carry over unused exclusions from one year to the next. Such transfers may save family income taxes where income-earning property is given to family members in lower income tax brackets who are not subject to the kiddie tax.
Utilize Disaster Tax Benefits
If you were in federally declared disaster area, and you suffered uninsured or unreimbursed disaster-related losses, keep in mind you can choose to claim them either on the return for the year the loss occurred (in this instance, the 2020 return normally filed next year), or on the return for the prior year (2019), generating a quicker refund. If you were in a federally declared disaster area, you may want to settle an insurance or damage claim in 2020 in order to maximize your casualty loss deduction this year.