In fact, while you're checking under the cushions for loose change in 2014, it's actually a good time to make sure cash doesn't fall out of your pockets in the first place. Scott Stavin, a certified public accountant and tax principal at Friedman LLC in New York, notes that finding savings typically requires a little bit of foresight.
“We're preparing people's 2014 tax returns, but we're also setting the foundation for 2015, and that's very important,” he says. “There are things you can do with taxpayers at this stage of the year to get them set up for the rest of the year.”
That can involve something as simple as looking at a client's pay stub year-to-date and seeing if their employer is withholding enough tax money. It could also become as involved as setting yourself up with tax-free municipals bonds, according to enrolled agent and CFP Anthony Criscuolo of Palisades Hudson Financial Group in Fort Lauderdale, Fla.
With the tax deadline looming, we pressed Stavin and Criscuolo for some last-minute tips for keeping the IRS at bay. The following suggestions should not only keep you covered for this year, but help you prepare for 2015 as well.
Don’t overlook deductions, especially the rare ones
Stavin and Criscuolo agreed that most tax savings left on the table are there because a client forgot to itemize it or didn't know he or she could.
“Very often, it's on the deduction side,” Stavin says. “We're always reminding clients to remember cash charity as well as clothing and household items that they may have contributed. Clients should retain and forward to their accountants the documentations.”
And that's one of the deductions most people know about. Criscuolo points out that many taxpayers don't realize they can claim casualty losses from thefts, car accidents, earthquakes, terrorist attacks and storms — among other events. That's right: A car accident can be a write-off.
“Claim casualty and theft losses as an itemized deduction on Schedule A — Itemized Deductions,” he says. “You must subtract $100 from each casualty or theft event that occurred during the year after you have subtracted any salvage value and any insurance or other reimbursement. Then add up all those amounts and subtract 10% of your adjusted gross income from that total to calculate your allowable casualty and theft losses for the year.”
On top of that, you may be able to deduct moving expenses if you moved because of a change in your job location or because you started a job. Also, if you're paying private mortgage insurance on your home or just adopted a child, the associated expenses are deductible as well.
Watch for Obamacare changes
Criscuolo notes that most taxpayers will simply need to check the box in line 61, Form 1040, to show they had health coverage for 2014. But many taxpayers will have to fill out new forms related to the Affordable Care Act.
Form 8965, Health Coverage Exemptions, reports a taxpayer's marketplace-granted coverage exemption or IRS-granted coverage exemption on their return. A worksheet will help you calculate the shared responsibility payment.
Meanwhile, Form 8962 (Premium Tax Credit) reconciles advance payments of that credit and claims it on your return. Finally, on Form 1040, line 46, Criscuolo tells taxpayers to enter the advance payments of the premium tax credit that must be repaid. On line 69, eligible taxpayers can claim the net premium tax credit, which is the excess of the allowed premium tax credit over advance credit payments.
Make 2014 IRA contributions by April 15 … or Oct. 15
“A lot of clients often forget about things like IRA contributions, especially if they're working and they're not eligible for an employer's retirement plan,” Stavin says. “An IRA is a great way to save money for the future and to get a potential tax deduction this year.”
You can still contribute if you haven’t filed your 2014 tax return yet, are eligible and haven’t already put in the maximum, Criscuolo says. You can even set up a new IRA by April 15 and make a maximum 2014 contribution of $5,500, or $6,500 for people 50 and older. If you’re single, or married but neither you nor your spouse is covered by a retirement plan at work, you’ll be able to get a full IRA deduction regardless of your income. If you or your spouse are covered by a retirement plan at work, though, that's going to limit your deduction a bit.
If you are covered by an employer retirement plan, contributions to a traditional IRA are only fully deductible for married couples with modified adjusted gross income of less than $96,000 and single taxpayers making below $60,000. If you've crossed those thresholds, your deduction will be limited or completely phased out. Meanwhile, if your spouse is covered by a plan from work but you are not, your deduction is limited once your MAGI exceeds $181,000.
Contributions to Simplified Employee Pensions IRAs, Simple IRAs and cash-balance plans are helpful for the self-employed, but can reduce the adjusted gross income of all taxpayers. You also won't be taxed on any of that until you've withdrawn it.
“Clients often know that they can make their 2014 contribution until April 15 of this year, but we also let our clients know that they can make their 2015 contribution as well,” Stavin says. “Do it earlier in the year and then maybe the money can grow in the tax-deferred vehicle.”
If you’re self-employed and don’t have the cash to contribute by April 15, you can get six more months to sock away that contribution. Apply for an automatic six-month extension to file your return, pay any taxes due by April 15 and you'll be able to make 2014 contributions as late as Oct. 15.
“Retirement contributions are valuable for people in all tax brackets — especially for the affluent who are paying the highest tax rates,” Criscuolo says.
Tax-free bonds are a rich man's friend
Criscuolo highly recommends investing in tax-free bond funds if you’re in the top tax brackets. A couple filing jointly making at least $250,000 or a single person making at least $200,000 in MAGI will pay an additional 3.8% tax on net investment income on top of their regular tax.
“That makes [municipal bonds] even more attractive for people in the top tax brackets,” he says.
Lower brackets beware
People in the 10% and 15% tax brackets still pay no tax on long-term capital gains, but that can change in a hurry. If you have too big of a gain it may push you up into a higher tax bracket, which will lead to a 15% or 20% rate on long-term gains. Spreading out sales of securities over two or more years can prevent that, Criscuolo says. For taxpayers in the top tax bracket, the total tax rate is 23.8% on capital gains: That's the new top rate of 20%, plus the 3.8% NII tax.
Think of taxes year-round
Stavin notes that, especially for self-employed taxpayers or business owners, it's a good plan to strategize all year long instead of waiting for tax season. If a client has his or her own business, for example, Stavin emphasizes the importance of having a separate checkbook and credit card for that business. Instead of waiting until the last minute to figure out which receipts are business expenses, a year-round approach keeps things organized well before filing.
During the year is when we can really talk to clients and do the proper planning to minimize their short-term and long-term tax liability,” Stavin says. “With clients who pay quarterly estimates, we're talking to them at least once a quarter.”
— Written by Jason Notte in Portland, Ore., for MainStreet
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This article is commentary by an independent contributor. At the time of publication, the author held TK positions in the stocks mentioned.