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Make These Tax Moves for 2019 Before It’s Too Late
November 14, 2019
Looking to lower your tax bill?
Laura Saunders of The Wall Street Journal shares a dozen proactive-tax-saving steps to take as the end of the year approaches.
Make These Tax Moves for 2019 Before It’s Too Late
It’s Year Two following the massive tax overhaul of 2017. For Americans who are still getting used to the new rules, it’s important to sort things out before the year ends.
“People are confused about their withholding and refunds, and whether they need to save receipts to prove itemized deductions—plus other things,” says Terry Durkin, an enrolled agent in Burlington, Mass., who prepares over 300 tax returns a year.
Most filers must pay 90% of their income and self-employment taxes by year-end or soon after, or else face penalties. The IRS forgave these penalties for many people for 2018, but it won’t for 2019.
There are few ways to cut a 2019 tax bill after Dec. 31, so now is the time to make moves that will lower your tax bill in April.
> Check your withholding. At the top of Ms. Durkin’s, and many tax advisers’, to-do list for clients: Check your withholding or estimated taxes. The overhaul, followed by automatic changes to paycheck withholding in 2018, brought bad refund surprises to many filers last spring.
As it turned out, overall refunds changed little. For both 2017 and 2018, about three-quarters of filers received refunds, which averaged $2,800. But these results conceal wide variations. For 13 million filers earning between $100,000 and $250,000, average 2018 refunds dropped 11% compared with 2017, according to mid-July data from the Internal Revenue Service.
This shift got the attention of the IRS, which has since improved its withholding calculator. Employees and retirees can use it to find out what they owe under Uncle Sam’s pay-as-you-earn system and then fine-tune their refunds. Taxpayers who aren’t employees need to use complex worksheets in IRS Publication 505 or talk to a tax preparer.
But the law contains a boon for many employees. Usually they won’t owe penalties if they increase their withholding late in the year—even if it’s for a spouse’s self-employment income, according to an IRS spokesman.
> Make your payments. Those with income not covered by employer-paycheck withholding must usually make quarterly payments based on earnings for each period to avoid penalties. Are you behind on payments? The sooner a mistake is corrected, the less damage it does.
> Assess itemized deductions. As a result of the 2017 overhaul, more than 25 million taxpayers have switched to claiming the standard deduction rather than itemizing write-offs on Schedule A. The share of returns with Schedule A has dropped to about 10% from about 30%.
For 2019, the standard deduction is $12,200 for single filers and $24,400 for married couples filing jointly.
The most common itemized deductions are for state and local taxes (SALT), charitable donations and mortgage interest. Now that Congress has limited the SALT deduction to $10,000 per return both for single and married joint filers, it’s often easier for singles than couples to benefit from itemizing.
For example, a married couple who deducts the limit of $10,000 of SALT needs more than $14,400 of other deductions to benefit from itemizing for 2019, because their standard deduction is $24,400. But a single filer who deducts $10,000 of SALT only needs other write-offs totaling more than $2,200, because his standard deduction is $12,200.
Filers taking the standard deduction don’t need to save receipts to prove their write-offs.
> Check deadlines for retirement-savings contributions. There are significant differences.
Savers eligible for traditional IRAs and Roth IRAs for 2019 can open and fund them up to April 15, 2020.
SEP IRAs, for taxpayers with self-employment income, often have higher contribution limits and longer deadlines. Many taxpayers can set up and fund SEP IRAs until Oct. 15, 2020, if they extend the due date of their 2019 return.
Solo 401(k) plans are also for self-employment earnings and have contribution limits higher than those for traditional or Roth IRAs. For 2019, taxpayers can fund a solo 401(k) until Oct. 15, 2020, if they extend their due date. But the plans must usually be set up by Dec. 31, 2019, even if contributions come later.
> Take required payouts from retirement plans. Savers must often begin taking annual payouts from tax-sheltered retirement plans when they turn 70½. Congress is considering raising the beginning date to age 72, but it hasn’t yet.
The payout deadline is Dec. 31, 2019, for most people, and the withdrawal is based on the account value as of the last day of 2018. However, savers taking their first required payout this year have until April 1, 2020. Think twice before doing this, because it means taking two withdrawals in one year and perhaps moving to a higher tax bracket.
Currently no annual payouts are required from Roth IRAs, except for heirs who aren’t spouses.
Required payouts from 401(k) plans are somewhat different, although the deadline for beginning withdrawals is often age 70½. But many still-working employees who are 70½ and older needn’t take required withdrawals from their firm’s 401(k) if the plan allows that.
Also remember that 401(k) payouts can’t be aggregated as IRA payouts can. For example, a saver with four traditional IRAs can take the total required withdrawal from just one IRA. But if required payouts are due from two 401(k)s, the saver must take the required amount from each one.
> Strategize charitable giving, including from IRAs. The higher standard deduction poses a hurdle for donors who want a tax break. One way around it is to bunch charitable gifts by combining several years’ donations into one larger amount every few years that—together with other write-offs on Schedule A—is larger than the standard-deduction amount.
Such givers should also consider donor-advised funds. These popular accounts enable charitably minded taxpayers to make one or more gifts and take a deduction. The donor can then designate charitable recipients later, and meanwhile the assets can be invested and grow tax-free.
Do think twice before writing a check to a charity. A better move is often to give appreciated investments held in taxable accounts, such as stock shares. The donor gets an immediate deduction for the full market value, within certain limits, while not owing capital-gains tax on the growth.
Donors with traditional IRAs who are 70½ or older have another good option: They can donate up to $100,000 of IRA assets directly to one or more charities and have the gifts count toward their required payouts. This move can help lower Medicare premiums.
> Evaluate capital gains and losses. Check up on your positions in taxable accounts.
Investors can use realized capital losses to offset realized capital gains plus $3,000 of ordinary income such as wages, every year. Unused losses can carry forward for future use.
Sometimes it makes sense to sell an underwater investment at a loss before the end of the year, or to take gains if you have realized losses.
Also beware of increases in investment income that could trigger a 3.8% surtax. This levy takes effect at $250,000 of adjusted gross income for most married couples filing jointly and at $200,000 for most single filers.
to get all the insightful details about
lowering your tax bill for 2019.
The Wall Street Journal | November 1, 2019
Illustrator: Kiersten Essenpreis