As 2004 draws to a close, there is still time to reduce your 2004 tax bill and plan ahead for 2005. This letter highlights several potential tax-saving opportunities for you to consider. I would be happy to meet with you to discuss specific strategies.
Basic Numbers You Need To Know
Because many tax benefits are tied to or limited by adjusted gross income (AGI)-IRA deductions, for example-a key aspect of tax planning is to estimate both your 2004 and 2005 AGI. Also, when considering whether to accelerate or defer income or deductions, you should be aware of the impact this action may have on your AGI and your ability to maximize itemized deductions that are tied to AGI. Your 2003 tax return and your 2004 pay stubs and other income- and deduction-related materials are a good starting point for estimating your AGI.
Another important number is your "tax bracket," i.e., the rate at which your last dollar of income is taxed. The tax rates for 2004 are 10%, 15%, 25%, 28%, 33%, and 35%. Although tax brackets are indexed for inflation, if your income increases faster than the inflation adjustment, you may be pushed into a higher bracket. If so, your potential benefit from any tax-saving opportunity is increased (as is the cost of overlooking that opportunity).
IRA, Retirement Savings Rules for 2004
More tax-saving opportunities continue for retirement planning in 2004 than in previous years due to the availability of Roth IRAs, changes that make regular IRAs more attractive, and other retirement savings incentives.
Traditional IRAs: Individuals who are not active participants in an employer pension plan may make deductible contributions to an IRA. The annual deductible contribution limit for an IRA for 2004 is $3,000. Depending on AGI, individuals who are active participants in a plan may make deductible contributions to an IRA. For 2004, the AGI phase-out range for deductibility of IRA contributions is between $45,000 and $55,000 of modified AGI for single persons (including heads of households), and between $65,000 and $75,000 of modified AGI for married filing jointly. Above these ranges, no deduction is allowed.
For 2004, a $500 "catch-up" contribution deduction is allowed for taxpayers age 50 or older by the close of the taxable year who meet the other qualifications for IRA deductions. Thus, the total deductible limit for these individuals may be as high as $3,500.
In addition, an individual will not be considered an "active participant" in an employer plan simply because the individual's spouse is an active participant for part of a plan year. Thus, you may be able to take the full deduction for an IRA contribution regardless of whether your spouse is covered by a plan at work, subject to a phase-out if your joint modified AGI is $150,000 to $160,000. Above this range, no deduction is allowed.
Roth IRA: This type of IRA permits nondeductible contributions of up to $3,000 a year. Earnings grow tax-free, and distributions are tax-free provided no distributions are made until more than five years after the first contribution and the individual has reached age 59 1/2. Distributions may be made earlier on account of the individual's disability or death. The maximum contribution is phased out for persons with AGI above certain amounts: $150,000 to $160,000 for joint filers, and $95,000 to $110,000 for single filers (including heads of households). For 2004, a $500 "catch-up" contribution is allowed for taxpayers age 50 or older by the close of the taxable year, making the total limit $3,500 for these individuals.
Roth IRA Conversion Rule: Funds in a traditional IRA may be rolled over into a Roth IRA. Such a rollover, however, is treated as a taxable event, and you will pay tax on the amount converted. No penalties will apply if all the requirements for such a transfer are satisfied.
A taxpayer's AGI (whether married filing jointly or single) is limited to $100,000 to make such a conversion and the taxpayer must not be a married individual filing a separate return.
401(k) Contribution: The 401(k) elective deferral limit is $13,000 for 2004, up from $12,000 in 2003. If your 401(k) plan has been amended to allow for catch-up contributions for 2004 and you will be 50 years old by December 31, 2004, you may contribute an additional $3,000 to your 401(k) account, for a total maximum contribution of $16,000 ($13,000 in regular contributions plus $3,000 in catch-up contributions).
SIMPLE Plan Contribution: The SIMPLE plan deferral limit is $9,000 for 2004, up from $8,000 in 2003. If your SIMPLE plan has been amended to allow for catch-up contributions for 2004 and you will be 50 years old by December 31, 2004, you may contribute an additional $1,500.
Catch-Up Contributions for Other Plans: If you will be 50 years old by December 31, 2004, you may also contribute an additional $3,000 to your 403(b) plan or SEP.
Saver's Credit: A nonrefundable tax credit is available based on the qualified retirement savings contributions to an employer plan made by an eligible individual. Only taxpayers filing joint returns with AGI of $50,000 or less, head of household returns with AGI of $37,500 or less, or single returns (or separate returns filed by married taxpayers) with AGI of $25,000 or less, are eligible for the credit. The amount of the credit is equal to the applicable percentage (10% to 50%, based on filing status and AGI) of qualified retirement savings contributions up to $2,000.
Maximize Retirement Savings: In many cases, employers will require you to set your 2005 retirement contribution levels before January 2005. You may want to increase your contribution to lower your AGI in order to take advantage of some of the tax breaks described above. In addition, maximizing your contribution is generally a good tax-saving move.
Deferring Income to 2005
If you expect your AGI to be higher in 2004 than in 2005, or if you anticipate being in the same or a higher tax bracket in 2004, you may benefit by deferring income into 2005. Deferring income will be advantageous so long as the deferral does not bump your income to the next bracket. Some ways to defer income include:
Delay Billing: If you are self-employed, delay year-end billing to clients so that payments will not be received until 2005.
Interest and Dividends: Interest income earned on Treasury securities and bank certificates of deposit with maturities of one year or less is not includible in income until received. To defer interest income, consider buying short-term bonds or certificates that will not mature until next year. If you have control as to when dividends are paid, arrange to have them paid to you after the end of the year.
Accelerating Income Into 2004
In limited circumstances, you may benefit by accelerating income into 2004. For example, you may anticipate being in a higher tax bracket in 2005, or perhaps you will need additional income in order to take advantage of an offsetting deduction or credit that will not be available to you in future tax years. Note however that accelerating income into 2004 will be disadvantageous if you expect to be in the same or lower tax bracket for 2005. In any event, before you decide to implement this strategy, we should "crunch the numbers."
If accelerating income will be beneficial, here are some ways to accomplish this:
Accelerate Collection of Accounts Receivable: If you are self-employed and report income and expenses on a cash basis, issue bills and attempt collection before the end of 2004. Also see if some of your clients or customers might be willing to pay for January 2005 goods or services in advance. Any income received using these steps will shift income from 2005 to 2004.
Year-End Bonuses: If your employer generally pays year-end bonuses after the end of the current year, ask to have your bonus paid to you before the beginning of 2005.
Retirement Plan Distributions: If you are over age 59 1/2 and you participate in an employer retirement plan or have an IRA, consider making any taxable withdrawals before 2005.
You may also want to consider making a Roth IRA rollover distribution, as discussed above.
Deduction timing is also an important element of year-end tax planning. Deduction planning is complex, however, due to factors such as AGI levels and filing status. If you are a cash-method taxpayer, remember to keep the following in mind:
Deduction In Year Paid: An expense is only deductible in the year in which it is actually paid.
Payment By Check: Date checks before the end of the year and mail them before January 1, 2005.
Promise To Pay: A promise to pay or providing a note does not permit you to deduct the expense. But you can take a deduction if you pay with money borrowed from a third party. Hence, if you pay by credit card in 2004, you can take the deduction even though you won't pay your credit card bill until 2005.
AGI Limits: The AGI limits on itemized deductions affect deduction planning. For 2004 returns, overall itemized deductions are reduced by 3% of the AGI exceeding $142,700 ($71,350 if married filing separately). Similarly, certain deductions may be claimed only if they exceed a percentage of AGI: 7.5% for medical expenses, 2% for miscellaneous itemized deductions, and 10% for casualty losses.
Standard Deduction Planning: Deduction planning is also affected by the standard deduction. For 2004 returns, the standard deduction is $9,700 for married taxpayers filing jointly, $4,850 for single taxpayers, $7,150 for heads of households, and $4,850 for married taxpayers filing separately. If your itemized deductions are relatively constant and are close to the standard deduction amount, you will obtain little or no benefit from itemizing your deductions each year. But simply taking the standard deduction each year means you lose the benefit of your itemized deductions. To maximize the benefits of both the standard deduction and itemized deductions, consider adjusting the timing of your deductible expenses so that they are higher in one year and lower in the following year.
Medical Expenses: Medical expenses, including amounts paid as health insurance premiums, are deductible only to the extent that they exceed 7.5% of AGI. Consider bunching medical expenses into years when your AGI is lower.
State Taxes: If you anticipate a state income tax liability for 2004 and plan to make an estimated payment, consider making the payment before the end of 2004. Note that beginning with the 2004 tax year and ending with the 2005 tax year, you can choose to deduct as an itemized deduction state and local sales taxes instead of income taxes.
Charitable Contributions: Consider making your charitable contributions at the end of the year. This will give you use of the money during the year and simultaneously permit you to claim a deduction for that year. You can use a credit card to charge donations in 2004 even though you will not pay the bill until 2005. A mere pledge to make a donation is not deductible, however, unless it is paid by the end of the year. Note, however, for claimed donations of cars, boats and airplanes of more than $500 made after 2004, the amount available as a deduction will significantly depend on what the charity does with the donated property, not just the fair market value of the donated property. If the organization sells the property without any significant intervening use or material improvement to the property, the amount of the charitable contribution deduction cannot exceed the gross proceeds received from the sale. If you are planning to donate such property in the near future, doing so by the end of 2004 could be a significant tax savings strategy.
To avoid capital gains, you may want to consider giving appreciated property to charity.
Self-Employed Health Insurance Premiums: Self-employed individuals are allowed to claim 100% of the amount paid during the taxable year for insurance that constitutes medical care for themselves, their spouses and dependents as an above-the-line deduction, without regard to the 7.5% of AGI floor.
Equipment Purchases: If you are in business and purchase equipment, you may make a "Section 179 Election," which allows you to expense (i.e. currently deduct) otherwise depreciable business property. In general, you may elect to expense up to $102,000 of equipment costs (with a phase-out for purchases in excess of $410,000) if the asset was placed in service during 2004. In addition, careful timing of equipment purchases can result in favorable depreciation deductions in 2004. In general, under the "half-year convention," you may deduct six months worth of depreciation for equipment that is placed in service on or before the last day of the tax year. (If more than 40% of the cost of all personal property placed in service occurs during the last quarter of the year, however, a "mid-quarter convention" applies, which lowers your depreciation deduction.) A popular strategy in recent years is to purchase a vehicle (usually an SUV) for business purposes that exceeds the depreciation limits set by statute (i.e., a vehicle rated over 6,000 pounds). Doing so would not subject the purchase to the statutory dollar limit, $2,960 for 2004. Therefore, the vehicle would qualify for the full equipment expensing dollar amount. However, for SUVs (rated between 6,000 and 14,000 pounds gross vehicle weight) placed in service after October 22, 2004, the expensing amount is limited to $25,000.
First-Year Bonus Depreciation: For qualified property placed in service in 2004, you may take an additional depreciation allowance of 50% of the adjusted basis of the property (30% of the basis if elected). The adjusted basis of the qualified property is reduced by this additional allowance before computing any other depreciation. (However, the first-year §179 expensing amount described above is computed before this additional allowance is computed.) A 30% additional allowance applies to qualified New York Liberty Zone property-property meeting certain requirements and located in the vicinity of the 9/11 tragedy in New York City. Because property qualifying as NYLZ property is not eligible for the 50% allowance, it would be beneficial to meet the tests for 50% allowance, but not for the NYLZ allowance. In general, the 50% allowance is scheduled to expire on December 31, 2004, so any plans to acquire and place into service eligible property might be beneficial doing so before the end of 2004.
NOL Carryback Period: If your business suffers net operating losses in 2004, you may apply those losses against taxable income going back two tax years. Thus, for example, the loss could be used to reduce taxable income-and thus generate tax refunds-for tax years as far back as 2002.
Education and Child Tax Benefits
Child Tax Credit: A tax credit of $1,000 per qualifying child under the age of 17 is available on this year's return. The credit is phased out at a rate of $50 for each $1,000 (or fraction of $1,000) of modified AGI exceeding the following amounts: $110,000 for married filing jointly; $55,000 for married filing separately; and $75,000 for all other taxpayers. A portion of the credit may be refundable.
Credit for Adoption Expenses: For 2004, the adoption credit limitation is $10,390 of aggregate expenditures for each child, except that the credit for an adoption of a child with special needs is deemed to be $10,390 regardless of the amount of expenses. The credit ratably phases out for taxpayers whose income is between $155,860 and $195,860.
HOPE Credit and Lifetime Learning Credit: The maximum HOPE credit is $1,500 (100% on the first $1,000, plus 50% of the next $1,000) for qualified tuition and fees paid on behalf of a student (i.e., the taxpayer, the taxpayer's spouse, or a dependent) who is enrolled on at least a half-time basis. The credit is available for only the first two years of the student's post-secondary education.
The Lifetime Learning credit maximum in 2004 is $2,000 (20% of qualified tuition and fees up to $10,000). A student need not be enrolled on at least a half-time basis so long as he or she is taking post-secondary classes to acquire or improve job skills. As with the HOPE credit, eligible students include the taxpayer, the taxpayer's spouse, or a dependent.
For 2004, both the HOPE credit and the Lifetime Learning credit are phased out at modified AGI levels between $85,000 and $105,000 for joint filers, and between $42,000 and $52,000 for single taxpayers.
Coverdell Education Savings Account: Beginning in 2004, the aggregate annual contribution limit to a Coverdell education savings account is $2,000 per designated beneficiary of the account. This limit is phased out for individual contributors with modified AGI between $95,000 and $110,000 and joint filers with modified AGI between $190,000 and $220,000. The contributions to the account are nondeductible but the earnings grow tax-free.
Student Loan Interest: You may be eligible for an above-the-line deduction for student loan interest paid on any "qualified education loan." The maximum deduction is $2,500 in 2004. The deduction is phased out at a modified AGI level between $100,000 and $130,000 for joint filers in 2004, and between $50,000 and $65,000 for individual taxpayers.
Qualified Higher Education Expenses: For 2004, you also may be eligible to deduct qualified tuition and related expenses as an above-the-line deduction. In 2004, a taxpayer with modified AGI of not more than $65,000 ($130,000 for a married couple filing jointly) who is not claimed as a dependent on another person's return is entitled to a maximum deduction of $4,000. For taxpayers with modified AGI of $65,000 or more but not more than $80,000 ($130,000/$160,000 for a married couple filing jointly), the maximum deduction is $2,000.
Rules are in effect to coordinate education provisions, such as the qualified higher education expense deduction, the Hope and Lifetime Learning credits, Coverdell education savings accounts, and qualified tuition plans, to prevent double benefits.
Small Employer Pension Plan Startup Cost Credit: For 2004, certain small business employers that did not have a pension plan for the preceding three years may claim a nonrefundable income tax credit for expenses of establishing and administering a new retirement plan for employees. The credit applies to 50% of the first $1,000 in administrative and retirement-education expenses for each of the first three plan years.
Employer-Provided Child Care Credit: For 2004, employers may claim a credit of up to $150,000 for supporting employee childcare or childcare resource and referral services. The credit is allowed for a percentage of "qualified child care expenditures" including for property to be used as part of a qualified child care facility, for operating costs of a qualified child care facility and for resource and referral expenditures.
Investment Planning and Gift Planning
The following rules apply for most capital assets in 2004:
Capital gains on property held one year or less are taxed at an individual's ordinary income tax rate.
Capital gains on property held for more than one year are taxed at a maximum rate of 15% (5% if an individual is in the 10% or 15% marginal tax bracket).
Timing of Sales: You may want to time the sale of assets so as to have offsetting capital losses and gains. Capital losses may be fully deducted against capital gains and also may offset up to $3,000 of ordinary income ($1,500 for married filing separately). In general, when you take losses, you must first match your long-term losses against your long-term gains, and short-term losses against short-term gains. If there are any remaining losses, you may use them to offset any remaining long-term or short-term gains, or up to $3,000 (or $1,500) of ordinary income. When and whether to recognize such losses should be analyzed in light of the changes in the capital gains rates applicable to your specific investments.
Dividends: Qualifying dividends received in 2004 will be subject to rates similar to the capital gains rates. Therefore, qualifying dividends will be taxed at a maximum rate of 15%. Qualifying dividends includes dividends received from domestic and certain foreign corporations.
Gifts: To avoid capital gains, you may want to consider giving appreciated property to children or grandchildren if they are in a lower tax bracket than your own. For 2004, each person is entitled each year to give gifts of $11,000 to an unlimited number of donees without incurring any gift tax. For example, you can annually give $11,000 to each of your children, their spouses, and your grandchildren without utilizing any of your applicable credit amount. Your spouse can agree to "gift-split" thus doubling the amount of these gifts. (The applicable credit available against the gift tax is $1 million in 2004.)
Depending on the recipient's modified AGI and the amount of Social Security benefits, a percentage-up to 85%-of Social Security benefits may be taxed. To reduce that percentage, it may be beneficial to defer receipt of other retirement income. One way to do so is to elect to receive a lump sum distribution from a retirement plan and to rollover that distribution into an IRA. Alternatively, it may be beneficial to accelerate income so as to reduce the percentage of your Social Security taxed in 2005 and later years.
Other Tax Planning Opportunities
We also can discuss the potential benefits to you or your family members of other planning options available for 2004, including §529 qualified tuition programs, the above-the-line deduction for teachers for classroom-related expenses, and the deductions for qualified electric vehicles and clean-fuel vehicle property.
Alternative Minimum Tax
Some of the standard year-end planning ideas will not reduce tax liability if you are subject to the alternative minimum tax (AMT) because different rules apply. Because of the complexity of the AMT, it would be wise for us to analyze your AMT exposure.
If you have any questions, please do not hesitate to call. I would be happy to meet with you at your convenience to discuss the strategies outlined above. There is still time to implement these strategies to minimize your 2004 tax liability.