Tax Considerations in a Rising Government Spending and Tax Rates Environment

I’ve been reading a lot about the future tax implications given the large amounts of government spending and contracting corporate and consumer tax base. All this means is that tax considerations should play a much more central role in people’s thinking as they’re making critical financial decisions. At the end of the year several cornerstones of the federal tax legislation of 2001 and 2003 — specifically, those reducing tax rates on income, capital gains and dividends — are set to expire. The expiry of these tax cuts, credits and deduction is being referred to as the Fiscal Cliff. Meanwhile, with U.S. government debt soaring as the result of stimulus spending to rescue the economy, many economists believe there’s a good chance that tax rates will rise to some extent. With higher rates a real possibility, you may need to rethink the way you do year-end tax planning, and these are four ways of potentially maximizing tax efficiency, for next April and beyond.

1. Accelerate income; postpone deductions. Traditionally, the sensible move for most taxpayers has been to take deductions as soon as possible while seeking to delay some taxable income till the following year. However, you may want to consider reversing that formula, accelerating income into 2009 so that it may be taxed at lower rates. A similar strategy might be employed on the deduction side. If you were planning large charitable contributions in December, for example, you could postpone them a month on the premise that if tax rates rise, the value of philanthropic donations as a means of offsetting income will be greater.

2. Take capital gains now. This may also be a good time to rethink your strategy regarding capital gains. The current maximum rate on long-term gains is 15%, but it could soon rise. You might therefore decide to sell an appreciated asset this year in order to secure the current low rate. Because any tax hikes wouldn’t likely be passed until the tail end of the year, it would be wise to decide as late in the year as possible whether to employ strategies for accelerating income, postponing deductions or taking capital gains.

3. Maximize retirement-plan contributions. You should also consider your retirement accounts in any assessment of your tax strategy. When rates rise, tax-deductible contributions and tax-deferred investment growth can become more valuable. But although it’s true that tax deductions will be worth even more if tax rates move higher, there’s no need to postpone them; it still makes sense to continue making the maximum retirement-plan contribution each year. Self-employed taxpayers in particular can set aside substantial sums annually in Keogh or simplified employee pension (SEP) accounts. Taxes on those funds will be deferred until they are withdrawn during retirement.

4. Consider a Roth IRA conversion. In 2012, the $100,000 income cap on the IRA to Roth IRA conversion was permanently lifted. However the 2 year conversion tax burden disbursement rule is no longer available and applicable taxes must be paid on the same year’s income taxes. So if you convert to an IRA this year and your tax liability is $40,000, you would have to add this entire amount to your taxable income when you file your taxes in 2013. You’ll owe income tax on the value of the assets in the conversion, less any nondeductible contributions you made to the plan.

If you have a large amount of capital invested in a retirement plan, moving that money to a Roth IRA could potentially enable you to pass it along to your heirs, who will receive tax-free income throughout their lifetime. Roth IRA conversions do, however, have a “five-year clock” which prevents clients from accessing retirement funds too early. The rules are pretty simple: The account holder must have a Roth IRA account for at least five years. This five-year rule applies to each contribution or conversion, so it is important to keep track of which assets are converted and when.

Although contributions to a Roth are not deductible, investment earnings and withdrawals during retirement are not taxed, and unlike a traditional IRA, a Roth requires no mandatory distributions.

What makes these year-end retirement account strategies even more potentially attractive is that they may provide benefits even if tax rates don’t rise anytime soon. And a well-funded retirement plan – along with the possible conversion to a Roth IRA – is likely to prove to be a sound investment for decades to come, whichever way the tax winds

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