2020 YEAR-END INCOME TAX PLANNING FOR INDIVIDUALS

INTRODUCTION

With year-end approaching, this is the time of year we suggest possible year-end tax strategies for our clients. However, there has never been a year quite like 2020. We at ATLAS think it is safe to say that year-end tax planning for 2020 is proving to be the trickiest in recent memory. In response to the Coronavirus, Congress and the IRS have been exceedingly busy enacting and issuing never-seen-before tax relief. Many of these new tax relief provisions are temporary, and expire after 2020. Moreover, for well over a decade, we have been faced with the off-and-on expiration of a long list of popular tax breaks. Historically, Congress has temporarily extended the majority of these tax breaks every few years. Unfortunately, several of these traditional tax breaks are currently scheduled to expire after the end of 2020.

This letter (below) is designed to bring you up-to-date on the most significant tax provisions that could impact your year-end planning. We start this letter with a listing of selected historic tax breaks scheduled to expire at the end of 2020. We then discuss selected legislative changes (including COVID-related tax provisions) that are most likely to impact your year-end tax planning. We conclude this letter by highlighting certain time-honored, year-end tax planning techniques that remain relevant notwithstanding the recent COVID-related tax changes.

Caution! It is entirely possible that Congress could enact additional COVID-related tax legislation before the end of this year. In addition, the IRS continues releasing guidance on various important tax provisions (particularly on COVID-related tax provisions that have already been enacted). We closely monitor new tax legislation and IRS releases on an ongoing basis. Please call our firm if you want an update on the latest tax legislation IRS notifications, announcements, and guidance or if you need additional information concerning any item discussed in this letter.

Be Careful! We at ATLAS suggest you call our firm before implementing any tax planning technique discussed in this letter. You cannot properly evaluate a particular planning strategy without calculating your overall tax liability with and without that strategy. This letter contains ideas for Federal income tax planning only. State income tax issues are not addressed in this letter, but we are happy to discuss state changes with you, should you have any concerns.

 

2020 TAX PLANNING LETTER – INDIVIDUALS

2020 MAY BE OUR LAST CHANCE TO TAKE ADVANTAGE OF THESE TRADITIONAL TAX BREAKS

For well over a decade, we have been faced with the off-and-on expiration of a long list of popular tax breaks. Historically, Congress has temporarily extended the majority of these tax breaks every few years. However, several popular tax breaks for individuals are scheduled to expire at the end of 2020, and Congress has yet to extend them. Some of the more popular tax breaks scheduled to expire at the end of 2020 include:

  • Deduction (up to $4,000) for Qualified Higher Education Expenses;
  • Deduction for Mortgage Insurance Premiums as Qualified Residence Interest;
  • Income Exclusion For Discharge Of Qualified Principal Residence Indebtedness; and
  • the 10% Credit (with a lifetime cap of $500) for Qualified Energy-Efficient Home Improvements (e.g., qualified energy-efficient windows, storm doors, roofing).

As we send this letter, it has been reported that some members of Congress are still pushing for these tax breaks to be extended beyond 2020. However, only time will tell whether these tax breaks will be extended. Please call our office if you would like a status report on any of these expiring provisions.

Planning Alert! Although not expiring, the credit for “Qualified Fuel Cell Property,” “Qualified Small Wind Energy Property,” “Qualified Solar Electric Property,” “Qualified Solar Water Heating Property,” And “Qualified Geothermal Heat Pump Property” is to be reduced from 26% to 22% for property installed after 2020. Also, for “2020 only,” volunteer firefighters and volunteer EMS personnel may exclude from income up to $50 per month of expense reimbursements made by the State or political subdivision.

 

HIGHLIGHTS OF RECENT LEGISLATIVE CHANGES

In late December, 2019, Congress passed the Consolidated Appropriations Act of 2020 (the “Appropriations Act”) which pre-dated the more recent flurry of COVID-related legislation. The Appropriations Act included significant changes to various IRA and qualified retirement plan rules. Most of these changes are first effective in 2020. In addition, the more recently-enacted “CARES Act” provided temporary relief relating to Required Minimum Distributions (RMDs) from IRAs and qualified retirement plans. The following are highlights of selected changes from both of those pieces of legislation that we feel will have the greatest impact on tax planning for individuals:

 

Required Beginning Date For RMDs Delayed To Age 72

Before this change, you were required to begin taking RMDs from your IRA or qualified retirement plan account no later than the April 1st following the year you reached age 70½ (i.e., the required beginning date). For individuals who reach age 70½ after 2019, the Appropriations Act changed the age of the required beginning date for RMDs from 70½ to age 72. So, if you reach age 70½ after 2019, you will not be required to take your first RMD until April 1st following the year in which you reach age 72!

Planning Alert! Individuals who reached age 70½ during 2019 were still generally required to take their first RMD no later than April 1st of 2020, and were also required to take their second RMD no later than December 31, 2020. However, the Coronavirus Aid, Relief And Economic Security Act (the “CARES Act”) suspended all RMDs from an IRA or employer-sponsored defined contribution retirement plan that are otherwise required in 2020. This suspension applies to owners of IRAs and beneficiaries of inherited IRAs.

Tax Tip! An RMD generally may not be rolled over into another IRA or qualified retirement plan. However, the IRS says that an individual who actually received an RMD during 2020, may roll over that RMD into an IRA or qualified retirement plan provided the rollover occurred by the later of:

  • 1) August 31, 2020, or
  • 2) 60 days after the receipt of the RMD.

Age Limit On Contributing To An IRA Removed. Before 2020, an individual who reached age 70½ during the year could not contribute to a traditional IRA for that year, or any later year. For contributions made for tax years beginning after 2019, the Appropriations Act removed all age limits for contributing to an IRA. Stated more simply, for contributions made for tax years beginning after 2019, there is no age limit on contributions to a traditional or Roth IRA!

Planning Alert! Regardless of your age, you must have “earned income” (e.g., W-2 wages; Income subject to self-employment tax) at least equal to the amount of your contribution to a traditional or Roth IRA.

Caution! As discussed in the immediately-following segment, making a deductible contribution to your IRA after reaching age 70½ could have a negative tax impact on any “Qualified Charitable Distributions” you are planning to make from your IRA.

 

Changes To “Qualified Charitable Distributions” (QCDs) For IRA Owners

If you have reached age 70½ and you are planning to make charitable contributions before the end of 2020, there is a long-standing tax break known as a “Qualified Charitable Distribution” (QCD) that could apply to you. This popular provision generally allows taxpayers, who have reached age 70½, to have their IRA trustee transfer up to $100,000 from their IRAs “directly” to a qualified charity, and exclude the IRA transfer from income. The IRA transfer to the charity also counts toward the IRA owner’s “Required Minimum Distributions” (RMDs) for the year. Changes Under The Appropriations Act. Although the Appropriations Act increased the required beginning date for RMDs from age 70½ to age 72, the minimum age for making a QCD remains at age 70½.

Caution!  Starting in 2020, the Appropriations Act generally reduces the tax-free portion of a QCD by the amount of any deductible contributions made to an IRA after reaching age 70½. If you are planning to make a QCD for 2020 and you also plan to make a deductible IRA contribution for 2020, please call our firm first. We at ATLAS will gladly advise you on the impact of this new rule on your decision.

 

New 10-Year Pay-Out Requirement For Those Who Inherit An IRA Or Qualified Plan Account. If an individual died before 2020 and someone other than the surviving spouse was named as the beneficiary of the decedent’s IRA or qualified plan account, RMDs to the named beneficiary were required to begin by December 31 of the year following the year of death, and could be paid over the life expectancy of the named beneficiary. For example, if an individual died in 2019 and a child (regardless of age) was the beneficiary of the individual’s IRA, the child could take RMDs over the child’s life expectancy.

Planning Alert! Effective for individuals dying after 2019, the Appropriations Act generally requires a decedent’s entire remaining IRA or qualified account balance to be distributed to a named beneficiary by December 31 of the 10th year following the year of the decedent’s death. This required 10-year pay out does not apply if the named beneficiary is the decedent’s spouse, has a qualified disability, is chronically ill, or is no more than 10 years younger than the decedent. If the named beneficiary is a minor, the 10-year pay-out requirement does not kick in until the beneficiary reaches majority (age 18 in many jurisdictions).

 

For Some – 2020 May Be A Good Year To Consider A Roth Conversion. If you have been considering converting your traditional IRA into a Roth IRA, it is best to convert in a lower income year so your Roth conversion income is taxed at the lower tax rates. Therefore, if you are in a situation where, due to COVID (or for any other reason), your 2020 income is significantly lower than the income you expect in 2021 and later years, it may be a good idea to consider converting all or a portion of your traditional IRA into a Roth IRA before the end of 2020.

Planning Alert! If you want a Roth conversion to be effective for 2020, you must transfer the amount from the regular IRA to the Roth IRA no later than December 31, 2020 (you do not have until the due date of your 2020 tax return).

Caution! Whether you should convert your traditional IRA to a Roth IRA can be an exceedingly complicated issue. Your tax rate in the year of conversion is just one of many factors that you should consider. Please call ATLAS if you need help in deciding whether to convert to a Roth IRA.

 

Economic Impact Payments. By now, the vast majority of individuals qualifying for an “economic impact payment” (EIP) under the CARES Act of up to $1,200 per qualifying individual (and $500 per qualifying dependent) have received the payment. If you haven’t received the payment (or you think your payment was less than it should have been), you can obtain detailed information on economic impact payments at www.irs.gov by accessing the link – “Economic Impact Payment Information Center: EIP Eligibility and General Information.

Planning Alert! Technically, the EIP is an advance payment of a 2020 refundable tax credit. A “refundable” credit generally means to the extent the credit exceeds the taxes you would otherwise owe with your individual income tax return without the credit, the IRS will send you a check for the excess. If for some reason you did not get the EIP (or the amount you received was too low), the credit will be re-computed when you file your 2020 income tax return based on your 2020 AGI. You will be entitled to a refundable credit for the amount of the credit computed on your 2020 income tax return in excess (if any) of the advance payment you previously received. If the credit computed on your 2020 return is less than the EIP you received, generally you will not have to pay back the excess. Temporary “Above-The-Line” Deduction Of Up To $300 For Charitable Contributions For Individuals Who Do Not Itemize Deductions. For the 2020 tax year only, the CARES Act allows individuals who do not elect to itemize their deductions, to take a so-called “above-the-line” deduction of up to $300 for cash contributions to a qualifying charity. Therefore, an individual may deduct this $300 amount in addition to the standard deduction for 2020.

Caution! Contributions to a Donor Advised Fund (DAF) do not qualify for this special “above-the-line” deduction.

 

Temporary Increase In Charitable Contribution Limit For Individuals Who Do Itemized Deductions. Traditionally, for those who itemize their deductions, the deduction for charitable contributions made in cash to qualifying charities has been limited to 60% (through 2025) of an individual’s adjusted gross income (AGI), and to 30% of AGI for certain “property” contributions. For the 2020 tax year only, the CARES Act allows an individual to deduct “cash” contributions to qualifying charities up to 100% of the individual’s AGI (as reduced by the amount of all other charitable contributions allowed to the individual under the traditional charitable contribution limits).

Caution! A qualifying charity does not include a donor-advised fund.

 

HIGHLIGHTS OF TRADITIONAL YEAR-END TAX PLANNING TECHNIQUES

Pay Special Attention To “Timing” Issues! From a tax-planning standpoint, 2020 has been anything but a “normal” year for most. The pandemic has caused many individuals to incur significant losses in income. While at the same time, some individuals have actually experienced an increase in their expected income during this difficult time. Consequently, for 2020, there is clearly no single year-end tax planning strategy that will necessarily apply to all (or even a majority) of individuals.

In normal times, a traditional year-end tax planning strategy would include reducing your current year taxable income by deferring taxable income into later years and accelerating deductions into the current year. This strategy is particularly beneficial where your income tax rate in the following year is expected to be the same or lower than the current year. Consequently, in the following discussion we include traditional year-end tax planning strategies that would allow you to accelerate your deductions into 2020, while deferring your income into 2021.

Caution! For individuals who expect their taxable income to be much lower in 2020 than in 2021, the opposite strategy might be more advisable. That is, for individuals who have experienced a significant drop in income during 2020, a better year-end planning strategy might include accelerating income into 2020 (to be taxed at lower rates), while deferring deductions to 2021 (to be taken against income that is expected to be taxed at higher rates). As we at ATLAS discuss the planning methods that involve the “timing” of income or deductions, please keep in mind that you might want to consider taking the precise opposite steps recommended if you decide it would be better to defer deductions into 2021, while accelerating income into 2020.

 

Taking Advantage Of “Above-The Line” Deductions. Traditional year-end planning includes accelerating deductible expenses into the current tax year. So-called “above-the-line” deductions reduce both your “adjusted gross income” (AGI) and your “modified adjusted gross income” (MAGI), while “itemized” deductions (i.e., below-the-line deductions) do not reduce either AGI or MAGI. Deductions that reduce your AGI (or MAGI) can generate multiple tax benefits by:

  • 1) Reducing your taxable income and allowing you to be taxed in a lower tax bracket;
  • 2) Potentially freeing up other deductions (and tax credits) that phase out as your AGI (or MAGI) increases (e.g., Certain IRA Contributions, Certain Education Credits, Adoption Credit, Child and Family Tax Credits, etc.);
  • 3) Potentially reducing your MAGI below the income thresholds for the 3.8% Net Investment Income Tax (i.e., 3.8% NIIT only applies if MAGI exceeds $250,000 if married filing jointly; $200,000 if single); or
  • 4) Possibly reducing your household income to a level that allows you to qualify for a “refundable” Premium Tax Credit for health insurance purchased on a government Exchange.

Planning Alert! In addition, individuals reporting Qualified Business Income will generally find it much easier to qualify for the new 20% 199A Deduction with respect to that Qualified Business Income if their 2020 taxable income does not exceed $326,600 if filing a joint return or $163,300 if single. So, if you think that you could benefit from accelerating “above-the-line” deductions into 2020, consider the following:

  • Identifying “Above-The-Line” Deductions. “Above-the-line” deductions include: Deductions for IRA or Health Savings Account (HSA) Contributions; Health Insurance Premiums for Self-Employed Individuals; Qualified Student Loan Interest; Qualifying Alimony Payments (if the divorce or separation instrument was executed before 2019); and, Business Expenses for a Self-Employed Individual. Caution! Un-reimbursed employee business expenses are not deductible at all for 2018 through 2025.

However, employee business expenses that are reimbursed under an employer’s accountable plan are excluded altogether from the employee’s taxable income.

  • Accelerating “Above-The-Line” Deductions. As a cash method taxpayer, you can generally accelerate a 2021 deduction into 2020 by “paying” it in 2020. “Payment” typically occurs in 2020 if, before the end of 2020: 1) A check is delivered to the post office, 2) Your electronic payment is debited to your account, or 3) An item is charged on a third-party credit card (e.g., Visa, MasterCard, Discover, American Express). Caution! If you post‑date the check to 2021 or if your check is rejected, no payment has been made in 2020 even if the check is delivered in 2020. Planning Alert! The IRS says that prepayments of expenses applicable to periods beyond 12 months after the payments are not deductible in 2020.

“Itemized” Deductions. Although “itemized” deductions (i.e., below-the-line deductions) do not reduce your AGI or MAGI, they still may provide valuable tax savings. Starting in 2018 and through 2025, recent legislation substantially increased the Standard Deduction. For 2020, the Standard Deduction is: Joint Return – $24,800; Single – $12,400; and Head-of-Household – $18,650. Planning Alert! If you think your itemized deductions this year could likely exceed your Standard Deduction of $24,800 if filing jointly ($12,400 if single), consider the following:

  • Accelerating Charitable Contributions Into 2020. If you want to accelerate your charitable deduction into 2020, please note that a charitable contribution deduction is allowed for 2020 if the check is “mailed” on or before December 31, 2020, or the contribution is made by a credit card charge in 2020. However, if you merely give a note or a pledge to a charity, no deduction is allowed until you pay the note or pledge. Caution! As discussed previously, for 2020 only, the CARES Act allows a taxpayer to deduct charitable contributions of up to 100% of the individual’s AGI if made in “cash.” Contributions of “property” (e.g., stock, real estate) do not qualify for this temporary 100% of AGI rule.
  • Medical Expense Deductions. If you think your itemized deductions this year could likely exceed your standard deduction of $24,800 if filing jointly ($12,400 if single), but you do not expect your itemized deductions to exceed your Standard Deduction next year, you could save taxes in the long run by accelerating elective medical expenses (e.g., braces, new eye glasses, etc.) into 2020. Planning Alert! For 2020, you are allowed to take a medical expense itemized deduction only to the extent your aggregate medical expenses exceed 7.5% of your AGI. This 7.5% threshold is scheduled to increase to 10% after 2020.
  • $10,000 Cap On State And Local Taxes. From 2018 through 2025, your aggregate itemized deduction for state and local real property taxes, state and local personal property taxes, and state and local income taxes (or sales taxes if elected) is limited to $10,000 ($5,000 for married filing separately).
  • Limitations On The Deduction For Interest Paid On Home Mortgage “Acquisition Indebtedness. Before the Tax Cuts And Jobs Act (TCJA), individuals were generally allowed an itemized deduction for home mortgage interest paid on up to $1,000,000 ($500,000 for married individuals filing separately) of “Acquisition Indebtedness” (i.e., funds borrowed to purchase, construct, or substantially improve your principal or second residence and secured by that residence). Subject to certain transition rules, TCJA reduced the dollar cap for Acquisition Indebtedness incurred after December 15, 2017 from $1,000,000 to $750,000 ($375,000 for married filing separately) for 2018 through 2025. Planning Alert! If you think your itemized deductions this year could likely exceed your Standard Deduction, paying your January, 2021 qualifying home mortgage payment before 2021 should shift the deduction for any qualifying interest portion of that payment into 2020.
  • “Home Equity Indebtedness” Suspended For 2018 through 2025. TCJA suspended the deduction for interest with respect to “Home Equity Indebtedness” (i.e., up to $100,000 of funds borrowed that do not qualify as “Acquisition Indebtedness” but are secured by your principal or second residence). Caution! Unlike the interest deduction for “Acquisition Indebtedness,” TCJA did not grandfather any interest deduction for “Home Equity Indebtedness” that was outstanding before 2018.

 

Postponing Taxable Income May Save Taxes

Generally, deferring taxable income from 2020 to 2021 may also reduce your income taxes, particularly if your effective income tax rate for 2021 will be lower than your effective income tax rate for 2020.

Planning For Tax Rates

The deferral of income could cause your 2020 taxable income to fall below the thresholds for the highest 37% tax bracket (i.e., $622,050 for joint returns; $518,400 if single). In addition, if you have income subject to the 3.8% Net Investment Income Tax (3.8% NIIT) and the income deferral reduces your 2020 modified adjusted gross income (MAGI) below the thresholds for the 3.8% NIIT (i.e., $250,000 for joint returns; $200,000 if single), you may avoid this additional 3.8% tax on your investment income.

  • Deferring Self-Employment Income. If you are a self-employed individual using the cash method of accounting, consider delaying year-end billings to defer income until 2021. Planning Alert! If you have already received the check in 2020, deferring the deposit of the check does not defer the income. Also, you may not want to defer billing if you believe this will increase your risk of not getting paid.

Traditional Year-End Planning With Capital Gains And Losses

Generally, net capital gains (both short- term and long-term) are potentially subject to the 3.8% NIIT. This could result in an individual filing a joint return with taxable income for 2020 of $496,600 or more ($441,450 or more if single) paying tax on his or her net long-term capital gains at a 23.8% rate (i.e., the maximum capital gains tax rate of 20% plus the 3.8% NIIT). In addition, this individual’s net short-term capital gains could be taxed as high as 40.8% (i.e., 37% plus 3.8%). Consequently, traditional planning strategies involving the timing of your year-end sales of stocks, bonds, or other securities continue to be as important as ever. The following are time-tested, year-end tax planning ideas for sales of capital assets. Planning Alert! Always consider the economics of a sale or exchange first!

  • Planning With Zero Percent Tax Rate For Capital Gains And Dividends.

For individuals filing a joint return with 2020 Taxable Income of less than $80,000 (less than $40,000 if single), their long‑term capital gains and qualified dividends are taxed at a zero percent rate. Tax Tip. Individuals who have historically been in higher tax brackets but are now expecting a significant drop in their 2020 taxable income, may find themselves in the zero percent tax bracket for long‑term capital gains and qualified dividends for the first time. For example, a significant drop in 2020 taxable income could have occurred due to COVID-19; or because you are between jobs; or you recently retired; or you are expecting to report higher-than-normal business deductions in 2020.

   Planning Alert! If you are experiencing any of these situations, please call our Firm as soon as possible and we will help you determine whether you can take advantage of this zero percent tax rate for long-term capital gains and qualified dividends. If you wait too late to contact us at ATLAS, you may run out of time before the end of this year to take the recommended steps to maximize your tax savings.

  • Timing Your Capital Gains And Losses. If the value of some of your investments is less than your cost, it may be a good time to harvest some capital losses. For example, if you have already recognized capital gains in 2020, you should consider selling securities prior to January 1, 2021 that would trigger a capital loss. These losses will be deductible on your 2020 return to the extent of your recognized capital gains, plus $3,000.

 

Tax Tip

These losses may have the added benefit of reducing your income to a level that will qualify you for other tax breaks, such as:

  • 1) The $2,500 American Opportunity Tax Credit,
  • 2) The $2,000 Child Tax Credit,
  • 3) The Adoption Credit of $14,300, or
  • 4) Causing your taxable income to drop below the $326,600/$163,300 thresholds for purposes of the 20% 199A Deduction (previously mentioned).

Planning Alert! If, within 30 days before or after the sale of loss securities, you acquire the same securities, the loss will not be allowed currently because of the “wash sale” rules (although the disallowed loss will increase the basis of the acquired stock).

   Tax Tip

There is no wash sale rule for gains. Thus, if you decide to sell stock at a gain in order to take advantage of a zero capital gains rate, or to absorb capital losses, you may acquire the same securities within 30 days without impacting the recognition of the gain.

 

The “Premium Tax Credit” Under The Affordable Care Act

Although TCJA essentially eliminated the penalty for individuals who fail to purchase qualified health coverage by reducing the “Shared Responsibility Tax” (SR Tax) to Zero, it did not repeal the refundable “Premium Tax Credit” or “PTC.” The PTC is still generally available for eligible low-and-middle income individuals who purchase health insurance through a State or Federal Exchange. The PTC is generally paid in advance directly to the insurer (“Advance Payments”). Any individual who received Advance Payments for 2020 is required to file a 2020 income tax return to reconcile: 1) The amount of the “actual” PTC (based on the individual’s “actual” 2020 Household Income), with 2) The Advance Payments of the PTC (which were determined by the Exchange based on the individual’s “projected” 2020 Household Income).

Caution! If an individual’s Advance Payments for 2020 exceed the “actual” PTC, the excess must be paid back on the 2020 tax return as an “additional tax liability.”

 

FINAL COMMENTS

Please contact ATLAS if you are interested in a tax topic that we did not discuss. Tax law is constantly changing due to new legislation, cases, regulations, and IRS rulings. ATLAS closely monitors these changes. In addition, please call us at ATLAS before implementing any planning ideas discussed in this letter, or if you need additional information.

Note! The information contained in this material should not be relied upon without an independent, professional analysis of how any of the items discussed may apply to a specific situation.

 

Disclaimer: Any tax advice contained in the body of this material was not intended or written to be used, and cannot be used, by the recipient for the purpose of promoting, marketing, or recommending to another party any transaction or matter addressed herein. The preceding information is intended as a general discussion of the subject addressed and is not intended as a formal tax opinion. The recipient should not rely on any information contained herein without performing his or her own research verifying the conclusions reached. The conclusions reached should not be relied upon without an independent, professional analysis of the facts and law applicable to the situation.