2012 Tax Outlook

by Kenneth Hoffman in ,

2012 Tax Outlook: "Campaign Heats Up"

The 2012 presidential election already seems like it's been on for years.  President Obama has proposed to raise taxes on those earning above $200,000 ($250,000 for joint filers), including a new surtax on incomes over a million.  Republicans have pledged to cut taxes in hopes of stimulating the economy.  And regardless of who wins in November, the Bush tax cuts are scheduled to automatically expire at the end of this year.

Since taking office, Obama has offered a variety of cuts for lower- and middle-income Americans.  These include new credits for working individuals, expanded breaks for higher education, extended breaks for homebuyers, and even a temporary sales-tax deduction for new car purchases.  While these changes have made taxes more complicated, they've done nothing to stall future tax hikes for higher incomes. 

The new healthcare reform law actually makes it harder to deduct healthcare costs, and imposes significant new taxes on investment income.  With the federal budget deficit topping $1 trillion per year, many observers see the new healthcare taxes as the tip of a looming iceberg. 

 This report summarizes some of the future tax hikes we can expect and offers suggestions for avoiding them where possible.  We look forward to discussing these threats and helping craft the appropriate response! 

 Tax Brackets Stable - For Now!

 Washington has extended the Bush tax cuts, effective for two years through 2012, and Congress shows little appetite for raising rates on middle-income earners. This means that tax on ordinary income is currently capped at 33% and 35% for taxpayers in the highest brackets, and taxes on capital gains and qualified corporate dividends remain capped at 15%.  However, budget deficits continue to balloon out of control, and if Congress can't agree to extend cuts, rates will rise automatically in 2013.

Do you expect your 2013 income to be significantly different than in 2012 (as may be the case if you retire, buy or sell a business, or sell significant investments)?  If so, consider timing income and deductions for maximum tax advantage.

If you expect to earn LESS in 2013, consider delaying some of this year's income (to subject it to tax next year, when you'll be in a lower bracket).  And pay deductible expenses this year, as much as you can.

Or, if you expect to earn MORE in 2013, consider accelerating income from commissions, bonuses, and qualified plan withdrawals into this year (to subject it to tax now, before you move up into a higher bracket next year).  You might also delay paying deductible expenses until next year, to the extent possible.

Itemized Deductions Going Down?

President Obama has proposed limiting the value of itemized deductions to just 28%, even for taxpayers in higher brackets.  This would amount to a "stealth" tax increase and cut the value of deductions for medical expenses, state and local taxes, mortgage interest, and even charitable gifts.

Tax Strategies for Healthcare Costs

Paying for medical care becomes harder every year.  The recent healthcare reform act improves coverage and extends it to more Americans, but actually makes it harder to deduct unreimbursed expenses.  (Under current law, you can deduct medical expenses exceeding 7.5% of your Adjusted Gross Income.  Under the new law, starting in 2013, that floor rises to 10%.)  It also limits contributions to employer-sponsored flexible spending plans to $2,500/year.  

If you're free to select your own coverage, consider choosing a "high-deductible health plan"  and opening a Health Savings Account.  These arrangements bring down premium costs and use pre-tax dollars for out-of-pocket costs, bypassing the floor on AGI.  

If you're self-employed, consider establishing a Medical Expense Reimbursement Plan, or MERP.  These plans let you pay family medical expenses with pre-tax business dollars.  They may even help you avoid self-employment tax.

Audit Odds Still Low

IRS audit odds are increasing, from 1 in 200 returns for 2000 to 1 in 100 for 2009. But your chance of getting audited is still minimal. Don't take low audit rates as an invitation to cheat! But don't let fear of an audit stop you from taking every legitimate deduction you're entitled to.

New Roth IRA Conversion Opportunity

New rules now let you convert your traditional IRA to a Roth IRA, regardless of your current income.  This is actually one of the bright spots of the of the current tax picture. 

Traditional tax planning holds that it makes sense to defer income into retirement accounts now, when you're in your peak earning years (and highest tax bracket) - then withdraw it later during retirement, when your income and tax bracket will presumably be lower.  However, tax rates are currently at historic lows, and it's entirely possible they will be higher when you're retired.  This suggests the smarter strategy may be to pay tax on retirement funds now in order to withdraw them tax-free when rates are higher.

New Tax on Interest Income

The healthcare reform act imposes a new "Unearned Income Medicare Contribution" of 3.8%, beginning on January 1, 2013, on interest income, for taxpayers reporting more than $200,000 ($250,000 for joint filers).  This tax may make municipal bonds and money market funds more attractive relative to fully taxable vehicles.  However, the recession has jeopardized state and local tax revenues, so there may be credit quality issues to consider.  You might also consider deferred annuities and permanent life insurance for fixed-income portions of your portfolio.

New Tax on Dividend Income

Tax on "qualified corporate dividends" is currently capped at 15%, even for taxpayers in the highest brackets.  However, beginning in 2013, the healthcare reform act imposes a new "unearned income Medicare contribution" of 3.8% on dividend income for individuals earning over $200,000 ($250,000 for joint filers).  Consider favoring stocks that pay little or no dividend in taxable accounts and holding stocks paying higher dividends in tax-deferred accounts.

Permanent Life Insurance for Tax-Free Income

As mentioned earlier, the healthcare reform act imposes a new "Unearned Income Medicare Contribution" of 3.8%, beginning on January 1, 2013, on "investment income" (broadly defined to include interest, dividends, capital gains, rents, royalties, and annuity distributions) for individuals making over $200,000 ($250,000 for joint filers).  Permanent life insurance offers a variety of investment options for accumulating cash values, along with tax-free withdrawals and loans so long as you keep the policy in force.

New Tax on Real Estate Income

The healthcare reform act imposes an "unearned income Medicare contribution" of 3.8%, effective starting in 2013, on income from real estate investments and taxable gains from the sale of your primary residence, for individuals making over $200,000 ($250,000 for joint filers).  There are several strategies you can use to minimize taxable real estate income, including favoring tax-deductible "repairs" over depreciable "improvements" and cost segregation strategies to maximize depreciation deductions.

Higher Tax on Capital Gains

Tax on long-term capital gains (from property you hold more than 12 months) is currently capped at 15%, even if your regular tax rate is higher.  However, the recent healthcare reform act also imposes a new "unearned income medicare contribution", beginning in 2013, of 3.8% on capital gains for individuals earning over $200,000 ($250,000 for joint filers).  If you have appreciated assets such as securities, real estate, or a business you'd like to sell, consider doing so before new rates become effective.  Check with us first, to discuss if you can use tax-free exchanges, installment sales, charitable trusts, or similar strategies to minimize or even eliminate tax on those sales.

Uncertainty on Estate Tax

The estate tax actually "died" for 2010.  Washington brought it back to life, with a 35% tax applying on estates over $5.12 million per person.  However, the new system applies only for 2011-2012.  If Washington doesn't act to extend it, the tax reverts to 55% on estates over $1.0 million, beginning January 1, 2013.  This means that smart, flexible estate planning will still be part of most affluent families' plans.

Next Steps

We're sure you appreciate this brief outline of upcoming tax threats.  While smart intelligence is crucial, intelligence alone is useless without the right action.  If the threats we've discussed so far have you worried about your financial future, you owe it to yourself to take a more comprehensive look at your taxes and finances, so that we can determine exactly which concepts and strategies will work from here. 

Any tax advice contained in the body of this presentation was not intended or written to be used, and cannot be used, by the recipient for the purpose of avoiding penalties that may be imposed under the Internal Revenue Code or applicable state or local tax law provisions.

If you have any questions about this topic, tax law changes, business tips, or how to become a client, please call us at 954-591-8290 or use our Contact form.