Thinking about a Roth IRA conversion? Now may be the ideal time

Thinking about a Roth IRA conversion? Now may be the ideal time

Roth IRAs offer significant estate planning and financial benefits. If you have a substantial balance in a traditional IRA and are considering converting it to a Roth IRA, there may be no better time than now. The Tax Cuts and Jobs Act (TCJA) reduced individual income tax rates through 2025. By making the conversion now, the TCJA enhances the benefits of a Roth IRA.

Estate planning benefits

The main difference between traditional and Roth IRAs is the timing of income taxes. With a traditional IRA, your eligible contributions are deductible on your tax returns but distributions of both contributions and earnings are taxable when you receive them. With a Roth IRA, on the other hand, your contributions are nondeductible — that is, they’re made with after-tax dollars — but qualified distributions of both contributions and earnings are tax-free if you meet certain requirements. As a general rule, from a tax perspective, you’re better off with a Roth IRA if you expect your tax rate to be higher when it comes time to withdraw the funds. That’s because you pay the tax up front, when your tax rate is lower.

From an estate planning perspective, Roth IRAs have two distinct advantages. First, unlike a traditional IRA, a Roth IRA doesn’t mandate required minimum distributions (RMDs) beginning at age 70½. If your other assets are sufficient to meet your living expenses, you can allow the funds in a Roth IRA to continue growing tax-free for the rest of your life, multiplying the amount available for your loved ones. Second, after your death, your children or other beneficiaries can withdraw funds from a Roth IRA tax-free. In contrast, an inherited traditional IRA comes with a sizable income tax bill.

Why now?

The TCJA’s tax changes may make it an ideal time for a Roth IRA conversion. You’ll have to pay federal taxes when you convert from a traditional IRA to a Roth (and possibly state taxes too). But as previously discussed, Roth IRAs offer tax advantages if you expect your tax rate to be higher in the future.

By temporarily lowering individual income tax rates, the TCJA ensures that your tax rate will increase in 2026 (unless a future Congress lowers tax rates). Future tax rates are irrelevant, of course, if you plan to hold the funds for life and leave them to your loved ones. In that case, you’re generally better off with a Roth IRA, which avoids RMDs and allows the full balance to continue growing tax-free.

Proceed with caution

If you’re contemplating a Roth IRA conversion, discuss with us the costs, benefits and potential risks. It’s important to be cautious because, once you convert a traditional IRA to a Roth IRA, you’re stuck with it under current law. The TCJA repealed a provision that previously made it possible to “undo” a Roth IRA conversion that turned out to be a mistake.

© 2019

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Volunteering for charity: Do you get a tax break?

If you’re a volunteer who works for charity, you may be entitled to some tax breaks if you itemize deductions on your tax return. Unfortunately, they may not amount to as much as you think your generosity is worth.

Because donations to charity of cash or property generally are tax deductible for itemizers, it may seem like donations of something more valuable for many people — their time — would also be deductible. However, no tax deduction is allowed for the value of time you spend volunteering or the services you perform for a charitable organization.

It doesn’t matter if the services you provide require significant skills and experience, such as construction, which a charity would have to pay dearly for if it went out and obtained itself. You still don’t get to deduct the value of your time.

However, you potentially can deduct out-of-pocket costs associated with your volunteer work.

The basic rules

As with any charitable donation, to be able to deduct your volunteer expenses, the first requirement is that the organization be a qualified charity. You can check by using the IRS’s “Tax Exempt Organization Search” tool at https://www.irs.gov/charities-non-profits/tax-exempt-organization-search.

If the charity is qualified, you may be able to deduct out-of-pocket costs that are unreimbursed; directly connected with the services you’re providing; incurred only because of your charitable work; and not “personal, living or family” expenses.

Expenses that may qualify

A wide variety of expenses can qualify for the deduction. For example, supplies you use in the activity may be deductible. And the cost of a uniform you must wear during the activity may also be deductible (if it’s required and not something you’d wear when not volunteering).

Transportation costs to and from the volunteer activity generally are deductible — either the actual expenses (such as gas costs) or 14 cents per charitable mile driven. The cost of entertaining others (such as potential contributors) on behalf of a charity may also be deductible. However, the cost of your own entertainment or meal isn’t deductible.

Deductions are permitted for away-from-home travel expenses while performing services for a charity. This includes out-of-pocket round-trip travel expenses, taxi fares and other costs of transportation between the airport or station and hotel, plus lodging and meals. However, these expenses aren’t deductible if there’s a significant element of personal pleasure associated with the travel, or if your services for a charity involve lobbying activities.

Recordkeeping is important

The IRS may challenge charitable deductions for out-of-pocket costs, so it’s important to keep careful records and receipts. You must meet the other requirements for charitable donations. For example, no charitable deduction is allowed for a contribution of $250 or more unless you substantiate the contribution with a written acknowledgment from the organization. The acknowledgment generally must include the amount of cash, a description of any property contributed, and whether you got anything in return for your contribution.

And, in order to get a charitable deduction, you must itemize. Under the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act, fewer people are itemizing because the law significantly increased the standard deduction amounts. So even if you have expenses from volunteering that qualify for a deduction, you may not get any tax benefit if you don’t have enough itemized deductions.

If you have questions about charitable deductions and volunteer expenses, please contact us.

© 2019

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Assets with sentimental value require extra planning

When planning your estate, you’re likely focused on major assets, such as real estate, investments and retirement plans. But it’s also important to “sweat the small stuff” — your tangible personal property. Examples include jewelry, antiques and photographs.

These personal items — which often have modest monetary value but significant sentimental value — may be more difficult to deal with, and more likely to result in disputes, than big-ticket items. Squabbling over these items can lead to emotionally charged disputes and even litigation. In some cases, the legal fees and court costs can eclipse the monetary value of the property itself.

Prepare a personal property memorandum

Spelling out every gift of personal property in your will or trust can be cumbersome. Perhaps you want to leave your son a painting he’s always enjoyed and give your daughter your prized first-edition copy of your favorite book. You may want to leave your coin collection, which has never interested your children, to an old friend. And so on.

If you wish to make many small gifts like these, your will or trust can get long in a hurry. Plus, any time you change your mind or decide to add another gift, you’ll have to amend your documents. Often, a more convenient solution is to prepare a personal property memorandum to provide instructions on the distribution of tangible personal property not listed in your will or trust.

In many states, a personal property memorandum is legally binding, provided it’s specifically referred to in your will and meets certain other requirements. Check with your attorney. You can change your memorandum or add to it at any time without the need to formally amend your will. Even if it’s not legally binding in your state, however, a personal property memorandum can be an effective tool for expressing your wishes and explaining the reasons for your gifts, which can go a long way toward avoiding disputes.

If you use a personal property memorandum, it’s advisable to include certain property in your will or trust, such as high-value items, gifts to nonfamily members or other gifts that are susceptible to challenge.

Little things mean a lot

As you plan your estate, don’t overlook tangible personal property. The dollar value of these items may be relatively low, but their emotional value demands careful planning to avoid hurt feelings, misunderstandings and disputes.

© 2019

 

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You may have to pay tax on Social Security benefits

During your working days, you pay Social Security tax in the form of withholding from your salary or self-employment tax. And when you start receiving Social Security benefits, you may be surprised to learn that some of the payments may be taxed.

If you’re getting close to retirement age, you may be wondering if your benefits are going to be taxed. And if so, how much will you have to pay? The answer depends on your other income. If you are taxed, between 50% and 85% of your payments will be hit with federal income tax. (There could also be state tax.)

Important: This doesn’t mean you pay 50% to 85% of your benefits back to the government in taxes. It means that you have to include 50% to 85% of them in your income subject to your regular tax rates.

Calculate provisional income

To determine how much of your benefits are taxed, you must calculate your provisional income. It starts with your adjusted gross income on your tax return. Then, you add certain amounts (for example, tax-exempt interest from municipal bonds). Add to that the income of your spouse, if you file jointly. To this, add half of the Social Security benefits you and your spouse received during the year. The figure you come up with is your provisional income. Now apply the following rules:

  • If you file a joint tax return and your provisional income, plus half your benefits, isn’t above $32,000 ($25,000 for single taxpayers), none of your Social Security benefits are taxed.
  • If your provisional income is between $32,001 and $44,000, and you file jointly with your spouse, you must report up to 50% of your Social Security benefits as income. For single taxpayers, if your provisional income is between $25,001 and $34,000, you must report up to 50% of your Social Security benefits as income.
  • If your provisional income is more than $44,000, and you file jointly, you must report up to 85% of your Social Security benefits as income on Form 1040. For single taxpayers, if your provisional income is more than $34,000, the general rule is that you must report up to 85% of your Social Security benefits as income.

Caution: If you aren’t paying tax on your Social Security benefits now because your income is below the floor, or you’re paying tax on only 50% of those benefits, an unplanned increase in your income can have a significant tax cost. You’ll have to pay tax on the additional income, you’ll also have to pay tax on (or on more of) your Social Security benefits, and you may get pushed into a higher tax bracket.

For example, this might happen if you receive a large retirement plan distribution during the year or you receive large capital gains. With careful planning, you might be able to avoid this tax result.

Avoid a large tax bill

If you know your Social Security benefits will be taxed, you may want to voluntarily arrange to have tax withheld from the payments by filing a Form W-4V with the IRS. Otherwise, you may have to make estimated tax payments.

Contact us to help you with the exact calculations on whether your Social Security will be taxed. We can also help you with tax planning to keep your taxes as low as possible during retirement.

© 2019

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4 negative outcomes of jointly owning property with a family member

A common estate planning mistake that people make is to own property jointly with an adult child or other family member. True, adding a loved one to the title of your home, bank account or other property can be a simple technique for leaving property to that person without the need for probate. But any convenience gained is usually outweighed by a variety of negative consequences. Here are four:

1. Higher gift and estate taxes. Depending on the size of your estate, joint ownership may trigger gift and estate taxes. When you add a family member’s name to an asset’s title as joint owner, for example, it’s considered a taxable gift of half the asset’s value. And your interest in the asset — including any future appreciation — remains in your taxable estate. These taxes usually can be minimized or even eliminated by transferring the asset to an irrevocable trust.

2. Higher income taxes. Generally, property transferred at death receives a stepped-up basis, allowing your heirs to sell it without incurring capital gains tax liability. But if you add an heir to the property’s title as joint owner, only your interest in the property will enjoy this benefit. Any appreciation in the value of your heir’s interests between the date he or she is added to the title and the date of your death is subject to capital gains tax.

3. Exposure to creditors’ claims. Unlike property transferred to a properly designed trust, jointly held property may be exposed to claims by the joint owner’s creditors (and also claims from a former spouse).

4. Loss of control. A joint owner has the right to sell his or her interest to an outside buyer without your consent and the buyer may be able to go to court to force a sale of the property. In addition, when you die, the entire property will go to the surviving owner(s), regardless of the terms of your will or other estate planning documents.

If you currently jointly own property with a family member, contact us. We can suggest alternative estate planning techniques to ease any gift, estate and income tax liability, and limit your exposure to creditors’ claims.

© 2019

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