Smart TaxesSmart Taxes

Is your tax life keeping up with your real life?

If you got married or divorced, took in an elderly parent, lost your job or adopted a child, you may need to adjust your tax planning.

By MSN Money Partner Mar 21, 2013 1:27PM

This post is by Laura Saunders of The Wall Street Journal.

 

© Big Cheese Photo, PictureQuestSometimes life's biggest changes can save you a bundle in taxes — if you know how to take advantage of them.

 

What was new in your life last year? Did you get married or divorced, or adopt a child? Did your parents move in — or your adult child? Did you lose a house to a storm?

 

These and other major events often have tax consequences people are unaware of — precisely because they are unusual, unlike, say, deducting donations. And with big tax increases taking effect this year, it is all the more important for taxpayers to seize any break they can.

 

Still, many overlook big potential savings.

 

"People come to us ready to discuss energy credits, but we have to ask if they're caring for a dependent parent," says Mark Steber, chief tax officer at Jackson Hewitt Tax Service. "The IRS seldom has a safety net for missed deductions."

 

For example, if you paid tuition for a special-needs child in 2012, thousands of dollars could be deductible as a medical expense. If you provided more than half an adult child's or parent's support, you might qualify for an extra $3,800 personal exemption.

Such big life changes happen with surprising regularity. Every year about 40% of taxpayers have a major life event such as marriage, job loss or retirement, according to data collected by Intuit, which sells the tax-prep software TurboTax.

 

Awareness can lead to smarter tax planning as well. Douglas Stives, a CPA who directs the MBA program at Monmouth University in New Jersey, says he had a client whose mother entered a nursing home. She wasn't wealthy, but she had enough money to pay the annual cost of about $100,000 for several years. The son was her only heir and had power of attorney.

 

The mother's nursing-home bill was fully deductible as a medical expense, but it exceeded her income. After consulting a lawyer, her son — who intended to pay his mother's costs if she ran out of money — transferred her assets to himself. He filed a gift-tax return on the transfer and paid her bill.

 

As a result, the son was able to take a medical deduction of more than $90,000 for his mother's nursing-home costs, and deduct his own medical expenses not covered by insurance. (Without his mother's expenses, they wouldn't have been large enough to qualify.) In addition, the client used the deduction to shelter income generated by converting part of his individual retirement account to a more tax-favored Roth IRA.

 

The point, Stives says, is that when deductions are greater than income, "it's important to look for tax opportunities."

 

To be sure, not all life changes bring tax savings. Newlyweds can face marriage-tax penalties. Unemployment benefits are taxable, even if there is no withholding.

 

Here are some often-overlooked tax effects of major life changes. Perhaps they will lower your tax bill for 2012 or 2013.

 

Marriage

A long-standing tax-code quirk means that couples earning widely different incomes often pay lower total taxes after marriage, while those earning closer to the same amount often pay more — the so-called marriage penalty. The Tax Policy Center, a nonpartisan research group, offers a useful calculator to help you see where you fall.

 

Couples married on the last day of the year are considered married for the whole year, so some couples who will owe more should adjust their withholding to avoid penalties.

Have you changed your name? It needs to be registered with the Social Security Administration before you file a tax return.

 

Divorce

During divorce negotiations, be sure to determine who will claim the dependent exemption for children, as only one per child is allowed. In past years, the higher-earning spouse often got more benefit from the exemptions. But starting in 2013, the personal exemption phases out for single filers starting at $250,000 of adjusted gross income, so sometimes the lower-earning spouse will derive more benefit.

 

If you are contemplating divorce and worried your partner is a tax cheat, avoid filing a joint return. That might raise your tax, but it will release you from liability for the year and, perhaps, trouble later on. Each spouse signing a joint return is usually fully liable.

 

Birth and adoption

Parents must obtain Social Security numbers for children in order to claim tax exemptions for them.

 

If you plan to take the child-care credit for children age 12 and under — which apples to expenses up to $3,000 for one child or $6,000 for two or more — caretakers must supply their Social Security numbers. If a person cares for the child in your home, you could have "nanny tax" issues.

 

Adoptive parents can qualify for a tax credit of up to $12,650 per child for 2012 ($12,970 for 2013) but should keep careful records. In recent years the IRS has challenged up to 70% of adoption credits, according to National Taxpayer Advocate Nina Olson.

 

Because the credit for 2012 and 2013 is less open to abuse, the IRS is likely to issue fewer challenges, experts say.

 

Change of employment

Workers who have lost their jobs could be in for an additional burden: a surprise tax bill. Severance and pay for unused vacation or sick days are taxable, but the employer might withhold taxes at a lower rate than before, says Gil Charney, an expert at H&R Block's Tax Institute.

 

Unemployment compensation also is taxable, and there is no automatic withholding. Recipients can file Form W-4V to have a flat 10% withheld.

 

Conversely, payments for extended health coverage often are tax-deductible as medical expenses. With a lower income, it can be easier to qualify for the deduction.

 

Workers employed for part of a year might have income low enough to qualify for credits and deductions they formerly earned too much to take, Charney says.

 

One of the most generous is the earned-income credit, a dollar-for-dollar tax offset that can be worth more than $5,000 to couples with children who earn little income. Workers planning to return to school should see IRS Publication 970 for a list of education benefits.

 

A year with a lower tax rate also can be a good time to convert a portion of an IRA to a more tax-favored Roth IRA, because the conversion tax can be lower as well.

 

If you are thinking of selling assets in 2013, the rate on long-term capital gains for couples with less than $72,500 ($36,250 for singles) of taxable income is attractive: 0%.

 

Did you find a job after losing one earlier in the year, or did you have multiple employers? You can adjust your income-tax withholding to free up cash, but employers must withhold full payroll taxes, even if that puts you over the limit. Be sure to claim a refund on your tax return, says Charney.

 

A new business

Too many people starting businesses overlook the importance of getting good advice at the outset, small-business tax experts say. In particular, new owners often don't know they must keep detailed records in order to deduct many costs, including payments for meals, travel, automobiles, health care, equipment and retirement plans.

 

"The IRS often wants to see proof, especially for meals and entertainment expenses," says Lewis Taub, a tax director at McGladrey in New York.

 

Do you work from home? Recently, the IRS offered taxpayers a simplified option for claiming up to a $1,500 home-office deduction for 2013. (See IRS Revenue Procedure 2013-13 and Publication 587.)

 

Disasters

Tax deductions for casualty losses aren't generous. What's more, Congress hasn't granted victims of superstorm Sandy the expanded tax benefits it gave to Katrina victims.

 

Still, the IRS has extended until next Oct. 15 the deadline for deciding whether to take allowable storm losses against 2011 or 2012 taxes for Sandy victims. (See IRS Notice 2013-21.)

 

Should the allowed losses wipe out your taxable income, they can be carried back up to two years and carried forward up to 20, another help.

 

Change of household

For 2012, the exemption for each dependent is $3,800. But figuring out who your dependents are can be hard.

 

The assessment begins with whether you supplied more than half of someone else's support — even if that person isn't related to or living with you. In addition, adult dependents often can't have more than $3,800 of income. For all the rules, including for disabled dependents, see IRS Publication 501.

 

Note: Even if a support provider can't claim an exemption because the recipient's income is too high, the provider can deduct medical payments as long as he pays more than half the recipient's support. An example would be a daughter who pays $50,000 toward her father's nursing home, while the father himself has income of $20,000. In that case, the daughter's payment could be deductible, an IRS spokesman says.

 

Medical expenses

For 2012, taxpayers can deduct expenses exceeding 7.5% of adjusted gross income (or 10% if you owe alternative minimum tax). For 2013 the hurdle rises to 10% unless you're 65 or older.

 

Note that the IRS's definition of "qualified expenses" is often far broader than what insurers reimburse. It can include payments for insurance premiums, contact-lens solution, a doctor-prescribed wig, tuition for special education, skilled-nursing care and even some assisted-living care.

 

Taxpayers who surmount the 7.5% hurdle should scrutinize the list in IRS Publication 502 to see other expenses they can deduct.

 

Retirement

A common mistake is to take a bonus or pension lump sum before moving from a high-tax state to one with lower taxes. Don't be quick to withdraw from your retirement plans, either. "Try to let your tax rate relax first," says Monmouth's Stives.

 

Recent retirees who have taken an income hit should consider converting some or all of a regular IRA to a Roth IRA, says Vanguard Group tax expert Joel Dickson. Withdrawals from Roth accounts don't raise Medicare premiums or taxes on Social Security payments, nor do they help trigger the new 3.8% tax on other investment income.

 

Owners of regular IRAs must begin taking required withdrawals the year they turn 70½, though they have until the following April 1 to take the first payout.

 

Death

With the estate-tax exemption now more than $5 million per individual — and indexed for inflation — many executors of estates under the limit might skip filing an estate-tax return. But it is important to file after one spouse dies to preserve any unused exemption for the partner.

 

Here's why: Say a man died last year, leaving a $500,000 estate. Filing a proper estate return preserves his remaining exemption for his wife. Says estate-tax lawyer Howard Zaritsky of Rapidan, Va., "People can make, win, inherit or marry money. It's best to be optimistic."

 

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