The Tax Cut and Jobs Act (TCJA) passed at the end of 2017, and the Setting Every Community Up for Retirement Enhancement Act (SECURE) passed at the end of 2019. These both made significant changes to annual tax-planning strategies.
The COVID-19 pandemic and the CARES Act relief package that followed created a new layer of complexity. Unfortunately, many taxpayers miss opportunities for significant tax savings.
Here are six moves to consider making before the end of the year to potentially lower your taxes both this year and in years to come.
- Take the Standard Deduction Later. The new tax rules nearly doubled the standard deduction and eliminated many write-offs, limiting the benefit of itemizing deductions for most taxpayers. However, you can optimize your deductions by “bunching” itemized deductions in a single year to get over the standard deduction threshold and then by taking the standard deduction in the following year.
Example: Instead of giving $10,000 to charity annually (which will likely leave you with the standard deduction anyway), gift $50,000 every 5 years. This will give you a greater tax benefit in the first year while still claiming the standard deduction in the other years to maximize tax savings.
- Pre-Pay Your Medical Expenses. Have major medical-related expenses coming up? You can potentially maximize the tax deduction by paying out-of-pocket medical expenses in a single calendar year—either by pushing payments out to the next year or pulling later expenses into this year.
A surprising number of medical expenses qualify, including unreimbursed doctor fees, long-term-care premiums, certain Medicare plans, and some home modifications.
Note: Medical expenses are an itemized deduction, so this strategy may be best used with the “bunching” strategy described above, including possibly paying medical expenses in a year you maximize charitable donations.
- Give Money to Your Favorite Charity Right Now from Your IRA. If you’re over 70 ½, you can make up to $100,000 of annual Qualified Charitable Distributions (QCDs) directly from your IRA to a qualifying charity. Even better, for retirees who don’t need to take their Required Minimum Distribution (RMD) each year, these qualified charitable distributions count toward the RMD but don’t appear in taxable income.
Even though the CARES Act allowed RMDs to be skipped in 2020, you can still make a QCD this year.
Note: QCDs must be made by December 31 to count for this tax year.
- Take Advantage of Years in a Lower Tax Bracket with a Roth Conversion. A Roth conversion can permanently lower your taxable income in retirement by converting tax-deferred assets (IRA / 401k) into tax-free assets in a Roth account. It is best to do this in years where you are in a lower tax bracket than you expect to be in the future.
Annual Roth conversions when in a lower tax bracket are a way to smooth out annual taxes and minimize the amount paid over a lifetime.
Example: If a taxpayer at age 63 is in the 12% tax bracket, then moving $10,000 from an IRA to a Roth account will owe an additional $1,200 in taxes. That same taxpayer at age 73 may be in the 24% tax bracket due to Social Security, pension, and RMD income they didn’t have at 62. Taking that same $10,000 from an IRA will now result an in additional $2,400 in taxes.
- Optimize Your Investment Portfolio to Improve Expected After-Tax Return. Prior to the TCJA, you could write off some fees you pay for investment management. The TCJA did away with that deduction. There are still ways to pay fees with pre-tax dollars that may make sense depending on the types of accounts used.
Likewise, some investments will be more tax efficient, and other investments will be less tax efficient. Where possible, move the most tax-efficient investments into a taxable investment account and the least tax-efficient investments into a tax-advantaged retirement account. The goal is to determine an ideal overall allocation, even if each individual account has a slightly different allocation.
Both strategies above can potentially help maximize the after-tax return on investments.
- Optimize Your Retirement Contributions. The most important step you can take right now to reduce your taxes this year may be to review how and where you’re making retirement contributions. You may be missing out on critical tax savings (and investment growth) if you’re not optimizing your contributions.
Potential retirement account strategies people often miss include Solo 401k for self-employed individuals, backdoor Roth contributions, or “mega” backdoor Roth contributions at certain large employers.
Everyone’s situation is different, and today’s retirement environment is complex. Working with a financial professional who coordinates with your CPA can help ensure you’re not missing any opportunities to optimize your portfolio and pay less in taxes.