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Financial Planning > Tax Planning > Tax Reform

Put tax reform to work for you

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Wealthy clients bemoaning President Obama’s tax reforms may find little comfort knowing they aren’t effective until 2011 — Charles Schwab found 41 percent of investment advisors think the recession will last until 2010, and 35 percent think it’ll take five years for portfolios to regain their losses.

“In other words, the recession could end and stocks could show gains just as taxes increase,” writes Paul Sullivan for The New York Times. He offers five tax tips to help wealthy clients ease the burden of changing tax constraints.

Use capital gains to your best advantage. “People who suddenly find themselves in the highest income tax bracket have a lot of time to figure out how to pay less tax under the new regime,” Sullivan writes. “Small-business owners could particularly benefit from acting early. They could start paying themselves a qualified dividend, which would reduce the value of their company and be taxed as capital gains, not ordinary income.”

Or business owners could sell all or part of the business to an employee share ownership plan, he adds. Any income is taxed at the capital gains rate.

Don’t overlook municipal bonds. Sullivan cites research from Thornburg Investment Management that shows high-quality municipal bonds have returned 3 percent to 5 percent year-to-date. Municipal bonds are exempt from federal taxes, and if your clients are residents of the state where the bond was issued, they’re exempt from local taxes, as well.

Defer compensation. “Plans to defer compensation have long been sold as prudent tax deferral strategies,” according to Sullivan. “Executives put some income into a company-sponsored deferred-compensation plan and pull it out when they retire into a lower tax bracket — perhaps even in a state with no income tax, like Florida. There are two things to remember, though. First, if the company goes under, the plan may, as well. Second, the tax rate may be higher when your clients finally retire.

Convert to a Roth IRA. Obama’s tax proposal leaves a loophole on retirement plan taxes.

“Current tax code starts to exclude single people who earn more than $105,000 a year from putting post-tax money into a Roth I.R.A. Those accounts pay out tax-free gains in retirement. In 2010, though, this limit is set to disappear for one year,” Sullivan writes. So, anyone can convert their traditional IRA to a Roth IRA. Taxes would be paid now, on depressed assets, and appreciation would be tax-free.

“Buy the recession.” Though certainly not for the faint of heart, Sullivan suggests following Warren Buffett’s lead. Last year he invested $5 billion in Goldman Sachs for the right to buy stock at $115 a share. It didn’t pay off in the short term — shares fell to $85 six months later — but “Buffett’s genius has always been to buy a solid company and hold onto it for the long haul,” Sullivan points out.

Assuming your clients can stomach this strategy, the trick is picking a company that will survive the downturn.


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