As insurance professionals, we are often asked to help clients with other components of their financial planning, including taxes at this time of the year. Maximizing after-tax income by taking advantage of all of the deductions, credits and deferrals provided in the Tax Code makes other financial goals — home ownership, college education, retirement funds — more accessible. When you’re asked for advice this tax season, keep the following tips in mind:
1. Always file a tax return. Filing taxes isn’t voluntary, no matter what some so-called “experts” might claim. If your clients received income over a certain amount depending upon their age and filing status, they have to pay tax on that income.
There is a difference between filing and paying income taxes, with potential criminal and civil penalties for failure to do either. Fortunately, when people don’t have the money to pay the tax when due, the IRS is generally willing to make arrangements to help them settle the account without undue hardship.
2. Remember that tax planning is a year-round exercise.
Tax planning is akin to maintaining real property: Proper diligence keeps repairs small problems, keeps damage minimal and ensures no major reconstruction is needed. Alert your clients that tax planning and actions to reduce taxes can be made throughout the entire year — January through December — to ensure they are paying only the taxes they owe, and not a penny more.
For clients who are self-employed, advise them to use the occasions of quarterly tax payments to review their assets and each asset’s impact on gross earnings. For example, they might want to sell securities to establish short-term losses or long-term gains, fund retirement plans or incur/defer medical expenses based upon balances in a flexible savings account.
3. Keep good records. Adequate documentation is essential for correct analysis and calculation of the taxes your clients owe. Throwing receipts into a desk drawer or relying upon memory is a sure way to under-count deductions and over-pay taxes.
Monthly statements from banks, brokers, mutual fund managers and others who provide financial information should be filed for easy retrieval and safely stored. Remember, the IRS can go back a minimum of three years in a tax audit, and even six years in some cases from the date a return is filed. Let your clients know that it’s prudent to not only maintain good records to file correctly, but to keep them for at least six years after the filing date in case of an audit.
4. Report all income. The IRS generally presumes that citizens want to pay the proper amount of tax on the income they received and recognizes that mistakes about the deductibility and amounts of a transaction can innocently occur. In those cases, it will recover the amount owed plus a modest penalty of interest.
However, failure to report income is a whole different situation, and can subject the non-filer to possible criminal charges for attempt to evade tax, willful evasion of tax, failure to report income, and/or failure to supply information. If one of your clients has unintentionally omitted income on a return for prior years, advise them to file an amended return using Form 1040-X as soon as possible.
Employers, financial institutions, and others who contract to provide services or products are required to give their clients a W2 Form or a 1099 Form. This information is also filed with the IRS and can be cross-checked to validate the information on each filer’s return.
5. Transfer income to a non-taxable status. There are a variety of legitimate ways to transform income that would be normally taxable to income that is nontaxable, provided it is spent for certain purposes. Flexible spending accounts (FSAs) can be used for health care, child care, even parking and transit expenses, while a health savings account (HSA) is limited to health care expenses alone. If your client is attending school or enrolled in special training, advise them to check if their employer has a qualified educational assistance program; if one is in place, the employer can pay up to $5,250 for tuition, fees, books and other supplies without the income being taxable to your client.
5. Maximize personal deductions. The IRS Code provides for a number of deductions directly from gross income to arrive at an income amount on which taxes are due. While a standard deduction dollar amount is available to everyone who does not itemize, you should advise your client to calculate whether itemization of the applicable deductions would be more beneficial than the standard deduction.
Schedule A of the 1040 tax form includes a variety of popular deductions for expenses such as health care, state and local taxes, mortgage interest, charitable donations, property taxes, and other specialized costs, such as home office, job hunting, and moving expenses. Even sales tax can be deducted with the proper documentation.
6. Maximize business expenses. Schedule C of Form 1040 presents a summary of deductible business expenses for the self-employed. Your clients operating a non-incorporated business can deduct the cost of any products bought for resale, labor paid to others (including benefits), rent, utilities and more. Any insurance required for the business is deductible as well as any business assets which are purchased and used, including automobiles, office furniture, computers and ancillary equipment. The business assets, depending upon their nature, may be capitalized and deducted over multiple filing periods.
7. Utilize tax-advantaged retirement accounts to the max. If your client is an employee, advise them to maximize their contributions to their 401k and IRA accounts. The contribution reduces their taxable income and accelerates the growth of their retirement funds. Depending upon their current income tax bracket and likely income tax bracket at retirement, they may want to use or convert existing retirement plans into the equivalent Roth versions. While Roth contributions are not tax-deductible (and conversions will be taxed), distributions when they retire are tax-free.
8. Establish a coverdell ESA or a state 529 plan for college expense. A four-year college education at an in-state university can cost far more than $100,000 today, which makes it vital to save as much and as early for the expense as possible. Contributions to a state-sponsored 529 plan may be tax-deductible, and the principal grows tax-free and may be withdrawn without tax payments if certain conditions are met.
9. Use available tax credits. Unlike deductions which reduce taxable income, a tax credit is a direct offset against any tax owed. From a tax planning basis, a tax credit, dollar for dollar, is more valuable than a deduction.
There are a variety of individual tax credits available including the American Opportunity Tax Credit to help pay for college (up to $2,500), a child or dependent care credit ($3,000 for a single individual or $6,000 for two or more), a credit for adoption expenses (based upon income, but limited to $12,650 in 2012), a “Savers” credit to incentivize retirement savings, and credits for certain energy-saving devices.
Lower-income individuals can qualify for a special health coverage tax credit, as well as the Earned Income Tax Credit. Businesses can qualify for an additional set of credits aimed to promote certain activities. For example, if one of your clients expands office staff by hiring military veterans, he or she may be eligible for a credit between $2,400 and $9,600 per employee. Emphasize to each client, “For every dollar you miss in credits, you leave a dollar on the table that could have been in your pocket.”
10. Defer and accelerate income and expenses to your advantage. The timing of purchases and sales of assets affect whether they are subject to special long-term tax treatment or considered as part of ordinary income. People with variable income from year to year should pay special attention to when they pay bills or accept income.
For example, some expenses can be prepaid or paid early to maximize a deduction, such as property taxes; bonuses and stock awards should be deferred from one year to the next if taxes are likely to be less in the future year. This ability to move income from one period to the next underlies the benefit of retirement savings: Defer payment of taxes in high-tax earning years until the low-tax, lower income retirement years.
Final thoughts While the public constantly complains about the complexity of the tax code, and politicians annually promise to reform tax laws, the likelihood of a substantial change is low. The reason? Too much is invested in the status quo. While everyone complains about the other guy’s deduction, they are loathe to give up their own.
If your clients’ incomes are high, their investments constantly changing, they own a business, or intend to do any estate planning, the services of a competent tax professional are invaluable. Remember that our complex, often confusing tax code benefits those who take the time to learn its details and use it to their advantage.
What additional tax tips can you suggest?