Pro tips for cutting tax bills in the final weeks of 2019

Republicans pledged that their 2017 tax overhaul would eliminate loopholes and make filing taxes as simple as filing out a postcard. That hasn’t exactly panned out, but there are still several ways to minimize 2019 tax bills before the end of the year.

Financial advisors have had two full years to analyze how all the changes contained in the tax overhaul affect their clients. Tax professionals have found a slew of ways to reduce their taxable income and take full advantage of new tax breaks to keep payments to the IRS as low as possible.

The main goal of any year-end strategy is to increase the number of tax credits and deductions clients can claim, while lowering the amount of income that is subject to tax. Here are some last-minute strategies to cut your clients' tax bills that will come due in April.

Maximize the small business tax break
Small business owners should put their personal interest first by saving for retirement.
A worker sits at a desk and uses a laptop computer inside the Factory Berlin tech hub in Berlin, Germany, on Monday, May 9, 2016. Berlin eclipsed London last year, with 3.1 billion euros pumped ($3.39 billion) into German startups, about five times as much as in 2013. Photographer: Krisztian Bocsi/Bloomberg
If your clients are self-employed or small business owners they may be eligible for a 20% deduction off their business income. But it can be subject to lots of limitations depending on the field, the amount they invest in equipment, or how much they pay employees. If they’re below certain thresholds — $321,400 for a couple or $160,700 for an individual in 2019 — they automatically get the tax break.

For clients above those limits, there are several ways to legally reduce their taxable income to get under the caps, which is particularly important for doctors, lawyers and accountants who can’t claim the deduction at all if they are above those levels.

Of course, make sure they’re maxing out any tax-deferred retirement accounts and health savings accounts, if possible.

Self-employed individuals can also reduce their taxable income by as much as $225,000 if they make contributions to a defined benefit retirement plan.

“The next three weeks are really, really key to getting those plans drafted,” said Ed Reitmeyer, a regional partner at accounting firm Marcum.

Business owners could also increase employee wages by paying one-time bonuses to boost their payroll levels enough to qualify for the 20% deduction, said Grethell Anasagasti, a principal at accounting firm MBAF. If the company is structured as an S corporation, a closely held company, those bonuses can also be paid to the officers (or owners) of the company, she said.
Divide businesses into two
If your clients are in a field that doesn’t qualify for the 20% small business deduction — including health, law, consulting, athletics, financial and brokerage services — there are still ways to potentially claim the deduction on some of their earnings.

If part of their income stems from sources that do qualify for the deduction, separate that potion of the business into a new entity to put a barrier between the profits that can get the tax break and those that can’t.

For example, an optometrist won’t qualify for the tax break from the work they do seeing patients, but profits from selling glasses and contact lenses would qualify. Ditto for a technology consultant who also sells hardware.
Nonprofits may see a decline in revenue this year as more taxpayers are expected to opt for a standard deduction, according to this article on The Aspen Times.
Salavation Army bell ringer, Rickie Armour, collects donations in the kettle on the first day of collections during the holiday season at the Quaker Bridge Mall in Lawrenceville, New Jersey, Friday November 5, 2004. Photographer: Bradley C Bower/Bloomberg News.
Tax professionals are seeing a large uptick in the use of donor advised funds.

The 2017 tax law increased the standard deduction to about $24,000 for a couple and limited some deductions, including one for state and local taxes. The result is that many clients have to donate much more than in the past to get above that $24,000 limit and file an itemized return. But the right timing of the donations can lead to big tax savings.

“It’s really tough for people to get over that $24,000 hurdle,” said Brad Sprong, head of family office and private client services at accounting firm KPMG. He’s advising clients to bunch all their donations to a donor-advised fund in one year to get the tax benefit for those contributions, and then take the standard deduction for the next few years.

What you donate also matters, Sprong says. He advises clients to look for alternatives to cash, such as appreciated securities, because the deduction amount is what the asset is worth, not necessarily what you paid for it. And in a low-interest rate environment, donating borrowed money can also have benefits if the tax breaks outweigh the loan costs.

Those who are 70 1/2 and older must start taking distributions from their individual retirement accounts, which generate a tax bill for the recipient. However, those taxpayers can donate as much as $100,000 directly from their IRAs in lieu of a distribution — avoiding the tax on that money.
Estate tax preparation
Implementation of videoconferencing is intended to serve taxpayers virtually via computers or mobile devices, explains Donna Hansberry, chief of IRS appeals.
The reflection of a pedestrian is seen walking past an Internal Revenue Service (IRS) office building in the East Harlem neighborhood of New York, U.S., on Saturday, June 24, 2017. The IRS online registration system for social welfare organizations will be updated to streamline the payment process, by combining the application and payment fee. Photographer: Timothy Fadek/Bloomberg
The 2017 tax law approximately doubled the estate tax exemption, which gives wealthy taxpayers some time to make plans for their assets when they die. The lifetime exclusion for 2019 is $11.4 million for an individual or twice that for a married couple, and the annual gift tax limit is $15,000.

The IRS has said it won’t make those gifts taxable if a future Congress votes to lower the estate tax limit. But still, it’s smart to make those gifts now, said Karen Goldberg, a principal in the private wealth advisory group at EisnerAmper. This doesn’t have to be done by the end of 2019, but waiting beyond the 2020 election risks the political mood shifting in favor of estate taxes.

“If a new administration comes in and changes the law, you don’t want to wait until the last minute,” she said.
Opportunity zone deadline
Clients who want to leave their home to a loved one may consider setting up a life estate.
KB Home residential buildings stand in the Glencroft neighborhood of Cary, North Carolina, U.S., on Friday, Jan. 6, 2017. KB Home is scheduled to release earnings figures on January 11. Photographer: Luke Sharrett/Bloomberg
A key deadline for opportunity zones — an incentive including in the 2017 tax law for taxpayers to invest capital gains income into distressed areas — runs out at the end of the year.

Taxpayers can defer the tax bill on their investment until the end of 2026, or whenever they sell. Additionally, if they invest by the end of this year, they can get a 15% “basis step up,” meaning that they are only taxed on 85% of their investment. If they invest after this year, they have to pay tax on 90% of the money the contributed.

Additionally, that money grows tax-free while invested in the fund, giving clients another reason to consider opportunity zones. Investors have 180 days from the time they sell stock or a business to put that money into an opportunity zone fund.
Mortgage tax break workaround
The 2017 tax law also restricted the mortgage interest deduction to loans equal to or less than $750,000. The result is that some taxpayers buying expensive homes are finding other ways to finance their purchases, Sprong said.

Instead of taking out a mortgage for the full amount, some taxpayers are taking out a mortgage up to the $750,000 limit, and then in a separate transaction borrowing the additional funds through a regular loan.

Taxpayers can still get some benefits from this deal, especially if interest rates remain low, Sprong said. The interest from that loan can be deducted against investment income. If that financing was part of the mortgage, there wouldn’t be any tax breaks for that interest.

“If they are really tax savvy, they are doing this,” he said.

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