Category Archives: Taxes

Can We Afford a Tax Cut?

 

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Our favorite economist, Brian Wesbury of First Trust says “yes.”:

Congress took a big step last week toward enacting some sort of tax cuts and tax reform.

That big step was the US Senate passing a budget resolution creating the room for ten years of tax cuts totaling $1.5 trillion with a simple majority vote. This procedure means there is no need to break a filibuster by getting to 60 votes.

So right about now is when self-styled “deficit hawks” will start to squawk. They will claim the federal government simply can’t afford to boost the federal debt, which already exceeds $20 trillion, with no end in sight.

Let’s put aside the issue that between 2009-12 many of these deficit hawks were supporting new spending, when annual federal deficits were $1 trillion plus. Let’s just take them at their word that they don’t think any policy that increases the deficit can be good for the economy.

One problem with their argument is that the $1.5 trillion is an increase in projected deficits over a span of ten years, not a definite increase in the debt. If tax reform focuses on cutting marginal tax rates, particularly on overtaxed corporate capital and personal incomes, and can thereby generate faster economic growth, the actual loss of revenue could be substantially less than $1.5 trillion or maybe nothing at all.

The estimate of a $1.5 trillion revenue loss is based on “static” scoring, which means the budget scorekeepers on Capitol Hill make the ridiculous assumption that changes in tax policy can’t affect the growth rate of the overall economy. Just a 1 percentage point increase in the average economic growth rate over the next ten years would reduce the deficit by $2.7 trillion, easily offsetting the supposed cost of the tax cut.

Another problem for the deficit hawks is that despite a record high federal debt, the servicing cost of the debt is still low relative to both the size of the economy and federal revenue.

Late last week, we got final numbers for Fiscal Year 2017 and net interest on the national debt was $263 billion – that’s just 1.4% of fiscal year GDP. To put that in perspective, that’s lower than it ever was from 1974 to 2002. The peak during that era was 3.2% of GDP in 1991. The lowest point since 1974 was 1.2% in 2015, not far from where we are today.

The same is true for interest relative to federal revenue, which was 7.9% in Fiscal Year 2017, lower than any year from 1974 to 2013. The high point during that era was 18.4% in 1991 and the recent low was 6.9% in 2015. Again, we’re still pretty close to the recent low.

Yes, interest rates should move up in the years to come, but it will take several years to rollover the debt at higher interest-rate levels. Even if interest rates went to 4% across the entire yield curve, the interest burden would remain below historical peak levels relative to GDP and tax revenue.

The US certainly has serious long-term fiscal challenges. The US government has over-promised future generations of retirees and should ratchet back these spending promises to encourage work, saving, and investment. Meanwhile, we need the US Treasury Department to issue longer-dated maturities like 50-year and 100-year debt to lock-in low interest rates for longer.

However, the absence of these changes should not be an obstacle to boosting economic growth by cutting tax rates and reforming the tax code. Plow Horse economic growth is certainly better than no growth at all, but turning the economy into a thoroughbred would make it easier to handle our long-term budget challenges, not harder.

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Getting ready to file your taxes? Pay attention!

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As we head into tax season, many of you have received tax reports – commonly referred to as “1099s” – from your investment firm.

The IRS requires that 1099-MISC forms must be mailed by January 31st,  but issuers are not required to file copies of all 1099 Forms with the IRS until the end of February.

We frequently advise our clients to delay filing their taxes until March at the earliest.  That’s because the tax code is so complex that errors are inevitable.  As a result, investors often receive “corrected” 1099 forms after the February deadline has passed.  This may result in a change in the tax owed.  Those who use tax preparers or CPA firms may need to have their tax re-calculated, increasing the cost to the investor.

We note that Morgan Stanley has admitted to providing erroneous information to its clients.

Apparently Morgan Stanley’s reporting system sometimes generated an incorrect cost basis for its clients’ stock or bond positions, which threw off capital gains tax calculations following the sales of the securities, the paper reports. The errors affected a “significant number” of the firm’s 3.5 million wealth management clients for tax years 2011 through 2016, according to the paper. But around 90% of the under- or overpayments were less than $300 while more than half were less than $20, a Morgan Stanley spokesman tells the Journal.

It is always a good idea to check the accuracy of the statements you receive from your custodian.  There may be erroneous or missing information.  In many cases where securities were purchased years ago, the custodian does not have the cost basis of stocks or bonds that were sold.  In those cases the investor is responsible for providing that information.  If you do not provide that information, the IRS may assume that the cost basis is zero and tax you on the full amount of the proceeds of sale.

On a final note, many clients have asked us how long they need to keep records for tax purposes.  The primary IRS statute of limitations was three years. But there are many exceptions that give the IRS six years or longer. Several of those exceptions are more prevalent today, and one of them has gotten bigger.  The three years is doubled to six if you omitted more than 25% of your income. “Omitted” can mean to not report at all, or it can mean that the amount of income was under-reported by 25% or more.

If you have questions about your tax forms, or wonder where you can get assistance to determine the cost basis of securities bought or gifted long ago, give us a call.

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The Retirement Challenge

For most people, retiring means the end of a paycheck, but not the end of an active life.  The typical retiree spends 20 to 30 years in retirement and running out of money is their biggest fear.  When you retire, how will your lifestyle be affected?  Here are some of the things to take into consideration.

Retirement age – Modern retirees face lots of choices that their parents did not have.  There is no longer a mandatory retirement age, so the question “when should I retire” gets more complicated.

Social Security – The age at which you apply for Social Security benefits has a big effect on your retirement income.  Apply early and you reduce your monthly benefits by 25% – 30%, depending on your age.  Wait until you’re 70 and you increase your monthly benefit by up to 32% (8% per year), depending on your age.  If you are married, the decisions get even more complicated.

Pension – If you are entitled to a pension, the amounts you receive usually depend on your length of service.  The formula used to calculate the pension benefit can get quite complicated.  Those who work for employers whose finances are questionable may want to consider whether they will get the benefits they are promised.  If you are married, you will need to decide how much of your pension will go to your spouse if you die first.

Second career – More and more people go back to work after retirement.  Many don’t want to stop working, but do something different.  Others use their skills to become consultants, or turn a hobby into a business.  A second career makes a big difference in your retirement lifestyle and how much income you will have in retirement.

Investment accounts – These are the funds you have saved for retirement: in IRAs, 401(k)s, 403(b)s, 457s, and individual accounts.  These funds are under your control.  Most retirees use them to supplement Social Security and pension income.  They are the key to determining how well people live in retirement.

Combine these issue with the effects of inflation, market volatility, investment returns and health care costs and it becomes apparent that retirees need to plan.  If your retirement is years away, a plan allows you to make mid-course corrections.  If you’re already retired a plan will allow you to sleep soundly, knowing that a lot of the uncertainty has been removed.

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What’s the Difference Between an IRA and a Roth IRA

A questioner on Investopedia.com asks:

I contribute about 10% to my 401k. I want to know more about Roth IRAs. I have one with my company, but haven’t contributed any percentage yet as I am not sure how much I should contribute. What exactly is a Roth IRA? Additionally, what is the ideal contribution to a 401k for someone making $48K a year?

Here was my reply:

A Roth IRA is a retirement account.  It differs from a regular IRA in two important aspects.  First the negative: you do not get a tax deduction for contributing to a Roth IRA.  But there is a big positive: you do not have to pay taxes on money you take out during retirement.  And, like a regular IRA, your money grows sheltered from taxes.  There’s also another bonus to Roth IRAs: unlike regular IRAs, there are no rules requiring you to take annual required minimum distributions (RMDs) from your Roth IRA, even after you reach age 70 1/2.

In general, the tax benefits of being able to get money out of a Roth IRA outweigh the advantages of the immediate tax deduction you get from making a contribution to a regular IRA.  The younger you are and the lower your tax bracket, the bigger the benefit of a Roth IRA.

There is no “ideal” contribution to a 401k plan unless there is a company match.  You should always take full advantage of a company match because it is  essentially “free money” that the company gives you.

Have a question for us?  Ask away:

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Keeping the Family Together With a Private Foundation

A private foundation has many advantages for the high net worth (HNW) individual. Along with the tax benefits, the foundation also provides a way of keeping families together.

Private foundations sound like they are only appropriate for the ultra-rich; but that’s not the case.  There are over 90,000 private foundations in the U.S. and 98% are under $50 million.  In fact you can start a private foundation with as little as $250,000 according to Foundation Source.

Of course the immediate advantage of a private foundation is the tax benefit you get from funding it.  It sets you apart in the world of philanthropy and allows you to leave a legacy that can outlive you.  It also provides protection from unsolicited requests for donations; you can always tell people that it’s a wonderful cause but you’ll have to check with your board.

But one of the major benefits of a family foundation is that it can act in many ways like a family business.  It can create the glue to keeps a dispersed family together working toward a common purpose.  It creates a way of instilling family values and transmitting those to a younger generation.

A large proportion of family foundations have two or more generations on the board.  Most are set up as family affairs with membership limited to immediate members of the family.

Contact us for more information.

 

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Passing $10 million to your heirs tax free

The new estate tax law includes a provision called “portability.”  It’s officially known as the “Deceased Spouse Unused Exclusion Amount.”

Portability allows married couples to capture two estate tax exemptions without having to rely on the A/B Trust plan discussed in previous essays.

An attorney should be consulted shortly after the death of a spouse to make sure that the deceased spouse’s exemption does not expire.

It’s convenient, and does not require separate accounts for A and B trusts.

It simplifies the tax life of the surviving spouse.

And it preserves the step-up in cost basis when the second spouse dies.

For more information, contact your estate planning attorney.

We welcome your inquiries.

Changes in tax law create problems for trusts – what to do now.

In our previous discussion of this issue we reviewed why so many estate plans included an A/B (or “spousal” and “family”) trust as a key provision of the plan.  It was a way of avoiding high estate taxes on modest sized estates.  However, when the tax laws were changed to increase the amount exempt from estate tax to $5.45 million per person (the current amount) it exposed some problems with these plans for people whose estates are under the exemption amount.

These are:

  • Inconvenience
  • Administrative costs
  • Capital gains taxes

Inconvenience:

Setting up two trusts requires establishing separate banking and investment accounts to hold the assets of each trust.

The surviving spouse may be allowed to use the income and assets in the “family” trust for health, education, maintenance and support but has to be careful that the heirs to the trust do not dispute the manner in which these assets are managed or dispersed. In the case of a blended family, this could cause problems.

Administrative costs:

Determining which assets go into the “family” and the “spousal” trust often requires the assistance of an attorney, a CPA or a financial advisor.

The income in the “family” trust requires a separate tax return and the tax rates on the two trusts are different.

This means that the surviving spouse may need expensive professional help for the rest of his or her life.

Capital gains taxes:

This can be the biggest issue of all.  When someone dies, the assets owned by the decedent have a step-up in cost basis.  This means is that if someone bought stock ABC many years ago for $1 per share and dies when the stock is worth $100, the new tax cost basis on ABC is $100.  If the heirs sell it for $100 there is no capital gains tax.   If it’s left to the spouse the spouse receives the stepped-up cost basis.  At the death of the spouse, the heirs receive a second stepped up cost basis.

Only assets left to the surviving spouse or to a “spousal” trust receive a stepped up cost basis at the survivor’s death.  Because the assets in the “family” trust never become the assets of the surviving spouse for tax purposes there is no second step-up in cost basis when the survivor dies.

For example, if ABC is put in the “family” trust with a stepped up cost basis of $100 and the stock is worth $200 per share when the surviving spouse dies, the heirs have to pay a capital gains tax of $100 ($200 – $100 = $100) when they sell.  If it had been left to the surviving spouse, the capital gain tax would have been avoided.

If the estate plan documents were prepared when the exemption was much lower, the result could be an actual increase in cost and increase in taxes rather than a tax saving.  It may be time to meet with your attorney and bring your estate plan up to date.

In our next essay we will briefly look at ways to increase the amount that can be left estate tax free to over $10 million.

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Changes in tax law create problems for trusts

The Federal Estate Tax was created in 1916 to help pay for World War 1.  The tax is levied on everything you own or have interests in at your death.  At first, it did not apply to many people but inflation and prosperity began taking its toll.  From 1987 to 1997 the government tax on estates over $600,000 was 55%.

By then, many people who owned a nice home and had savings and investments became worried that a lot of their money want going to go to the government rather than their heirs.  Each person has his or her own exemption.  A married couple has two exemptions.  However, if one died, leaving everything to the spouse, the surviving spouse only had one exemption left.

The legal profession came up with an answer: the A/B Trust otherwise known as the “spousal” and the”family” trust.  Under current law, you can leave an unlimited amount of money to your spouse free of tax.  But you can leave up to $600,000 to a trust that your spouse can use for his or her benefit but is not legally their property.  This is known as the “family trust.”  The rest goes directly to the spouse or to a “spousal trust.”

Then when the surviving spouse dies, the heirs inherit both the “family trust” assets ($600,000) and the surviving spouse (or “spousal trust”) assets up to the $600,000 limit – for a total of $1,200,000 free of federal estate tax.

At a tax rate of 55%, that saves the heirs a whopping $330,000 in taxes.  Everyone thought that was a great idea.  Many estate plans and trust documents were prepared with these issues in mind.  There were some drawbacks with these plans but the estate tax savings overwhelmed all other considerations.

Beginning in 1988 the amount of the exemption that could be passed on to non-spousal heirs was gradually increased.  In 2000 it went to $1,000,000 and for one year – 2010 – there was no estate tax at all.  In 2012 the law was changed and the limit was raised to $5 million and indexed for inflation.  In 2016 the estate tax exemption is $5.45 million and the estate tax rate is 40%.

This means that a lot fewer people will be subject to the estate tax and now are faced with the negative aspects of this approach to estate planning. These include

  • Inconvenience
  • Administrative costs
  • Capital gains taxes

We will address these issues in our next essay.

Questions?  Call us.

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Five reasons for Trusts

In the past, estate planners usually cited two reasons for setting up trusts:

  • Minimize probate
  • Avoid estate taxes

There are several ways of avoiding probate without a trust and the federal estate tax does not apply to estates under $5,450,000 in 2016.  This removes a big reason for setting up a trust.

Here are five reasons for setting up a trust that are usually not considered.

  1. Divorce.  Setting up and funding an appropriate trust can protect a child or heir from losing family assets in a divorce.
  2. Changing a legal location.  If a trust is revocable the actions of a local court do not inhibit the heirs from moving.
  3. Serving disabled loved ones.  A special needs trust can be used to protect assets for an ill child or spouse.
  4. Minimizing identity theft.  If a trust is set up using its own tax identification number, the trust may be protected if your social security number is compromised.
  5. Protecting the elderly.  As people age, they can suffer cognitive impairment.  If the trust is drafted properly, successor trustees or co-trustees can be named to manage the older person’s financial affairs.
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The Ten Best States for Retirement

From Wealth Management:

  1. Wyoming – It has among the lowest tax burdens in the country; well below the national average for crime rates.  Good weather; cool climate, summer nights are mild, few cold waves during the winter, humidity is also super low, making it the perfect place for retirees who don’t like stuffy summers.
  2. South Dakota – It has one of the lowest tax burdens in the country tying with Wyoming.  It also scored well for overall happiness, particularly when it comes to social well-being.
  3. Colorado – It has great weather, ample sunshine and little humidity.  It scores high for well-being in the Gallup-Healthways index and has a relatively low tax burden.
  4. Utah – It ranks sixth best in the nation for weather, lots of sunshine and low humidity.  The cost of living is below the national average.
  5. Virginia – It has a low cost of living, and a low crime rate. The state also received above-average marks for health care quality and weather.
  6. Montana – The weather ranks above the national average.  Montana ranks high for well-being; residents fell good about their community.  Cost of living and taxes are below the national average.
  7. Idaho – It’s a safe place for retirees to settle down; cost of living and crime rate both ranked among the lowest on the list.  Housing in Idaho is extremely affordable.  Weather and recreational resources add to its appeal.
  8. Iowa – Quality health care is a big feature here along with a low crime rate and an affordable cost of living.
  9. Arizona – It’s warm with great weather; rarely a a cloud in the sky.  It ranked in the top 10 in the Gallup-Healthways Index for overall wellness combined with a fairly low tax burden on its residents.
  10. Nebraska – It has a relatively low cost of living and a low crime rates. Residents here report being slightly happier than people in other states, based on the Gallup-Healthways Well-Being Index.

We’re fans of Virginia, our home state, but the others also sound interesting.

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