“Last-Minute” 2020 Year-End Tax-Saving Moves for Individuals

There are only a few days left before the year ends, but here are some actions you can take before the new year to improve your situation for 2020 and beyond.

Consider President-elect Biden’s proposals. As the year comes to an end, it is hard to predict what, if anything, that the Biden Administration has proposed will become law and take effect in 2021. Most experts believe that taxes will need to be increased after the economic effects of the pandemic to help pay for the increased federal spending as a result of the pandemic. But enacting any major tax legislation is likely to be a slow process and may not affect 2021 taxes.

Here are some of the Biden Administration’s most noteworthy tax proposals:

Tax increase proposals

  • Raise the highest individual income tax rate to 39.6% from 37%.
  • Cap itemized deductions for the wealthiest Americans at 28%.
  • End favorable capital gains rates, including those rates on qualified dividends, for anyone with income over $1 million.
  • Eliminate the step-up in basis at death (taxing all appreciated investments at death)
  • Reducing the estate and gift tax exemption to its pre-Tax Cuts and Jobs Act (TCJA) level.

Tax decrease proposals.

  • $8,000 tax credit to help offset the costs of child care.
  • Exclusion from income for student loans that have been forgiven.
  • A refundable tax credit for low- and middle-income workers who contribute to IRAs and employer-provided retirement savings plans.

Solve underpayment of estimated tax/withheld tax issues.

Add an extra amount of withholding from your paycheck to solve an underpayment of estimated tax problem. Employees may discover that their prepayments of tax for 2020 have been too small because, for example, their estimate of income or deductions was off and they are underwithheld, or they failed to make estimated tax payments for unanticipated income, such as gains from sales of stock. Or they may have an underpayment of estimated tax because of the additional 0.9% Medicare tax and/or the 3.8% surtax on unearned income. To reduce an estimated tax underpayment penalty, an employee can ask their employers to increase withholding for their last paycheck or paychecks to make up or reduce the deficiency. If you are significantly underwithheld annually, you can file a new Form W-4 or simply request that the employer withhold a flat amount of additional income tax. If you are unable to add an additional withholding amount on your final paycheck, you can make a final estimated tax payment for 2020 (due on Jan. 15, 2021) to cut or eliminate the penalty for a Q4 underpayment only. It doesn’t help with underpayments for preceding quarters. By contrast, tax withheld on wages can wipe out or reduce underpayments for previous quarters because, as a general rule, an equal part of the total withholding during the year is treated as having been paid on each quarterly estimated payment date.

Charitable donations.

Use IRAs to make charitable donations. Taxpayers who have reached age 70½ by the end of 2020, own IRAs, and are thinking of making a charitable gift should consider arranging for the gift to be made by way of a qualified charitable contribution, or QCD—a direct transfer from the IRA trustee to the charitable organization. Such a transfer (up to $100,000 for 2020) will neither be included in gross income nor allowed as a deduction on the taxpayer’s return. But, since such a distribution is not includible in gross income, it will not increase Adjusted Gross Income (AGI) for purposes of the phaseout of any deduction, exclusion, or tax credit that is limited or lost completely when AGI reaches certain specified level.

Taxpayers who have reached age 72 by Dec. 31 normally must take required minimum distributions (RMDs) from their IRAs or 401(k) plans (or other employer-sponsored retired plans) by Dec. 31. As a result of the CARES Act, there is no such requirement for 2020.

A QCD before Dec. 31, 2020 can still be a good idea for retired taxpayers who don’t need their as-yet undistributed RMD for living expenses. A 2020 QCD will reduce the taxpayer’s retirement account balance and therefore reduce the amount of the RMD that must be withdrawn in future tax years.

Charitable donation by non-itemizers. Non-itemizers can deduct up to $300 of cash charitable donations that they make in 2020 ($600 for married filing joint taxpayers).

Higher limit on charitable contributions. In response to the Coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic, the limit on charitable contributions of cash by an individual in 2020 was increased to 100% of the individual’s adjusted gross income (AGI). For previous years, the limit was 60% of a taxpayer’s AGI. While this increased limit was extended to 2021 by the CAA, 2021, taxpayers should consider increasing 2020 contributions to take advantage of the increased limit.

Retirement plans.

Establish a Keogh plan. A self-employed person who wants to contribute to a Keogh plan for 2020 must establish that plan before the end of 2020. If that is done, deductible contributions for 2020 can be made as late as the taxpayer’s extended tax return due date for 2020.

Relief with respect to withdrawal from retirement plans. A distribution from a qualified retirement plan is generally subject to a 10% additional tax unless the distribution meets an exception under Code Sec. 72(t).

2020 legislation provides that the Code Sec. 72(t) 10% additional tax does not apply to any coronavirus-related distribution, up to $100,000. A coronavirus-related distribution is any distribution made on or after January 1, 2020, and before December 31, 2020, from an eligible retirement plan, made to a qualified individual.

A qualified individual is an individual

  1. Who is diagnosed with the virus SARS-CoV-2 or with coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) by a test approved by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC),
  2. Whose spouse or dependent (as defined in Code Sec. 152) is diagnosed with such virus or disease by such a test, or
  3. Who experiences adverse financial consequences as a result of being quarantined, being furloughed or laid off or having work hours reduced due to such virus or disease, being unable to work due to lack of child care due to such virus or disease, closing or reducing hours of a business owned or operated by the individual due to such virus or disease, or other factors as determined by the Secretary of the Treasury.

Other relief also applies to coronavirus-related distributions, including the ability to recognize income over a 3-tax-year period.

Other.

Make year-end gifts. A person can give any other person up to $15,000 for 2020 without incurring any gift tax. The annual exclusion amount increases to $30,000 per donee if the donor’s spouse consents to gift-splitting. Anyone who expects eventually to have estate tax liability and who can afford to make gifts to family members should do so. Besides avoiding transfer tax, annual exclusion gifts take future appreciation in the value of the gift property out of the donor’s estate, and they shift the income tax obligation on the property’s earnings to the donee who may be in a lower tax bracket (if not subject to the kiddie tax).

Watch out for the use-it-or-lose-it rule. Unused cafeteria plan amounts left over at the end of a plan year must generally be forfeited (use-it-or-lose-it rule). A cafeteria plan can provide an optional grace period immediately following the end of each plan year, extending the period for incurring expenses for qualified benefits to the 15th day of the third month after the end of the plan year. Benefits or contributions not used as of the end of the grace period are forfeited. Under an exception to the use-it-or-lose-it rule, at the plan sponsor’s option and in lieu of any grace period, employees may be allowed to carry over up to $500 of unused amounts remaining at year-end in a health flexible spending account.

Taxpayers should make sure they understand their employer’s plan and should make last-minute purchases before year end to the extent that not doing so will result in losing benefits. In most cases, a trip to the drug store, dentist or optometrist, for goods or services that the taxpayer would otherwise have purchased in 2021, can avoid “losing it.”

Paying by credit card creates deduction on date of credit card transaction. Taxpayers should consider using a credit card to pay deductible expenses before the end of the year. Doing so will increase their 2020 deductions even if they don’t pay their credit card bill until after the end of the year.

Increase 2020 itemized deductions via a “bunching strategy.” Many taxpayers who claimed itemized deductions in prior years will no longer be able to do so. That’s because the standard deduction has been increased and many itemized deductions have been cut back or abolished. Paying some otherwise-deductible-in-2021 itemized deductions in 2020 can decrease taxable income in 2020 and will not increase 2021 taxable income if 2021 itemized deductions would otherwise have still been less than the 2021 standard deduction. For example, a taxpayer who expects to itemize deductions in 2020 but not 2021, and usually contributes a total of $1,500 to charities each year, should consider making a total of $3,000 of charitable contributions before the end of 2020 (and skipping charitable contributions in 2021).

Please contact our office for additional guidance and tax savings strategies that may be applicable to your personal situation.