A Better Stock-ing Stuffer

What’s a better gift for a young person than a savings bond or a gift card?

When you talk with people who have made a lifelong habit of saving and investing, often you’ll hear them say that somebody—often a grandparent—gave them a few shares of stock at a young age. Following the stock, learning about the company and seeing the dividends reinvested got them interested in a whole new mysterious economic realm that many people never learn about.

The problem, of course, is that it’s not always easy, in this day and age, to give a few shares of stock. Instead of printed shares, we have electronic ownership, which is why websites like giveashare.com and uniquestockgift.com can charge twice as much for a stock and a printed certificate as you would pay for the same share if you went online through a discount brokerage firm. Buying a share directly means creating a new custodial account for the young child, and then executing a brokerage transfer or creating an UGMA account.

Recently, the idea of giving a share or two of stock has gotten a lot easier, with a website called SparkGift. You click on the site, and over the next two minutes, you select a recipient, provide an email address and Social Security number, select an investment—it could be Disney, Tesla, a Vanguard index fund or any ETF, anything that is publicly traded—and a dollar amount. The person on the other end of the email opens the message and creates the account. At that point, your payment executes the trade, and the securities end up in an account in the child’s name. You can use a credit card to make the purchase.

According to the site, the average gift size is $75 to $100, and the giver will be charged $2.95 plus 3% of the gift size, equivalent to the transaction costs at a discount brokerage firm. Some children have gone so far as to establish their own gift registry, specifying the stocks they’re interested in—like Disney, Mattel, Apple or Electronic Arts—which encourages them to research the companies behind the brands they like.

Rather than a gift card that will be spent immediately, the stocks will demonstrate investment appreciation over time—and might even help your kids or grandkids with retirement planning someday.

If you would like to review your current investment portfolio or discuss any other financial planning matters, please don’t hesitate to contact us or visit our website at ydfs.com. We are a fee-only fiduciary financial planning firm that always puts your interests first.  If you are not a client yet, an initial consultation is complimentary and there is never any pressure or hidden sales pitch.

Sources:

http://time.com/money/4067454/giving-shares-stock-sparkgift/?xid=tcoshare

https://www.sparkgift.com/#

http://thereformedbroker.com/2015/10/12/the-greatest-gift-you-can-give-a-young-person/

The MoneyGeek thanks guest writer Bob Veres for his contribution to this post

 

2015 Year-End Tax Planning Tips

As the end of the year approaches, it’s a good time to think of planning moves that will help lower your tax bill for this year and possibly the next. Factors that compound the challenge include turbulence in the stock market, overall economic uncertainty, and Congress’s failure to act on a number of important tax breaks that expired at the end of 2014. Some of these tax breaks ultimately may be retroactively reinstated and extended, as they were last year, but Congress may not decide the fate of these tax breaks until the very end of 2015 (or later).

These not yet extended breaks include for individuals: the option to deduct state and local sales and use taxes instead of state and local income taxes; the above-the-line-deduction for qualified higher education expenses; tax-free IRA distributions for charitable purposes by those age 70-1/2 or older; and the exclusion for up-to-$2 million of mortgage debt forgiveness on a principal residence. For businesses: tax breaks that expired at the end of last year and may be retroactively reinstated and extended including 50% bonus first-year depreciation for most new machinery, equipment and software; the $500,000 annual expensing limitation; the research tax credit; and the 15-year write-off for qualified leasehold improvements, qualified restaurant buildings and improvements, as well as qualified retail improvements.

Year-end tax planning is included on a complimentary basis for financial planning clients of our firm. Accordingly, clients will be receiving a separate e-mail from us requesting certain 2015 tax information so we can review and assess tax planning opportunities available to them.

Higher Income Earners

Higher-income earners have unique concerns to address when mapping out year-end plans. They must be wary of the 3.8% surtax on certain unearned income, and the additional 0.9% Medicare (hospital insurance, or HI) tax. The latter tax applies to individuals for whom the sum of their wages received with respect to employment and their self-employment income is in excess of an unindexed threshold amount ($250,000 for joint filers, $125,000 for married couples filing separately, and $200,000 in any other case).

The surtax is 3.8% of the lesser of: (1) net investment income (NII), or (2) the excess of modified adjusted gross income (MAGI) over an unindexed threshold amount ($250,000 for joint filers or surviving spouses, $125,000 for a married individual filing a separate return, and $200,000 in any other case). As year-end nears, a taxpayer’s approach to minimizing or eliminating the 3.8% surtax will depend on his estimated MAGI and NII for the year. Some taxpayers should consider ways to minimize (e.g., through deferral) additional NII for the balance of the year; others should try to see if they can reduce MAGI other than NII; and other individuals will need to consider ways to minimize both NII and other types of MAGI.

The 0.9% additional Medicare tax also may require year-end actions. Employers must withhold the additional Medicare tax from wages in excess of $200,000 regardless of filing status or other income. Self-employed persons must take it into account in figuring estimated tax. There could be situations where an employee may need to have more withheld toward the end of the year to cover the tax. For example, if an individual earns $200,000 from one employer during the first half of the year and a like amount from another employer during the balance of the year, he would owe the additional Medicare tax, but there would be no withholding by either employer for the additional Medicare tax since wages from each employer don’t exceed $200,000. Also, in determining whether they may need to make adjustments to avoid a penalty for underpayment of estimated tax, individuals also should be mindful that the additional Medicare tax may be over-withheld. This could occur, for example, where only one of two married spouses works and reaches the threshold for the employer to withhold, but the couple’s combined income won’t be high enough to actually cause the tax to be owed.

We have compiled a checklist of additional actions based on current tax rules that may help you save tax dollars if you act before year-end. Not all actions will apply in your particular situation, but you (or a family member or your business) will likely benefit from many of them. We can narrow down the specific actions that you can take once we discuss with you a particular plan. In the meantime, please review the following list and contact us at your earliest convenience so that we can advise you on which tax-saving moves to make.

Year-End Tax Planning Moves for Individuals

  • Recognize capital losses on stocks or funds while substantially preserving your investment position. There are several ways this can be done. For example, you can sell the original holding, then buy back the same securities at least 31 days later, or buy a similar security. It may be advisable for us to meet to discuss year-end trades you should consider making.
  • Postpone income until 2016, and accelerate deductions into 2015 to lower your 2015 tax bill. This strategy may enable you to claim larger deductions, credits, and other tax breaks for 2015 that are phased out over varying levels of adjusted gross income (AGI). These include child tax credits, higher education tax credits, and deductions for student loan interest. Postponing income also is desirable for those taxpayers who anticipate being in a lower tax bracket next year due to changed financial circumstances. Note, however, that in some cases, it may pay to actually accelerate income into 2015. For example, this may be the case where a person’s marginal tax rate is much lower this year than it will be next year, or where lower income in 2016 will result in a higher tax credit for an individual who plans to purchase health insurance on a health exchange and is eligible for a premium assistance credit. Being subject to the alternative minimum tax (AMT) may also change this recommendation, so it’s best to “run the numbers”.
  • If you believe that a tax-free Roth IRA is better than a traditional IRA, consider converting traditional-IRA money invested in beaten-down stocks (or mutual/exchange traded funds) into a Roth IRA if eligible to do so. Keep in mind, however, that such a conversion will increase your adjusted gross income for 2015.
  • If you converted assets in a traditional IRA to a Roth IRA earlier in the year, and the assets in the Roth IRA account have declined in value, you could wind up paying a higher tax than is necessary if you leave things as is. You can back out of the transaction by re-characterizing the conversion—that is, by transferring the converted amount (plus earnings, or minus losses) from the Roth IRA back to a traditional IRA via a trustee-to-trustee transfer. You can later re-convert to a Roth IRA.
  • It may be advantageous to try to arrange with your employer to defer, until 2016, a bonus that may be coming your way.
  • Consider using a credit card to pay deductible expenses before the end of the year. Doing so will increase your 2015 deductions even if you don’t pay your credit card bill until after the end of the year. Again, if the AMT applies to you, this strategy may not work.
  • If you expect to owe state and local income taxes when you file your return next year, consider asking your employer to increase withholding of state and local taxes (or pay estimated tax payments of state and local taxes) before year-end to pull the deduction of those taxes into 2015 if you won’t be subject to the AMT in 2015.
  • Consider taking an eligible rollover distribution from a qualified retirement plan before the end of 2015 if you are facing a penalty for underpayment of estimated tax, and having your employer increase your withholding is unavailable or won’t sufficiently address the problem. Income tax will be withheld from the distribution and will be applied toward the taxes owed for 2015. You can then timely roll over the gross amount of the distribution, i.e., the net amount you received plus the amount of withheld tax, to a traditional IRA. No part of the distribution will be includible in income for 2015, but the withheld tax will be applied pro rata over the full 2015 tax year to reduce previous quarterly underpayments of estimated tax.
  • Estimate the effect of any year-end planning moves on the AMT for 2015, keeping in mind that many tax breaks allowed for purposes of calculating regular taxes are disallowed for AMT purposes. These include the deduction for state property taxes on your residence, state income taxes, miscellaneous itemized deductions, and personal exemptions. Other deductions, such as for medical expenses of a taxpayer who is at least age 65, or whose spouse is at least 65 as of the close of the tax year, are calculated in a more restrictive way for AMT purposes than for regular tax purposes. If you are subject to the AMT for 2015, or suspect you might be, these types of deductions should not be accelerated.
  • You may be able to save taxes this year and next by applying a bunching strategy to “miscellaneous” itemized deductions, medical expenses and other itemized deductions. Check to see if deferring the payment of 2015 deductions until 2016 provides more benefit.
  • You may want to pay contested taxes to be able to deduct them this year while continuing to contest them next year. Check with your tax accountant before doing this.
  • You may want to settle an insurance or damage claim in order to maximize your casualty loss deduction this year.
  • Be sure to take required minimum distributions (RMDs) from your IRA or 401(k) plan (or other employer-sponsored retirement plan). RMDs from IRAs must begin by April 1 of the year following the year you reach age 70- 1/2. That start date also applies to company plans, but non-5% company owners who continue working may defer RMDs until April 1 following the year they retire. Failure to take a required withdrawal can result in a penalty of 50% of the amount of the RMD not withdrawn. If you turned age 70- 1/2 in 2015, you can delay the first required distribution to 2016, but if you do, you will have to take a double distribution in 2016—the amount required for 2015 plus the amount required for 2016. Think twice before delaying 2015 distributions to 2016, as bunching income into 2016 might push you into a higher tax bracket or have a detrimental impact on various income tax deductions that are reduced at higher income levels. However, it could be beneficial to take both distributions in 2016 if you will be in a substantially lower bracket in that year.
  • Increase the amount you set aside for next year in your employer’s health flexible spending account (FSA) if you set aside too little for this year. Estimate your expenses carefully since this is a “use it or lose it” type of deduction.
  • If you are, or can make yourself eligible to make health savings account (HSA) contributions by Dec. 1, 2015, you can make a full year’s worth of deductible HSA contributions for 2015.
  • Make gifts sheltered by the annual gift tax exclusion before the end of the year and thereby save gift and estate taxes. The exclusion applies to gifts of up to $14,000 made in 2015 to each of an unlimited number of individuals. Your spouse can give the same person up to $14,000 as well. Consider gifting appreciated stock or mutual/exchange traded funds to individuals with a lower tax bracket than you. You can’t carry over unused annual gift tax exclusions from one year to the next. The transfers also may save family income taxes where income-earning property is given to family members in lower income tax brackets (who are not subject to the kiddie tax.)

Year-End Tax-Planning Moves for Businesses & Business Owners

  • Businesses should buy machinery and equipment before year end and, under the generally applicable “half-year convention,” thereby secure a half-year’s worth of depreciation deductions in 2015. Be careful: a “mid-quarter convention” applies when the total depreciable basis of property that was placed in service during the last three months of the tax year is more than 40% of the total depreciable basis of all property that was placed in service throughout the entire year.
  • Although the business property expensing option is greatly reduced in 2015 (unless retroactively changed by legislation), making expenditures that qualify for this option can still get you thousands of dollars of current deductions that you wouldn’t otherwise get. For tax years beginning in 2015, the expensing limit is $25,000, and the investment-based reduction in the dollar limitation starts to take effect when property placed in service in the tax year exceeds $200,000.
  • Businesses may be able to take advantage of the “de-minimis safe harbor election” (also known as the book-tax conformity election) to expense the costs of inexpensive assets, materials and supplies, assuming the costs don’t have to be capitalized under the Code Sec. 263A uniform capitalization (UNICAP) rules. To qualify for the election, the cost of a unit of property can’t exceed $5,000 if the taxpayer has an applicable financial statement (AFS; e.g., a certified audited financial statement along with an independent CPA’s report). If there’s no AFS, the cost of a unit of property can’t exceed $500. Where the UNICAP rules aren’t an issue, purchase such qualifying items before the end of 2015.
  • A corporation should consider accelerating income from 2016 to 2015 if it will be in a higher bracket next year. Conversely, it should consider deferring income until 2016 if it will be in a higher bracket this year.
  • A corporation should consider deferring income until next year if doing so will preserve the corporation’s qualification for the small corporation AMT exemption for 2015. Note that there is never a reason to accelerate income for purposes of the small corporation AMT exemption because if a corporation doesn’t qualify for the exemption for any given tax year, it will not qualify for the exemption for any later tax year.
  • A corporation (other than a “large” corporation) that anticipates a small net operating loss (NOL) for 2015 (and substantial net income in 2016) may find it worthwhile to accelerate just enough of its 2016 income (or to defer just enough of its 2015 deductions) to create a small amount of net income for 2015. This will permit the corporation to base its 2016 estimated tax installments on the relatively small amount of income shown on its 2015 return, rather than having to pay estimated taxes based on 100% of its much larger 2016 taxable income.
  • If your business qualifies for the domestic production activities deduction (DPAD) for its 2015 tax year, consider whether the 50%-of-W-2 wages limitation on that deduction applies. If it does, consider ways to increase 2015 W-2 income, e.g., by bonuses to owner-shareholders whose compensation is allocable to domestic production gross receipts. Note that the limitation applies to amounts paid with respect to employment in calendar year 2015, even if the business has a fiscal year.
  • To reduce 2015 taxable income, if you are a debtor, consider deferring a debt-cancellation event until 2016.
  • To reduce 2015 taxable income, consider disposing of a passive activity in 2015 if doing so will allow you to deduct suspended passive activity losses.
  • If you own an interest in a partnership or S corporation, consider whether you need to increase your cost basis in the entity so you can deduct a loss from it for this year.

These are just some of the year-end steps that can be taken to save taxes. Again, by contacting us, we can tailor a particular plan that will work best for you. We also will need to stay in close touch in the event that Congress revives expired tax breaks to assure that you don’t miss out on any resuscitated tax-saving opportunities.

If you’d like to know more about tax planning or want to discuss other financial planning matters, please don’t hesitate to contact us or visit our website at http://www.ydfs.com. We are a fee-only fiduciary financial planning firm that always puts your interests first.

The Paris Attacks

Most of us watched news coverage of the multiple terrorist acts against the city of Paris, France, with a mixture of horror and dread. The horror was our usual response to terrorism, the feeling that arises when we ask ourselves: how can people think this way? And when we realize that, somehow, there ARE people who think that way, which is so far from our own reality, that the realization triggers deep emotions somewhere far on the opposite end of the spectrum from inspirational.

The dread, of course, comes from the realization that these attacks could have, and might still, happen here—that is, wherever we happen to be sitting, whatever concert venue or restaurant we might be planning to visit.

Hard on these emotions comes outrage, and that helps illustrate something that is seldom realized about terrorism. In a recently published book entitled The Better Angels of Our Nature, author Steven Pinker points out that terrorism is far from a new phenomenon. After the Roman conquest, resistance fighters in Judea—who called themselves zealots—would stab unguarded Roman officials whenever the opportunity arose. In the 11th century, Shia muslims launched furtive assassinations on officials who practiced a different version of their belief system. For 200 years, a cult in India strangled tens of thousands of people traveling through their country. The assassination of President William McKinley was executed by a particularly ugly breed of terrorist known at the time as anarchists. Most of us remember days when London and Belfast were routinely rocked by Irish Republican Army terror strikes, and in the U.S., the Weather Underground of the 1960s had a terrible habit of setting off explosives in public places.

The book lists many other instances of terrorist organizations, but all of them prove a point: eventually, each of these groups will go too far, provoke the consciousness of the general public in the wrong way, and turn sympathy to their cause into outrage. Pinker cites statistics that show that virtually zero terrorist organizations ever accomplish their aims, and they tend to die out after their most visible credibility-destroying “success.” One has only to think of the fate of Al Qaeda after 9/11 as an example of a terrorist organization whose relevance declined to near zero in the messy aftermath.

No doubt, the ISIS leaders who planned the attacks on Paris believed that this bloodletting would cause all Western nations to recoil in fear, and back off of their military efforts to contain the new caliphate so it wouldn’t strike again. You and I know that this is pure nonsense. The inevitable outcome will be a new resolve, a hardening, a coming-together of the Western nations in a display of solidarity with France. Countries that were inclined not to get involved in the Middle Eastern messiness are now motivated to sign on for an international military campaign that will contain and perhaps completely destroy ISIS. Leaders who feared that their citizens would revolt at the thought of military intervention can now count on the support of their outraged voters. The next year or two will almost certainly reveal the ISIS attacks on Paris to have been a fatal mistake for those who dream of an Islamic, Sharia-governed caliphate in Syria and Iraq.

Today, you will see the world’s investment markets open lower, and probably close lower, as the horror of the events in Paris are translated into uncertainty about the world we live in—and, therefore, the safety of our assets, reflected in our stocks. The markets always respond reflexively and negatively to threats to our safety.

But as the year proceeds through its last few weeks, the smart money always tells us that these downturns are temporary. Fears that global enterprises are somehow worth less because blood was spilled overseas will prove to be overblown. More importantly, after the events in Paris, the object of our horror and fear—the terrorist organization known as ISIS—is about to confront an opponent more powerful than its leaders have the ability to imagine: the resolve of the Western nations. At the same time, it will have to endure the disgust and repudiation of moderate members of the muslim faith, in the Middle East and elsewhere.

The world changed over the weekend, but not in a way that affects the value of your investments. The change will be felt most powerfully in the failed dreams of a caliphate whose leaders have made a grave and awful miscalculation, who are destined to pay dearly for their malicious stupidity.

TheMoneyGeek thanks guest writer Bob Veres for writing this post

Medicare Cost Increases

At the same time it was announcing that Social Security recipients wouldn’t receive any increases in their benefits, the government was announcing that certain Medicare participants would be paying dramatically higher premiums for Medicare Part B, the highest price jump in the program’s history. In general, the higher premiums will affect new enrollees in 2016, enrollees who don’t yet collect Social Security checks, enrollees with incomes above $85,000 (single) or $170,000 (married), and dual Medicare-Medicaid beneficiaries. In all, that represents 30% of 2016 Medicare beneficiaries—roughly 7 million Americans.

This jump in some recipients’ costs is, ironically, tied to a relative bargain for others. Under something called the “hold harmless” clause in Social Security, in years when there is no cost of living increase in Social Security payments, the government also has to keep Medicare Plan B the same for those receiving Social Security payments. Under current law, the government has to collect 25% of all expected Part B costs from recipients each year. As a result, this relative bargain for many retirees had to be paid for by others—meaning: those NOT receiving Social Security checks.

Medicare recipients who are not taking Social Security checks, who fall below the income thresholds, will see their monthly premiums go up from $104.90 to $123. Those whose income is above the threshold could see increases of $223 a month up to $509.80 a month for individuals whose family income exceeds $428,000 a year.

So next year will see some retirees make out better than expected on their Medicare costs, while others will lose big. There are proposals in Congress to fix this situation, but you shouldn’t expect any big reform in an election year. Should you take matters into your own hands and start collecting Social Security benefits—putting you in the protected class of Medicare recipients? Probably not. First, for those under age 70, it means locking in lower Social Security benefits. And second, if your income is above the $85,000 (single)/$170,000 (joint) thresholds, you will pay higher premiums anyway.

If you would like to review your current investment portfolio or discuss any other financial planning matters, please don’t hesitate to contact us or visit our website at http://www.ydfs.com. We are a fee-only fiduciary financial planning firm that always puts your interests first.  If you are not a client yet, an initial consultation is complimentary and there is never any pressure or hidden sales pitch.

Sources:

http://www.aarp.org/health/medicare-insurance/info-2015/medicare-part-b-premiums-could-spike.html?intcmp=HP-FLXSLDR-SLIDE1-MAIN

https://www.medicare.gov/your-medicare-costs/part-b-costs/part-b-costs.html

The MoneyGeek thanks guest writer Bob Veres for his contribution to this post

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