Navigating the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act: Volume 4 – Individual year-end planning

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Posted by Evan Piccirillo, CPA

[Editor’s note: this is one of an ongoing series of articles parsing and clarifying the tax reform commonly known as the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act. Previous articles are linked at the end of the post.]

Nearly everything involving taxes in our country has been acutely affected by the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act (TCJA). Unfortunately, owing and paying tax are still necessary and required in most cases, but on the other hand we are treading on new terrain for year-end tax planning. We will explore some actions taxpayers can make before the end of 2018 that can provide a tax benefit.

Itemized deductions

The only itemized deductions that have survived the TCJA are:

  1. medical expenses in excess of 7.5% of adjusted gross income

  2. state income and real estate taxes, limited to $10k

  3. mortgage interest including home equity interest paid, subject to limits

  4. charity

One of the most impactful changes to individual taxpayers is the limitation on state income tax and real estate tax paid (the so-called SaLT deduction) to $10,000. Many taxpayers, especially those in high-tax states, were itemizing their deductions primarily due to their state tax burden. Couple this limit with the drastic increase of the standard deduction ($24k for married filing joint taxpayers), and you will find most taxpayers will no longer itemize their deductions.

Tax planning points

  1. Bunching deductions. If you have significant deductions that are just below the standard deduction, you might consider “bunching” your deductions, i.e. paying charitable contributions on January 1st and December 31st of year one, and then not making such contributions in year two. As a result, you will itemize deductions in year one and tax the standard deduction in year two, then alternate this method each year.

  2. For estimated taxpayers, there is no more pressure to get your 4th quarter estimated state tax payment in on or before December 31st since you will likely already exceed the $10k cap, and therefore receive no benefit from paying the estimate two weeks early (they are due January 15th).

Sec. 199A – The 20% Deduction

To put individual taxpayers on more even ground with corporations that now have a 21% flat tax rate, the TCJA provides a deduction of up to 20% of income from pass-through entities. Depending on the income level of a taxpayer and the type of business that generates the income, this 20% deduction may be limited or altogether eliminated. We will discuss this provision in depth in a different article, but we will explore basic tax planning here.

Tax planning points

  1. For s-corporation shareholders, consider adjusting owner’s salaries to maximize the deduction. If a taxpayer’s income is over the threshold and the business is qualified, the 20% deduction may be limited to 50% of the wages paid by the company. Since only the pass-through income and not the wages earned from the company get the benefit of a 20% deduction you would prefer the pass-through income to be as high as possible and the wages paid to be as low as possible. There is a sweet spot in the relationship between the wages and the pass-through income that will offer the optimal deduction assuming the owner’s compensation is still considered to be reasonable.

  2. An alternate limitation is 25% of wages plus 2.5% of depreciable property. Taxpayers might consider making an investment in tangible property for the business before the end of the year, especially in partnerships or sole proprietorships where owners are precluded from paying themselves wages. There are also enhanced accelerated depreciation incentives in the new tax law that make this an even sweeter deal.

Gain Deferral – Qualified Opportunity Zones

An incredible tax deferral tool provided by the TCJA is the advent of qualified opportunity funds (QOFs) which are entities that invest in qualified opportunity zones (QOZs). QOZs are economically depressed areas that have been identified by state governments. The intention of the law is to spur economic investment in these depressed areas. QOFs may present an attractive option for taxpayers that have significantly appreciated property and would like to dispose, but do not want to pay tax on the gain.

Tax planning points

A taxpayer may defer paying tax on a capital gain, if they invest the gain in a QOF within a 180-day window. If specified holding periods are met, those taxpayers may receive a deemed step up in basis of up to 15%, thereby permanently eliminating tax on that portion of the gain. In addition, the appreciation on the investment in the QOF is not taxed if held 10 years.

Bottom line

Only two months remain in 2018, but that is enough time for savvy taxpayers to take advantage of some of the changes to the tax code… and these are just a few of the options available to taxpayers looking to decrease their federal tax liability. As always, consult with your advisor before taking it upon yourself to engage in any of these tactics. Everyone’s personal income tax situation is nuanced, and certain actions may not yield expected results.