Smart Year-End Tax Moves

Smart Year-End Tax Moves

Time to Review Your Taxes — Before It’s Too Late

Year-end tax planning always makes sense, but this year it’s especially vital.

Convulsions in the markets and the economy have shifted the ground beneath many taxpayers, and next year may bring major tax changes as lawmakers confront the record deficit.

Bottom line: review your taxes before it’s too late. “Too often, I can’t do anything for people who come to me in February,” says Douglas Stives, an accountant with Curchin Group in Red Bank, N.J.

Here are areas especially relevant now. (For more details, go to

First-Time Home-Buyer Tax Credit

Congress has just extended and altered this benefit, making it more generous for many. The new rules took effect on Nov. 6. The provision is a true dollar-for-dollar tax credit of up to $8,000 for 10% of the cost of a home. The credit is also refundable, meaning that even if a buyer doesn’t owe $8,000 of tax, she can claim the full benefit and receive a refund check.

The new law has more generous phase-outs. The credit now begins to disappear for single taxpayers with modified adjusted gross incomes of $125,000 and married couples with incomes of $225,000. It is available for purchases through July 1, 2010 if the buyer has a contract in place before May 1, 2010. Unlike the prior law, however, this credit is capped: those buying homes for more than $800,000 get no credit at all, as of Nov. 6.

The new law also authorizes a similar $6,500 credit for buyers who already own a home. It too is a refundable credit for 10% of the purchase price of a house costing no more than $800,000.To qualify the buyer has to have owned and lived in the same home for five of the eight years preceding the new home purchase, and the new home must become the buyer’s principal residence.

There are interesting twists. Two or more unmarried people buying a house together may be able to allocate the credit as they wish, say to the lowest earner. Taxpayers who buy this year may also claim the credit on either a 2008 or 2009 return, and those who buy in 2010 can claim the credit either in 2009 or 2010. Some people claim the credit in one year rather than another to avoid phase-outs.

Unemployment Benefits

Alas, these are subject to income tax. But this year there is an exemption of $2,400 per individual. Still, many unemployed taxpayers receiving benefits may need to estimate and pay quarterly taxes or risk penalties when they can least afford them. IRS spokesman Eric Smith points out that all recipients can choose to have 10% of benefits withheld by the payer. “That should protect many,” he says.

American Opportunity Credit

In the roster of fiendishly complex and highly limited education incentives, this one is more useful than most. It is a tax credit for as much as $2,500, generated by spending on tuition and other education expenses (books, possibly a computer) up to $4,000. Currently this credit is available for 2009 and 2010 to single taxpayers with less than $80,000 of modified adjusted gross income and married couples earning less than $160,000. Amounts paid in 2009 for the spring of 2010 are eligible for a 2009 credit.

New Car Purchases

Taxpayers who buy new car before Jan. 1, 2010, may deduct sales and excise taxes and other fees on as much as $49,500 of the purchase price. This provision has generous phase-outs: It disappears between $250,000 and $260,000 of modified adjust gross income for married couples and $125,000 and $135,000 for singles.

Retirement Savings

Have you just started a job? Remember that you can still put in an entire year’s 401(k) contribution, which is $16,500 ($22,000 if you’re over 50). “Some workers who begin a job in the last quarter arrange to have an entire paycheck or two go into the plan,” says Melissa Labant, an attorney with the American Institute of CPAs.

Charitable Gifts

Unless Congress acts, this will also be the last year for taxpayers over 70 1/2 to make a charitable contribution directly from an IRA. This provision is useful: without it, the donation would have to be withdrawn from the IRA, claimed as income and then deducted as a donation. That, in turn, can trigger deduction limits or jack up Medicare premiums in the future.


Take losses! Even after the run-up following the lows of last March, many investors still have long-term capital losses on investments held longer than one year. Taxpayers may deduct up to $3,000 of these losses per year against ordinary income, with the excess carried forward for use in future years. The assets must be held in cash accounts, as opposed to IRAs and other tax-sheltered retirement plans.

Capital losses also may be matched dollar-for-dollar against long-term capital gains—so if you have $20,000 of long-term losses on some investments and $15,000 of gains on others, after the $3,000 deduction, you’d only have a net loss of $2,000 to carry forward. What’s more, if you are bullish on an investment with gains and you sell it to soak up losses, you may buy the winner back right away. The tax code’s “wash sale” rules only apply to losers, which can’t be purchased for 30 days either before or after a sale. Note: The IRS also prohibits selling a loser from a regular account and then repurchasing it within an IRA inside of 30 days.

The current top capital-gains tax rate of 15% is the lowest in decades, and it is almost certain to rise at some point as the government scrambles to pay down the deficit. “If you have a buyer and a decent price, think about selling,” suggests Mr. Stives of the Curchin Group.

Medical Expenses

This has long been one of the least useful deductions in the tax code, unless a taxpayer is seriously ill or in a nursing home, because the taxpayer must spend more than 7.5% of adjusted gross income to claim any deduction. But rising insurance costs and diminishing coverage plus this year’s economic tumult may qualify more people for this deduction.

In general, taxpayers may deduct all un-reimbursed medical expenses recognized by the IRS. This category includes after-tax dollars spent on insurance premiums, Medicare Part B and D premiums, and co-payments for drugs and treatments. It also extends to costs that insurance almost never covers—such as weight-loss plans (if prescribed for a medical condition), lead abatement, bandages, wigs after chemotherapy, acupuncture, and medical travel (19 cents per mile for the first six months of 2009, 27 cents for the rest of the year). But it typically does not cover expenses for over-the-counter drugs such as aspirin or antihistamines, which some Flexible Spending Plans reimburse.

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