It’s tax season and we’re always on the lookout for ways to save on taxes for our clients. 2014 was the second year under the new Medicare surtax system, but there are still questions as to what the tax is and how to reduce its impact.
The Medicare surtax has two parts and is levied on earnings above $200,000, if single, or $250,000, if married filing jointly. The first part is a 0.9% tax on earned income (wages) that exceeds the thresholds above. Second, there is a 3.8% tax on net investment income above the threshold. Net investment income includes dividends, interest, capital gains, royalties, rental income, and other passive income. (It does not include Social Security, pension payments, or withdrawals from retirement accounts.)
Employers will withhold the additional 0.9% if your individual pay exceeds the threshold. However, employers don’t know a couple’s joint income, so in a situation where both spouses make $150,000 there would not be any additional payroll withholding, even though their joint income of $300,000 will trigger the surtax. In that situation, you may need to direct your HR department to withhold an additional amount for taxes or make quarterly estimated payments directly to the IRS.
With the top tax bracket back up to 39.6%, the surtaxes create a top marginal rate of 40.5% on earned income and 43.4% on investment income. With such high tax rates, it pays to make sure we turn over every stone in search of any possible way to reduce these taxes.
Below are four strategies which can lower your exposure to the new Medicare surtaxes. If you can reduce your taxable income to below the threshold amount, the surtaxes can be avoided altogether.
1) Maximize your 401(k) or employer sponsored retirement plan. Your pre-tax contributions will lower your taxable income. While that’s pretty obvious, we still find that many families are not contributing every dollar they’re eligible to invest. For example, make sure you are taking advantage of catch-up contributions in the year you turn age 50. For couples, make sure both spouses are making the full contribution amount to their retirement plan.
Deductions for Traditional IRAs are generally not available if you are subject to a Medicare surtax, unless both spouses are not covered by an employer-sponsored retirement plan. However, if you have self-employment income, you can contribute to a SEP-IRA for your self-employment, in addition to making contributions to a 401(k) at your regular job. And if you’re self-employed and have a high income, you may be a candidate for a Defined Benefit plan, which can offer a higher contribution limit than a Defined Contribution plan like a 401(k).
2) Health Savings Account (HSA). If you select an HSA-eligible high deductible health insurance plan, you can contribute to a pre-tax Health Savings Account. For 2015, the HSA contribution limits are $3,350 for a single participant, or $6,650 for a family plan. Holders age 55 or above can contribute an additional $1,000.
3) Choose Municipal Bonds. Interest from tax-free municipal bonds is not subject to the Medicare surtax. While their interest rates are lower than some other types of bonds, their tax-effective rate is attractive for taxpayers in higher tax brackets. Here at Good Life Wealth Management, we can help you select a municipal bond mutual fund, exchange traded fund (ETF), closed end fund, or even buy individual muni bonds directly for your account.
4) Employ a Tax-Efficient Portfolio approach. There are four ways we can reduce taxes from a portfolio. First, we can use low-turnover funds (such as index funds or ETFs) which do not distribute capital gains. Second, we can be judicious about buying and selling positions and creating unnecessary capital gains. Third, we can harvest losses annually to offset any gains. Lastly, we can use asset location to place income generating investments into a qualified account, such as an IRA, where the income will not create a taxable event. Tax-efficiency is not an afterthought for us, it’s a cornerstone of our investment process.
None of these methods are going to eliminate the Medicare surtaxes for everyone, but they can certainly help reduce your tax bill. It’s not too early to put these in place for 2015, so don’t wait until next January to take action if you might be subject to the Medicare surtaxes this year.