2019 Year-End Tax Planning

As 2019 draws to a close, we review our client files to consider if there are any steps we should take before December 31. Here are some important year end strategies we consider.

1. Tax Loss Harvesting

If an ETF, mutual fund, or stock is down, we can harvest that loss to offset any other gains we have realized during the year. Some mutual funds will distribute year end capital gains, so it is often helpful to have losses to offset those gains. If your losses exceed gains for the year, you can use $3,000 in losses to offset ordinary income. This is a great benefit because your ordinary income tax rate is often much higher than the typical (long-term) capital gains rate of 15%. Any additional losses are carried forward into future tax years.

We can immediately replace a sold position with another investment to maintain our target allocation. For example, if we sell a Vanguard Emerging Markets ETF, we could replace it with an iShares Emerging Markets ETF. This way we can realize a tax benefit while staying invested.

2019 has been a terrific year in the market, so there will be very few tax loss trades this year. That’s a good thing. Tax loss harvesting applies only to taxable accounts, and not to IRAs or retirement accounts. Conversely, when we rebalance portfolios and trim positions which have had the largest gains, we aim to realize those gains in IRAs, whenever possible.   

2. Income Tax withholding under the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act (TCJA)

For 2018, the TCJA lowered the withholding schedules for your federal income tax. Although many people paid lower total taxes for 2018, some were surprised to owe quite a bit in April 2019 when they completed their tax returns. Since your employer doesn’t estimate how much your spouse makes, or what deductions you may have, it is very easy to under-withhold for income taxes.

If you did end up owing taxes for 2018, the situation will likely be the same for 2019 if you have a similar amount of income. For W-2 employees, contact your payroll department to reduce your dependents. If you are already are at zero dependents, and are married, ask them to withhold at the single rate, or to add a set dollar amount to your payroll withholding.
If you are self-employed, you should do quarterly estimated payments. For more information on how to do this, as well as how to avoid underpayment penalties, see my article: What Are Quarterly Tax Payments? 

3. Bunch Itemized Deductions

After the TCJA, the number of tax payers who itemized their deductions fell from around 35% to 10%. If you anticipate having itemized deductions for 2019 (over $12,200 single, $24,400 married), you might want to accelerate any state/local taxes (subject to the $10,000 limit) or charitable contributions to be paid before December 31. Bunch your deductions into one year when possible to make that number as high as possible, and then take the standard deduction in alternate years.
Read more: 9 Ways to Reduce Taxes Without Itemizing

4. IRAs and the Required Minimum Distribution

If you are over age 70 1/2, you have to take a Required Minimum Distribution from your IRAs by December 31. Additionally, if you have an inherited IRA (also called Beneficiary IRA or Stretch IRA), you may also be required to take an RMD before the end of the year. When you have multiple retirement accounts, each RMD will be calculated separately, but it doesn’t matter which account you use for the distribution. As long as the total distribution for the year meets the total RMD amount, you can use any account for the withdrawal.

If you have not met your RMD and are planning charitable contributions before the end of the year, look into making a Qualified Charitable Distribution from your IRA. This offers a tax benefit without having to itemize your return, and the QCD can count towards your RMD.Read more: Qualified Charitable Distributions from Your IRA