There’s a popular metaphor referred to as “the boiled frog.” Simply put, it says if you drop a frog in boiling water it will quickly try to escape. But if you place a frog in tepid water that’s slowly heated to a boil, the frog will “unresistingly allow itself to be boiled to death.”
With the 2013 tax changes, this metaphor may apply to taxpayers, married and filing jointly, with wages of taxable income of $223,000 to $450,000, says Geoffrey M. Zimmerman, CFP®, Senior Client Advisor at Mosaic Financial Partners, Inc. These households could see their federal marginal tax rate go from 28 to 45.5 percent.
“Executives in this income range may soon find that they are in hot water with the heat on as the marginal tax rates ramp up fairly quickly,” Zimmerman says.
Smart Business spoke with Zimmerman about key tax changes as well as possible planning and investment strategies.
Why are $223,000 to $450,000 income earners unaware of the danger?
The increases come from moving up tax brackets, new Medicare taxes of 0.9 percent on payroll and 3.8 percent on unearned income, and the phase-out of itemized deductions. People earning more than $450,000 have a good idea of what’s coming, but others aren’t as prepared for 1 to 2 percent increases that can add up. For example, if each spouse earns less than $200,000, their employers aren’t required to withhold additional taxes from their paychecks for the 0.9 percent increase in Medicare. But, if their combined income pushes them over the $250,000 threshold in household wages, they may be surprised by an unexpected tax bill.
Additionally, if you live in a state like California where state income taxes have gone up, combined federal and state income tax rates can exceed 50 percent, with capital gains rates reaching 33 percent or more.
What should these taxpayers be doing?
First and foremost, don’t let the tax tail wag the dog. Tax strategies that look great in a silo may actually be detrimental to the big picture. If your strategy puts you in a concentrated position or triggers undue risk, then a sudden bad market movement can be worse than paying the taxes.
This is an opportunity for people to update their financial plan and review how the tax changes affect their goals. Make sure your advisers are talking with one another and coordinating their work and advice.
How can some key planning strategies mitigate these increases?
Look for opportunities related to the timing of cash flows. If you have a big income year where up to 80 percent of your itemized deductions might be lost, defer some itemized deductions to the following year where the income might be lower. In a low income year, look at doing IRA to Roth conversions, realizing capital gains and/or accelerating income.
Take the initiative to engage in tax loss harvesting in taxable accounts, which means you sell a security, harvest the loss and then use that loss to offset a gain in either the current year or carry forward for use in future years. This can be attractive, particularly for investing styles that offer similar but not identical alternatives. One example might be to sell an S&P 500-index fund and reinvesting with a Russell 1000-index exchange traded fund to capture the loss while remaining invested.
Review the use of asset location strategies to improve tax efficiency. Strategically place securities that produce ordinary income or that generally don’t receive favorable tax treatment into a tax-deferred account, while putting tax-efficient investments that generate long-term capital gains or qualified dividends in taxable accounts.
Municipal bonds/bond funds in taxable accounts now may be more attractive, and you also can review opportunities to take advantage of ‘above the bar’ deductions, such as contributions to qualified plans like your pension, 401(k), etc. For senior executives, contribution to nonqualified deferred compensation arrangements may be more attractive, particularly if a transition, such as retirement, is on the horizon.
With the help of good advisers who understand these moving parts and how they fit together, executives can use these strategies and others to make better decisions to move toward the things that are really important to them.
Geoffrey M. Zimmerman, CFP®, is a senior client advisor at Mosaic Financial Partners, Inc. Reach him at (415) 788-1952 or Geoff@MosaicFP.com.
Insights Wealth Management & Finance is brought to you by Mosaic Financial Partners Inc.