Year-End Tax Planning Strategies

By Kenneth H. Bridges, CPA, PFS December 2020

Late November through year end is the time for year-end tax planning. While every client’s situation is unique, here are some of the more common strategies we employ.

Acceleration or deferral of income and deductions – Businesses which use the cash basis of accounting for income tax purposes often have a great deal of control over the timing of income and deductions. Similarly, individuals can often time the recognition of significant gains or a significant deduction (e.g. charitable contributions). Shifting income from a high-rate bracket year to a low-rate bracket year can obviously result in a permanent tax savings.  For 2020, given the possibility of higher tax rates in 2021, most will not be looking for a short-term deferral of income from 2020 to 2021.

Harvesting of capital losses – Capital losses can, for the most part, only be deducted against capital gains.  And while capital losses can be carried forward, for individuals they cannot be carried back to previous years.  Accordingly, it is generally a good strategy to go ahead and recognize any potential capital losses you have.

Deferral of capital gain into a QOF – As discussed in much greater detail in recent issues of our newsletter, included in The Tax Cuts and Jobs Act legislation enacted in late 2017 was a new provision often referred to as the “Qualified Opportunity Fund”, “QOF”, “Opportunity Zone”, or “OZ” rules which provides taxpayers who have recognized a capital gain the opportunity to defer tax on the gain for up to 8 years, the opportunity to have up to 15% of that gain permanently escape tax, and the opportunity to permanently avoid any tax on the appreciation in the value of the reinvested gain; provided the gain is invested in a “qualified opportunity zone” and you meet the other requirements of the statute.  In general, you have 180 days from the time you realize a gain to reinvest it in a QOF.  However, for gains allocated to you on a Schedule K-1 or IRC 1231 gains, the 180-day period starts to run at the end of the year.

Optimizing the “qualified business income” deduction – The Tax Cuts and Jobs Act included a new 20% deduction for business income from most flow-through entities (other than “specified services businesses” like accounting and law firms).  For individuals with taxable income over the threshold amounts ($163,300 for singles and $326,600 for married couples, with phase-outs up to $213,300 and $426,600, respectively), the deduction is generally limited to the lesser of 20% of the K-1 profit or 50% of your share of the W-2 wages paid by the business.  For companies with a significant amount of payroll, this W-2 wages limitation is generally not a problem.  However, for companies with few if any employees other than the owners, the deduction may be maximized by paying the optimal level of owners’ compensation.

Use of tax credits to minimize state income tax – There are various tax credits which can be utilized to minimize state income tax. Some must be generated by a business entity (e.g. the Georgia jobs credit, research credit and retraining credit), some can essentially be purchased (e.g. the Georgia low-income housing credit and film credit), and others are based on taking some action which the government is encouraging (e.g. the Georgia credits for donations to Student Scholarship Organizations, Innovation Fund Foundation, and rural hospitals). 

Timing of charitable donations – It is generally advantageous to time significant charitable donations to coincide with a year in which you have significant income and are in a higher rate bracket. Because of the percentage of income limitations on charitable deductions and the inability to carry the deduction back to earlier years, making a substantial donation in the year after a big gain can potentially result in the permanent loss of a tax benefit versus having made the donation in the same year as the substantial gain.  On the other hand, if you have charitable carryforwards that are in danger of expiring, deferring additional donations to the next tax year may be prudent.  

Estimated tax payments – In order to avoid a penalty, you are generally required to pay in through withholding or quarterly tax payments the lesser of 90% of your current year tax liability or 110% of your prior year tax liability.  With respect to estimated tax payments, you get credit the day you actually make the payment. Withholding, however, is generally deemed to have occurred ratably throughout the year.  Accordingly, if you realize late in the year that you have a shortfall for earlier quarters, you can sometimes avoid the penalty by increasing your withholding late in the year (e.g. having all of a year-end bonus withheld for taxes). 

S-corp and LLC basis and at-risk limitations – In general, you can deduct your share of losses from S-corps and LLCs, and distributions from such entities are generally tax-free.  However, the ability to deduct losses or receive tax-free distributions is limited by the “basis” and “at-risk” rules.  Basically, the amount of loss you can deduct or distributions you can receive tax-free is limited to your unreturned investment in the entity (including past undistributed profits and, in the case of partnerships and LLCs, your share of the entity’s liabilities which are either bank debt on a real estate project or debts for which you are personally liable). With respect to flow-through entities in which you own a stake, you should review your basis and at-risk amounts prior to year end to determine whether any tax advantage can be gained by increasing such amounts and whether such is prudent from an economic standpoint.

Exercise of ISOs in year not in AMT – “Incentive stock options” (ISOs) hold out the promise of being able to potentially convert what would otherwise be ordinary income into long-term capital gain. However, because the bargain element is an “alternative minimum tax” (AMT) adjustment on the date of exercise, the AMT often eliminates much of the hoped-for benefit. A tax year in which you will not be in the AMT represents an opportunity to exercise some ISOs at no tax cost, meaning a potential permanent tax savings if you hold the stock for the requisite period.

Sale of ISO shares that have fallen in value – If you exercise ISOs and sell in the same tax year, then the AMT issue goes away.  Accordingly, we typically advise our clients who want to exercise and hold ISOs to do so early in the year, giving us almost a full year to watch the stock price and to sell the stock before year end if necessary in order to cure the AMT problem.  If you exercised ISOs earlier this year, you still hold the shares, and the value of the shares has fallen dramatically, then now may be the time to sell.

Bonus first-year depreciation and Section 179 expense – For most depreciable assets (other than buildings and with some limitation on “luxury automobiles”), 100% of the cost can be expensed immediately. 

Selection of accounting methods – New businesses can, within certain limitations, select the tax accounting methods (e.g. cash or accrual) which are most beneficial for them; and existing businesses have some latitude to later change their accounting methods.  Your situation should be reviewed each year in order to determine which accounting methods are most advantageous for you.

Conversion of IRA to Roth status – With a traditional deductible IRA, you get a tax deduction on the front end when you make the contribution, but then are subject to ordinary income tax rates on withdrawals.  With a nondeductible traditional IRA, you get no tax deduction on the front end, but then a portion of your withdrawals is tax-free recovery of basis.  With a “Roth IRA”, you get no front-end tax deduction but the appreciation in value permanently escapes tax.  Traditional IRAs can be converted to Roth IRAs. The conversion is a taxable event, so careful planning is necessary to determine if a conversion makes sense for you.

IRA Required Minimum Distributions (RMDs) – Once you attain age 72, and for each year thereafter, you are required to take distributions from your IRAs (and other qualified retirement plans) at least equal to a minimum amount computed using IRS-provided tables.  Failure to take at least this minimum amount can subject you to a penalty of 50% of the shortfall. For the year you first reach 72, you have a grace period up through the first three months of the next tax year in which to take your RMD.  However, utilizing the grace period will mean doubling up your RMD amount in that next calendar year, which could force some of the income into a higher rate bracket.  The years between age 59 ½ (the earliest date at which you can take IRA distributions without incurring an early distribution penalty) and 72 may represent a good time to begin taking some IRA distributions (even though not required) if you are otherwise in a very low rate bracket for those years or have excess deductions which may otherwise be wasted.

Utilization of annual gifting exclusion – With respect to the estate and gift tax, there is an annual exclusion which permits you to give up to $15,000 per year per donee, without incurring any tax or eating into your lifetime exemption. For married couples, this amount is effectively doubled to $30,000. For those with a significant number of potential heirs, this represents an opportunity to remove a significant amount of value from the taxable estate, especially when gifting assets that may be subject to discounted valuation. The annual exclusion is on a use-it-or-lose-it basis with no carryover, so if you haven’t maximized your annual exclusion gifts yet for 2020, consider doing so before year end.

Tax deductibility of PPP funded expenses and Georgia runoff for US Senate seats – Two things which are complicating year-end planning this year are the unknowns with respect to tax deductibility of PPP-funded expenses (see separate article in this issue) and which party will control the US Senate in 2021.  Accordingly, our planning has to take into account multiple possible scenarios.

Setting expectations and avoiding surprises – One of the key advantages to engaging in year-end planning is that it enables you to appropriately plan your required cash outlay for taxes and avoid any unpleasant surprises at April 15 or any regrets as to actions that could have been taken by year end but were not.

Kenneth H. Bridges, CPA, PFS is a partner with Bridges & Dunn-Rankin, LLP, an Atlanta-based CPA firm.

This article is presented for educational and informational purposes only, and is not intended to constitute legal, tax or accounting advice.  The article provides only a very general summary of complex rules.  For advice on how these rules may apply to your specific situation, contact a professional tax advisor.