Due to the enactment of legislation to offset the economic burden wrought by COVID-19, there is a lot to consider when reviewing year-end tax planning options. Pandemic-related tax breaks include an expanded dependent care assistance, payroll tax credits for self-employed individuals, substantial increases in the child tax credit and the earned income tax credit, $1,400 recovery rebates for many taxpayers, and an exclusion from income for certain student loan forgiveness, to name just a few.
The following are some of the considerations we should explore when discussing the tax breaks from which you may benefit, as well as the strategies we can employ to help minimize your taxable income and resulting federal tax liability.
2021 Recovery Rebate
Under American Rescue Plan (ARP) Act, passed in March, individuals with income under a certain level are entitled to a recovery rebate tax credit. These are direct payments (sometimes referred to as “stimulus checks”) to individuals by the government.
Single individuals and joint filers are entitled to a payment of $1,400 for each eligible individual. Similar to last years’ tax return, we must be told whether this amount was received and how much was received when we prepare your 2021 income tax return.
The amount of the recovery rebate phases out for income over a certain level. The 2021 recovery rebate began phasing out starting at $75,000 of adjusted gross income (AGI) for an individual ($112,500 for heads of household and $150,000 in the case of a joint return or surviving spouse) and was completely phased out where an individual’s AGI is $80,000 ($120,000 for heads of household and $160,000 in the case of a joint return or surviving spouse).
The government began issuing the rebates based on 2019 income tax returns, or 2020 returns for individuals who filed their 2020 returns in time. The calculation for the correct amount of the rebate will be part of your 2021 tax return.
Income, Deductions, and Credits
Charitable Contributions. While the tax benefits of making charitable contributions and taking an itemized deduction for such contributions were tamped down as a result of the increases made to the standard deduction amounts, a law passed at the end of 2020 modified the charitable contribution rules for 2021 tax returns. As a result, eligible individuals can claim an above-the-line deduction of up to $300 ($600 in the case of a joint return) for qualified charitable contributions made during 2021. An eligible individual is an individual who does not elect to itemize deductions. Thus, absent this provision, anyone taking the standard deduction would be ineligible to take a charitable contribution deduction. A qualified charitable contribution is a cash contribution paid in 2021 to an eligible charitable organization. Contributions of noncash property, such as securities, are not qualified contributions.
In addition, if you are itemizing your deductions and have substantial charitable contributions, the new rules modified the percentage limitation rules that could otherwise limit your charitable contribution deduction. As a result, for charitable contributions made during 2021, any qualified contribution is allowed as a deduction to the extent that the aggregate of such contributions does not exceed the excess of your charitable contribution base over the amount of all other charitable contributions. Excess contributions are eligible for a five-year carryover.
As in prior years, you can reap a larger tax benefit by donating appreciated assets, such as stock, to a charity. Generally, the higher the appreciated value of an asset, the bigger the potential value of the tax benefit. Donating appreciated assets not only entitles you to a charitable contribution deduction but also helps you avoid the capital gains tax that would otherwise be due if you sold your stock. For example, if you own stock with a fair market value of $1,000 that was purchased for $250 and your capital gains tax rate is 15 percent, the capital gains tax you would owe if you sold that stock is $113 ($750 gain x 15%). If you donate that stock instead of selling it, and are in the 24 percent tax bracket, your ordinary income deduction is worth $240 ($1,000 FMV x 24% tax rate). You also save the $113 in capital gains tax that you would otherwise pay if you sold the stock; that amount goes to the charity. Thus, the after-tax cost of the gift of appreciated stock is $647 ($1,000 – $240 – $113) compared to the after-tax cost of a donation of $1,000 cash which would be $760 ($1,000 – $240). However, it’s important to also keep in mind that tax deductions for contributions of appreciated long-term capital gain property may be limited to a certain percentage of your adjusted gross income depending on the amount of the deduction.
Finally, if you have an individual retirement account and are 70 1/2 years old and older, you are eligible to make a charitable contribution directly from your IRA. This is more advantageous than taking a distribution and making a donation to the charity that may or may not be deductible as an itemized deduction.
Child Tax Credit. The ARP significantly increased the child tax credit (CTC) available in 2021. The CTC was increased from $2,000 to $3,000 or, for children under 6, to $3,600. The age of a child for which the credit is available was raised from 16 to 17. Further, the refundable amount of the 2021 CTC equals the entire credit amount, rather being based on an earned income formula. Under modified phase-out rules, the modified adjusted gross income threshold which determines if an individual qualifies for the CTC was reduced to $150,000 in the case of a joint return or surviving spouse, $112,500 in the case of a head of household, and $75,000 in any other case. This special phase-out reduction is limited to the lesser of the applicable credit increase amount (i.e., either $1,000 or $1,600) or 5 percent of the applicable phase-out threshold range. Taxpayers with refundable child tax credits may be eligible to receive advance payments of the credit.
Dependent Care Assistance Tax Benefits. The ARP provided a number of favorable changes to tax benefits relating to dependent care assistance, including: (1) making the child and dependent care tax credit (CDCTC) refundable; (2) increasing the amount of expenses eligible for the CDCTC; (3) increasing the maximum rate of the CDCTC; (4) increasing the applicable percentage of expenses eligible for the CDCTC; and (5) increasing the exclusion from income for employer-provided dependent care assistance.
Generally, you may be eligible for a nonrefundable CDCTC for up to 35 percent of the expenses paid to someone to care for your child or your dependent so that you can work or look for work. For 2021, the dependent care credit is refundable for an individual who lives in the United States for more than one-half of the tax year. Under the ARP, the amount of child and dependent care expenses that are eligible for the credit was increased to $8,000 for one qualifying individual and $16,000 for two or more qualifying individuals. The maximum credit rate also goes up from 35 to 50 percent and a phaseout thresholds begin at $125,000 of adjusted gross income (i.e., household income). At $125,000, the credit percentage begins to phase out, and plateaus at 20 percent.
Credit for Sick Leave for Self-Employed Individuals. As a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, special income tax credits were enacted for self-employed individuals. If you are considered an eligible self-employed individual, you may qualify for an income tax credit for a qualified sick leave equivalent amount. You are an eligible self-employed individual if you regularly carry on any trade or business and would be entitled to receive paid leave during the tax year under the Emergency Paid Sick Leave Act added by the Families First Act. The calculation of the qualified sick leave equivalent amount is quite complicated but is generally equal to the number of days during the tax year that you could not perform services for which you would have been entitled to sick leave, multiplied by the lesser of two amounts: (1) $511, or (2) 100 percent of your average daily self-employment income. The number of days taken into account in determining the qualified sick leave equivalent amount may not generally exceed 10 days. Your average daily self-employment income under this provision is an amount equal to the net earnings from self-employment for the year divided by 260. In addition, if you have appropriate documentation, the credit is refundable.
If you can afford to do so, investing the maximum amount allowable in a qualified retirement plan will yield a large tax benefit. If your employer has a 401(k) plan and you are under age 50, you can defer up to $19,500 of income into that plan for 2021. Catch-up contributions of $6,500 are allowed if you are 50 or over. If you have a SIMPLE 401(k), the maximum pre-tax contribution for 2021 is $13,500. That amount increases to $16,500 if you are 50 or older. The maximum IRA deductible contribution for 2021 is $6,000 and that amount increases to $7,000 if you are 50 or over.
Please call me at your convenience so we can set up an appointment to discuss your 2021 tax return and determine if any estimated tax payment may be due before year end.