With the end of the 2010 tax year rapidly approaching, there is only a limited amount of time for individuals to take advantage of certain tax savings techniques. This article highlights some last-minute tax planning tips before the end of the year.

Make a charitable contribution by cash or credit card
Charitable contributions can be made at any time, in cash or in property. Taxpayers may also want to accelerate dues and fees for church or synagogue memberships. While a pledge is not deductible, an actual payment will qualify when the payment is made, not when it is received. Thus, putting a check in the mail qualifies as a payment when the payer gives up control of the check (assuming there are sufficient funds and the check is eventually honored), not when the check is received, deposited, or honored.

Charging a contribution is another means of accelerating payment. Payment by credit card is in effect a loan to the payer and is deductible when the charge is made, not when the bill is paid or the charge is honored. Thus, if you make the charge in 2010 but it is not honored until 2011, you can still take the charitable deduction on your 2010 return. Payment by debit card again is a payment when the transaction occurs, even if the amount is not debited until the following day.

Note: special rules may apply to contributions of property, especially motor vehicles.

Adjust withholding
State and local income taxes are deductible when withheld, paid as estimated taxes or paid with a return. If you anticipate owing taxes for 2010, you can increase withholding or make an additional payment to cover the expected liability. The payment must be made in good faith and be based on a reasonable estimate of your tax liability. Taxpayers paying estimated taxes can make the final payment before the end of 2010.

Itemized deductions
In past years, there have been limits on itemized deductions taken by higher-income taxpayers. These limits do not apply in 2010, so taxpayers should not feel constrained to limit their payments and contributions. For higher-income taxpayers, this is especially beneficial.

Deduction for health insurance costs
If you are self-employed, you can take a deduction for your health insurance costs when computing self-employment tax and the self-employment tax deduction.

Small business stock
If you sell qualified small business stock before January 1, 2011, and are eligible for the increased exclusion from income, you may be able to exclude 100 percent of the gains from the sale of stock. Speak with your tax professional before selling such stock, however, since the rules on eligibility and holding periods can be complex. For a majority of taxpayers, the traditional rules for accelerating/deferring income and/or maximizing or deferring deductions to lower your tax bill may still apply in 2010, despite the threat of higher income tax rates next year still possible. Depending on your situation, you may want to:

  • Accelerate income if possible, including bonuses, into 2010
  • Defer selling capital assets at a loss until 2011 and later years
  • Sell capital assets that have appreciated in 2010 to take advantage of the lower capital gains rates (the maximum capital gains rate is 15% for 2010)
  • Move some assets into tax-free instruments, like municipal bonds, that are not subject to federal tax
  • Accelerate billings and/or provide incentive for clients or customers to make payments in 2010 (if you are a self-employed and/or cash-basis taxpayer)
  • Take taxable retirement plan distributions before 2011 (for taxpayers over age 59 1/2)
  • Bunch itemized or business deductions into the 2011 tax year

Maximize “above-the-line” deductions
Above-the-line deductions are especially valuable because they reduce your adjusted gross income (AGI). Many tax benefits may be limited for taxpayers whose AGI is too high. Common above-the-line deductions include contributions to traditional Individual Retirement Account (IRA) and Health Savings Account (HSA), moving expenses, self-employed health insurance costs, and alimony payments.

Claim “green” credits
You may be able to claim tax credits for purchasing particular property. Certain hybrid cars, such as the Nissan Altima, qualify for an energy credit under Code Sec. 30B. It may be necessary to consult with an auto dealer or check IRS rulings to see what credits are in effect, because the credit for a qualifying “green” vehicle phases out over time and eventually is reduced to zero.

Another credit available for “green” taxpayers is the residential energy credit. The credit is 30 percent, up to a total of $1,500, of certain energy-efficient improvements made by a homeowner to his or her principal residence during 2009 and 2010. For example, the credit can be claimed by installing energy efficient windows and doors.

Make a tax-free gift
You can gift, tax-free, up to $13,000 per donee in 2010. A married couple can apply a combined exclusion of $26,000 to a gift of property for one person. Further amounts to any one taxpayer will be offset by the donor’s lifetime exclusion before gift tax is owed. The exclusion applies per year. If it is not used, it is lost; it does not carry over to the succeeding year.

Use an installment sale
If you may be selling property at a gain, you can avoid recognizing the entire gain by using an installment sale. An installment sale has at least one payment after the year of sale. The payment is taxed when it is made, not at the time of the sale. Thus, income can be postponed. The installment method is not available for stocks and bonds, however.

There can be competing considerations, however. Tax rates may increase in 2011 and future years, although perhaps only for the highest-income taxpayers. Still, the amount of gain included in a future payment could be taxed at a higher rate. The 3.8 percent Medicare tax imposed on certain income starting in 2013 also is a factor.

Take your required minimum distributions (RMDs)
RMDs have returned for 2010. Although Congress temporarily suspended the RMD requirements for distributions from IRAs and other retirement accounts in 2009, it did not extend this benefit into 2010. Therefore, taxpayers who are age 70 or older must take their RMD from a traditional IRA (Roth IRAs are not subject to the RMD rules), 401(k) or other retirement accounts by December 31. Failure to do so will subject you to a stiff penalty of 50 percent of the amount you were required to withdraw but failed to. However, for taxpayers who turned age 70 in 2010, you have until April 1, 2011 to take your first RMD.

These are just a few last-minute tax planning strategies you may want to consider as year-end approaches. As always, please contact us if you have any questions.