Because federal tax law reaches deep into all aspects of our lives, it’s no surprise that the rules that affect us change as our lives change. This can present opportunities to save or create costly pitfalls to avoid. Being alert to the rolling changes that come at various life stages is the key to holding down your tax bill to the legal minimum. Check out these issues that face the newly retired.
Bigger Standard Deduction
When you turn 65, the IRS offers a gift in the form of a bigger standard deduction. For 2015 returns, for example, a single 64-year-old gets a standard deduction of $6,300 (it will be the same amount for 2016). A 65-year-old gets $7,850 in 2015 (and $7,850 in 2016).
The extra $1,550 will make it more likely you’ll take the standard deduction rather than itemizing and, if you do, the additional amount will save you almost $400 if you’re in the 25% bracket. Couples in which one or both spouses are age 65 or older also get bigger standard deductions than younger taxpayers. Be sure to take advantage of your age.
Easier Medical Deductions
Until 2017, taxpayers age 65 and older get a break when it comes to deducting medical expenses. Those who itemize get a money-saving deduction to the extent their medical bills exceed 7.5% of adjusted gross income. For younger taxpayers, the AGI threshold is 10%.
Deduct Medicare Premiums
If you become self-employed—say, as a consultant—after you leave your job, you can deduct the premiums you pay for Medicare Part B and Part D, plus the cost of supplemental Medicare (Medigap) policies or the cost of a Medicare Advantage plan.
This deduction is available whether or not you itemize and is not subject to the 7.5%-of-AGI test that applies to itemized medical expenses for those age 65 and older. One caveat: You can't claim this deduction if you are eligible to be covered under an employer-subsidized health plan offered by either your employer (if you have retiree medical coverage, for example) or your spouse's employer (if he or she has a job that offers family medical coverage).
Spousal IRA Contribution
Retiring doesn’t necessarily mean an end to the chance to shovel money into an IRA.
If you’re married and your spouse is still working, he or she can contribute up to $6,500 a year to an IRA that you own. (We’re assuming that since you’re reading about breaks for retirees, you’re at least 50 years old.) If you use a traditional IRA, spousal contributions are allowed up to the year you reach age 70 ½. If you use a Roth IRA, there is no age limit. As long as your spouse has enough earned income to fund the contribution to your account (and any deposits to his or her own), this tax shelter’s doors remain open to you.
The RMD Workaround
Retirees taking required minimum distributions from their traditional IRAs may have an extra option for meeting the pay-as-you-go demand.
If you don’t need the required distribution to live on during the year, wait until December to take the money. And, ask your IRA sponsor to hold back a big chunk of it for the IRS—enough to cover your estimated tax on both the RMD and your other taxable income as well.
Although estimated tax payments are considered made when you send the checks, amounts withheld from IRA distributions are considered paid throughout the year, even if they are made in a lump sum at year-end. So, if your RMD is more than large enough to cover your tax bill, you can keep your cash safely ensconced in its tax shelter most of the year and still avoid the underpayment penalty.
Avoid the Pension Payout Trap
There’s a menacing exception to the general rule that it’s up to you whether taxes will be withheld from payments from pensions, annuities, IRAs and other retirement plans. If you get a lump-sum payment from a company plan, you could fall into a pension-payout trap.
If you take such a payment, the company is required by law to withhold a flat 20% for the IRS, even if you simply plan to move the money to an IRA via a tax-free rollover. Even if you complete the rollover within the 60 days required by law, the IRS will still hold on to the 20% until you file a tax return for the year and demand a refund. Worse yet, how can you rollover 100% of the lump sum if the IRS is holding on to 20% of it? Failure to come up with the extra money for the IRA would mean that amount would be considered a taxable distribution—triggering an immediate tax bill, maybe penalties and certainly forever reducing the amount in your IRA tax shelter.
Fortunately, there’s an easy way around that miserable outcome. Simply ask your employer to send the money directly to a rollover IRA. As long as the check is made out to your IRA and not to you personally, there’s no withholding.
Even if you intend to spend some of the money right away, your best bet is still to ask your employer to make the direct IRA transfer. Then, when you withdraw funds from the IRA, it’s up to you whether there will be withholding.
Give Your Money Away
Few Americans have to worry about the federal estate tax. After all, each of us has a credit large enough to permit us to pass up to $5,450,000 to heirs in 2016. Married couples can pass on double that amount.
But, if the estate tax might be in your future, be sure to take advantage of the annual gift-tax exclusion. This rule lets you give up to $14,000 annually to any number of people without worrying about the gift tax. If you have three married children and each couple has two children, for example, you can give the kids and grandchildrens a total of $168,000 in 2015 without even having to file a gift tax return. Money given under the protection of the exclusion can’t be taxed as part of your estate after your death.