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tax basics 2015

2015 Year-End Tax Planning Basics

As the end of the 2015 tax year approaches, set aside some time to evaluate your situation and consider potential opportunities. Effective year-end planning depends on a good understanding of both your current circumstances and how those circumstances might change next year.

Basic strategies

Consider whether there’s an opportunity to defer income to 2016. For example, you might be able to defer a year-end bonus or delay the collection of business debts, rents, and payments for services. When you defer income to 2016, you postpone payment of the tax on that income. And if there’s a chance that you might be paying taxes at a lower rate next year (for example, if you know that you’ll have less taxable income next year), deferring income might mean paying less tax on the deferred income.

You should also look for potential ways to accelerate 2016 deductions into the 2015 tax year. If you typically itemize deductions on Schedule A of Form 1040, you might be able to accelerate some deductible expenses–such as medical expenses, qualifying interest, or state and local taxes–by making payments before the end of the current year, instead of paying them in early 2016. Or you might consider making next year’s charitable contribution this year instead. If you think you’ll be itemizing deductions in one year but claiming the standard deduction in the other, trying to defer (or accelerate) Schedule A deductions into the year for which you’ll be itemizing deductions might let you take advantage of deductions that would otherwise be lost.

Depending on your circumstances, you might also consider taking the opposite approach. For example, if you think that you’ll be paying taxes at a higher rate next year (maybe as the result of a recent compensation increase or the planned sale of assets), you might want to look for ways to accelerate income into 2015 and possibly defer deductions until 2016 (when they could potentially be more valuable).

Complicating factors

First, you need to factor in the alternative minimum tax (AMT). The AMT is essentially a separate, parallel federal income tax system with its own rates and rules. If you’re subject to the AMT, traditional year-end strategies may be ineffective or actually have negative consequences–that’s because the AMT effectively disallows a number of itemized deductions. So if you’re subject to the AMT in 2015, prepaying 2016 state and local taxes probably won’t help your 2015 tax situation, and, in fact, could hurt your 2016 bottom line.

It’s also important to recognize that personal and dependency exemptions may be phased out and itemized deductions may be limited once your adjusted gross income (AGI) reaches a certain level. This is especially important to factor in if your AGI is approaching the threshold limit and you’re evaluating whether to accelerate or defer income or itemized deductions. For 2015, the AGI threshold is $258,250 if you file as single, $309,900 if married filing jointly, $154,950 if married filing separately, and $284,050 if head of household.

IRA and retirement plan contributions

Deductible contributions to a traditional IRA and pretax contributions to an employer-sponsored retirement plan such as a 401(k) could reduce your 2015 taxable income. (Note: A number of factors determine whether you’re eligible to deduct contributions to a traditional IRA.) Contributions to a Roth IRA (assuming you meet the income requirements) or a Roth 401(k) plan are made with after-tax dollars–so there’s no immediate tax savings–but qualified distributions are completely free of federal income tax.

For 2015, you’re generally able to contribute up to $18,000 to a 401(k) plan ($24,000 if you’re age 50 or older) and up to $5,500 to a traditional or Roth IRA ($6,500 if you’re age 50 or older). The window to make 2015 contributions to an employer plan generally closes at the end of the year, while you typically have until the due date of your federal income tax return to make 2015 IRA contributions.

Important notes

The Supreme Court has legalized same-sex marriage nationwide, significantly simplifying the federal and state income tax filing requirements for same-sex married couples living in states that did not previously recognize their marriage.

A host of popular tax provisions (commonly referred to as “tax extenders”) expired at the end of 2014. Although it is possible that some or all of these provisions will be retroactively extended, currently they are not available for the 2015 tax year. Among the provisions: deducting state and local sales taxes in lieu of state and local income taxes; the above-the-line deduction for qualified higher-education expenses; qualified charitable distributions (QCDs) from IRAs; and increased business expense and “bonus” depreciation rules.

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