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AMT Awareness & The 529 Plan for Funding a College Education

AMT Awareness: Be Ready For Anything

When it comes to tax planning, you’ve got to be ready for anything. For example, do you know whether you’re likely to be subject to the alternative minimum tax (AMT) when you file your 2016 return? If not, you need to find out now so that you can consider taking steps before year end to minimize potential liability.

Bigger bite

The AMT was established to ensure that high-income individuals pay at least a minimum tax, even if they have many large deductions that significantly reduce their “regular” income tax. If your AMT liability is greater than your regular income tax liability, you must pay the difference as AMT, in addition to the regular tax.

AMT rates begin at 26% and rise to 28% at higher income levels. The maximum rate is lower than the maximum income tax rate of 39.6%, but far fewer deductions are allowed, so the AMT could end up taking a bigger tax bite.

For instance, you can’t deduct state and local income or sales taxes, property taxes, miscellaneous itemized deductions subject to the 2% floor, or home equity loan interest on debt not used for home improvements. You also can’t take personal exemptions for yourself or your dependents, or the standard deduction if you don’t itemize your deductions.

Steps to consider

Fortunately, you may be able to take steps to minimize your AMT liability, including:

Timing capital gains. The AMT exemption (an amount you can deduct in calculating AMT liability) phases out based on income, so realizing capital gains could cause you to lose part or all of the exemption. If it looks like you could be subject to the AMT this year, you might want to delay sales of highly appreciated assets until next year (if you don’t expect to be subject to the AMT then) or use an installment sale to spread the gains (and potential AMT liability) over multiple years.

Timing deductible expenses. Try to time the payment of expenses that are deductible for regular tax purposes but not AMT purposes for years in which you don’t anticipate AMT liability. Otherwise, you’ll gain no tax benefit from those deductions. If you’re on the threshold of AMT liability this year, you might want to consider delaying state tax payments, as long as the late-payment penalty won’t exceed the tax savings from staying under the AMT threshold.

Investing in the “right” bonds. Interest on tax-exempt bonds issued for public activities (for example, schools and roads) is exempt from the AMT. You may want to convert bonds issued for private activities (for example, sports stadiums), which generally don’t enjoy the AMT interest exemption.

Appropriate strategies

Failing to plan for the AMT can lead to unexpected — and undesirable — tax consequences. Please contact us for help assessing your risk and, if necessary, implementing the appropriate strategies for your situation.

Sidebar: Does this sound familiar?

High-income earners are typically most susceptible to the alternative minimum tax. But liability may also be triggered by:

  • A large family (meaning you take many exemptions),
  • Substantial itemized deductions for state and local income taxes, property taxes, miscellaneous itemized deductions subject to the 2% floor, home equity loan interest, or other expenses that aren’t deductible for AMT purposes,
  • Exercising incentive stock options,
  • Large capital gains,
  • Adjustments to passive income or losses, or
  • Interest income from private activity municipal bonds.

 

Funding A College Education? Don’t Forget The 529

When 529 plans first hit the scene, circa 1996, they were big news. Nowadays, they’re a common part of the college-funding landscape. But don’t forget about them — 529 plans remain a valid means of saving for the rising cost of tuition and more.

Flexibility is king

529 plans are generally sponsored by states, though private institutions can sponsor 529 prepaid tuition plans. Just about anyone can open a 529 plan. And you can name anyone, including a child, grandchild, friend, or even yourself, as the beneficiary.

Investment options for 529 savings plans typically include stock and bond mutual funds, as well as money market funds. Some plans offer age-based portfolios that automatically shift to more conservative investments as the beneficiaries near college age.

Earnings in 529 savings plans typically aren’t subject to federal tax, so long as the funds are used for the beneficiary’s qualified educational expenses. This can include tuition, room and board, books, fees, and computer technology at most accredited two- and four-year colleges and universities, vocational schools, and eligible foreign institutions.

Many states offer full or partial state income tax deductions or other tax incentives to residents making 529 plan contributions, at least if the contributions are made to a plan sponsored by that state.

You’re not limited to participating in your own state’s plan. You may find you’re better off with another state’s plan that offers a wider range of investments or lower fees.

The downsides

While 529 plans can help save taxes, they have some downsides. Amounts not used for qualified educational expenses may be subject to taxes and penalties. A 529 plan also might reduce a student’s ability to get need-based financial aid, because money in the plan isn’t an “exempt” asset. That said, 529 plan money is generally treated more favorably than, for instance, assets in a custodial account in the student’s name.

Just like other investments, those within 529s can fluctuate with the stock market. And some plans charge enrollment and asset management fees.

Finally, in the case of prepaid tuition plans, there may be some uncertainty as to how the benefits will be applied if the student goes to a different school.

Work with a pro

The tax rules governing 529 savings plans can be complex. So please give us a call. We can help you determine whether a 529 plan is right for you.