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10 Basic Tax To-Dos

Here are 10 things to consider as you weigh potential tax moves between now and the end of the year.

Effective planning requires that you have a good understanding of your current tax situation, as well as a reasonable estimate of how your circumstances might change next year. There’s a real opportunity for tax savings when you can assess whether you’ll be paying taxes at a lower rate in one year than in the other. So, carve out some time.

Consider any opportunities you have to defer income to 2015, particularly if you think you may be in a lower tax bracket then. For example, you may be able to defer a year-end bonus or delay the collection of business debts, rents, and payments for services. Doing so may enable you to postpone payment of tax on the income until next year.

You might also look for opportunities to accelerate deductions into the 2014 tax year. If you itemize deductions, making payments for deductible expenses such as medical expenses, qualifying interest, and state taxes before the end of the year, instead of paying them in early 2015, could make a difference on your 2014 return.

Note: If you think you’ll be paying taxes at a higher rate next year, consider the benefits of taking the opposite tack–looking for ways to accelerate income into 2014, and possibly postponing deductions.

If your adjusted gross income (AGI) is more than $254,200 ($305,050 if married filing jointly, $152,525 if married filing separately, $279,650 if filing as head of household), your personal and dependent exemptions may be phased out, and your itemized deductions may be limited. If your 2014 AGI puts you in this range, consider any potential limitation on itemized deductions as you weigh any moves relating to timing deductions.

If you’re subject to the alternative minimum tax (AMT), traditional year-end maneuvers such as deferring income and accelerating deductions can have a negative effect. Essentially a separate federal income tax system with its own rates and rules, the AMT effectively disallows a number of itemized deductions, making it a significant consideration when it comes to year-end tax planning. For example, if you’re subject to the AMT in 2014, prepaying 2015 state and local taxes probably won’t help your 2014 tax situation, but could hurt your 2015 bottom line. Taking the time to determine whether you may be subject to AMT before you make any year-end moves can save you from making a, costly mistake.

AMT “Triggers”: You’re more likely to be subject to the AMT if you claim a large number of personal exemptions, deductible medical expenses, state and local taxes, and miscellaneous itemized deductions. Other common triggers include home equity loan interest when proceeds aren’t used to buy, build, or improve your home, and the exercise of incentive stock options.

Deductible contributions to a traditional IRA and pretax contributions to an employer-sponsored retirement plan such as a 401(k) could reduce your 2014 taxable income. 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 from federal income tax, making Roth retirement savings vehicles appealing for many.

For 2014, you can contribute up to $17,500 to a 401(k) plan ($23,000 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 2014 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 2014 IRA contributions.

Once you reach age 70½, you generally must start taking required minimum distributions (RMDs) from traditional IRAs and employer-sponsored retirement plans (an exception may apply if you’re still working and participating in an employer-sponsored plan). Take any distributions by the date required–the end of the year for most individuals. The penalty for failing to do so is substantial: 50% of the amount that should have been distributed.

A host of popular tax provisions, commonly referred to as "tax extenders," expired at the end of 2013. Among the provisions that are no longer available: 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.

It’s always possible that legislation late in the year could retroactively extend some of the provisions above, or add new wrinkles–so stay informed.

There’s a lot to think about when it comes to tax planning. That’s why it often makes sense to talk to a tax professional who is able to evaluate your situation, keep you apprised of legislative changes, and help you determine if any year-end moves make sense for you.

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