Thanks Mitt and Newt: A Dozen Tax Tips for the Rest of Us
While the punditocracy dives into the details and debates the vices and virtues of Mitt Romney's and Newt Gingrich's 2010 tax returns, we decided to see if we could glean any ideas that might help you with your taxes ... and maybe even save you some money.
We found a gold mine for ordinary folks who'll never need a Swiss bank account or have to file forms like the Form 926 "Return by a U.S. Transferor of Property to a Foreign Corporation" or Schedule M of Form 5471 "Transactions Between Controlled Foreign Corporation and Shareholders or Other Related Persons" that were attached to Romney's return.
Don't Forget Tax-free Interest
If you think Romney and Gingrich disagree about undocumented immigrants, their tax returns suggest that they're polar opposites when it comes to investing in municipal bonds to earn tax-free interest.
The former speaker's 2010 return shows he earned $10,754 of tax-free interest, compared with $26,655 of the taxable variety. Romney's forms show just $557 of tax-free interest and $3,295,727 of taxable interest income.
Remember, to figure the taxable-equivalent yield of a tax-free bond, divide the tax-free yield by 1 minus your marginal tax rate. Since Gingrich's marginal rate is 35%, a 3.5% tax-free yield is worth the same as a 5.38% taxable yield (3.5/0.65). Romney was hit by the alternative minimum tax in 2010, so his marginal rate was 28%. Avoiding a 28% tax makes a 3.5% tax-free rate equal to a 4.86% taxable yield (3.5/0.72).
Remember Points on a Second Home
When you buy your principal residence, points you pay to get your mortgage are fully deductible on your tax return for the year you close. When it comes to a second home (or a rental property or a refinancing), however, that cost must be amortized over the life of the loan -- 1/30th a year if you have a 30-year mortgage, for example. That can lead to relatively small -- and relatively easy-to-forget -- write offs.
But if you follow Gingrich's example, you won't miss this tax break. His return shows a $19 deduction for a portion of the $2,261 it cost him to refinance the mortgage on a rental property he owns in Whitehall, Wisc. Since the refi was in October, 2010, he got to write off one-fourth of 1/30th of the cost on that year's return.
Donate Appreciated Assets to Charity
Anyone planning a substantial charitable gift this year should take a page from Romney's playbook and consider donating appreciated securities rather than cash.
As long as you have owned the asset for more than a year, you get to deduct the full fair market value of the gift, not what you paid for it. (And neither you nor the charity ever has to pay tax on the appreciation that accrued while you owned the stock.)
Romney's 2010 return shows that he and his wife, Ann, donated $1,525,167 in cash and another $1,458,807 in non-cash gifts -- much of it appreciated stock in Domino's Pizza.
Write off Alimony Payments
Even if you don't itemize deductions, you can write off alimony paid to an ex-spouse ... as long as you also include the ex's Social Security number so the IRS can make sure he or she reports the amount as taxable income. Gingrich’s return shows that he made payments of $19,800 to one recipient in 2010. Since the Social Security number is blacked out on the publicly disclosed form, it’s unclear which of his two ex-wives received the payments.
Make the Most of Worthless Stock
The tax law allows you to deduct the loss on a stock that becomes worthless, treating it as though you sold it for $0 at the end of the year in which it lost all value. That appears to have happened to at least one of Mitt Romney's investments. His return shows a $63,511 loss on shares in an investment fund that were disposed of for $0.
Beware the Passive Loss Rule
Congress has created special rules for what it calls "passive activities," a group that includes most investments in real estate and limited partnerships.
Basically losses from such investments can only be deducted against gains from similar activities. There's an exception that allows up to $25,000 of loss from rental real estate to be deducted if you are "actively" involved in the rental.
We don't know if Gingrich is actively involved in the rental in Wisconsin, but even if he was, he would not have been permitted to deduct the $4,646 loss he reported. The $25,000 allowance gradually disappears as adjusted gross income moves between $100,000 and $150,000. With AGI of $3,142,066, Gingrich is out of luck. (He can stockpile the disallowed loss and deduct it when he sells the property.) By the way, the Romneys' return shows that the passive-loss rule blocked the deduction of over $2 million in losses from limited partnerships.
Pay the Nanny Tax
Plenty of politicians have gotten in trouble in the past for failing to pay Social Security taxes for their child-care providers and household help. For 2012, if you pay household help more than $1,800, you are required to file a Schedule H with your return and pay Social Security and Medicare taxes for your employee.
Both Romney and Gingrich included the form and paid the piper for their household help in 2010. Ann Romney reported that she paid four household employees a total of $20,603 in 2010 and paid $3,152 in taxes for them. Gingrich reported that he paid household help $14,774 and paid $2,260 in Social Security and Medicare tax.
Avoid the Underpayment Penalty
The federal income tax is on a pay-as-you-earn system and if you don't pay in enough during the year -- via withholding from paychecks or estimated tax payments -- the IRS will slap on an underpayment penalty. Generally, you avoid the penalty if your payments during the year are at least 90% of what you owe. Gingrich owed an extra $382,734 when he filed his 2010 return, 38% of his tax bill for the year. That triggered an underpayment penalty of $1,543.
The opposite side of the coin from the underpayment penalty is paying in too much doing the year. About 75% of all taxpayers are in this boat, and get tax refunds every spring. We think that's silly -- and we have a calculator to help you match withholding from your paychecks to what you'll owe for the year. Our calculator won't help Romney, though, because he has no wages from which to withhold. He overpays via quarterly estimated tax payments, and, boy, does he overpay! His 2010 return shows that he paid in $1,609,441 more than the $3,009,766 that he owed. He didn't ask for a refund, though. He let the IRS keep the cash as a down payment on his 2011 tax bill.
Write off Medical Insurance Premiums
A special rule allows qualifying self-employed workers to deduct 100% of their medical insurance premiums, even if they don't itemize deductions. That might have helped Romney, who reported that he paid $14,176 in self-employed health insurance premiums in 2010. But he didn't get the tax break. Rather than claim the special deduction, Romney reported the premiums as a medical expense on Schedule A, where a deduction is allowed only to the extent such expenses exceed 7.5% of adjusted gross income. Romney's $14,176 of premiums fell well short of $1,623,488 (7.5% of his AGI).