Whether you get an exciting new opportunity or become the victim of downsizing, you're likely to switch jobs at some point -- perhaps often -- in your career. Leaving a job and starting a new one has a number of implications for both your tax bill and your benefits.
Separation pay and other compensation. Any severance pay you receive is taxable, as are payments from your old employer for any accumulated vacation or sick time. So be sure that enough taxes are withheld from these. Also, watch for that final W-2 form from your former employer. The company isn't required to send it to you right away, but must provide it by January 31 of the year after you leave the company. Unemployment compensation. It may seem like giving with one hand and taking with the other, but jobless pay is fully taxable. It's up to you whether to have taxes withheld from your benefits.
Job-hunting expenses. You can take an itemized deduction for the expenses you incur in looking for a new job in the same line of work (but not your first job), even if your job search is unsuccessful. There's no write off if you're trying to change careers. Eligible expenses include the cost to print and mail your résumé, fees paid to an employment or outplacement agency, and travel costs associated with the job search. But there's a catch: Job-hunting costs are considered miscellaneous expenses, which are deductible only to the extent the total of qualifying costs (for job-hunting expenses and other miscellaneous expenses such as tax and investment advice) exceed 2% of your adjusted gross income.
Moving costs. If changing jobs requires you to relocate, your moving costs and the expense of traveling to your new location may be deductible. There are, however, distance and time tests you must meet. Your move passes the distance test if the main location of your new position is at least 50 miles farther from your former home than the main location of your old job. Note that the distance from your home to the new job isn't what matters; it's the commute that would have to be at least 50 miles farther if you didn't relocate.
As for the time test, if you're an employee you must work full time for at least 39 weeks (not necessarily for the same employer) during the first 12 months after you move. If you are self-employed, you must work for at least 39 weeks during the first 12 months and for a total of at least 78 weeks during the first 24 months after you arrive in the general area of your new job location. You claim the deduction for the year of the move even if you haven't yet passed the time test when it's time to file your return ... assuming you expect to pass the test. Good news: You can take this write-off even if you don't itemize deductions.
Withholding. Starting a new job gives you a fresh chance to get your withholding right -- something most employees fail to do, as evidenced by the fact that more than 100 million get fat tax refunds each year. Take the time to go over the instructions for the W-4 form you're asked to fill out for your new employer. The number of "allowances" you claim on that form controls how much will be withheld from your checks.
Note this: Withholding may jump after your job switch if you have already earned more than the Social Security wage base for the year. For 2012, the 4.2% Social Security tax on employees applies to the first $110,100 of wages. After you reach that point, your employer stops withholding the tax. But, if you move to a different job, that firm must withhold the tax until it has paid you $110,100. You don't really owe more than $4,624.20 (4.2% of $110,100), so any excess Social Security tax withheld will be refunded when you file your tax return for the year. To better tailor your withholding, try our withholding calculator.
Selling your home. Moving to a new job may entail selling your primary residence, which can have capital-gains tax implications. Normally, the law allows you to avoid capital gains tax on the first $250,000 of gain on the sale of your home ($500,000 for married couples), if you have owned and lived in the house for at least two of the previous five years. What happens if you're forced to sell your house and move less than two years after you bought it?
If the sale is the result of a job change, and you pass the 50-mile distance test described above, IRS rules allow you to take a partial exclusion, based on the amount of time that you used the house as a primary residence. If you owned and lived in the house for just one year, for example, you'd get half the exclusion available to those who meet the two-year test. That means up to $125,000 of profit would be tax free ($250,000 for married couples).
Retirement savings. Changing jobs is dangerous for retirement savings. Too many employees take the opportunity to get their hands on 401(k) money as a license to do so. At any age, cashing in the 401(k) means paying tax on every dime you withdraw (unless you have made after-tax contributions) and, if you're under age 55 in the year you leave your job, you'll also be hit with a 10% tax penalty. Maybe worse yet, short circuiting you retirement savings could be disastrous for your long-term financial health. You have better options. If you have more than $5,000 in the account, you can leave your money with your old employer, where it will continue to grow in the tax shelter. You'll probably be better off transferring your 401(k) balance to an IRA (where you would have almost unlimited investment options) or your new employer's 401(k) (if it accepts transfers and has investment options you like).
If you plan a rollover to an IRA or new employer's plan, ask your old boss to ship the money directly to the new account. If you have the money paid to you, with the idea that you'll deposit it in the new plan, the law requires your old plan sponsor to withhold 20% of your money for the IRS. It's tough to rollover money that's been confiscated by the IRS. You can roll 401(k) money directly into a Roth IRA; you have to pay tax on the amount shifted to the Roth IRA, but all withdrawals in retirement can be tax free. If part of your 401(k) is invested in your company's stock, be sure to check out the special rules for "net unrealized appreciation" -- a mouthful of a tax term that could save you money.
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