Investment interest — interest on debt used to buy assets held for investment, such as margin debt used to buy securities — generally is deductible for both regular tax and alternative minimum tax purposes. But special rules apply that can make this itemized deduction less beneficial than you might think.
Limits on the deduction
First, you can’t deduct interest you incurred to produce tax-exempt income. For example, if you borrow money to invest in municipal bonds, which are exempt from federal income tax, you can’t deduct the interest.
Second, and perhaps more significant, your investment interest deduction is limited to your net investment income, which, for the purposes of this deduction, generally includes taxable interest, non-qualified dividends and net short-term capital gains, reduced by other investment expenses. In other words, long-term capital gains and qualified dividends aren’t included.
However, any disallowed interest is carried forward. You can then deduct the disallowed interest in a later year if you have excess net investment income.
Changing the tax treatment
You may elect to treat net long-term capital gains or qualified dividends as investment income in order to deduct more of your investment interest. But if you do, that portion of the long-term capital gain or dividend will be taxed at ordinary-income rates.
If you’re wondering whether you can claim the investment interest expense deduction on your 2016 return, please contact us. We can run the numbers to calculate your potential deduction or to determine whether you could benefit from treating gains or dividends differently to maximize your deduction.
Suppose a relative gives you an expensive painting. Several years later, your relative dies and you decide to sell the painting. Your accountant says you’ll owe capital gain tax on the sale, and asks for your basis in order to reduce the amount on which you’ll pay tax. What’s your answer?
When you sell property received as a gift, the general rule is that your basis is the donor’s cost basis. If you sell at a loss, your basis is the lower of the donor’s basis or the fair market value on the date you received the gift. These numbers are adjusted in some cases. But without cost records, you have no way of proving the donor’s basis and no way of saving yourself tax dollars.
If asking for records of the cost when you receive a gift seems inappropriate, explain why you want to know to help make the conversation less awkward. No one likes to pay unnecessary taxes. Having the same conversation about the cost of valuable gifts you received in prior-years is also worthwhile.
If you’re the gift-giver, offer the additional gift of presenting the cost records to the recipient at the same time. Otherwise, you may end up giving an unintended gift to the IRS in the form of unnecessary taxes.
Some tax-cutting strategies make good financial sense. Others are simply bad ideas, often because tax considerations are allowed to override basic economics.
Here’s one example of the tax tail wagging the economic dog. Let’s say that you operate an unincorporated consulting business. You want an additional tax write-off, so you decide to buy $10,000 of office furniture that you don’t really need. If you’re in the 28% tax bracket and you deduct the entire cost, this purchase will trim your tax bill by $2,800 (28% of $10,000). But even after the tax break, you’ll still be out of pocket $7,200 ($10,000 minus $2,800) – and stuck with furniture that you don’t really need.
Other situations in which the focus on tax considerations ignores the bigger financial picture include:
● Increasing the size of a home mortgage, solely to get a larger tax deduction for mortgage interest.
● Hesitating to pay off a mortgage, just to keep the interest deduction.
● Turning down extra income, due to worries about being “pushed into a higher tax bracket.”
● Holding an appreciated asset indefinitely, solely to avoid paying the capital gains tax.
Tax-cutting strategies are part of a bigger financial picture. If you’re contemplating year-end tax-related moves, we can help make sure that everything stays in focus.
Awards of RSUs can provide tax deferral opportunity
Executives and other key employees are often compensated with more than just salary, fringe benefits and bonuses: They may also be awarded stock-based compensation, such as restricted stock or stock options. Another form that’s becoming more common is restricted stock units (RSUs). If RSUs are part of your compensation package, be sure you understand the tax consequences — and a valuable tax deferral opportunity.
RSUs vs. restricted stock
RSUs are contractual rights to receive stock (or its cash value) after the award has vested. Unlike restricted stock, RSUs aren’t eligible for the Section 83(b) election that can allow ordinary income to be converted into capital gains.
But RSUs do offer a limited ability to defer income taxes: Unlike restricted stock, which becomes taxable immediately upon vesting, RSUs aren’t taxable until the employee actually receives the stock.
Rather than having the stock delivered immediately upon vesting, you may be able to arrange with your employer to delay delivery. This will defer income tax and may allow you to reduce or avoid exposure to the additional 0.9% Medicare tax (because the RSUs are treated as FICA income).
However, any income deferral must satisfy the strict requirements of Internal Revenue Code Section 409A.
If RSUs — or other types of stock-based awards — are part of your compensation package, please contact us. The rules are complex, and careful tax planning is critical.