There are certain year-end financial transactions that must clear by Dec. 31 to be reported on the 2020 tax return. It is important to take a good look at your financial portfolio in light of the plethora of unusual events that occurred this year. Now is a good time to determine if you have fallen off track and whether you can reposition your portfolio for better opportunities in 2021.
Despite the dramatic stock market drop that accompanied the outbreak of COVID-19, markets have recovered remarkably well. This means the traditional strategy of harvesting gains and losses at year-end could be appropriate for many investors. When your capital losses are more than your capital gains for the year, you can claim up to $3,000 to reduce your taxable income and even carry over remainder losses on next year’s tax return.
Harvesting is also a good way to rebalance your asset allocation strategy so you are well-positioned to meet long-term goals starting in the New Year. If you are interested in selling winners and losers to mitigate your 2020 tax liability, make sure these transactions are fully completed by Dec. 31.
Tip: Some investors might be tempted to sell shares for a loss and then buy back into that position. However, take pains to avoid running afoul of the “wash rule,” which is when an investor purchases a “substantially identical” security within 30 days of a lost sale. Doing so diminishes the losses you can claim on your taxes, even if you buy it back in January. This can also occur inadvertently through automatic dividend and capital gains reinvestment purchases, so monitor your holdings and make sure there’s a 30-day lag between sale and reinvestment.
For workers who invest in an employer-sponsored 401(k) plan, you have until the end of the year to defer up to $19,500 ($26,000 if you’re age 50 or older) from your paycheck. If you would like to stash away more money, the combined annual limit for traditional and Roth IRAs is $6,000 ($7,000 for age 50+) for 2020. Note, however, that contributions for these accounts may continue to be made up until you file your 2020 tax return.
Tip: Given the potential for higher taxes under the new administration, it might be wise to max out after-tax Roth IRA contributions while taxes are low. When taxes are higher, traditional IRAs and 401(k)s tend to be more valuable because tax-deferred contributions help reduce current income. You also might want to convert a portion of traditional IRA funds to a Roth this year to take advantage of the lower tax environment. Convert only a strategic portion to avoid tipping your current income into a higher tax bracket.
Retirement Plan Withdrawals
You have until year-end to withdraw up to $100,000 without penalty from a retirement plan, if you have been directly affected by COVID-19 this year. Note, too, that subsequent income taxes on this withdrawal can either be spread out over a three-year period or avoided entirely if you re-contribute the funds over the next three years.
Tip: Legislation passed early in the year permits retirees to skip taking required minimum distributions in 2020. However, because the stock market has recovered nicely, and in light of higher taxes in the future, it might be a good idea to go ahead and take this distribution before year-end.
Education Savings Accounts
If your college student received a tuition refund this year because the class experience moved online, be aware that any refunds of College Savings 529 plans must be deposited back into that account. Otherwise, that money is considered a distribution for non-qualified expenses. Make that deposit back into the 529 account by year-end to avoid any taxes or penalties.
Tip: Parents and grandparents can reduce their estates by making a year-end gift to a student’s 529 plan. You may gift up to $15,000 ($30,000 for married couples) per beneficiary without incurring gift taxes or affecting your lifetime gift tax exemption ($11.58 million).