Tax tips for the 99%

February 4, 2012

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 found a gold mine in tax savings for ordinary folks who will never need a Swiss bank account.

Don’t forget tax-free interest: Remember, to figure the taxable-equivalent yield of a tax-free bond, divide the tax-free yield by 1 minus your marginal tax rate. Because Gingrich’s marginal rate is 35 percent, a 3.5 percent tax-free yield is worth the same as a 5.38 percent taxable yield (3.5/0.65). Romney was hit by the alternative minimum tax in 2010, so his marginal rate was 28 percent. Avoiding a 28 percent tax makes a 3.5 percent tax-free rate equal to a 4.86 percent taxable yield (3.5/0.72).

Remember points on a second home: When you buy your principal residence, points you pay to for 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, one-thirtieth a year if you have a 30-year mortgage, for example. That can lead to relatively small write-offs.

Write off alimony payments: Even if you don’t itemize deductions, you can write off alimony . . . 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.

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 nothing at the end of the year in which it lost all value. That appears to have happened to at least one of Romney’s investments. His return shows a $63,511 loss on shares in an investment fund that were disposed of for zero.

Avoid the underpayment penalty: The federal income tax is on a pay-as-you-earn system. 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 percent of what you owe. Gingrich owed an extra $382,734 when he filed his 2010 return, 38 percent of his tax bill for the year. That triggered an underpayment penalty of $1,543.

Don’t overwithhold: The opposite side of the coin is paying in too much during the year. About 75 percent of all taxpayers are in this boat and get tax refunds every spring. Romney, though, because he has no wages from which to withhold, overpays via quarterly estimated tax payments. His 2010 return shows he paid in $1,609,441 more than the $3,009,766 he owed. He let the IRS keep the money 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 percent of their medical insurance premiums, even if they don’t itemize deductions.

McCormally is editorial director at Kiplingers.com.

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