Because of the new rules imposed by the Tax Reform Act of 1986, and because some of those rules are being phased in during the 1987-1991 tax years, year-end tax planning is more confusing than usual. But for precisely the same reasons, such planning is more important than ever for most people.
For one thing, the tax rates will be lower for 1988 than they are for 1987 for couples with taxable income above $45,000, and for single taxpayers whose taxable income exceeds $27,000.
If you fall into those groups, you will save tax dollars if you can postpone taxable income until next year and accelerate deductions to 1987 from 1988.
All taxpayers -- regardless of income -- can benefit from those techniques, since tax liability can be postponed a full year and the "time value" of money will provide a payoff. (I've never really been convinced that the savings resulting from this one-year delay is worth the hassle when only a small number of dollars is involved, but every tax specialist mentions it, so I feel obligated to do so also.)
If you're self-employed, you can often defer income to the following year by a short delay in your billing cycle; you can accelerate business deductions by making payments in late December that might not be due until early January. It's a little more difficult for an employe; you can't shift salary income to 1988 simply by not picking up your paycheck until after Jan. 1.
If the normal business practice of your employer is to make your pay available to you in December, it is considered constructively received in 1987 even if you don't actually take the money until 1988. But your employer may legally postpone payment of a year-end bonus until January. If the employer is on a calendar-year basis and wants to get a deduction for the payment in 1987, he or she can mail the check at the end of December -- making it a 1987 expense -- but it becomes income to you in 1988, the year of actual receipt.
If you have a substantial sum of money earning taxable interest, you can slip some income into 1988 by buying a six-month CD or a short-term Treasury bill; the interest in either case will not be taxable until 1988, the year you receive it. Tax liability on the accruing interest on EE Savings Bonds, of course, may be postponed until the bonds are cashed -- but this only works if you don't need the income on a current basis.
The old rules on "bunching" deductions continue to apply, although the increased standard deduction will make itemizing less attractive for millions of taxpayers. If you already have enough deductions to itemize on Schedule A, accelerating whatever you can into 1987 will give you a more valuable deduction than in 1988.
You can make charitable contributions early, and also prepay some 1988 deductible expenses. For example, pay the final installment on your 1987 state income tax estimate now instead of waiting until January, or perhaps shock your bank with a check in December for an early January mortgage installment.
Got some medical expenses? Remember that the floor has risen: You may only claim expenses in excess of 7.5 percent of adjusted gross income. If you can't reach that figure, try postponing elective medical treatment until 1988, when you may have better luck.
On the other hand, if you're already there, move into 1987 whatever medical expenses you can from 1988; go for your routine six-month dental checkup, for example. Remember that if you pay by credit card in December, you get the deduction this year even though you won't actually pay the bill until some time in 1988.
The same rule applies to miscellaneous expenses, which this year can only be claimed on Schedule A to the extent that they exceed 2 percent of adjusted gross income. But prepayment of multiyear subscriptions to investment journals won't help; you may only deduct that part attributable to a single year's subscription. As in the case of medical expenses, if you don't have enough to breach that AGI floor, postpone to 1988 whatever miscellaneous deductions you can in the hope that you may then be able to use them.
Next week: More on year-end tax planning.
Abramson is a family financial counselor and tax adviser. Questions of general interest on tax matters, insurance, investments, estate planning and other aspects of family finance will be answered in this column. Advice cannot be given on an individual basis. Address all questions to E.M. Abramson, The Washington Post, Business News, 1150 15th St. NW, Washington, D.C. 2007