Here we are, in the dog days of August, which take their name from Sirius, the dog star. What better time for a serious talk about taxes, a subject that has been dogging many of us lately?
Now that you’ve finished groaning, let’s discuss a few things that might help some of you cope with the tax legislation (which I won’t call “reform”) the Trumpublicans foisted on us late last year.
I’d also like to respond to some questions I’ve received about my recent tax-related columns.
Okay? Here we go.
Last year’s tax legislation targeted high-cost, high-home-value, high-tax, Democratic-leaning states by restricting previously unlimited deductions for state and local property and income taxes to $10,000 a year.
In many places, that’s a lot of money. In my town, that’s about half the average annual property tax.
By sticking this limit into the tax bill, the Trumpublicans declared war on my home state of New Jersey, raising taxes for many people who live here.
But guess what? It turns out I can exploit some loopholes — including one the tax bill created to help the likes of President Trump. As a result, I think my wife and I may actually come out ahead.
So I’m not complaining about my personal situation. But friends, neighbors and family members have been hurt by this legislation. As has the idea of a united country. Hence, my anger.
Last year, my wife and I paid $35,000 of state and local taxes. Subtracting the impact of the Alternative Minimum Tax, our effective deduction was about $30,000. (This is a response to people who suggested that the AMT wiped out most of my SALT deduction.)
Because our only deductible expenditures this year are charitable contributions and state and local taxes, we’ll be taking the standard deduction. That’s $24,000 for most married couples but $26,600 for us because we’re both older than 65.
However, we’ll also indirectly deduct our charitable contributions — while taking the full standard deduction.
And next year, assuming New Jersey gets its act together, we’ll likely make charitable deductions to cover the cost of our nondeductible New Jersey real estate taxes. More on this later.
Before we proceed, an aside: Had last year’s tax bill been real reform — treating all parts of the country equally, broadening the tax base and eliminating lots of breaks and gimmicks — I wouldn’t be carrying on about losing my SALT deduction. It would have been part of the deal.
But the $10,000 limit was an act of vengeance aimed at “Sucker States” such as mine that send far more money to Washington than we get back, and was inflicted on us by people from “Moocher States,” a term I’m swiping from Rep. Josh Gottheimer (D-N.J.)
Back to the main event. How can I get deductions for charitable contributions without filing an itemized tax return? By using “qualified charitable distributions.”
Because I’m older than 70½, I’m required to take distributions, which are fully taxable, from my retirement accounts. But if I ask Vanguard to make out distribution checks to charities, to which I then mail the checks, I get to exclude those amounts from my federally taxable income. The limit is $100,000 per recipient.
If you’re over 70½ years old and taking required distributions, going the “qualified charitable distribution” route is a no-brainer.
There’s a lot of paperwork involved — but it’s worth it.
Now, the kicker. I hope that late this year or early next year, I’ll be able to make indirectly deductible donations to offset my now-nondeductible Jersey real estate taxes.
In early May, the state legislature, amid great fanfare, passed a donations-in-lieu-of-taxes law. However, it’s not in effect yet. Implementing it is hideously complex.
Not only do you need state rules and regulations, but you also need your town, county and school district to go the contribution route. I couldn’t get anyone to give me a projected effective date.
My wife and I pay real estate tax directly to our town, which allocates the money among itself, our school district and our county. But most homeowners pay taxes through escrow accounts set up by their mortgage lenders, adding an extra degree of complication to the contribution strategy.
When the papers finally all get shuffled, I intend to go the donation route unless there’s been a definitive court ruling barring it. It will take a $10,000 donation for me to get a $9,000 tax credit, but I’d rather shell out a deductible $10,000 than a nondeductible $9,000.
I’m sure Trump’s Treasury or his IRS will sue New Jersey over this. But I think the state’s chances of prevailing are pretty good.
Here’s why. There are already 104 plans in 30 states and the District that allow partial or total local tax credits for donations that are fully deductible for federal tax purposes. You can find them in this scholarly paper, published earlier this year.
For instance, the Georgia private school that two of my grandchildren attend is soliciting donations to its scholarship fund that would produce both a federal tax deduction and a 100 percent credit against my Georgia state income tax. Alas, I don’t pay income tax to Georgia, so this doesn’t help me.
I can’t wait to see how Trump’s crew tries to explain in court why the credits-for-donations program in New Jersey is illegal while the programs in Georgia, Missouri and various red states are perfectly fine.
Now, one final thing. Because I’m a self-employed contractor, not a Washington Post or ProPublica employee, I apparently qualify for the 20 percent income exclusion for pass-through businesses that got put into last year’s tax law.
That would produce a serious benefit for me. And you can be doggone sure that I’m going to take it.