tax reform law

The Unintended Consequence of the Tax Reform Law for Student Loan Borrowers

Executive Summary

When married couples with student loan debt go onto an Income-Driven Repayment plan, there’s a choice to be made:  is it better to file your taxes jointly (but base your income-capped student loan payments on both you and your spouse’s income) or to file taxes separately (and only count your income when calculating your student loan payment)?

Although it didn’t address student loans directly, the passage of the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act of 2017 has a big unintended consequence for these student loan borrowers.  This decision around whether to file taxes jointly or separately when on an Income Driven Repayment plan should be made by comparing the amount of money you’d save on taxes by filing jointly with how much more you’d need to pay each year on your student loans.  Since the tax reform law cuts taxes for most people, the difference in the amount you’d save on taxes by filing jointly versus separately will shrink for most people.  Which means that you’re now more likely to be better off filing taxes separately and saving money each month on student loans than you were under the old tax code.

Download our free student loan guide to learn more about Income Driven Repayment plans.  And if you’re interested in learning more about how to save money on taxes under the new tax law, check out our list of #taxhacks today!

(Bill’s Note: This video, and the lightly edited transcription below, was originally recorded as a Facebook Live broadcast on January 9, 2018. If you want to participate in our next Facebook Live session, which are normally held every Monday at 8 PM Eastern, head to our Facebook page, hit “like”, and you’ll get the announcement the next time we go live.  Most of the content comes from questions submitted by my readers and viewers, so if you have a topic you’d like to hear more about, send a message to our Facebook page and we will get back to you as soon as we can!)

Introduction

Hello and welcome!  Happy New Year to everybody.  Today I want to have our very first weekly chat that we’re going to have on the Pacesetter Planning Facebook Page (and will be published here every Thursday).  Normally we’ll broadcast live at 8 PM Eastern time on Mondays.

Each week, we’re going to do a deep dive into a financial topic.  Typically, these will be driven by questions that people either ask me in person while I’m out and about in Philadelphia, or are submitted through the website or our Facebook page.  And I’ll share my response to these questions here.

So, if you have an idea, anything you’re curious about hearing, shoot me a message or leave a comment on this video or post, and I’d be more than happy to talk through it. I already have a few questions that we’ll be covering over the next few weeks.

Tax Reform and Student Loans

But for today, I want to talk about something that I think is timely, given current events, and that is the potential side effects of the passage of the recent tax reform law that was enacted before the holidays.  There’s a new opportunity that I think is out there for student loan borrowers, particularly borrowers who are on an Income-Driven Repayment plan (IDR).

To give you a heads up in advance, this is going to primarily involve people who are on an IDR for their student loans who are married.  Now, if you’re not married yet but you’re on one of these plans, and you see yourself potentially getting married over the course of your student loan payments, stick around and you’ll pick up on some things that will help you someday down the road.

Before we dive into exactly what this effect is, I think it’s worth pausing to make a quick note.  We did a deep dive into the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act right after it was passed in December 2017.  We’re not going to rehash that today, but just to reiterate:  there were NO direct effects on student loans in the law itself.

There were a lot of rumors going around through the legislative process that there were going to be some changes made to student loan policy, particularly to your ability to deduct student loan interest.  None of that actually happened.  So, everything in that light is exactly the way it was before.  If your income is below a certain threshold, you’re still able to deduct up to $2,500 in interest paid on your student loans from your taxes every year.  Nothing’s changed in that light.

Income-Driven Repayment Plans

What has changed, though, is the ways that we calculate student loan payments under these Income-Driven Repayment plans- or at least it has the potential to change, depending on your circumstances.

What do I mean by that?  The starting point needs to be: what is an Income-Driven Repayment plan?

For those of you who aren’t on one of these plans already, typically when you borrow student loans, you have a six- to nine-month grace period before you need to start making payments.  Your student loan servicer typically puts you on a standard, ten-year repayment plan.  They’ll tell you how much you owe based on how much you borrowed and the interest rate.  You make the monthly payment that they tell you to make, and ten years later it’s completely paid off and you’re good to go.

But for most student loans (note: not all of them, but most student loans will qualify), if you have a particularly high amount of loans compared to your income, you have a few options.  And one of them is going on an Income-Driven Repayment plan.  There are a wide variety of IDRs, but we’re going to treat them all as the same today (even though they are not the same).  There are some pretty substantial differences between them- if you want some more information on this, go ahead and download our free student loan guide. It’s about thirty pages long and it’s the most popular giveaway we’ve ever posted on our site.  It will walk you through exactly what you need to know about all of these different repayment plans, what they consist of, and will help you identify which one is right for you.  Click the link to download this guide.

But generally speaking, these IDRs tie the amount you owe every month on your student loans to your income level.  If you aren’t making a lot of money, or you have much higher levels of student loan debt than your income, it essentially allows you to scale your student loan payments back to a reasonable level based on your income.

How Do Married Couples Calculate Their Income for IDR Repayment Plans?

The question, though, is what actually counts as your income? Now if you’re single, this is pretty straightforward.  Your income itself is your income.  Whatever you make at your job, any other income you have, that’s what they base it on.  Nothing too complicated.

But, when you get married, it’s a little bit more complicated.  You have your personal income, and if you’re spouse works, they have income as well.  So- what does your student loan servicer base your payment on?  Is it based on just your salary, or is it based on you and your spouse’s?

Obviously, if your goal is to lower your student loan payment, you want to have the payments based on a lower amount.  So ideally, you’d just count your salary.

The answer to the question of how student loan servicers treat your income is that they actually let you choose which one to use.  You can either report just your income, or you and your spouses income- you have the choice.

So, that begs the question, why is that not a no-brainer?  Like I said, if you have the option to pay your loans based on a lower salary or a higher salary, your monthly payment is going to be lower based on just your income.  So, why wouldn’t you do that?

Your Tax Filing Status Determines What Income They Count

Unfortunately, there definitely is a catch to it.  And the catch is this:  however you decide to report your income (to base your student loans payment on), you need to file your taxes the same way too.  In other words, if you want to report just your income to lower your student loan payment every month, you need to file your taxes “married filing separately” from your spouse.  Or inversely, if you file your taxes “married filing jointly”, your loan servicer will look at both of your incomes when they calculate what you owe on your loans every month.

For most couples, you’re going to save more on taxes by filing jointly rather than separately.  There are a few big exceptions (we wrote on the blog last year a list of some of those particular exceptions), but particularly for most young couples, you’re going to find that you save more on taxes by filing jointly rather than separately.  But- that means that you’re going to owe more on your student loan payments if you’re on an IDR because you’re filing jointly and they’ll base your payments on your combined incomes.

You can think of this like a balance scale (like the ones we used back in school) where you weigh one thing against the other.  On one hand, we have the amount of taxes you’re going to owe.  If you file jointly, that’s likely going to be a lower number and if you file separately, it’s likely going to be a higher number.  On the other side of the scale, you have your monthly student loan payments.  And that works the exact opposite way:  if you file jointly, you’ll probably save on taxes, but you’ll owe more on your student loans.  And vice versa, if you file separately, you’ll probably owe more on taxes every year but you’ll save on your monthly student loan payments.

You can imagine that there’s a point at which these things will balance out.  For example, let’s say that if you file taxes jointly with your spouse, you’re going to save $2,000 more on your taxes every year than if you filed separately.  But, doing so might cost you an extra $2,000 in student loan payments across the whole year when you add up your monthly payments.  If this is the case, it doesn’t actually matter what you do: you’ll save $2,000 on taxes, and pay $2,000 extra toward your student loans every year.  It washes out.  (Technically, under this scenario I’d recommend that you file jointly and pay more on your student loans, since this method will cost you less in the long run!)

How Does the Tax Reform Law Change Things?

But typically, it doesn’t balance out.  There’s typically a better answer for you whether you should file separately and reduce your loan payments, or file jointly and pay more every month.  Usually, there’s going to be a clear cut answer.

And that brings us back to the tax reform law.

Because what this law has effectively done (it’s not intentional that it worked out this way, but it is the effect if you’re one of the IDR plans) is that the way you calculate your student loan payments hasn’t changed – your income is still the same, the options are still the same – but they’ve reduced  the other side of the scale for most people.  Most people are going to have tax cuts under the new law, which means the gap between how much you’re going to owe if you file jointly vs separately is less than it was under the old tax law for most people.  They’ve taken the equilibrium point between the two and threw it off a little bit.

Which means that there’s going to be more people that are going to be better off filing taxes separately and taking a lower student loan payment every month going forward than there was under the old tax law.  The balance point has shifted, which means that more people are going to better off filing taxes separately than there were before.

To be clear, for most people you’re still going to owe more on taxes filing separately than you would if you file jointly.  That hasn’t changed.

But what has changed is the magnitude of the difference.  If the overall dollar amount of your taxes is going down because of the way they drew the brackets, for most people the gap between what you’d owe if you file jointly vs. separately has shrunk- by a real dollar amount.

Which means, for more people than there were before, you’re going to be better off filing separately and reducing your student loan payments every month.  Not for everyone– there will be still people who are better off filing jointly and paying more on your student loans.  But, you need to go back and revisit the math, because the math has fundamentally changed as of January 1, 2018.

Not Too Late To Change

Now the good news is that you have the ability to decide this every single year.  If you’re already on one of the IDR plans and have been filing your taxes jointly and reporting the higher income number, you can change that every single year.  Every year, you file your taxes and you have to recertify your income level- if you’re already on one of the IDR plans, you’ve gone through this before.  So, I’d invite you to revisit this.  Try to figure it out on your own- are you still better off doing what was right for you under the old tax law, or has it changed?  Because there’s a very real chance that it could have potentially changed.

So, if you’re on an IDR and you’re filing jointly now, take a hard look at this to make sure it’s still the right option for you.  And if you qualify for an IDR, and just haven’t gotten around to signing up for one, there could be a higher benefit to you than there was before.  It might be a little bit more of an attractive option now than it was under the old tax law.  I’d invite you to take a look at this.

A Few Important Details: Other Factors You Need to Consider

Now, a couple quick details that I think are important to note before we wrap up.  I’ve tried to keep this at a fairly conceptual level, but there are some details you need to be aware of.

As I mentioned before, there are several different types of these Income-Driven Repayment plans.  Primarily, there are five different types.  You need to be aware that one of these five main types of IDRs actually doesn’t give you the choice to separate your income from your spouse’s.  We’ve spend this time talking about how you have the choice to file separately or jointly and report your income likewise, but if you’re on one particular type of IDR, you unfortunately don’t have the ability to make this choice.

The plan in question is called the Revised Pay As You Earn plan (you’ll usually see it abbreviated as “REPAYE”). If you’re on this plan, you unfortunately don’t have the option to split your income up- you need to report you and your spouse’s income jointly.  Which means that if IDRs are something that you’re looking into – like I said at the top, if you’re single now but you’re envisioning getting married down the road while you’re still making student loan payments – you might want to think twice about choosing REPAYE.

Now, there are some unique benefits to REPAYE- it’s not worth forsaking it altogether – but it is something you should take into account.  Under REPAYE, you won’t have the ability to separate your income (which might be a more attractive option now than it was under the old tax law).

(Note:  to be clear, the plan is question is REPAYE.  There’s another IDR called “Pay as You Earn”, or “PAYE”, that does give you the ability to separate your income from your spouse’s.  Congress has really mucked up the student loan policy over the past decade or so, with some assistance from the Department of Education.  There’s a lot of different types of IDRs, they all sound the same, but we’re talking today about REPAYE, not PAYE.)

Second key detail:  this principle of weighing the two sides of the balance scale is the right idea, but be aware that the calculation is a little bit more complicated than this.  There’s one other factor that you need to take into account before you decide to file separately and lower your student loan payments.

And that is that when you file separately, you lose the ability to claim the student loan interest deduction that I mentioned up at the top.  Right now, you can deduct $2,500 in student loan interest that you paid over the course of the year from your taxable income.  You can do that if you file jointly, as long as your income doesn’t exceed relevant thresholds.  But if you file separately, you lose the ability to do this.

The concept of balancing the two sides of the scale is the same… but you can almost think of the loss of the student loan interest deduction if you file separately as a “thumb on the scale” in favor of filing jointly.  It makes filing jointly a little bit more appealing.

The principle stands: more people today are going to be better off filing separately and reducing your student loan payments than there were under the old tax law.  But, there is a separate factor that you need to factor into your decision.

Student Loan Analysis is Complicated

To wrap up, this is complicated stuff.  Like I said, the way that we’ve come to the current student loan landscape doesn’t really make sense.  This is something that I help my financial planning clients with on an ongoing basis.  I help my clients do this sort of analysis to help figure out what steps need to be taken.

But, I actually offer a separate, standalone Student Loan Analysis service.  For people who don’t want, can’t afford, or don’t have any interest in doing Comprehensive Financial Planning, I offer this as a separate service.  We would meet via a video conference for 45 minutes to an hour, I’d collect your individual student loan data so we can understand what you specifically qualify for, discuss your goals for your student loans- are you trying to minimize your monthly payment, or are you trying to pay them off as quickly as possible?  Those are two good answers, depending on your circumstances, but they’re completely opposite strategies.  We discuss all of these things, and within two days I’ll send you a list of recommendations for what to do with your loans.

If this is something you’re interested in or would like to learn more about, I do offer free consultations.  Click here to set up a no-obligation, free strategy session to talk through this issue we’re talking about today, or any other issue when it comes to your loans.

In closing, I think there’s a very real, unintended consequence that came about from this change in tax law that really is an opportunity for a lot of people- if you decide to take advantage of it.  I encourage you to do so.

Again, Happy New Year!  We’re going to be holding these chats on our Facebook Page, usually live at 8 PM on Mondays.  If you have any questions or things you’d like me to cover, shoot me an email or leave a comment on this video.  Thanks so much, and have a great day!

 

How Will the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act Affect You?

How Will the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act Affect You?

Like just about everything these days, most of the coverage around the “Tax Cuts and Jobs Act” has been viewed with an overwhelmingly partisan lens.  Most of this has to do with the nature of the corporate tax cuts in the law, perhaps justifiably so.  But in my opinion, there’s been far too little discussion about the actual impact the law will have on individuals and families in our generation.

Now that the political bickering is over (at least on this issue…) and the tax proposal has been finalized, let’s take a look at exactly how this tax overhaul will affect you.  This is a mammoth piece of legislation, so I won’t be able to cover every detail, but we will cover the major pieces.

One note: all of these changes apply to the 2018 tax year, with two major exceptions.  Your 2017 taxes, due April 15, 2018, will be unaffected unless you are itemizing medical expense deductions.  And, the Individual Mandate repeal doesn’t kick in until 2019.

That being said, the change in tax law has created some unique opportunities to save on taxes, both in 2017 and beyond.  I’ve compiled a list of twelve tax hacks to save you money on taxes based on the new law.  Download the list today!

 

[Note:  the day after Congress passed the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act in December 2017, I hosted a Facebook Live chat summarizing the provisions of the bill.  The video is available below.]

What’s NOT in the Law?

Before we dive into exactly what the new tax code says, we need to quickly talk about what it doesn’t say.  There were several controversial elements inside the draft bill that got a lot of media attention.  Several of these were stripped out of the final version- you no longer have to worry about any of these rumored changes.  These include:

  • The provision that would have treated graduate student tuition waivers as taxable income is gone from the final version of the law. This would have increased taxes on graduate students by as much as 400%, but it was removed from the final law.

 

  • At one time, there was a proposal to remove the ability to deduct student loan interest payments from your taxable income. This provision was removed as well.  You can still deduct the amount you pay in interest toward your student loans, up to $2,500 in interest per year.

 

  • There was also a provision that would have caused tuition payments made by your employer to be fully taxable to you. This was also removed- your employer can give you $5,250 tax-free for tuition, which is unchanged from the old tax law.
Tax Rate Changes

Now, let’s talk through the major changes that have been introduced, starting with tax rates themselves.

  • For most Americans, your marginal tax rates will be going down (albeit temporarily- these cuts expire in 2025, although Congress may extend them). Find your income level in the tables below to see how your tax rates compare in the old and new tax code.

  • A few key items to note:
    • While most people will see a decrease in their tax rate, there’s one group of people who will see an increase: unmarried people who have a yearly taxable income roughly between $157,000 and $416,000.  The logic behind drawing the boundaries of the tax rates in this way is unclear.
    • There are also some income ranges, both for individual and married taxpayers, where there is no change in the marginal rate. For example, a married couple with $450,000 in annual income is in the 35% tax bracket in the old tax code, and the 35% tax bracket in the new tax code.  (Although, it is worth noting that even though the marginal tax brackets are unchanged, the total taxes owed is less due to the decreased marginal brackets below the 35% bracket.)
    • There’s a distortion in the tax code if you are married and both you and your spouse make a high income, frequently called the “Marriage Penalty”. For example, let’s say you and your spouse make $400,000 each.  If you were filing individually, you each would fall in the 35% tax bracket.  However, if you’re married filing jointly, you have $800,000 in taxable income as a household, which puts you in the 37% tax bracket.

 

  • Taxes on investment income (dividends and long-term capital gains) have not changed under the new tax law. Depending on your income, you’ll either pay 0%, 15%, or 20% in taxes on dividends or capital gains.
Personal Income Tax Reductions and Pass Through Businesses
  • There’s one other change in how income is taxed, and it’s a big one. The change relates to “pass through” businesses, which are businesses that don’t pay corporate income taxes, but instead “pass through” their earnings to individuals who pay the tax at their individual tax rates. Under the new law, these “pass through” businesses are allowed to deduct 20% of their income (or 50% of the wages they pay, whichever is less) from their total taxable income.  In plain English, if a pass through business makes $100,000 in income, they are allowed to reduce their taxable income by 20%- meaning that the individual who gets the pass through income only pays taxes on $80,000 worth of income.

 

  • This is a bigger deal for you than you may realize. A pass through business doesn’t have to be a big company; in fact, more often than not these businesses are really just individuals who are self-employed.  For example, independent contractors and sole proprietors are typically set up as pass through businesses.  Which means that if you and a friend do the same exact job, but you are an employee of a big firm and your friend is an independent contractor, your friend will pay taxes on 20% less income than you.  This likely to accelerate the growing trend of workers becoming independent contractors rather than full-time employees– there’s now a clear tax benefit to doing so.

 

  • But, there’s a catch. Pass through businesses that engage in a “service-based” business have some restrictions on how much you can make to qualify for the 20% deduction.  If your pass through business income is more than $157,500 for individuals (or $315,000 for married couples), your ability to deduct 20% of your taxable income starts to phase out.

 

  • What counts as a “service-based business”? Most occupations that involve selling a service to another person, including accounting, health, law, financial services, and consulting.  Oddly enough, two services were specifically excluded from the income phaseouts:  engineers and architects.  If you work in either of these fields, your income can grow as much as you’d like without losing the ability to deduct 20%.
Standard Deductions and Personal Exemptions

The income-component to the tax code change is relatively straightforward:  most people will have a reduction in their overall tax rate, except for the specific groups I outlined about.  However, this only tells part of the story.

Note: It’s a little bit more complicated to tell if these changes will be a net benefit or net loss for you, as they tend to offset each other.  I’m going to lay out the changes and give you the tools you need to get an idea whether this will have a net positive or net negative impact on you, but it’s always a good idea to talk to a CPA about your unique circumstances.

  • Once you calculate how much you have in taxable income, you are allowed to either deduct a variety of expenditures from your taxable income (we’ll get to that in a minute), or take what’s called a Standard Deduction. The standard deduction directly reduces your taxable income.  Under the old law, individuals could claim a $6,350 standard deduction, and married couples could claim a $12,700 standard deduction.  Under the new law, the standard deductions have nearly doubled.  Now, individuals can reduce $12,000 and couples can reduce $24,000 in taxable income under the new standard deduction.

Clearly, this is a net benefit, right?   Sort of.

  • Under the old tax code, you also had the ability to claim a personal exemption of $4,050 for yourself ($8,100 for a married couple), and another $4,050 exemption for each child that you have. These exemptions, like the standard deduction, reduce your taxable income.  Under the new tax law, these exemptions have been eliminated

It’s critical to note that the amount of the personal exemption being removed ($4,050) is less than the increase in the standard deduction (a $5,650 increase for individuals and a $11,300 increase for couples).  So, for people without children, this is a net win.  But, particularly for large families who claimed the $4,050 exemption for each child, your taxable income is going up considerably.  However…

  • There are two changes to the Child Tax Credit under the new law that likely will more than make up for the loss of the exemptions for families with children:
    • The amount of the tax credit has doubled, from $1,000 to $2,000 per child, per year. Note that, unlike the discussion around exemptions and deductions (that referred to taxable income), the $2,000 tax credit is literally a $2,000 reduction in the taxes that you owe. Which makes it a considerably better benefit than a $4,050 reduction in taxable income.  One other note:  if your final tax calculation comes out that you don’t owe any money in taxes, $1,400 of the $2,000 credit is refundable to you.
    • There are income restrictions for who is eligible for the Child Tax Credit, but these have been greatly expanded under the new law to make the credits more accessible to more families. Now, individuals who make less than $200,000 per year or married couples who make less than $400,000 per year can claim this credit.

As an example, let’s look at a household that consists of a husband, wife, and three children.  Both the husband and wife make $175,000 each.

Even though they have a greater taxable income under the old tax code, they save over $18,000 in taxes, both because of the decrease in marginal tax rate and the substantial Child Tax Credit.

To summarize:  your standard deduction has gotten better, your ability to claim exemptions has been removed/gotten worse (particularly for large families), and the expansion of the Child Tax Credit has gotten significantly better for families with children under certain income thresholds.

LOTS of Changes in Itemized Deductions

As I mentioned above, everyone can claim the standard deduction.  But, if you can list a set of qualified expenses that exceed the amount of the standard deduction, you are still allowed to use the itemized deduction process.  It wasn’t common to itemize deductions before, and now that the standard deduction has been doubled, it will be even less common now (since you need to have nearly double the amount of expenditures in order to be better off itemizing).  But, if you do itemize, here’s what you need to know about the changes to the types of expenses that qualify for itemization:

  • Charitable Contributions- There were a lot of rumors that we would be losing the ability to deduct charitable contributions under this law. That fear proved to be unfounded:  the amount you can itemize for charitable contributions has actually increased (from 50% to 60%).  But, of course, fewer people will take advantage of this now that the threshold to exceed the standard deduction has nearly doubled.

 

  • Mortgage Interest– There are two big changes here:
    • You are still able to deduct the amount of interest paid on a mortgage, but the amount of interest that qualifies has been reduced. Before, you could deduct interest paid on the first $1,000,000 of mortgage principal; this has now been reduced to $750,000.  But, it’s critical to note that all mortgages in existence before December 15, 2017 have been grandfathered in and are not subject to the new rules.
    • Interest paid on Home Equity Loans or Home Equity Lines of Credit is no longer deductible.

 

  • State and Local Taxes– this one has gotten a lot of press coverage. Before, you were able to deduct the amount you pay in state taxes and local taxes on your federal tax return.  There was a lot of talk about removing this provision entirely, but in the end, the final tax law merely put restrictions on this ability rather than eliminating it altogether.  You are now able to deduct a maximum of $10,000 in state and local taxes, rather than unlimited amount.  This particularly hurts high-income individuals in states and cities with high tax rates.

 

  • Your ability to deduct medical expenses has temporarily expanded, even though this was another item that Congress nearly eliminated. If you have medical expenses that exceed 7.5% of your income, you can deduct these expenses in 2017 and 2018, which is down from a 10% of income threshold.  But, in 2019, the ability to deduct medical expenses goes back to 10% of income.  One other note:  this is, I believe, the only change that applies to your 2017 income taxes (that are due April 15, 2018).

 

  • The IRS had a long list of Miscellaneous Expenses that could be deducted if they exceed 2% of your taxable income. Most commonly, the ability to deduct expenses relating to tax preparation fell under this category.  The ability to make these deductions has now been eliminated.

 

  • You are no longer allowed to deduct moving expenses. (With one exception:  you are still allowed to deduct moving expenses if you’re in the military and you are required to move for a military job).

 

  • Finally, alimony payments are no longer treated as a taxable transfer. Under the old rules, the person who pays alimony to an ex-spouse was allowed to deduct the alimony amount, and the person who received the alimony payment needed to count it as taxable income.  This is no longer the case, but similar to the grandfathering under the mortgage interest deduction, the new rules only apply to new or modified alimony agreements in 2018 and beyond.
Other Big Changes

There are a few other big changes to the tax code that don’t relate to the tax rates or various deductions available:

  • The Individual Mandate that requires you to pay taxes if you don’t have health insurance under the Affordable Care Act (“Obamacare”) hasn’t technically been repealed…. But the taxable penalty for not having health insurance is $0, starting in 2019. This doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t have health insurance (you should), but it does mean that you won’t be taxed if you don’t have health coverage.  But again, note that this provision starts in 2019.  If you don’t have health insurance in 2017 or 2018, you’ll still need to pay the tax.

 

  • There are several changes to the use of 529 Accounts. Historically, these accounts have been one of the most tax-advantaged accounts to save for college- contributions are tax free at the federal level and can be tax free at the state level as well, and withdrawals are tax free if used for qualified higher education expenses.  Under the new code, they now can also be used to fund K-12 education expenses- they’re not just for college savings anymore. Under the new rules, you’re allowed to withdraw $10,000, per child, per year, for qualifying K-12 education expenses (including private school tuition).  There was a provision in the bill that would have extended these accounts to be able to be used for homeschooling education expenses, but this was removed from the final version of the law.  529’s can now be used for college expenses and K-12 expenses, but not homeschooling.

 

  • There are two other huge changes that are much less likely to affect younger people, so I’m going to gloss over them. But you should be aware that they exist:
    • The Alternative Minimum Tax (AMT) is still around, but it’s now much harder to actually qualify to pay the AMT. The AMT is a method of making sure that very rich people can’t use too many loopholes to avoid paying taxes. Essentially, under the AMT, you need to calculate the amount of taxes you owe twice– once under the standard tax rules, and once under the AMT rules.  If you owe more in AMT taxes, you need to pay the AMT.  This is still in existence, but it’s going to be much harder for people to actually need to pay the AMT.  If you have a very high income, this is something to keep on your radar, but most people don’t need to worry about this at this time.
    • The Estate Tax, like the AMT, is still around, but almost nobody will qualify for it anymore. The estate tax is a vehicle used to tax the amount of wealth someone has after they die, before the wealth is inherited by the next generation.  The estate tax still exists, but your estate needs to be double the size it used to be in order to be subject to the estate tax.  Until you have $11.2 million dollars saved up (or $22.4 million for couples), you don’t need to worry about it!
Conclusion

When they began the tax reform process in early 2017, Republican leaders in Congress claimed that they wanted to make it so easy to file your taxes that most Americans would be able to file taxes on a postcard.  As you can probably tell from the summary above, they fell… just a little short of that goal.

That being said, the fact remains that for most taxpayers, the filing process will be somewhat expedited, primarily by doubling the standard deduction.  For many people, you’ll just need to calculate your taxable income, take your standard deduction (and, potentially, your Child Tax Credit), and you’ll be good to go.

What do you think?  How will the new tax law affect the amount of taxes you pay?  And if you want some ideas on how to use the change in the tax code to save some money on your taxes, click here to download my twelve #taxhacks based on the new law.

When Does It Make Sense For Married Couples to File Taxes Separately?

When Does It Make Sense for Married Couples to File Taxes Separately?

Nobody likes filing taxes every spring.  It takes a lot of time to receive all of your paperwork, and even more time to calculate and review to figure out whether you’re due money back.  And let’s face it- it’s not exactly exciting stuff.

But when you get married, this process can get even more complicated.  In addition to having double the amount of information to review, you need to decide the best way to file your taxes with your spouse.

Married couples have two options when it comes to filing their taxes- to file jointly with their spouse, or to file separately.  As the name implies, filing jointly with your spouse means that income and deductions for both you and your spouse are reported on one tax return.  When you file separately, each of you files a separate tax return with just your personal information on your own return.

But which option is the right one to choose?

Most Couples Choose to File Jointly

As with most tax-related questions, the answer to this question will vary depending on your personal situation.  But, the better option for most couples is to file jointly. There are several reasons for this:

  • Married couples who file separately hit higher tax rates at lower income levels. So, your effective tax rate between you and your spouse is typically higher for couples who file separately rather than jointly
  • The standard deduction is lower for couples who file separately, and many itemized deductions are reduced or completely eliminated if you file separately rather than jointly.
  • There are more tax breaks and credits available for joint filers, such as the Earned Income Tax Credit

So, this should be a fairly easy decision for most couples.  However, there are a few key situations where it makes sense to file separately from your spouse.  I highly recommend either calculating your taxes due both filing jointly or separately, or seek the assistance of a CPA, if you have doubts as to which would be best for you.

When Would It Make Sense to File Separately?

This is not an exhaustive list, but there are a few key scenarios where it may make sense to file separately from your spouse

You are on an student loan income-driven repayment plan. If your student loans are on an income-driven repayment plan, the amount you pay per month is tied to your annual income.  Whether or not your annual income is just your personal income, or includes your spouses as well, depends on whether you file jointly or separately.

So, if you have a significant loan balance and are on one of these payment plans, if you file separately, you can base your payments on your income alone.  But, as soon as you file your taxes jointly with your spouse, your spouses income will be included the calculation used to determine your loan payments.

You still may be better off filing jointly and paying the extra amount per month toward your student loans, but you should definitely keep these consequences in mind while making your decision.

I talk about this in my free eBook, “13 Steps to Take Before Making Your Next Student Loan Payment”.  Subscribe to my newsletter, and I’ll send you a copy for free!

Either You or Your Spouse Has Significant Medical Expenses

The current tax code allows you to deduct any medical expenses that are over 10% of the income reported on your tax returns.  This income number includes your spouse’s if you file jointly, but doesn’t if you file separately.  So, if you had high medical expenses this year, you may end up paying less taxes by filing separately, depending on the numbers on the rest of your return.

For example, say that your annual salary is $75,000, and your spouse’s annual salary is $125,000.  And, let’s say that you had a medical issue last year that cost you $10,000 total.

If you file jointly, your total income reported on your tax return would be $200,000.  Since your total medical expenses ($10,000) is less than 10% of your income ($200,000), you wouldn’t be able to deduct any of these expenses.

But, if you file separately, your income on your tax return is only $75,000.  Since you spend over 10% of this on medical expenses, you would qualify for this deduction.

You and Your Spouse Have (Very) Different Salaries

If you earn significantly more than your spouse (or vice versa) it may work in your favor to calculate each of your tax burdens separately rather than combining your incomes.  If you also have a lot of investment income, such as capital gains or dividends, this scenario applies even more.

Again, in this case, I’d recommend you calculate your tax burdens both ways- jointly and separately- and compare the total taxes due in order to decide.  But if, for example, you make $250,000 a year and your spouse makes $30,000, I wouldn’t recommend automatically filing jointly.  Take the time to calculate your total tax bill by filing separately as well, and choose which one works out best for you.

Your Spouse Has Tax Debt 

If your spouse hasn’t paid their taxes in the past, the second that you file jointly, this becomes your debt, too.  If you file separately, you won’t be held legally responsible for this debt.  This is still not a good situation for your family, of course, but filing separately can give you some legal protection in the event of an audit.

Generally speaking, if you have concerns about your spouse’s financial situation, maintaining some degree of legal separation with your money might not be a bad idea while helping them to work through it.  This certainly would include filing taxes as well, even if it means you pay a bit more.

Seek Help

Particularly if you think that any of the above scenarios apply to you, I don’t recommend doing this on your own.  Either use a self-guided program like TurboTax, or seek the help of a CPA, to review your specific circumstances and analyze your potential tax burden both if you file jointly or separately.

It’s no fun, and it adds a layer of work, but there’s too much money on the table to not do your due diligence.

If you have further questions or want to talk about any of the above ideas, don’t be afraid to reach out.  I don’t prepare tax returns, but I can help you find someone that I trust to review your situation and get you the answers you need.