With Shutdown Averted, 6 Tax Moves to Make Now

Tips to manage tax changes caused by Washington’s fiscal wrangling.

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Taxpayers last year stood helplessly at the edge of a fiscal cliff waiting for Congress to act on the budget. This year, the earlier resolution of the debt stalemate gives individuals time to plan.

People will need it. They will have to deal with significant changes put into effect at the start of this year in the deal that averted that earlier run toward the fiscal cliff. Despite vows by both parties to simplify things, the four-million-word tax code got heftier, as it does each year. "You really need to do year-end planning," says Gary DuBoff, managing director of CBIZ MHM LLC. "You can't just stick your head in sand. There are so many changes in the law, you need to understand the potential tax implications."

[See: Tax Tips: The Good, Bad and Ugly (But Legal).]

In the weeks that remain in 2013, here are six steps you can take to manage the impact of this year's taxes due April 15:

1. Match gains and losses on your investments. This is always the biggest issue to handle by the end of the year, and this year, the stakes have been raised. The tax rate on long-term capital gains remains at 15 percent for all but the highest income bracket (20 percent now). If you plan to cash in on stock market gains, you might also want to come up with stocks that have lost money that you want to dump. You are allowed to deduct up to $3,000 in losses in a given year. But you can use tax losses to save more than that by taking gains and matching them with losses. So, for example, if you have a $50,000 gain, you can sell an equal amount in losing positions and avoid that large capital gain. It's the net amount that matters for tax purposes. Once you've recognized a loss, you can repurchase a stock if you think it still fits in your portfolio. The so-called wash rule lets you sell a stock to recognize a loss and repurchase it within 30 days. "Time is running out on that one for this year's taxes," DuBoff says.

2. Review dividends to make sure you get lower tax. Qualified dividends get treated the same way as capital gains. The rate remains 15 percent for most people, and increases to 20 percent on the top bracket. There is a holding period of 60 days to qualify for the lower rate on common stock, and 90 days for preferred stock. "This higher rate can really take a tax bite for higher-income people" says Christine Fahlund, senior financial planner for T. Rowe Price Investment Services. "Especially retired people who depend on investment income."

3. Manage your bracket. There are two big cutoffs in tax brackets that have the most impact. If you are close to either, you might have to look for ways to limit your income between now and the end of the year. One way is to hold off on taking a capital gain. If you are a contract or self-employed worker, you can hold off on billing for services.

"Figure out if you are at or near the threshold. And consider ways to defer and avoid recognizing income," Fahlund says. What are the biggest bracket concerns?

  • Upper-income taxpayers will see the biggest change. For those with more than $400,000 in income ($450,000 for married couples), the tax rate rises to 39.6 percent from 35 percent. At the other end of the spectrum, nothing changes.
    • The most important bracket is the one you hit at the $72,000 income level for married couples, or $36,000 for single filers. This is a significant level, especially for young people and those who are retired. It's the point at which your U.S. income tax rises 10 full percentage points – the biggest single incremental gain on the tax charts – going from 15 percent to 25 percent on income above that level. What's more, it's also the point where you begin paying taxes on dividends and long-term capital gains. Welcome to the middle class!
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      Since most deductions and credits need to be based on expenses incurred before the end of the year, now is the time to figure them out. (There are numerous smaller brackets where rates rise by between three and five percentage points. You can find them on IRS.gov.) Apart from putting off capital gains, you can contribute to a 529 college fund, donor-advised funds or qualified charities to keep income levels lower, Fahlund says. The college contributions can be revised in later tax years if the money is not used, she adds.