High-income folks are painfully aware that many valuable tax breaks are phased-out (reduced or eliminated) as income climbs up the ladder. Examples include personal and dependent exemption deductions; higher-education tax credits; deductions for traditional IRA contributions; and deductions for home mortgage interest, state and local income and property taxes, and charitable donations. As a result, high-income individuals may be completely or partially ineligible for tax goodies that others take for granted.
Here’s a list of 10 tax breaks that are not, subject to any phase-out rules that discriminate against high earners. Even the super-rich can cash in on these.
1. Home sale gain exclusion
An unmarried seller of a principal residence can exclude (pay no federal income tax on) up to $250,000 of gain, and a married joint-filing couple can exclude up to $500,000. While high-income doesn’t preclude taking advantage of this lucrative break, there are some tests to pass.
- Ownership test: You must have owned the property for at least two years during the five year period ending on the sale date.
- Use test: You must have used the property as a principal residence for at least two years during the same five year period.
- Joint-filer $500,000 exclusion test: To be eligible for the maximum $500,000 joint-filer exclusion, at least one spouse must pass the ownership test, and both spouses must pass the use test.
- Previous sale test: If you excluded gain from an earlier principal residence sale, you generally must wait at least two years before taking advantage of the gain exclusion deal again. If you are a married joint filer, the larger $500,000 exclusion is only available if neither you nor your spouse claimed the exclusion privilege for an earlier sale within two years of the later sale.
2. Roth IRA conversion privilege
The conversion of a traditional IRA into a Roth account is treated as a taxable distribution from the traditional account with the money going into the new Roth account. So a conversion will trigger a bigger federal income tax bill (and maybe a bigger state income tax bill too). However, two big positive factors may outweigh the tax hit.
- After you reach age 59½, all the income and gains that accumulate in the Roth account can be withdrawn federal-income-tax-free, as long as you’ve had at least one Roth IRA open for more than five years. If federal income-tax rates go up in the future, the balance in your Roth IRA is blissfully unaffected. If you die, your heirs can dip into your Roth account without owing any federal income tax, as long as the account has been open for more than five years.
- Roth IRAs are exempt from the dreaded required minimum distribution (RMD) rules that apply to other tax-favored retirement accounts, including traditional IRAs. Under the RMD rules, you must start taking annual withdrawals after age 70½ and pay the resulting taxes. But you can leave Roth IRA balances untouched for as long as you wish and continue earning federal-income-tax-free income and gains.
A few years ago, there was an income restriction on Roth conversions. Not any more. Now even billionaires can do conversions.
3. Salary-reduction contributions to employee benefit programs
Salary-reduction contributions to tax-favored employee benefit programs reduce your taxable salary and your tax bill. For 2014, the maximum salary-reduction contribution to a company 401(k) plan is $17,500 or $23,000 if you are age 50 or older. If your employer matches contributions, this already good deal becomes a great deal. You may also be able to make salary-reduction contributions to your company’s cafeteria benefit plan, which may include flexible spending accounts (FSAs) to cover: (1) up to $2,500 of out-of-pocket family medical costs and (2) up to $5,000 of expenses to care for your under-age-13 children so you can work (or if you are married, so both you and your spouse can work). Even billionaires can participate in these tax-saving deals.
4. Deductible contributions to self-employed retirement programs
Examples include contributions to simplified employee pension (SEP) accounts, solo 401(k) plans, and solo defined benefit pension plans. Depending on the type of plan and your age, you may be able to contribute and deduct up to $57,500, or even more with a defined benefit pension plan, for the 2014 tax year.
5. Deduction for alimony
The deduction for alimony payments to an ex-spouse can be claimed on page 1 of your Form 1040, no matter how high your income may be. For details, see There is one tax break for divorcees.
6. Tax-Free Education Reimbursements from Your Employer
If your company offers a “Section 127” educational assistance plan, you can receive up to $5,250 in annual tax-free reimbursements for qualified education expenses — which need not be work-related and which can include graduate school costs. Even if your employer doesn’t offer a Section 127 plan, you can receive unlimited tax-free reimbursements for education to maintain or improve performance at your current job.
7. Deduction for investment interest expense
The itemized deduction for investment interest expense (meaning interest incurred to carry taxable investments) is blissfully unaffected by the phase-out rule that cuts back write-offs for some other big-ticket itemized deductions (including home mortgage interest, state land local income and property taxes, and charitable donations). The most common example of investment interest is interest paid on brokerage firm margin accounts. There’s one catch: your investment interest deduction cannot exceed your taxable income from interest, annuities, royalties, and short-term capital gains. Any excess interest expense carries over to the following tax year and is subject to the same restriction. See IRS Form 4952 (Investment Interest Expense Deduction) for details — including the special election to treat long-term capital gains and qualified dividends as investment income in order to increase your investment interest expense deduction.
8. Deduction for moving expenses
If you move for a work-related reason, you may be able to deduct some of the expenses on page 1 of Form 1040. Page 1 treatment is good, because you don’t have to itemize to reap a tax-saving benefit. You can write off the cost to pack and ship your possessions and up to 30 days of storage and insurance. The cost of traveling to your new home (once) is also allowed, including lodging but not meals. You can also deduct costs to disconnect utilities at your old home and get hooked up at the one. Once you’ve identified your deductible expenses, complete IRS Form 3903 (Moving Expenses). For full details on the rules for moving expense deductions, including the commuting distance and job duration requirements, see IRS Publication 521 at www.irs.gov .
9. Deduction for gambling losses
The itemized deduction for gambling losses up to the amount of your gambling winnings for the year is another write-off that is blissfully unaffected by the phase-out rule that hits some other itemized deductions. Beware: if you claim this deduction, you should have written evidence of your losses in case you get audited. So from now on, be sure to scrupulously retain such evidence (for example, statements from the casino slot club and records of your daily net wins and losses from the poker room).
10. Dependent care credit
If you pay someone to take care of one or more under-age-13 children so you can work (or so you and your spouse can work if you’re married), you may be eligible for the dependent care credit. For high-income folks, the credit equals 20% of qualifying expenses of up to $3,000 for one under-age-13 child or up to $6,000 of expenses for two or more kids. So the maximum credit for one under-age-13 child is $600, and the maximum credit for two or more is $1,200. You may also qualify for the credit if you incur expenses to take care of any other dependent who is physically or mentally unable to care for himself or herself (for example, a disabled parent or spouse). Fill out Form 2441 (Child and Dependent Care Expenses), and claim your rightful credit on Line 48 of Form 1040.