Will you be among the thousands of taxpayers who get a big tax refund this year? While most Americans happily accept their tax refund checks, taxpayers should know that refunds may actually cost them money. Here's why:
- The government pays no interest on refunds. Kept in your hands, those dollars could have been productive. For example, you could have invested the money or used it to pay off your debt during the year. If the money had been added to a 401(k) plan, tax would have been deferred on both the investment and its earnings. Even better, your employer might have matched all or part of your investment, adding to your retirement savings.
- Refunded cash is not available for use until actually received. Even though most taxpayers get their checks promptly, circumstances or errors can delay (or stop) a refund.
To prevent losing money on tax refunds, consider reducing your withholding or estimated tax payments. For most taxpayers, withholding must equal either the prior year's tax or 90% of the current year's liability. If your annual income changes little, it's relatively easy to avoid overwithholding. You should consider filing a revised Form W-4 withholding statement with your employer if you're having too much withheld.
For taxpayers with fluctuating income or multiple sources of income, the problem is more complex. The IRS provides a worksheet with Form W-4, but many people find the form complicated. If you'd like assistance adjusting your withholding, contact our office.
The timing of taxable income and deductions for federal income tax purposes is relatively straightforward. Generally, income is taxable in the year it is earned and received. Likewise, deductible expenses incurred and paid this year can offset taxable income on this year’s return. The Internal Revenue Code is riddled with exceptions, but these basic rules usually apply, especially for calendar-year taxpayers.
The tax law also includes several provisions commonly referred to as “carrybacks” and “carryforwards” (or “carryovers”). As their names imply, the tax item can be carried back to a prior year or carried forward to a succeeding year.
Two items that are often carried forward by individuals are capital losses and excess charitable deductions. For instance, capital losses realized in 2012 offset capital gains plus up to $3,000 of ordinary income for the year. If you have an excess capital loss of $10,000, you can carry forward $7,000 to 2013 after offsetting $3,000 of ordinary income in 2012.
Similarly, your current deduction for charitable donations may be limited by one or more percentage thresholds in the law. For example, donations of appreciated property are generally limited to 30% of your adjusted gross income (AGI). If you exceed the 30%-of-AGI limit this year, you may carry over the excess for up to five years.
Carrybacks aren’t as common, but may also be available in certain situations. Take a “net operating loss” (NOL) sustained by your small business. If you have an NOL in 2012, you can carry back the loss for two years. Thus, you’re effectively able to reduce your tax liability for one or two of the previous years for a refund of taxes already paid. Then you can carry forward any remaining NOL for up to 20 years. If it suits your purposes, you can elect to waive the NOL carryback. For more information on carrybacks and carryforwards, give us a call. We can help you make the best tax return choices for your situation.