Skip to content

Recent Articles

3
Nov

Budget and Debt Ceiling Vagueness

On September 30, 2021, Congress averted a potential federal government shutdown by passing a last-minute bill to fund government operations through December 3, 2021.1 Two weeks later, another measure raised the debt ceiling by just enough to sustain federal borrowing until about the same date.2 Although these bills provided temporary relief, they did not resolve the fundamental issues, and Congress will have to act again by December 3.

Spending vs. Borrowing

The budget and the debt ceiling are often considered together by Congress, but they are separate fiscal issues. The budget authorizes future spending, while the debt ceiling is a statutory limit on federal borrowing necessary to fund already authorized spending. Thus, increasing the debt ceiling does not increase government spending. But it does allow borrowing to meet increased spending authorized by Congress.

The underlying fact in this relationship between the budget and the debt ceiling is that the U.S. government runs on a deficit and has done so every year since 2002.3 The U.S. Treasury funds the deficit by borrowing through securities such as Treasury notes, bills, and bonds. When the debt ceiling is reached, the Treasury can no longer issue securities that would put the government above the limit.

Twelve Appropriations Bills

The federal fiscal year begins on October 1, and 12 appropriations bills for various government sectors should be passed by that date to fund activities ranging from defense and national park operations to food safety and salaries for federal employees.4 These appropriations for discretionary spending account for about one-third of federal spending, with the other two-thirds, including Social Security and Medicare, prescribed by law.5

Though it would be better for federal agencies to know their operating budgets at the beginning of the fiscal year, the deadline to pass all 12 bills has not been met since FY 1997.6 This year, none of the bills had passed as of late October.7

To delay for further budget negotiations, Congress typically passes a continuing resolution, which extends federal spending to a specific date based on a fixed formula. The September 30 resolution extended spending to December 3 at FY 2021 levels.8 Adding to the stakes of this year’s budget negotiations, spending caps on discretionary spending that were enacted in 2011 expired on September 30, 2021, so FY 2022 budget levels may become the baseline for future spending.9

Raising the Ceiling

A debt limit was first established in 1917 to facilitate government borrowing during World War I. Since then, the limit has been raised or suspended almost 100 times, often with little or no conflict.10 However, in recent years, it has become more contentious. In 2011, negotiations came so close to the edge that Standard & Poor’s downgraded the U.S. government credit rating.11

A two-year suspension expired on August 1 of this year. At that time, the federal debt was about $28.4 trillion, with large recent increases due to the $3 trillion pandemic stimulus passed with bipartisan support in 2020, as well as the 2021 American Rescue Plan and continuing effects of the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act of 2017.12-13 The Treasury funded operations after August 1 by employing certain “extraordinary measures” to maintain cash flow. Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen projected that these measures would be exhausted by October 18.14

The bill signed on October 14 increased the debt ceiling by $480 billion, the amount the Treasury estimated would be necessary to pay government obligations through December 3, again using extraordinary measures. Unlike the budget extension, which is a hard deadline, the debt ceiling date is an estimate, and the Treasury may have a little breathing room.15–16

Potential Consequences

If the budget appropriations bills — or another continuing resolution — are not passed by December 3, the government will be forced to shut down unfunded operations, except for some essential services. This occurred in fiscal years 2013, 2018, and 2019, with shutdowns lasting 16 days, 3 days, and 35 days, respectively.

Although the consequences of a government shutdown would be serious, the economy has bounced back from previous shutdowns. By contrast, a U.S. government default would be unprecedented and could result in unpaid bills, higher interest rates, and a loss of faith in U.S. Treasury securities that would reverberate throughout the global economy. The Federal Reserve has a contingency plan that might mitigate the effects of a short-term default, but Fed Chair Jerome Powell has emphasized that the Fed could not “shield the financial markets, and the economy, and the American people from the consequences of default.”17

Given the stakes, it is unlikely that Congress will allow the government to default, but the road to raising the debt ceiling is unclear. The temporary measure was passed through a bipartisan agreement to suspend the Senate filibuster rule, which effectively requires 60 votes to move most legislation forward. However, this was a one-time exception and may not be available again. Another possibility may be to attach a provision to the education, healthcare, and climate package slated to move through a complex budget reconciliation process that allows a bill to bypass the Senate filibuster. However, the reconciliation process is time-consuming, and it is not clear whether the debt ceiling would meet parliamentary requirements.18

The budget and the debt ceiling are serious issues, but Congress has always found a way to resolve them in the past. It’s generally wise to maintain a long-term investment strategy based on your goals, time frame, and risk tolerance, rather than overreacting to political conflict and any resulting market volatility.

U.S. Treasury securities are guaranteed by the federal government as to the timely payment of principal and interest. The principal value of Treasury securities fluctuates with market conditions. If not held to maturity, they could be worth more or less than the original amount paid. All investments are subject to market fluctuation, risk, and loss of principal. When sold, investments may be worth more or less than their original cost.

Planning is further complicated by the uncertainty as to what changes, if any, will be made relating to income, estate and gift tax provisions and their effective dates. Individual circumstances will differ. Review your situation and planning to determine what if any actions is required. Pay close attention to your current and expected future tax brackets when you consider the timing of deductions and income.

1, 8) The Washington Post, September 30, 2021

2, 16, 18) Barron’s, October 15, 2021

3) U.S. Office of Management and Budget, 2021

4, 7, 9) Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget, June 25, 2021; October 18, 2021

5, 11, 14, 17) The Wall Street Journal, September 28, 2021

6) Peter G. Peterson Foundation, October 1, 2021

10) NPR, September 28, 2021

12, 15) U.S. Treasury, 2021

13) Moody’s Analytics, September 21, 2021

26
Oct

Employer Open Enrollment: Make Benefit Choices That Work for You

Open enrollment is the time when employers may change their benefit offerings for the upcoming plan year. If you’re employed, this is your once-a-year chance to make important decisions that will affect your health-care choices and your finances.

Even if you are satisfied with your current health plan, it may no longer be the most cost-effective option. Before you make any benefit elections, take plenty of time to review the information provided by your employer. You should also consider how your life has changed over the last year and any plans or potential developments for 2022.

Decipher Your Health Plan Options

The details matter when it comes to selecting a suitable health plan. One of your options could be a better fit for you (or your family) and might even help reduce your overall health-care costs. But you will have to look beyond the monthly premiums. Policies with lower premiums tend to have more restrictions or higher out-of-pocket costs (such as copays, coinsurance, and deductibles) when you do seek care for a health issue.

To help you weigh the tradeoffs, here is a comparison of the five main types of health plans. It should also help demystify some of the terminology and acronyms used so often across the health insurance landscape.

Health maintenance organization (HMO). Coverage is limited to care from physicians, other medical providers, and facilities within the HMO network (except in an emergency). You choose a primary-care physician (PCP) who will decide whether to approve or deny any request for a referral to a specialist.

Point of service (POS) plan. Out-of-network care is available, but you will pay more than you would for in-network services. As with an HMO, you must have a referral from a PCP to see a specialist. POS premiums tend to be a little bit higher than HMO premiums.

Exclusive provider organization (EPO). Services are covered only if you use medical providers and facilities in the plan’s network, but you do not need a referral to see a specialist. Premiums are typically higher than an HMO, but lower than a PPO.

Preferred provider organization (PPO). You have the freedom to see any health providers you choose without a referral, but there are financial incentives to seek care from PPO physicians and hospitals (a larger percentage of the cost will be covered by the plan). A PPO usually has a higher premium than an HMO, EPO, or POS plan and often has a deductible.

A deductible is the amount you must pay before insurance payments kick in. Preventive care (such as annual visits and recommended screenings) is typically covered free of charge, regardless of whether the deductible has been met.

High-deductible health plan (HDHP). In return for significantly lower premiums, you’ll pay more out-of-pocket for medical services until you reach the annual deductible. HDHP deductibles start at $1,400 for an individual and $2,800 for family coverage in 2022 and can be much higher. Care will be less expensive if you use providers in the plan’s network, and your upfront cost could be reduced through the insurer’s negotiated rate.

An HDHP is designed to be paired with a health savings account (HSA), to which your employer may contribute funds toward the deductible. You can also elect to contribute to your HSA through pre-tax payroll deductions or make tax-deductible contributions directly to the HSA provider, up to the annual limit ($3,650 for an individual or $7,300 for family coverage in 2022, plus $1,000 for those 55+).

HSA funds, including any earnings if the account has an investment option, can be withdrawn free of federal income tax and penalties if the money is spent on qualified health-care expenses. (Some states do not follow federal tax rules on HSAs.) Unspent balances can be retained in the account indefinitely and used to pay future medical expenses, whether you are enrolled in an HDHP or not. Be sure to save receipts if you decide to delay using the funds in the HAS in the future. Delaying using the funds allow the earnings and growth of the funds invested free of income tax. If you change employers or retire, the funds can be rolled over to a new HSA.

Three Steps to a Sound Decision

Start by adding up your total expenses (premiums, copays, coinsurance, deductibles) under each plan offered by your employer, based on last year’s usage. Your employer’s benefit materials may include an online calculator to help you compare plans by taking factors such as your chronic health conditions and regular medications into account.

If you are married, you may need to coordinate two sets of workplace benefits. Many companies apply a surcharge to encourage a worker’s spouse to use other available coverage, so look at the costs and benefits of having both of you on the same plan versus individual coverage from each employer. If you have children, compare what it would cost to cover them under each spouse’s plan.

Before enrolling in a plan, check to see if your preferred health-care providers are included in the network.

Tame Taxes with a Flexible Spending Account

If you elect to open an employer-provided health and/or dependent-care flexible spending account (FSA), the money you contribute via payroll deduction is not subject to federal income and Social Security taxes (nor generally to state and local income taxes). Using these tax-free dollars to pay for health-care costs not covered by insurance or for dependent-care expenses could save you about 30% or more, depending on your tax bracket.

The federal limit for contributions to a health FSA was $2,750 in 2021 and should be similar for 2022. Some employers set lower limits. (The official limit has not been announced by the IRS). You can use the funds for a broad range of qualified medical, dental, and vision expenses.

With a dependent-care FSA, you can set aside up to $5,000 a year (per household) to cover eligible child-care costs for qualifying children aged 12 or younger. The tax savings could help offset some of the costs paid for a nanny, babysitter, day care, preschool, or day camp, but only if the services are used so you (or a spouse) can work.

One drawback of health and dependent-care FSAs is that they are typically subject to the use-it-or-lose-it rule, which requires you to spend everything in your account by the end of the calendar year or risk losing the money. Some employers allow certain amounts (up to $550) to be carried over to the following plan year or offer a grace period up to 2½ months. Still, you must estimate your expenses in advance, and your predictions could turn out to be way off base.

Legislation passed during the pandemic allows workers to carry over any unused FSA funds from 2021 into 2022, if the employer opts into this temporary change. If you have leftover money in an FSA, you should consider your account balance and your employer’s carryover policies when deciding on your contribution election for 2022.

Take Advantage of Valuable Perks

A change in the tax code enacted at the end of 2020 made it possible for employers to offer student debt assistance as a tax-free employee benefit through 2025, spurring more companies to add it to their menu of benefit options. A 2021 survey found that 17% of employers now offer student debt assistance, and 31% are planning to do so in the future. Many employers target a student debt assistance benefit of $100 per month, which doesn’t sound like much, but it adds up.1 For example, an employee with $31,000 in student loans who is paying them off over 10 years at a 6% interest rate would save about $3,000 in interest and get out of debt 2½ years faster.

Many employers provide access to voluntary benefits such as dental coverage, vision coverage, disability insurance, life insurance, and long-term care insurance. Even if your employer doesn’t contribute toward the premium cost, you may be able to pay premiums conveniently through payroll deduction. Your employer may also offer discounts on health-related products and services, such as fitness equipment or gym memberships, and other wellness incentives, like a monetary reward for completing a health assessment.

1) CNBC, September 28, 2021

19
Oct

Is the Back-Door Roth IRA Going Away for Good?

Among the many provisions in the multi-trillion-dollar legislative package being debated in Congress is a provision that would eliminate a strategy that allows high-income investors to pursue tax-free retirement income: the so-called back-door Roth IRA. The next few months may present the last chance to take advantage of this opportunity.

Roth IRA Background
Since its introduction in 1997, the Roth IRA has become an attractive investment vehicle due to the potential to build a sizable, tax-free nest egg. Although contributions to a Roth IRA are not tax deductible, any earnings in the account grow tax-free if future distributions are qualified. A qualified distribution is one made after the Roth account has been held for five years and after the account holder reaches age 59½, becomes disabled, dies, or uses the funds for the purchase of a first home ($10,000 lifetime limit).

Unlike other retirement savings accounts, original owners of Roth IRAs are not subject to required minimum distributions at age 72 — another potentially tax-beneficial benefit that makes Roth IRAs appealing in estate planning strategies. (Beneficiaries are subject to distribution rules.)

However, as initially passed, the 1997 legislation rendered it impossible for high-income taxpayers to enjoy Roth IRAs. Individuals and married taxpayers whose income exceeded certain thresholds could neither contribute to a Roth IRA nor convert traditional IRA assets to a Roth IRA.

A Loophole Emerges
Nearly 10 years after the Roth’s introduction, the Tax Increase Prevention and Reconciliation Act of 2005 ushered in a change that relaxed the conversion rules beginning in 2010; that is, as of that year, the income limits for a Roth conversion were eliminated, which meant that anyone could convert traditional IRA assets to a Roth IRA. (Of course, a conversion results in a tax obligation on deductible contributions and earnings that have previously accrued in the traditional IRA.)

One perhaps unintended consequence of this change was the emergence of a new strategy that has been utilized ever since: High-income individuals could make full, annual, nondeductible contributions to a traditional IRA and convert those contribution dollars to a Roth. If the account holders had no other IRAs (see note below) and the conversion was executed quickly enough so that no earnings were able to accrue, the transaction could potentially be a tax-free way for otherwise ineligible taxpayers to fund a Roth IRA. This move became known as the back-door Roth IRA.

(Note: When calculating a tax obligation on a Roth conversion, investors must aggregate all their IRAs, including SEP and SIMPLE IRAs, before determining the amount. For example, say an investor has $100,000 in several different traditional IRAs, 80% of which is attributed to deductible contributions and earnings. If that investor chose to convert any traditional IRA assets — even recent after-tax contributions — to a Roth IRA, 80% of the converted funds would be taxable. This is known as the “pro-rata rule.”)

Current Roth IRA Income Limits
For 2021, you can generally contribute up to $6,000 to an IRA (traditional, Roth, or a combination of both); $7,000 if you’ll be age 50 or older by December 31. However, your ability to make contributions to a Roth IRA is limited or eliminated if your modified adjusted gross income, or MAGI, falls within or exceeds the parameters shown below.

If your federal filing status is:Your 2021 Roth IRA contribution is reduced if your MAGI is:You can’t contribute to a Roth IRA for 2021 if your MAGI is:
Single or head of householdMore than $125,000 but less than $140,000$140,000 or more
Married filing jointly or qualifying widow(er)More than $198,000 but less than $208,000$208,000 or more
Married filing separatelyLess than $10,000$10,000 or more

Note that your contributions generally can’t exceed your earned income for the year (special rules apply to spousal Roth IRAs).

Now or Never … Maybe
While no one knows for sure what may come of the legislative debates, the current proposal would prohibit the conversion of nondeductible contributions from a traditional IRA after December 31, 2021. If you expect your MAGI to exceed this year’s thresholds and you’d like to fund a Roth IRA for 2021, the next few months may be your last chance to use the back-door strategy. Contact your financial and tax professionals for more information.

There is no assurance that working with a financial professional will improve investment results.

You can make 2021 IRA contributions up until April 15, 2022, but if the legislation is enacted, a Roth conversion involving nondeductible contributions would have to be conducted by December 31, 2021.

Keep in mind that a separate five-year rule applies to the principal amount of each Roth IRA conversion you make unless an exception applies.

12
Oct

Medicare Open Enrollment for 2022 Starts October 15

Medicare beneficiaries can make new choices and pick plans that work best for them during the annual Medicare Open Enrollment Period. Costs and coverage typically change annually. Changes in your healthcare needs over the past year also may have changed. The Open Enrollment Period — which begins on October 15 and runs through December 7 — is your opportunity to switch your current Medicare health and prescription drug plans to ones that better suit your needs.

During this period, you can:

  • Switch from Original Medicare to a Medicare Advantage Plan
  • Switch from a Medicare Advantage Plan to Original Medicare
  • Change from one Medicare Advantage Plan to a different Medicare Advantage Plan
  • Change from a Medicare Advantage Plan that offers prescription drug coverage to a Medicare Advantage Plan that doesn’t offer prescription drug coverage
  • Switch from a Medicare Advantage Plan that doesn’t offer prescription drug coverage to a Medicare Advantage Plan that does offer prescription drug coverage
  • Join a Medicare prescription drug plan (Part D)
  • Switch from one Part D plan to another Part D plan
  • Drop your Part D coverage altogether

Any changes made during Open Enrollment are effective as of January 1, 2022.

Review plan options

Now is a good time to review your current Medicare benefits to see if they’re still right for you. Are you satisfied with the coverage and level of care you’re receiving with your current plan? Are your premium costs or out-of-pocket expenses too high? Has your health changed? Do you anticipate needing medical care or treatment, or new or pricier prescription drugs?

If your current plan doesn’t meet your healthcare needs or fit your budget, you can switch to a new plan. If you find that you’re satisfied with your current Medicare plan and it’s still being offered, you don’t have to do anything. The coverage you have will continue.

Information on costs and benefits

The Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS) has announced that the average monthly premium for Medicare Advantage plans will be $19, and the average monthly premium for Part D prescription drug coverage will be $33. CMS will announce 2022 premiums, deductibles, and coinsurance amounts for the Medicare Part A and Part B programs soon.

You can find more information on Medicare benefits in the Medicare & You 2022 Handbook on medicare.gov.

5
Oct

Social Security’s Uncertain Future: What You Should Know

Social Security is a pay-as-you-go system, which means today’s workers are paying taxes for the benefits received by today’s retirees. There are many factors that are causing long-run fiscal challenges. Factors causing long-run fiscal challenges, including demographic trends such as lower birth rates, higher retirement rates, and longer life spans. There are simply not enough U.S. workers to support the growing number of beneficiaries. See the discussion under “Pandemic Impact” below. Social Security is not in danger of collapsing, but the clock is ticking on the program’s ability to pay full benefits.

Annually, the Trustees of the Social Security Trust Funds provide a detailed report to Congress that tracks the program’s current financial condition and projected financial outlook. In the latest report, released in August 2021, the Trustees estimate that the retirement program will have funds to pay full benefits only until 2033, unless Congress acts to shore up the program. This day of reckoning is expected to come one year sooner than previously projected because of the economic fallout from the COVID-19 pandemic.

Report Highlights

Social Security consists of two programs, each with its own financial account (trust fund) that holds the payroll taxes that are collected to pay benefits. Retired workers, their families, and survivors of workers receive monthly benefits under the Old-Age and Survivors Insurance (OASI) program; disabled workers and their families receive monthly benefits under the Disability Insurance (DI) program. The combined programs are referred to as OASDI.

Combined OASDI costs are projected to exceed total income (including interest) in 2021, and the Treasury will withdraw reserves to help pay benefits. The Trustees project that the combined reserves will be depleted in 2034. After that, payroll tax revenue alone should be sufficient to pay about 78% of scheduled benefits. OASDI projections are hypothetical, because the OASI and DI Trusts are separate, and generally one program’s taxes and reserves cannot be used to fund the other program.

The OASI Trust Fund, considered separately, is projected to be depleted in 2033. Payroll tax revenue alone would then be sufficient to pay 76% of scheduled OASI benefits.

The DI Trust Fund is projected to be depleted in 2057, eight years sooner than estimated in last year’s report. Once the trust fund is depleted, payroll tax revenue alone would be sufficient to pay 91% of scheduled benefits.

All projections are based on current conditions, subject to change, and may not happen.

Proposed Fixes

The Trustees continue to urge Congress to address the financial challenges facing these programs soon, so that solutions will be less drastic and may be implemented gradually, lessening the impact on the public. Combining some of the following solutions may also help soften the impact of any one solution.

  • Raising the current Social Security payroll tax rate (currently 12.4%). Half is paid by the employee and half by the employer (self-employed individuals pay the full 12.4%). An immediate and permanent payroll tax increase of 3.36 percentage points to 15.76% would be needed to cover the long-range revenue shortfall (4.20 percentage points to 16.60% if the increase started in 2034).
  • Raising or eliminating the ceiling on wages subject to Social Security payroll taxes ($142,800 in 2021).
  • Raising the full retirement age beyond the currently scheduled age of 67 (for anyone born in 1960 or later).
  • Reducing future benefits. To address the long-term revenue shortfall, scheduled benefits would have to be immediately and permanently reduced by about 21% for all current and future beneficiaries, or by about 25% if reductions were applied only to those who initially become eligible for benefits in 2021 or later.
  • Changing the benefit formula that is used to calculate benefits.
  • Calculating the annual cost-of-living adjustment for benefits differently.

Pandemic Impact

The 2021 Trustees Report states that Social Security’s short-term finances were “significantly affected” by the pandemic and the severe but short-lived recession in 2020. “Employment, earnings, interest rates, and GDP [gross domestic product] dropped substantially in the second calendar quarter of 2020 and are assumed to rise gradually thereafter toward recovery by 2023, with the level of worker productivity and thus GDP assumed to be permanently lowered by 1%.” The projections also accounted for elevated mortality rates over the period 2020 through 2023 and delays in births and immigration. Because payroll tax revenues are rebounding quickly, the damage to the program was not as great as many feared.

Sharp increases in consumer prices in July and August suggest that beneficiaries might receive the highest annual benefit increase since 1983 starting in January 2022. The Social Security Administration’s chief actuary has estimated that the 2022 cost-of-living adjustment (COLA) will be close to 6.0%.1(The official COLA had not been announced at the time of this writing.)

What’s at Stake for You?

The Census Bureau has estimated that 2.8 million Americans ages 55 and older filed for Social Security benefits earlier than they had anticipated because of COVID-19.2 Many older workers may have been pushed into retirement after losing their jobs or because they had health concerns.

If you regret starting your Social Security benefits earlier than planned, you can withdraw your application within 12 months of your original claim and reapply later. But you can do this only once, and you must repay all the benefits you received. Otherwise, if you’ve reached full retirement age, you may voluntarily suspend benefits and restart them later. Either of these moves would result in a higher future benefit.

Even if you won’t depend on Social Security to survive, the benefits could amount to a meaningful portion of your retirement income. An estimate of your monthly retirement benefit can be found on your Social Security Statement, which can be accessed when you sign up for my Social Security account on SSA.gov. If you aren’t receiving benefits and haven’t registered for an online account, you should receive an annual statement in the mail starting at age 60.

No matter what the future holds for Social Security, your retirement destiny is still in your hands. But it may be more important than ever to save as much as possible for retirement while you are working. Don’t wait until you have one foot out the door to consider your retirement income strategy.

All information is from the 2021 Social Security Trustees Report, except for:

1) AARP, September 15, 2021

2) U.S. Census Bureau, 2021

28
Sep

Advancing Tax Proposals Put Corporations and High-Income Individuals in Spotlight

The House Budget Committee voted Saturday, September 25, 2021, to advance a $3.5 trillion spending package to the House floor for debate. Summaries of proposed tax changes intended to help fund the spending package was previously released by The House Ways and Means Committee and the Joint Committee on Taxation. Many of these provisions focus specifically on businesses and high-income households. There is a high probability that changes will be made as the process continues.

Below are some highlights from the proposed provisions.

Corporate Income Tax Rate Increase

Corporations would be subject to a graduated tax rate structure, with a higher top rate.

Currently, a flat 21% rate applies to corporate taxable income. The proposed legislation would impose a top tax rate of 26.5% on corporate taxable income above $5 million. Specifically:

  • A 16% rate would apply to the first $400,000 of corporate taxable income
  • A 21% rate on remaining taxable income up to $5 million
  • The 26.5% rate would apply to taxable income over $5 million, and corporations making more than $10 million in taxable income would have the benefit of the lower tax rates phased out.

Personal service corporations would pay tax on their entire taxable income at 26.5%.

Tax Increases for High-Income Individuals

Top individual income tax rate. The proposed legislation would increase the existing top marginal income tax rate of 37% to 39.6% effective in tax years starting on or after January 1, 2022 and apply it to taxable income over $450,000 for married individuals filing jointly, $425,000 for heads of households, $400,000 for single taxpayers, and $225,000 for married individuals filing separate returns. (These income thresholds are lower than the current top rate thresholds.)

Top capital gains tax rate. The top long-term capital gains tax rate would be raised from 20% to 25% under the proposed legislation; this increased tax rate would generally be effective for sales after September 13, 2021. In addition, the taxable income thresholds for the 25% capital gains tax bracket would be made the same as for the 39.6% regular income tax bracket (see above) starting in 2022.

New 3% surtax on income. A new 3% surtax is proposed on modified adjusted gross income over $5 million ($2.5 million for a married individual filing separately).

3.8% net investment income tax expanded. Currently, there is a 3.8% net investment income tax on high-income individuals. This tax would be expanded to cover certain other income derived in the ordinary course of a trade or business for single taxpayers with taxable income greater than $400,000 ($500,000 for joint filers). This would generally affect certain income of S corporation shareholders, partners, and limited liability company (LLC) members that is currently not subject to the net investment income tax.

New qualified business income deduction limit. A deduction is currently available for up to 20% of qualified business income from a partnership, S corporation, or sole proprietorship, as well as 20% of aggregate qualified real estate investment trust dividends and qualified publicly traded partnership income. The proposed legislation would limit the maximum allowable deduction at $500,000 for a joint return, $400,000 for a single return, and $250,000 for a separate return.

Retirement Plans Provisions Affecting High-Income Individuals

New limit on contributions to Roth and traditional IRAs. The proposed legislation would prohibit those with total IRA and defined contribution retirement plan accounts exceeding $10 million from making any additional contributions to Roth and traditional IRAs. The limit would apply to single taxpayers and married taxpayers filing separately with taxable income over $400,000, $450,000 for married taxpayers filing jointly, and $425,000 for heads of household.

New required minimum distributions for large aggregate retirement accounts.

  • These rules would apply to high-income individuals (same income limits as described above), regardless of age.
  • The proposed legislation would require that individuals with total retirement account balances (traditional IRAs, Roth IRAs, employer-sponsored retirement plans) exceeding $20 million distribute funds from Roth accounts (100% of Roth retirement funds or, if less, by the amount total retirement account balances exceed $20 million).
  • To the extent that the combined balance in traditional IRAs, Roth IRAs, and defined contribution plans exceeds $10 million, distributions equal to 50% of the excess must be made.
  • The 10% early-distribution penalty tax would not apply to distributions required because of the $10 million or $20 million limits.

Roth conversions limited. In general, taxpayers can currently convert all or a portion of a non-Roth IRA or defined contribution plan account into a Roth IRA or account without regard to the amount of their taxable income. The proposed legislation would prohibit Roth conversions for single taxpayers and married taxpayers filing separately with taxable income over $400,000, $450,000 for married taxpayers filing jointly, and $425,000 for heads of household. [It appears that this proposal would not be effective until 2032.]

Roth conversions not allowed for distributions that include nondeductible contributions. Taxpayers who are unable to make contributions to a Roth IRA can currently make “back-door” contributions by making nondeductible contributions to a traditional IRA and then shortly afterward convert the nondeductible contribution from the traditional IRA to a Roth IRA. It is proposed that amounts held in a non-Roth IRA or defined contribution account cannot be converted to a Roth IRA or designated Roth account if any portion of the distribution being converted consists of after-tax or nondeductible contributions.

Estates and Trusts

  • For estate and gift taxes (and the generation-skipping transfer tax), the current basic exclusion amount (and GST tax exemption) of $11.7 million would be cut by about one-half under the proposal.
  • The proposal would generally include grantor trusts in the grantor’s estate for estate tax purposes; tax rules relating to the sale of appreciated property to a grantor trust would also be modified to provide for taxation of gain.
  • Current valuation rules that generally allow substantial discounts for transfer tax purposes for an interest in a closely held business entity, such as an interest in a family limited partnership, would be modified to disallow any such discount for transfers of nonbusiness assets.
21
Sep

2022-2023 School Year Opens on October 1 for FAFSA

Financial aid kickoff season begins in October. Incoming and returning college students can start filing the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, or FAFSA, for the next academic year. The FAFSA is a prerequisite for federal student loans, grants, and work-study, and may be required by colleges before they distribute their own institutional aid to students.

How do I submit the FAFSA?

The FAFSA for the 2022-2023 school year opens on October 1, 2021. Here are some tips for filing it.

  • The fastest and easiest way to submit the FAFSA is online at studentaid.gov. The site contains resources and tools to help you complete the form, including a list of the documents and information you’ll need to file it. The online FAFSA allows your tax data to be directly imported from the IRS, which speeds up the overall process and reduces errors.
  • Before you file the FAFSA online, you and your child will each need to obtain an FSA ID (federal student aid ID), which you can also do online by following the instructions. (Once you have an FSA ID, you can use the same one each year.)
  • The FAFSA can also be filed in paper form. But it will take much longer for the government to process it.
  • You don’t need to complete the FAFSA by October 1. But it’s a promising idea to file it as early as possible in the fall because some federal aid programs operate on a first-come, first-served basis. Colleges typically have a priority filing date for both incoming and returning students; the priority filing date can be found in the financial aid section of a college’s website. You should submit the FAFSA before that date.
  • Students must submit the FAFSA every year to be eligible for financial aid (along with any other college-specific financial aid form that may be required, such as the CSS Profile). Any colleges you list on the FAFSA will also get a copy of the report.
  • There is no cost to submit the FAFSA.

How does the FAFSA calculate financial need?

The FAFSA looks at a family’s income, assets, and household information (for example, family size) to calculate what a family can afford to pay. This figure is known as the EFC or expected family contribution. All financial aid packages are built around this number.

Tip: Starting with the 2023-2024 FAFSA (which will be available next year starting October 1, 2022), the EFC will be renamed the SAI, or student aid index.

When counting income, the FAFSA uses information in your tax return from two years earlier. This year is often referred to as the “base year” or the “prior-prior year.” For example, the 2022-2023 FAFSA will use income information in your 2020 tax return, so 2020 would be the base year or prior-prior year.

When counting assets, the FAFSA uses the current value of your and your child’s assets. Some assets are not counted and do not need to be listed on the FAFSA. These include home equity in a primary residence, retirement accounts (e.g., 401k, IRA), annuities, and cash-value life insurance. Student assets are weighted more heavily than parent assets; students must contribute 20% of their assets vs. 5.6% for parents.

Your EFC remains constant, no matter which college your child attends. The difference between your EFC and a college’s cost of attendance equals your child’s financial need. Your child’s financial need will be different at every school.

After your EFC is calculated, the financial aid administrator at your child’s school will attempt to craft an aid package to meet your child’s financial need by offering a combination of loans, grants, scholarships, and work-study. Keep in mind that colleges are not obligated to meet 100% of your child’s financial need. If they don’t, you are responsible for paying the difference. Colleges often advertise on their website and brochures whether they meet “100% of demonstrated need.”

Should I file the FAFSA even if my child is unlikely to qualify for aid?

Yes, probably. There are two good reasons to submit the FAFSA even if you don’t expect your child to qualify for need-based aid.

First, all students attending college at least half-time are eligible for unsubsidized federal student loans, regardless of financial need or income level. (“Unsubsidized” means the borrower, rather than the federal government, pays the interest that accrues during school and during the grace period and any deferment periods after graduation.) If you want your child to be eligible for this federal loan, you’ll need to submit the FAFSA. But don’t worry, your child won’t be locked in to taking out the loan. If you submit the FAFSA and then decide your child doesn’t need the student loan, your child can decline it through the college’s financial aid portal before the start of the school year.

Second, colleges typically require the FAFSA when distributing their own need-based aid, and in some cases as a prerequisite for merit aid. So, filing the FAFSA can give your child the broadest opportunity to be eligible for college-based aid. Similarly, many private scholarship sources may want to see the results of the FAFSA.

8
Sep

Too Hot to Handle: What’s Ahead for the U.S. Housing Market?

The U.S. housing market, already strong before the pandemic, has heated up to record levels in 2021. The Case-Shiller U.S. National Home Price Index, which measures home prices in 20 major metropolitan areas, reported a 12-month increase of 18.6% in June 2021, the largest year-over-year gain in data going back to 1987.1

The National Association of Realtors (NAR), which provides more current data, reported that the national median price of an existing home was $359,900 in July, down from a record $362,800 in June. Even so, this was the 113th consecutive month of year-over-year price increases. The June to July price relief was due in part to increased supply. Total inventory of new and existing homes increased 7.3% over June but was still down 12.0% from a year ago.2

The July 2021 NAR data suggests that the red-hot market may be cooling slightly, but prices are still extremely high, and industry experts expect them to remain high for the foreseeable future. Here’s a look at some key factors behind the current trend and prospects for future direction.

Low Supply, Surprise Demand

The housing supply has been low for more than a decade. The housing crash devastated the construction industry, and a variety of factors, including labor shortages, tariffs, limited land, and restrictive permit processes, have kept the supply of new homes below historical averages, placing more pressure on existing homes to meet demand.3

The pandemic exacerbated labor problems and led to supply-chain issues and high costs for raw materials that held back construction, while demand exploded despite the economic downturn. With the shift to remote work and remote education, many people with solid jobs looked for more space, and low interest rates made higher prices more affordable.4

At the same time, homeowners who might have seen high prices as an opportunity to sell were hesitant to do so because of economic uncertainty and the high cost of moving to another home. Refinancing at low rates offered an appealing alternative and kept homeowners in place. Government mortgage forbearance programs have helped families from losing their homes but also kept homes that might have otherwise foreclosed off the market.5

Health concerns also played a part. The pandemic made it less appealing to have strangers entering a home for an open house. And older people who might have moved into assisted living or other senior facilities were more likely to stay in their homes.6

Taken together, these factors produced a perfect storm of low supply and high demand that drove already high prices to dizzying levels and created desperation among buyers.  All-cash sales accounted for 23% of transactions in July, up from 16% in July 2020. The average home stayed on the market for just 17 days, down from 22 days last year. Almost 90% of homes sold in less than a month.7

Freezing Out First-Time Buyers

Recent inventory gains have been primarily in more expensive houses, and there continues to be a critical shortage of affordable homes. First-time buyers accounted for just 30% of purchases in July 2021, down from 34% the previous year.8 A common formula for home affordability is to multiply income by three — i.e., a couple who earns $100,000 might qualify to buy a $300,000 house. A study of 50 cities found that home prices in Q2 2021 were, on average, 5.5 times the local median income of first-time buyers, putting most homes out of reach.9

The lack of affordable housing for first-time buyers also helps to drive rents higher. People with higher incomes who might be buying homes are willing and able to pay higher rents. Rents on newly signed leases in July were 17% higher than what the previous tenant paid, the highest jump on record. After dropping while many young people lived with parents during the pandemic, occupancy of rental units hit a record high of 96.9%.10

Is This a Bubble?

From 2006 to 2012, the housing market plummeted 60%, taking the broader U.S. economy with it.11 Mortgage requirements were made much stricter after the housing crash, and homeowners today are more likely to afford their homes and to have more equity from larger down payments. The housing market has always been cyclical, so it’s likely that prices will turn downward at some point in the future, but less likely that prices will collapse the way they did during the Great Recession.12

What’s Next?

Prices are so high that some buyers are backing off, but demand remains strong and will outstrip housing supply for the foreseeable future. Some near-term relief might come if high prices inspire more homeowners to sell, and if the end of government programs puts more foreclosed homes on the market. There are more single-family homes under construction than at any time since 2007, but it will take months or years for those homes to increase the housing supply.13

The housing market tends to be seasonal, with demand dying down in the fall and the winter. That didn’t happen last year, because pent-up demand was so strong that it pushed through the seasons. With the supply/demand tension easing, the seasonal slowdown may be more significant this year.14 The Federal Home Loan Mortgage Corporation (Freddie Mac) projects that home prices will grow by 12.1% in 2021, lower than the current pace, and drop further to 5.3% growth in 2022.15

Location, Location

Although national trends reflect broad economic forces, the housing market is fundamentally local. The West is the most expensive region, with a median price of $508,300 for an existing home, followed by the Northeast ($411,200), the South ($305,200), and the Midwest ($275,300).16 Within regions, there are dramatic price differences among states, cities, and towns. The trend to remote work, which helped drive prices upward, may help moderate prices in the long term by allowing workers to live in more affordable areas.

1) S&P Dow Jones Indices, August 31, 2021

2, 7, 8, 16) National Association of Realtors, August 23, 2021

3, 4, 6) The New York Times, May 14, 2021

5) NBC News, July 6, 2021

9)  The New York Times, August 12, 2021

10) Bloomberg Businessweek, August 18, 2021

11) NPR, August 17, 2021

12) The Wall Street Journal, March 15, 2021

13) Bloomberg, August 19, 2021

14) CNN Business, August 23, 2021

15)  Freddie Mac, July 2021

25
Aug

IRS Releases 2022 Key Numbers for Health Savings Accounts

The IRS has released the 2022 contribution limits for health savings accounts (HSAs), as well as the 2022 minimum deductible and maximum out-of-pocket amounts for high-deductible health plans (HDHPs). An HSA is a tax-advantaged account that’s paired with an HDHP. An HSA offers several valuable tax benefits:

  • You may be able to make pre-tax contributions via payroll deduction through your employer, reducing your current income tax.
  • If you make contributions on your own using after-tax dollars, they’re deductible from your federal income tax (and perhaps from your state income tax) whether you itemize or not.
  • Contributions to your HSA, and any interest or earnings, grow tax deferred.
  • Contributions and any earnings you withdraw will be tax-free if used to pay qualified medical expenses.

Health Savings Accounts
Annual contributions:
2022 Self-only coverage $3,650, $50 increase from 2021
2022 Family coverage $7,300, $100 increase from 2021

High-deductible health plan: self-only coverage:

2022 Annual deductible: minimum $1,400, the same as 2021
2022 Annual out-of-pocket expenses required to be paid  (other than premiums) can’t exceed $7,050,  
        $50 increase from 2021

High-deductible health plan: family coverage:
2022 Annual deductible: $2,800, the same as 2021
2022 Annual out-of-pocket expenses required to be paid (other than premiums) can’t exceed $14,000,
          $100 increase from 2021 

Catch-up contributions:
2022 Annual catch-up contributions limit for individuals age 55 or older $1,000, the same as 2021

17
Aug

Student Loan Payment Pause Extended Through January 2022

On August 6, 2021, the U.S. Department of Education announced an extension of the pause on federal student loan payments to January 31, 2022. The payment moratorium, currently in effect for millions of federal student loan borrowers, was set to end on September 30, 2021.

The Department noted that this extension would be the last one. U.S. Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona stated: “As our nation’s economy continues to recover from a deep hole, this final extension will give students and borrowers the time they need to plan for restart and ensure a smooth pathway back to repayment.”1

How many payment pauses have there been?

There have been four pauses to federal student loan repayment since the start of the coronavirus pandemic. The first pause was instituted in March 2020 for six months (through September 2020) when Congress passed the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act. The second and third pauses came via presidential executive order and extended the payment pause through January 2021 and through September 2021, respectively. The fourth and “final” extension is now scheduled through January 31, 2022. This means federal student loan payments will resume beginning February 1, 2022.

The Department of Education will begin notifying borrowers about this final extension in the coming days, and it will release resources and information about how to plan for repayment as the end of the pause approaches.

Does interest continue to accrue during the moratorium period?

No, interest does not accrue during the moratorium period. Essentially, the interest rate is set at 0%.

Can borrowers make payments if they want to during this time?

Yes. Borrowers can choose to keep making their monthly student loan payments during the moratorium period if they wish. The full amount of a borrower’s payment will be applied to principal. Borrowers can also choose to make partial payments during this time.

Do private student loans qualify for the payment pause?

No, private student loans aren’t eligible. Only student loans held by the federal government are eligible. This includes Federal Direct Loans (which includes PLUS Loans), along with Federal Perkins Loans and Federal Family Education Loan (FFEL) Program loans held by the Department of Education.

Is student loan forgiveness likely when the payment pause ends?

Probably not. While some legislators have gone on record in favor of forgiving a certain amount of federal student loan debt per borrower, the Biden administration has not taken any steps in this direction and has given no indication that it will do so. Borrowers should be ready to start repaying their loans when the pause ends on January 31, 2022. In the case of continued financial hardship at that time, borrowers should contact their loan servicer to inquire about requesting an individual deferment or forbearance.

For more information, visit the Federal Student Aid website.

1) U.S. Department of Education, 2021