It is almost 2015 and now is the time to start thinking about tax planning strategies. Specifically, both the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (the “Health Care Act”) and the Tax Relief, Unemployment Insurance Reauthorization and Jobs Creation Act (the “Tax Relief Act”) were enacted into law in 2010 and offer certain tax planning opportunities.

1. Maximize your medical expense account

A medical expense flexible spending account, or FSA (Flexible Spending Account), allows you to use before-tax earnings to pay for medical or health care expenses not covered by your health insurance. Assuming a 25 percent tax rate, this means that for every $100 you allocate to your health care FSA you will avoid $25 in tax. The Health Care Act limits the maximum contribution to these types of accounts to $2,500 starting in 2013, so 2014 is the last year to use an FSA to pay for orthodonture work or other large medical expenses on a tax favored basis.

You should check the specifics of your employer’s plan, but using before-tax dollars for medical expenses will maximize your health care dollars.

2. Is it time to sell?

The Tax Relief Act maintained the top capital gains and dividends rate of 15 percent for 2011 and 2012. In 2013, the top capital gains rate will increase to 20 percent and the top dividends tax rate will increase to 39.6 percent. The Health Care Act also created a new 3.8 percent tax on investment income that will increase your tax rate by 3.8 percent on investment earnings if you file jointly and make over $250,000. While the threshold is relatively high, it is not indexed for inflation and applies the tax to all investment earnings to the extent modified income exceeds the threshold. As we saw with the Alternative Minimum Tax, what seems like a tax on those with higher income will likely become a broad based tax after some period of time due to the impact of inflation.

Given these temporary lower rates, and the looming 3.8 percent tax, you might consider whether it makes sense to sell some capital assets in 2011 or 2012. Of course, tax considerations are only one factor when determining whether to buy, hold or sell an investment.

3. Consider converting retirement assets

In 2010 there was a tremendous increase in conversions of traditional retirement assets to Roth 401(k)s or Roth IRAs due to the elimination of income limits on conversion and the one time opportunity to pay the conversion tax liability in 2011 and 2012. However, even without the ability to pay the tax liability over two years, converting to a Roth can still be a very powerful planning strategy. Roth retirement assets provide a tax-free asset that diversifies your retirement portfolio, allows for yearly retirement tax planning, and acts as a hedge against future tax rate increases. Roth IRA assets are also not subject to age 70 1/2 required minimum distributions or RMDs, which further enhances the power of the tax-free Roth growth.

4. Contribute to an IRA

Many individuals do not realize that they can contribute to an IRA no matter how much income they make. The income limits for IRA contributions only apply to determine if the contribution to the IRA is deductible from income. If you have earned income and are not at least age 70 1/2, funding an IRA even on an after-tax basis can be a powerful savings strategy and can help to make up for past under saving. And don’t wait to fund the IRA when you file your income tax return in April. You can make that contribution now and enjoy extra time to grow your retirement nest egg.

5. Make charitable contributions

The Tax Relief Act extended for 2011 only a prior tax law provision permitting individuals age 70 1/2 or older to use up to $100,000 per year of IRA distributions to make charitable contributions and avoid paying income tax on that amount. Absent this provision the individual would have to include the IRA amount in income and then take a charitable deduction. Given the limitations on charitable contributions and itemized deductions under current law, it is very likely that this two step process would result in the individual not receiving a charitable deduction in an amount to offset the income recognition.

If you are age 70 1/2 or older and you plan on making charitable contributions, by using your IRA funds you can maximize the tax benefit of that donation.

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