Smart Tax Planning

These 3 tax moves will help you save, regardless of who wins the election

Key Points
  • Everyone's focus is on how taxes may change after the election, but households shouldn’t lose sight of year-end strategies that could help them save in 2020.
  • Charitable giving, tax-loss harvesting and Roth conversions are worth a discussion with your tax professional as the end of the year approaches.
  • Some tax savings opportunities, such as getting a heftier write-off for cash donations, are only available this year.
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Set aside your panic over post-election tax policy and focus on something you can control: your 2020 tax bill.

It's no secret that Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden has an extensive list of tax proposals, including higher taxes on households with more than $400,000 in income and lowering the amount people can pass to heirs free of estate and gift tax.

As jarring as those proposals may seem to taxpayers, they aren't necessarily guaranteed.

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How the wealthy might prepare for higher taxes
Took money from a 401(k) plan? This is what it means for taxes

Remember that Democrats must take the White House, scoop up seats in the Senate and maintain a majority in the House for those tax plans to stand a chance.

What is guaranteed is this: You have just a few weeks left in 2020 to maximize tax savings for this year.

"Right now, we're talking regardless of the election outcome and tax reform," said certified financial planner David Cherill, CPA member of the American Institute of CPAs Personal Financial Planning Executive Committee.

"There are standard things in 2020 that exist and may only exist for that year, as well," he said.

Here are a few planning tips that can help you save a few bucks as the year winds down.

1. Roth conversions

Here is how President Trump's and Joe Biden's tax plans differ
Here is how President Trump's and Joe Biden's tax plans differ

It's been a rocky year for many Americans as small businesses and workers struggle with declining income amid the pandemic.

For households with some spare cash, it just might make sense to weigh a Roth conversion — that is, converting a portion of your traditional individual retirement account to a Roth IRA.

Roth IRAs come with a bevy of tax advantages: You put after tax dollars into these accounts, where they accumulate tax-free. At retirement, they're a source of tax-free income.

Traditional IRAs, meanwhile, grow tax-deferred. You pay income taxes on the money withdrawn.

Go to your tax advisor and see if it's worth doing the conversion.
Robert Hollmann
investment manager at Nobilis Wealth

Since savers pay taxes on the traditional IRA sums that are converted, the prime time to do it might be now, particularly if they're dealing with reduced income and battered account values.

"If you had a loss of income this year, you might be in a lower bracket this year," said Robert Hollmann, CFP and investment manager at Nobilis Wealth in Stamford, Connecticut.

"Combine that with the fact your IRA investments may have dropped significantly in value, you'll have to look at it carefully this year," he said. "Go to your tax advisor and see if it's worth doing the conversion."

2. Sell your losers

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Got a few dogs in your taxable brokerage account? Talk to your tax professional or financial advisor about dumping them.

Tax-loss harvesting is a strategy in which you rack up losses in a taxable account by trimming holdings that have declined in value. You then use these losses to offset capital gains stemming from appreciated positions you've sold.

If your losses exceed your gains, you can apply up to $3,000 a year to offset ordinary income.

Don't just sit on the cash proceeds you get back from selling your losers. Work with your financial advisor to redeploy the money and rebalance your portfolio.

Don't base investment strategy on politics: Investment strategist
Don't base investment strategy on politics: Investment strategist

"It's been a very bifurcated market," said Hollmann. "You might have some real declines in the portfolio, be it energy, retail, commercial real estate or travel.

"Meanwhile, there might be gains on the tech side of the portfolio."

Beware of the wash sale rule, which bars you from deducting the loss if you've sold the position at a loss and bought back substantially identical stock or securities within 30 days.

This rule applies to all the accounts in your household. Say you sold the loser in your taxable account, but bought it back in your 401(k) plan. You've violated the rule. 

You've also violated the rule if you drop the position in your taxable account, but your spouse buys it in his or her account.

3. Give wisely

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The CARES Act, which went into effect earlier this year, created two tax incentives to spur cash donations.

The first is a $300 write-off donors can claim for giving cash to charity. They can claim it even if they take the standard deduction when they file their taxes, as opposed to itemizing deductions.

The second tax break is targeted toward donors who itemize deductions when they file, and it's in effect for 2020 only.

This break allows these taxpayers to deduct up to 100% of their adjusted gross income for cash donations to public charities. Normally, you can only claim up to 60% of your AGI for a charitable donation.

There are limits on which entities can receive the cash contribution under the CARES Act. For instance, you can't take a 100% deduction for contributing cash to your donor-advised fund.

Talk to your tax professional before you move forward. While the CARES Act is rewarding hefty cash donations, the smarter tax play may be to give appreciated stock to your favorite charity instead.

It'll vary from one taxpayer to the next, of course.

"You may have to talk with your CPA on which option makes sense," said Cherill.