December 2013 Newsletter

 

It’s December 31st. Do You Know Where Your Money Is?

December and January are the perfect months to look back at what you earned, saved, and spent during the past year, as W-2s, account statements, and other year-end financial summaries roll in. So before Punxsutawney Phil comes out of his burrow to predict when spring is coming, take some time to get your financial house in order.

How much have you saved?

Whether you simply resolved last year to save more or you set a specific financial goal (for example, saving 15% of your income for retirement), it’s time to find out how you did. Start by taking a look at your account balances. How much did you save for college or retirement? Were you able to increase your emergency fund? If you were saving for a large purchase, did you save as much as you expected? Challenge yourself in the new year to save a little bit more so that you can make steady financial progress.

How did your investments perform?

Review any investment statements you’ve received. How have your investments performed in comparison to general market conditions, against industry benchmarks, and in relationship to your expectations and needs? Do you need to make any adjustments based on your own circumstances, your tolerance for risk, or because of market conditions?

Did you reduce debt?

Tracking your spending is just as important as tracking your savings, but it’s hard to do when you’re caught up in an endless cycle of paying down your debt and then borrowing more money, over and over again. Fortunately, end of year mortgage statements, credit card statements, and vehicle financing statements will all spell out the amount of debt you still owe and how much you’ve really been able to pay off. You may even find that you’re making more progress than you think. Keep these statements so that you have an easy way to track your progress next year.

Where did your employment taxes go?

If you’re covered by Social Security, the W-2 you receive from your employer by the end of January will show how much you paid into the Social Security system via payroll taxes collected. If you’re self-employed, you report and pay these taxes (called self-employment taxes) yourself. These taxes help fund future Social Security benefits, but many people have no idea what they can expect to receive from Social Security in the future. This year, get in the habit of checking your Social Security statement annually to find out how much you’ve been contributing to the Social Security system and what future benefits you might expect, based on current law. To access your statement, sign up for a my SocialSecurity account at the Social Security Administration’s website, www.socialsecurity.gov.

Has your financial outlook changed during the past year?

Once you’ve reviewed your account balances and financial statements, your next step is to look at your whole financial picture. Taking into account your income, your savings and investments, and your debt load, did your finances improve over the course of the year? If not, why not?

Then it’s time to think about the changes you would like to make for next year. Start by considering the following questions:

• What are your greatest financial concerns?

• Do you need help or advice in certain areas?

• Are your financial goals the same as they were last year?

Do you need to revise your budget now that you’ve reviewed what you’ve earned, saved, and spent?

Using what you’ve learned about your finances–good and bad–to set your course for next year can help you ensure that your financial position in the new year is stronger than ever.

 

Gift Tax Strategies That Can Benefit Your Family

Today’s large gift tax applicable exclusion amount, low gift tax rates, depressed property values, and low interest rates create a favorable environment for making certain gifts.

Federal gift tax basics

Annual exclusion. Each year, you can give a certain amount ($14,000 in 2013 and 2014) to as many individuals as you like gift tax free.

Qualified transfers exclusion. You can give an unlimited amount on behalf of any individuals for tuition or medical expenses gift tax free. You must pay the amount directly to the educational or medical care provider.

Applicable exclusion amount. Gifts can also be sheltered by the applicable exclusion amount, which can protect gifts of up to $5,340,000 (in 2014, $5,250,000 in 2013). The dollar limit applies to all taxable gifts you make during your lifetime and to your estate at your death for federal estate tax purposes.

Basic planning

Generally, the first gifts you should consider making are annual exclusion and qualified transfer gifts. You can make annual exclusion gifts to anyone for any purpose. The annual exclusion is lost in any year in which you do not use it. While you can make unlimited gifts using the exclusion for qualified transfers, the gifts must be for educational and medical purposes.

You and your spouse can split gifts that either of you make. Doing so allows you and your spouse to effectively use each other’s annual exclusions and applicable exclusion amount. For example, if you have 2 children, you and your spouse could make annual exclusion gifts totaling $56,000 to your children (2 spouses x 2 children x $14,000). If you make gifts of $56,000 for 10 years, you will have transferred $560,000 to your children free from gift tax.

Next, consider gifts that are sheltered by the applicable exclusion amount. But, remember that use of the applicable exclusion amount during life reduces the amount available for estate tax purposes at your death.

If you are likely to have a very large taxable estate at your death that could not be sheltered by the applicable exclusion amount, it might even make sense to make gifts that cause you to pay gift tax. For example, let’s assume any additional transfer you make would be subject to the current top gift or estate tax rate of 40% and you make a taxable gift of $1 million to your child on which you pay $400,000 of gift tax. If you instead retained the $1,400,000 until death, $560,000 of estate tax would be due ($1,400,000 x 40%), and only $840,000 of the $1,400,000 would remain for your child. By making the taxable gift and paying gift taxes that reduced your taxable estate, you reduced taxes by $160,000 while increasing the amount transferred to your child by the same $160,000.

Gift considerations

If you have property whose value is depressed, now may be a good time to make a gift of it. The gift tax value of a gift is its fair market value, and a lower value means a smaller gift for gift tax purposes. However, you generally should not make gifts of property that would produce an income tax loss if sold (basis in excess of sales price). The person receiving the property would have a carryover basis and would not be able to claim the loss. In these cases, instead consider selling the property, claiming the loss, and making a gift of the sales proceeds.

Future appreciation on gifted property is removed from your gross estate for federal estate tax purposes. However, while property included in your estate generally receives a basis stepped up (or stepped down) to fair market value when you die, lifetime gifts do not. Therefore, you may wish to balance the gift tax advantage of a gift with carryover basis and income tax on gain if the property is sold against the income tax advantage of a stepped-up basis and estate tax (if any) if you retain the property until your death.

In the current low interest rate environment, you may wish to consider a grantor retained annuity trust (GRAT). In a GRAT, you transfer property to a trust, but retain a right to annuity payments for a term of years. After the trust term ends, the remaining trust property passes to your beneficiaries, such as family members. The value of the gift of a remainder interest is discounted for gift tax purposes to reflect that it will be received in the future. Also, if you survive the trust term, the trust property is not included in your gross estate for estate tax purposes. Any appreciation in the trust property that is greater than the IRS interest rate used to value the gift escapes gift and estate taxation. The lower the IRS interest rate, the more effective this technique generally is.

In the current low interest rate environment, you may also wish to consider a low-interest loan to family members. You are generally required to provide for adequate interest on the loan, or interest will be deemed for gift tax purposes. However, with the current low interest rates, you can provide loans at a very low rate and family members can effectively keep any earnings in excess of the interest they are required to pay you.

 

What’s in Store for Health-Care Reform in 2014

While the Affordable Care Act (ACA) became law in 2010, several of the more substantive provisions of the law don’t take effect until 2014. Here’s a review of some of the key parts of the ACA that are scheduled to begin in 2014.

Individual mandate

The ACA imposes a shared responsibility mandate, which requires that most U.S. citizens and legal residents of all ages (including children and dependents) have minimum essential health coverage or pay a penalty tax, unless otherwise exempt. The monthly penalty is equal to the greater of a declared dollar amount ($95 in 2014) or a percentage of the individual’s gross income.

Note: The employer’s mandate to provide coverage for employees was also scheduled to begin in 2014; however, the requirement will not be enforced until January 2015.

State Exchanges

The ACA requires that each state establish state-based American Health Benefit Exchanges for individuals and Small Business Health Options Program (SHOP) Exchanges for small employers. The Department of Health and Human Services will establish Exchanges in states that do not create the Exchanges. The general purpose of these Exchanges is to provide a single resource in each state for consumers and small businesses to compare health plans, get answers to questions, and enroll in a health plan that is both cost effective and meets their health-care needs.

Exchanges may only offer qualified health plans that cover essential benefits, limit out-of-pocket costs, and provide coverage based on four levels of cost sharing–bronze, silver, gold, and platinum. Also, tax credits and cost-sharing subsidies will be available to U.S. citizens and legal immigrants who buy health insurance through the health Exchanges.

Insurers must provide guaranteed issue and renewability of coverage

All individual and group plans must issue insurance to all applicants regardless of health status, medical condition, or prior medical expenses. Insurers must renew coverage for applicants even if their health status has changed. Grandfathered individual plans are exempt from these requirements. Grandfathered plans are those that were in existence prior to the enactment of the ACA (March 2010) and have not been significantly altered in subsequent years.

In the past, insurers used pre-existing medical condition provisions to deny coverage for care related to the condition (pre-existing condition policy exclusion), increased the premium to cover the condition, or denied coverage altogether. Beginning January 1, 2014, the ACA prohibits insurers in group markets and individual markets (with the exception of grandfathered individual plans) from imposing pre-existing condition exclusions.

In keeping with the guaranteed availability of coverage, insurers may not charge individuals and small employers higher premiums based on health status or gender. Premiums may vary only based on family size, geography, age, and tobacco use.

Essential health benefits

All nongrandfathered small group and individual health plans must offer a package of essential health benefits from 10 benefit categories. The categories include ambulatory patient services, emergency services, hospitalization, laboratory services, maternity and newborn care, mental health and substance abuse treatment, prescription drugs, rehabilitative services and devices, preventive and wellness services, and pediatric services, including dental and vision.

Other policy provisions

The ACA also imposes several requirements and eliminates other provisions commonly found in insurance policies:

Group and individual policies (including grandfathered plans) may not impose waiting periods longer than 90 days before coverage becomes effective.

• Annual deductible for small group (fewer than 50 full-time equivalent employees) health plans (excluding grandfathered plans) must not exceed $2,000 per insured and $4,000 per family. These amounts are indexed to increase in subsequent years.

• The most you’ll pay annually for out-of-pocket expenses (deductibles, coinsurance, and co-pays) for all individual and group health plans (excluding grandfathered plans) cannot exceed the maximum out-of-pocket limits for health savings accounts ($6,350 for individual/$12,700 for family in 2014).

All group health plans and nongrandfathered individual health plans can no longer impose annual or lifetime dollar limits on essential health benefits.

 

What can I do to protect my username and password information from computer hackers?

At one time, computer hackers were viewed as a few rogue individuals who mainly worked alone. Today, many hackers are part of highly sophisticated networks that carry out well-organized cyber attacks. Unfortunately, these online security breaches can result in your username and password information being compromised.

Whenever you enter your personal information online, you’ll want to make sure that you create a strong password to protect that information. Some tips for creating a strong password include:

Avoid creating simple passwords that have a connection to your personal identity (e.g., date of birth, address) or that can be found in the dictionary

Create a password that uses a nonsense word/random alphanumeric combination or an arbitrary, easy to remember phrase with mixed-up character types (e.g., upper/lower case, punctuation)

• Don’t use the same password for multiple websites 

• Use an online tool that allows you to test the strength of a password

If you have trouble keeping track of all of your password information or if you want an extra level of password protection, you may want to use some type of password management software. There are a variety of password managers on the market. Password managers typically work by using high-level encryption methods to store all of your online usernames and passwords on one secure server, using a single master password.

There are a few things you should consider when choosing a password manager. First, if you plan on needing your password information for use on various devices (e.g., tablet, smartphone), you will want to choose a password manager that has mobility features. In addition, some password managers offer added benefits such as web form fillers, which can come in handy if you do a lot of online shopping. Other features to look for include automatic log in and password generator capability.

 

What unique challenges do women face in achieving a financially secure retirement?

Women can face special challenges when saving for retirement. Generally speaking, women tend to spend less time in the workforce, and when they do work, they typically earn less than men in comparable jobs. As a result, women’s retirement plan balances, Social Security benefits, and pension benefits are often lower than their male counterparts. In addition, women generally live longer than men, so they typically have to stretch their retirement savings and benefits over a longer period of time.

What can you do to maximize your chances of achieving a financially secure retirement? Start saving as soon as possible. The best time to start saving for retirement is in your 20s; the second best time is right now. At every stage of your life, there will always be other financial needs competing with the need to save for retirement. Don’t make the mistake of assuming it will be easier to save for retirement in 5, 10, or 15 years. It won’t. Start small, with whatever amount you can afford, and contribute regularly, adding to your contribution when you can.

If you’re in the workforce, an employer retirement plan like a 401(k) plan can be a convenient, no hassle way to get started and build your retirement nest egg–contributions are deducted automatically from your paycheck and may qualify you for employer matching funds. If you’re out of the workforce and married, you can contribute to an IRA (traditional or Roth), provided your spouse earns enough to cover the contributions.

In many cases, your job is your lifeline to being able to save for retirement. Before leaving the workforce for family obligations, consider exploring with your employer the possibility of flexible work arrangements, including telecommuting and part-time work, that might enable you to continue to earn a paycheck as you balance your family obligations. Start planning now by taking the following steps: (1) set a retirement savings goal; (2) start saving as much as you can on a regular basis, and track your progress at least twice per year; and (3) find out how much you can expect to receive from Social Security at www.socialsecurity.gov..

 

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