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Karen Telleen-Lawton: Last-Minute Tax-Saving Tips

Dear Karen: Do you have some last-minute tax tips? I know you’re not an accountant or a tax attorney, but I’m asking for a financial planning viewpoint. I’ve done my own taxes since the 1980s, and sometimes I wonder if I could be missing something.

— Do-It-Yourselfer

Dear Selfer: Some people actually enjoy doing the taxes, like my husband. It’s an annual puzzle with familiar faces but frequently changing rules.

My first tip would be to see a professional tax accountant every few years. He or she can reassure you that you’re not making any big errors, and perhaps find you enough tax savings to pay his or her fee.

There are some tax actions you can do all the way up until your filing deadline. One move you can do if you have a high-deductible medical plan is to establish a medical HSA account (Health Savings Account) for the previous year. Another is to put money in an IRA or Roth IRA for the just-ended tax year.

In deciding whether to set up a Roth IRA or a traditional IRA, it increases your financial plan’s flexibility if you have both. At retirement it’s great to have withdrawal options. Then, depending on your taxable income and the tax laws in any given retirement year, you can draw from IRA, Roth and savings to best minimize your tax obligation.

If your income is too high to fund a Roth IRA ($191,000 in 2014 for joint), you may be able to establish a “back door Roth.” To do this, you fund a nondeductible IRA ($5,500 to $6,500 depending on your age, using after-tax income) and then immediately convert it to a Roth regardless of income. There are limitations and drawbacks depending on your particular situation, so read up on this and check with your accountant.

Do you have adult children or your parents living with you? Here are a few deductions that may be applicable. You probably know you can you claim adult children as dependent up to age 24 if they are full-time students living at home, as long as they paid for less than half of their own support including college costs and food. You can actually claim any relative as a dependent as long as you provided more than half their financial support, and their total income (excluding Social Security) is below certain levels.

Speaking of Social Security, if you start collecting before age 65 and then return to work — as is happening a lot these days — you’re better off halting your Social Security payments. The reason is, your benefit checks will be temporarily reduced by a portion of your income. Those benefits are eventually reinstated, but it could be a hassle. If you work after your full retirement age, a paycheck doesn’t affect your Social Security benefit.

Finally, when your accountant reviews your tax forms, remember to add the bill to your other investing and tax expenses. If your expenses for investment management, tax advice, professional, business and investing publications, tax-preparation software, and safe-deposit box to store securities total over 2 percent of Adjusted Gross Income, you’ve just found yourself another deduction. But you may want to examine whether you need to be spending that much to manage your investments!

— Karen Telleen-Lawton’s column is a mélange of observations spanning sustainability from the environment to finance, economics and justice issues. She is a fee-only financial advisor (www.DecisivePath.com) and a freelance writer (www.CanyonVoices.com). Click here to read previous columns. The opinions expressed are her own.

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