As soon as the pile of Thanksgiving dishes had been cleared, we now find ourselves in the fast lane towards New Year’s Eve. To make this mad dash to the end of the year just a little more exciting, let’s pretend we all have a financial planning version of an Advent calendar with only 25 days left to open.
Let’s get started by highlighting a couple of pitfalls to avoid and some tips to consider.
Retired readers recently received their annual letter from Social Security. For the lucky few, some are slated to pay extra monthly premiums for their Medicare Part B and Part D benefits in 2020. This premium surcharge was triggered by making too much money way back in 2018; two tax years ago! The tax planning maneuvers you make in the next 23 days may save you a little financial heartache in 2021.
Medicare’s premium surcharges kick in at different modified adjusted gross income levels. The first surcharge adds about $800 per year more to your Medicare premium and is tripped at income levels of $87,000 for singles and $174,000 for couples. The second surcharge adds yet another $1,200 more per year and is triggered at income levels not much higher; $109,000 for singles and $218,000 for couples.
Avoiding or lowering the impact of these surcharges can take just a little bit of planning. Two common techniques are to deliberately harvest capital losses to offset any capital gains you have or to make charitable donations directly from your IRA to help reduce your required minimum distributions.
Now, moving on from the enviable challenges faced by higher income retirees, this next bit of planning advice is for those who qualify to receive health insurance premium subsidies under the Affordable Care Act.
The basic idea of Obamacare is simple enough. The law first aims to determine the premium level you can afford based on your income. In a nutshell, the law says you shouldn’t be expected to devote more than about 10% of your income to buy a decent health insurance policy. Naturally, the lower your income, the less the government expects you to devote to your health insurance coverage.
After you make your best guess about your income for the year ahead and you are told what you can afford toward the cost of a decent health plan, the government will provide you with an allowance to make up the difference between what can pay and what it actually costs. Once that allowance is set, you can then shop for the plan that’s best for you. You might even choose a plan that’s not quite as decent, such as a lower premium, high-deductible plan. The government allowance might even cover a significant portion of your monthly premium.
But, it’s very important to think of this monthly allowance as a government loan. If your best guess about your income turns out to be spot on, the loan is completely forgiven. If your best guess is too low, the government will want that loan paid back!
However, the Affordable Care Act is downright ruthless to those who make even $1 more than the qualifying income limit set at four times the poverty line. As soon as you cross that income threshold – again, even by $1 – the government says you could have afforded the full cost of your health insurance coverage and they’ll bill you at tax time for the entire loan they gave you.
To avoid this painful surprise, throughout the year you should closely monitor your projected income against the guess you made before the start of the year. If you think you will be close to the edge of becoming completely disqualified and if you did choose a lower premium, high-deductible plan, strongly consider making a contribution to a health savings account to get back below the income threshold. That one small maneuver alone might just save you thousands of dollars.
Jason P. Tank, CFA is both the owner of Front Street Wealth Management, a purely fee-only advisory firm and the founder of the Money Series, a non-profit program committed to providing open-access to financial education, for all. Contact him at (231) 947-3775, by email at Jason@FrontStreet.com and at www.FrontStreet.com