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Thursday, January 22, 2015

married couples get slammed by tax increases


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Getting married involves major financial changes, and the U.S. tax system is one of the most important aspects of marital financial planning. Although some married couples benefit from tying the knot as far as their tax returns are concerned, many couples end up paying more than they would if they remained unmarried and each filed their own tax return.

This phenomenon is known as the marriage penalty, and it rears its ugly head in several parts of the tax laws. Let's take a look at some of the most common provisions in which married couples get the short end of the tax stick.

1. Two-Earner Couples Pay Higher Taxes Faster

Married couples have to combine their earnings in order to determine their gross income, and the tax brackets that apply to various income levels differ for married couples compared to single filers. For one-earner couples, the higher incomes for the brackets for a particular rate result in a marriage bonus. But for two-earner couples who earn roughly the same amount, the fact that the tax brackets for married filers at the 25 percent rate and above have income limits that less than double those of single filers means that they can end up paying extensive marriage penalties.

For instance, the 33 percent tax bracket kicks in for singles at $186,350 and for married couples at $226,850. So if two people earning $150,000 got married, they'd be well into the 33 percent bracket, even though when they were single, they were in the lower 28 percent bracket. For higher-income couples, the disparities are even more egregious, making bracket structure one of the biggest marriage-penalty provisions in the tax laws.

2. Standard Deductions Are Higher for Unmarried Parents

The tax bracket situation above gets even worse when kids enter the picture. Tax law allows one of the unmarried parents of a child to claim head of household status, which comes with an additional $2,900 standard deduction compared to singles. That means that unmarried parents can claim a total of $15,300 in standard deductions in 2014, compared to just $12,400 for married couples.

In addition, unmarried individuals have the option of having one parent itemize deductions while the other takes a standard deduction. Married couples, on the other hand, don't have that option. If one itemizes, the other has to as well -- even if that spouse has no itemized deductions at all.

3. New Surtax Rules Have Considerable Marriage Penalties

The Medicare and Net Investment Income surtaxes impose additional income taxes of 0.9 percent and 3.8 percent, respectively, on various types of income. The 0.9 percent Medicare tax applies to earnings above $200,000 for singles and $250,000 for married joint filers, while the 3.8 percent Net Investment Income provision imposes tax on interest, dividend, and other investment income to the extent that it falls above the same $200,000 and $250,000 income limits. Two individuals earning just under $200,000 wouldn't be subject to the provision at all, but if they married, they'd be well over the threshold and owe substantial amounts of tax.

4. Tax Benefit Phaseouts Can Hurt Couples More Quickly

Many favorable tax provisions have income limits above which their benefits slowly phase out and eventually disappear. In many cases, combining two individuals' incomes is enough to phase out beneficial tax breaks even if neither one alone would have been a problem.

One example involves the income level at which personal exemptions and itemized deductions begin to phase out. For singles, income above $250,000 triggers provisions to start phasing out those tax breaks, while married joint filers face a $300,000 limit. Again, the simplest example involves two people who each earn $200,000 -- alone, neither would have a problem, but together, they'd lose considerable amounts of their exemptions and deductions and thus pay a lot more in tax liability.


Motley Fool contributor Dan Caplinger never likes getting penalized. You can follow him on Twitter @DanCaplinger or on Google+. To read about our favorite high-yielding dividend stocks for any investor, check out our free report.

Monday, December 29, 2014


Hey Let's Get Rich


Don't buy this, buy that! 55 stocks to own in 2015


Sometimes the smartest actions are the ones you don’t take. That old dictum seems relevant at a moment when the markets are a paradox: Each new high only makes many veteran investors more nervous that disaster looms. Between lofty valuations, slowdowns from Europe to China, conflict from Ukraine to Syria, the end of the Fed’s bond-buying binge, and more, there are many reasons for caution. That’s why this year we decided to recommend not only investments to make but also ones to avoid. Smart defense is always wise, and the good news is that even in these precarious times, there are still opportunities to be found.
Small-cap stocks trade at a 25% premium to the large-caps of the S&P 500, implying they will underperform the index by that much, argues Doug Ramsey, chief investment officer of the Leuthold Group. Concurs Russ Koesterich, global chief investment strategist for BlackRock  BLK -0.01% : “Reasonable is the new cheap: What can you look for that has some cushion in it?” He adds that small companies also fare worse than bigger ones when interest rates rise, as is expected in the near future.
Citigroup’s chief U.S. equity strategist, ­Tobias Levkovich, argues that bigger is better right now—especially when large conglomerates are under pressure to buy back shares or spin off underperforming units. “We think some of the cheapest stocks in the market are the mega-caps, and we’re starting to see activists step in and force the unlocking of ­value,” he says. ETFs such as ­Vanguard Mega Cap provide broad exposure to the majors in the U.S.
BUY1-small capsSources for all graphics: Dealogic; Bloomberg; S&P Capital IQ; MSCI; Everest Capital
After peaking about four years ago, the commodity supercycle really is ending, many experts say. Weakening Chinese demand for raw materials has depressed prices on everything from nickel to soybeans to timber. And with the dollar rising, pros think materials stocks will get worse before they get better: “The valuations still look pretty high,” says Ramsey of the Leuthold Group. He advises waiting until they fall significantly before thinking about buying.
U.S. banks have shored up their balance sheets and are poised to cash in as the economy accelerates. But financial stocks are still marked down, says Federated Investors senior portfolio manager Lawrence Auriana, who oversees $8 billion. Auriana thinks J.P. Morgan Chase  JPM 0.11% , Capital One  COF -0.02% , and Wells Fargo  WFC -0.11% , which trade between 10 and 13 times forward earnings, should benefit as businesses borrow more money. And Auriana thinks the banks may finally be ready to put the years of regulatory fines and settlements behind them. Intrepid Capital CEO Mark Travis favors Oaktree  OAK 1.11% , the investment firm run by renowned bond manager Howard Marks. Travis thinks Oaktree has been undervalued—it sells at a P/E of 14.4. One element that is depressing the valuation: Oaktree owns a 20% stake in privately held bond manager DoubleLine, but carries the position on its books at $9 million. Some commentators have speculated it could be worth as much as $600 million. Oaktree also has a 5.3% dividend yield.
Things are looking up for banks these days. Federal restrictions on approving dividends and stock buybacks, among other things, have forced them to boost their liquidity. “Credit has been improving on a year-over-year basis while yields remain attractive,” says J.P. Morgan’s Loomis. Adds Mark Kiesel, chief investment officer of global credit for Pimco and Morningstar’s 2012 fixed-income manager of the year: “The U.S. banking industry may have $200 billion in pretax, pre-provision earnings, but the majority of that money has been staying within the bank over the past four to five years as retained earnings to build equity capital organically.” As a result, “bondholders are benefiting at the expense of equity holders.” Nearly 4% of Kiesel’s portfolio is invested in debt from Bank of America  BAC 0.00% , 3.4% in J.P. Morgan’s, and another 1.5% in Citigroup’s  C -0.20% . Loomis opts for preferred equity, which sits between debt and equity. The iShares U.S. Preferred Stock ETF has more than 60% of its assets in financial preferred stock. The ETF returned 12% in the past year.
Being nimble is important, says Arnott. “Mainstream markets are stretched, yields are low, valuations are high, the risk of correction or bear market is significant,” he says. “We like to have dry powder if an opportunity suddenly becomes newly cheap.” But cash is yielding essentially nothing.
Arnott suggests investing some cash in a long-short fund. Such a fund typically buys an equity portfolio or index it believes will beat the S&P 500—say, by 3%. The fund then mitigates risk by shorting the S&P 500. The manager is betting on the spread between the portfolio and the S&P. This strategy narrows the ability to make the full return when the market rises. But returns and losses are stuck within a narrow band too, so volatility drops. The Gateway A Fund is a great example. It has returned almost 5% in the past year, but its three-year volatility is roughly a third of the S&P’s.
BUY4-mergersSources for all graphics: Dealogic; Bloomberg; S&P Capital IQ; MSCI; Everest Capital
There’s another alternative for a small portion of your cash. GMO’s Inker predicts that investors can make about 5% over the next six months by investing in merger arbitrage. That means betting that the stock price of an acquired company will bump up a few points, and the price of the buyer may tick down, in between the announcement of a takeover and its consummation. Merger arbitrage dried up after the financial crisis because deals went away. Now deals are back. The returns “wouldn’t be exciting in a world filled with opportunities to get double-digit returns. But in a world where you aren’t getting paid for taking risk, you’re getting paid for taking risk here,” Inker says. Two possibilities: Westchester Capital’s Merger Fund (a large mutual fund) or the IQ Merger Arbitrage ETF, which specializes in investing in ­takeover targets.
Read more from the Fortune 2015 Investor’s Guide “Don’t Buy This, Buy That” series:
This story is from the December 22, 2014 issue of Fortune.


Sunday, November 30, 2014

Your 2014 taxes: Here's how to get ahead

Your 2014 taxes: Here's how to get ahead

Tax season is quickly approaching.Photograph by Bloomberg — Getty Images

There’s less than two months left before the year ends, and there are not a lot of changes set to take place.

Despite the fact that it feels like mid-February, from a financial perspective we’ve got another month to go until we turn the page into 2015. That’s enough time to do a little end of the year tax work. The good news, says Greg Rosica, Ernst & Young Tax Partner and a contributor to the EY Tax Guide 2015, is that there are not a whole lot of changes set to take place before the end of the year. “Things are fairly similar in 2015 as they were in 2014” he says. That can change. Sometimes last minute changes do come down the pike. But for now, your job is fairly predictable.
You should start, as you do every year, by getting the lay of the land. Job number one is to sit down and project your tax picture for the full 2014 year. “We’re in November so we have over 10 months of information,” Rosica says. “You can estimate the remaining.” Once you have that, look forward and do a 2015 – and perhaps even 2016 – income projection to try to understand the types of income you’re going to have. See if you’re subject to itemized deductions being phased out, if you’re in alternative minimum taxland, or if you’re subject to the new net investment income tax that went into effect on January 1, 2013 for individuals who have net investment income and modified adjusted gross income of $200,000 or more for singles, $250,000 or more for couples, he suggests. “Once you understand [your overall picture] you can start to look at ways to defer income, accelerate deductions and deflect income down to lower tax-bracket family members.” Specifically:
Consider deferring income. Generally, this is a valued strategy because it allows you to put off paying the taxes on whatever income you push into the next calendar year. Look at bonuses, if you have any flexibility as to when you earn or receive them. Similarly, with stock options, can you take them in January versus December? And if there are any assets you’re considering selling, you may want to wait until January if there will be a gain associated with the sale. Deferring doesn’t always make sense, Rosica notes: “Look at it from a big picture perspective. If you’re already in a fairly high [income] year and you’re going to try to have a lower one next year, you may not want to defer.”
Look at accelerating deductions. When it comes to real estate taxes, state income taxes, even charitable contributions, you want to consider if you get more benefits from paying them – and taking the commensurate tax deductions – this year versus next. By pushing payments into December, you can often lower your tax liability, but again, this is not a no-brainer, notes Melissa Labant, director of tax advocacy for the AICPA. “If you’re subject to the alternative minimum tax, you may not receive a benefit for certain deductions like real estate taxes and state income taxes. That’s why you want to have an income tax preparation prepared as soon as possible. It gives you the opportunity to look at income and expenses.”
Weigh deflecting income to lower tax bracket family members. If you have children who are in a lower tax bracket than you are, it may make sense to gift certain assets to them. They can then sell the assets and pay taxes on that sale at their lower rate. “There is still a zero tax bracket for capital gains, so there are real favorable results that can be achieved by looking at this,” Rosica says.
Max out retirement, college-saving contributions. If you haven’t maxed out your 401(k) contributions for the year (the limit on contributions is $17,500, $23,000 if you’re over 50), and you’re in a position to do so, get in touch with your benefits department pronto. (If you’re self-employed, you may be able to deduct much more — $52,000 or 25% of your compensation — by contributing to a SEP-IRA). Similarly, if you’ve established a 529 college savings plan for children or grandchildren, contributions should be made before the end of the year if you’re looking to capitalize on the break many states offer on state income taxes. And if, like me, you have a college-aged son or daughter who worked over the summer, consider helping them with a Roth IRA contribution. “Many people are concerned about giving their kids money that will impact their motivation,” Rosica says. This shouldn’t. “This is a way to help them start saving for retirement in an extremely tax-efficient way.”
Contribute (wisely) to charity. Finally, if you’re thinking about making year-end contributions to causes you believe in, think about giving appreciated stock that you’ve held for more than 12 months rather than cash. You get a deduction for the full value of the contribution and you don’t have to pay tax on the appreciation. “You can actually get more cash into the hands of the charity this way,” Labant says. It’s a gift that gives back.

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Lower Bills With Low-Cost Winter Fixes

Lower Bills With Low-Cost Winter Fixes

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    Energy bills tend to rise while the outside temperature drops, and no one wants to spend more money than they have to. Before there's snow on the ground, check out a few simple ways to lower your expenses in the fall and winter months.
    One easy way to warm up a room is to reverse your ceiling fans. In the summer you want your fan to run counterclockwise so it blows down. However, in the colder months, you should reverse the direction of the fan to pull cool air toward the ceiling. Simply flip the toggle switch underneath the fan and put it on a low setting. You should feel the difference in no time.
    Another way to save on energy costs is by flushing out your water heater once a year. As sediment and debris build up, they can cause a drop in efficiency or even leaks over time, which will ultimately cost you.
    To flush, turn off the water heater and fasten a hose to the faucet at bottom of the tank. Run the other end of the hose outside or to a laundry tub. Open the valve and let the water and residue drain out. Do this yearly and you'll be good to go.
    Lowering your monthly bills doesn't have to take too much time and energy. Using these simple tips, you can beat the cold without beating up your budget.
    Lower Bills With Low-Cost Winter Fixes

  • DONATE HEREGoogle Plus

    Energy bills tend to rise while the outside temperature drops, and no one wants to spend more money than they have to. Before there's snow on the ground, check out a few simple ways to lower your expenses in the fall and winter months.
    One easy way to warm up a room is to reverse your ceiling fans. In the summer you want your fan to run counterclockwise so it blows down. However, in the colder months, you should reverse the direction of the fan to pull cool air toward the ceiling. Simply flip the toggle switch underneath the fan and put it on a low setting. You should feel the difference in no time.
    Another way to save on energy costs is by flushing out your water heater once a year. As sediment and debris build up, they can cause a drop in efficiency or even leaks over time, which will ultimately cost you.
    To flush, turn off the water heater and fasten a hose to the faucet at bottom of the tank. Run the other end of the hose outside or to a laundry tub. Open the valve and let the water and residue drain out. Do this yearly and you'll be good to go.
    Lowering your monthly bills doesn't have to take too much time and energy. Using these simple tips, you can beat the cold without beating up your budget.

    Monday, November 3, 2014

    Trains and self-driving cars, headed for a (political) collision

    A conceptual rendering of "Cloud Station" at Largo Town Center for the Greenlight Pinellas project.Courtesy: Greenlight Pinellas

    The promise of autonomous vehicles is becoming a talking point for opponents of mass transit systems.

    “It’s like they’re designing the pony express in the world of the telegraph.”
    Florida state senator Jeff Brandes, a Republican representing District 22, uses that line frequently to characterize Greenlight Pinellas, a comprehensive transit plan for Florida’s Pinellas County. Up for a public referendum on Election Day this Tuesday, Greenlight will fund increased bus service and a new light rail system. Supporters say it represents a tried, true, and long overdue solution to the area’s perennial transit woes. Pinellas, the city of St. Petersburg, and the broader Tampa Bay region are consistently near the bottom in a number of transportation and livability indexes. They suffer high average commute times, astronomical pedestrian fatality rates, and massive per-capita spending on the private automobiles that, given today’s inadequate public transit system, even the very poorest need to get by.
    But Brandes argues that the entire idea of bus- or train-based public transit is on the verge of obsolescence. Instead, he sees a future in which autonomous vehicles—also known as automated vehicles, or AVs for short, and best embodied by Google’s self-driving cars—solve the region’s transit problems. “I absolutely believe that technology is going to transform mass transit in a way that very few people can see,” he says. “It’ll definitely be within 15 or 20 years, which is right when the light rail system for Greenlight Pinellas would be coming online.”
    Most analysts agree with Brandes’ timetable, if not necessarily his position. Sven Beiker, executive director of the Center for Automotive Research at Stanford (or, naturally, CARS), says that within this decade we’ll see intra-urban autonomous vehicle networks—systems that will deliver small personal mobility “pods” within dense core areas. Such a system is already set to deploy in Milton Keynes, Buckinghamshire, England by 2017. Such systems, both Sen. Brandes and AV specialists say, will reduce congestion, lower parking demand, increase rider safety by reducing wait times, and, in the case of public systems, provide universal access.
    But the unknowns become more pronounced when discussion moves from small-scale intra-urban systems to the kind of long-distance people-moving accomplished by inter-urban light rail and bussing. Beiker says the challenges of fully autonomous highway driving push the possible technological horizon for autonomous transport past 15 years. An even bigger hurdle may be social. Do you really want to share a 45-minute commute in a car-sized pod with three strangers?
    Broadly, public transit development is trending up, thanks in part to higher demand among millennials and technology enthusiasts. Tampa Bay exemplifies the many southern and western U.S. cities where projects are playing catch-up after decades as political nonstarters. Transit planners, officials, and voters in cities like Austin and Charlotte will certainly find themselves wrestling with the unknowns of autonomous vehicle development as they try to decide whether to expand systems now or wait for what’s next.
    Political ideology, as it tends to, may rush into the vacuum of facts. Florida offers a preview where driverless cars have become part of right-wing pushback to mass transit plans. It was Brandes who introduced legislation that made Florida one of only four states to allow monitored testing of driverless vehicles on public roads. Republican governor Rick Scott, who once was strongly associated with the populist Tea Party movement, has made public appearances to support driverless car development in Florida even as he has rejected federal funding for a Tampa-to-Orlando high-speed rail line.
    Put them side by side with rail systems and the appeal of autonomous vehicles to conservatives is clear. Though many predict networks of AVs will be publicly financed, they can also be privately owned, and by most projections will require far less government-funded infrastructure than rail. Unlike trains or busses, they’ll take you wherever you want to go, when you want to go there, alone if you wish. Driverless cars will, in many of the ways so central to American identity, still be cars. But they’ll also make getting from one place to another easier for everyone, reducing strain on existing road systems and increasing access. As Sven Beiker puts it, “Vehicle automation is the point where personal mobility and public transportation come together,” a physical manifestation of Silicon Valley’s ideological mix of the utopian and libertarian.
    By contrast, while they don’t oppose autonomous vehicles per se, mass transit boosters in Pinellas County are less sanguine. “We don’t see autonomous vehicles solving the public transportation dilemma,” says Chris Steinocher, President and chief executive of the St. Petersburg Chamber of Commerce, which has endorsed the Greenlight Pinellas plan. “One solution isn’t going to fit all.” Steinocher predicts that AVs will be part of a “multi-modal” transit system, providing first mile/last mile connections to conventional bus and rail lines, or coverage in low-volume use cases, such as late-night service. Beiker agrees that this is the most practical future scenario.
    Others in the fight see the autonomous vehicles argument as little more than a political stalling tactic, deployed by those who oppose mass transit for ideological reasons. “We are the last metropolitan area in the United States to develop a regional transit system,” says Phil Compton, a national Sierra Club staffer who has been tasked with supporting Greenlight for the past three years. “That is an objective fact. How many more decades do we have to wait for an alternative to what we have now?”
    The fate of Pinellas County’s transit system is uncertain. Polls over the past two years have shown broad public support for the Grefenlight project, and a coalition of officials on the right and left is behind the plan. But Brandes and other opponents are gaining ground, with some carefully worded private polls placing the outcome of Tuesday’s vote in question. Brandes suggests that a less capital-intensive rapid bus transit system is the more sensible path forward into a rapidly changing transportation landscape.
    The possibility of autonomous vehicles has played a far smaller role in Pinellas County’s transit debate than the one-cent sales tax hike that would fund the system. But if its innovation does help sway the vote, Google  GOOG 1.59%  wouldn’t be the first large corporation to impact the transit equation in Pinellas. The City of St. Petersburg was home to one of the country’s many successful electric intra-urban tram systems from 1919 to 1949, when a coalition of interests backed by General Motors  GM 2.01%  and Firestone bought and dismantled most of the system. It was replaced with less appealing and efficient busses, accelerating the adoption of private cars and pushing the entire region into the predicament it’s still trying to fix today.

    Tuesday, October 28, 2014

    Former Panamanian dictator's lawsuit against videogame maker is shot down

    Former Panamanian dictator's lawsuit against videogame maker is shot down

    General Manuel Antonio Noriega speaking in Panama City in 1988.Photo by AFP—Getty Images

    A judge dismissed a lawsuit by former dictator Manuel Noriega that accused Activision Blizzard of violating his privacy rights by including his likeness in the game “Call of Duty: Black Ops II.”

    Much like his former militaristic regime, former Panamanian President Manuel Noriega’s lawsuit against video game publisher Activision Blizzard is out of commission.
    A Los Angeles judge has tossed out a privacy rights lawsuit filed against Activision Blizzard by Panama’s former leader, the company said in a press release. Noriega, who is currently serving a prison sentence in Panama, filed the suit in July, claiming the company had used his name and likeness without his permission for an installment of its popular “Call of Duty” game franchise.
    Judge William Fahey of the Los Angeles Superior Court dismissed the lawsuit on Tuesday, ruling that Activision Blizzard’s right to free expression outweighs Noriega’s right of privacy. The lawsuit sought damages and claimed that Activision Blizzard damaged Noriega’s reputation when it allegedly “engaged in the blatant misuse, unlawful exploitation and misappropriation of [Noriega's] image and likeness for economic gain” by including him as a character in “Call of Duty: Black Ops II” – a game that, within two weeks of its November 2012 release, raked in more than $1 billion in sales.
    Fortune wrote about the lawsuit last month, when Activision Blizzard  ATVI 1.26%  announced that it had enlisted former New York City mayor Rudy Giuliani to join its defense team. Giuliani – who, interestingly, once denied accusations that his former law firm, White & Case, had done work for Noriega – called Fahey’s dismissal of the lawsuit “an important victory.”
    “This was an absurd lawsuit from the very beginning and we’re gratified that in the end, a notorious criminal didn’t win,”Giuliani said in a statement. “This is not just a win for the makers of Call of Duty, but is a victory for works of art across the entertainment and publishing industries throughout the world.”
    Activision Blizzard CEO Bobby Kotick said in a statement that the ruling is “a victory for the 40 million dedicated members of our Call of Duty community and global audiences who enjoy historical fiction across all works of art.” The company’s legal team had previously argued that Noriega’s lawsuit, if successful, could have opened the door for families of historical figures to attempt to block depictions in any number of works of historical fiction, from movies like Forrest Gump to televised sketches on “Saturday Night Live.”
    Fahey wrote in his order that Noriega failed to provide actual evidence showing that his reputation had been harmed by the popular video game.
    “Indeed, given the world-wide reporting of his actions in the 1980’s and early 1990’s, it is hard to imagine that any such evidence exists,” Fahey wrote in a scathing dismissal that also describes Noriega as “a notorious public figure, perhaps one of the more notable historical figures of the 1980’s.”
    A U.S. invasion of Panama in 1989 removed Noriega from his role as that country’s military dictator and led to his eventual conviction on multiple counts of drug trafficking, racketeering and money laundering a few years later. Noriega spent two decades in prison in the U.S. and is currently serving a jail sentence in Panama for crimes he committed while in power in that country, including the murder of members of his opposition.