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How to keep tax benefits when renting out your primary residence

A home for sale
The tax implications of selling a home are many. Consult a professional for help.
(Kevork Djansezian / Getty Images)

Dear Liz: If my wife and I sell our primary residence of 12 years, I understand we can exclude up to $500,000 in home sale profits from taxes. But if we rent it for a year or two, then sell, have we lost that tax break by converting it to income property?

Answer: As long as you lived in the property at least two of the five years before the sale, you can use the home sale exclusion that allows each owner to protect $250,000 of profits from taxation.

You would pay capital gains rates on profits above that amount, but a big home sale profit could have other tax implications.

If you’re covered by Medicare, for example, profits above the exclusion amounts could temporarily increase your monthly premiums. This is because the income-related monthly adjustment amount, which is added to premiums when modified adjusted gross income exceeds $87,000 for singles or $174,000 for married couples.

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If you might be affected, you’d be smart to consult a tax professional to see if there’s a way to structure the sale to reduce these effects.

Also, renting property has its own set of tax rules, making it even more important to have a tax pro who can assist you.

A tricky Social Security plan

Dear Liz: In a recent column, you described the difference between withdrawal and suspension of Social Security benefits. I am 64 and want to take Social Security for two months to get out from under a few one-time bills. I’ll then withdraw my application and pay back the money. Do I understand that I’d have 12 months to pay back the funds? Is this something that can be done every 12 months? I see it as an interest-free short-term loan. Of course this only works if the money is paid back.

Answer: The answer to both your questions is no. You’re allowed to withdraw an application only once, and it must be in the 12 months after you start benefits. Once you submit your withdrawal request, you have 60 days to change your mind. If you decide to proceed, you must pay back all the money you’ve received from the Social Security Administration, including any other benefits based on your work record such as spousal or child benefits, plus any money that was withheld to pay Medicare premiums or taxes. In other words, you have a two-month window to pay back the funds, not 12 months.

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If you can’t come up with the cash, you’d be stuck with a permanently reduced benefit. You could later opt to suspend your benefit once you’ve reached your full retirement age, which is between 66 and 67. (If you were born in 1956, it’s 66 years and four months.) At that point, your reduced benefit could earn delayed retirement credits that could increase your checks by 8% for each year until the amount maxes out at age 70.

There are a few situations in which starting early and then suspending can make sound financial sense, but a short-term cash need is not typically one of them.

New Secure Act changes some retirement rules

Dear Liz: At age 70½, when I must withdraw money from my IRA, may I donate those dollars to a charitable organization without paying tax on the withdrawn funds?

Answer: The short answer is yes, but you should know there have been some recent changes to retirement plan rules.

Required minimum distributions now start at 72, thanks to the recently enacted Setting Every Community Up for Retirement Enhancement (Secure) Act. If you turned age 70½ in 2019 and started your required minimum distributions, you should generally continue, but talk to a tax pro.

Also, you can now make contributions to your IRA after age 70½, as long as you’re still working. You must have earned income at least equal to the amount you contribute.

The law didn’t change when you can begin making qualified charitable distributions from your IRAs. Once you reach 70½, you can donate up to $100,000 each year directly from your IRA and the donated amount will not be included in your income.

If you make IRA contributions after age 70½, though, those contributions are deducted from the amount you can donate.

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Liz Weston, Certified Financial Planner, is a personal finance columnist for NerdWallet. Questions may be sent to her at 3940 Laurel Canyon, No. 238, Studio City, CA 91604, or by using the “Contact” form at asklizweston.com.


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