The future is now. Use your 2009 tax return as a line-by-line blueprint for constructing your 2010 financial strategy.

Examine what went right and wrong as you determine your next tax and investment moves. Keep in mind the new conversion rules for Roth IRAs and the possibility of higher future tax rates.

"People should realize that a big tax refund means they're just getting their own money back from the government without any interest," said Matthew Olver, senior wealth manager with Spero-Smith Investment Advisers Inc. in Cleveland.

While some taxpayers may consider their refund a form of forced savings, it's more like an interest-free loan to the government. Olver recommends that those receiving a large refund reduce the amount withheld for taxes from their paychecks at work, then double-check that their request has been put into effect by the company.

"It is important to know the overall return of your investments, but their after-tax return is just as important and can help identify some good opportunities," said Maureen McGetrick, tax partner with BDO Seidman LLC in New York. "Looking at your tax return is a good way to inventory all your investments to see what relative income they are producing for you."

Recent hard times present tax considerations. If your income is down due to a pay cut or unemployment but you still have a mortgage and property taxes, you should not be in tax-free investments. Taxable bonds make more sense because they have higher returns and you don't need the tax-free attributes of munis.

"We're also looking at what we call 'lazy money' (in money-market vehicles) right now because so many people stopped investing seriously when the market got hit and built up significant balances," said Olver. "If that amount is well in excess of what you need in emergency reserves, you're not earning much on it."

Even moderate-duration certificates of deposit beat money-market rates, he noted. As the economy gradually improves, it becomes time to ease back into investing in a diverse group of vehicles rather than simply hoard in one big coffer.

One important question being asked of tax and investment advisors by taxpayers lately is whether they should convert their regular individual accounts to a Roth IRA in 2010.

Starting in 2010, anyone can convert to a Roth IRA regardless of income or filing status. You previously could not convert if your income was more than $100,000 or if you filed your tax return as married filing separately.

The amount you convert to a Roth is added to your income in the year of conversion. This year only, you are given a choice of adding it to your 2010 income or splitting it evenly between 2011 and 2012.

If, for example, the tax bill on your Roth conversion from a regular IRA is $25,000, you have a one-time opportunity to take $12,500 in 2011 and $12,500 in 2012. The benefit of a Roth conversion is that by paying the taxes now, you can take that money out later completely tax-free.

But don't automatically convert without some forethought.

"You should first calculate how much you could possibly earn on that tax money long-term in the IRA to decide whether it makes the most sense to pay the tax now or pay it in the future," cautioned Mackey McNeill, CPA and president of Mackey Advisors in Cincinnati. "An inappropriate Roth conversion could actually put you substantially behind in your retirement savings."

Speaking of IRAs, it's a good idea to make your 2010 contribution early this year rather than wait until the April 15 tax deadline a year from now. That way you'll take full advantage of its potential.

In 2010, you must take the required minimum distribution from your IRA if you're 70 or older. Last year, due to the market debacle, investors weren't required by the government to take the money out, but that was a one-time-only opportunity.

Investment-wise, your 2009 tax return will give you an idea of where you've been and ways to improve in the future, said McNeill, who believes too many people think their investments are netting them "X" but discover that on an after-tax basis it is actually "X minus something."

Because McNeill expects higher tax rates sometime in the future, she recently told one of her clients with a large capital gain to pay that tax now at 15 percent "because you'll never pay less tax than you will today." It is a challenging time to make long-term estate plans because it is guesswork until Congress gets its act together, she said.

"After 2010, the tax cuts from 2001 are set to expire and, if Congress does not act before the end of the year, they will be going back up in 2011," added Olver. "The tax items in those exclusions are estate taxes and individual tax brackets."

Some more considerations to keep in mind:

--In your capital losses, you can deduct up to $3,000 in realized losses against ordinary income and carry forward the remaining portion into future years.

--You can gift investments to loved ones. For 2010, you can transfer $13,000 per person free from gift tax.

So make your moves. The future is here.

Pay for College Without Sacrificing Your Retirement: A Guide to Your Financial Future


Personal Finance - Use 2009 Tax Return To Guide 2010 Financial Strategy

© Andrew Leckey


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