Medicare Open Enrollment: What You Need To Know

by Gerri Willis

Medicare Open Enrollment is on and there are big changes underway recipients need to know. Bottom line: Many seniors will see higher costs and fewer options. For example, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation, there are fewer Medicare Advantage plans for 2015. In fact, 320,000 enrollees are enrolled in plans that are exiting the market.

What’s more, enrollees in six of the 10 most popular plans this year will experience double-digit premium increases if they stay in the same plan for 2015.

The good news is this: The Part D “donut hole,” that is the coverage gap for prescription drug plans continues to shrink. Those who enter the coverage gap in 2015 will get a 55 percent discount on brand-name drugs and a 35 percent federal subsidy for generic drugs.

If you are considering keeping the same plan you have right now, be sure to check whether there are any changes in your plan. You may find a drug you need isn’t covered or not to the level you expect. Don't miss our User's Guide to Choosing the Best Health Insurance 5pmET on FOX Business.

Health Insurance: Workplace Enrollment

by Gerri Willis

It’s that time of year again. Companies are opening enrollment in health insurance plans, and if you haven’t gotten a peak at the 2015 changes, be advised, you may get sticker shock when you do. Deductibles will rise 7 percent this year as companies forecast higher healthcare costs.

Premiums and copays are likely to rise as well. If you work for a small company, watch out because your prices may rise even more than that 7 percent average.

The changes are more of the same. According to Kaiser, worker contributions to health care coverage have nearly doubled since 2003, from $2,412 to $4,565. Deductibles have jumped from $584 a decade ago to $1,217 today.

As you begin to compare plans, don’t assume your plan from last year is the same this time around. Plans are converging and looking more and more like each other. While HMOs, or health maintenance organizations, originated the co-pay, now PPOs or Preferred Provider Organizations are charging them as well.  Given that, you’ll want to think about what services you’ve used in the past and are likely to use again as you shop.

And, remember that premiums aren’t the sum total of everything that you will pay. Check out deductibles, co-pays, and whether you have to pay co-insurance even after paying your deductible.  If you are not a big user of health care, you might want to think about a high-deductible plan which will give you lower premiums. If you choose this route, consider setting aside money in a health savings account to cover your costs.

Don’t miss our User’s Guide to Choosing the Best Health Insurance tonight 5pmET on FOX Business

Ready or Not, Here Comes Round No. 2 of Obamacare

by Gerri Willis

Ready or not, here comes Round No. 2 of Obamacare. And, as much as I’d like to start this blog with an analysis of costs, details such as premiums for Obamacare 2015 policies won’t be made public until open enrollment starts Nov. 15, conveniently after the election. So forget getting your arms around price tags. At least for now.

To be sure, though, some details are already out. First off, there is a new website where you’ll go to enroll for the first time. Given the original healthcare.gov website’s glitch-plagued rollout a year ago, this could be a good thing. But, again, we don’t know because this website is still being tested. (Want to know how the testing is going? Again, forget it. That information isn’t being shared.) To their credit, the website designers have managed to shorten the number of screens in the online application from 76 on the original site to just 16 on the new site.

Unfortunately, if you bought Obamacare coverage last year, you’re stuck with the old website which is famously unreliable. Some of our sources maintain the backend of the website still isn’t complete a year after launch. And, re-enrollers will face a time crunch. They’ll have just one month – until Dec. 15 – to get on the site and update their financial information – a move that is required to have coverage beginning Jan. 1, 2015. You’ll want to have handy a 14-character identifier number to keep any current insurance policy. If you don’t re-enroll, you may be reassigned to your old plan, but you’ll also get this year’s subsidy amount, which may be smaller than they would be entitled to for 2015.

On top of all of this, it’s possible that several hundred thousand people across the country may face cancelled health insurance policies because those policies are not in compliance with Obamacare. Initially these policies were granted a reprieve, but break time is over. Thirteen states and the District of Columbia plan to cancel policies that don’t offer the level of services required by the Affordable Care Act. Federal law requires a 60-day notice of plan changes, so if you’re getting bad news in the mail, it will probably come no later than Nov. 1 (right before midterm elections.) 

So, truth be told, Obamacare Year 2 remains a mystery, though Health and Human Services Secretary Sylvia Burwell has already said that it won’t be perfect. That’s reassuring.

Don’t miss our User’s Guide to Choosing the Best Health Insurance all next week 5pmET on FOX Business         

 

Taking Advantage of Tax Deductions

by Gerri Willis

If ever there was a year to look for deductions to your tax bill, this is it. The reason? Millions of Americans will be paying more because of higher tax levels imposed by Obamacare and the ironically named American Taxpayer Relief Act of 2012. But even if you aren't subject to the higher rates, it still pays to get all the breaks you can.

  • PRIVATE MORTGAGE INSURANCE. The home mortgage interest deduction is a perennial favorite of homeowners and while that deduction is now on a phase out schedule for high earners, others may benefit from the private mortgage interest deduction. PMI is an insurance policy that lenders require if you can't make a 20 percent downpayment on a home. And, 2013 is the last year you'll be able to claim the deduction unless Congress changes its mind.

You'll find the amount of PMI you paid on your bank's mortgage interest form 1098. The break is available to homeowners who took out their mortgage after Jan. 1, 2007.

And, like a lot of deductions, this one has income phase outs too. The sweet spot for this break is an adjusted gross income below $109,000.

  • CARING FOR A DEPENDENT PARENT. This is more complicated than it sounds, but if you can claim a parent as a dependent, you can save on taxes. Your parent must live with you and get more than half of his or her support from you. Keep in mind the parent's earnings must be less than the tax exemption level. The devil is in the details with this one, and you should consult a tax professional. But if you meet the requirements, you'll be able to claim an added personal exemption on your income tax return.

An added plus, any medical expenses you pay for that parent can contribute to the threshold for deducting medical costs. To meet that threshold, you have to spend 10 percent or more of your adjusted gross income on medical expenses. (That threshold increased from 7.5 percent last year.

  • COLLEGE LOAN INTEREST. Parents struggling with the high cost of education will find they can deduct up to $2,500 of annual interest on loans to pay for college. Income phase outs exist, naturally, so high earners might want to consider taking out a home-equity loan instead, which in most cases, will allow you to deduct interest.
  • HOME EQUITY LOAN INTEREST. You probably know that mortgage interest is deductible. Interest on mortgage debt up to $1 million is deductible, but phases out at higher income levels. Interest on home-equity loans totaling up to $100,000 also is deductible, no matter what you do with the money.
  • JOB SEARCH. If you were looking for a job last year as millions of Americans were, the costs of that job search is deductible. File them under miscellaneous expenses. You don't have to be successful to claim the deductions. If you do land a new gig, you can also claim relocation expenses for the new job. Consult a pro to determine exactly what you can deduct. 

There are more deductions -- many more -- but you should be aware that some of them are IRS audit bait. Here are a few of the deductions that might get you a second look, if not an audit:

  • Home office deductions. This one draws attention especially if you claim a salaried income.
  • Non-cash charitable donations, especially if you donate a car to a charity.
  • Earned income tax credit. This benefit for low-wage earners is often abused and the IRS will take a close look.

When it comes to deductions, one of the things IRS auditors keep in mind is just how you stack up with other taxpayers. CCH Inc. recently calculated average deductions, and while you shouldn't use these as a hard and fast guide to your own tax return, it makes sense to have a general idea of what people in your income bracket pay. For example, folks with an income range of $50,000 to $100,000, claim medical expenses of $7,312 interest of $9,320 and charitable contributions of $2,815. These households pay federal taxes of $6,111.

So the point, here, isn't to discourage you from the taking all the breaks that are due to you. In fact, I say take absolutely everything you are eligible for. The IRS expects nothing less. 

 

Don’t miss The Willis Report starting 5pmET on FOX Business

Tax Returns: Do Them Yourself or Hire Help?

by Gerri Willis

Tonight on The Willis Report at 5pm ET we’ll be talking about the best tax software for filers. But that’s not the only way to get the work done. There are times it makes sense to actually hire a tax pro. Tax software is great and for millions of Americans, it’s a good solution, but there are times you need professional help.

It’s best to use a professional when you own your own business, you’ve gone through a major life change like marriage or divorce, you’ve bought or sold a home in the previous year, you own rental property or have a large investment portfolio. In other words, if your taxes are complicated for any reason, it pays to hire a professional. If you manage to pick an experienced accountant, you’ll find that he or she has probably prepared a return for someone in your exact situation. What’s more, if the IRS has issues with the filing, such as wanting more information, your professional will handle the exchange.

Picking a professional is a whole other kettle of fish. Certified public accountants are the gold standard having completed a four-part accounting exam. What’s more, they can represent you in front of the IRS (if it comes to that.) However, there are less expensive ways to get help. Enrolled agents who have passed a tax exam and/or actually worked at the IRS and are licensed to file taxes. You can find an enrolled agent at www.naea.org.   Some certified financial planners also offer tax services. At a minimum, you want your CFP to be talking to whoever prepares your taxes. There are also accredited tax accountants and tax planning services. (I did say it was a whole kettle of fish, right?) Getting a preparer who is recommended by someone you know and trust is a good idea, too. Keep in mind, though, if there is an accountant that everybody in the office uses because he gets incredible refunds, I’d stay away. When a pro gets in trouble, the feds typically audit everyone he did a return for.

Truth is, tax software isn’t nearly as scary as you might think. You don’t do math. The software makes calculations for you. And, the way the packages work is that they have you fill out the form by asking you questions and prompting you for a response. Better yet, if you make a mistake using a software program, like entering the wrong Social Security number, the IRS will ask you to fix the issue, instead of sending you a bill.

For some of us, it comes down to a comfort level – do you want to handle it on your own, or do you want a pro to do it for you. Just make sure that however you get it done that you file electronically. Filing online is the most secure way of filing your taxes, and guarantees the quickest processing.

What Changes to Expect on Your 2013 Tax Return

by Gerri Willis

The countdown is on with just five weeks to go to April 15! Tax season is upon us, and if you are wealthy or simply well-to-do, steel yourself, you are about to get soaked. Tax changes for the 2013 tax year are huge and the nation's top earners are likely to see their tax rates rise above a whopping 50 percent.

At risk for the biggest changes, are Americans earning over $200,000, says Melissa Labant, director of tax advocacy for the American Institute of Certified Public Accountants.  To be sure, though, earners above $400,000 for single filers and $450,000 for married filers filing jointly will get the biggest bite. And, it’s not just wages that will get more heavily taxed; investment income taxes are rising, and tax benefits that you might have taken for granted like personal exemptions and itemized deductions are under assault too. These changes come thanks to Obamacare and the American Taxpayer Relief Act of 2012.

“I think high earners may be surprised that multiple increases are hitting them,” says Rich Coppa, of Wealth Health LLC. “If they didn't pay attention to these changes from last year they are going to find a bigger bill to Uncle Sam.”

Here’s what you can expect: You likely already know about the increase in the Medicare payroll tax. In 2012, the tax was 2.9 percent and employee’s share of the tax, 1.45 percent, was automatically deducted from your paycheck. Effective this calendar year, however, high-wage earners owed an additional 0.9 percent tax on earned income above $200,000 for single filers and $250,000 for those married and filing jointly. This year also starts a new income tax bracket for people earning $400,000 for single filers and $450,000 for joint filers – a top tax rate of 39.6 percent up from 35 percent last year. That’s the easy stuff to understand. Some of the other changes are more complicated.

Your personal exemption of $3,900 last year is phased out. The amount of the reduction is 2 percent for each $2,500 in excess of adjusted gross income amounts of $250,000 for single filers and $250,000 for those married, filing jointly. The result is a complete elimination of the exemption for single filers with an adjusted gross income above $372,501, and for couples filing jointly over $422,501. What’s more, itemized deductions, such as mortgage interest, state income and sales tax and home office deductions will be on phase-out schedules as well. (These are sometimes Pease deductions). This change will reduce the value of itemized deductions by 3 percent of adjusted gross income above $300,000 for couples and $250,000 for single filers to a maximum reduction of 80 percent of its value.

Even more pernicious are higher taxes on investment income. If your income is greater than $200,000 as a single filer or $250,000 married and filing jointly, a 3.8 percent Medicare surtax on investment income will be due. (The tax applies to the lesser of your net investment income for the year or the amount by which your modified adjusted gross income exceeds the income thresholds). Note that a taxpayer could be subject to both the additional 0.9 percent tax on earned income and the 3.8 percent tax.

In addition, Obamacare makes it more difficult to deduct unreimbursed medical expenses. Before the Affordable Care Act was passed, unreimbursed medical expenses could be deducted after they exceed 7.5 percent of adjusted gross income. The threshold is now 10 percent.

All this week, we will be discussing what you need to know about this year's tax bite and what you can do to reduce it.

 

Join us on The Willis Report at 5pm ET.

 

The High Cost of Having Kids

by Gerri Willis

It never ceases to amaze me what my friends spend to raise their children.  Between the child care, the private schools and clothing, it’s no wonder so many parents both work. The Department of Agriculture estimates the average cost of raising a child born in 2012 will be $241,080 or $301,970 if you adjust for expected inflation, And, this shockingly, does not even include the cost of a college education which currently is $22,826 for a public school or $44,750 for a private school – that’s before the 4 to 5 percent annual tuition inflation hikes kick in.

Of course, the real cost depends on where you live. In rural parts of the country, you might get away with spending just $143,600, but in the high-cost Northeast your costs might be $446,100, again according to the USDA. Trouble is some families spend even more, which raises the question: How can you cut your costs without sacrificing care for your child?

Let’s tackle child care – it’s one of the most expensive tabs parents face. According to the National Association of Child Care Resource and Referral Agencies, in 31 states and the District of Columbia, the average annual cost for infant care is MORE than a year’s tuition and fees at a four-year public college. In 2012, according to the same source, the average annual care cost for infants ranged from $4,863 in Mississippi to a high of $16,430 in Massachusetts. For a four year old, the average costs are similar ranging from $4,312 in Mississippi to $12,355 in New York.          

The best solution – getting a family member to care for your child, simply isn’t practical for many moms and dads. Given that, a good solution for some parents may be employer-provided child care which is typically run at a lower cost to employees. Peace of mind is higher when your child is down the hall or in the same building as mom or dad. If there is no onsite child care, your employer may provide you with referrals or even discounts to centers nearby. You may be able to pay for child care with pre-tax dollars through a flexible spending account, check your human resources office for details. Remember if you work in the public sector or for a company with more than 50 employees, you may be eligible for up to 12 weeks of leave to care for a sick child, under the Family and Medical Leave Act.

Another way to save is to share a nanny with other families and split up the costs of care. Other moms I know have set up a babysitting co-op, in which parents provide the care. You’ll need to work with families in which the parents have different schedules.

One word of caution for moms and dads: Don’t put your future at risk by putting every single penny into Junior’s education. Your son or daughter will be able to borrow for higher education, but you’ll have to foot your own tab for retirement.

 

Don’t miss The Willis Report starting 5pmET on FOX Business.

Impacts to Your Wallet in 2014

by Gerri Willis

By Gerri Willis

2014 promises to be a busy year for news that hits your wallet. The biggest consumer story this year – the rollout of Obamacare – has legs. Glitches, problems and out-right failures on the website have persisted. And, that means the government has had to delay deadlines for signup. Previously, Health and Human Services delayed the deadline for enrolling in coverage that starts Jan. 1 from Dec. 15 to Dec. 23. But now the agency has also made it clear that not only will shoppers have until Dec. 31 to pay their first month’s premium, they are also encouraging insurers to allow people who sign up after the Dec. 23 deadline to start coverage as of Jan. 1. What’s more, the Obama administration is also extending coverage under the health care law’s state high-risk pool to the end of the year. That program covers about 84,000 people.

One way to find out what you might pay for Obamacare coverage and what sorts of subsidies you might be eligible for is to go to www.kff.org, where you can get details on coverage and costs.

Watch for more difficulties with the Obamacare program to emerge in the coming months. Health care experts say that the coverage of people under corporate plans will likely change late next year as companies get ready for more changes under Obamacare. Taxes on so-called Cadillac plans will likely result in higher costs for workers and less extensive coverage. We may see even more companies opt to put employees into part-time roles to get around Obamacare requirements.

Another big story that will play out next year, are tax changes. High earners and people with large portfolios will find their taxes rising dramatically next year. Experts say that high earners will find their taxes tipping 50 percent of their earnings in many parts of the country, not just the big cities on the coasts. If you earn more than $200,000 filing singly or $250,000 married, filing jointly, you’ll pay a new additional tax on earned income of 0.9 percent. If you earn above $400,000 as a single filer or $450,000 married filing jointly, you’ll find yourself subject to a new income tax bracket of 39.6 percent.  A new Medicare tax on investment income of 3.8 percent will also sting investors.

Cherished deductions, like mortgage interest, state income and sales taxes and home office deductions, are on phase-out schedules for high earners. We’ll also be keeping an eye on housing to determine whether rising mortgage rates puts the housing recovery on hold or simply fires up eager buyers.

In short, next year is shaping up as a complicated one for consumers and The Willis Report will be there every step of the way to help you figure out how you can negotiate these changes that impact your wallet. Don't miss The Willis Report starting tonight 6pmET on FOX Business.

The Truth About Taxes

by Gerri Willis

By Gerri Willis

Have you ever noticed that taxes move in one direction: Up. And, so it is with property taxes. During the housing bubble, taxes rose as values climbed and in many parts of the country they are still stuck in the stratosphere, even after prices have plunged. Fortunately, you can do something about it.

In fact, Pete Sepp of the National Taxpayers Union says that high property taxes are a rare example of levies that taxpayers can reduce this year as investment and income grow like topsy.

Contesting your home’s assessment is a tried and true method of cutting your property taxes if those taxes are stuck at nosebleed levels. Start by reviewing your home assessment for errors. The dirty little secret is that many local governments use real estate software to assess properties. In other words, local tax officials may never have as much as driven by your house. Errors are common. Your first stop is the property assessor’s office where you’ll ask for the “property card” that describes your home in detail, including square footage, bathrooms and the like. Look for errors. Then pull your neighbors’ property cards, especially those with houses that are similar in features and age as yours. Look at as many as a dozen to find out whether your home’s assessment is significantly higher than the others. Even a 10 percent difference can be the basis for a case. Online resources are like Zillow.com can be valuable as well.

Typically you can appeal your bill 30 to 60 days after receiving it. Ask for an administrative review and gather evidence to support your claim that your home isn’t worth as much as the local government says it is. If you don’t get a resolution you like, you can typically appeal. If you don’t have time to go through the process yourself, you can typically hire a local expert to help, but don’t pay too much for the service. After all, you don’t want to give away all your tax savings to somebody else.

Don’t miss our special User’s Guide to Taxes on The Willis Report tonight 6pmET on FOX Business.

 

 

Consumer's Guide to Year-End Tax Moves

by Gerri Willis

By Gerri Willis

 

Get ready to be socked if you’re wealthy. Or maybe the better word is soaked. Tax changes for the 2013 tax year are huge and if there was ever a year to run projections on your tax bill ahead of April 15, this is it. The nation’s top earners are likely to see their tax rates rise above a whopping 50 percent.

At risk for the biggest changes, are Americans earning over $200,000, says Melissa Labant, director of tax advocacy for the American Institute of Certified Public Accountants.  To be sure, though, earners above $400,000 for single filers and $450,000 for married filers filing jointly will get the biggest bite. And, it’s not just wages that will get more heavily taxed; investment income taxes are rising, and tax benefits that you might have taken for granted like personal exemptions and itemized deductions are under assault too. These changes come thanks to Obamacare and the American Taxpayer Relief Act of 2012.

“I think high earners may be surprised that multiple increases are hitting them,” says Rich Coppa, of Wealth Health LLC. “If they didn't pay attention to these changes from last year they are going to find a bigger bill to Uncle Sam.”

Here’s what you can expect: You likely already know about the increase in the Medicare payroll tax. In 2012, the tax was 2.9 percent and employee’s share of the tax, 1.45 percent, was automatically deducted from your paycheck. Effective this calendar year, however, high-wage earners owed an additional 0.9 percent tax on earned income above $200,000 for single filers and $250,000 for those married and filing jointly. This year also starts a new income tax bracket for people earning $400,000 for single filers and $450,000 for joint filers – a top tax rate of 39.6 percent up from 35 percent last year. That’s the easy stuff to understand. Some of the other changes are more complicated.

Your personal exemption of $3,900 last year is phased out. The amount of the reduction is 2 percent for each $2,500 in excess of adjusted gross income amounts of $250,000 for single filers and $250,000 for those married, filing jointly. The result is a complete elimination of the exemption for single filers with an adjusted gross income above $372,501, and for couples filing jointly over $422,501. What’s more, itemized deductions, such as mortgage interest, state income and sales tax and home office deductions, will be on phase-out schedules as well. (These are sometimes Pease deductions). This change will reduce the value of itemized deductions by 3 percent of adjusted gross income above $300,000 for couples and $250,000 for single filers to a maximum reduction of 80 percent of its value.

Even more pernicious are higher taxes on investment income. If your income is greater than $200,000 as a single filer or $250,000 married and filing jointly, a 3.8 percent Medicare surtax on investment income will be due. (The tax applies to the lesser of your net investment income for the year or the amount by which your modified adjusted gross income exceeds the income thresholds). Note that a taxpayer could be subject to both the additional 0.9 percent tax on earned income and the 3.8 percent tax.

In addition, Obamacare makes it more difficult to deduct unreimbursed medical expenses. Before the Affordable Care Act was passed, unreimbursed medical expenses could be deducted after they exceed 7.5 percent of adjusted gross income. The threshold is now 10 percent.

One single ray of sunshine for middle-class taxpayers: the Alternative Minimum Tax has been permanently indexed for inflation. In previous years, Congress would pass a patch each year to limit the number of people who might fall victim to this alternative to traditional income taxes. People subject to AMT paid more than they might have under the traditional system.

 

Don’t miss a special User's Guide to Taxes on The Wills Report starting 6pmET tonight on FOX Business.

 

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