Why You Should [Still] Know Your Marginal Tax Rate?

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And … Other Financial Planning Topics of Import

Lon JefferiesBy Lon Jefferies MBA CFP®

In 2014, the federal tax brackets are 10%, 15%, 25%, 28%, 33%, 35%, and 39.6%. For a taxpayer who is married and files jointly, regardless of how much the household makes, the first $18,150 of income after accounting for deductions and exemptions will only be taxed at the 10% rate.

Similarly, any income the household makes that is more than $18,150 but less than $73,800 is taxed at the 15% rate. At that point, the next $75,050 is taxed at 25%, and so on.

Consequently, not all income a household makes during the course of the year is taxed at the same rate. A marginal tax bracket is the tax rate that applies to the last dollar the household made.

It is crucial for all taxpayers to know their marginal tax rate. This information can help a client identify which type of investment accounts fits their situation best, how to structure an investment portfolio, and how to determine the value of certain deductions when filing their tax return.

Roth or Traditional Retirement Accounts

Contributions to traditional retirement accounts like IRAs and 401(k)s allow taxpayers to avoid recognizing income earned during the tax year and push the need to acknowledge the revenue into a future year. This is valuable because many people are in a higher tax bracket during their working years than they are during retirement. For instance, for a person who is currently in the 25% marginal tax bracket, it may be advantageous to delay recognizing the income until the investor retires and has less income, causing him to be in only the 15% marginal tax bracket. Doing this would enable the taxpayer to pay taxes at only 15% as opposed to 25%.

Alternatively, a Roth IRA or Roth 401(k) allows an investor to pay taxes on contributed income during the year it was earned but the money then grows tax-free. Consequently, a Roth retirement account is great for someone who believes they may be in a higher marginal tax bracket in the future. For example, a young employee in the early stages of his career who is in the 15% tax bracket but believes he may be in the 25% or 28% bracket in the future would benefit from paying all taxes on the income at his current rate of 15% and then getting tax-free investment growth. This would prevent the investor from having to pay the higher future tax rate of 25% or 28% on the invested dollars.

Knowing your marginal tax bracket can help you determine if you would favor paying taxes on your invested dollars at your current tax rate or if you believe you may benefit from pushing the need to recognize the income into a future tax year. This is a critical decision when planning for retirement and it can’t accurately be made without knowing your marginal tax rate.

Capital Gains Rate

A long term capital gains tax rate is the rate that applies to the growth of any asset held for longer than a year that is not within a tax-advantaged account. If you buy stock outside a tax-advantaged account, or purchase investment property, any growth in the value of the investment will be taxed as capital gains when sold.

An investor’s capital gains tax rate is determined by the investor’s marginal tax rate. For most taxpayers the long term capital gains tax rate is 15%. However, if a taxpayer is in the 10% or 15% marginal tax bracket, the long term capital gains tax rate is an amazing 0%! Additionally, many taxpayers in either the 35% or 39.6% tax bracket may end up paying capital gains at a rate of 20%.

Clearly, knowing your marginal tax bracket will help you analyze the appeal of making investments outside of tax-advantaged accounts. People who qualify for the 0% capital gains tax should actively search for ways to take advantage of this benefit.

Additionally, knowing your marginal tax rate can help you determine the best time to recognize long-term capital gains. If your marginal tax rate will be 25% in 2014 — leading to a capital gains tax rate of 15% — but you believe your marginal rate will be 15% in 2015 — leading to a capital gains tax rate of 0% — it would save you money and lower your tax bill to defer recognizing long-term capitals gains until next year.





Annuities are promoted as a way for invested dollars to obtain tax-deferred growth. However, when money is withdrawn from an annuity it is taxed at the investor’s marginal tax rate as opposed to his long term capital gains tax rate. Knowing your marginal tax bracket can help determine whether an annuity adds any value to your portfolio, or whether it could actually be detrimental.

Suppose an investor is in the 15% marginal tax bracket. If this person invests in an annuity, he will avoid paying taxes on any of the investment’s growth until the funds are withdrawn from the annuity. However, at that point the investment’s growth will be taxed at the taxpayer’s marginal income tax bracket of 15%. Alternatively, if this same investor utilized a taxable investment account rather than an annuity, the investment’s growth would be taxed at the investor’s capital gains tax rate of 0% when sold. In this case, investing in an annuity actually created a tax bill for this investor!

Clearly, knowing your marginal tax rate and your resulting capital gains tax rate can help you determine the best type of investment accounts for your personal situation.

Itemized Deductions

The value of your itemized deductions is essentially determined by your marginal tax bracket. For a simplified example, consider a taxpayer who could generate an additional $10,000 of deductions. Doing so would mean the individual would pay taxes on $10,000 of income less than he would without the deduction. If the individual is in the 15% tax bracket, generating the deduction would lower the person’s tax bill by $1,500 dollars ($10,000 x 15%). However, if the individual is in the 25% tax bracket, the same deduction would lower the person’s tax bill by $2,500 ($10,000 x 25%).

Consequently, knowing your marginal tax bracket can help determine when large itemized deductions should be taken. If you would like to donate funds to your favorite charitable institution, knowing which year you will be in the highest marginal tax bracket can help you determine the best time to make the contribution.




Marginal Tax Rates Change

Many people’s income is relatively constant year-after-year. For these people, there may not be much fluctuation in their marginal tax bracket. However, any time you have a significant increase or decrease in income recognized during a year, your marginal tax rate may change. Whenever possible, it is best to anticipate how your current marginal tax rate might compare to your future marginal tax rate.This is another strong factor that can impact all the key financial decisions effected by your marginal tax rate.


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