Your finances: 3 things to get started on now

Your finances: 3 things to get started on nowThe year is winding down, so don't forget to …(Photo: Getty Images/iStockphoto)This is the time of year when certain money issues come more into focus, including those related to income-tax planning, charity scams and checking up on the financial health of family members.NEVER TOO EARLY FOR TAXESTax planning isn’t shaping up as anything remarkable over the waning weeks of 2015. Congress hasn’t passed any blockbuster legislation affecting individuals this year and, with gridlock on Capitol Hill, might not. That leaves the fate of several popular tax provisions dangling. These “extenders” must be acted on fairly soon or they won’t be in force for the coming tax-return filing season.These include a higher-education tuition and fees deduction, a mortgage-debt forgiveness exclusion and a classroom-expense deduction for teachers.Also in limbo is the optional deduction of state and local sales taxes in place of state and local income taxes. “That could affect your decision to make a big-ticket purchase before year end,” such as a new car, notes Mark Luscombe, principal analyst in the tax-accounting group at Wolters Kluwer in suburban Chicago.USA TODAYEarly money lessons can pay dividends laterThen there’s the option for people 70 ½ and older to donate an IRA distribution to charity, rather than include it first as taxable income. That one could be troublesome for some seniors trying to determine how much of their required minimum distributions to take before year’s end, said Luscombe. A hefty 50% tax penalty applies on the amount of RMDs not taken.The capital-gains rules are pretty much the same this year, with the new wrinkle that some people could be looking at sizable losses for the first time in a while, thanks to the late-summer swoon in the stock market, Luscombe said.In any year, investors are wise to determine paper gains and losses in taxable accounts, with an eye on realizing or harvesting losses before year’s end. If losses exceed gains, up to $3,000 of the excess can be used to offset ordinary income, and additional losses can be carried forward to future years.Otherwise, taxpayers generally would be wise to defer taxable income to next year, if possible, while accelerating deductions so they can be taken in 2015. But that strategy doesn’t necessarily hold if you expect to have much larger deductible expenses next year, as with a pending medical procedure, for example.In that case, it might pay to bunch deductions into either this year or next, if you might not qualify to itemize both years. Charitable donations are one type of deductible expense for which the timing is easy to control.CHARITY CAVEATSNow also is a prime time for charitable donations, and non-profit groups — and scammers — know it. Americans make about one-quarter of their charitable donations over the waning weeks of the year, according to one study. That makes it critical to give money wisely, without getting so caught up in a feel-good moment that you drop your vigilance.To make your gifts count, take some time to research the groups you intend to benefit.USA TODAYMortgages, debt collectors top list of consumer complaintsLook for non-profits with missions that you agree with and search for measures of impact — the number of meals served, low-income homes built, animals rescued or whatever. Lean toward non-profits that are run efficiently, where the bulk of the money raised goes toward programs and not overhead, including executive salaries.GuideStar.org and CharityNavigator.org provide broad non-profit databases that you can search, including Form 990 disclosures filed with the Internal Revenue Service that provide detailed information on operations, including the compensation of top executives. Charity Navigator also rates larger non-profits on a four-star scale. Another research source is Give.org, from the Better Business Bureau.It’s wise to verify that a charity is for real. Crooks sometimes seek money from unsuspecting donors, often through online phishing blasts or cold calls. Be especially cautious when asked to provide credit card numbers or bank account information. Some fake entities use names that sound similar to legitimate non-profits, with the aim of confusing unwary donors.Another option is to search through the “exempt organizations select check” section at irs.gov (https://apps.irs.gov/app/eos/), though this database can be cumbersome. If you donate to a non-profit that isn’t legitimate and claim a tax deduction, your deduction could be disallowed, and it might trigger an audit.In fact, consider whether you can take advantage of a charitable tax donation. Roughly two in three Americans don’t itemize and thus won’t get the deduction. An alternate option, especially if money is tight, might be to donate your time instead of your cash.FAMILY MATTERSHoliday get-togethers offer an opportunity to check the financial health of friends and family members — elderly relatives especially. Many seniors are affluent yet susceptible to giving away their money for reasons that could involve fear, loneliness, cognitive problems and others.Strangers account for more than half the financial fraud committed against the elderly, but family members, friends and neighbors sometimes can cause problems, too.Wells Fargo suggests watching out for several telltale signs that things might be amiss. Some are obvious, such as large, unexplained loans taken out by an elderly person or personal belongings that have gone missing. Also, watch for wire transfers or large credit card charges, gifts to a caretaker, utility or other routine bills not being paid, and changes to the person’s will or other estate-planning documents.”A sudden increase in spending and atypical, big withdrawals would be red flags to me,” said David Jacobsen, an investment vice president with Wells Fargo Advisors in Mesa, Ariz.Other signals could be more subtle, such as a new friend or sweetheart in the elder person’s life, a sudden reluctance to discuss financial matters or behavior changes such as fear, submissiveness or withdrawal.Seniors generally are trusting and willing to answer the phone or door. That can make them vulnerable to a sales pitch, fraudulent or otherwise, Wells Fargo said. Plus, they can be confused by financial offers, and they’re often reluctant to report fraud out of fear or embarrassment.Jacobsen said it can be a good idea for elderly clients to sign emergency contact forms, before the need arises, authorizing a trusted adviser to speak with adult children or other relatives in case of emergencies or if they sense a problem. Otherwise, account-privacy laws could block such communication.”We try to get the whole family involved,” Jacobsen said. If adult children or other family members have permission to receive account statements, “They can watch from a distance.”Reach Wiles at [email protected] or 602-444-8616.

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