Prepaying property taxes related to the current year but due the following year has long been one of the most popular and effective year-end tax-planning strategies. But does it still make sense in 2018?

The answer, for some people, is yes — accelerating this expense will increase their itemized deductions, reducing their tax bills. But for many, particularly those in high-tax states, changes made by the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act (TCJA) eliminate the benefits.

What’s Changed?
The TCJA made two changes that affect the viability of this strategy. First, it nearly doubled the standard deduction to $24,000 for married couples filing jointly, $18,000 for heads of household, and $12,000 for singles and married couples filing separately, so fewer taxpayers will itemize. Second, it placed a $10,000 cap on state and local tax (SALT) deductions, including property taxes plus income or sales taxes.

For property tax prepayment to make sense, two things must happen:

  1. You must itemize (that is, your itemized deductions must exceed the standard deduction), and
  2. Your other SALT expenses for the year must be less than $10,000.

If you don’t itemize, or you’ve already used up your $10,000 limit (on income or sales taxes or on previous property tax installments), accelerating your next property tax installment will provide no benefit.

Example
Joe and Mary, a married couple filing jointly, have incurred $5,000 in state income taxes, $5,000 in property taxes, $18,000 in qualified mortgage interest, and $4,000 in charitable donations, for itemized deductions totaling $32,000. Their next installment of 2018 property taxes, $5,000, is due in the spring of 2019. They’ve already reached the $10,000 SALT limit, so prepaying property taxes won’t reduce their tax bill.

Now suppose they live in a state with no income tax. In that case, prepayment would potentially make sense because it would be within the SALT limit and would increase their 2018 itemized deductions.

Look Before You Leap
Before you prepay property taxes, review your situation carefully to be sure it will provide a tax benefit. And keep in mind that, just because prepayment will increase your 2018 itemized deductions, it doesn’t necessarily mean that’s the best strategy. For example, if you expect to be in a higher tax bracket in 2019, paying property taxes when due will likely produce a greater benefit over the two-year period.

Smart timing of deductible expenses can reduce your tax liability, and poor timing can unnecessarily increase it. When you don’t expect to be subject to the alternative minimum tax (AMT) in the current year, accelerating deductible expenses into the current year typically is a good idea. Why? Because it will defer tax, which usually is beneficial. One deductible expense you may be able to control is your property tax payment.

You can prepay (by December 31) property taxes that relate to 2016 but that are due in 2017, and deduct the payment on your return for this year. But you generally can’t prepay property taxes that relate to 2017 and deduct the payment on this year’s return.

Should you or shouldn’t you?

As noted earlier, accelerating deductible expenses like property tax payments generally is beneficial. Prepaying your property tax may be especially beneficial if tax rates go down for 2017, which could happen based on the outcome of the November election. Deductions save more tax when tax rates are higher.

However, under the President-elect’s proposed tax plan, some taxpayers (such as certain single and head of household filers) might be subject to higher tax rates. These taxpayers may save more tax from the property tax deduction by holding off on paying their property tax until it’s due next year.

Likewise, taxpayers who expect to see a big jump in their income next year that would push them into a higher tax bracket also may benefit by not prepaying their property tax bill.

More considerations

Property tax isn’t deductible for AMT purposes. If you’re subject to the AMT this year, a prepayment may hurt you because you’ll lose the benefit of the deduction. So before prepaying your property tax, make sure you aren’t at AMT risk for 2016.

Also, don’t forget the income-based itemized deduction reduction. If your income is high enough that the reduction applies to you, the tax benefit of a prepayment will be reduced.

Not sure whether you should prepay your property tax bill or what other deductions you might be able to accelerate into 2016 (or should consider deferring to 2017)? Contact us. We can help you determine the best year-end tax planning strategies for your specific situation.