Tax mistakes are the most common financial mistakes physicians make. Errors, oversights and outright blunders cost thousands in unnecessary income taxes so a little tax planning goes a long way to save money for doctors.
If you want to catch mistakes before they cost you, check out the list below. By the way, the financial mistakes you see here are real: we have seen at least one doctor make every error on this list. (See Assumptions at the end of this article.)
1. Overlooking the Health Savings Account means overpaying taxes
A Health Savings Account (HSA) is a tax-advantaged savings vehicle that lets you make tax-deductible contributions, enjoy tax-deferred growth, and make distributions that are tax-free when used to pay qualified medical expenses. it’s also the best tax break you can get as a physician since it’s a permanent benefit.
Anyone who is covered by a qualifying high deductible health plan (HDHP) can contribute to a Health Savings Account. Many doctors don’t know they have a HDHP option or they don’t understand how HSAs work, so they stay the course with first-dollar coverage and lose the tax benefit.
This mistake costs doctors who are eligible for a family HSA plan $2,228 each year.
2. Spending your HSA makes healthcare less affordable in retirement
Health Savings Accounts are poorly understood by most physicians who often mistake them for FSAs (Flexible Spending Accounts). With the balance in a Flexible Spending Account, you must “use it or lose it” by the end of the year. With HSAs though, “using it” means you lose the power of tax-free compound growth. The smart move here is to invest the HSA balance and let it compound over time.
By making the mistake of spending your HSA each year, you throw away more than $390,000 in tax-free earnings over a 30 year period and that’s money you could have used to cover the cost of healthcare in retirement.
3. Skipping the 529 tax deduction is like skipping college
Section 529 college savings plans are tax-deferred accounts that can be used to pay qualified higher education expenses including college tuition, fees, room, board and the cost of a computer.
While almost every physician has heard about 529 plans, it’s no wonder they tend to skip the accounts altogether. The rules— including how much you can contribute, how much you can deduct, how many accounts you need and whether the deduction is granted to one taxpayer, one return or one account—all vary from state to state. Still, it makes sense to puzzle out the rules, especially in more expensive states where the top tax rate can run to 9%.
Physicians who pay taxes in Colorado, Georgia, Idaho, Iowa, Kansas, Louisiana, Maryland, Michigan, Mississippi, Missouri, Montana, Nebraska, New Mexico, New York, Ohio, Oklahoma, Oregon, Rhode Island, South Carolina, Utah, Virginia, West Virginia, and Wisconsin all get a state tax break. In Oregon, the deduction is worth $455 per year. In New York, it’s worth $882 per family. In a handful of states—Colorado, New Mexico, South Carolina and West Virginia—the deduction is unlimited. Perversely, the state with the highest tax rate offers no deduction at all: thanks California!
No matter where you live, 529 plan accounts can grow tax-deferred until you withdraw the money to pay for college, tax-free. Assuming a savings fate of $500 per month over 18 years, skipping the 529 plan is a mistake that can cost physicians over $90,000 in tax-free growth: enough to send one child to a state college for four years.
4. Believing you cannot contribute to an IRA leaves assets unprotected
Tax advisors often tell physicians “you cannot deduct an IRA contribution” which doctors mistakenly understand to mean, “there’s no reason to do an IRA.” It’s the first logic error in this two-part tax blunder.
Assuming annual household contributions of $11,000 over 30 years, the “tax arbitrage” opportunity—the way you can leverage your current high tax bracket against the lower tax rates you will see in retirement—is worth more than $168,000 to a physician family. The mistake is compounded by the fact that the alternative vehicle to hold these savings is often a taxable account where income and dividends are taxed every year.
When you combine this mistake with the fact that IRAs receive asset protection from creditors under the Bankruptcy Abuse Prevention Act, it’s easy to see how a well-meaning tax man’s casual comment can steer plenty of docs in the wrong direction. But there’s more to this story.
5. Failing to use a Backdoor Roth IRA makes retirement more taxing
A “backdoor Roth IRA” isn’t really a Roth IRA at all. It’s a Traditional IRA that receives a nondeductible contribution that is converted to a Roth IRA.
The physician family who contributes $11,000 to Traditional IRAs each year for 30 years ($5500 per spouse) and then dutifully converts those contributions to a Roth IRA will owe no income taxes to withdraw the money.
On the other hand, physician families who merely contribute to a Traditional IRA and fail to do the conversion will be forced to begin withdrawing the money at age 70½ and pay more than $90,000 in income taxes.
6. Ignoring Roth rules makes the Backdoor Roth (surprisingly) taxable
The rules surrounding IRA conversions are so complicated that many physicians wind up paying taxes for something intended to save them.
First, physicians need to understand there are two kinds of money in most IRAs: pre-tax money (that comes from 401k rollovers and previously deducted direct IRA contributions) and post-tax money (that comes from direct contributions that were not tax-deductible). You can think of this as “bad money” (pre-tax) and “good money” (after-tax). To effect a successful Roth conversion, you have to separate the good money from the bad (using a 401k rollover) or you will pay taxes on the bad money that is converted.
Second, doctors need to know that “IRA” means all of your Traditional IRAs, no matter where they are held, and your SIMPLE and SEP-IRA balances. The IRS sees all of these accounts as “your IRA” such that when you convert one, you are deemed to have converted a pro rata portion of all your IRAs.
Finally, even if you manage to separate the good money from the bad, you still need to handle your tax return correctly. If you fail to tell your tax specialist that you “converted a Traditional IRA with basis to a Roth IRA” or if someone fouled up Form 8606 of your tax return somewhere along the way, you are very likely to (unknowingly) pay unnecessary taxes which might conservatively be estimated at $3,600 for a physician family with two IRAs.
7. Rocking the wrong Roth makes doctors pay more tax now and less later
Did you know there are three Roths? It’s true. There’s the “front door” Roth IRA that’s right for interns, residents and hardworking but underpaid doctors who can contribute directly to a Roth IRA. Then there’s the backdoor Roth IRA that’s right for docs who cannot directly contribute to a Roth IRA. And finally there’s the Roth 401k that’s right for low earners but disastrous for high earners.
When you contribute to the non-Roth portion of your 401k, you are able to defer taxes into the future, when rates may be lower for you.
But when you contribute directly to a Roth 401k, you are essentially raising your hand to the IRS and saying, “please tax me now.” If you’re a high earner, you’ll pay an extra $6000 in taxes each year by rocking this Roth.
8. Underfunding your 401k is like giving extra money to the tax man
Sometimes it makes sense not to fund your 401k, like when there’s no employer match, when you’ve got a ton of high interest rate student loan debt and when you have zero dollars in your Emergency Fund. But for all but a few physicians, the best bet is to stuff your 401k as full as you can.
Even knowing this, many physicians fail to do so. Sometimes there’s a mix up and they fail to enroll. Other times they enroll but fail to contribute enough to get the match. And occasionally the contribution limits change but they have elected a flat-dollar contribution amount that’s never reviewed, resulting in a contribution gap.
To avoid paying an extra $6,000 to $8,000 a year in taxes, check your 401k account every year in September to see if you’re on track to make the maximum contribution by year’s end. If not, you still have time to fix it.
9. Working extra hard to pay extra taxes for self-employed physicians
Moonlighting, doing locums, researching, lecturing, teaching, acting as a contracted medical director and other sideline doctor gigs are a great way to pick up some extra cash—and extra taxes— if you overlook special deductions available only to self-employed physicians.
If you don’t have a 401k at work, you can easily set aside $18,000 in a tax-deferred self-employed retirement plan. Physicians who do have a 401k at work can establish a profit sharing retirement plan for their own business and contribute up to $36,000 in 2017. If you have a whole bunch of self-employment income, you can even establish a defined benefit plan and save even more. But doctors who didn’t know about these opportunities will likely pay somewhere between $2,000 and $9,000 in extra taxes.
10. Blowing up your retirement plan by overlooking the fine print
While this is a less common mistake, the consequences are dire. Small physician practices who lack a skilled business manager—often radiologists and ER docs—sometimes have an “everybody does their own thing” style of retirement plan in which everyone opens a SEP-IRA wherever they like and everyone contributes as much as they like.
In these cases, there is a de facto qualified retirement plan in place for the entire practice but there is no documentation and no one checking to make sure the contributions meet IRS guidelines. Occasionally these groups will hire a W2 employee and exclude them from the plan, which runs afoul of the rules surrounding “affiliated service groups.”
These situations are complex and often require an ERISA attorney and an accountant to straighten out the plan. Those who fail to get with the program run the risk of having their plan “disqualified” which leads to immediate taxation of the entire plan balance plus the payment of penalties, undoing all the tax savings from the plan. It’s impossible to estimate the cost of this mistake but know that the low end is on the order of tens of thousands of dollars.
11. Holding taxable bond funds in a taxable account
Although veteran investors know that a taxable bond fund generates income that causes state and federal income taxes, many physicians—even those under the care of financial advisors who should know better—own taxable bond funds in taxable accounts.
For example, a surgeon owns a joint account with her husband that holds $1.2 million in mutual funds, including $400,000 invested in corporate bonds. Those bonds yield dividends of approximately $13,000 this year. Their tax bill for these dividends is approximately $4,000, so only $9,000 remains of the return they garnered.
Had this couple purchased a tax-exempt bond fund that pays dividends of $11,000, they may owe no taxes. As a result, this couple would have an additional $2,000 this year and years to come.
12. Giving away tax benefits when donating to charity
When you give to charity, you can donate cash or you could donate securities. Since qualified charities are treated as non-profit organizations under the tax code, giving them appreciated securities means physicians not only receive a tax deduction but they avoid paying capital gains tax.
For example, a physician family owns mutual fund shares worth $50,000 for which they paid $30,000. If they donate the shares to charity, the charity can sell the shares to raise $50,000 cash and sidestep the capital gain. However, if that couple makes the mistake of first selling the shares, they will pay unnecessary capital gains tax of $2,000.
13. Just saying “yes” to stupid tax penalties
While many physicians assume the Internal Revenue Service is a bunch of jack-booted thugs intent on making life difficult, the IRS tends to be a little more understanding, particularly in the case of honest first-time mistakes.
If you have failed to file or failed to pay your taxes and it’s your first offense, you can ask for an “abatement” by writing a well-worded letter to the IRS asking them to waive the penalty. We all make mistakes but failure to ask for an abatement means sending good money after bad. Remember, if they say “no,” you are no worse off than if you hadn’t asked at all.
The biggest tax mistake physicians make is to think of taxes only at “tax time” when it’s too late to do anything about it. Most doctors file their personal taxes on a calendar year basis which means that you pay on April 15th for everything that happened between January 1 and December 31 of the prior year… after the fact.
To avoid making tax mistakes that cost thousands, start thinking about this year’s tax bill right now, and check in with your financial advisor and your tax specialist throughout the year to see what you can do to pay no more than what you truly owe.
ASSUMPTIONS: Federal marginal income tax rate of 33% (which kicks in at $230K for joint filers), a 20% capital gains tax rate, no state income tax, no Medicare surtax and a hypothetical 7% return. For post-retirement tax calculations, we assume a 25% federal marginal income tax bracket. These are conservative assumptions which means a few physicians will save less by avoiding the mistakes above but many doctors can save much more than what is demonstrated.