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17 Year-End Moves That Can Preserve Your Tax Benefits

Barring any tax legislation that takes effect this year, your best overall tax strategy in 2017 is much as it would be in any year: To postpone receiving income that will be highly taxed and increasing deductions to offset current income. The less income you realize, the lower your bill. In that vein, here are 17 smart year-end tax moves to consider.

1. Harvest capital losses. If you sell securities at a loss before 2018, you can use those losses to offset gains from other sales—including those from selling stock or other holdings you've owned for a year or less. Those would otherwise be taxed at the high rates for ordinary income. Losses that exceed your gains can offset up to $3,000 of ordinary income, and you can deduct additional amounts in future tax years.

2. Harvest capital gains. Meanwhile, if you decide to take profits on securities you've owned for more than a year, the maximum tax rate on these long-term gains is 15%, or 20% if you're in the top tax bracket for ordinary income.

3. Max out on the 0% rate. Even better than the usual 15% or 20% tax rate on long-term gains, you can benefit from a 0% rate on long-term capital gains that applies to income in the 10% and 15% tax brackets. If you suffered a business loss this year or received less income than usual for another reason, there may be no tax pain on your long-term gain.

4. Buy dividend-paying stocks. Most dividends are taxed at the same favorable tax rates as long-term capital gains. However, to qualify for this tax break, you have to have held the stock for at least 61 days.

5. Watch out for "wash sale rule." Under this rule, you're prohibited from deducting a loss from a securities sale if you acquire substantially identical shares within 30 days. The easiest way to stay out of trouble is to wait at least 31 days to buy similar holdings.

6. Minimize the NII surtax. A 3.8% surtax applies to your net investment income (NII) or the amount by which your modified adjusted gross income (MAGI) exceeds $200,000 for single filers and $250,000 for joint filers, whichever is less. Keep those thresholds in mind as you consider ways to minimize your income for the year.

7. Give 'til it hurts. As long as you keep proper records, you generally can deduct charitable donations made as late as December 31, even if you use a credit card and aren't billed until next year. Special rules could limit this deduction.

8. Seek a Roth conversion. If you have funds in a traditional IRA, you could transfer the funds to a Roth IRA. You'll pay income tax on the amount you convert but future withdrawals are generally tax-free. So, you pay tax now to save later. Stretching out conversions over several years can reduce the tax bite.

9. Bulk up 401(k) contributions. By increasing deferrals to a 401(k) plan, you reduce your taxable income. For 2017, you can defer up to $18,000 ($24,000 if you're 50 or older). Your contributions accumulate without current tax.

10. Avoid RMD penalties. If you're over age 70½, you usually must take required minimum distributions (RMDs) from employer retirement plans and traditional IRAs each year. The penalty is 50% of the required amount if you miss the December 31 deadline.

11. Donate stock to charity. You can deduct the fair market value of stock donated to charity if you've owned it more than a year. That can be a good way to sidestep taxes on shares that have appreciated.

12. Sidestep the AMT. Certain types of "tax preferences" may increase what you owe under the alternative minimum tax (AMT) calculation. If it otherwise makes sense, try to postpone preferences to 2018.

13. Bunch medical expenses. Generally, you can deduct medical expenses only to the extent that they exceed 10% of your adjusted gross income (AGI). When possible, shift expenses to the tax year you expect to clear the AGI hurdle.

14. Shift family income. If you transfer taxable investments to a child taxed at a lower rate, your family may pay less overall. However, investment income of more than $2,100 received by a dependent child in 2017 may be taxed at your top tax rate.

15. Use the installment sale method. You can normally defer tax on the sale of real estate if you take payments over two years or longer.

16. Pay next semester's tuition. If you qualify, college tuition paid in 2017 may result in one of two higher education tax credits, depending on your situation. But these tax breaks are phased out for high-income parents.

17. Get in the holiday spirit. Finally, you can give each family member up to $14,000 this holiday season without owing any gift tax. Using this annual exclusion also reduces the size of your taxable estate.