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Estate Planning Guide
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taxes
Thank heaven for legal tax havens

If you're like most Americans, you don't have a secret bank account in Switzerland where you stash money to keep it out of IRS hands.

Being out of the foreign tax-shelter loop isn't such a bad thing. Uncle Sam recently signed a new tax treaty with that Alpine nation that should help U.S. collectors crack down on tax-evading owners of foreign bank accounts.

But there still are plenty of legal tax havens for law-abiding taxpayers. Even better, most regular Joe and Jane taxpayers can easily take advantage of them.

Gimme shelter

If you own a home, your actual shelter is probably your best tax shelter. Your house's tax-cutting opportunities start as soon as you buy it and continue until you sell it.

You get deductions for all or part of your mortgage interest, points paid to get the loan, interest on certain home equity loans, and your annual property tax payments. These write-offs can help reduce your tax bill each filing season.

Then there is the profit on your home's sale. That's money the IRS can't touch.

"The biggest thing in real estate that would apply to most people is the primary residence sale exclusion," says Mark Luscombe, principal federal tax analyst at CCH in Riverwoods, Ill., a provider of tax information and services.

Under this tax code provision, up to $250,000 in sale profit for a single taxpayer, twice that for a married couple filing a joint return, is not taxed. "If you sell before your gain gets to that point, you can avoid ever having to pay tax on the residence," says Luscombe.

The beauty of this home-related tax shelter is that it applies to every principal residence you ever own as long as you meet the IRS rules. The key requirement is that you live in the home two of the five years before you sell.

"There are instances where people will buy a fixer-upper and live there for two years while fixing it up and then sell it at a profit. And though a lot of that profit can be attributable to their sweat equity, they still qualify for home sale exclusion," says Bob D. Scharin, senior tax analyst from the Tax & Accounting business of Thomson Reuters in New York City.

Investment opportunities

Investment real estate also offers some tax-shelter opportunities.

"One thing with real estate that puts it in that tax category as a more conventional shelter is that you can make a small down payment on real estate yet base your depreciation deduction on the entire purchase price," says Scharin.

Along with the depreciation on the investment property, you also get mortgage interest and real estate tax deductions, as well as a write-off for upkeep and maintenance costs.

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Of course, when you sell investment real estate, you will owe capital gains on the profit. But you might be able to delay that bill by taking advantage of another tax law.

Exchange advantages

Internal Revenue Code Section 1031 offers you a chance to postpone paying taxes on investment property by swapping it for another. Also known as a like-kind exchange, you sell a property and then use those proceeds to purchase another like one.

"Instead of recognized gain on the sold property, you roll it into new property and essentially reduce your cost basis in the new property by that gain," says Dawn Greenberg, CPA and tax principal at Toms River, N.J.-based Cowan, Gunteski & Co.

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