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Five tax tips for when a spouse becomes unemployed

June 18, 2009

– Bob D. Scharin is a senior tax analyst for the Tax & Accounting business of Thomson Reuters. The views expressed are his own. –

It’s bad news when a spouse loses his or her job, but the blow can be softened by several smart tax moves.

1. Reduce income tax withholding. With only one wage earner in the family, you can have less income tax withheld from your pay. Before making the change, consider potential increased eligibility for tax deductions and credits that have income phaseouts, as well as the tax effect of any severance payment to your spouse. Also, bear in mind: up to $2,400 of unemployment compensation is tax-free in 2009.

2. Health care flexible spending account (FSA). Generally, you cannot change a health care FSA contributions election mid-year, but your spouse’s employment status sometimes translates to an exception. You’ll need to check rules on this mid-year change with your employer’s plan. If your spouse was making health care FSA contributions at his or her former job, your best bet, if you are permitted, is to opt for a higher contribution rate on your own plan.

3. Dependent care FSA. Here, too, mid-year changes in contribution levels are generally not allowed—subject to exceptions that depend on the terms of the plan. You are generally not eligible to receive an FSA reimbursement for child care expenses incurred while your spouse is not either in the workforce or actively seeking employment.

4. 401(k) accounts. Should your spouse leave the funds in the 401(k) plan account that’s been building for years through his or her former company or roll them into an IRA? Many people keep the money in the 401(k) so they don’t have to make new investment decisions, but there are often benefits to rolling it over, though not without possible tax ramifications. Also, if you need to choose between withdrawing some funds from that 401(k) to get cash or reducing future 401(k) contributions to your own plan, keep in mind that the withdrawal could subject you to a 10% additional tax. By reducing your contributions to your plan, you may lose matching contributions from your employer.

5. Health insurance. If you and your spouse had health insurance coverage through your respective employers, you should now decide whether to add your spouse to the coverage provided through your employer or have your spouse elect COBRA coverage through his or her former employer. The benefit of choosing the employed spouse’s plan? It usually allows you to pay premiums with pre-tax earnings.

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