With the dawn of 2020 on the near horizon, here’s a quick list of tax and financial to-dos you should address before 2019 ends:
Check your Flexible Spending Account (FSA) balance. If you have an FSA for health care expenses, you need to incur qualifying expenses by December 31 to use up these funds or you’ll potentially lose them. (Some plans allow you to carry over up to $500 to the following year or give you a 2½-month grace period to incur qualifying expenses.) Use expiring FSA funds to pay for eyeglasses, dental work or eligible drugs or health products.
Max out tax-advantaged savings. Reduce your 2019 income by contributing to traditional IRAs, employer-sponsored retirement plans or Health Savings Accounts to the extent you’re eligible. (Certain vehicles, including traditional and SEP IRAs, allow you to deduct contributions on your 2019 return if they’re made by April 15, 2020.)
Take required minimum distributions (RMDs). If you’ve reached age 70½, you generally must take RMDs from IRAs or qualified employer-sponsored retirement plans before the end of the year to avoid a 50% penalty. If you turned 70½ this year, you have until April 1, 2020, to take your first RMD. But keep in mind that, if you defer your first distribution, you’ll have to take two next year.
Consider a qualified charitable distribution (QCD). If you’re 70½ or older and charitably inclined, a QCD allows you to transfer up to $100,000 tax-free directly from your IRA to a qualified charity and to apply the amount toward your RMD. This is a big advantage if you wouldn’t otherwise qualify for a charitable deduction (because you don’t itemize, for example).
Use it or lose it. Make the most of annual limits that don’t carry over from year to year, even if doing so won’t provide an income tax deduction. For example, if gift and estate taxes are a concern, make annual exclusion gifts up to $15,000 per recipient. If you have a Coverdell Education Savings Account, contribute the maximum amount you’re allowed.
Contribute to a Section 529 plan. Sec. 529 prepaid tuition or college savings plans aren’t subject to federal annual contribution limits and don’t provide a federal income tax deduction. But contributions may entitle you to a state income tax deduction (depending on your state and plan).
Review withholding. The IRS cautions that people with more complex tax situations face the possibility of having their income taxes underwithheld because of changes under the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act. Use its withholding estimator (available at https://www.irs.gov/individuals/tax-withholding-estimator) to review your situation.
If it looks like you could face underpayment penalties, increase withholding from your or your spouse’s wages for the remainder of the year. (Withholding, unlike estimated tax payments, is treated as if it were paid evenly over the year.)
For assistance with these and other year-end planning ideas, please contact us.
Many people might consider donating their vehicles to charity at year end to start the new year. Why not get a fresh ride and a tax deduction, eh? Pump the brakes — this strategy doesn’t always work out as intended.
Donating an old car to a qualified charity may seem like a hassle-free way to dispose of an unneeded vehicle, satisfy your philanthropic desires and enjoy a tax deduction (provided you itemize). But in most cases, it’s not the most tax-efficient strategy. Generally, your deduction is limited to the actual price the charity receives when it sells the car.
You can deduct the vehicle’s fair market value (FMV) only if the charity 1) uses the vehicle for a significant charitable purpose, such as delivering meals to homebound seniors, 2) makes material improvements to the vehicle that go beyond cleaning and painting, or 3) disposes of the vehicle for less than FMV for a charitable purpose, such as selling it at a below-market price to a needy person.
If you decide to donate a car, be sure to comply with IRS substantiation and acknowledgment requirements. And watch out for disreputable car donation organizations that distribute only a fraction of what they take in to charity and, in some cases, aren’t even eligible to receive charitable gifts. We can help you double-check the idea before going through with it.
Do you have investments outside of tax-advantaged retirement plans? If so, you might still have time to reduce your 2019 tax bill by selling some investments — you just need to carefully select which investments you sell.
Balance gains and losses
If you’ve sold investments at a gain this year, consider selling some losing investments to absorb the gains. This is commonly referred to as “harvesting” losses.
If, however, you’ve sold investments at a loss this year, consider selling other investments in your portfolio that have appreciated, to the extent the gains will be absorbed by the losses. If you believe those appreciated investments have peaked in value, you’ll essentially lock in the peak value and avoid tax on your gains.
Review tax rates
At the federal level, long-term capital gains (on investments held more than one year) are taxed at lower rates than short-term capital gains (on investments held one year or less). The Tax Cuts and Jobs Act (TCJA) retained the 0%, 15% and 20% rates on long-term capital gains. But, through 2025, these rates have their own brackets, instead of aligning with various ordinary-income brackets. For example, for 2019, the thresholds for the top long-term gains rate are $434,551 for singles, $461,701 for heads of households and $488,851 for married couples.
But the top ordinary-income rate of 37%, which also applies to short-term capital gains, doesn’t go into effect for 2019 until taxable income exceeds $510,300 for singles and heads of households or $612,350 for joint filers. The TCJA also retained the 3.8% net investment income tax (NIIT) and its $200,000 and $250,000 thresholds.
Check the netting rules
Before selling investments, consider the netting rules for gains and losses, which depend on whether gains and losses are long term or short term. To determine your net gain or loss for the year, long-term capital losses offset long-term capital gains before they offset short-term capital gains. In the same way, short-term capital losses offset short-term capital gains before they offset long-term capital gains.
You may use up to $3,000 of total capital losses in excess of total capital gains as a deduction against ordinary income in computing your adjusted gross income. Any remaining net losses are carried forward to future years.
Keep in mind that tax considerations alone shouldn’t drive your investment decisions. Also consider factors such as your risk tolerance, investment goals and the long-term potential of the investment. We can help you determine what makes sense for you.
Many people dream of retiring early so they can pursue activities other than work, such as volunteering, traveling and pursuing their hobbies full-time. But making this dream a reality requires careful planning and diligent saving during the years leading up to the anticipated retirement date.
It all starts with retirement savings accounts such as IRAs and 401(k)s. Among the best ways to retire early is to build up these accounts as quickly as possible by contributing the maximum amount allowed by law each year.
From there, consider other potential sources of retirement income, such as a company pension plan. If you have one, either under a past or current employer, research whether you can receive benefits if you retire early. Then factor this income into your retirement budget.
Of course, you’re likely planning on Social Security benefits composing a portion of your retirement income. If so, keep in mind that the earliest you can begin receiving Social Security retirement benefits is age 62 (though waiting until later may allow you to collect more).
The flip side of saving up enough retirement income is reducing your living expenses during retirement. For example, many people strive to pay off their home mortgages early, which can possibly free up enough monthly cash flow to make early retirement feasible.
By saving as much money as you can in your retirement savings accounts, carefully planning your Social Security strategies and cutting your living expenses in retirement, you just might be able to make this dream a reality. Contact our firm for help.
Some medical expenses may be tax deductible, but only if you itemize deductions and you have enough expenses to exceed the applicable floor for deductibility. With proper planning, you may be able to time controllable medical expenses to your tax advantage.
The Tax Cuts and Jobs Act (TCJA) made bunching such expenses beneficial for some taxpayers. At the same time, certain taxpayers who’ve benefited from the medical expense deduction in previous years might no longer benefit because of the TCJA’s increase to the standard deduction.
Various limits apply to most tax deductions, and one type of limit is a “floor,” which means expenses are deductible only to the extent that they exceed that floor (typically a specific percentage of your income). One example of a tax break with a floor is the medical expense deduction.
Because it can be difficult to exceed the floor, a common strategy is to “bunch” deductible expenses into one year where possible. The TCJA reduced the floor for the medical expense deduction for 2017 and 2018 from 10% to 7.5% of adjusted gross income (AGI).
However, beginning January 1, 2019, taxpayers may once again deduct only the amount of the unreimbursed allowable medical care expenses for the year that exceeds 10% of their AGI. Medical expenses that aren’t reimbursed by insurance or paid through a tax-advantaged account (such as a Health Savings Account or Flexible Spending Account) may be deductible.
If your total itemized deductions won’t exceed your standard deduction, bunching medical expenses into 2019 won’t save you tax. The TCJA nearly doubled the standard deduction. For 2019, it’s $12,200 for singles and married couples filing separately, $18,350 for heads of households, and $24,400 for married couples filing jointly.
If your total itemized deductions for 2019 will exceed your standard deduction, then bunching nonurgent medical procedures and other controllable expenses into 2019 may allow you to exceed the floor and benefit from the medical expense deduction. Controllable expenses might include prescription drugs, eyeglasses, contact lenses, hearing aids, dental work, and some types of elective surgery.
Exploring the concept
As mentioned, bunching doesn’t work for everyone. For help determining whether you could benefit, please contact us.
If you’re a homeowner and manage your finances well, you might have extra cash after you’ve paid your monthly bills. What should you do with this extra money? Some would say make additional mortgage payments toward your principal to pay off your mortgage early. Others would say: No, invest those dollars in the stock market!
The decision is very much about risk vs. return. There’s little, if any, risk in prepaying a mortgage, because you already know what your rate of return will be: the interest rate on your mortgage. For instance, if your mortgage interest rate is 4.5%, this would be the return earned by every dollar that goes toward prepayment (not factoring in the mortgage interest deduction if you qualify).
However, if you invest the money in the stock market, you’ll assume much more risk. The level of risk depends on the assets you invest in, but there’s no such thing as a risk-free investment.
Your mortgage interest rate is indeed an important factor. If your rate is relatively low, so is the return from prepaying your mortgage. The final decision for many people comes down to whether they believe they can earn a higher return investing the money than they would prepaying their mortgage.
Clearly there’s the potential to outperform your mortgage interest rate by investing your money for the long term. Remember, though, that the stock market may be volatile in the short term and offers no guarantees.
There’s no single answer to the “pay down the mortgage or invest in the market?” question. We can provide additional, more specific guidance on making the right decision for you.
Are you divorced or in the process of divorcing? If so, it’s critical to understand how the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act (TCJA) has changed the tax treatment of alimony. Unfortunately, for many couples, the news isn’t good — the tax cost of divorce has risen.
Under previous rules, a taxpayer who paid alimony was entitled to a deduction for payments made during the year. The deduction was “above-the-line,” which was a big advantage, because there was no need to itemize. The payments were included in the recipient spouse’s gross income.
The TCJA essentially reverses the tax treatment of alimony, effective for divorce or separation instruments executed after 2018. In other words, alimony payments are no longer deductible by the payer and are excluded from the recipient’s gross income.
What’s the impact?
The TCJA will likely cause alimony awards to decrease for post-2018 divorces or separations. Paying spouses will argue that, without the benefit of the alimony deduction, they can’t afford to pay as much as under previous rules. The ability of recipients to exclude alimony from income will at least partially offset the decrease, but many recipients will be worse off under the new rules.
For example, let’s say John and Lori divorced in 2018. John is in the 35% federal income tax bracket and Lori is a stay-at-home mom with no income who cares for John and Lori’s two children. The court ordered John to pay Lori $100,000 per year in alimony. He’s entitled to deduct the payments, so the after-tax cost to him is $65,000. Presuming Lori qualifies to file as head of household, and the children qualify for the full child credit, Lori’s net federal tax on the alimony payments (after the child credit) is approximately $8,600, leaving her with $91,400 in after-tax income.
Suppose, under the same circumstances, that John and Lori divorce in 2019. John argues that, without the alimony deduction, he can afford to pay only $65,000, and the court agrees. The payments are tax-free to Lori, but she’s still left with $26,400 less than she would have received under pre-TCJA rules.
The pre-2019 rules can create a tax benefit by reducing the divorced couple’s overall tax liability (assuming the recipient is in a lower tax bracket). The new rules eliminate this tax advantage. Of course, if the recipient is in a higher tax bracket than the payer, a couple is better off under the new rules.
What to do?
If you’re contemplating a divorce or separation, be sure to familiarize yourself with the post-TCJA divorce-related tax rules. Or, if you’re already divorced or separated, determine whether you would benefit by applying the new rules to your alimony payments through a modification of your divorce or separation instrument. (See “What if you’re already divorced?”) We can help you sort out the details.
Sidebar: What if you’re already divorced?
Existing divorce or separation instruments, including those executed during 2018, aren’t affected by the TCJA changes. The previous rules still apply unless a modification expressly provides that the TCJA rules must be followed. However, spouses who would benefit from the TCJA rules — for example, because their relative income levels have changed — may voluntarily apply them if the modification expressly provides for such treatment.
From a tax perspective, appreciated artwork can make one of the best charitable gifts. Generally, donating appreciated property is doubly beneficial because you can both enjoy a valuable tax deduction and avoid the capital gains taxes you’d owe if you sold the property.
The extra benefit from donating artwork comes from the fact that the top long-term capital gains rate for art and other “collectibles” is 28%, as opposed to 20% for most other appreciated property.
The first thing to keep in mind if you’re considering a donation of artwork is that you must itemize deductions to deduct charitable contributions. Now that the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act has nearly doubled the standard deduction and put tighter limits on many itemized deductions (but not the charitable deduction), many taxpayers who have itemized in the past will no longer benefit from itemizing.
For 2019, the standard deduction is $12,200 for singles, $18,350 for heads of households and $24,400 for married couples filing jointly. Your total itemized deductions must exceed the applicable standard deduction for you to enjoy a tax benefit from donating artwork.
Something else to be aware of is that most artwork donations require a “qualified appraisal” by a “qualified appraiser.” IRS rules contain detailed requirements about the qualifications an appraiser must possess and the contents of an appraisal.
IRS auditors are required to refer all gifts of art valued at $50,000 or more to the IRS Art Advisory Panel. The panel’s findings are the IRS’s official position on the art’s value, so it’s critical to provide a solid appraisal to support your valuation.
Finally, note that, if you own both the work of art and the copyright to the work, you must assign the copyright to the charity to qualify for a charitable deduction.
The charity you choose and how the charity will use the artwork can have a significant impact on your tax deduction. Donations of artwork to a public charity, such as a museum or university with public charity status, can entitle you to deduct the artwork’s full fair market value. If you donate art to a private foundation, however, your deduction will be limited to your cost.
For your donation to a public charity to qualify for a full fair-market-value deduction, the charity’s use of the donated artwork must be related to its tax-exempt purpose. If, for example, you donate a painting to a museum for display or to a university’s art history department for use in its research, you’ll satisfy the related-use rule. But if you donate it to, say, a children’s hospital to auction off at its annual fundraising gala, you won’t satisfy the rule.
To reap the maximum tax benefit of donating appreciated artwork, you must plan your gift carefully and follow all applicable rules. Contact us for assistance.
When teachers are setting up their classrooms for the new school year, it’s common for them to pay for a portion of their classroom supplies out of pocket. A special tax break allows these educators to deduct some of their expenses. This educator expense deduction is especially important now due to some changes under the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act (TCJA).
Before 2018, employee business expenses were potentially deductible if they were unreimbursed by the employer and ordinary and necessary to the “business” of being an employee. A teacher’s out-of-pocket classroom expenses could qualify.
But these expenses had to be claimed as a miscellaneous itemized deduction and were subject to a 2% of adjusted gross income (AGI) floor. This meant employees, including teachers, could enjoy a tax benefit only if they itemized deductions (rather than taking the standard deduction) and only to the extent that all their deductions subject to the floor, combined, exceeded 2% of their AGI.
Now, for 2018 through 2025, the TCJA has suspended miscellaneous itemized deductions subject to the 2% of AGI floor. Fortunately, qualifying educators can still deduct some of their unreimbursed out-of-pocket classroom costs under the educator expense deduction.
Back in 2002, Congress created the above-the-line educator expense deduction because, for many teachers, the 2% of AGI threshold for the miscellaneous itemized deduction was difficult to meet. An above-the-line deduction is one that’s subtracted from your gross income to determine your AGI.
You don’t have to itemize to claim an above-the-line deduction. This is especially significant with the TCJA’s near doubling of the standard deduction, which means fewer taxpayers will benefit from itemizing.
Qualifying elementary and secondary school teachers and other eligible educators (such as counselors and principals) can deduct above the line up to $250 of qualified expenses. If you’re married filing jointly and both you and your spouse are educators, you can deduct up to $500 of unreimbursed expenses — but not more than $250 each.
Qualified expenses include amounts paid or incurred during the tax year for books, supplies, computer equipment (including related software and services), other equipment and supplementary materials that you use in the classroom. For courses in health and physical education, the costs of supplies are qualified expenses only if related to athletics.
Some additional rules apply to the educator expense deduction. If you’re an educator or know one who might be interested in this tax break, please contact us for more details.
Despite its name, the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act (TCJA) didn’t cut all types of taxes. It left several taxes unchanged, including the 3.8% tax on net investment income (NII) of high-income taxpayers.
You’re potentially liable for the NII tax if your modified adjusted gross income (MAGI) exceeds $200,000 ($250,000 for joint filers and qualifying widows or widowers; $125,000 for married taxpayers filing separately). Generally, MAGI is the same as adjusted gross income. However, it may be higher if you have foreign earned income and certain foreign investments.
To calculate the tax, multiply 3.8% by the lesser of 1) your NII, or 2) the amount by which your MAGI exceeds the threshold. For example, if you’re single with $250,000 in MAGI and $75,000 in NII, your tax would be 3.8% × $50,000 ($250,000 - $200,000), or $1,900.
NII generally includes net income from, among others, taxable interest, dividends, capital gains, rents, royalties and passive business activities. Several types of income are excluded from NII, such as wages, most nonpassive business income, retirement plan distributions and Social Security benefits. Also excluded is the nontaxable gain on the sale of a personal residence.
Given the way the NII tax is calculated, you can reduce the tax either by reducing your MAGI or reducing your NII. To accomplish the former, you could maximize contributions to IRAs and qualified retirement plans. To do the latter, you might invest in tax-exempt municipal bonds or in growth stocks that pay little or no dividends.
There are many strategies for reducing the NII tax. Consult with one of our tax advisors before implementing any of them. And remember that, while tax reduction is important, it’s not the only factor in prudent investment decision-making.
Many taxpayers learned some tough lessons upon completing their 2018 tax returns regarding the changes brought forth by the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act (TCJA). If you were one of them, or even if you weren’t, now’s a good time to check your bracket to avoid any unpleasant surprises next April.
Under the TCJA, the top income tax rate is now 37% (down from 39.6%) for taxpayers with taxable income over $500,000 for 2018 (single and head-of-household filers) or $600,000 for 2018 (married couples filing jointly). These thresholds are higher than they were for the top rate in 2017 ($418,400, $444,550 and $470,700, respectively), so the top rate probably wasn’t too much of a concern for many upper-income filers.
But some singles and heads of households in the middle and upper brackets were likely pushed into a higher tax bracket much more quickly for the 2018 tax year. For example, for 2017 the threshold for the 33% tax bracket was $191,650 for singles and $212,500 for heads of households. For 2018, the rate for this bracket was reduced slightly to 32% — but the threshold for the bracket is now only $157,500 for both singles and heads of households.
So, a lot more of these filers found themselves in this bracket and many more could so again in 2019. Fortunately for joint filers, their threshold for this bracket has increased from $233,350 for 2017 to $315,000 for 2018. The thresholds for these brackets have increased slightly for 2019, due to inflation adjustments. If you expect this year’s income to be near the threshold for a higher bracket, consider strategies for reducing your taxable income and staying out of the next bracket. For example, you could take steps to accelerate deductible expenses.
But carefully consider the changes the TCJA has made to deductions. For example, you might no longer benefit from itemizing because of the nearly doubled standard deduction and the reduction or elimination of certain itemized deductions. For 2019, the standard deduction is $12,200 for singles and married individuals filing separately, $18,350 for heads of households and $24,400 for joint filers.
When the TCJA was passed, the big estate planning news was that the federal gift and estate tax exclusion doubled from $5 million to an inflation-indexed $10 million. It was further indexed for inflation to $11.18 million for 2018 and now $11.4 million for 2019.
Somewhat lost in the clamor, however, was (and is) the fact that the new law preserves the “portability” provision for married couples. Portability allows your estate to elect to permit your surviving spouse to use any of your available estate tax exclusion that is unused at your death.
A brief history
At the turn of this century, the exclusion was a mere $675,000 before being hiked to $1 million in 2002. By 2009, the exclusion increased to $3.5 million, while the top estate tax rate was reduced from 55% in 2000 to 35% in 2010, among other changes.
After a one-year estate tax moratorium in 2010, the Tax Relief Act (TRA) of 2010 reinstated the estate tax with a generous $5 million exclusion, indexed for inflation, and a top 35% tax rate. The American Taxpayer Relief Act (ATRA) of 2012 made these changes permanent, aside from increasing the top rate to 40%.
Most important, the TRA authorized portability of the estate tax exclusion, which was then permanently preserved by the ATRA. Under the portability provision, the executor of the estate of the first spouse to die can elect to have the “deceased spousal unused exclusion” (DSUE) transferred to the estate of the surviving spouse.
How the DSUE works
Let’s say Kevin and Debbie, who have two children, each own $5 million individually and $10 million jointly with rights of survivorship, for a total of $20 million. Under their wills, all assets pass first to the surviving spouse and then to the children.
If Debbie had died in early 2019, the $10 million ($5 million owned individually and $5 million held jointly) in assets would be exempt from estate tax because of the unlimited marital deduction. Thus, her entire $11.4 million exclusion would remain unused. However, if the election is made upon her death, Kevin’s estate can later use the $11.4 million of the DSUE from Debbie, plus the exclusion for the year in which Kevin dies, to shelter the remaining $8.6 million from tax, with plenty to spare for some appreciation in value.
What would have happened without the portability provision? For simplicity, let’s say that Kevin dies later in 2019. Without being able to benefit from the unused portion of Debbie’s exclusion, the $11.4 million exclusion for Kevin in 2019 leaves the $8.6 million subject to estate tax. At the 40% rate, the federal estate tax bill would amount to a whopping $3.44 million.
Although techniques such as a traditional bypass trust may be used to avoid or reduce estate tax liability, this example demonstrates the potential impact of the portability election. It also emphasizes the need for planning.
Other points of interest
Be aware that this discussion factors in only federal estate taxes. State estate taxes may also have a significant impact, particularly in some states where the estate tax exemption isn’t tied to the federal exclusion.
Also, keep in mind that, absent further legislation, the exclusion amount is slated to revert to pre-2018 levels after 2025. Portability continues, although, for those whose estates will no longer be fully sheltered, additional planning must be considered.
Furthermore, portability isn’t always the best option. Consider all relevant factors, including nontax reasons that might affect the distribution of assets under a will or living trust. For instance, a person may want to divide assets in other ways if matters are complicated by a divorce, a second marriage, or unusual circumstances.
Every estate plan includes details that need to be checked and rechecked. Our firm can help you do so, including deciding whether portability is right for you.
While the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act (TCJA) reduced most ordinary-income tax rates for individuals, it didn’t change long-term capital gains rates. They remain at 0%, 15% and 20%.
The capital gains rates now have their own statutory bracket amounts, but the 0% rate generally applies to taxpayers in the bottom two ordinary-income tax brackets (now 10% and 12%). And, you no longer must be in the top ordinary-income tax bracket (now 37%) to be subject to the top long-term capital gains rate of 20%. Many taxpayers in the 35% tax bracket also will be subject to the 20% rate.
So, finding ways to defer or minimize taxes on investments is still important. One way to do that — and diversify your portfolio, too — is to invest in qualified small business (QSB) stock.
To be a QSB, a business must be a C corporation engaged in an active trade or business and must not have assets that exceed $50 million when you purchase the shares.
The corporation must be a QSB on the date the stock is issued and during substantially all the time you own the shares. If, however, the corporation’s assets exceed the $50 million threshold while you’re holding the shares, it won’t cause QSB status to be lost in relation to your shares.
Two tax advantages
QSBs offer investors two valuable tax advantages:
1. Up to a 100% exclusion of gain. Generally, taxpayers selling QSB stock are allowed to exclude a portion of their gain if they’ve held the stock for more than five years. The amount of the exclusion depends on the acquisition date. The exclusion is 100% for stock acquired on or after Sept. 28, 2010. So, if you purchase QSB stock in 2019, you can enjoy a 100% exclusion if you hold it until sometime in 2024. (The specific date, of course, depends on the date you purchase the stock.)
2. Tax-free gain rollovers. If you don’t want to hold the QSB stock for five years, you still have the opportunity to enjoy a tax benefit: Within 60 days of selling the stock, you can buy other QSB stock with the proceeds and defer the tax on your gain until you dispose of the new stock. The rolled-over gain reduces your basis in the new stock. For determining long-term capital gains treatment, the new stock’s holding period includes the holding period of the stock you sold.
More to think about
Additional requirements and limits apply to these breaks. For example, there are many types of businesses that don’t qualify as QSBs, ranging from various professional fields to financial services to hospitality and more. Before investing, it’s important to also consider nontax factors, such as your risk tolerance, time horizon and overall investment goals. Contact us to learn more.
Owning a vacation home can offer tax breaks, but they may differ from those associated with a primary residence. The key is whether a vacation home is used solely for personal enjoyment or is also rented out to tenants.
Sorting it out
If your vacation home is not rented out, or if you rent it out for no more than 14 days a year, the tax benefits are essentially the same as those you’d receive if you own your primary residence. In this scenario, you’d generally be able to deduct your mortgage interest and real estate taxes on Schedule A of your federal income tax return, up to certain limits. Also, you may exclude all your rental income.
But the rules are different if you rent out your vacation home for 15 or more days annually. First, the rental income must be reported. Second, in this scenario, the IRS considers your vacation home to be an investment property and, thus, allows deductions related to the rental of the property, with certain limitations. In addition to mortgage interest and real estate taxes, these deductions generally include insurance, utilities, housekeeping, repairs and depreciation. Also, the deduction for certain categories of expenses cannot exceed the rental income.
If you exceed this number of days of rentals and use your vacation home for personal use, these deductions will be limited by the ratio of actual rental days to the total days of use of the home. Suppose, for example, that you personally use your vacation home for 25 days and rent it for 75 days in a year, so the home is used for 100 total days. Here, you would be allowed to deduct 75% of the expenses listed above as rental expenses. Be aware that a portion of the mortgage interest and real estate taxes may be deductible on Schedule A. In certain circumstances, however, the personal portion of your mortgage interest may not be deductible.
If you want to maximize the tax benefits of your vacation home, limit your personal use of the home to no more than 14 days or 10% of the total rental days. If you want to personally use the home more than this, you can still realize some limited tax benefits. Contact our firm for details about your specific situation.
Must one spouse pay the tax resulting from a fabrication or omission by another spouse on a jointly filed tax return? It depends. If the spouse qualifies, he or she may be able to avoid personal tax liability under the “innocent spouse” rules.
Joint filing status
Generally, married taxpayers benefit overall by filing a joint tax return on the federal level. This is particularly the case when one spouse earns significantly more than the other. Filing jointly may also help the couple maximize certain income tax deductions and credits.
But joint filing status comes with a catch. Each spouse is “jointly and severally” responsible for any tax, interest and penalties attributable to the return. And this liability continues to apply even if the couple gets a divorce or one spouse dies. In other words, the IRS may try to collect the full amount due from one spouse, even if all the income reported on the joint return was earned by the other spouse.
However, the tax law provides tax relief for an “innocent spouse.” Under these rules, one spouse may not be liable for any unpaid tax and penalties, despite having signed the joint return.
To determine eligibility for relief, the IRS imposes a set of common requirements. The spouses must have filed a joint return that has an understatement of tax, and that understatement must be attributable to one spouse’s erroneous items. For this purpose, “erroneous items” are defined as any deduction, credit or tax basis incorrectly stated on the return, as well as any income not reported.
From there, the other (“innocent”) spouse must establish that, at the time the joint return was signed, he or she didn’t know — or have reason to know — there was an understatement of tax. Finally, to qualify, the IRS needs to find that it would be unfair to hold one spouse liable for the understatement after considering all the facts and circumstances.
For many years, innocent spouse relief had to be requested within two years after the IRS first began its collection activity against a taxpayer. But, in 2011, the IRS announced that it would no longer apply the two-year limit on collection activities.
In addition, by law, when one spouse applies for innocent spouse relief, the IRS must contact the other spouse or former spouse. There are no exceptions even for victims of spousal abuse or domestic violence.
Historically, courts haven’t been particularly generous about upholding claims under the innocent spouse rules. State laws can also complicate matters. If you’re wondering whether you’d qualify for relief, please contact us for help.
Sidebar: What does the IRS consider?
The IRS considers “all facts and circumstances” in determining whether it would be inequitable to hold an “innocent” spouse liable for taxes due on a jointly filed tax return. One factor that may increase the likelihood of relief is that the taxes owed are clearly attributable to one spouse or an ex-spouse who filled out the errant return.
If one spouse was deserted during the marriage, or suffered abuse, it may also improve the chances that innocent spouse relief will be granted. In some cases, the IRS may examine the couple’s situation to determine whether the spouse applying for relief knew about the erroneous items.
Among the many great challenges of parenthood is what to do with your kids when school lets out. Do you keep them at home and try to captivate their attention yourself or with the help of sitters? Or do you send them off to the wide variety of day camps now in operation? There’s no one-size-fits-all answer, but if you choose the latter option, you might qualify for a tax break!
Day camp — but, to be clear, not overnight camp — is a qualified expense under the child and dependent care tax credit, which is worth 20% of qualifying expenses (more if your adjusted gross income is less than $43,000), subject to a cap. For 2019, the maximum expenses allowed for the credit are $3,000 for one qualifying child and $6,000 for two or more.
Remember that tax credits are particularly valuable because they reduce your tax liability dollar-for-dollar — $1 of tax credit saves you $1 of taxes. This differs from deductions, which simply reduce the amount of income subject to tax. For example, if you’re in the 24% tax bracket, $1 of deduction saves you only $0.24 of taxes. So, it’s important to take maximum advantage of the tax credits available to you.
Qualifying for the credit
A qualifying child is generally a dependent under age 13. (There’s no age limit if the dependent child is unable physically or mentally to care for him- or herself.) Special rules apply if the child’s parents are divorced or separated or if the parents live apart.
Eligible costs for care must be work-related. This means that the child care is needed so that you can work or, if you’re currently unemployed, look for work.
If you participate in an employer-sponsored child and dependent care Flexible Spending Account (FSA), also sometimes referred to as a Dependent Care Assistance Program, you can’t use expenses paid from or reimbursed by the FSA to claim the credit.
Additional rules apply to the child and dependent care credit. If you’re not sure whether you’re eligible, contact us. We can assist you in determining your eligibility for this credit and other tax breaks for parents.
If you generate income from a passion such as cooking, woodworking, raising animals — or anything else — beware of the tax implications. They’ll vary depending on whether the activity is treated as a hobby or a business.
The bottom line: The income generated by your activity is taxable. But different rules apply to how income and related expenses are reported.
Factors to consider
The IRS has identified several factors that should be considered when making the hobby vs. business distinction. The greater the extent to which these factors apply, the more likely your activity will be deemed a business.
For starters, in the event of an audit, the IRS will examine the time and effort you devote to the activity and whether you depend on income from the activity for your livelihood. Also, the IRS will likely view it as a business if any losses you’ve incurred are because of circumstances beyond your control, or they took place in what could be defined as the start-up phase of a company.
Profitability — past, present and future — is also important. If you change your operational methods to improve profitability, and you can expect future profits from the appreciation of assets used in the activity, the IRS is more likely to view it as a business. The agency may also consider whether you’ve previously made a profit in similar activities. Also, the intent to make a profit is a key factor.
The IRS always stresses that the final determination will be based on all the relevant facts and circumstances related to your activity.
Changes under the TCJA
Under previous tax law, if the activity was deemed a hobby, you could still generally deduct ordinary and necessary expenses associated with it. But you had to deduct hobby expenses as miscellaneous itemized deduction items, so they could be written off only to the extent they exceeded 2% of adjusted gross income (AGI).
All of this has changed under the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act (TCJA). Beginning with the 2018 tax year and running through 2025, the TCJA eliminates write-offs for miscellaneous itemized deduction items previously subject to the 2% of AGI threshold.
Thus, if the activity is a hobby, you won’t be able to deduct expenses associated with it. However, you must still report all income from it. If, instead, the activity is considered a business, you can deduct the expenses associated with it. If the business activity results in a loss, you can deduct the loss from your other income in the same tax year, within certain limits.
An issue to address
Worried the IRS might recharacterize your business as a hobby? Contact our firm. We can help you address this issue on your 2018 return or assist you in perhaps filing an amended return, if appropriate.
If your estate plan includes one or more trusts, review them before you file your tax return. Or, if you’ve already filed it, look carefully at how your trusts were affected. Income taxes often take an unexpected bite out of these asset-protection vehicles.
3 ways to soften the blow
For trusts, there are income thresholds that may trigger the top income tax rate of 37%, the top long-term capital gains rate of 20%, and the net investment income tax of 3.8%. Here are three ways to soften the blow:
1. Use grantor trusts. An intentionally defective grantor trust (IDGT) is designed so that you, the grantor, are treated as the trust’s owner for income tax purposes — even though your contributions to the trust are considered “completed gifts” for estate- and gift-tax purposes.
The trust’s income is taxed to you, so the trust itself avoids taxation. This allows trust assets to grow tax-free, leaving more for your beneficiaries. And it reduces the size of your estate. Further, as the owner, you can sell assets to the trust or engage in other transactions without tax consequences.
Keep in mind that, if your personal income exceeds the applicable thresholds for your filing status, using an IDGT won’t avoid the tax rates described above. Still, the other benefits of these trusts make them attractive.
2. Change your investment strategy. Despite the advantages of grantor trusts, non-grantor trusts are sometimes desirable or necessary. At some point, for example, you may decide to convert a grantor trust to a non-grantor trust to relieve yourself of the burden of paying the trust’s taxes. Also, grantor trusts become non-grantor trusts after the grantor’s death.
One strategy for easing the tax burden on non-grantor trusts is for the trustee to shift investments into tax-exempt or tax-deferred investments.
3. Distribute income. Generally, non-grantor trusts are subject to tax only to the extent they accumulate taxable income. When a trust makes distributions to a beneficiary, it passes along ordinary income (and, in some cases, capital gains), which are taxed at the beneficiary’s marginal rate.
Thus, one strategy for minimizing taxes on trust income is to distribute the income (assuming the trust isn’t already required to distribute income) to beneficiaries in lower tax brackets. The trustee might also consider distributing appreciated assets, rather than cash, to take advantage of a beneficiary’s lower capital gains rate. Of course, doing so may conflict with a trust’s purposes.
Opportunities to reduce
If you’re concerned about income taxes on your trusts, contact us. We can review your estate plan to assess the tax exposure of your trusts, as well as to uncover opportunities to reduce your family’s tax burden.
As the 2018 tax-filing season heats up, investors have much to consider. Whether you structured your portfolio to emphasize income over growth — or vice versa, or perhaps a balance of the two — will have a substantial impact on your tax liability. Let’s take a look at a couple of the most significant “big picture” issues that affect income vs. growth.
One benefit of dividends is that they may qualify for preferential long-term capital gains tax rates. For the 2018 tax year, the top rate is 20% for high-income taxpayers (income of $425,800 or more). For those with incomes between $38,601 and $425,800, the rate is 15%. Individuals with incomes of $38,600 and below pay 0% on long-term capital gains.
Keep in mind, however, that only “qualified dividends” are eligible for these rates. Nonqualified dividends are taxed as ordinary income at rates as high as 37% for 2018. Qualified dividends must meet two requirements. First, the dividends must be paid by a U.S. corporation or a qualified foreign corporation. Second, the stock must be held for at least 61 days during the 121-day period that starts 60 days before the ex-dividend date and ends 60 days after that date.
A qualified foreign corporation is one that’s organized in a U.S. possession or in a country that has a current tax treaty with the United States, or whose stock is readily tradable on an established U.S. market. The ex-dividend date is the cutoff date for declared dividends. Investors who purchase stock on or after that date won’t receive a dividend payment.
Timing is everything
One disadvantage of dividend-paying stocks (or mutual funds that invest in dividend-paying stocks) is that they accelerate taxes. Regardless of how long you hold the stock, you’ll owe taxes on dividends as they’re paid, which erodes your returns over time.
When you invest in growth stocks (or mutual funds that invest in growth stocks), you generally have greater control over the timing of the tax bite. These companies tend to reinvest their profits in the companies rather than pay them out as dividends, so taxes on the appreciation in value are deferred until you sell the stock.
Keeping an eye out
Regardless of your investment approach, you need to understand the tax implications of various investments so you can make informed decisions. You should also keep an eye on Congress. As of this writing, further tax law reform beyond the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act of 2017 isn’t on the horizon — but it’s being discussed. Contact our firm for the latest news and to discuss your tax and investment strategies.
Sidebar: What are your investment objectives?
When re-evaluating your investment portfolio, it’s important to consider whether your objectives have changed. There are many factors to consider, both tax and nontax. Some investors seek dividends because they need the current income or they believe that companies with a history of paying healthy dividends are better managed. Others prefer to defer taxes by investing in growth stocks. And, of course, there’s something to be said for a balanced portfolio that includes both income and growth investments. When preparing to file your 2018 taxes, take a moment to identify your objectives and determine if you met them or fell short.
Whether you’re planning to claim charitable deductions on your 2018 return or make donations for 2019, be sure you know how much you’re allowed to deduct. Your deduction depends on more than just the actual amount you donate.
What you give
Among the biggest factors affecting your deduction is what you give. For example:
Cash or ordinary-income property. You may deduct the amount of gifts made by check, credit card or payroll deduction. For stocks and bonds held one year or less, inventory, and property subject to depreciation recapture, you generally may deduct only the lesser of fair market value or your tax basis.
Long-term capital gains property. You may deduct the current fair market value of appreciated stocks and bonds held for more than one year.
Tangible personal property. Your deduction depends on the situation. If the property isn’t related to the charity’s tax-exempt function (such as a painting donated for a charity auction), your deduction is limited to your basis. But if the property is related to the charity’s tax-exempt function (such as a painting donated to a museum for its collection), you can deduct the fair market value.
Vehicle. Unless the vehicle is being used by the charity, you generally may deduct only the amount the charity receives when it sells the vehicle.
Use of property or provision of services. Examples include use of a vacation home and a loan of artwork. Generally, you receive no deduction because it isn’t considered a completed gift. When providing services, you may deduct only your out-of-pocket expenses, not the fair market value of your services. You can deduct 14 cents per charitable mile driven.
First, you’ll benefit from the charitable deduction only if you itemize deductions rather than claim the standard deduction. Also, your annual charitable deductions may be reduced if they exceed certain income-based limits.
In addition, your deduction generally must be reduced by the value of any benefit received from the charity. Finally, various substantiation requirements apply, and the charity must be eligible to receive tax-deductible contributions.
For 2018 through 2025, the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act nearly doubles the standard deduction - plus, it limits or eliminates some common itemized deductions. As a result, you may no longer have enough itemized deductions to exceed the standard deduction, in which case your charitable donations won’t save you tax.
You might be able to preserve your charitable deduction by “bunching” donations into alternating years, so that you’ll exceed the standard deduction and can claim a charitable deduction (and other itemized deductions) every other year.
The years ahead
Your charitable giving strategy may need to change in light of tax law reform or other factors. Let us know if you have questions about how much you can deduct on your 2018 return or what’s best to do in the years ahead.
Contrary to popular belief, there’s nothing in the U.S. Constitution or federal law that prohibits multiple states from collecting tax on the same income. Although many states provide tax credits to prevent double taxation, those credits are sometimes unavailable. If you maintain residences in more than one state, here are some points to keep in mind.
Domicile vs. residence
Generally, if you’re “domiciled” in a state, you’re subject to that state’s income tax on your worldwide income. Your domicile isn’t necessarily where you spend most of your time. Rather, it’s the location of your “true, fixed, permanent home” or the place “to which you intend to return whenever absent.” Your domicile doesn’t change — even if you spend little or no time there — until you establish domicile elsewhere.
Residence, on the other hand, is based on the amount of time you spend in a state. You’re a resident if you have a “permanent place of abode” in a state and spend a minimum amount of time there — for example, at least 183 days per year. Many states impose their income taxes on residents’ worldwide income even if they’re domiciled in another state.
Suppose you live in State A and work in State B. Given the length of your commute, you keep an apartment in State B near your office and return to your home in State A only on weekends. State A taxes you as a domiciliary, while State B taxes you as a resident. Neither state offers a credit for taxes paid to another state, so your income is taxed twice.
One possible solution to such double taxation is to avoid maintaining a permanent place of abode in State B. However, State B may still have the power to tax your income from the job in State B because it’s derived from a source within the state. Yet State B wouldn’t be able to tax your income from other sources, such as investments you made in State A.
Minimize unnecessary taxes
This example illustrates just one way double taxation can arise when you divide your time between two or more states. Our firm can research applicable state law and identify ways to minimize exposure to unnecessary taxes.
Sidebar: How to establish domicile
Under the law of each state, tax credits are available only with respect to income taxes that are “properly due” to another state. But, when two states each claim you as a domiciliary, neither believes that taxes are properly due to the other. To avoid double taxation in this situation, you’ll need to demonstrate your intent to abandon your domicile in one state and establish it in the other.
There are various ways to do so. For example, you might obtain a driver’s license and register your car in the new state. You could also open bank accounts in the new state and use your new address for important financially related documents (such as insurance policies, tax returns, passports and wills). Other effective measures may include registering to vote in the new jurisdiction, subscribing to local newspapers and seeing local health care providers. Bear in mind, of course, that laws regarding domicile vary from state to state.
Working from home has become commonplace for people in many jobs. But just because you have a home office space doesn’t mean you can deduct expenses associated with it. Beginning with the 2018 tax year, fewer taxpayers will qualify for the home office deduction. Here’s why.
Changes under the TCJA
For employees, home office expenses used to be a miscellaneous itemized deduction. Way back in 2017, this meant one could enjoy a tax benefit only if these expenses plus other miscellaneous itemized expenses (such as unreimbursed work-related travel, certain professional fees and investment expenses) exceeded 2% of adjusted gross income.
Starting in 2018 and continuing through 2025, however, employees can’t deduct any home office expenses. Why? The Tax Cuts and Jobs Act (TCJA) suspends miscellaneous itemized deductions subject to the 2% floor for this period.
Note: If you’re self-employed, you can still deduct eligible home office expenses against your self-employment income during the 2018 through 2025 period.
Other eligibility requirements
If you’re self-employed, generally your home office must be your principal place of business, though there are exceptions.
Whether you’re an employee or self-employed, the space must be used regularly (not just occasionally) and exclusively for business purposes. If, for example, your home office is also a guest bedroom, or your children do their homework there, you can’t deduct the expenses associated with that space.
If eligible, you have two options for claiming the home office deduction. First, you can deduct a portion of your mortgage interest, property taxes, insurance, utilities and certain other expenses, as well as the depreciation allocable to the office space. This requires calculating, allocating and substantiating actual expenses.
A second approach is to use the simplified option. Here, only one simple calculation is necessary: $5 multiplied by the number of square feet of the office space. The simplified deduction is capped at $1,500 per year, based on a maximum of 300 square feet.
More rules and limits
Be aware that we’ve covered only a few of the rules and limits here. If you think you may qualify for the home office deduction on your 2018 return or would like to know if there’s anything additional you need to do to become eligible, contact us.
The Tax Cuts and Jobs Act (TCJA) made many changes to tax breaks for individuals. Let’s look at some specific areas to review as you lay the groundwork for filing your 2018 return.
For 2018 through 2025, the TCJA suspends personal exemptions. This will substantially increase taxable income for large families. However, enhancements to the standard deduction and child credit, combined with lower tax rates, might mitigate this increase.
Taxpayers can choose to itemize certain deductions on Schedule A or take the standard deduction based on their filing status instead. Itemizing deductions when the total will be larger than the standard deduction saves tax, but it makes filing more complicated.
The TCJA nearly doubles the standard deduction for 2018 to $12,000 for singles and separate filers, $18,000 for heads of households, and $24,000 for joint filers. (These amounts will be adjusted for inflation for 2019 through 2025.)
For some taxpayers, the increased standard deduction could compensate for the elimination of the exemptions, and perhaps even provide some additional tax savings. But for those with many dependents or who itemize deductions, these changes might result in a higher tax bill — depending in part on the extent to which they can benefit from enhancements to the child credit.
Credits can be more powerful than exemptions and deductions because they reduce taxes dollar-for-dollar, rather than just reducing the amount of income subject to tax. For 2018 through 2025, the TCJA doubles the child credit to $2,000 per child under age 17.
The new law also makes the child credit available to more families than in the past. For 2018 through 2025, the credit doesn’t begin to phase out until adjusted gross income exceeds $400,000 for joint filers or $200,000 for all other filers, compared with the 2017 phaseout thresholds of $110,000 for joint filers, $75,000 for singles and heads of households, and $55,000 for marrieds filing separately. The TCJA also includes, for 2018 through 2025, a $500 tax credit for qualifying dependents other than qualifying children.
Assessing the impact
Many factors will influence the impact of the TCJA on your tax liability for 2018 and beyond. For help assessing the impact on your situation, contact us.
Are you considering transferring real estate, a family business or other assets you expect to appreciate dramatically in the future? If so, an installment sale may be a viable option. Its benefits include the ability to freeze asset values for estate tax purposes and remove future appreciation from your taxable estate.
Giving away vs. selling
From an estate planning perspective, if you have a taxable estate it’s usually more advantageous to give property to your children than to sell it to them. By gifting the asset you’ll be depleting your estate and thereby reducing potential estate tax liability, whereas in a sale the proceeds generally will be included in your taxable estate.
But an installment sale may be desirable if you’ve already used up your $11.18 million (for 2018) lifetime gift tax exemption or if your cash flow needs preclude you from giving the property away outright. When you sell property at fair market value to your children or other loved ones rather than gifting it, you avoid gift taxes on the transfer and freeze the property’s value for estate tax purposes as of the sale date. All future appreciation benefits the buyer and won’t be included in your taxable estate.
Because the transaction is structured as a sale rather than a gift, your buyer must have the financial resources to buy the property. But by using an installment note, the buyer can make the payments over time. Ideally, the purchased property will generate enough income to fund these payments.
Advantages and disadvantages
An advantage of an installment sale is that it gives you the flexibility to design a payment schedule that corresponds with the property’s cash flow, as well as with your and your buyer’s financial needs. You can arrange for the payments to increase or decrease over time, or even provide for interest-only payments with an end-of-term balloon payment of the principal.
One disadvantage of an installment sale over strategies that involve gifted property is that you’ll be subject to tax on any capital gains you recognize from the sale. Fortunately, you can spread this tax liability over the term of the installment note. As of this writing, the long-term capital gains rates are 0%, 15% or 20%, depending on the amount of your net long-term capital gains plus your ordinary income.
Also, you’ll have to charge interest on the note and pay ordinary income tax on the interest payments. IRS guidelines provide for a minimum rate of interest that must be paid on the note. On the bright side, any capital gains and ordinary income tax you pay further reduces the size of your taxable estate.
Simple technique, big benefits
An installment sale is an approach worth exploring for business owners, real estate investors and others who have gathered high-value assets. It can help keep a family-owned business in the family or otherwise play an important role in your estate plan.
Bear in mind, however, that this simple technique isn’t right for everyone. Our firm can review your situation and help you determine whether an installment sale is a wise move for you.
When is a loss actually a gain? When that loss becomes an opportunity to lower tax liability, of course. Now’s a good time to begin your year-end tax planning and attempt to neutralize gains and losses by year end. To do so, it might make sense to sell investments at a loss in 2018 to offset capital gains that you’ve already realized this year.
Now and later
A capital loss occurs when you sell a security for less than your “basis,” generally the original purchase price. You can use capital losses to offset any capital gains you realize in that same tax year — even if one is short term and the other is long term.
When your capital losses exceed your capital gains, you can use up to $3,000 of the excess to offset wages, interest and other ordinary income ($1,500 for married people filing separately) and carry the remainder forward to future years until it’s used up.
Research and replace
Years ago, investors realized it could be beneficial to sell a security to recognize a capital loss for a given tax year and then — if they still liked the security’s prospects — buy it back immediately. To counter this strategy, Congress imposed the wash sale rule, which disallows losses when an investor sells a security and then buys the same or a “substantially identical” security within 30 days of the sale, before or after.
Waiting 30 days to repurchase a security you’ve sold might be fine in some situations. But there may be times when you’d rather not be forced to sit on the sidelines for a month.
Fortunately, there’s an alternative. With a little research, you might be able to identify a security in the same sector you like just as well as, or better than, the old one. Your solution is now simple and straightforward: Simultaneously sell the stock you own at a loss and buy the competitor’s stock, thereby avoiding violation of the “same or substantially identical” provision of the wash sale rule. You maintain your position in that sector or industry and might even add to your portfolio a stock you believe has more potential or less risk.
If you bought shares of a security at different times, give some thought to which lot can be sold most advantageously. The IRS allows investors to choose among several methods of designating lots when selling securities, and those methods sometimes produce radically different results.
Good with the bad
Investing always carries the risk that you will lose some or even all of your money. But you have to take the good with the bad. In terms of tax planning, you can turn investment losses into opportunities — and potentially end the year on a high note.
Smart timing of deductible expenses can reduce your tax liability, and poor timing can increase it unnecessarily. One deductible expense you may be able to control to your advantage is your property tax payment.
You can prepay (by December 31) property taxes that relate to 2018 (the taxes must be assessed in 2018) but that are due in 2019, and deduct the payment on your return for this year. But you generally can’t prepay property taxes that relate to 2019 (they must be assessed in 2019) and deduct the payment on this year’s return. Also, beware of the dollar-amount limitation discussed below.
A big decision
Accelerating deductible expenses such as property tax payments is typically beneficial. Prepaying your property tax may be especially advantageous if your tax rate under the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act (TCJA) is expected to decrease in the next year. Deductions save more tax when tax rates are higher.
But not every tax rate has dropped for the 2018 tax year under the TCJA — the very lowest rate, 10%, has been retained, as well as the 35% rate (though the income brackets for these rates have changed). So, some taxpayers may not save any more by prepaying. Also, taxpayers who expect to substantially increase their income next year, pushing them into a higher tax bracket, may benefit by not prepaying their property tax bill.
Another important point is that, under the TCJA, for tax years 2018 through 2025 the itemized deduction for all state and local taxes is limited to $10,000 ($5,000 for married filing separately).
Property tax isn’t deductible for purposes of the alternative minimum tax (AMT). So, if you’re subject to the AMT this year, a prepayment may hurt you because you’ll lose the benefit of the deduction. Before prepaying your property tax, make sure you aren’t at AMT risk for 2018.
Also, don’t forget that, for 2018 to 2025, the TCJA suspends personal itemized exemptions but roughly doubles the standard deduction amounts (for 2018) to $12,000 for singles and separate filers, $18,000 for heads of households, and $24,000 for joint filers. This may affect your decision on whether to prepay.
Not sure whether you should prepay your property tax bill or what other deductions you might be able to accelerate into 2018 (or should consider deferring to 2019)? Contact us. We can help you determine your optimal year-end tax planning strategies.
When investing for retirement or other long-term goals, people usually prefer tax-advantaged accounts, such as IRAs, 401(k)s or 403(b)s. Certain assets are well suited to these accounts, but it may make more sense to hold other investments in traditional taxable accounts.
Know the rules
Some investments, such as fast-growing stocks, can generate substantial capital gains, which may occur when you sell a security for more than you paid for it.
If you’ve owned that position for over a year, you face long-term gains, taxed at a maximum rate of 20%. In contrast, short-term gains, assessed on holding periods of a year or less, are taxed at your ordinary-income tax rate — maxing out at 37%. (Note: These rates don’t account for the possibility of the 3.8% net investment income tax.)
Choose tax efficiency
Generally, the more tax efficient an investment, the more benefit you’ll get from owning it in a taxable account. Conversely, investments that lack tax efficiency normally are best suited to tax-advantaged vehicles.
Consider municipal bonds (“munis”), either held individually or through mutual funds. Munis are attractive to tax-sensitive investors because their income is exempt from federal income taxes and sometimes state and local income taxes. Because you don’t get a double benefit when you own an already tax-advantaged security in a tax-advantaged account, holding munis in your 401(k) or IRA would result in a lost opportunity.
Similarly, tax-efficient investments such as passively managed index mutual funds or exchange-traded funds, or long-term stock holdings, are generally appropriate for taxable accounts. These securities are more likely to generate long-term capital gains, which have more favorable tax treatment. Securities that generate more of their total return via capital appreciation or that pay qualified dividends are also better taxable account options.
Take advantage of income
What investments work best for tax-advantaged accounts? Taxable investments that tend to produce much of their return in income. This category includes corporate bonds, especially high-yield bonds, as well as real estate investment trusts (REITs), which are required to pass through most of their earnings as shareholder income. Most REIT dividends are nonqualified and therefore taxed at your ordinary-income rate.
Another tax-advantaged-appropriate investment may be an actively managed mutual fund. Funds with significant turnover — meaning their portfolio managers are actively buying and selling securities — have increased potential to generate short-term gains that ultimately get passed through to you. Because short-term gains are taxed at a higher rate than long-term gains, these funds would be less desirable in a taxable account.
Get specific advice
The above concepts are only general suggestions. Please contact our firm for specific advice on what may be best for you.
Sidebar: Doing due diligence on dividends
If you own a lot of income-generating investments, you’ll need to pay attention to the tax rules for dividends, which belong to one of two categories:
1. Qualified. These dividends are paid by U.S. corporations or qualified foreign corporations. Qualified dividends are, like long-term gains, subject to a maximum tax rate of 20%, though many people are eligible for a 15% rate. (Note: These rates don’t account for the possibility of the 3.8% net investment income tax.)
2. Nonqualified. These dividends — which include most distributions from real estate investment trusts and master limited partnerships — receive a less favorable tax treatment. Like short-term gains, nonqualified dividends are taxed at your ordinary-income tax rate.
Many people reach a point in life when buying some life insurance is highly advisable. Once you determine that you need it, the next step is calculating how much you should get and what kind.
If the coverage is to replace income and support your family, this starts with tallying the costs that would need to be covered, such as housing and transportation, child care, and education — and for how long. For many families, this will be only until the youngest children are on their own.
Next, identify income available to your family from Social Security, investments, retirement savings and any other sources. Insurance can help bridge any gaps between the expenses to be covered and the income available.
If you’re purchasing life insurance for another reason, the purpose will dictate how much you need:
Funeral costs. An average funeral bill can top $7,000. Gravesite costs typically add thousands more to this number.
Mortgage payoff. You may need coverage equal to the amount of your outstanding mortgage balance.
Estate planning. If the goal is to pay estate taxes, you’ll need to estimate your estate tax liability. If it’s to equalize inheritances, you’ll need to estimate the value of business interests going to each child active in your business and purchase enough coverage to provide equal inheritances to the inactive children.
Term vs. permanent
The next question is what type of policy to purchase. Life insurance policies generally fall into two broad categories: term or permanent.
Term insurance is for a specific period. If you die during the policy’s term, it pays out to the beneficiaries you’ve named. If you don’t die during the term, it doesn’t pay out. It’s typically much less expensive than permanent life insurance, at least if purchased while you’re relatively young and healthy.
Permanent life insurance policies last until you die, so long as you’ve paid the premiums. Most permanent policies build up a cash value that you may be able to borrow against. Over time, the cash value also may reduce the premiums.
Because the premiums are typically higher for permanent insurance, you need to consider whether the extra cost is worth the benefits. It might not be if, for example, you may not require much life insurance after your children are grown.
But permanent life insurance may make sense if you’re concerned that you could become uninsurable, if you’re providing for special-needs children who will never be self-sufficient, or if the coverage is to pay estate taxes or equalize inheritances.
No one likes to think about leaving loved ones behind. But you’ll no doubt find some comfort in having a life insurance policy that helps cover your family’s financial needs and plays an important role in your estate plan. Let us help you work out the details.
If you’re currently taking care of your children and elderly parents, count yourself among those in the “Sandwich Generation.” Although it may be personally gratifying to help your parents, it can be a financial burden and affect your own estate plan. Here are some critical steps to take to better manage the situation.
Identify key contacts
Just like you’ve done for yourself, compile the names and addresses of professionals important to your parents’ finances and medical conditions. These may include stockbrokers, financial advisors, attorneys, CPAs, insurance agents and physicians.
List and value their assets
If you’re going to be able to manage the financial affairs of your parents, having knowledge of their assets is vital. Keep a list of their investment holdings, IRA and retirement plan accounts, and life insurance policies, including current balances and account numbers. Be sure to add in projections for Social Security benefits.
Open the lines of communication
Before going any further, have a frank and honest discussion with your elderly relatives, as well as other family members who may be involved, such as your siblings. Make sure you understand your parents’ wishes and explain the objectives you hope to accomplish. Understandably, they may be hesitant or too proud to accept your help initially.
Execute the proper documents
Assuming you can agree on how to move forward, develop a plan incorporating several legal documents. If your parents have already created one or more of these documents, they may need to be revised or coordinated with new ones. Some elements commonly included in an estate plan are:
Wills. Your parents’ wills control the disposition of their possessions, such as cars, and tie up other loose ends. (Of course, jointly owned property with rights of survivorship automatically pass to the survivor.) Notably, a will also establishes the executor of your parents’ estates. If you’re the one providing financial assistance, you may be the optimal choice.
Living trusts. A living trust can supplement a will by providing for the disposition of selected assets. Unlike a will, a living trust doesn’t have to go through probate, so this might save time and money, while avoiding public disclosure.
Powers of attorney for health and finances. These documents authorize someone to legally act on behalf of another person. With a durable power of attorney, the most common version, the authorization continues after the person is disabled. This enables you to better handle your parents’ affairs.
Living wills or advance medical directives. These documents provide guidance for end-of-life decisions. Make sure that your parents’ physicians have copies, so they can act according to their wishes.
Beneficiary designations. Undoubtedly, your parents have completed beneficiary designations for retirement plans, IRAs and life insurance policies. These designations supersede references in a will, so it’s important to keep them up to date.
Spread the wealth
If you decide the best approach for helping your parents is to give them monetary gifts, it’s relatively easy to avoid gift tax liability. Under the annual gift tax exclusion, you can give each recipient up to $15,000 (for 2018) without paying any gift tax. Plus, payments to medical providers aren’t considered gifts, so you may make such payments on your parents’ behalf without using any of your annual exclusion or lifetime exemption amount.
Mind your needs
If you’re part of the Sandwich Generation, you already have a lot on your plate. But don’t overlook your own financial needs. Contact us to discuss the matter further.
October 15 — Personal federal income tax returns that received an automatic six-month extension must be filed today and any tax, interest and penalties due must be paid.
October 31 — The third quarter Form 941 (“Employer’s Quarterly Federal Tax Return”) is due today and any undeposited tax must be deposited. (If your tax liability is less than $2,500, you can pay it in full with a timely filed return.) If you deposited the tax for the quarter in full and on time, you have until November 13 to file the return.
November 15 — If the monthly deposit rule applies, employers must deposit the tax for payments in October for Social Security, Medicare, withheld income tax, and nonpayroll withholding.
December 17 — Calendar-year corporations must deposit the fourth installment of estimated income tax for 2018.
The Tax Cuts and Jobs Act (TCJA) didn’t eliminate the individual alternative minimum tax (AMT). But the law did draw a silver lining around it. Revised rules now lessen the likelihood that many taxpayers will owe substantial taxes under the AMT for 2018 through 2025.
Think of the AMT as a parallel universe to the regular federal income tax system. The difference: The AMT system taxes certain types of income that are tax-free under the regular tax system and disallows some regular tax deductions and credits.
The maximum AMT rate is 28%. By comparison, the maximum regular tax rate for individuals has been reduced to 37% for 2018 through 2025 thanks to the TCJA. For 2018, that 28% AMT rate starts when AMT income exceeds $191,100 for married joint-filing couples and $95,550 for others (as adjusted by Revenue Procedure 2018-18).
Under the AMT rules, you’re allowed a relatively large inflation-adjusted AMT exemption. This amount is deducted when calculating your AMT income. The TCJA significantly increases the exemption for 2018 through 2025. The exemption is phased out when your AMT income surpasses the applicable threshold, but the TCJA greatly increases those thresholds for 2018 through 2025.
If your AMT bill for the year exceeds your regular tax bill, you must pay the higher AMT amount. Originally, the AMT was enacted to ensure that very wealthy people didn’t avoid paying tax by taking advantage of “too many” tax breaks. Unfortunately, the AMT also hit some unintended targets. The new AMT rules are better aligned with Congress’s original intent.
Under both old and new law, the exemption is reduced by 25% of the excess of AMT income over the applicable exemption amount. But under the TCJA, only those with high incomes will see their exemptions phased out, while others — particularly middle-income taxpayers — will benefit from full exemptions.
Need to plan
For many taxpayers, the AMT rules are less worrisome than they used to be. Let our firm assess your liability and help you plan accordingly.
Sidebar: High-income earners back in the AMT spotlight
Before the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act (TCJA), many high-income taxpayers weren’t affected by the alternative minimum tax (AMT). That’s because, after multiple legislative changes, many of their tax breaks were already cut back or eliminated under the regular income tax rules. So, there was no need to address the AMT.
If one’s income exceeds certain levels, phaseout rules chip away or eliminate other tax breaks. As a result, higher-income taxpayers had little or nothing left to lose by the time they got to the AMT calculation, while many upper-middle-income folks still had plenty left to lose. Also, the highest earners were in the 39.6% regular federal income tax bracket under prior law, which made it less likely that the AMT — with its maximum 28% rate — would hit them.
In addition, the AMT exemption is phased out as income goes up. This amount is deducted in calculating AMT income. Under previous law, this exemption had little or no impact on individuals in the top bracket because the exemption was completely phased out. But the exemption phaseout rule made upper-middle-income taxpayers more likely to owe AMT under previous law. Suffice it to say that, under the TCJA, high-income earners are back in the AMT spotlight. So, proper planning is essential.
With kids back in school, it’s a good time for parents (and grandparents) to think about college funding. One option, which can be especially beneficial if the children in question still have many years until heading off to college, is a Section 529 plan.
529 plans are generally state-sponsored, and the savings-plan option offers the opportunity to potentially build up a significant college nest egg because of tax-deferred compounding. So, these plans can be particularly powerful if contributions begin when the child is young. Although contributions aren’t deductible for federal purposes, plan assets can grow tax-deferred. In addition, some states offer applicable state tax incentives.
Distributions used to pay qualified expenses (such as tuition, mandatory fees, books, supplies, computer-related items and, generally, room and board) are income-tax-free for federal purposes and, in many cases, for state purposes as well. (The Tax Cuts and Jobs Act changes the definition of “qualifying expenses” to include not just postsecondary school costs, but also primary and secondary school expenses.)
529 plans offer other benefits, too. They usually have high contribution limits and no income-based phaseouts to limit contributions. There’s generally no beneficiary age limit for contributions or distributions. And the owner can control the account — even after the child is a legal adult — as well as make tax-free rollovers to another qualifying family member.
Finally, 529 plans provide estate planning benefits: A special break for 529 plans allows you to front-load five years’ worth of annual gift tax exclusions, which means you can make up to a $75,000 contribution (or $150,000 if you split the gift with your spouse) in 2018. In the case of grandparents, this also can avoid generation-skipping transfer taxes.
One negative of a 529 plan is that your investment options are limited. Another is that you can make changes to your options only twice a year or if you change the beneficiary.
But whenever you make a new contribution, you can choose a different option for that contribution, no matter how many times you contribute during the year. Also, you can make a tax-free rollover to another 529 plan for the same child every 12 months.
More to learn
We’ve focused on 529 savings plans here; a prepaid tuition version of 529 plans is also available. If you’d like to learn more about either type of 529 plan, please contact us.
For some people, Roth IRAs can offer income and estate tax benefits that are preferable to those offered by traditional IRAs. However, it’s important to take note of just what the distinctive features of a Roth IRA are before making the choice.
Traditional vs. Roth
The biggest difference between traditional and Roth IRAs is how taxes affect contributions and distributions. Contributions to traditional IRAs generally are made with pretax dollars, reducing your current taxable income and lowering your current tax bill. You pay taxes on the funds when you make withdrawals. As a result, if your current tax bracket is higher than what you expect it will be after you retire, a traditional IRA can be advantageous.
In contrast, contributions to Roth IRAs are made with after-tax funds. You pay taxes on the funds now, and your withdrawals won’t be taxed (provided you meet certain requirements). This can be advantageous if you expect to be in a higher tax bracket in retirement or if tax rates increase.
Roth distributions differ from traditional IRA distributions in yet another way. Withdrawals aren’t counted when calculating the taxable portion of your Social Security benefits.
A Roth IRA may offer a greater opportunity to build up tax-advantaged funds. Your contributions can continue after you reach age 70½ as long as you’re earning income, and the entire balance can remain in the account until your death. In contrast, beginning with the year you reach age 70½, you can’t contribute to a traditional IRA — even if you do have earned income. Further, you must start taking required minimum distributions (RMDs) from a traditional IRA no later than April 1 of the year following the year you reach age 70½.
Avoiding RMDs can be a valuable benefit if you don’t need your IRA funds to live on during retirement. Your Roth IRA can continue to grow tax-free over your lifetime. When your heirs inherit the account, they’ll be required to take distributions — but spread out over their own lifetimes, allowing a continued opportunity for tax-free growth on assets remaining in the account. Further, the distributions they receive from the Roth IRA won’t be subject to income tax.
As you begin planning for retirement (or reviewing your current plans), it’s important to consider all retirement planning vehicles. A Roth IRA may or may not be one of them. Please contact our firm for individualized help in determining whether it’s a beneficial choice.
Sidebar: TCJA eliminated option to recharacterize Roth IRAs
The passage of the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act late last year had a marked impact on Roth IRAs: to wit, taxpayers who wish to convert a pretax traditional IRA into a post-tax Roth IRA can no longer “recharacterize” (that is, reverse) the conversion for 2018 and later years.
The IRS recently clarified in FAQs on its website that, if you converted a traditional IRA into a Roth account in 2017, you can still reverse the conversion as long as it’s done by October 15, 2018. (This deadline applies regardless of whether you extend the deadline for filing your 2017 federal income tax return to October 15.)
Also, recharacterization is still an option for other types of contributions. For example, you can still make a contribution to a Roth IRA and subsequently recharacterize it as a contribution to a traditional IRA (before the applicable deadline).
When Congress was debating tax law reform last year, there was talk of repealing the federal estate and gift taxes. As it turned out, rumors of their demise were highly exaggerated. Both still exist and every taxpayer with a high degree of wealth shouldn’t let either take their heirs by surprise.
Exclusions and exemptions
For 2018, the lifetime gift and estate tax exemption is $11.18 million per taxpayer. (The exemption is annually indexed for inflation.) If your estate doesn’t exceed your available exemption at your death, no federal estate tax will be due.
Any gift tax exemption you use during life does reduce the amount of estate tax exemption available at your death. But not every gift you make will use up part of your lifetime exemption. For example:
It’s important to be aware of these exceptions as you pass along wealth to your loved ones.
A simple projection
Here’s a simplified way to help project your estate tax exposure. Take the value of your estate, net of any debts. Also subtract any assets that will pass to charity on your death.
Then, if you’re married and your spouse is a U.S. citizen, subtract any assets you’ll pass to him or her. (But keep in mind that there could be estate tax exposure on your surviving spouse’s death, depending on the size of his or her estate.) The net number represents your taxable estate.
You can then apply the exemption amount you expect to have available at death. Remember, any gift tax exemption amount you use during your life must be subtracted. But if your spouse predeceases you, then his or her unused estate tax exemption, if any, may be added to yours (provided the applicable requirements are met).
If your taxable estate is equal to or less than your available estate tax exemption, no federal estate tax will be due at your death. But if your taxable estate exceeds this amount, the excess will be subject to federal estate tax.
Be aware that many states impose estate tax at a lower threshold than the federal government does. So, you could have state estate tax exposure even if you don’t need to worry about federal estate tax.
Strategies to consider
If you’re not sure whether you’re at risk for the estate tax, or if you’d like to learn about gift and estate planning strategies to reduce your potential liability, please contact us.
It’s not uncommon for parents, grandparents and others to make financial gifts to minors and young adults. Perhaps you want to transfer some appreciated stock to a child or grandchild to start them on their journey toward successful wealth management. Or maybe you simply want to remove some assets from your taxable estate or shift income into a lower tax bracket. Whatever the reason, beware of the “kiddie tax.” It can play costly games with the unwary.
An evolving concept
Years ago, the kiddie tax applied only to those under age 14. But, more recently, the age limits were revised to children under age 19 and to full-time students under age 24 (unless the students’ earned income is more than half of their own support).
Another important, and even more recent, change to the kiddie tax occurred under the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act (TCJA). Before passage of this law, the net unearned income of a child was taxed at the parents’ tax rates if the parents’ tax rates were higher than the tax rates of the child. The remainder of a child’s taxable income — in other words, earned income from a child’s job, plus unearned income up to $2,100 (for 2018), less the child’s standard deduction — was taxed at the child’s rates. The kiddie tax applied to a child if the child:
Now, under the TCJA, for tax years beginning after December 31, 2017, the taxable income of a child attributable to earned income is taxed under the rates for single individuals, and taxable income of a child attributable to net unearned income is taxed according to the brackets applicable to trusts and estates. This rule applies to the child’s ordinary income and his or her income taxed at preferential rates. As under previous law, the kiddie tax can potentially apply until the year a child turns 24.
The tax in action
Let’s say you transferred to your 16-year-old some stock you’d held for several years that had appreciated $10,000. You were thinking she’d be eligible for the 0% long-term gains rate and so could sell the stock with no tax liability for your family. But you’d be in for an unhappy surprise: Assuming your daughter had no other unearned income, in 2018 $7,900 of the gain would be taxed at the estate and trust capital gains rates, equal to a tax of $795.
Or let’s say you transferred the appreciated stock to your 18-year-old grandson with the plan that he could sell the stock tax-free to pay for his college tuition. He won’t end up with the entire $10,000 gain available for tuition because of the kiddie tax liability.
Fortunately, there may be ways to achieve your goals without triggering the kiddie tax. For example, if you’d like to shift income and you have adult children (older than 24) who’re no longer subject to the kiddie tax but in a lower tax bracket, consider transferring income-producing or highly appreciated assets to them.
A risky time
Many families wait until the end of the year to make substantial, meaningful gifts. But, given what’s at stake, now is a good time to start a methodical process to determine the best possible way to pass along your wealth. After all, with the many changes made under the TCJA, the kiddie tax might affect you in ways you weren’t expecting. The best advice is to simply run the numbers with an expert’s help. Please contact our firm for more information and some suggestions on how to achieve your financial goals.
When you hire someone to work in your home, you may become an employer. Thus, you may have specific tax obligations, such as withholding and paying Social Security and Medicare (FICA) taxes and possibly federal and state unemployment insurance. Here are four questions to ask before you say, “You’re hired.”
1. Who’s considered a household employee?
A household worker is someone you hire to care for your children or other live-in family members, clean your house, cook meals, do yard work or provide similar domestic services. But not everyone who works in your home is an employee.
For example, some workers are classified as independent contractors. These self-employed individuals typically provide their own tools, set their own hours, offer their services to other customers and are responsible for their own taxes. To avoid the risk of misclassifying employees, however, you may want to assume that a worker is an employee unless your tax advisor tells you otherwise.
2. When do I pay employment taxes?
You’re required to fulfill certain state and federal tax obligations for any person you pay $2,100 or more annually (in 2018) to do work in or around your house. (The threshold is adjusted annually for inflation.)
In addition, you’re required to pay the employer’s half of FICA (Social Security and Medicare) taxes (7.65% of cash wages) and to withhold the employee’s half. For employees who earn $1,000 or more in a calendar quarter, you must also pay federal unemployment taxes (FUTA) equal to 6% of the first $7,000 in cash wages. And, depending on your resident state, you may be required to make state unemployment contributions, but you’ll receive a FUTA credit for those contributions, up to 5.4% of wages.
You don’t have to withhold federal (and, in most cases, state) income taxes, unless you and your employees agree to a withholding arrangement. But regardless of whether you withhold income taxes, you’re required to report employees’ wages on Form W-2.
3. Are there exceptions?
Yes. You aren’t required to pay employment taxes on wages you pay to your spouse, your child under age 21, your parent (unless an exception is met) or an employee who is under age 18 at any time during the year, providing that performing household work isn’t the employee’s principal occupation. If the employee is a student, providing household work isn’t considered his or her principal occupation.
4. How do I make tax payments?
You pay any federal employment and withholding taxes by attaching Schedule H to your Form 1040. You may have to pay state taxes separately and more frequently (usually quarterly). Keep in mind that this may increase your own tax liability at filing, though the Schedule H tax isn’t subject to estimated tax penalties.
If you owe FICA or FUTA taxes or if you withhold income tax from your employee’s wages, you need an employer identification number (EIN).
There’s no statute of limitations on the failure to report and remit federal payroll taxes. You can be audited by the IRS at any time and be required to pay back taxes, penalties and interest charges. Our firm can help ensure you comply with all the requirements.
Passage of the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act (TCJA) in December 2017 has led to confusion over some longstanding deductions. In response, the IRS recently issued a statement clarifying that the interest on home equity loans, home equity lines of credit and second mortgages will, in many cases, remain deductible.
How it used to be
Under prior tax law, a taxpayer could deduct “qualified residence interest” on a loan of up to $1 million secured by a qualified residence, plus interest on a home equity loan (other than debt used to acquire a home) up to $100,000. The home equity debt couldn’t exceed the fair market value of the home reduced by the debt used to acquire the home.
For tax purposes, a qualified residence is the taxpayer’s principal residence and a second residence, which can be a house, condominium, cooperative, mobile home, house trailer or boat. The principal residence is where the taxpayer resides most of the time; the second residence is any other residence the taxpayer owns and treats as a second home. Taxpayers aren’t required to use the second home during the year to claim the deduction. If the second home is rented to others, though, the taxpayer also must use it as a home during the year for the greater of 14 days or 10% of the number of days it’s rented.
In the past, interest on qualifying home equity debt was deductible regardless of how the loan proceeds were used. A taxpayer could, for example, use the proceeds to pay for medical bills, tuition, vacations, vehicles and other personal expenses and still claim the itemized interest deduction.
What’s deductible now
The TCJA limits the amount of the mortgage interest deduction for taxpayers who itemize through 2025. Beginning in 2018, for new home purchases, a taxpayer can deduct interest only on acquisition mortgage debt of $750,000.
On February 21, the IRS issued a release (IR 2018-32) explaining that the law suspends the deduction only for interest on home equity loans and lines of credit that aren’t used to buy, build or substantially improve the taxpayer’s home that secures the loan. In other words, the interest isn’t deductible if the loan proceeds are used for certain personal expenses, but it is deductible if the proceeds go toward, for example, a new roof on the home that secures the loan. The IRS further stated that the deduction limits apply to the combined amount of mortgage and home equity acquisition loans — home equity debt is no longer capped at $100,000 for purposes of the deduction.
As a relatively comprehensive new tax law, the TCJA will likely be subject to a variety of clarifications before it settles in. Please contact our firm for help better understanding this provision or any other.
Around this time of year, many people have filed and forgotten about their 2017 tax returns. But you could get an abrupt reminder in the form of an IRS penalty. Here are three common types and how you might seek relief:
1. Failure-to-file and failure-to-pay. The IRS will consider any reason that establishes that you were unable to meet your federal tax obligations despite using “all ordinary business care and prudence” to do so. Frequently cited reasons include fire, casualty, natural disaster or other disturbances. The agency may also accept death, serious illness, incapacitation or unavoidable absence of the taxpayer or an immediate family member.
If you don’t have a good reason for filing or paying late, you may be able to apply for a first-time penalty abatement (FTA) waiver. To qualify for relief, you must have: 1) received no penalties (other than estimated tax penalties) for the three tax years preceding the tax year in which you received a penalty, 2) filed all required returns or filed a valid extension of time to file, and 3) paid, or arranged to pay, any tax due. Despite the expression “first-time,” you can receive FTA relief more than once, so long as at least three years have elapsed.
2. Estimated tax miscalculation. It’s possible, but unlikely, to obtain relief from estimated tax penalties on grounds of casualty, disaster or other unusual circumstances. You’re more likely to get these penalties abated if you can prove that the IRS made an error, such as crediting a payment to the wrong tax period, or that calculating the penalty using a different method (such as the annualized income installment method) would reduce or eliminate the penalty.
3. Tax-filing inaccuracy. These penalties may be imposed, for example, if the IRS finds that your return was prepared negligently or that there’s a substantial understatement of tax. You can obtain relief from these penalties if you can demonstrate that you properly disclosed your tax position in your return and that you had a reasonable basis for taking that position.
Generally, you have a reasonable basis if your chances of withstanding an IRS challenge are greater than 50%. Reliance on a competent tax advisor greatly improves your odds of obtaining penalty relief. Other possible grounds for relief include computational errors and reliance on an inaccurate W-2, 1099 or other information statement.
Each year, millions of taxpayers claim an income tax refund. To be sure, receiving a payment from the IRS for a few thousand dollars can be a pleasant influx of cash. But it means you were essentially giving the government an interest-free loan for close to a year, which isn’t the best use of your money.
Fortunately, there’s a way to begin collecting your 2018 refund now: You can review the amounts you’re having withheld and/or what estimated tax payments you’re making, and adjust them to keep more money in your pocket during the year.
Choosing to adjust
It’s particularly important to check your withholding and/or estimated tax payments if:
Even if you haven’t encountered any major life changes during the past year, changes in the tax law may affect withholding levels, making it worthwhile to double-check your withholding or estimated tax payments.
Making a change
You can modify your withholding at any time during the year, or even more than once within a year. To do so, you simply submit a new Form W-4 to your employer. Changes typically will go into effect several weeks after the new Form W-4 is submitted. For estimated tax payments, you can make adjustments each time quarterly payments are due.
While reducing withholdings or estimated tax payments will, indeed, put more money in your pocket now, you also need to be careful that you don’t reduce them too much. If you don’t pay enough tax throughout the year on a timely basis, you could end up owing interest and penalties when you file your return, even if you pay your outstanding tax liability by the April 2019 deadline.
One timely reason to consider adjusting your withholding is the passage of the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act late last year. In fact, the IRS had to revise its withholding tables to account for the increase to the standard deduction, suspension of personal exemptions, and changes in tax rates and brackets. If you’d like help determining what your withholding or estimated tax payments should be for the rest of the year, please contact us.
In an increasingly globalized society, many people choose to open offshore accounts to deposit a portion of their wealth. When doing so, it’s important to follow the IRS’s strict foreign accounts reporting requirements. In a nutshell, if you have a financial interest in or signature authority over any foreign accounts, including bank accounts, brokerage accounts, mutual funds or trusts, you must disclose those accounts to the IRS and you may have additional reporting requirements.
To do so, your tax preparer will check the box on line 7a of Schedule B (“Interest and Ordinary Dividends”) of Form 1040 — regardless of the account value. If the total value of your foreign financial assets exceeds $50,000 ($100,000 for joint filers) at the end of the tax year or exceeds $75,000 ($150,000 for joint filers) at any time during the tax year, you must provide account details on Form 8938 (“Statement of Specified Foreign Financial Assets”) and attach it to your tax return.
Finally, if the aggregate value of your foreign accounts is $10,000 or more during the calendar year, file FinCEN (Financial Crimes Enforcement Network) Form 114 — “Report of Foreign Bank and Financial Accounts (FBAR).” The current deadline for filing the form electronically with FinCEN is April 15, 2018, with an automatic extension to October 15.
Failure to disclose an offshore account could result in substantial IRS penalties, including collecting three to six years’ worth of back taxes, interest, a 20% to 40% accuracy-related penalty and, in some cases, a 75% fraud penalty. For further information, contact us.
The child credit has long been a valuable tax break. But, with the passage of the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act (TCJA) late last year, it’s now even better — at least for a while. Here are some details that every family should know.
Amount and limitations
For the 2017 tax year, the child credit may help reduce federal income tax liability dollar-for-dollar by up to $1,000 for each qualifying child under age 17. So if you haven’t yet filed your personal return or you might consider amending it, bear this in mind.
The credit is, however, subject to income limitations that may reduce or even eliminate eligibility for it depending on your filing status and modified adjusted gross income (MAGI). For 2017, the limits are $110,000 for married couples filing jointly, and $55,000 for married taxpayers filing separately. (Singles, heads of households, and qualifying widows and widowers are limited to $75,000 in MAGI.)
Now the good news: Under the TCJA, the credit will double to $2,000 per child under age 17 starting in 2018. The maximum amount refundable (because a taxpayer’s credits exceed his or her tax liability) will be limited to $1,400 per child.
The TCJA also makes the child credit available to more families than in the past. That’s because, beginning in 2018, the credit won’t begin to phase out until MAGI exceeds $400,000 for married couples or $200,000 for all other filers, compared with the 2017 phaseouts of $110,000 and $75,000. The phaseout thresholds won’t be indexed for inflation, though, meaning the credit will lose value over time.
In addition, the TCJA includes (starting in 2018) a $500 nonrefundable credit for qualifying dependents other than qualifying children (for example, a taxpayer’s 17-year-old child, parent, sibling, niece or nephew, or aunt or uncle). Importantly, these provisions expire after 2025.
Qualifications to consider
Along with the income limitations, there are other qualification requirements for claiming the child credit. As you might have noticed, a qualifying child must be under the age of 17 at the end of the tax year in question. But the child also must be a U.S. citizen, national or resident alien, and a dependent claimed on the parents’ federal tax return who’s their own legal son, daughter, stepchild, foster child or adoptee. (A qualifying child may also include a grandchild, niece or nephew.)
As a child gets older, other circumstances may affect a family’s ability to claim the credit. For instance, the child needs to have lived with his or her parents for more than half of the tax year.
Tax credits can serve as powerful tools to help you manage your tax liability. So if you may qualify for the child credit in 2017, or in years ahead, please contact our firm to discuss the full details of how to go about claiming it properly.
Years and years ago, the notion of having a company cafeteria or regularly catered meals was generally feasible for only the biggest of businesses. But, more recently, employers providing meals to employees has become somewhat common for many midsize to large companies. A recent tax law change, however, may curtail the practice.
As you’re likely aware, in late December 2017 Congress passed and the President signed the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act. The law will phase in a wide variety of changes to the way businesses calculate their tax liabilities — some beneficial, some detrimental. Revisions to the treatment of employee meals and entertainment expenses fall in the latter category.
Before the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act, taxpayers generally could deduct 50% of expenses for business-related meals and entertainment. But meals provided to an employee for the convenience of the employer on the employer’s business premises were 100% deductible by the employer and tax-free to the recipient employee. Various other employer-provided fringe benefits were also deductible by the employer and tax-free to the recipient employee.
Under the new law, for amounts paid or incurred after December 31, 2017, deductions for business-related entertainment expenses are disallowed. Meal expenses incurred while traveling on business are still 50% deductible, but the 50% disallowance rule now also applies to meals provided via an on-premises cafeteria or otherwise on the employer’s premises for the convenience of the employer. After 2025, the cost of meals provided through an on-premises cafeteria or otherwise on the employer’s premises will be completely nondeductible.
If your business regularly provides meals to employees, let us assist you in anticipating the changing tax impact.
The Tax Cuts and Jobs Act (TCJA), signed into law this past December, affects more than just income taxes. It’s brought great changes to estate planning and, in doing so, bolstered the potential value of dynasty trusts.
Let’s start with the TCJA. It doesn’t repeal the estate tax, as had been discussed before its passage. The tax was retained in the final version of the law. For the estates of persons dying, and gifts made, after December 31, 2017, and before January 1, 2026, the gift and estate tax exemption and the generation-skipping transfer tax exemption amounts have been increased to an inflation-adjusted $10 million, or $20 million for married couples (expected to be $11.2 million and $22.4 million, respectively, for 2018).
Absent further congressional action, the exemptions will revert to their 2017 levels (adjusted for inflation) beginning January 1, 2026. The marginal tax rate for all three taxes remains at 40%.
Now let’s turn to dynasty trusts. These irrevocable arrangements allow substantial amounts of wealth to grow free of federal gift, estate and generation-skipping transfer (GST) taxes, largely because of their lengthy terms. The specific longevity of a dynasty trust depends on the law of the state in which it’s established. Some states allow trusts to last for hundreds of years or even in perpetuity.
Where the TCJA and dynasty trusts come together is in the potential to avoid the GST tax. It levies an additional 40% tax on transfers to grandchildren or others that skip a generation, potentially consuming substantial amounts of wealth. The key to avoiding the tax is to leverage your GST tax exemption, which, under the TCJA, will be higher than ever starting in 2018.
Assuming you haven’t yet used any of your gift and estate tax exemption, you can transfer $10 million to a properly structured dynasty trust. There’s no gift tax on the transaction because it’s within your unused exemption amount. And the funds, plus future appreciation, are removed from your taxable estate.
Most important, by allocating your GST tax exemption to your trust contributions, you ensure that any future distributions or other transfers of trust assets to your grandchildren or subsequent generations will avoid GST taxes. This is true even if the value of the assets grows well beyond the exemption amount or the exemption is reduced in the future.
Naturally, setting up a dynasty trust is neither simple nor quick. You’ll need to choose a structure, allocate assets (such as securities, real estate, life insurance policies and business interests), and name a trustee. Our firm can work with your attorney to maximize the tax benefits and help ensure the trust is in the best interests of your estate.
Sidebar: Nontax reasons to set up a dynasty trust
Regardless of the tax implications, there are valid nontax reasons to set up a dynasty trust. First, you can designate the beneficiaries of the trust assets spanning multiple generations. Typically, you might provide for the assets to follow a line of descendants, such as children, grandchildren, great-grandchildren, etc. You can also impose certain restrictions, such as limiting access to funds until a beneficiary earns a college degree.
Second, by placing assets in a properly structured trust, those assets can be protected from the reach of a beneficiary’s creditors, including claims based on divorce, a failed business or traffic accidents.
Every company needs to upgrade its assets occasionally, whether desks and chairs or a huge piece of complex machinery. But before you go shopping this year, be sure to brush up on the enhanced bonus depreciation tax breaks created under the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act (TCJA) passed late last year.
Qualified new — not used — assets that your business placed in service before September 28, 2017, fall under pre-TCJA law. For these items, you can claim a 50% first-year bonus depreciation deduction. This tax break is available for the cost of new computer systems, purchased software, vehicles, machinery, equipment, office furniture and so forth.
In addition, 50% bonus depreciation can be claimed for qualified improvement property, which means any qualified improvement to the interior portion of a nonresidential building if the improvement is placed in service after the date the building is placed in service. But qualified improvement costs don’t include expenditures for the enlargement of a building, an elevator or escalator, or the internal structural framework of a building.
Bonus depreciation improves significantly under the TCJA. For qualified property placed in service from September 28, 2017, through December 31, 2022 (or by December 31, 2023, for certain property with longer production periods), the first-year bonus depreciation percentage is increased to 100%. In addition, the 100% deduction is allowed for both new and used qualifying property.
The new law also allows 100% bonus depreciation for qualified film, television and live theatrical productions placed in service on or after September 28, 2017. Productions are considered placed in service at the time of the initial release, broadcast or live commercial performance.
In later years, bonus depreciation is scheduled to be reduced to 80% for property placed in service in 2023, 60% for property placed in service in 2024, 40% for property placed in service in 2025 and 20% for property placed in service in 2026.
Important: For certain property with longer production periods, the preceding reductions are delayed by one year. For example, 80% bonus depreciation will apply to long-production-period property placed in service in 2024.
If bonus depreciation isn’t available to your company, a similar tax break — the Section 179 deduction — may be able to provide comparable benefits. Please contact our firm for more details on how either might help your business.
The clock is ticking down to the tax filing deadline. The good news is that you still may be able to save on your impending 2017 tax bill by making contributions to certain retirement plans.
For example, if you qualify, you can make a deductible contribution to a traditional IRA right up until the April 17, 2018, filing date and still benefit from the resulting tax savings on your 2017 return. You also have until April 17 to make a contribution to a Roth IRA.
And if you happen to be a small business owner, you can set up and contribute to a Simplified Employee Pension (SEP) plan up until the due date for your company’s tax return, including extensions.
Deadlines and limits
Let’s look at some specifics. For IRA and Roth IRA contributions, the maximum regular contribution is $5,500. Plus, if you were at least age 50 on December 31, 2017, you are eligible for an additional $1,000 “catch-up” contribution.
There are also age limits. You must have been under age 70½ on December 31, 2017, to contribute to a traditional IRA. Contributions to a Roth can be made regardless of age, if you meet the other requirements.
For a SEP, the maximum contribution is $54,000, and must be made by the April 17th date, or by the extended due date (up to Monday, October 15, 2018) if you file a valid extension. (There’s no SEP catch-up amount.)
If not covered by an employer’s retirement plan, your contributions to a traditional IRA are not affected by your modified adjusted gross income (MAGI). Otherwise, when you (or a spouse, if married) are active in an employer’s plan, available contributions begin to phase out within certain MAGI ranges.
For married couples filing jointly, the MAGI range is $99,000 to $119,000. For singles or heads of household, it’s $62,000 to $72,000. For those married but filing separately, the MAGI range is $0 to $10,000, if you lived with your spouse at any time during the year. A phase-out occurs between AGI of $186,000 and $196,000 if a spouse participates in an employer-sponsored plan.
Contributions to Roth IRAs phase out at mostly different ranges. For married couples filing jointly, the MAGI range is $186,000 to $196,000. For singles or heads of household, it’s $118,000 to $133,000. But for those married but filing separately, the phase-out range is the same: $0 to $10,000, if you lived with your spouse at any time during the year.
Saving for retirement is essential for financial security. What’s more, the federal government provides tax incentives for doing so. Best of all, as mentioned, you still have time to contribute to an IRA, Roth IRA or SEP plan for the 2017 tax year. Please contact our firm for further details and a personalized approach to determining how to best contribute to your retirement plan or plans.
It’s not uncommon for adult children to help support their aging parents. If you’re in this position, you might qualify for an adult-dependent exemption to deduct up to $4,050 for each person claimed on your 2017 return.
For you to qualify for the adult-dependent exemption, in most cases your parent must have less gross income for the tax year than the exemption amount. (Exceptions may apply if your parent is permanently and totally disabled.) Social Security is generally excluded, but payments from dividends, interest and retirement plans are included.
In addition, you must have contributed more than 50% of your parent’s financial support. If you shared caregiving duties with one or more siblings and your combined support exceeded 50%, the exemption can be claimed even though no one individually provided more than 50%. However, only one of you can claim the exemption in this situation.
Although Social Security payments can usually be excluded from the adult dependent’s income, they can still affect your ability to qualify. Why? If your parent is using Social Security money to pay for medicine or other expenses, you may find that you aren’t meeting the 50% test.
Also, if your parent lives with you, the amount of support you claim under the 50% test can include the fair market rental value of part of your residence. If the parent lives elsewhere — in his or her own residence or in an assisted-living facility or nursing home — any amount of financial support you contribute to that housing expense counts toward the 50% test.
Easing the burden
An adult-dependent exemption is just one tax break that you may be able to employ on your 2017 tax return to ease the burden of caring for an elderly parent. Contact us for more information on qualifying for this break or others.
The new tax reform law, commonly called the “Tax Cuts and Jobs Act” (TCJA), is the biggest federal tax law overhaul in 31 years, and it has both good and bad news for taxpayers.
Below are highlights of some of the most significant changes affecting individual and business taxpayers. Except where noted, these changes are effective for tax years beginning after December 31, 2017.
More to consider
This is just a brief overview of some of the most significant TCJA provisions. There are additional rules and limits that apply, and the law includes many additional provisions. Contact your tax advisor to learn more about how these and other tax law changes will affect you in 2018 and beyond.
If you’re like many Americans, you might not start thinking about filing your tax return until close to this year’s April 17 deadline. You might even want to file for an extension so you don’t have to send your return to the IRS until October 15.
But there’s another date you should keep in mind: the day the IRS begins accepting 2017 returns (usually in late January). Filing as close to this date as possible could protect you from tax identity theft.
Why it helps
In an increasingly common scam, thieves use victims’ personal information to file fraudulent tax returns electronically and claim bogus refunds. This is usually done early in the tax filing season. When the real taxpayers file, they’re notified that they’re attempting to file duplicate returns.
A victim typically discovers the fraud after he or she files a tax return and is informed by the IRS that the return has been rejected because one with the same Social Security number has already been filed for the same tax year. The IRS then must determine who the legitimate taxpayer is.
Tax identity theft can cause major complications to straighten out and significantly delay legitimate refunds. But if you file first, it will be the tax return filed by a potential thief that will be rejected — not yours.
What to look for
Of course, in order to file your tax return, you’ll need to have your W-2s and 1099s. So another key date to be aware of is January 31 — the deadline for employers to issue 2017 W-2s to employees and, generally, for businesses to issue 1099s to recipients of any 2017 interest, dividend or reportable miscellaneous income payments. So be sure to keep an eye on your mailbox or your employer’s internal website.
An additional bonus: If you’ll be getting a refund, filing early will generally enable you to receive and enjoy that money sooner. (Bear in mind, however, that a law requires the IRS to hold until mid-February refunds on returns claiming the earned income tax credit or additional child tax credit.) Let us know if you have questions about tax identity theft or would like help filing your 2017 return early.
Given the astronomical cost of college, even well-off parents should consider applying for financial aid. A single misstep, however, can harm your child’s eligibility. Here are five common mistakes to avoid:
1. Presuming you don’t qualify. It’s difficult to predict whether you’ll qualify for aid, so apply even if you think your net worth is too high. Keep in mind that, generally, the value of your principal residence or any qualified retirement assets isn’t included in your net worth for financial aid purposes.
2. Filing the wrong forms. Most colleges and universities, and many states, require you to submit the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) for need-based aid. Some schools also require it for merit-based aid. In addition, a number of institutions require the CSS/Financial Aid PROFILE®, and specific types of aid may have their own paperwork requirements.
3. Missing deadlines. Filing deadlines vary by state and institution, so note the requirements for each school to which your child applies. Some schools provide financial aid to eligible students on a first-come, first-served basis until funding runs out, so the earlier you apply, the better. This may require you to complete your income tax return early.
4. Failing to list schools properly. The FAFSA allows you to designate up to 10 schools with which your application will be shared. The order in which you list the schools doesn't matter when applying for federal student aid. But if you're also applying for state aid, it's important to know that different rules may apply. For example, some states require you to list schools in a specified order.
5. Mistaking who’s responsible. If you’re divorced or separated, the FAFSA should be completed by the parent with whom your child lived for the majority of the 12-month period ending on the date the application is filed. This is true regardless of which parent claims the child as a dependent on his or her tax return.
The rule provides a significant planning opportunity if one spouse is substantially wealthier than the other. For example, if the child lives with the less affluent spouse for 183 days and with the other spouse for 182 days, the less affluent spouse would file the FAFSA, improving eligibility for financial aid.
These are just a few examples of financial aid pitfalls. Let us help you navigate the process and explore other ways to finance college.
Many people make donations at the end of the year. To be deductible on your 2017 return, a charitable donation must be made by December 31, 2017. According to the IRS, a donation generally is “made” at the time of its “unconditional delivery.” But what does this mean?
Is it the date you write a check or charge an online gift to your credit card? Or is it the date the charity actually receives the funds? In practice, the delivery date depends in part on what you donate and how you donate it. Here are a few common examples:
Checks. The date you mail it.
Credit cards. The date you make the charge.
Pay-by-phone accounts. The date the financial institution pays the amount.
Stock certificates. The date you mail the properly endorsed stock certificate to the charity.
To be deductible, a donation must be made to a “qualified charity” — one that’s eligible to receive tax-deductible contributions. The IRS’s online search tool, “Exempt Organizations (EO) Select Check,” can help you more easily find out whether an organization is eligible to receive tax-deductible charitable contributions. You can access it at https://www.irs.gov/charities-non-profits/exempt-organizations-select-check. Information about organizations eligible to receive deductible contributions is updated monthly.
Many additional rules apply to the charitable donation deduction, so please contact us if you have questions about the deductibility of a gift you’ve made or are considering making. But act soon — you don’t have much time left to make donations that will reduce your 2017 tax bill.
Many people overlook taxes when planning their mutual fund investments. But you’ve got to handle these valuable assets with care. Here are some tips to consider.
Avoid year-end investments
Typically, mutual funds distribute accumulated dividends and capital gains toward the end of the year. But don’t fall for the common misconception that investing in a fund just before a distribution date is like getting “free money.”
True, you’ll receive a year’s worth of income right after you invest. But the value of your shares will immediately drop by the same amount, so you won’t be any better off. Plus, you’ll be liable for taxes on the distribution as if you had owned your shares all year.
You can get a general idea of when a particular fund anticipates making a distribution by checking its website periodically. Also make a note of the “record date” — investors who own fund shares on that date will participate in the distribution.
Invest in tax-efficient funds
Actively managed funds tend to be less tax efficient. They buy and sell securities more frequently, generating a greater amount of capital gain, much of it short-term gain taxable at ordinary income rates rather than the lower, long-term capital gains rates.
Consider investing in tax-efficient funds instead. For example, index funds generally have lower turnover rates. And “passively managed” funds (sometimes described as “tax managed” funds) are designed to minimize taxable distributions.
Another option is exchange-traded funds (ETFs). Unlike mutual funds, which generally redeem shares by selling securities, ETFs are often able to redeem securities “in kind” — that is, to swap them for other securities. This limits an ETF’s recognition of capital gains, making it more tax efficient.
This isn’t to say that tax-inefficient funds don’t have a place in your portfolio. In some cases, actively managed funds may offer benefits, such as above-market returns, that outweigh their tax costs.
Watch out for reinvested distributions
Many investors elect to have their distributions automatically reinvested in their funds. Be aware that those distributions are taxable regardless of whether they’re reinvested or paid out in cash.
Reinvested distributions increase your tax basis in a fund, so track your basis carefully. If you fail to account for these distributions, you’ll end up paying tax on them twice — once when they’re paid and again when you sell your shares in the fund.
Fortunately, under current rules, mutual fund companies are required to track your basis for you. But you still may need to track your basis in funds you owned before 2012 when this requirement took effect, or if you purchased units in the fund outside of the current broker holding your units.
Do your due
Tax considerations should never be the primary driver of your investment decisions. Yet it’s important to do your due diligence on the potential tax consequences of funds you’re considering — particularly for your taxable accounts.
Sidebar: Directing tax-inefficient funds into nontaxable accounts
If you invest in actively managed or other tax-inefficient funds, ideally you should put these holdings in nontaxable accounts, such as a traditional IRA or 401(k). Because earnings in these accounts are tax-deferred, distributions from funds they hold won’t have any tax consequences until you withdraw them. And if the funds are held in a Roth account, those distributions will escape taxation altogether.
If you recently redeemed frequent flyer miles to treat the family to a fun summer vacation or to take your spouse on a romantic getaway, you might assume that there are no tax implications involved. And you’re probably right — but there is a chance your miles could be taxable.
Generally, miles awarded by airlines for flying with them are considered nontaxable rebates, as are miles awarded for using a credit or debit card. The IRS even addressed the issue in Announcement 2002-18, where it said:
Consistent with prior practice, the IRS will not assert that any taxpayer has understated his federal tax liability by reason of the receipt or personal use of frequent flyer miles or other in-kind promotional benefits attributable to the taxpayer’s business or official travel.
There are, however, some types of miles awards the IRS might view as taxable. Examples include miles awarded as a prize in a sweepstakes and miles awarded as a promotion.
For instance, in the 2014 case of Shankar v. Commissioner, the U.S. Tax Court sided with the IRS in finding that airline miles awarded in conjunction with opening a bank account were indeed taxable. Part of the evidence of taxability was the fact that the bank had issued Forms 1099 MISC to customers who’d redeemed rewards points to buy airline tickets.
The value of the miles for tax purposes generally is their estimated retail value. If you’re concerned you’ve received miles awards that could be taxable, please contact us.
Well-crafted, up-to-date estate planning documents are an imperative for everyone. They also can help ease the burdens on your family during a difficult time. Two important examples: wills and living trusts.
A will is a legal document that arranges for the distribution of your property after you die and allows you to designate a guardian for minor children or other dependents. It should name the executor or personal representative who’ll be responsible for overseeing your estate as it goes through probate. (Probate is the court-supervised process of paying any debts and taxes and distributing your property after you die.) To be valid, a will must meet the legal requirements in your state.
If you die without a will (that is, “intestate”), the state will appoint an administrator to determine how to distribute your property based on state law. The administrator also will decide who will assume guardianship of any minor children or other dependents. Bottom line? Your assets may be distributed — and your dependents provided for — in ways that differ from what you would have wanted.
The living trust
Because probate can be time-consuming, expensive and public, you may prefer to avoid it. A living trust can help. It’s a legal entity to which you, as the grantor, transfer title to your property. During your life, you can act as the trustee, maintaining control over the property in the trust. On your death, the person (such as a family member or advisor) or institution (such as a bank or trust company) you’ve named as the successor trustee distributes the trust assets to the beneficiaries you’ve named.
Assets held in a living trust avoid probate — with very limited exceptions. Another benefit is that the successor trustee can take over management of the trust assets should you become incapacitated.
Having a living trust doesn’t eliminate the need for a will. For example, you can’t name a guardian for minor children or other dependents in a trust. However, a “pour over” will can direct that assets you own outside the living trust be transferred to it on your death.
There are other documents that can complement a will and living trust. A “letter of instruction,” for example, provides information that your family will need after your death. In it, you can express your desires for the memorial service, as well as the contact information for your employer, accountant and any other important advisors. (Note: It’s not a legal document.)
Also consider powers of attorney. A durable power of attorney for property allows you to appoint someone to act on your behalf on financial matters should you become incapacitated. A power of attorney for health care covers medical decisions and also takes effect if you become incapacitated. The person to whom you’ve transferred this power — your health care agent — can make medical decisions on your behalf.
These are just a few of the foundational elements of a strong estate plan. We can work with you and your attorney to address the tax issues involved.
In today’s economy, many individuals are self-employed. Others generate income from interest, rent or dividends. If these circumstances sound familiar, you might be at risk of penalties if you don’t pay enough tax during the year through estimated tax payments and withholding. Here are three strategies to help avoid underpayment penalties:
1. Know the minimum payment rules. For you to avoid penalties, your estimated payments and withholding must equal at least:
2. Use the annualized income installment method. This method often benefits taxpayers who have large variability in income by month due to bonuses, investment gains and losses, or seasonal income — especially if it’s skewed toward year end. Annualizing calculates the tax due based on income, gains, losses and deductions through each “quarterly” estimated tax period.
3. Estimate your tax liability and increase withholding. If, as year end approaches, you determine you’ve underpaid, consider having the tax shortfall withheld from your salary or year-end bonus by December 31. Because withholding is considered to have been paid ratably throughout the year, this is often a better strategy than making up the difference with an increased quarterly tax payment, which may trigger penalties for earlier quarters.
Finally, beware that you also could incur interest and penalties if you’re subject to the additional 0.9% Medicare tax and it isn’t withheld from your pay and you don’t make sufficient estimated tax payments. Please contact us for help with this tricky tax task.
Health care costs continue to be in the news and on everyone’s mind. As a result, tax-friendly ways to pay for these expenses are very much in play for many people. The three primary players, so to speak, are Health Savings Accounts (HSAs), Flexible Spending Arrangements (FSAs) and Health Reimbursement Arrangements (HRAs).
All provide opportunities for tax-advantaged funding of health care expenses. But what’s the difference between these three types of accounts? Here’s an overview of each one:
HSAs. If you’re covered by a qualified high-deductible health plan (HDHP), you can contribute pretax income to an employer-sponsored HSA — or make deductible contributions to an HSA you set up yourself — up to $3,400 for self-only coverage and $6,750 for family coverage for 2017. Plus, if you’re age 55 or older, you may contribute an additional $1,000.
You own the account, which can bear interest or be invested, growing tax-deferred similar to an IRA. Withdrawals for qualified medical expenses are tax-free, and you can carry over a balance from year to year.
FSAs. Regardless of whether you have an HDHP, you can redirect pretax income to an employer-sponsored FSA up to an employer-determined limit — not to exceed $2,600 in 2017. The plan pays or reimburses you for qualified medical expenses.
What you don’t use by the plan year’s end, you generally lose — though your plan might allow you to roll over up to $500 to the next year. Or it might give you a 2½-month grace period to incur expenses to use up the previous year’s contribution. If you have an HSA, your FSA is limited to funding certain “permitted” expenses.
HRAs. An HRA is an employer-sponsored arrangement that reimburses you for medical expenses. Unlike an HSA, no HDHP is required. Unlike an FSA, any unused portion typically can be carried forward to the next year. And there’s no government-set limit on HRA contributions. But only your employer can contribute to an HRA; employees aren’t allowed to contribute.
Please bear in mind that these plans could be affected by health care or tax legislation. Contact our firm for the latest information, as well as to discuss these and other ways to save taxes in relation to your health care expenses.
Disaster planning is usually associated with businesses. But individuals need to prepare for worst-case scenarios, as well. Unfortunately, the topic can seem a little overwhelming. To help simplify matters, here are five keys to disaster planning that everyone should consider:
1. Insurance. Start with your homeowners’ coverage. Make sure your policy covers flood, wind and other damage possible in your region and that its dollar amount is adequate to cover replacement costs. Also review your life and disability insurance.
2. Asset documentation. Create a list of your bank accounts, titles, deeds, mortgages, home equity loans, investments and tax records. Inventory physical assets not only in writing (including brand names and model and serial numbers), but also by photographing or videoing them.
3. Document storage. Keep copies of financial and personal documents somewhere other than your home, such as a safe deposit box or the distant home of a trusted friend or relative. Also consider “cloud computing” — storing digital files with a secure Web-based provider.
4. Cash. You may not receive insurance money right away. A good rule of thumb is to set aside three to six months’ worth of living expenses in a savings or money market account. Also maintain a cash reserve in your home in a durable, fireproof safe.
5. An emergency plan. Establish a family emergency plan that includes evacuation routes, methods of getting in touch and a safe place to meet. Because a disaster might require you to stay in your home, stock a supply kit with water, nonperishable food, batteries and a first aid kit.
Are you a highly compensated employee (HCE) approaching retirement? If so, and you have a 401(k), you should consider a potentially useful tax-efficient IRA rollover technique. The IRS has specific rules about how participants such as you can allocate accumulated 401(k) plan assets based on pretax and after-tax employee contributions between standard IRAs and Roth IRAs.
In 2017, the top pretax contribution that participants can make to a 401(k) is $18,000 ($24,000 for those 50 and older). Plans that permit after-tax contributions (several do) allow participants to contribute a total of $54,000 ($36,000 above the $18,000 pretax contribution limit). While some highly compensated supersavers may have significant accumulations of after-tax contributions in their 401(k) accounts, the tax law income caps block the highest paid HCEs from opening a Roth IRA.
However, under IRS rules, these participants can roll dollars representing their after-tax 401(k) contributions directly into a new Roth IRA when they retire or no longer work for the companies. Thus, they’ll ultimately be able to withdraw the dollars representing the original after-tax contributions — and subsequent earnings on those dollars — tax-free.
Participants can contribute rollover dollars to conventional and Roth IRAs on a pro-rata basis. For example, suppose a retiring participant had $1 million in his 401(k) plan account, $600,000 of which represents contributions. Suppose further that 70% of that $600,000 represents pretax contributions, and 30% is from after-tax contributions. IRS guidance clarifies that the participant can roll $700,000 (70% of the $1 million) into a conventional IRA, and $300,000 (30% of the $1 million) into a Roth IRA.
The IRS rules allow the retiree to roll over not only the after-tax contributions, but the earnings on those after-tax contributions (40% of the $300,000, or $120,000) to the Roth IRA provided that the $120,000 will be taxable for the year of the rollover.
Alternatively, the IRS rules allow the retiree to delay taxation on the earnings attributable to the after-tax contributions ($120,000) until the money is distributed by contributing that amount to a conventional IRA, and the remaining $180,000 to the Roth IRA.
Under each approach, the subsequent growth in the Roth IRA will be tax-free when withdrawn. Partial rollovers can also be made, and the same principles apply.
Golden years ahead
HCEs face some complex decisions when it comes to retirement planning. Let our firm help you make the right moves now for your golden years ahead.
If you’re an investor looking to save tax dollars, your kids might be able to help you out. Giving appreciated stock or other investments to your children can minimize the impact of capital gains taxes.
For this strategy to work best, however, your child must not be subject to the “kiddie tax.” This tax applies your marginal rate to unearned income in excess of a specified threshold ($2,100 in 2017) received by your child who at the end of the tax year was either: 1) under 18, 2) 18 (but not older) and whose earned income didn’t exceed one-half of his or her own support for the year (excluding scholarships if a full-time student), or 3) a full-time student age 19 to 23 who had earned income that didn’t exceed half of his or her own support (excluding scholarships).
Here’s how it works: Say Bill, who’s in the top tax bracket, wants to help his daughter, Molly, buy a new car. Molly is 22 years old, just out of college, and currently looking for a job — and, for purposes of the example, won’t be considered a dependent for 2017.
Even if she finds a job soon, she’ll likely be in the 10% or 15% tax bracket this year. To finance the car, Bill plans to sell $20,000 of stock that he originally purchased for $2,000. If he sells the stock, he’ll have to pay $3,600 in capital gains tax (20% of $18,000), plus the 3.8% net investment income tax, leaving $15,716 for Molly. But if Bill gives the stock to Molly, she can sell it tax-free and use the entire $20,000 to buy a car. (The capital gains rate for the two lowest tax brackets is generally 0%.)
Few purchases during your lifetime will be as expensive as buying a home. Whether it’s your primary residence, a vacation home or an investment property, how you choose to pay for it can have a significant impact on your financial situation over time. If you’re considering a mortgage loan, understanding the main categories of mortgages — fixed-rate and adjustable-rate — and the situations they’re best designed for will help you match the right type for your needs.
Fixed-rate loans offer stability
A fixed-rate mortgage, as its name suggests, is a loan whose interest rate remains constant for the life of the loan — typically 15 or 30 years. One of the primary benefits of a fixed-rate loan is that it provides a measure of certainty about one of the biggest expenses in your monthly budget. With interest rates likely to rise after an extended period of historically low rates, you won’t have to worry about potentially higher payments in the future if you select a fixed-rate loan.
That said, if interest rates were to fall again, your fixed-rate loan would leave you unable to take advantage of the shift unless you refinance, which might involve fees. You’re also paying a premium for the stability offered by a fixed-rate mortgage. You could consider a 15-year fixed-rate loan, which would charge a lower rate than a 30-year loan, but the tradeoff will be higher monthly payments.
ARMs provide flexibility
Adjustable-rate mortgages (ARMs) typically offer a fixed interest rate for an initial period of years. This rate, which is usually lower than that of a comparable fixed-rate mortgage, resets periodically based on a benchmark interest rate. For example, a 5/1 ARM means that your interest rate is fixed for the first five years and then will adjust every year after that.
Paying less interest in the beginning frees your cash for other investments. You might also take advantage of an ARM if you’re confident that you’ll have more money in the future than you do today, or if you plan on selling your house before or soon after the initial fixed-rate period expires. When considering an ARM, you’ll need to assess your ability to keep up with potentially higher payments — say, if the initial period expires, your rate goes up and you’re unable to sell the home, or if your income changes.
The best for you
The right loan type depends, naturally, on your financial position. But whether you’re buying a primary residence, vacation home or investment property also plays a role. Regardless of which type of home you’re purchasing, having a basic knowledge of the loan types can help ease the buying process. Let our firm assist you in evaluating the best mortgage for your needs.
A royal flush can be quite a rush. But the IRS casts a wide net when defining gambling income. It includes winnings from casinos, horse races, lotteries and raffles, as well as any cash or prizes (appraised at fair market value) from contests. If you participate in any of these activities, you must report such winnings as income on your federal return.
If you’re a casual gambler, report your winnings as “Other income” on Form 1040. You may also take an itemized deduction for gambling losses, but the deduction is limited to the amount of winnings.
In some cases, casinos and other payers provide IRS Form W-2G, “Certain Gambling Winnings” — particularly if the entity in question withholds federal income tax from winnings. The information from these forms needs to be included on your tax return.
If you gamble often and actively, you might qualify as a professional gambler, which comes with tax benefits: It allows you to deduct not only losses, but also wagering-related business expenses — such as transportation, meals and entertainment, tournament and casino admissions, and applicable website and magazine subscriptions.
To qualify as a professional, you must be able to demonstrate to the IRS that a “profit motive” exists. The agency looks at a list of nonexclusive factors when making this determination, including:
But don’t “go pro” for the tax benefits, since doing so is a major financial risk. If you enjoy the occasional game of chance, or particularly if you’re considering gambling as a profession, please contact our firm. We can help you manage the tax impact.
From time to time, a business may find that its operating expenses and other deductions for a particular year exceed its income. This is known as incurring a net operating loss (NOL).
In such cases, companies (or their owners) may be able to snatch some tax relief from this revenue defeat. Under the Internal Revenue Code, a corporation or individual may deduct an NOL from its income.
3 ways to play
Generally, you take an NOL deduction in one of three ways:
1. Deducting the loss in previous years, called a “carryback,” which creates a refund,
2. Deducting the loss in future years, called a “carryforward,” which lowers your future tax liability, or
3. Doing a little bit of both.
A corporation or individual must carry back an NOL to the two years before the year it incurred the loss. But the carryback period may be increased to three years if a casualty or theft causes the NOL, or if you have a qualified small business and the loss is in a presidentially declared disaster area. The carryforward period is a maximum of 20 years.
Direction of travel
You must first carry back losses to the earliest tax year for which you qualify, depending on which carryback period applies. This can produce an immediate refund of taxes paid in the carryback years. From there, you may carry forward any remaining losses year by year up to the 20-year maximum.
You may, however, elect to forgo the carryback period and instead immediately carry forward a loss if you believe doing so will provide a greater tax benefit. But you’ll need to compare your marginal tax rate — that is, the tax rate of the last income dollar in the previous two years — with your expected marginal tax rates in future years.
For example, say your marginal tax rate was relatively low over the last two years, but you expect big profits next year. In this case, your increased income might put you in a higher marginal tax bracket. So you’d be smarter to waive the carryback period and carry forward the NOL to years in which you can use it to reduce income that otherwise would be taxed at the higher rate.
Then again, as of this writing, efforts are underway to pass tax law reform. So, if tax rates go down, it might be more beneficial to carry back an NOL as far as allowed before carrying it forward.
Whatever the reason
Many circumstances can create an NOL. Whatever the reason, the rules are complex. Let us help you work through the process.
Sidebar: AMT effect
One tricky aspect of navigating the net operating loss (NOL) rules is the impact of the alternative minimum tax (AMT). Many business owners wonder whether they can offset AMT liability with NOLs just as they can offset regular tax liability.
The answer is “yes” — you can deduct your AMT NOLs from your AMT income in generally the same manner as for regular NOLs. The excess of deductions allowed over the income recognized for AMT purposes is essentially the AMT NOL. But beware that different rules for deductions, exclusions and preferences apply to the AMT. (These rules apply to both individuals and corporations.)
When buying a vacation home, the primary objective is usually to provide a place for many years of happy memories. But you might also view the property as an income-producing investment and choose to rent it out when you’re not using it. Let’s take a look at how the IRS generally treats income and expenses associated with a vacation home.
Mostly personal use
You can generally deduct interest up to $1 million in combined acquisition debt on your main residence and a second residence, such as a vacation home. In addition, you can also deduct property taxes on any number of residences.
If you (or your immediate family) use the home for more than 14 days and rent it out for less than 15 days during the year, the IRS will consider the property a “pure” personal residence, and you don’t have to report the rental income. But any expenses associated with the rental — such as advertising or cleaning — aren’t deductible.
More rental use
If you rent out the home for more than 14 days and you (or your immediate family) occupy the home for more than 14 days or 10% of the days you rent the property — whichever is greater — the IRS will still classify the home as a personal residence (in other words, vacation home), but you will have to report the rental income.
In this situation, you can deduct the personal portion of mortgage interest, property taxes and casualty losses as itemized deductions. In addition, the rental portion of your expenses is deductible up to the amount of rental income. If your rental expenses are greater than your rental income, you may not deduct the loss against other income.
If you (or your immediate family) use the vacation home for 14 days or less, or under 10% of the days you rent out the property, whichever is greater, the IRS will classify the home as a rental property. In this instance, while the personal portion of mortgage interest isn’t deductible, you may report as an itemized deduction the personal portion of property taxes. You must report the rental income and may deduct all rental expenses, including depreciation, subject to the passive activity loss rules.
This has been just a brief examination of some of the tax issues related to a vacation home. Please contact our firm for a comprehensive assessment of your situation.
Once a relatively obscure concept, income in respect of a decedent (IRD) can create a surprisingly high tax bill for those who inherit certain types of property, such as IRAs or other retirement plans. Fortunately, there are ways to minimize or even eliminate the IRD tax bite.
How it works
Most inherited property is free from income taxes, but IRD assets are an exception. IRD is income a person was entitled to but hadn’t yet received at the time of his or her death. It includes:
IRD isn’t reported on the deceased’s final income tax return, but it’s included in his or her taxable estate, which may generate estate tax liability if the deceased’s estate exceeds the $5.49 million (for 2017) estate tax exemption, less any gift tax exemption used during life. (Be aware that President Trump and congressional Republicans have proposed an estate tax repeal. It hasn’t been passed as of this writing, but check back with us for the latest information.)
Then it’s taxed — potentially a second time — as income to the beneficiaries who receive it. This income retains the character it would have had in the deceased’s hands. So, for example, income the deceased would have reported as long-term capital gains is taxed to the beneficiary as long-term capital gains.
What can be done
When IRD generates estate tax liability, the combination of estate and income taxes can devour an inheritance. The tax code alleviates this double taxation by allowing beneficiaries to claim an itemized deduction for estate taxes attributable to amounts reported as IRD. (The deduction isn’t subject to the 2% floor for miscellaneous itemized deductions.)
The estate tax attributable to IRD is equal to the difference between the actual estate tax paid by the estate and the estate tax that would have been payable if the IRD’s net value had been excluded from the estate.
Suppose, for instance, that you’re the beneficiary of an estate that includes a taxable IRA. If the estate tax is $150,000 with the retirement account and $100,000 without, the estate tax attributable to the IRD income is $50,000. But be careful, because any deductions in respect of a decedent must also be included when calculating the estate tax impact.
When multiple IRD assets and multiple beneficiaries are involved, complex calculations are necessary to properly allocate the income and deductions. Similarly, when a beneficiary receives IRD over a period of years — IRA distributions, for example — the deduction must be prorated based on the amounts distributed each year.
We can help
If you inherit property that could be considered IRD, please consult our firm for assistance in managing the tax consequences. With proper planning, you can keep the cost to a minimum.
Married couples don’t always agree — and taxes are no exception. In certain cases, an “innocent” spouse can apply for relief from the responsibility of paying tax, interest and penalties arising from a spouse’s (or former spouse’s) improperly handled tax return. Although it isn’t easy to qualify, potentially affected taxpayers should review the rules.
Applicants may qualify for various forms of relief if they can meet the applicable IRS conditions. One factor that’s considered is whether the applicant received any significant direct or indirect benefit from the tax understatement. For instance, an applicant’s case could be weakened if he or she had used unreported income to pay extraordinary household expenses.
The IRS will also look at the distinctive aspects of the case. The fact that a spouse applying for relief has already divorced his or her partner is significant. Whether the applicant was abused physically or mentally will also play a role, as will whether he or she was in poor mental or physical health when the return(s) in question was signed. In addition, the IRS will consider whether the applicant would experience economic hardship without relief from a significant tax debt.
Generally, an applicant must request innocent spouse relief no later than two years after the date the IRS first attempted to collect the tax. But other forms of relief may still be available thereafter. Please contact our firm for more information.
The Achieving a Better Life Experience (ABLE) Act of 2014 created a tax-advantaged savings account for people who have a qualifying disability (or are blind) before age 26. Modeled after the well-known Section 529 college savings plan, ABLE accounts offer many benefits. But it’s important to understand their limitations.
Tax and funding benefits
Like Section 529 plans, state-sponsored ABLE accounts allow parents and other family and friends to make substantial cash contributions. Contributions aren’t tax deductible, but accounts can grow tax-free, and earnings may be withdrawn free of federal income tax if they’re used to pay qualified expenses. ABLE accounts can be established under any state ABLE program, regardless of where you or the disabled account beneficiary live.
In the case of a Section 529 plan, qualified expenses include college tuition, room and board, and certain other higher education expenses. For ABLE accounts, “qualified disability expenses” include a broad range of costs, such as health care, education, housing, transportation, employment training, assistive technology, personal support services, financial management, legal expenses, and funeral and burial expenses.
An ABLE account generally won’t jeopardize the beneficiary’s eligibility for means-tested government benefits, such as Medicaid or Supplemental Security Income (SSI). To qualify for these benefits, a person’s resources must be limited to no more than $2,000 in “countable assets.”
Assets in an ABLE account aren’t counted, with two exceptions: 1) Distributions used for housing expenses count, and 2) if the account balance exceeds $100,000, the beneficiary’s eligibility for SSI is suspended so long as the excess amount remains in the account.
ABLE accounts offer some attractive benefits, but they’re far less generous than those offered by Sec. 529 plans. Maximum contributions to 529 plans vary from state to state, but they often reach as high as $350,000 or more. The same maximum contribution limits generally apply to ABLE accounts, but practically speaking they’re limited to $100,000, given the impact on SSI benefits.
Like a 529 plan, an ABLE account allows investment changes only twice a year. But ABLE accounts also impose an annual limit on contributions equal to the annual gift tax exclusion (currently $14,000). There’s no annual limit on contributions to Sec. 529 plans.
ABLE accounts have other limitations and disadvantages as well. Unlike a Sec. 529 plan, an ABLE account doesn’t allow the person who sets up the account to be the owner. Rather, the account’s beneficiary is the owner.
However, a person with signature authority — such as a parent, legal guardian or power of attorney holder — can manage the account if the beneficiary is a minor or otherwise unable to manage the account. Nevertheless, contributions are irrevocable and the account’s funders may not make withdrawals. The beneficiary can be changed to another disabled individual who’s a family member of the designated beneficiary.
Finally, be aware that, when an ABLE account beneficiary dies, the state may claim reimbursement of its net Medicaid expenditures from any remaining balance.
If you have a child or relative with a disability in existence before age 26, it’s worth exploring the feasibility of an ABLE account. Please contact our firm for more details.
Like many people, you probably feel a great sense of relief wash over you after your tax return is completed and filed. Unfortunately, even professionally prepared and accurate returns may sometimes be subject to an IRS audit.
The good news? Chances are slim that it will actually happen. Only a small percentage of returns go through the full audit process. Still, you’re better off informed than taken completely by surprise should your number come up.
A variety of red flags can trigger an audit. Your return may be selected because the IRS received information from a third party — say, the W-2 submitted by your employer — that differs from the information reported on your return. This is often the employer’s mistake or occurs following a merger or acquisition.
In addition, the IRS scores all returns through its Discriminant Inventory Function System (DIF). A higher DIF score may increase your audit chances. While the formula for determining a DIF score is a well-guarded IRS secret, it’s generally understood that certain things may increase the likelihood of an audit, such as:
Bear in mind, though, that no single item will cause an audit. And, as mentioned, a relatively low percentage of returns are examined. This is particularly true as the IRS grapples with its own budget issues.
Finally, some returns are randomly chosen as part of the IRS’s National Research Program. Through this program, the agency studies returns to improve and update its audit selection techniques.
If you receive an audit notice, the first rule is: Don’t panic! Most are correspondence audits completed via mail. The IRS may ask for documentation on, for instance, your income or your purchase or sale of a piece of real estate.
Read the notice through carefully. The pages should indicate the items to be examined, as well as a deadline for responding. A timely response is important because it conveys that you’re organized and, thus, less likely to overlook important details. It also indicates that you didn’t need to spend extra time pulling together a story.
Your response (and ours)
Should an IRS notice appear in your mail, please contact our office. We can fully explain what the agency is looking for and help you prepare your response. If the IRS requests an in-person interview regarding the audit, we can accompany you — or even appear in your place if you provide authorization.
For many years, business owners had to ask themselves one question when it came to facing taxation in another state: Do we have “nexus”? This term indicates a business presence in a given state that’s substantial enough to trigger the state’s tax rules and obligations.
Well, the question still stands. And if you’re considering operating your business in multiple states, or are already doing so, it’s worth reviewing the concept of nexus and its tax impact on your company.
Precisely what activates nexus in a given state depends on that state’s chosen criteria. Triggers can vary but common criteria include:
Then again, one generally can’t say that nexus has a “hair trigger”. A minimal amount of business activity in a given state probably won’t create tax liability there.
For example, an HVAC company that makes a few tech calls a year across state lines probably wouldn’t be taxed in that state. Or let’s say you ask a salesperson to travel to another state to establish relationships or gauge interest. As long as he or she doesn’t close any sales, and you have no other activity in the state, you likely won’t have nexus.
As with many tax issues, the totality of facts and circumstances will determine whether you have nexus in a state. So it’s important to make assumptions either way. The tax impact could be significant, and its specifics will vary widely depending on just how the state in question approaches taxation.
For starters, strongly consider conducting a nexus study. This is a systematic approach to identifying the out-of-state taxes to which your business activities may expose you. The results of a nexus study may not necessarily be negative. You may find that your company’s overall tax liability is lower in a neighboring state. In such cases, it may be advantageous to create nexus in that state by, say, setting up a small office there. If all goes well, you may be able to allocate some income to that state and lower your tax bill.
Taxation and profitability
“The grass is always greener on the other side of the fence”, so the saying goes. If profitability beckons in another state, please contact our firm for help projecting how setting up shop there might affect your tax liability.
Sidebar: Service companies, beware of market-based sourcing
Nexus has been and remains the primary focus of companies considering whether and how they’d be taxed across state lines. (See main article.) But, recently, many states have established “market-based sourcing” for determining the tax liability of service companies that operate within their borders.
Under this approach, if the benefits of a service occur and will be used in another state, that state will tax the revenue gained from said service. “Service revenue” generally is defined as revenue from intangible assets — not the sales of tangible personal property.
Thus, in market-based sourcing states, the destination state of a service is the relevant taxation factor rather than the state in which the income-producing activity is performed (also known as the “cost of performance” method).
Individuals may want to donate artwork so it can be enjoyed by a wider audience or available for scholarly study or simply to make room for new artwork in their home. Here are four tips for donating artwork with an eye toward tax savings:
1. Get an appraisal. Donations of artwork valued at over $5,000 require a “qualified appraisal” by a “qualified appraiser”. IRS rules detail the requirements. In addition, auditors are required to refer all gifts of art valued at $20,000 or more to the agency’s Art Advisory Panel. The panel’s findings are the IRS’s official position on the art’s value, so it’s critical to provide a solid appraisal to support your valuation.
2. Donate to a public charity. Donations to a qualified public charity (such as a museum or university) potentially entitle you to deduct the artwork’s full fair market value. If you donate to a private foundation, your deduction will be limited to your cost. The total amount of charitable donations you may deduct in a given year is limited to a percentage of your adjusted gross income (50% for public charities, 30% for private foundations) with the excess carried forward for up to five years.
3. Beware the related-use rule. To qualify for a full fair-market-value deduction, the charity’s use of the artwork must be related to its tax-exempt purpose. Even if the related-use rule is satisfied initially, you may lose some or all of your deductions if the artwork is worth more than $5,000 and the charity sells or otherwise disposes of it within three years of receipt. If that happens, you may be able to preserve your tax benefits via a certification process. (For further details, please contact us.)
4. Consider a fractional donation. Donating a fractional interest allows you to save tax dollars without completely giving up the artwork. Say you donate a 25% interest in your art collection to a museum for it to display for three months annually. You could then deduct 25% of the collection’s fair market value and continue displaying the art in your home or business for most of the year.
The rules for fractional donations, and charitable contributions of artwork in general, can be tricky. Plus, tax law changes affecting deductions may occur in the coming year. Contact our firm for help.
Today’s technology makes self-employment easier than ever. But if you work for yourself, you’ll face some distinctive challenges when it comes to your taxes. Here are some important steps to take:
Learn your liability. Self-employed individuals are liable for self-employment tax, which means they must pay both the employee and employer portions of FICA taxes. The good news is that you may deduct the employer portion of these taxes. Plus, you might be able to make significantly larger retirement contributions than you would as an employee.
However, you’ll likely be required to make quarterly estimated tax payments, because income taxes aren’t withheld from your self-employment income as they are from wages. If you fail to fully make these payments, you could face an unexpectedly high tax bill and underpayment penalties.
Distinguish what’s deductible. Under IRS rules, deductible business expenses for the self-employed must be “ordinary” and “necessary.” Basically, these are costs that are commonly incurred by businesses similar to yours and readily justifiable as needed to run your operations.
The tax agency stipulates, “An expense does not have to be indispensable to be considered necessary.” But pushing this grey area too far can trigger an audit. Common examples of deductible business expenses for the self-employed include licenses, accounting fees, equipment, supplies, legal expenses and business-related software.
Don’t forget your home office! You may deduct many direct expenses (such as business-only phone and data lines, as well as office supplies) and indirect expenses (such as real estate taxes and maintenance) associated with your home office. The tax break for indirect expenses is based on just how much of your home is used for business purposes, which you can generally determine by either measuring the square footage of your workspace as a percentage of the home’s total area or using a fraction based on the number of rooms.
The IRS typically looks at two questions to determine whether a taxpayer qualifies for the home office deduction:
1. Is the specific area of the home that’s used for business purposes used only for business purposes, not personal ones?
2. Is the space used regularly and continuously for business?
If you can answer in the affirmative to these questions, you’ll likely qualify. But please contact our firm for specific assistance with the home office deduction or any other aspect of filing your taxes as a self-employed individual.
As tax-filing season gets into full swing, there are many details to remember. One subject to keep in mind — especially if you’ve seen your income rise recently — is whether you’ll be able to reap the full value of tax breaks that you’ve claimed previously.
What could change? If your adjusted gross income (AGI) exceeds the applicable threshold, your personal exemptions will begin to be phased out and your itemized deductions reduced. For 2016, the thresholds are $259,400 (single), $285,350 (head of household), $311,300 (joint filer) and $155,650 (married filing separately). These are up from the 2015 thresholds, which were $258,250 (single), $284,050 (head of household), $309,900 (joint filer) and $154,950 (married filing separately).
The personal exemption phaseout reduces exemptions by 2% for each $2,500 (or portion thereof) by which a taxpayer’s AGI exceeds the applicable threshold (2% for each $1,250 for married taxpayers filing separately). Meanwhile, the itemized deduction limitation reduces otherwise allowable deductions by 3% of the amount by which a taxpayer’s AGI exceeds the applicable threshold (not to exceed 80% of otherwise allowable deductions). It doesn’t apply, however, to deductions for medical expenses, investment interest, or casualty, theft or wagering losses.
If your AGI is close to the threshold, AGI-reduction strategies (such as making retirement plan and Health Savings Account contributions) may allow you to stay under it. If that’s not possible, consider the reduced tax benefit of the affected deductions before implementing strategies to accelerate or defer deductible expenses. Please contact our firm for specific strategies tailored to your situation.
If you're planning to make significant charitable donations in the coming year, consider a donor-advised fund (DAF). These accounts allow you to take a charitable income tax deduction immediately, while deferring decisions about how much to give — and to whom — until the time is right.
A DAF is a tax-advantaged investment account administered by a not-for-profit "sponsoring organization", such as a community foundation or the charitable arm of a financial services firm. Contributions are treated as gifts to a Section 501(c)(3) public charity, which are deductible up to 50% of adjusted gross income (AGI) for cash contributions and up to 30% of AGI for contributions of appreciated property (such as stock). Unused deductions may be carried forward for up to five years, and funds grow tax-free until distributed.
Although contributions are irrevocable, you're allowed to give the account a name and recommend how the funds will be invested (among the options offered by the DAF) and distributed to charities over time. You can even name a successor advisor, or prepare written instructions, to recommend investments and charitable gifts after your death.
Technically, a DAF isn't bound to follow your recommendations. But in practice, DAFs almost always respect donors' wishes. Generally, the only time a fund will refuse a donor's request is if the intended recipient isn't a qualified charity.
As mentioned, DAF owners can immediately deduct contributions but make gifts to charities later. Consider this scenario: Rhonda typically earns around $150,000 in AGI each year. In 2017, however, she sells her business, lifting her income to $5 million for the year.
Rhonda decides to donate $500,000 to charity, but she wants to take some time to investigate charities and spend her charitable dollars wisely. By placing $500,000 in a DAF this year, she can deduct the full amount immediately and decide how to distribute the funds in the coming years. If she waits until next year to make charitable donations, her deduction will be limited to $75,000 per year (50% of her AGI).
Even if you have a particular charity in mind, spreading your donations over several years can be a good strategy. It gives you time to evaluate whether the charity is using the funds responsibly before you make additional gifts. A DAF allows you to adopt this strategy without losing the ability to deduct the full amount in the year when it will do you the most good.
Another key advantage is capital gains avoidance. An effective charitable-giving strategy is to donate appreciated assets — such as securities or real estate. You're entitled to deduct the property's fair market value, and you can avoid the capital gains taxes you would have owed had you sold the property.
But not all charities are equipped to accept and manage this type of donation. Many DAFs, however, have the resources to accept contributions of appreciated assets, liquidate them and then reinvest the proceeds.
Requirements and fees
A DAF can also help you streamline your estate plan and donate to a charity anonymously. Requirements and fees vary from fund to fund, however. Please contact our firm for help finding one that meets your needs.
If your company owns real property, or you do so individually, you may not always be able to dispose of it as quickly as you'd like. One avenue for perhaps finding a buyer a little sooner is an installment sale.
Benefits and risks
An installment sale occurs when you transfer property in exchange for a promissory note and receive at least one payment after the tax year of the sale. Doing so allows you to receive interest on the full amount of the promissory note, often at a higher rate than you could earn from other investments, while deferring taxes and improving cash flow.
But there may be some disadvantages for sellers. For instance, the buyer may not make all payments and you may have to deal with foreclosure.
You generally must report an installment sale on your tax return under the "installment method." Each installment payment typically consists of interest income, return of your adjusted basis in the property and gain on the sale. For every taxable year in which you receive an installment payment, you must report as income the interest and gain components.
Calculating taxable gain involves multiplying the amount of payments, excluding interest, received in the taxable year by the gross profit ratio for the sale. The gross profit ratio is equal to the gross profit (the selling price less your adjusted basis) divided by the total contract price (the selling price less any qualifying indebtedness — mortgages, debts and other liabilities assumed or taken by the buyer — that doesn't exceed your basis).
The selling price includes the money and the fair market value of any other property you received for the sale of the property, selling expenses paid by the buyer and existing debt encumbering the property (regardless of whether the buyer assumes personal liability for it).
You may be considered to have received a taxable payment even if the buyer doesn't pay you directly. If the buyer assumes or pays any of your debts or expenses, it could be deemed a payment in the year of the sale. In many cases, though, the buyer's assumption of your debt is treated as a recovery of your basis, rather than a payment.
The rules of installment sales are complex. Please contact us to discuss this strategy further.
Where did the time go? The year is quickly drawing to a close, but there’s still time to take steps to reduce your 2016 tax liability. Here are seven last-minute tax-saving tips to consider — you just must act by December 31:
1. Pay your 2016 property tax bill that’s due in early 2017.
2. Pay your fourth quarter state income tax estimated payment that’s due in January 2017.
3. Incur deductible medical expenses (if your deductible medical expenses for the year already exceed the applicable floor).
4. Pay tuition for academic periods that will begin in January, February or March of 2017 (if it will make you eligible for a tax deduction or credit).
5. Donate to your favorite charities.
6. Sell investments at a loss to offset capital gains you’ve recognized this year.
7. Ask your employer if your bonus can be deferred until January.
Keep in mind, however, that in certain situations these strategies might not make sense. For example, if you’ll be subject to the alternative minimum tax this year or be in a higher tax bracket next year, taking some of these steps could have undesirable results.
To make absolutely sure which of these tips are right for you, and learn whether there are other beneficial last-minute moves you might make, please contact our firm. We can help you maximize your tax savings for 2016.
Are you in your 50s or 60s and thinking more about retirement? If so, and you’re still not completely comfortable with the size of your nest egg, don’t forget about “catch-up” contributions. These are additional amounts beyond the regular annual limits that workers age 50 or older can contribute to certain retirement accounts.
Catch-up contributions give you the chance to take maximum advantage of the potential for tax-deferred or, in the case of Roth accounts, tax-free growth.
Under 2016 401(k) limits, if you’re age 50 or older, after you’ve reached the $18,000 maximum limit for all employees, you can contribute an extra $6,000, for a total of $24,000. If your employer offers a Savings Incentive Match Plan for Employees (SIMPLE) instead, your regular contribution maxes out at $12,500 in 2016. If you’re 50 or older, you’re allowed to contribute an additional $3,000 — or $15,500 in total for the year.
But, check with your employer because, while most 401(k) plans and SIMPLEs offer catch-up contributions, not all do.
Another way to save more after age 50 is through a traditional IRA or a Roth IRA. With either plan, those 50 or older generally can contribute another $1,000 above the $5,500 limit for 2016. Plus, you can make 2016 IRA contributions as late as April 18, 2017.
The benefits of making the additional contribution differ depending on which account you’re considering. With a traditional IRA, contributions may be tax deductible, providing you with immediate tax savings. (The deductibility phases out at higher income levels if you or your spouse is covered by an employer retirement plan.)
Roth contributions are made with after-tax dollars, but qualified withdrawals are tax-free. By contributing to a Roth IRA and taking the tax hit up front, you won’t lose any of the income to taxes at withdrawal, provided you’re at least 59½ and have held a Roth IRA at least five years. However, be aware that the ability to contribute to a Roth IRA is phased out based on income level.
Another option if you’d like to enjoy tax-free withdrawals is to convert some or all of your traditional IRA to a Roth IRA — but you’ll also take an up-front tax hit.
If you’re self-employed, retirement plans such as an individual 401(k) — or solo 401(k) — also allow catch-up contributions. A solo 401(k) is a plan for those with no other employees. You can defer 100% of your self-employment income or compensation, up to the regular yearly deferral limit of $18,000, plus a $6,000 catch-up contribution in 2016. But that’s just the employee salary deferral portion of the contribution.
You can also make an “employer” contribution of up to 20% of self-employment income or 25% of compensation. The total combined employee-employer contribution is limited to $53,000, plus the $6,000 catch-up contribution.
The year’s almost over, but you still have time to squirrel away a few extra dollars.