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.
When many people think about charitable giving, they picture writing a check or dropping off a cardboard box of nonperishable food items at a designated location. But giving to charity can take many different forms. One that you may not be aware of is a gift of appreciated stock. Yes, donating part of your portfolio is not only possible, but it also can be a great way to boost the tax benefits of your charitable giving.
No pain from gains
Many charitable organizations are more than happy to receive appreciated stock as a gift. It’s not unusual for these entities to maintain stock portfolios, and they’re also free to sell donated stock.
As a donor, contributing appreciated stock can entitle you to a tax deduction equal to the securities’ fair market value — just as if you had sold the stock and contributed the cash. But neither you nor the charity receiving the stock will owe capital gains tax on the appreciation. So you not only get the deduction, but also avoid a capital gains hit.
The key word here is “appreciated”. The strategy doesn’t work with stock that’s declined in value. If you have securities that have taken a loss, you’ll be better off selling the stock and donating the proceeds. This way, you can take two deductions (up to applicable limits): one for the capital loss and one for the charitable donation.
Inevitably, there are restrictions on deductions for donating appreciated stock. Annually you may deduct appreciated stock contributions to public charities only up to 30% of your adjusted gross income (AGI). For donations to nonoperating private foundations, the limit is 20% of AGI. Any excess can be carried forward up to five years.
So, for example, if you contribute $50,000 of appreciated stock to a public charity and have an AGI of $100,000, you can deduct just $30,000 this year. You can carry forward the unused $20,000 to next year. Whatever amount (if any) you can’t use next year can be carried forward until used up or you hit the five-year mark, whichever occurs first.
Moreover, you must have owned the security for at least one year to deduct the fair market value. Otherwise, the deduction is limited to your tax basis (generally what you paid for the stock). Also, the charity must be a 501(c)(3) organization.
Last, these rules apply only to appreciated stock. If you donate a different form of appreciated property, such as artwork or jewelry, different requirements apply.
A donation of appreciated stock may not be the simplest way to give to charity. But, for the savvy investor looking to make a positive difference and manage capital gains tax liability, it can be a powerful strategy. Please contact our firm for help deciding whether it’s right for you and, if so, how to properly execute the donation.
As the year winds down, many people begin to wonder whether they should put off until next year purchases they were considering for this year. One interesting wrinkle to consider from a tax perspective is the sales tax deduction.
Making the choice
This tax break allows taxpayers to take an itemized deduction for state and local sales taxes in lieu of state and local income taxes. It was permanently extended by the Protecting Americans from Tax Hikes Act of 2015.
The deduction is obviously valuable to those who reside in states with no or low income tax. But it can also substantially benefit taxpayers in other states who buy a major item, such as a car or boat.
Considering the break
Because the break is now permanent, there’s no urgency to make a large purchase this year to take advantage of it. Nonetheless, the tax impact of the deduction is worth considering.
For example, let’s say you buy a new car in 2016, your state and local income tax liability for the year is $3,000, and the sales tax on the car is also $3,000. This may sound like a wash, but bear in mind that, if you elect to deduct sales tax, you can deduct all of the sales tax you’ve paid during the year — not just the tax on the car purchase.
Picking an approach
To claim the deduction, you need not keep receipts and track all of the sales tax you’ve paid this year. You can simply use an IRS sales tax calculator that will base the deduction on your income and the sales tax rates in your locale, plus the tax you actually pay on certain major purchases.
Then again, if you retain documentation for your purchases, you might enjoy a larger deduction. The “actual receipt” approach could result in a sizable deduction if you’ve made a number of notable purchases in the past year that don’t qualify to be added on to the sales tax calculator amount. Examples include furnishing a new home, investing in high-value electronics or software, or purchasing expensive jewelry (such as engagement and wedding rings).
Saving while buying
The sales tax deduction offers an opportunity to save tax dollars while buying the items you want or need. Let us help you determine whether it’s right for you.
Appraisals can inspire anxiety for many business owners. And it’s understandable why. You’re obviously not short on things to do, and valuations cost time and money. Nonetheless, there are some legitimate reasons to obtain an appraisal regularly or, at the very least, to familiarize yourself with the process so you’re ready when the time comes.
Perhaps the most common purpose of a valuation is a prospective ownership transfer. Yet strategic investments (such as a new product or service line) can also greatly benefit from an accurate appraisal. As growth opportunities arise, business owners have only limited resources to pursue chosen strategies. A valuation can help plot the most likely route to success.
But hold on — you might say, why not simply rely on our tried-and-true projected financial statements for strategic planning? One reason is that projections ignore the time value of money because, by definition, they describe what’s going to happen given a set of circumstances. Thus, it can be difficult to compare detailed projections against other investments under consideration.
Valuators, however, can convert your financial statement projections into cash flow projections and then incorporate the time value of money into your decision making. For instance, in a net present value (NPV) analysis, an appraiser projects each alternative investment’s expected cash flows. Then he or she discounts each period’s projected cash flow to its present value, using a discount rate proportionate to its risk.
If the sum of these present values — the NPV — is greater than zero, the investment is likely worthwhile. When comparing alternatives, a higher NPV is generally better.
3 pillars of the process
Many business owners just don’t know what to expect from a valuation. To simplify matters, let’s look at three basic “pillars” of the appraisal process:
1. Purpose. There’s no such thing as a recreational valuation. Each one needs to have a specific purpose. This could be as clear-cut as an impending sale. Or perhaps an owner is divorcing his spouse and needs to determine the value of the business interest that’s includable in the marital estate.
In other cases, an appraisal may be driven by strategic planning. Have I grown the business enough to cash out now? Or how much further could we grow based on our current estimated value? The valuation’s purpose strongly affects how an appraiser will proceed.
2. Standard of value. Generally, business valuations are based on “fair market value” — the price at which property would change hands in a hypothetical transaction involving informed buyers and sellers not under duress to buy or sell. But some assignments call for a different standard of value.
For example, say you’re contemplating selling to a competitor. In this case, you might be best off getting an appraisal for the “strategic value” of your company — that is, the value to a particular investor, including buyer-specific synergies.
3. Basis of value. Private business interests typically are designated as either “controlling” or “minority” (nonmarketable). In other words, do you truly control your company or are you a noncontrolling owner?
Defining the appropriate basis of value isn’t always straightforward. Suppose a business is split equally between two partners. Because each owner has some control, stalemates could impair decision-making. An appraiser will need to definitively establish basis of value when selecting a valuation methodology and applying valuation discounts.
Often, we all find it difficult to be objective about the things we hold close. There are few better examples of this than business owners and their companies. But a valuation can provide you with an unbiased, up-to-date perspective on your business that can help you make better decisions about its future.
The traditional pension may seem like a thing of the past. But many workers are still counting on payouts from one of these “defined benefit” plans in retirement. If you’re among this group, it’s important to start thinking now about how you’ll receive the money from your pension.
Making a choice
Some defined benefit plans give retirees a choice between receiving payouts in the form of a lump sum or an annuity. Taking a lump sum distribution allows you to invest the money as you please. Plus, if you manage and invest the funds wisely, you may be able to achieve better returns than those provided by an annuity.
On the other hand, if you’re concerned about the risks associated with investing your pension benefits (you could lose principal) — or don’t want the responsibility — an annuity offers guaranteed income for life. (Bear in mind that guarantees are subject to the claims-paying ability of the issuing company.)
Choosing yet again
If you choose to receive your pension benefits in the form of an annuity — or if your plan doesn’t offer a lump sum option — your plan likely will require you to choose between a single-life or joint-life annuity. A single-life annuity provides you with monthly benefits for life. The joint-life option (also referred to as “joint and survivor”) provides a smaller monthly benefit, but the payments continue over the joint lifetimes of both you and your spouse.
Deciding between the two annuity options requires some educated guesswork. To determine the option that will provide the greatest overall financial benefit, you’ll need to consider several factors — including your and your spouse’s actuarial life expectancies as well as factors that may affect your actual life expectancies, such as current health conditions and family medical histories.
You might choose the single-life option, for example, if you and your spouse have comparable life expectancies or if you expect to live longer. Under those circumstances, the higher monthly payment will maximize your overall benefits.
But there’s a risk, too: Because the payments will stop at your death, if you die prematurely and your spouse outlives you, the overall financial benefit may be smaller than if you’d chosen the joint-life option. The difference could be substantial if your spouse outlives you by many years.
Your overall financial situation — that is, your expenses and your other assets and income sources — also play a major role. Even if you expect a joint-life annuity to yield the greatest total benefit over time, you may want to consider a single-life annuity if you need additional liquidity in the short term.
Managing this asset
Although increasingly uncommon, these defined benefit plans can be a highly valuable asset. Please contact us for help managing yours appropriately.
When it comes to tax planning, you’ve got to be ready for anything. For example, do you know whether you’re likely to be subject to the alternative minimum tax (AMT) when you file your 2016 return? If not, you need to find out now so that you can consider taking steps before year end to minimize potential liability.
The AMT was established to ensure that high-income individuals pay at least a minimum tax, even if they have many large deductions that significantly reduce their “regular” income tax. If your AMT liability is greater than your regular income tax liability, you must pay the difference as AMT, in addition to the regular tax.
AMT rates begin at 26% and rise to 28% at higher income levels. The maximum rate is lower than the maximum income tax rate of 39.6%, but far fewer deductions are allowed, so the AMT could end up taking a bigger tax bite.
For instance, you can’t deduct state and local income or sales taxes, property taxes, miscellaneous itemized deductions subject to the 2% floor, or home equity loan interest on debt not used for home improvements. You also can’t take personal exemptions for yourself or your dependents, or the standard deduction if you don’t itemize your deductions.
Steps to consider
Fortunately, you may be able to take steps to minimize your AMT liability, including:
Timing capital gains. The AMT exemption (an amount you can deduct in calculating AMT liability) phases out based on income, so realizing capital gains could cause you to lose part or all of the exemption. If it looks like you could be subject to the AMT this year, you might want to delay sales of highly appreciated assets until next year (if you don’t expect to be subject to the AMT then) or use an installment sale to spread the gains (and potential AMT liability) over multiple years.
Timing deductible expenses. Try to time the payment of expenses that are deductible for regular tax purposes but not AMT purposes for years in which you don’t anticipate AMT liability. Otherwise, you’ll gain no tax benefit from those deductions. If you’re on the threshold of AMT liability this year, you might want to consider delaying state tax payments, as long as the late-payment penalty won’t exceed the tax savings from staying under the AMT threshold.
Investing in the “right” bonds. Interest on tax-exempt bonds issued for public activities (for example, schools and roads) is exempt from the AMT. You may want to convert bonds issued for private activities (for example, sports stadiums), which generally don’t enjoy the AMT interest exemption.
Failing to plan for the AMT can lead to unexpected — and undesirable — tax consequences. Please contact us for help assessing your risk and, if necessary, implementing the appropriate strategies for your situation.
Sidebar: Does this sound familiar?
High-income earners are typically most susceptible to the alternative minimum tax. But liability may also be triggered by:
When 529 plans first hit the scene, circa 1996, they were big news. Nowadays, they’re a common part of the college-funding landscape. But don’t forget about them — 529 plans remain a valid means of saving for the rising cost of tuition and more.
Flexibility is king
529 plans are generally sponsored by states, though private institutions can sponsor 529 prepaid tuition plans. Just about anyone can open a 529 plan. And you can name anyone, including a child, grandchild, friend, or even yourself, as the beneficiary.
Investment options for 529 savings plans typically include stock and bond mutual funds, as well as money market funds. Some plans offer age-based portfolios that automatically shift to more conservative investments as the beneficiaries near college age.
Earnings in 529 savings plans typically aren’t subject to federal tax, so long as the funds are used for the beneficiary’s qualified educational expenses. This can include tuition, room and board, books, fees, and computer technology at most accredited two- and four-year colleges and universities, vocational schools, and eligible foreign institutions.
Many states offer full or partial state income tax deductions or other tax incentives to residents making 529 plan contributions, at least if the contributions are made to a plan sponsored by that state.
You’re not limited to participating in your own state’s plan. You may find you’re better off with another state’s plan that offers a wider range of investments or lower fees.
While 529 plans can help save taxes, they have some downsides. Amounts not used for qualified educational expenses may be subject to taxes and penalties. A 529 plan also might reduce a student’s ability to get need-based financial aid, because money in the plan isn’t an “exempt” asset. That said, 529 plan money is generally treated more favorably than, for instance, assets in a custodial account in the student’s name.
Just like other investments, those within 529s can fluctuate with the stock market. And some plans charge enrollment and asset management fees.
Finally, in the case of prepaid tuition plans, there may be some uncertainty as to how the benefits will be applied if the student goes to a different school.
Work with a pro
The tax rules governing 529 savings plans can be complex. So please give us a call. We can help you determine whether a 529 plan is right for you.
With summer headed toward its inevitable close, you may be tempted to splurge on a pricey “last hurrah” trip. Or perhaps you’d like to buy a brand new convertible to feel the warm breeze in your hair. Whatever the temptation may be, if you’ve pondered dipping into your 401(k) account for the money, make sure you’re aware of the consequences before you take out the loan.
Pros and cons
Many 401(k) plans allow participants to borrow as much as 50% of their vested account balances, up to $50,000. These loans are attractive because:
Yet, despite their appeal, 401(k) loans present significant risks. Although you pay the interest to yourself, you lose the benefits of tax-deferred compounding on the money you borrow.
You may have to reduce or eliminate 401(k) contributions during the loan term, either because you can’t afford to contribute or because your plan prohibits contributions while a loan is outstanding. Either way, you lose any future earnings and employer matches you would have enjoyed on those contributions.
Loans, unless used for a personal residence, must be repaid within five years. Generally, the loan terms must include level amortization, which consists of principal and interest, and payments must be made no less frequently than quarterly.
Additionally, if you’re laid off, you’ll have to pay the outstanding balance quickly — typically within 30 to 90 days. Otherwise, the amount you owe will be treated as a distribution subject to income taxes and, if you’re under age 59½, a 10% early withdrawal penalty.
If you need the money for emergency purposes, rather than recreational ones, determine whether your plan offers a hardship withdrawal. Some plans allow these to pay certain expenses related to medical care, college, funerals and home ownership — such as first-time home purchase costs and expenses necessary to avoid eviction or mortgage foreclosure.
Even if your plan allows such withdrawals, you may have to show that you’ve exhausted all other resources. Also, the amounts you withdraw will be subject to income taxes and, except for certain medical expenses or if you’re over age 59½, a 10% early withdrawal penalty.
Like plan loans, hardship withdrawals are costly. In addition to owing taxes and possibly penalties, you lose future tax-deferred earnings on the withdrawn amounts. But, unlike a loan, hardship withdrawals need not be paid back. And you won’t risk any unpleasant tax surprises should you lose your job.
The right move
Generally, you should borrow or take hardship withdrawals from a 401(k) only in emergencies or when no other financing options exist (and your job is secure). For help deciding whether such a loan would be right for you, please call us.
When they’re old enough to understand the concepts, some children start investing in the markets. If you’re helping a child learn the risks and benefits of investments, be sure you learn about the tax impact first.
For the 2016 tax year, if a child’s interest, dividends and other unearned income total more than $2,100, part of that income is taxed based on the parent’s tax rate. This is a critical point because, as joint filers, many married couples’ tax rate is much higher than the rate at which the child would be taxed.
Generally, a child’s $1,050 standard deduction for unearned income eliminates liability on the first half of that $2,100. Then, unearned income between $1,050 and $2,100 is taxed at the child’s lower rate.
But it’s here that potential danger sets in. A child’s unearned income exceeding $2,100 may be taxed at the parent’s higher tax rate if the child is under age 19 or a full-time student age 19–23, but not if the child is over age 17 and has earned income exceeding half of his support. (Other stipulations may apply.)
In many cases, parents take a simplified approach to their child’s investment income. They choose to include their son’s or daughter’s investment income on their own return rather than have him or her file a return of their own.
Basically, if a child’s interest and dividend income (including capital gains distributions) total more than $1,500 and less than $10,500, parents may make this election. But a variety of other requirements apply. For example, the unearned income in question must come from only interest and dividends.
Investing can teach kids about the time value of money, the importance of patience, and the rise and fall of business success. But it can also deliver a harsh lesson to parents who aren’t fully prepared for the tax impact. We can help you determine how your child’s investment activities apply to your specific situation.
One of the great things about setting up a home office is that you can make it as comfy as possible. Assuming you’ve done that, another good idea is getting comfortable with the home office deduction.
To qualify for the deduction, you generally must maintain a specific area in your home that you use regularly and exclusively in connection with your business. What’s more, you must use the area as your principal place of business or, if you also conduct business elsewhere, use the area to regularly conduct business, such as meeting clients and handling management and administrative functions. If you’re an employee, your use of the home office must be for your employer’s benefit.
The only option to calculate this tax break used to be the actual expense method. With this method, you deduct a percentage (proportionate to the percentage of square footage used for the home office) of indirect home office expenses, including mortgage interest, property taxes, association fees, insurance premiums, utilities (if you don’t have a separate hookup), security system costs and depreciation (generally over a 39-year period). In addition, you deduct direct expenses, including business-only phone and fax lines, utilities (if you have a separate hookup), office supplies, painting and repairs, and depreciation on office furniture.
But now there’s an easier way to claim the deduction. Under the simplified method, you multiply the square footage of your home office (up to a maximum of 300 square feet) by a fixed rate of $5 per square foot. You can claim up to $1,500 per year using this method. Of course, if your deduction will be larger using the actual expense method, that will save you more tax. Questions? Please give us a call.
Many families hire people to work in their homes, such as nannies, housekeepers, cooks, gardeners and health care workers. If you employ a domestic worker, make sure you know the tax rules.
Not everyone who works at your home is considered a household employee for tax purposes. To understand your obligations, determine whether your workers are employees or independent contractors. Independent contractors are responsible for their own employment taxes, while household employers and employees share the responsibility.
Workers are generally considered employees if you control what they do and how they do it. It makes no difference whether you employ them full time or part time, or pay them a salary or an hourly wage.
Social Security and Medicare taxes
If a household worker’s cash wages exceed the domestic employee coverage threshold of $2,000 in 2016, you must pay Social Security and Medicare taxes — 15.3% of wages, which you can either pay entirely or split with the worker. (If you and the worker share the expense, you must withhold his or her share.) But don’t count wages you pay to:
The domestic employee coverage threshold is adjusted annually for inflation, and there’s a wage limit on Social Security tax ($118,500 for 2016, adjusted annually for inflation).
Social Security and Medicare taxes apply only to cash wages, which don’t include the value of food, clothing, lodging and other noncash benefits you provide to household employees. You can also exclude reimbursements to employees for certain parking or commuting costs. One way to provide a valuable benefit to household workers while minimizing employment taxes is to provide them with health insurance.
Unemployment and federal income taxes
If you pay total cash wages to household employees of $1,000 or more in any calendar quarter in the current or preceding calendar year, you must pay federal unemployment tax (FUTA). Wages you pay to your spouse, children under age 21 and parents are excluded.
The tax is 6% of each household employee’s cash wages up to $7,000 per year. You may also owe state unemployment contributions, but you’re entitled to a FUTA credit for those contributions, up to 5.4% of wages.
You don’t have to withhold federal income tax or, usually, state income tax unless the worker requests it and you agree. In these instances, you must withhold federal income taxes on both cash and noncash wages, except for meals you provide employees for your convenience, lodging you provide in your home for your convenience and as a condition of employment, and certain reimbursed commuting and parking costs (including transit passes, tokens, fare cards, qualifying vanpool transportation and qualified parking at or near the workplace).
As an employer, you have a variety of tax and other legal obligations. This includes obtaining a federal Employer Identification Number (EIN) and having each household employee complete Forms W-4 (for withholding) and I-9 (which documents that he or she is eligible to work in the United States).
After year end, you must file Form W-2 for each household employee to whom you paid more than $2,000 in Social Security and Medicare wages or for whom you withheld federal income tax. And you must comply with federal and state minimum wage and overtime requirements. In some states, you may also have to provide workers’ compensation or disability coverage and fulfill other tax, insurance and reporting requirements.
Having a household employee can make family life easier. Unfortunately, it can also make your tax return a bit more complicated. Let us help you with the details.
With tax time long over and midyear officially here, it’s a great time to organize your financial records. And the key word here is indeed “organize.” Throwing all your important documents into a drawer won’t help much when an emergency occurs and you (or a family member) need to find a certain piece of paper.
Make a list
Of course, emergencies aren’t the only reason to organize your records. For example, you may need to be able to access relevant personal records if you’re ever audited or a victim of theft. Or your home could be damaged in a storm or fire. Or you may need proof to cash in investments or claim insurance benefits.
To get started, make a list of important records. These include items related to:
Grouping the items into broad categories such as these will make them easier to file and find later.
Establish your approach
With your list in hand, it’s time to start organizing and storing your records. Here are some tips for streamlining the process:
Create a central filing system. The ideal storage medium for personal documents is a fire-, water- and impact-resistant security cabinet or safe. Create a master list of the cabinet contents and provide a copy of the key to your executor or a trusted family member.
Designate a second storage location. Maintain a duplicate set of the records in another location, such as a bank safety deposit box, and provide access to a trusted individual (preferably not the same individual with access to the original documents). Consider keeping originals of your important legal documents, such as your will, with your attorney.
Back up records electronically. It also makes sense to store copies of records electronically. Simply scan your documents and save them to a trustworthy external storage device. If opting for a cloud-based backup system, choose your provider carefully to ensure its security measures are as stringent as possible.
Follow the ritual
Make organizing your records an annual ritual and not just a one-time event. Need assistance? We can help you identify the specific documents pertinent to your situation and organize them appropriately.
Sidebar: Create an emergency checklist to cope with calamity
Having an emergency checklist of important personal records handy is essential in the event you must evacuate your home. In a crisis, you’ll likely be able to take only what you can easily carry with you. That means storing the bare essentials in a portable container. Include these items:
Also set up an “In Case of Emergency” (ICE) directory in your cell phone. In your phone directory, simply type in “ICE” before each contact (ICE-1 Jane Smith, ICE-2 Dr. John Smith, etc.). Also consider storing and carrying electronic copies of key personal records on a USB flash drive.
The coming and going of Memorial Day marks the beginning of summer in the minds of many Americans. Although the kids might still be in school for another week or two, summer day camp is rapidly approaching for many families. If yours is among them, did you know that sending your child to day camp might make you eligible for a tax break?
Day camp is a qualified expense under the child and dependent care credit. This tax break is worth 20% of qualifying expenses, subject to a cap — and could be worth even more if your adjusted gross income is less than $43,000. For 2016, the maximum expenses allowed for the credit are $3,000 for one qualifying child and $6,000 for two or more.
Be aware, however, that overnight camp costs don’t qualify for the credit, nor do expenses related to summer school tutoring. In addition, certain types of child care are ineligible. These include care provided by a spouse and care provided by a child who’s under age 19 at the end of the year.
A variety of additional rules may apply. For example, eligible costs for care must be work-related. In other words, parents need to pay for the care so that they can work (or look for work). If you think you might qualify for the child and dependent care credit, please contact us. We can help you determine whether you’re eligible and then properly claim this potentially valuable tax break.
Preserving and managing family wealth requires addressing a number of major issues. These include saving for your children’s education and funding your own retirement. Juggling these competing demands is no trick. Rather, it requires a carefully devised and maintained family wealth management plan.
Start with the basics
First, a good estate plan can help ensure that, in the event of your death, your children will be taken care of and, if your estate is large, that they won’t lose a substantial portion of their inheritances to estate taxes. It can also guarantee that your assets will be passed along to your heirs according to your wishes.
Second, life insurance is essential. The right coverage can provide the liquidity needed to repay debts, support your children and others who depend on you financially, and pay estate taxes.
Prepare for the challenge
Most families face two long-term wealth management challenges: funding retirement and paying for college education. While both issues can be daunting, don’t sacrifice saving for your own retirement to finance your child’s education. Scholarships, grants, loans and work-study may help pay for college — but only you can fund your retirement.
Uncle Sam has provided several education incentives that are worth checking out, including tax credits and deductions for qualifying expenses and tax-advantaged savings opportunities such as 529 plans and Education Savings Accounts (ESAs). Because of income limits and phaseouts, many higher-income families won’t benefit from some of these tax breaks. But, your children (or your parents, in the case of contributing to an ESA) may be able to take advantage of them.
Give assets wisely
Giving money, investments or other assets to your children or other family members can save future income tax and be a sound estate planning strategy as well. You can currently give up to $14,000 per year per individual ($28,000 if married) without incurring gift tax or using your lifetime gift tax exemption. Depending on the number of children and grandchildren you have, and how many years you continue this gifting program, it can really add up.
By gifting assets that produce income or that you expect to appreciate, you not only remove assets from your taxable estate, but also shift income and future appreciation to people who may be in lower tax brackets.
Also consider using trusts to facilitate your gifting plan. The benefit of trusts is that they can ensure funds are used in the manner you intended and can protect the assets from your loved ones’ creditors.
Overcome the complexities
Creating a comprehensive plan for family wealth management and following through with it may not be simple — but you owe it to yourself and your family. We can help you overcome the complexities and manage your tax burden.
Sidebar: Charitable giving’s place in family wealth management
Do charitable gifts have a place in family wealth management? Absolutely. Properly made gifts can avoid gift and estate taxes, while possibly qualifying for an income tax deduction. Consider a charitable trust that allows you to give income-producing assets to charity, but keep the income for life — or for the charity to receive the earnings and the assets to later pass to your heirs. These are just two examples; there are more ways to use trusts to accomplish your charitable goals.
Like many taxpayers, you probably feel a sense of relief after filing your tax return. But that feeling can change if, soon after, you realize you’ve overlooked a key detail or received additional information that should have been considered. In such instances, you may want (or need) to amend your return.
Typically, an amended return — Form 1040X, to be exact — must be filed within three years from the date you filed the original tax return or within two years of the date the applicable tax was paid (whichever is later). Your choice of timing should depend on whether you expect a refund or a bill.
If claiming an additional refund, you should typically wait until you’ve received your original refund. Then cash or deposit the first refund check while waiting for the second. If you owe additional dollars, file the amended return and pay the tax immediately to minimize interest and penalties.
Bear in mind that, as of this writing, the IRS doesn’t offer amended returns via e-file. You can, however, track your amended return electronically. The IRS now offers an automated status-tracking tool called “Where’s My Amended Return?” at https://www.irs.gov/Filing/Individuals/Amended-Returns-(Form-1040-X)/Wheres-My-Amended-Return-1.
If you think an amended return is needed or warranted, please give us a call. We will be glad to help.
Many people want to do something, however small, to contribute to a healthier environment. There are many ways to do so and, for some of them, you can even save a few tax dollars for your efforts.
Indeed, with the passage of the Protecting Americans from Tax Hikes Act of 2015 (the PATH Act) late last year, a couple of specific ways to go green and claim a tax break have been made permanent or extended. Let’s take a closer look at each.
Not driving for dollars
Air pollution is a problem in many areas of the country. Among the biggest contributors are vehicle emissions. So it follows that cutting down on the number of vehicles on the road can, in turn, diminish air pollution.
To help accomplish this, many people choose to commute to work via van pools or using public transportation. And, helpfully, the PATH Act is doing its part as well. The law made permanent the requirement that limits on the amounts that can be excluded from an employee’s wages for income and payroll tax purposes be the same for both parking benefits and van pooling / mass transit benefits.
Before the PATH Act’s parity provision, the monthly limit for 2015 was only $130 for van pooling / mass transit benefits. But, because of the new law, the 2015 monthly limit for these benefits was boosted to the $250 parking benefit limit and the 2016 limit is $255.
Sprucing up the homestead
Energy consumption can also have a negative impact on the environment and use up limited natural resources. Many homeowners want to reduce their energy consumption for environmental reasons or simply to cut their utility bills.
The PATH Act lends a helping hand here, too, by extending through 2016 the credit for purchases of residential energy property. This includes items such as:
The provision allows a credit of 10% of eligible costs for energy-efficient insulation, windows and doors. A credit is also available for 100% of eligible costs for energy-efficient heating and cooling equipment and water heaters, up to a lifetime limit of $500 (with no more than $200 from windows and skylights).
Doing it all
Going green and saving some green on your tax bill? Yes, you can do both. Van pooling or taking public transportation and improving your home’s energy efficiency are two prime examples. Please contact us for more information about how to claim these tax breaks or identify other ways to save this year.
Restructuring debt has become a common approach to personal financial management. But many people fail to realize that there’s often a tax impact to debt relief. And if you don’t anticipate it, a winning tax return may turn into a losing one.
Less debt, more income
Income tax applies to all forms of income — including what’s referred to as “cancellation-of-debt” (COD) income. Think of it this way: If a creditor forgives a debt, you avoid the expense of making the payments, which increases your net income.
Debt forgiveness isn’t the only way to generate a tax liability, though. You can have COD income if a creditor reduces the interest rate or gives you more time to pay. Calculating the amount of income can be complex but, essentially, by making it easier for you to repay the debt, the creditor confers a taxable economic benefit.
You can also have COD income in connection with a mortgage foreclosure, including a short sale or deed in lieu of foreclosure. Here, the tax consequences depend on which of the following two categories the mortgage falls into:
1. Nonrecourse. Here the lender’s sole remedy in the event of default is to take possession of the home. In other words, you’re not personally liable if the foreclosure proceeds are less than your outstanding loan balance. Foreclosure on a nonrecourse mortgage doesn’t produce COD income.
2. Recourse. This type of foreclosure can trigger COD tax liability if the lender forgives the portion of the loan that’s not satisfied. In a short sale, the lender permits you to sell the property for less than the amount you owe and accepts the sale proceeds in satisfaction of your mortgage. A deed in lieu of foreclosure means you convey the property to the lender in satisfaction of your debt. In either case, if the lender agrees to cancel the excess debt, the transaction is treated like a foreclosure for tax purposes — that is, a recourse mortgage may generate COD income.
Keep in mind that COD income is taxable as ordinary income, even if the debt is related to long-term capital gains property. And, in some cases, foreclosure can trigger both COD income and a capital gain or loss (depending on your tax basis in the property and the property’s market value).
Exceptions vs. exclusions
Several types of canceled debt are considered nontaxable “exceptions” — for example, debt cancellation that’s considered a gift (such as forgiveness of a family loan). Certain student loans are also considered exceptions — as long as they’re canceled in exchange for the recipient’s commitment to public service.
Other types of canceled debt qualify as “exclusions.” For instance, homeowners can exclude up to $2 million in COD income in connection with qualified principal residence indebtedness. A recent tax law change extended this exclusion through 2016, modifying it to apply to mortgage forgiveness that occurs in 2017 as long as it’s granted pursuant to a written agreement entered into in 2016. Other exclusions include certain canceled debts relating to bankruptcy and insolvency.
The rules applying to COD income are complex. So if you’re planning to restructure your debt this year, let us help you manage the tax impact.
Like many taxpayers, you may have been expecting to encounter a few roadblocks while traversing your preferred tax-saving avenues. If so, tax extenders legislation signed into law this past December may make your journey a little easier. Let’s walk through a few highlights of the Protecting Americans from Tax Hikes Act of 2015 (the PATH Act).
Of interest to individuals
If you’re a homeowner, the PATH Act allows you to treat qualified mortgage insurance premiums as interest for purposes of the mortgage interest deduction through 2016. However, this deduction is phased out for higher income taxpayers. The law likewise extends through 2016 the exclusion from gross income for mortgage loan forgiveness.
Those living in a state with low or no income taxes (or who make large purchases, such as a car or boat) will be pleased that the itemized deduction for state and local sales taxes, instead of state and local income taxes, is now permanent. Your deduction can be determined easily by using an IRS calculator and adding the tax you actually paid on certain major purchases.
Investors should note that the PATH Act makes permanent the exclusion of 100% of the gain on the sale of qualified small business stock acquired and held for more than five years (if acquired after September 27, 2010). The law also permanently extends the rule that eliminates qualified small business stock gain as a preference item for alternative minimum tax (AMT) purposes.
Breaks for businesses
The PATH Act gives business owners much to think about as well. First, there’s the enhanced Section 179 expensing election. Now permanent (and indexed for inflation beginning in 2016) is the ability for companies to immediately deduct, rather than depreciate, up to $500,000 in qualified new or used assets. The deduction phases out, dollar for dollar, to the extent qualified asset purchases for the year exceeded $2 million.
The 50% bonus depreciation break is also back, albeit temporarily. It’s generally available for new (not used) tangible assets with a recovery period of 20 years or less, and certain other assets. The 50% amount will drop to 40% for 2018 and 30% for 2019, however.
In addition, the PATH Act addresses two important tax credits. First, the research credit has been permanently extended, with some specialized provisions for smaller businesses and start-ups. Second, the Work Opportunity credit for employers that hire members of a “target group” has been extended through 2019.
Does your company provide transit benefits? If so, note that the law makes permanent equal limits for the amounts that can be excluded from an employee’s wages for income and payroll tax purposes for parking fringe benefits and van-pooling / mass transit benefits.
Much, much more
Whether you’re filing as an individual or on behalf of a business, the PATH Act could have a substantial effect on your 2015 tax return. We’ve covered only a few of its many provisions here. Please contact us to discuss these and other provisions that may affect your situation.
Sidebar: Good news for generous IRA owners
The recent tax extenders law makes permanent the provision allowing taxpayers age 70½ or older to make direct contributions from their IRA to qualified charities up to $100,000 per tax year. The transfer can count toward the IRA owner’s required minimum distribution. Many rules apply so, if you’re interested, let us help with this charitable giving opportunity.
There are virtually countless charitable organizations to which you might donate. You may choose to give cash or to contribute noncash items such as books, sporting goods, or computers or other tech gear. In either case, once you do the good deed, you owe it to yourself to properly claim a tax deduction.
No matter what you donate, you’ll need documentation. And precisely what you’ll need depends on the type and value of your donation. Here are five things to know:
1. Cash contributions of less than $250 are the easiest to substantiate. A canceled check or credit card statement is sufficient. Alternatively, you can obtain a receipt from the recipient organization showing its name, as well as the date, place and amount of the contribution. Bear in mind that unsubstantiated contributions aren’t deductible anymore. So you must have a receipt or bank record.
2. Noncash donations of less than $250 require a bit more. You’ll need a receipt from the charity. Plus, you typically must estimate a reasonable value for the donated item(s). Organizations that regularly accept noncash donations typically will provide you a form for doing so. Keep in mind that, for donations of clothing and household items to be deductible, the items generally must be in at least good condition.
3. Bigger cash donations mean more paperwork. If you donate $250 or more in cash, a canceled check or credit card statement won’t be sufficient. You’ll need a contemporaneous written acknowledgment from the recipient organization that meets IRS guidelines.
Among other things, a contemporaneous written acknowledgment must be received on or before the earlier of the date you file your return for the year in which you made the donation or the due date (including an extension) for filing the return. In addition, it must include a disclosure of whether the charity provided anything in exchange. If it did, the organization must provide a description and good-faith estimate of the exchanged item or service. You can deduct only the difference between the amount donated and the value of the item or service.
4. Noncash donations valued at $250 or more and up to $5,000 require still more. You must get a contemporaneous written acknowledgment plus written evidence that supports the item’s acquisition date, cost and fair market value. The written acknowledgment also must include a description of the item.
5. Noncash donations valued at more than $5,000 are the most complicated. Generally, both a contemporaneous written acknowledgment and a qualified appraisal are required — unless the donation is publicly traded securities. In some cases additional requirements might apply, so be sure to contact us if you’ve made or are planning to make a substantial noncash donation. We can verify the documentation of any type of donation, but contributions of this size are particularly important to document properly.
If you’ve looked into retirement planning, you’ve probably heard about the Roth IRA. Maybe in the past you decided against one of these arrangements, or perhaps you just decided to sleep on it. Whatever the case may be, now’s a good time to reacquaint yourself with the Roth IRA and its potential benefits, because you have until April 18, 2016, to make a 2015 Roth IRA contribution.
With a Roth IRA, you give up the deductibility of contributions for the freedom to make tax-free qualified withdrawals. This differs from a traditional IRA, where contributions may be deductible and earnings grow on a tax-deferred basis, but withdrawals (less any prorated nondeductible contributions) are subject to ordinary income taxes — plus a 10% penalty if you’re under age 59½ at the time of the distribution.
With a Roth IRA, you can withdraw your contributions tax-free and penalty-free anytime. Withdrawals of account earnings (considered made only after all your contributions are withdrawn) are tax-free if you make them after you’ve had the Roth IRA for five years and you’re age 59½ or older. Earnings withdrawn before this time are subject to ordinary income taxes, as well as a 10% penalty (with certain exceptions) if withdrawn before you are age 59½.
On the plus side, you can leave funds in your Roth IRA as long as you want. This differs from the required minimum distributions starting after age 70½ for traditional IRAs.
For 2016, the annual Roth IRA contribution limit is $5,500 ($6,500 for taxpayers age 50 or older), reduced by any contributions made to traditional IRAs. Your modified adjusted gross income (MAGI) may also affect your ability to contribute, however.
In 2016, the contribution limit phases out for married couples filing jointly with MAGIs between $184,000 and $194,000. The 2016 phaseout range for single and head-of-household filers is $117,000 to $132,000.
Regardless of MAGI, anyone may convert a traditional IRA into a Roth to turn future tax-deferred potential growth into tax-free potential growth. From an income tax perspective, whether a conversion makes sense depends on whether you’re better off paying tax now or later.
When you do a Roth conversion, you have to pay taxes on the amount you convert. So if you expect your tax rate to be higher in retirement than it is now, converting to a Roth may be advantageous — provided you can afford to pay the tax using funds from outside an IRA. If you expect your tax rate to be lower in retirement, however, it may make more sense to leave your savings in a traditional IRA or employer-sponsored plan.
Roth IRAs have become a fundamental part of retirement planning. Even if you’re not ready for one just yet, be sure to keep the idea of opening one on your radar.
Some married couples assume they have to file their tax returns jointly. Others may know they have a choice but not want to rock the boat by filing separately. The truth is that there’s no harm in at least considering your options every year.
Granted, married taxpayers who file jointly can take advantage of certain credits not available to separate filers. They’re also more likely to be able to make deductible IRA contributions and less likely to be subject to the alternative minimum tax.
But there are circumstances under which filing separately may be a good idea. For example, filing separately can save tax when one spouse’s income is much higher than the others, and the spouse with lower income has miscellaneous itemized deductions exceeding 2% of his or her adjusted gross income (AGI) or medical expenses exceeding 10% of his or her AGI — but jointly the couple’s expenses wouldn’t exceed the applicable floor for their joint AGI. However, in community property states, income and expenses generally must be split equally unless they’re attributable to separate funds.
Many factors play into the joint vs. separate filing decision. If you’re interested in learning more, please give us a call.
Tax-related fraud isn’t a new crime, but tax preparation software, e-filing and increased availability of personal data have made tax-related identity theft increasingly easy to perpetrate. The IRS is taking steps to reduce such fraud, but taxpayers must play their part, too.
How they do it
Criminals perpetrate tax identity theft by using stolen Social Security numbers and other personal information to file tax returns in their victims’ names. Naturally, the fake returns claim that the filer is owed a refund — and the bigger, the better.
To ensure they’re a step ahead of taxpayers filing legitimate returns and employers submitting W-2 and 1099 forms, the thieves file early in the tax season. They usually request that refunds be made to debit cards, which are hard for the IRS to trace once they’re distributed.
IRS takes action
The increasing rate of tax-related fraud — not to mention the well-publicized 2015 IRS data breach — has spurred government agencies and private sector businesses to act. This past June, a coalition made up of the IRS, state tax administrators, tax preparation services and payroll and tax product processors announced a new program with five initiatives:
1. Taxpayer identification. Coalition members will review transmission data such as Internet Protocol numbers.
2. Fraud identification. Members will share fraud leads and aggregated tax return information.
3. Information assessment. The Refund Fraud Information Sharing and Assessment Center will help public and private sector members share information.
4. Cybersecurity framework. Members will be required to adopt the National Institute of Standards and Technology cybersecurity framework.
5. Taxpayer awareness and communication. Members will increase efforts to inform the public about identity theft and protecting personal data.
Your role in preventing fraud
But the IRS and tax preparation professionals can’t fight fraud without your help. Be sure to keep your Social Security card secure, and if businesses (including financial institutions and medical providers) request your Social Security number, ensure they need it for a legitimate purpose and have taken precautions to keep your data safe. Also regularly review your credit report. You can obtain free copies from all three credit bureaus once a year.
If you’ve accumulated many bank, investment and other financial accounts over the years, you might consider consolidating some of them. Having multiple accounts requires you to spend more time tracking and reconciling financial activities and can make it harder to keep a handle on how much you have and whether your money is being invested advantageously.
Start by identifying the accounts that offer you the best combination of excellent customer service, convenience, lower fees and higher returns. Hold on to these and consider closing the rest, keeping in mind the bank account amounts you’ll be consolidating. The Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation generally insures $250,000 per depositor, per insured bank. So if consolidation means that your balance might exceed that amount, it’s better to keep multiple accounts. You should also keep accounts with different beneficiaries separate.
When closing accounts, make sure you stop automatic payments or deposits and destroy checks and cards associated with them. To prevent any future disputes, obtain letters from the financial institutions stating that your accounts have been closed. Closing an account generally takes several weeks.
When you sell a capital asset, the sale results in a capital gain or loss. A capital asset includes most property you own for personal use (such as your home or car) or own as an investment (such as stocks and bonds). Here are some facts that you should know about capital gains and losses:
• Gains and losses. A capital gain or loss is the difference between your basis and the amount you get when you sell an asset. Your basis is usually what you paid for the asset.
• Net investment income tax (NIIT). You must include all capital gains in your income, and you may be subject to the NIIT. The NIIT applies to certain net investment income of individuals who have income above statutory threshold amounts: $200,000 if you are unmarried, $250,000 if you are a married joint-filer, or $125,000 if you use married filing separate status. The rate of this tax is 3.8%.
• Deductible losses. You can deduct capital losses on the sale of investment property. You cannot deduct losses on the sale of property that you hold for personal use.
• Long- and short-term. Capital gains and losses are either long-term or short-term, depending on how long you held the property. If you held the property for more than one year, your gain or loss is long-term. If you held it one year or less, the gain or loss is short-term.
• Net capital gain. If your long-term gains are more than your long-term losses, the difference between the two is a net long-term capital gain. If your net long-term capital gain is more than your net short-term capital loss, you have a net capital gain.
• Tax rate. The capital gains tax rate, which applies to long-term capital gains, usually depends on your taxable income. For 2015, the capital gains rate is zero to the extent your taxable income (including long-term capital gains) does not exceed $74,900 for married joint-filing couples ($37,450 for singles). The maximum capital gains rate of 20% applies if your taxable income (including long-term capital gains) is $464,850 or more for married joint-filing couples ($413,200 for singles); otherwise a 15% rate applies. However, a 25% or 28% tax rate can also apply to certain types of long-term capital gains. Short-term capital gains are taxed at ordinary income tax rates.
• Limit on losses. If your capital losses are more than your capital gains, you can deduct the difference as a loss on your tax return. This loss is limited to $3,000 per year, or $1,500 if you are married and file a separate return.
• Carryover losses. If your total net capital loss is more than the limit you can deduct, you can carry over the losses you are not able to deduct to next year's tax return. You will treat those losses as if they happened in that next year.
Yes, that is too good to be true, but we got your attention. As you are painfully aware, it is extremely difficult to earn much, if any, interest on savings, money market funds, or CDs these days. So, what are we to do? Well, one way to improve the earnings on those idle funds is to pay down debt. Paying off a home loan having an interest rate of 5% with your excess liquid assets is just like earning 5% on those funds. The same goes for car loans and other installment debt. But, the best return will more likely come from paying off credit card debt! We are not suggesting you reduce liquid assets to an unsafe level, but examine the possibility of paying off some of your present debt load with your liquid funds. Paying down $100,000 on a 5% home loan is like making more than $400 per month on those funds.
Your health insurance company may request that you provide the Social Security Numbers (SSNs) for you, your spouse, and your children covered by your policy. This is because the Affordable Care Act requires every provider of minimum essential coverage to report that coverage by filing an information return with the IRS and furnishing a statement to covered individuals. The information is used by the IRS to administer — and by individuals to show compliance with — the health care law.
Health coverage providers will file an information return (Form 1095-B, “Health Coverage”) with the IRS and will furnish statements to you in 2016 to report coverage information from calendar year 2015. The law requires coverage providers to list SSNs on this form. If you don’t provide your SSN and the SSNs of all covered individuals to the sponsor of the coverage, the IRS may not be able to match the Form 1095-B with the individuals to determine that they have complied with the individual shared responsibility provision.
Your health insurance company may mail you a letter that discusses these new rules and requests SSNs for all family members covered under your policy. The IRS has not designated a specific form for your health insurance company to request this information. However, it should be a written request that is mailed to you through the U.S. Postal Service, not emailed to you. If you receive an email request, it could be a phishing attempt by a hacker who is aware of this requirement, so be cautious and take precautions to protect yourself. Don’t respond directly to the email. Instead, call the insurance company at its main number (not any number contained in the email) or go directly to the insurance company’s website (not from the link or to an address contained in the email) to verify the request.
The Form 1095-B will provide information for your income tax return that shows you, your spouse, and individuals you claim as dependents had qualifying health coverage for some or all months during the year. You do not have to attach Form 1095-B to your tax return. However, it is important to keep it with your other important tax documents.
Anyone on your return who does not have minimum essential coverage, and who does not qualify for an exemption, may be liable for the individual shared responsibility payment.
The information received by the IRS will be used to verify information on your individual income tax return. If you refuse to provide this information to your health insurance company, the IRS cannot verify the information you provide on your tax return, and you may receive an inquiry from the IRS. You also may receive a notice from the IRS indicating that you are liable for the individual shared responsibility payment.
Continuing to work while receiving Social Security benefits may cause the benefit to be reduced below the anticipated amount. If you are under the full retirement age (currently 66), an earnings test determines whether your Social Security retirement benefits will be reduced because you earned more from a job or business than an annual exempt amount.
As a general rule, the earnings test is based on income earned during the year as a whole, without regard to the amount you earned each month. However, in the first year, benefits you receive are not reduced for any month in which you earn less than one-twelfth of the annual exempt amount.
For 2015, Social Security beneficiaries under the full benefit retirement age who have earnings in excess of the annual exempt amount are subject to a $1 reduction in benefits for each $2 earned over the exempt amount ($15,720 in 2015) for each year before the year during which they reach the full benefit retirement age. However, in the year beneficiaries reach their full benefit retirement age, earnings above a different annual exempt amount ($41,880 in 2015) are subject to a $1 reduction in benefits for each $3 earned over the exempt amount. Social Security benefits are not affected by earned income beginning with the month the beneficiary reaches full benefit retirement age.
The federal income tax rates for 2015 are the same as last year: 10%, 15%, 25%, 28%, 33%, 35%, and 39.6%. However, the rate bracket beginning and ending points are increased slightly to account for inflation. For 2015, the maximum 39.6% bracket affects singles with taxable income above $413,200, married joint-filing couples with income above $464,850, heads of households with income above $439,000, and married individuals who file separate returns with income above $232,425. Higher-income individuals can also get hit by the 0.9% additional Medicare tax on wages and self-employment income and the 3.8% net investment income tax (NIIT), which can both result in a higher-than-advertised marginal federal income tax rate for 2015.
What we’ve listed below are a few money-saving ideas to get you started that you may want to put in action before the end of 2015:
• For 2015, the standard deduction is $12,600 for married taxpayers filing joint returns. For single taxpayers, the amount is $6,300. If your total itemized deductions each year are normally close to these amounts, you may be able to leverage the benefit of your deductions by bunching deductions, such as charitable contributions and property taxes, in every other year. This allows you to time your itemized deductions so they are high in one year and low in the next. However, the alternative minimum tax (AMT), discussed later in this article, should be considered when using this strategy.
• If you or a family member own traditional IRAs and reached age 70½ this year, consider whether it’s better to take the first required minimum distribution in 2015 or by April 1 of next year.
• If your employer offers a Flexible Spending Account arrangement for your out-of-pocket medical or child care expenses, make sure you’re maximizing the tax benefits during the upcoming enrollment period for 2016.
• If you have a 401(k) plan at work, it’s just about time to tell your company how much you want to set aside on a tax-free basis for next year. Contribute as much as you can stand, especially if your employer makes matching contributions. You give up “free money” when you fail to participate with the maximum amount the company will match.
• If it looks like you are going to owe income taxes for 2015, consider bumping up the federal income taxes withheld from your paychecks now through the end of the year.
• Between now and year end, review your securities portfolio for any losers that can be sold before year end to offset gains you have already recognized this year or to get you to the $3,000 ($1,500 married filing separately) net capital loss that’s deductible each year.
• If you own any securities that are all but worthless with little hope of recovery, you might consider selling them before the end of the year so you can capitalize on the loss this year.
• Don’t overlook estate planning. For 2015, the unified federal gift and estate tax exemption is a generous $5.43 million, and the federal estate tax rate is a historically reasonable 40%. Even if you already have an estate plan, it may need updating to reflect the current estate and gift tax rules. Also, you may need to make some changes that have nothing to do with taxes.
• If you are self-employed, consider employing your child. Doing so shifts income (which is not subject to the “kiddie tax”) from you to your child, who normally is in a lower tax bracket or may avoid tax entirely due to the standard deduction. There can also be payroll tax savings and the ability to contribute to an IRA for the child.
• If you own an interest in a partnership or S corporation that you expect to generate a loss this year, you may want to make a capital contribution (or in the case of an S corporation, loan it additional funds) before year end to ensure you have sufficient basis to claim a full deduction.
Remember that effective tax planning requires considering at least this year and next year. Without a multiyear outlook, you can’t be sure maneuvers intended to save taxes on your 2015 return won’t backfire and cost additional money in the future.
And finally, watch out for the AMT in all of your planning, because what may be a great move for regular tax purposes may create or increase an AMT problem. There’s a good chance you’ll be hit with AMT if you deduct a significant amount of state and local taxes, claim multiple dependents, exercise incentive stock options, or recognize a large capital gain this year.
Again, these are just a few suggestions to get you thinking. If you’d like to know more about them or want to discuss other ideas, please feel free to call us.
Adult children may be able to acquire a more expensive home than they might otherwise afford by using a shared equity financing arrangement, under which parents or other relatives share in the purchase and cost of maintaining a house used by the children as a principal residence. The nonresident owner rents his or her portion of the home to the resident owner and obtains the annual tax benefits of renting real estate if the statutory requirements are satisfied. Since the child does not own 100% of the home, he or she is the relative’s tenant as to the portion of the home not owned and rents that interest from the relative at a fair market rate.
A shared equity financing arrangement is an agreement by which two or more persons acquire qualified home ownership interests in a dwelling unit and the person (or persons) holding one of the interests is entitled to occupy the dwelling as his or her principal residence, and is required to pay rent to the other person(s) owning qualified ownership interests.
Under the vacation home rules, personal use of the home by a child or other relative of the property’s owner is normally attributed to the owner. However, an exception to the general rule exists when the dwelling is rented to a tenant for a fair market rent and serves as the renter’s principal residence. When the tenant owns an interest in the property, this exception to the general rule applies only if the rental qualifies as a shared equity financing arrangement.
Example: Shared equity financing arrangement facilitates child’s home ownership.
Mike and Laura have agreed to help their son, Bob, purchase his first home. The total purchase price is $100,000, consisting of a $20,000 down payment and a mortgage of $80,000. Mike and Laura pay half of the down payment and make half of the mortgage payment pursuant to a shared equity financing agreement with Bob. Bob pays them a fair rental for using 50% of the property, determined when the agreement was entered into.
Under this arrangement, Bob treats the property as his personal residence for tax purposes, deducting his 50% share of the mortgage interest and property taxes. Because his use is not attributed to his parents, Mike and Laura, they treat the property as rental. They must report the rent they receive from Bob, but can deduct their 50% share of the mortgage interest and taxes, the maintenance expenses they pay, and depreciation based on 50% of the property’s depreciable basis. If the property generates a tax loss, it is subject to, and its deductibility is limited by, the passive loss rules.
One drawback to shared equity arrangements is that the nonresident owners will not qualify for the gain exclusion upon the sale of the residence. The result will be a taxable gain for the portion of the gain related to the deemed rental. The gain may also be subject to the 3.8% net investment income tax (NIIT). Parents should consider guaranteeing or cosigning the mortgage, instead of outright joint ownership, if excluding potential future gain is a major consideration.
If it is anticipated that the resident owner will ultimately purchase the equity of the nonresident owner and the rental will generate losses suspended under the passive loss rules, special care must be taken when the lease terms are agreed to, because suspended passive losses normally allowed at disposition are not allowed when the interest is sold to a related party. This problem can be minimized by making a larger down payment that decreases mortgage interest expense, or by charging a rent at the higher end of the reasonable range for the value of the interest being rented to the resident owner.
The net investment income tax, or NIIT, is a 3.8% surtax on investment income collected from higher-income individuals. It first took effect in 2013. After filing your 2014 return, you may have been hit with this extra tax for two years, and you may now be ready to get proactive by taking some steps to stop, or at least slow, the bleeding for this year and beyond.
NIIT Basics. The NIIT can affect higher-income individuals who have investment income. While the NIIT mainly hits folks who consistently have high income, it can also strike anyone who has a big one-time shot of income or gain this year or any other year. For example, if you sell some company stock for a big gain, get a big bonus, or even sell a home for a big profit, you could be a victim. The types of income and gain (net of related deductions) included in the definition of net investment income and, therefore, exposed to the NIIT, include—
• Gains from selling investment assets (such as gains from stocks and securities held in taxable brokerage firm accounts) and capital gain distributions from mutual funds.
• Real estate gains, including the taxable portion of a big gain from selling your principal residence or a taxable gain from selling a vacation home or rental property.
• Dividends, taxable interest, and the taxable portion of annuity payments.
• Income and gains from passive business activities (meaning activities in which you don’t spend a significant amount of time) and gains from selling passive partnership interests and S corporation stock (meaning you don’t spend much time in the partnership or S corporation business activity).
• Rents and royalties.
Are You Exposed? Thankfully, you are only exposed to the NIIT if your Modified Adjusted Gross Income (MAGI) exceeds $200,000 if you are unmarried, $250,000 if you are a married joint-filer, or $125,000 if you use married filing separate status. However, these thresholds are not all that high, so many individuals will be exposed. The amount that is actually hit with the NIIT is the lesser of: (1) net investment income or (2) the amount by which your MAGI exceeds the applicable threshold. MAGI is your “regular” Adjusted Gross Income (AGI) shown on the last line on page 1 of your Form 1040 plus certain excluded foreign-source income net of certain deductions and exclusions (most people are not affected by this add-back).
Planning Considerations. As we just explained, the NIIT hits the lesser of: (1) net investment income or (2) the amount by which MAGI exceeds the applicable threshold. Therefore, planning strategies must be aimed at the proper target to have the desired effect of avoiding or minimizing your exposure to the tax.
• If your net investment income amount is less than your excess MAGI amount, your exposure to the NIIT mainly depends on your net investment income. You should focus first on strategies that reduce net investment income. Of course, some strategies that reduce net investment income will also reduce MAGI. If so, that cannot possibly hurt.
• If your excess MAGI amount is less than your net investment income amount, your exposure to the tax mainly depends on your MAGI. You should focus first on strategies that reduce MAGI. Of course, some strategies that reduce MAGI will also reduce net investment income. If so, that cannot possibly hurt.
Perhaps the most obvious way to reduce exposure to the NIIT is to invest in tax-exempt bonds via direct ownership or a mutual find. There are other ways, too. Contact us to identify strategies that will work in your specific situation.
Since the Supreme Court's 2013 Windsor decision, same-sex couples who are legally married under state or foreign laws are treated as married for federal tax purposes just like any other married couple. The Supreme Court's Obergefell decision (issued in late June) now requires all states to license and recognize marriages between same-sex couples. Specifically, the decision states that same-sex couples can exercise the fundamental right to marry in all states and that there is no lawful basis for a state to refuse to recognize a lawful same-sex marriage performed in another state.
Therefore, same-sex couples who are legally married in any state are now allowed to file joint state income tax returns wherever they reside. They are also entitled to the same inheritance and property rights and rules of intestate succession that apply to other legally married couples. Therefore, same-sex couples should now be able to amend previously filed state income, gift, and inheritance tax returns for open years to reflect married status and claim refunds. Furthermore, these couples likely need to rethink their estate and gift tax plans.
Before the Obergefell decision, members of married same-sex couples who live in states that did not previously recognize same-sex marriages had to file state income, gift, and inheritance tax returns as unmarried individuals. This caused additional complexity and expense in filing state returns.
Other implications of an individual's marital status include spousal privilege in the law of evidence; hospital access; medical decision-making authority; adoption rights; the rights and benefits of survivors; birth and death certificates; professional ethics rules; campaign finance restrictions; workers' compensation benefits; health insurance; and child custody, support, and visitation rights.
Note: The ruling does not apply to individuals in registered domestic partnerships, civil unions, or similar formal relationships recognized under state law, but not denominated as a marriage under the laws of that state. These individuals are considered unmarried for federal and state purposes. However, these state-law “marriage substitutes” might be eliminated now that all states must allow same-sex marriages. Individuals in these relationships can now obtain marriage licenses, get married, and thereby qualify as married individuals for both state and federal tax purposes.
Most of us have more than enough to do. We're on the go from early in the morning until well into the evening — six or seven days a week. Thus, it's no surprise that we may let some important things slide. We know we need to get to them, but it seems like they can just as easily wait until tomorrow, the next day, or whenever.
A U.S. Supreme Court decision reminds us that sometimes "whenever" never gets here and the results can be tragic. The case involved a $400,000 employer-sponsored retirement account, owned by William, who had named his wife, Liv, as his beneficiary in 1974 shortly after they married. The couple divorced 20 years later. As part of the divorce decree, Liv waived her rights to benefits under William's employer-sponsored retirement plans. However, William never got around to changing his beneficiary designation form with his employer.
When William died, Liv was still listed as his beneficiary. So, the plan paid the $400,000 to Liv. William's estate sued the plan, saying that because of Liv's waiver in the divorce decree, the funds should have been paid to the estate. The Court disagreed, ruling that the plan documents (which called for the beneficiary to be designated and changed in a specific way) trumped the divorce decree. William's designation of Liv as his beneficiary was done in the way the plan required; Liv's waiver was not. Thus, the plan rightfully paid $400,000 to Liv.
The tragic outcome of this case was largely controlled by its unique facts. If the facts had been slightly different (such as the plan allowing a beneficiary to be designated on a document other than the plan's beneficiary form), the outcome could have been quite different and much less tragic. However, it still would have taken a lot of effort and expense to get there. This leads us to a couple of important points.
If you want to change the beneficiary for a life insurance policy, retirement plan, IRA, or other benefit, use the plan's official beneficiary form rather than depending on an indirect method, such as a will or divorce decree.
It's important to keep your beneficiary designations up to date. Whether it is because of divorce or some other life-changing event, beneficiary designations made years ago can easily become outdated.
One final thought regarding beneficiary designations: While you're verifying that all of your beneficiary designations are current, make sure you've also designated secondary beneficiaries where appropriate. This is especially important with assets such as IRAs, where naming both a primary and secondary beneficiary can potentially allow payouts from the account to be stretched out over a longer period and maximize the time available for the tax deferral benefits to accrue.
A Health Savings Account (HSA) represents an opportunity for eligible individuals to lower their out-of-pocket health care costs and federal tax bill. Since most of us would like to take advantage of every available tax break, now might be a good time to consider an HSA, if eligible.
An HSA operates somewhat like a Flexible Spending Account (FSA) that employers offer to their eligible employees. An FSA permits eligible employees to defer a portion of their pay, on a pretax basis, which is used later to reimburse out-of-pocket medical expenses. However, unlike an FSA, whatever remains in the HSA at year end can be carried over to the next year and beyond. In addition, there are no income phaseout rules, so HSAs are available to high-earners and low-earners alike.
Naturally, there are a few requirements for obtaining the benefits of an HSA. The most significant requirement is that an HSA is only available to an individual who carries health insurance coverage with a relatively high annual deductible. For 2015, the individual's health insurance coverage must come with at least a $1,300 deductible for single coverage or $2,600 for family coverage. For many self-employed individuals, small business owners, and employees of small and large companies alike, these thresholds won't be a problem. In addition, it's okay if the insurance plan doesn't impose any deductible for preventive care (such as annual checkups). Other requirements for setting up an HSA are that an individual can't be eligible for Medicare benefits or claimed as a dependent on another person's tax return.
Individuals who meet these requirements can make tax-deductible HSA contributions in 2015 of up to $3,350 for single coverage or $6,650 for family coverage. The contribution for a particular tax year can be made as late as April 15 of the following year. The deduction is claimed in arriving at adjusted gross income (the number at the bottom of page 1 on your return). Thus, eligible individuals can benefit whether they itemize or not. Unfortunately, however, the deduction doesn't reduce a self-employed person's self-employment tax bill.
When an employer contributes to an employee's HSA, the contributions are exempt from federal income, Social Security, Medicare, and unemployment taxes.
An account beneficiary who is age 55 or older by the end of the tax year for which the HSA contribution is made may make a larger deductible (or excludible) contribution. Specifically, the annual tax-deductible contribution limit is increased by $1,000.
An HSA can generally be set up at a bank, insurance company, or other institution the IRS deems suitable. The HSA must be established exclusively for the purpose of paying the account beneficiary's qualified medical expenses. These include uninsured medical costs incurred for the account beneficiary, spouse, and dependents. However, for HSA purposes, health insurance premiums don't qualify.
You may be tempted to forget all about your taxes once you've filed your tax return, but that's not a good idea. If you start your tax planning now, you may avoid a tax surprise when you file next year. Also, now is a good time to set up a system so you can keep your tax records safe and easy to find. Here are some tips to give you a leg up on next year's taxes:
Take action when life changes occur. Some life events (such as marriage, divorce, or the birth of a child) can change the amount of tax you pay. When they happen, you may need to change the amount of tax withheld from your pay. To do that, file a new Form W-4 (“Employee's Withholding Allowance Certificate”) with your employer. If you make estimated payments, those may need to be changed as well.
Keep records safe. Put your 2014 tax return and supporting records in a safe place. If you ever need your tax return or records, it will be easy for you to get them. You'll need your supporting documents if you are ever audited by the IRS. You may need a copy of your tax return if you apply for a home loan or financial aid.
Stay organized. Make tax time easier. Have your family put tax records in the same place during the year. That way you won't have to search for misplaced records when you file next year.
If you are self-employed, here are a couple of additional tax tips to consider:
Employ your child. Doing so shifts income (which is not subject to the “kiddie tax”) from you to your child, who normally is in a lower tax bracket or may avoid tax entirely due to the standard deduction. There can also be payroll tax savings; plus, the earnings can enable the child to contribute to an IRA. However, the wages paid must be reasonable given the child's age and work skills. Also, if the child is in college, or is entering soon, having too much earned income can have a detrimental impact on the student's need-based financial aid eligibility.
Avoid the hobby loss rules. A lot of businesses that are just starting out or have hit a bump in the road may wind up showing a loss for the year. The last thing the business owner wants in this situation is for the IRS to come knocking on the door arguing the business's losses aren't deductible because the activity is just a hobby for the owner. If your business is expecting a loss this year, we should talk as soon as possible to make sure you do everything possible to maximize the tax benefit of the loss and minimize its economic impact.
If you go on a business trip within the U.S. and add on some vacation days, you know you can deduct some of your expenses. The question is how much.
First, let’s cover just the pure transportation expenses. Transportation costs to and from the scene of your business activity are 100% deductible as long as the primary reason for the trip is business rather than pleasure. On the other hand, if vacation is the primary reason for your travel, then generally none of your transportation expenses are deductible. Transportation costs include travel to and from your departure airport, the airfare itself, baggage fees and tips, cabs, and so forth. Costs for rail travel or driving your personal car also fit into this category.
The number of days spent on business vs. pleasure is the key factor in determining if the primary reason for domestic travel is business. Your travel days count as business days, as do weekends and holidays if they fall between days devoted to business, and it would be impractical to return home. Standby days (days when your physical presence is required) also count as business days, even if you are not called upon to work on those days. Any other day principally devoted to business activities during normal business hours is also counted as a business day, and so are days when you intended to work, but could not due to reasons beyond your control (local transportation difficulties, power failure, etc.).
You should be able to claim business was the primary reason for a domestic trip whenever the business days exceed the personal days. Be sure to accumulate proof and keep it with your tax records. For example, if your trip is made to attend client meetings, log everything on your daily planner and copy the pages for your tax file. If you attend a convention or training seminar, keep the program and take some notes to show you attended the sessions.
Once at the destination, your out-of-pocket expenses for business days are fully deductible. Out-of-pocket expenses include lodging, hotel tips, meals (subject to the 50% disallowance rule), seminar and convention fees, and cab fare. Expenses for personal days are nondeductible.
In its efforts to combat identity theft, the IRS is stopping suspicious tax returns that have indications of being identity theft, but contain a real taxpayer’s name and/or Social Security number, and sending out Letter 5071C to request that the taxpayer verify his or her identity.
Letter 5071C is mailed through the U.S. Postal Service to the address on the return. It asks taxpayers to verify their identities in order for the IRS to complete processing of the returns if the taxpayers did file it or reject the returns if the taxpayers did not file it.
It is important to understand that the IRS does not request such information via e-mail; nor will the IRS call you directly to ask this information without first sending you a Letter 5071C. The letter number can be found in the upper corner of the page.
Letter 5071C gives you two options to contact the IRS and confirm whether or not you filed the return: You can (1) use the www.idverify.irs.gov site or (2) call a toll-free number on the letter. However, the IRS says that, because of the high volume on its toll-free numbers, the IRS-sponsored website, www.idverify.irs.gov, is the safest, fastest option for taxpayers with Web access.
Before accessing the website, be sure to have your prior-year and current-year tax returns available, including supporting documents, such as Forms W-2 and 1099. You will be asked a series of questions that only the real taxpayer can answer.
Once your identity is verified, you can confirm whether or not you filed the return in question. If you did not file the return, the IRS will take steps at that time to assist you. If you did file the return, it will take approximately six weeks to process it and issue a refund.
You should always be aware of tax scams, efforts to solicit personally identifiable information, and IRS impersonations. However, www.idverify.irs.gov is a secure, IRS-supported site that allows taxpayers to verify their identities quickly and safely. IRS.gov is the official IRS website. Always look for a URL ending with “.gov” — not “.com,” “.org,” “.net,” or other nongovernmental URLs.
A number of charities now ask their donors to consider donating life insurance policies rather than (or in addition to) cash in order to make substantially larger gifts than would otherwise be possible. The advantage to donors is that they can make a sizable gift with relatively little up-front cash (or even no cash, if an existing policy is donated). The fact that a charity may have to wait many years before receiving a payoff from the gift is typically not a problem, because charities normally earmark such gifts for their endowment or long-term building funds.
Of course, good reasons may exist for keeping the policy in force (such as to provide liquidity for a taxable estate or to meet the continuing needs of a surviving spouse or disabled child). Still, for individuals with both excess life insurance and a charitable intent, the donation of a life insurance policy may make sense.
If handled correctly, a life insurance policy donation can net the donor a charitable deduction for the value of the policy. A charitable deduction is also available for any cash contributed in future years to continue paying the premiums on a policy that was not fully paid up at the time it was donated. However, if handled incorrectly, no deduction is allowed. For this reason, we encourage you to contact us if you are considering donating a life insurance policy. We can help ensure that you receive the expected income tax deduction and that the contribution works as planned.
If you have a financial interest in or signature authority over a foreign financial account exceeding certain thresholds, the Bank Secrecy Act may require you to report the account yearly to the IRS by filing a Financial Crimes Enforcement Network (FinCEN) Form 114 (“Report of Foreign Bank and Financial Accounts (FBAR)”).
Specifically, for 2014, Form 114 is required to be filed if during the year:
1. You had a financial interest in or signature authority over at least one foreign financial account (which can be anything from a securities, brokerage, mutual fund, savings, demand, checking, deposit, or time deposit account to commodity futures or options, and a whole life insurance or a cash value annuity policy); and
2. The aggregate value of all such foreign financial accounts exceeded $10,000 at any time during 2014.
The FBAR is filed on a separate return basis (that is, joint filings are not allowed). However, a spouse who has only a financial interest in a joint account that is reported on the other spouse’s FBAR does not have to file a separate FBAR.
The 2014 Form 114 must be filed by June 30, 2015, and cannot be extended. Furthermore, it must be filed electronically through http://bsaefiling.fincen.treas.gov/main.html. The penalty for failing to file Form 114 is substantial — up to $10,000 per violation (or the greater of $100,000 or 50% of the balance in an account if the failure is willful).
Please give us a call if you have any questions or would like us to prepare and file Form 114 for you.
If your college-age child is or will be receiving financial aid, congratulations. Now, you’ll probably want to know if the financial aid is taxable. Keep in mind that the economic characteristics of financial aid, rather than how it is titled, will determine its taxability. Strictly speaking, scholarships, fellowships, and grants are usually awards of “free money” that are nontaxable. However, these terms are also sometimes used to describe arrangements involving obligations to provide services, in which case the payments are taxable compensation.
Tax-free awards. Scholarships, fellowships, and grants are awarded based on the student’s financial need or are based on scholastic achievement and merit. Generally, for federal income tax purposes, these awards are nontaxable as long as (1) the recipient is a degree candidate, (2) the award does not exceed the recipient’s “qualified tuition and related expenses” (tuition and enrollment fees, books, supplies, and equipment required for courses, but not room and board or incidental expenses) for the year, (3) the agreement does not expressly designate the funds for other purposes (such as room and board or incidental expenses) or prohibit the use of the funds for qualified education expenses, and (4) the award is not conditioned on the student performing services (teaching, research, or anything else).
Work-study arrangements. If the financial aid is conditioned on the student performing services, the amount that represents payment for such services is taxable income and will be reported on a Form W-2 or Form 1099. This is true even if the work is integrated with the student’s curriculum or if the payment is called a scholarship, fellowship, or grant. Students typically work for the school they’re attending. However, they could work for other employers under the auspices of a work-study program.
Student loans. Naturally, student loan proceeds are not taxable income because the borrowed amounts must be paid back. However, some college education loans are subsidized to allow borrowers to pay reduced interest rates. Fortunately, college loan interest subsidies are nontaxable to the same extent as if they were provided in the form of an outright scholarship, fellowship, or grant. An above-the-line deduction (i.e., available whether or not the borrower itemizes) of up to $2,500 is allowed for interest expense paid by a taxpayer on a loan to fund qualified higher education expenses. The deduction is phased out for taxpayers with adjusted gross income exceeding certain amounts.
What happens when financial aid isn’t free? Fortunately, taxable scholarships, fellowships, grants, and compensation from work-study programs count as earned income. Assuming the student is your dependent, this means that for 2015 he or she can offset this income by his or her standard deduction of the greater of (1) $1,050 or (2) earned income plus $350, up to $6,300. Since taxable scholarships, fellowships, grants, and compensation count as earned income, they increase the student’s standard deduction. If the student isn’t anyone’s dependent for 2015, he or she can offset earned income of up to $10,300 with his or her personal exemption ($4,000) and standard deduction ($6,300). (Dependents are not entitled to a personal exemption.)
Taxable financial aid in excess of what can be offset by the student’s personal exemption (if any) and standard deduction is usually taxed at only 10%. (For 2015, the 10% bracket for single taxpayers applies to taxable income up to $9,225.)
Warning: The “kiddie tax” rules may cause investment income (such as interest, dividend, and capital gains) received by students who are under age 24 to be taxed at the parent’s higher rates instead of at the student’s lower rates. The student’s earned income (including taxable scholarships, fellowships, grants, and compensation) is not subject to the kiddie tax.
Please give us a call if you have questions or want more information.
Besides being the last day to file (or extend) your 2014 personal return and pay any tax that is due, 2015 first quarter estimated tax payments for individuals, trusts, and calendar-year corporations are due today. So are 2014 returns for trusts and calendar-year estates, partnerships, and LLCs, plus any final contribution you plan to make to an IRA or Education Savings Account for 2014. SEP and Keogh contributions are also due today if your return is not being extended.
Second quarter estimated tax payments for individuals, trusts, and calendar-year corporations are due today.
The annual exclusion for gifts remains at $14,000 for 2015. (Married couples can gift up to $28,000 combined.) This limit applies to the total of all gifts, including birthday and holiday gifts, made to the same individual during the year. However, any payment made directly to the medical care provider (for example, doctor, hospital, etc.) or educational organization for tuition is not subject to the gift tax and, therefore, is not included in the $14,000 limit.
So, when paying tuition or large medical bills for parents, grandchildren, or any other person who is not your dependent minor child, be sure to make the payment directly to the organization or service provider. Don’t give the funds to the parent or other individual first and have them pay the school, doctor, or hospital. By doing so, you have made a gift to that person, subject to the $14,000 limit. In summary, make direct payments to schools or medical providers and avoid taxable gifts that could be subject to the gift tax or reduce the payer’s unified credit.
Caution: Direct payments of tuition reduce the student’s eligibility for financial aid on a dollar-for-dollar basis. However, if the gift were made directly to the student, only 20% of the gifted assets would be counted as assets of the student for financial aid purposes. Accordingly, careful analysis of the trade-offs between the gift tax exclusion and impairment of financial aid eligibility should be considered.
The Tax Increase Prevention Act of 2014 (TIPA) was signed into law on December 19, 2014. Thankfully, TIPA retroactively extends most of the federal income tax breaks that would have affected many individuals and businesses through 2014. So, these provisions may have a positive impact on your 2014 returns. Unfortunately, these extended provisions expired again on December 31, 2014. So, unless Congress takes action again, these favorable provisions won’t be available for 2015.
In this article, we will discuss some of the extended provisions impacting individual taxpayers.
Qualified tuition deduction. This write-off, which can be as much as $4,000 for married taxpayers with adjusted gross income up to $130,000 ($65,000 if unmarried) or $2,000 for married taxpayers with adjusted gross income up to $160,000 ($80,000 if unmarried), expired at the end of 2013. TIPA retroactively restored it for 2014.
Tax-free treatment for forgiven principal residence mortgage debt. For federal income tax purposes, a forgiven debt generally counts as taxable Cancellation of Debt (COD) income. However, a temporary exception applied to COD income from canceled mortgage debt that was used to acquire a principal residence. Under the temporary rule, up to $2 million of COD income from principal residence acquisition debt that was canceled in 2007–2013 was treated as a tax-free item. TIPA retroactively extended this break to cover eligible debt cancellations that occurred in 2014.
$500 Energy-efficient Home Improvement Credit. In past years, taxpayers could claim a tax credit of up to $500 for certain energy-saving improvements to a principal residence. The credit equals 10% of eligible costs for energy-efficient insulation, windows, doors and roof, plus 100% of eligible costs for energy-efficient heating and cooling equipment, subject to a $500 lifetime cap. This break expired at the end of 2013, but TIPA retroactively restored it for 2014.
Mortgage insurance premium deduction. Premiums for qualified mortgage insurance on debt to acquire, construct or improve a first or second residence can potentially be treated as deductible qualified residence interest. The deduction is phased out for higher-income taxpayers. Before TIPA, this break wasn’t available for premiums paid after 2013. TIPA retroactively restored the break for premiums paid in 2014.
Option to deduct state and local sales taxes. In past years, individuals who paid little or no state income taxes had the option of claiming an itemized deduction for state and local general sales taxes. The option expired at the end of 2013, but TIPA retroactively restored it for 2014.
IRA Qualified Charitable Contributions (QCDs). For 2006–2013, IRA owners who had reached age 70½ were allowed to make tax-free charitable contributions of up to $100,000 directly out of their IRAs. These contributions counted as IRA Required Minimum Distributions (RMDs). Thus, charitably inclined seniors could reduce their income tax by arranging for tax-free QCDs to take the place of taxable RMDs. This break expired at the end of 2013, but TIPA retroactively restored it for 2014, so that it was available for qualifying distributions made before 2015.
$250 deduction for K-12 educators. For the last few years, teachers and other eligible personnel at K-12 schools could deduct up to $250 of school-related expenses paid out of their own pockets — whether they itemized or not. This break expired at the end of 2013. TIPA retroactively restored it for 2014.
Unfortunately, as we said at the beginning of this article, none of these favorable provisions will be available for 2015, unless Congress takes further action. This is entirely possible, but far from certain. We’ll keep you posted as the year progresses.
If you are getting a refund this year, here are four good reasons to choose direct deposit:
1. Convenience. With direct deposit, your refund goes directly into your bank account. There's no need to make a trip to the bank to deposit a check.
2. Security. Since your refund goes directly into your account, there’s no risk of your refund check being stolen or lost in the mail.
3. Ease. Choosing direct deposit is easy. You just need to provide us your bank account and routing number and we’ll take care of it.
4. Options. You can split your refund among up to three financial accounts. Checking, savings, and certain retirement, health and education accounts may qualify.
You can have your refund deposited into accounts that are in your own name, your spouse’s name, or both, but not to accounts owned by others. Some banks require both spouses’ names on the account to deposit a tax refund from a joint return. Check with your bank for its direct deposit requirements.
Rather than keeping track of the actual cost of operating a vehicle, employees and self-employed taxpayers can use a standard mileage rate to compute their deduction related to using a vehicle for business. Likewise, standard mileage rates are available for computing the deduction when a vehicle is used for charitable, medical or moving purposes.
The 2015 standard mileage rates for use of a vehicle are 57.5 cents per mile for business miles (up from 56 cents per mile in 2014), 23 cents per mile for medical or moving purposes, and 14 cents per mile for rendering gratuitous services to a charitable organization.
The business standard mileage rate is considerably higher than the charitable and medical/moving rates because it contains a depreciation component. No depreciation is allowed for the charitable or medical/moving use of a vehicle.
In addition to deductions based on the business standard mileage rate, taxpayers may deduct the parking fees and tolls attributable to the business use of an automobile, as well as interest expense relating to the purchase of the automobile and state and local personal property taxes. However, employees using a vehicle to perform services as an employee cannot deduct interest expense related to that vehicle. Also, if the vehicle is operated less than 100% for business purposes, the taxpayer must allocate the business and non-business portion of the allowable taxes and interest deduction.
For plan years beginning after 2013, the Affordable Care Act (ACA) institutes so-called market reform provisions that place a whole host of new restrictions on group health plans. The penalty for violating the market reform restrictions is a punitive $100-per-day, per-employee penalty; or $36,500 per employee, per year. With a limited exception, these new market reform provisions significantly restrict an employer’s ability to reimburse employees for premiums paid on individual health insurance policies, referred to as employer payment arrangements.
Under employer payment arrangements, the employer reimburses employees for premiums they pay on their individual health insurance policies (or the employer sometimes pays the premium on behalf of the employee). As long as the employer (1) makes the reimbursement under a qualified medical reimbursement plan and (2) verifies that the reimbursement was spent only for insurance coverage, the premium reimbursement is excludable from the employee’s taxable income. These arrangements have long been popular with small employers who want to offer health insurance but are unwilling or unable to purchase group health coverage.
Unfortunately, according to the IRS and Department of Labor (DOL), group health plans can’t be integrated with individual market policies to meet the new market reform provisions. Furthermore, according to the DOL, an employer that reimburses employees for individual policies (on a pretax or after-tax basis) has established a group health plan because the arrangement’s purpose is to provide medical care to its employees. Therefore, reimbursing employees for premiums paid on individual policies violates the market reform provisions, potentially subjecting the employer to a $100 per-day, per-employee ($36,500 per year, per employee) penalty.
Limited exception for one-employee plans. The market reform provisions do not apply to group health plans that have only one participating employee. Therefore, it is still allowable to provide an employer payment arrangement that covers only one employee. Note, however, that nondiscrimination rules require that essentially all full-time employees must participate in the plan
Bottom line. While still technically allowed under the tax code, employer payment arrangements, other than arrangements covering only one employee, are no longer a viable alternative.
First of all, don’t panic. You are not alone. The impact of the market reform provisions to these plans has come as a great surprise to many small business employers, not to mention the tax practitioner community, and we believe there is reasonable cause to keep the penalty from applying for earlier payments. However, it is important to discontinue making payments under the plan and rescind any written documents. Also, any reimbursements made after 2013 should be classified as taxable wages.
Because of the ACA market reform requirements, employers are basically precluded from subsidizing or reimbursing employees for individual health insurance policies if there is more than one employee participating in the plan. Employers can, however, continue to do any of the following:
· Provide a tax-free fringe benefit by purchasing an ACA-approved employer-sponsored group health plan. Small employers with 50 or fewer employees can provide a group health plan through the Small Business Health Options Plan (SHOP) Marketplace. A cafeteria plan can be set up for pretax funding of the employee portion of the premium.
· Increase the employee’s taxable wages to provide funds that the employee may use to pay for individual insurance policies. However, the employer cannot require that the funds be used to pay for insurance — it must be the employee’s decision to do so (or not). The employer can claim a deduction for the wages paid. The wages are taxable to the employee, but the employee can claim the premiums as an itemized deduction subject to the 10%-of-AGI limit (7.5% if age 65 or older).
If you have any questions, please give us a call.
• Individual taxpayers’ final 2014 estimated tax payment is due unless Form 1040 is filed by February 2, 2015, and any tax due is paid with the return.
• Most employers must file Form 941 (“Employer’s Quarterly Federal Tax Return”) to report Medicare, Social Security, and income taxes withheld in the fourth quarter of 2014. 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 February 10 to file the return.
• Employers who have an estimated annual employment tax liability of $1,000 or less may be eligible to file Form 944 (“Employer’s Annual Federal Tax Return”).
• Give your employees their copies of Form W-2 for 2014. If an employee agreed to receive Form W-2 electronically, have it posted on the website and notify the employee.
• Give annual information statements to recipients of certain payments you made during 2014. You can use the appropriate version of Form 1099 or other information return. Form 1099 can be filed electronically with the consent of the recipient.
• File Form 940 (“Employer’s Annual Federal Unemployment (FUTA) Tax Return”) for 2014. If your undeposited tax is $500 or less, you can either pay it with your return or deposit it. If it is more than $500, you must deposit it. However, if you deposited the tax for the year in full and on time, you have until February 10 to file the return.
• File Form 945 (“Annual Return of Withheld Federal Income Tax”) for 2014 to report income tax withheld on all nonpayroll items, including backup withholding and withholding on pensions, annuities, IRAs, etc. 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 year in full and on time, you have until February 11 to file the return.
• File Form 943 (“Employer’s Annual Federal Tax Return for Agricultural Employees”) to report Social Security and Medicare taxes and withheld income tax for 2014. 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 year in full and on time, you have until February 10 to file the return.
• The government’s copy of Form 1099 series returns (along with the appropriate transmittal form) should be sent in by today. However, if these forms will be filed electronically, the due date is extended to March 31.
• The government’s copy of Form W-2 series returns (along with the appropriate transmittal Form W-3) should be sent in by today. However, if these forms will be filed electronically, the due date is extended to March 31.
• 2014 income tax returns must be filed or extended for calendar-year corporations. If the return is not extended, this is also the last day for calendar-year corporations to make 2014 contributions to pension and profit-sharing plans.
The annual inflation adjustments have also impacted the various Social Security amounts and thresholds for 2015.
The Social Security wage base, for computing the Social Security tax (OASDI only), increases to $118,500 in 2015, up from $117,000 for 2014. There is no taxable earnings limit for Medicare (HI only) contributions. However, there is a 0.9% Medicare surtax that is imposed on wages and self-employment (SE) income in excess of the modified adjusted gross income (MAGI) threshold amounts of $250,000 for joint filers, $125,000 for married separate filers, and $200,000 for all other taxpayers. The MAGI thresholds are not adjusted for inflation. The surtax does not apply to the employer portion of the tax.
For Social Security beneficiaries under the full retirement age, the annual exempt amount increases to $15,720 in 2015, up from $15,480 in 2014. These beneficiaries will be subject to a $1 reduction in benefits for each $2 they earn in excess of $15,720 in 2015. However, in the year beneficiaries reach their full retirement age (FRA), earnings above a different annual exemption amount ($41,880 in 2015, up from $41,400 in 2014) are subject to $1 reduction in benefits for each $3 earned over this exempt amount. Social Security benefits are not reduced by earned income beginning with the month the beneficiary reaches FRA. But remember, Social Security benefits received may be subject to federal income tax.
The Social Security Administration estimates the average retired worker will receive $1,328 monthly in 2015. The average monthly benefit for an aged couple where both are receiving monthly benefits is $2,176. These amounts reflect a 1.7% cost of living adjustment (COLA). The maximum 2015 Social Security benefit for a worker retiring at FRA is $2,663 per month, up from $2,642 in 2014.
The tax laws generally require individuals with retirement accounts to take annual withdrawals based on the size of their account and their age beginning with the year they reach age 70½. Failure to take a required withdrawal can result in a penalty of 50% of the amount not withdrawn.
If you turned age 70½ in 2014, you can delay your 2014 required distribution to 2015. Think twice before doing so, though, as this will result in two distributions in 2015 — the amount required for 2014 plus the amount required for 2015, which might throw you into a higher tax bracket or trigger the 3.8% net investment income tax. On the other hand, it could be beneficial to take both distributions in 2015 if you expect to be in a substantially lower tax bracket in 2015.
You might want to consider three charitable giving strategies that can help boost your 2014 charitable contribution deduction.
1. Use your credit card. Donations charged to a credit card are deductible in the year charged, not when payment is made on the card. Thus, charging donations to your credit card before year end enables you to increase your 2014 charitable donation deduction even if you're temporarily short on cash or just want to put off payment until later.
2. Donate a life insurance policy. A number of charities are asking their donors to consider donating life insurance policies rather than (or in addition to) cash in order to make substantially larger gifts than would otherwise be possible. The advantage to donors is that they can make a sizable gift with relatively little up-front cash (or even no cash, if an existing policy is donated). The fact that a charity may have to wait many years before receiving a payoff from the gift is typically not a problem because charities normally earmark such gifts for their endowment or long-term building funds.
If handled correctly, a life insurance policy donation can net the donor a charitable deduction for the value of the policy. A charitable deduction is also available for any cash contributed in future years to continue paying the premiums on a policy that was not fully paid up at the time it was donated. However, if handled incorrectly, no deduction is allowed. For this reason, we encourage you to contact us if you are considering the donation of a life insurance policy. We can help ensure that you receive the expected income or transfer tax deduction and that the contribution works as planned.
3. Take advantage of a donor-advised fund. Another charitable giving approach you might want to consider is the donor-advised fund. These funds essentially allow you to obtain an immediate tax deduction for setting aside funds that will be used for future charitable donations.
With donor-advised funds, which are available through a number of major mutual fund companies, as well as universities and community foundations, you contribute money or securities to an account established in your name. You then choose among investment options and, on your own timetable, recommend grants to charities of your choice.
The minimum for establishing a donor-advised fund is often $10,000 or more, but these funds can make sense if you want to obtain a tax deduction now but take your time in determining or making payments to the recipient charity or charities. These funds can also be a way to establish a family philanthropic legacy without incurring the administrative costs and headaches of establishing a private foundation.
Individual Year End Tax Planning Ideas
As we approach year end, it's time again to focus on last-minute moves you can make to save taxes — both on your 2014 return and in future years. Here are a few ideas.
Maximize the benefit of the standard deduction. For 2014, the standard deduction is $12,400 for married taxpayers filing joint returns. For single taxpayers, the amount is $6,200. Currently, it looks like these amounts will be about the same for 2015. If your total itemized deductions each year are normally close to these amounts, you may be able to leverage the benefit of your deductions by bunching deductions in every other year. This allows you to time your itemized deductions so they are high in one year and low in the next. For instance, you might consider moving charitable donations you normally would make in early 2015 to the end of 2014. If you're temporarily short on cash, charge the contribution to a credit card — it is deductible in the year charged, not when payment is made on the card. You can also accelerate payments of your real estate taxes or state income taxes otherwise due in early 2015. But, watch out for the alternative minimum tax (AMT), as these taxes are not deductible for AMT purposes.
Consider deferring income. It may be beneficial to defer some taxable income from this year into next year, especially if you expect to be in a lower tax bracket in 2015 or affected by unfavorable phase out rules that reduce or eliminate various tax breaks (child tax credit, education tax credits, and so forth) in 2014. By deferring income every other year, you may be able to take more advantage of these breaks every other year. For example, if you're in business for yourself and a cash-method taxpayer, you can postpone taxable income by waiting until late in the year to send out some client invoices. That way, you won't receive payment for them until early 2015. You can also postpone taxable income by accelerating some deductible business expenditures into this year. Both moves will defer taxable income from this year until next year.
Secure a deduction for nearly worthless securities. If you own any securities that are all but worthless with little hope of recovery, you might consider selling them before the end of the year so you can capitalize on the loss this year. You can deduct a loss on worthless securities only if you can prove the investment is completely worthless. Thus, a deduction is not available, as long as you own the security and it has any value at all. Total worthlessness can be very difficult to establish with any certainty. To avoid the issue, it may be easier just to sell the security if it has any marketable value. As long as the sale is not to a family member, this allows you to claim a loss for the difference between your tax basis and the proceeds (subject to the normal rules for capital losses and the wash sale rules restricting the recognition of loss if the security is repurchased within 30 days before or after the sale).
Invest in tax-free securities. The most obvious source of tax-free income is tax-exempt securities, either owned outright or through a mutual fund. Whether these provide a better return than the after-tax return on taxable investments depends on your tax bracket and the market interest rates for tax-exempt investments. With the additional layer of net investment income taxes on higher income taxpayers, this year might be a good time to compare the return on taxable and tax-exempt investments. In some cases, it may be as simple as transferring assets from a taxable to a tax-exempt fund.
Again, these are just a few suggestions to get you thinking. Please call us if you'd like to know more about them or want to discuss other ideas.
Eight Tips for Deducting Charitable Contributions
If you are looking for a tax deduction, giving to charity can be a “win-win” situation. It’s good for them and good for you. Here are eight things you should know about deducting your contributions to charity:
1. You must donate to a qualified charity if you want to deduct the contribution. You can’t deduct contributions to individuals, political organizations, or candidates.
2. To deduct your contributions, you must file Form 1040 and itemize deductions.
3. If you get a benefit in return for your contribution, your deduction is limited. You can only deduct the amount of your contribution that’s more than the value of what you received in return. Examples of such benefits include merchandise, meals, tickets to an event, or other goods and services.
4. If you give property instead of cash, the deduction is usually that item’s fair market value. Fair market value is generally the price you would get if you sold the property on the open market.
5. Used clothing and household items generally must be in good condition to be deductible. Special rules apply to vehicle donations.
6. You must file Form 8283, “Noncash Charitable Contributions,” if your deduction for all noncash contributions is more than $500 for the year.
7. You must keep records to prove the amount of the contributions you make during the year. The kind of records you must keep depends on the amount and type of your donation. For example, you must have a written record of any cash you donate, regardless of the amount, to claim a deduction. It can be a canceled check, a letter from the organization, or a bank or payroll statement. It should include the name of the charity, the date, and the amount donated. A cell phone bill meets this requirement for text donations if it shows this same information.
8. To claim a deduction for donated cash or property of $250 or more, you must have a written statement from the organization. It must show the amount of the donation and a description of any property given. It must also say whether the organization provided any goods or services in exchange for the contribution.
Simple Tax Savings Techniques for Security Gains
The market swings over the last several years may have you wondering whether it’s time to capitalize on some market gains. While taxes should not be the main consideration in this decision, they certainly need to be considered, as they can make a significant impact on your investment return.
With that in mind, here are a couple of tax-smart strategies to consider as you analyze your investment opportunities and decide what to do about recent gains.
Should you wait to sell until the stock qualifies for long-term capital gains treatment?
If the stock sale qualifies for long-term capital gains treatment, it will be taxed at a maximum tax rate of 23.8%. Otherwise it will be taxed at your ordinary-income tax rate, which can be as high as 43.4%.
Clearly, you’ll pay less taxes (and keep more of your gains) if the stock sale qualifies for long-term capital gains treatment. The amount of taxes you’ll save depends on your ordinary-income tax bracket.
To qualify for the preferential long-term capital gains rates, you must hold the stock for more than 12 months. The holding period generally begins the day after you purchase the stock and runs through (and includes) the date you sell it. These rules must be followed exactly, because missing the required holding period by even one day prevents you from using the preferential rates.
The question then becomes: "Are the tax savings that would be realized by holding the asset for the long-term period worth the investment risk that the asset’s value will fall during the same time period? " If you think the value will fall significantly, liquidating quickly- regardless of tax consequences- may be the better option. Otherwise, the potential risk of holding an asset should be weighed against the tax benefit of qualifying for a reduced tax rate.
Comparing the risk of a price decline to the potential tax benefit of holding an investment for a certain time is not an exact science. We’d be glad to help you weigh your options.
Use "specific ID method" to minimize taxes
If you are considering selling less than your entire interest in a security that you purchased at various times for various prices, you have a couple of options for identifying the particular shares sold:
(1) The first-in, first-out (FIFO) method and
(2) The specific ID method.
FIFO is used if you do not (or cannot) specifically identify which shares of stock are sold, so the oldest securities are assumed to be sold first. Alternatively, you can use the specific ID method to select the particular shares you wish to sell. This is typically the preferred method, as it allows you at least some level of control over the amount and character of the gain (or loss) realized on the sale, which can lead to tax-savings opportunities.
The specific ID method requires that you adequately identify the specific stock to be sold. This can be accomplished by delivering the specific shares to be sold to the broker selling the stock. Alternatively, if the securities are held by your broker, IRS regulations say you should notify your broker regarding which shares you want to sell and the broker should then issue you a written confirmation of your instructions.
Weddings Mean Tax Changes
It may not be as high on the wedding plan checklist as the venue, invitations and attire, but there are important tax issues created by a marriage that warrant some prompt attention following the wedding.
Name change. Anytime names are changed, it should be reported to the Social Security Administration (SSA). The name associated with an individual’s Social Security Number (SSN) should match the name on the tax return. To change a name with the SSA, file Form SS-5, “Application for a Social Security Card.” The form is available from www.ssa.gov, by calling (800) 772-1213, or from the local SSA office.
Address change. Let the IRS know about an address change by filing Form 8822, “Change of Address.” Also notify the U.S. Postal Service at www.usps.com to forward mail. You may also report the change at your local post office.
Change tax withholding. A change in marital status requires that a new Form W-4, “Employee’s Withholding Allowance Certificate,” be furnished to the employer(s). Combined incomes may move the taxpayers into a higher tax bracket. Search www.irs.gov for the IRS Withholding Calculator tool for help completing the new Form W-4.
Change in filing status. Marital status is determined as of December 31 each year. Spouses can choose to file jointly or separately each year. We can help you make that determination by calculating your tax liability both ways.
Change in circumstances. Taxpayers receiving an advance payment of the health care premium tax credit in 2014 should report changes in circumstances, such as a change in income or family size, to the Health Insurance Marketplace. Also, the Marketplace should be notified when you move out of the area covered by your current Marketplace to ensure you get the proper type and amount of financial assistance.
Small Business Resources
If you are a small business owner, here is a list of organizations that may have tools, information, and other resources to help your business grow.
Business USA The mission of Business USA is to be a centralized, one-stop platform for businesses to access government services to help them grow and hire. Business USA uses technology to connect businesses to the services and information relevant to them, regardless of where the information is located or which government agency’s website, call center, or office they go to for help.
Department of Agriculture, Office of Small and Disadvantaged Business Utilization (OSDBU) The mission of the OSDBU is to provide maximum opportunities for small businesses to participate in USDA contracting activities by establishing and attaining small disadvantaged business program goals.
Department of Commerce The Commerce Department’s mission is to create the conditions for economic growth and opportunity by promoting innovation, entrepreneurship, competitiveness, and stewardship.
Department of Labor, Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) OSHA’s mission is to assure the safety and health of America’s workers by setting and enforcing standards; providing training, outreach, and education; establishing partnerships; and encouraging continual improvement in workplace safety and health.
GobiernoUSA.gov The U.S. government’s official Spanish language web portal.
Service Corps of Retired Executives (SCORE) SCORE is a nonprofit organization that is federally supported to provide free business mentoring and low-cost training to aspiring and existing business owners.
Small Business Administration (SBA) The mission of the SBA is to maintain and strengthen the nation’s economy by enabling the establishment and viability of small businesses and by assisting in the economic recovery of communities after disasters.
Small Business Development Centers (SBDCs) SBDCs, which are located across the U.S., are hosted by leading universities and state economic development agencies. SBDC advisors provide free business consulting and low-cost training services including business plan development, financial packaging and lending assistance, exporting and importing support, procurement and contracting aid, and health care guidance.
Social Security Administration The Social Security Administration is the nation’s primary income security agency. It pays retirement, disability, and survivors benefits to workers and their families; administers the Supplemental Security Income program; and issues Social Security numbers.
State and Local Contacts The State and Local Government on the Net directory provides convenient one-stop access to the websites of thousands of state agencies and city and county governments.
U.S. Department of Labor (DOL) The DOL administers a variety of federal labor laws, including those that guarantee workers’ rights to safe and healthful working conditions, a minimum hourly wage and overtime pay, freedom from employment discrimination, unemployment insurance, and other income support.
U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) The mission of the EEOC is to eradicate employment discrimination at the workplace.
USA.gov The U.S. government’s official Web portal.
What you need to know about required health insurance coverage for 2014
Beginning in 2014, the individual shared responsibility provision of the Affordable Care Act (ACA) requires you and each member of your family to have qualifying health insurance (called minimum essential coverage), have an exemption, or pay a shared responsibility penalty with your 2014 individual income tax return, Form 1040. Many people already have minimum essential coverage and don’t need to do anything more than maintain that coverage.
Do I have minimum essential coverage? You have minimum essential coverage if you have employer-sponsored coverage, coverage obtained through a Health Insurance Marketplace, or coverage through a government-sponsored program. Coverage under certain other plans will qualify as well. You must maintain this coverage for each month of the calendar year.
Am I eligible for an exemption? You may be exempt from the requirement to maintain minimum essential coverage if you’re a member of certain religious sects, a federally recognized Indian tribe, or a health care sharing ministry. You may also be eligible if you are suffering a hardship, meet certain income criteria, or are uninsured for less than three consecutive months of the year.
Will I have to pay a penalty? If you or any of your dependents don’t have minimum essential coverage or an exemption, you will have to pay an individual shared responsibility penalty with your tax return.
For 2014, the annual shared responsibility penalty is the greater of:
However, the maximum amount cannot be more than the cost of the national average premium for a bronze level health plan available through the Marketplace in 2014.
2015 HSA amounts
Health Savings Accounts (HSAs) were created as a tax-favored framework to provide health care benefits mainly for small business owners, the self-employed, and employees of small to medium-size companies who do not have access to health insurance.
The tax benefits of HSAs are quite substantial. Eligible individuals can make tax-deductible (as an adjustment to AGI) contributions into HSA accounts. The funds in the account may be invested (somewhat like an IRA), so there is an opportunity for growth. The earnings inside the HSA are free from federal income tax, and funds withdrawn to pay eligible health care costs are tax-free.
An HSA is a tax-exempt trust or custodial account established exclusively for the purpose of paying qualified medical expenses of the participant who, for the months for which contributions are made to an HSA, is covered under a high-deductible health plan. Consequently, an HSA is not insurance; it is an account, which must be opened with a bank, brokerage firm, or other provider (i.e., insurance company). It is therefore different from a Flexible Spending Account in that it involves an outside provider serving as a custodian or trustee.
The recently released 2015 inflation-adjusted contribution limit for individual self-only coverage under a high-deductible plan is $3,350, while the comparable amount for family coverage is $6,650. For 2015, a high-deductible health plan is defined as a health plan with an annual deductible that is not less than $1,300 for self-only coverage and $2,600 for family coverage, and the annual out-of-pocket expenses (including deductibles and copayments, but not premiums) must not exceed $6,450 for self-only coverage or $12,900 for family coverage.
Do you need to adjust your federal income tax withholding amount?
With over half the year already gone, now is a good time to check to see if you are on track to have about the right amount of federal income tax withheld from your paychecks for 2014. The problem with not having the correct amount of taxes withheld for the year is that:
Neither situation is good. The simplest way to correct your withholding is by turning in a new Form W-4 ("Employee's Withholding Allowance Certificate") to your employer. Taking this action now will adjust the amount of federal income tax that is withheld from your paychecks for the rest of 2014.
Specifically, you can adjust your withholding by increasing or decreasing the number of allowances claimed on your Form W-4. The more allowances claimed, the lower the withholding from each paycheck; the fewer allowances claimed, the greater the withholding. If claiming zero allowances for the rest of the year would still not result in enough extra withholding, you can ask your employer to withhold an additional amount of federal income tax from each paycheck.
While filling out a new Form W-4 seems like something that should be quick and easy, it's not necessarily so - because the tax rules are neither quick nor easy. Fortunately, there is an online Form W-4 calculator on the IRS website at www.irs.gov that can help to make the job simpler. From the IRS home page, click on the "More ..." link under "Tools." Then click on the "IRS withholding calculator" link. You will see the entry point for the online calculator. It's pretty easy to use once you assemble information about your expected 2014 income and expenses, plus your most recent pay stub and tax return.
Please understand that the IRS calculator is not perfect. (Remember, it's free, and to some extent, you always get what you pay for.) However, using the calculator to make withholding allowance changes on a new Form W-4 filed with your employer is probably better than doing nothing, especially if you believe you are likely to be significantly underwithheld or overwithheld for this year.
Of course, if you want more precise results, we would be happy to put together a 2014 tax projection for you. At the same time, we can probably recommend some planning strategies to lower this year's tax bill. Contact us for details.
Midyear Tax Planning Ideas
Tax planning is a year-round process, so now is a good time to think about the following:
Are you considering making a cash gift to a relative? If so, consider making the gift in conjunction with the overall revamping of your stocks and mutual funds held in taxable brokerage accounts to achieve better tax results. Don’t gift loser shares (currently worth less than you paid for them). Instead, sell these shares, recognize the capital loss on your tax return, and then gift the cash proceeds to a relative. However, do gift winner shares to lower tax bracket relatives (unless they are under age 24 and subject to the Kiddie Tax). The 2014 annual gift tax exclusion is $14,000.
Are you considering making a contribution to a favorite charity? The previous strategies will also work well for contributions to qualified charities. Sell loser shares, recognize the loss on your tax return, and then give the cash proceeds to the charity and claim the resulting charitable contribution (if you itemize). Donate winner shares to the charity and deduct the full current fair market value at the time of the gift (without being taxed on the capital gain). The tax-exempt organization can sell your donated shares without owing tax.
Are you self-employed? Consider employing your child in the business (but pay a reasonable wage for their age and work skills). This practice can shift income (which is not subject to the Kiddie Tax) to the child who is normally in a lower tax bracket, decrease payroll taxes, and enable the child to contribute to an IRA.
Is your estate plan current? If you already have an estate plan, it may need updating to reflect the current estate and gift tax rules. For 2014, the unified federal gift and estate tax exemption is a generous $5.34 million, and the rate is 40%. Furthermore, the impact of the Supreme Court’s Windsor decision and resulting IRS changes in the federal definition of marriage mean that legally married same-sex couples need to revise their estate plan. Plus, there may be nontax reasons to update your estate plan.
Please contact us to discuss any tax planning strategies you are interested in implementing.
IRS Warns Taxpayers to Beware of Phishing Scams
Phishing is a scam typically carried out by unsolicited e-mail and/or bogus websites posing as legitimate sites luring unsuspecting victims to provide personal and financial information. The IRS has recently warned consumers to watch for e-mails appearing to be from the Taxpayer Advocate Service (TAS) that include a bogus case number. The e-mail may include the following message: “Your reported 2013 income is flagged for review due to a document processing error. Your case has been forwarded to the Taxpayer Advocate Service for resolution assistance. To avoid delays processing your 2013 filing contact the Taxpayer Advocate Service for resolution assistance.” The e-mail may contain links appearing to provide information about the “advocate” assigned to the recipient’s case but actually lead to Web pages soliciting personal information.
If you receive an e-mail claiming to be from the IRS that contains a request for personal information, do not reply to the e-mail, open any attachments, or click on any links. Instead, forward the e-mail to the IRS at email@example.com. After forwarding the e-mail to the IRS, delete the original e-mail you received.
Remember, the IRS, including the TAS, does not initiate contact with taxpayers by e-mail, text, or any social media.
If you receive a phone call from an individual claiming to be from the IRS but you suspect they are not an IRS employee: (1) Ask for a call-back number and employee badge number, and (2) contact the IRS to determine if the caller is an IRS employee with a legitimate need to contact you. If you determine it is a legitimate call, then call the IRS employee back or call us to handle it for you. If you receive a notice or letter via paper mail, contact us to help you determine if it is a legitimate IRS letter. If it is a legitimate IRS letter, we can help you reply if needed. For information on how to contact the IRS, see http://www.irs.gov/uac/How-to-Contact-the-IRS-1. If either the caller or letter is not legitimate, report the incident to the Treasury Inspector General for Tax Administration at http://www.treasury.gov/tigta/contact_report.shtml.
Taxing Social Security Benefits
Some taxpayers must include up to 85% of their Social Security benefits in taxable income, while others find that their benefits are not taxable at all. If Social Security is your only source of income, your benefits probably won’t be taxable. In fact, you may not even need to file a federal income tax return. If you get income from other sources, however, you may have to pay taxes on at least a portion of your Social Security benefits. Your income and filing status will also affect whether you must pay taxes on your Social Security benefits.
A quick way to find out if any of your benefits may be taxable is to add half of your Social Security benefits to all your other income, including any tax-exempt interest. Next, compare this total to the following base amounts. If your total is more than the base amount for your filing status, then some of your benefits may be taxable. The three base amounts are:
To avoid tax time surprises, Social Security recipients can request that federal income tax be withheld from their benefit payments. Withholding is voluntary and can be initiated by completing IRS Form W-4V (“Voluntary Withholding Request”), requesting to have 7%, 10%, 15%, or 25% (those are the only choices) withheld for federal income tax, and submitting the form to the local Social Security Administration office. Voluntary withholding can be stopped by completing a new Form W-4V.
Taxing a Child's Investment Income
Some children who receive investment income are required to file a tax return and pay tax on at least a portion of that income (and possibly at the parents’ marginal tax rate). This is often referred to as the kiddie tax. The kiddie tax cannot be computed accurately until the parents’ income is known. Thus, the child’s return may have to be extended until the parents’ return has been completed. Additionally, if the parents’ return is amended or adjusted upon IRS audit, the child’s return could require correction (assuming the changes to the parental return affect the tax bracket). If a child cannot file his or her own tax return for any reason, such as age, the child’s parent or guardian is responsible for filing a return on the child’s behalf.
There are tax rules that affect how parents report a child’s investment income. Investment income normally includes interest, dividends, capital gains, and other unearned income, such as from a trust. Some parents can include their child’s investment income on their tax return. Other children may have to file their own tax return. Special rules apply if a child’s total investment income is more than $2,000. Finally, the parents’ tax rate may apply to part of that income instead of the child’s tax rate.
Note: Higher income individuals subject to the 3.8% net investment income tax (3.8% NIIT) may benefit from shifting income to and having their child claim investment income on the child’s tax return. This may be advantageous because the child receives his or her own $200,000 exclusion from the 3.8% NIIT.
Tax Implications of Investor or Trader Status
Most taxpayers who trade stocks are classified as investors for tax purposes. This means any net gains are going to be treated as capital gains vs. ordinary income. That's good if your net gains are long term from positions held more than a year. However, any investment-related expenses (such as margin interest, stock tracking software, etc.) are deductible only if you itemize and, in some cases, only if the total of the expenses exceeds 2% of your adjusted gross income.
Traders have it better. Their expenses reduce gross income even if they can't itemize deductions, and not just for regular tax purposes, but also for alternative minimum tax purposes. Plus, in certain circumstances, if they have a net loss for the year, they can claim it as an ordinary loss (so it can offset other ordinary income) rather than a capital loss, which is limited to a $3,000 ($1,500 if married filing separate) per year deduction once any capital gains have been offset. Thus, it's no surprise that in two recent Tax Court cases the taxpayers were trying to convince the court they qualified as traders. Although both taxpayers failed, and got hit with negligence penalties on top of back taxes, the cases provide good insights into what it takes to successfully meet the test for trader status.
The answer is pretty simple. A taxpayer's trading must be "substantial." Also, it must be designed to try to catch the swings in the daily market movements, and to profit from these short-term changes rather than from the long-term holding of investments.
So, what counts as substantial? While there's no bright line test, the courts have tended to view more than a thousand trades a year, spread over most of the available trading days in the year, as substantial. Consequently, a few hundred trades, especially when occurring only sporadically during the year, are not likely to pass muster. In addition, the average duration for holding any one position needs to be very short, preferably only a day or two. If you satisfy all of these conditions, then even though there's no guarantee (because the test is subjective), the chances are good that you'd ultimately be able to prove trader vs. investor status if you were challenged. Of course, even if you don't satisfy one of the tests, you might still prevail, but the odds against you are presumably higher.
If you have any questions about this area of the tax law or any other tax compliance or planning issue, please feel free to contact us.
Double Benefit From a Tax Deduction
For most taxpayers, the amount of federal income tax they pay depends on where they fall in the federal income tax brackets and the breakdown of their taxable income between ordinary (e.g., wages) and capital gains from the sale of assets (e.g., common stock). Taxpayers eligible for the lower federal income tax brackets (those under 25%) on their ordinary income can generally expect to be taxed at 0% on their long-term capital gains. Taxpayers in the 25% or higher federal income tax brackets can generally expect to be taxed at either 15% or 20% (again, exceptions apply) on at least a portion of their long-term capital gains.
It seems inevitable that, as federal taxable income increases, the rate we pay on at least a portion of that income also increases. The converse should and does apply. That is, as federal taxable income decreases, the rate of tax we pay on at least a portion of that income also decreases. In addition, if a taxpayer has a long-term capital gain that, after considering ordinary income, is partially taxed at the 0% rate, any additional deduction that decreases ordinary income will simultaneously decrease the tax rate on a comparable amount of long-term capital gain from 15% to 0%. This has the effect of producing a double benefit for that deduction, as shown in the following example.
Example: Jack and Julie, filing jointly for 2014, have net ordinary income of $60,000 and a long-term capital gain from the sale of stock of $40,000, for total income of $100,000. For 2014, the joint rates applicable to ordinary taxable income change from 15% to 25% at $73,800. Accordingly, $13,800 ($73,800 - $60,000) of their long-term capital gain will be taxed at 0% and the balance of $26,200 ($40,000 - $13,800) is taxable at 15%. All income, both capital and ordinary, is taxed at a rate of 15% or less.
If Jack and Julie contribute $11,000 to their deductible IRAs ($5,500 each for 2014, assuming they are both under age 50), they receive a 30% tax rate savings, even though their highest tax bracket is 15%. The $11,000 IRA deduction reduces ordinary income at the 15% rate, but also shifts $11,000 of capital gain taxation from the 15% to the 0% bracket, for another 15% savings. This produces a total tax benefit of 30% on the $11,000 reduction.
A similar impact would occur for any expenditure or deduction that reduced ordinary income (i.e., Section 179 expense, additional interest expense, etc.). Conversely, adding ordinary income at the 15% bracket would cause a 30% impact, as additional ordinary income would push a portion of the capital gains formerly at 0% upward into the 15% bracket.
Lifetime vs. Testamentary Contributions
Many taxpayers with charitable intentions struggle with the decision of whether to donate property to charity during their lifetimes or to make a charitable bequest in their wills that will be fulfilled from property included in their estates (testamentary bequests). While taxpayers frequently base their choice between lifetime charitable gifts and testamentary bequests on nontax considerations, they need to be aware of the tax implications of their decision.
For income tax purposes, the deduction for charitable contributions is limited to a percentage of adjusted gross income (AGI), depending on the type of charity and the type of property donated. In contrast, no percentage limitation exists on the amount of charitable donations that may be deducted from the gross estate (as long as the donated property is included in the gross estate). However, in most instances a charitable gift during lifetime will provide a double tax benefit. The donation produces an income tax deduction at the time of the gift, plus the donated property and any future income and appreciation from the property are fully excluded from the donor's gross estate. The cost of the double benefit is giving up the property and all future income while the donor is still living.
Example: Greater tax benefits by lifetime giving
Tom, who is in the top tax bracket, plans on leaving $1 million to a qualifying charity. If he makes a $1 million testamentary bequest, this could save his estate up to $400,000 ($1,000,000 x an assumed marginal federal estate tax rate of 40%). If Tom makes a current gift, this will save him up to $396,000 in federal income taxes ($1,000,000 x 39.6% for 2014). In addition, if he has a taxable estate, it could also save another $241,600 [($1,000,000 - $396,000) x 40%] based on his estate being reduced by the net amount of $604,000, the difference between the value of the donated property and income taxes he saved. Thus, the total income and estate tax savings from making a current gift is $637,600 ($396,000 + $241,600).
The donor generally must transfer his or her entire interest in the contributed property for the gift to qualify for the charitable donation income tax deduction. Transfers of less than the donor's entire interest in the property (i.e., split-interest gifts) qualify for the deduction only if they meet certain criteria.
A charitable bequest has the obvious advantage of allowing the donor full use of the property until death. However, many lifetime gifts can be structured in a manner that allows the donor to continue to use the property or receive its income for life. In these instances, the donor gets the double tax benefit associated with lifetime contributions while retaining some benefit from the property until his or her death.
Passive Activity Loss Limitations
The passive activity loss (PAL) rules were introduced by the Tax Reform Act of 1986 and were designed to curb perceived tax shelter abuses. However, the PAL rules are far-reaching and affect activities other than tax shelters. Additionally, these rules limit the deductibility of losses for federal income tax purposes.
The PAL rules provide that passive losses can only be used to offset passive income, not active income the owners may earn from business activities in which they materially participate or portfolio income they receive from investments, such as dividend and interest income. So, while taxpayers may not benefit currently from losses sustained from passive activities, they may be able to use those losses to offset gains in future years.
A passive activity is a trade or business in which the taxpayer does not materially participate or, with certain exceptions, any rental activity. Rental activities generally are passive regardless of whether the taxpayer materially participates. However, the rental real estate activities of certain qualifying taxpayers in real estate businesses are subject to the same general rule that applies to nonrental activities. In other words, if the taxpayer satisfies certain participation requirements, the rental activity is nonpassive and any losses or credits it generates can be used to offset the taxpayer’s other nonpassive income. Additionally, federal regulations provide several exceptions to the general rule allowing a rental activity to be treated as either a trade or business or an investment activity.
A special rule allows taxpayers who actively participate in a rental activity to deduct up to $25,000 of loss from the activity each year regardless of the PAL rules. Examples of what would constitute active participation include approving new tenants, deciding on rental terms, and approving capital or repair expenditures. The $25,000 special allowance is, however, subject to a limitation. The $25,000 amount is reduced if the taxpayer has an adjusted gross income (AGI) (before passive losses) in excess of $100,000. The allowance is reduced by 50% of the amount by which AGI exceeds the $100,000 level. Consequently, the allowance is completely phased out when AGI exceeds $150,000. If taxpayers have rehabilitation or low-income housing credits, a special rule allows the credits to offset tax on nonpassive income of up to $25,000, regardless of the limitation based on AGI.
Another special rule is the exception for real estate professionals. This provision allows qualifying real estate professionals to deduct losses from rental real estate activities as nonpassive losses if they materially participate in the activity. To qualify as a real estate professional, a taxpayer must demonstrate that he or she spends more than 750 hours during the tax year in real property businesses in which they are a material participant. In addition, they must demonstrate that more than 50% of the services they perform in all of their businesses during the tax year are performed in real property businesses in which they materially participate.
Please contact us to discuss the passive activity provisions or any other tax planning or compliance issue.
Social Security Update
The annual inflation adjustments have been announced for the various Social Security amounts and thresholds, so we thought it would be a good time to update you for 2014.
For Social Security beneficiaries under the full retirement age, the annual exempt amount increases to $15,480 in 2014, up from $15,120 in 2013. These beneficiaries will be subject to a $1 reduction in benefits for each $2 they earn in excess of $15,480 in 2014. However, in the year beneficiaries reach their full retirement age, earnings above a different annual exempt amount apply. Earnings greater than $41,400 in 2014 (up from $40,080 in 2013) are subject to a $1 reduction in benefits for each $3 earned over this exempt amount. Social Security benefits are not reduced by earned income beginning with the month the beneficiary reaches full benefit retirement age. But remember, Social Security benefits received may be subject to federal income tax.
The Social Security Administration estimates the average retired worker will receive $1,294 monthly in 2014. The average monthly benefit for an aged couple where both are receiving monthly benefits is $2,111. These amounts reflect a 1.5% cost of living adjustment (COLA). The maximum 2014 Social Security benefit for a worker retiring at full retirement age is $2,642 per month, up from $2,533 in 2013.
Retirement Plan Review
Your retirement plan savings (e.g., qualified plans and IRAs) are important to your financial well-being for many reasons. You can accumulate income without currently paying tax, and the power of compounding pretax dollars makes a retirement plan one of the most powerful investment vehicles available. When you reach retirement age, your retirement plan assets may be a significant portion of your overall savings. Therefore, it is important to do everything you can to get the most out of one of the best investment opportunities you have. Listed below is information to consider when conducting a review of your retirement plans.
Generally, when you begin to withdraw funds from your retirement plans, you will be subject to tax on the distributions. If you made after-tax contributions to your plan, a portion of each distribution will be tax-free. Also, special rules apply to Roth IRAs that make them particularly beneficial. If distributions begin prematurely (generally before age 59 1/2), you may be hit with a 10% penalty tax, but exceptions are available.
When you reach age 70 1/2 (or in some cases, retire), you must start withdrawing a minimum amount from your traditional IRAs and qualified plans each year. Severe penalties can result if required minimum distributions are not made on a timely basis. However, distributions from Roth IRAs are not required during your lifetime.
At the time of your death, the beneficiary designation in effect will determine not only who gets the retirement plan assets, but also how quickly your account must be paid out to your beneficiary and, therefore, how quickly the benefits of tax deferral are lost. Beneficiary designation adjustments may be necessary as family and beneficiary conditions change (e.g., divorce).
Your retirement plan savings may be critical for you and your dependents' future well-being. With proper planning, you can maximize tax-deferred earnings, avoid penalty taxes, choose a desired beneficiary, and minimize the amount your heirs are required to withdraw (and pay taxes on) after your death.