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Mutual Funds and Taxes & Are Frequent Flyer Miles Ever Taxable?
Handle With Care: Mutual Funds and Taxes
Many people overlook taxes when planning their mutual fund investments. But you’ve got to handle these valuable assets with care. Here are some tips to consider.
Avoid year-end investments
Typically, mutual funds distribute accumulated dividends and capital gains toward the end of the year. But don’t fall for the common misconception that investing in a fund just before a distribution date is like getting “free money.”
True, you’ll receive a year’s worth of income right after you invest. But the value of your shares will immediately drop by the same amount, so you won’t be any better off. Plus, you’ll be liable for taxes on the distribution as if you had owned your shares all year.
You can get a general idea of when a particular fund anticipates making a distribution by checking its website periodically. Also make a note of the “record date” — investors who own fund shares on that date will participate in the distribution.
Invest in tax-efficient funds
Actively managed funds tend to be less tax efficient. They buy and sell securities more frequently, generating a greater amount of capital gain, much of it short-term gain taxable at ordinary income rates rather than the lower, long-term capital gains rates.
Consider investing in tax-efficient funds instead. For example, index funds generally have lower turnover rates. And “passively managed” funds (sometimes described as “tax managed” funds) are designed to minimize taxable distributions.
Another option is exchange-traded funds (ETFs). Unlike mutual funds, which generally redeem shares by selling securities, ETFs are often able to redeem securities “in kind” — that is, to swap them for other securities. This limits an ETF’s recognition of capital gains, making it more tax efficient.
This isn’t to say that tax-inefficient funds don’t have a place in your portfolio. In some cases, actively managed funds may offer benefits, such as above-market returns, that outweigh their tax costs.
Watch out for reinvested distributions
Many investors elect to have their distributions automatically reinvested in their funds. Be aware that those distributions are taxable regardless of whether they’re reinvested or paid out in cash.
Reinvested distributions increase your tax basis in a fund, so track your basis carefully. If you fail to account for these distributions, you’ll end up paying tax on them twice — once when they’re paid and again when you sell your shares in the fund.
Fortunately, under current rules, mutual fund companies are required to track your basis for you. But you still may need to track your basis in funds you owned before 2012 when this requirement took effect, or if you purchased units in the fund outside of the current broker holding your units.
Do your due
Tax considerations should never be the primary driver of your investment decisions. Yet it’s important to do your due diligence on the potential tax consequences of funds you’re considering — particularly for your taxable accounts.
Sidebar: Directing tax-inefficient funds into nontaxable accounts
If you invest in actively managed or other tax-inefficient funds, ideally you should put these holdings in nontaxable accounts, such as a traditional IRA or 401(k). Because earnings in these accounts are tax-deferred, distributions from funds they hold won’t have any tax consequences until you withdraw them. And if the funds are held in a Roth account, those distributions will escape taxation altogether.
Are Frequent Flyer Miles Ever Taxable?
If you recently redeemed frequent flyer miles to treat the family to a fun summer vacation or to take your spouse on a romantic getaway, you might assume that there are no tax implications involved. And you’re probably right — but there is a chance your miles could be taxable.
Generally, miles awarded by airlines for flying with them are considered nontaxable rebates, as are miles awarded for using a credit or debit card. The IRS even addressed the issue in Announcement 2002-18, where it said:
Consistent with prior practice, the IRS will not assert that any taxpayer has understated his federal tax liability by reason of the receipt or personal use of frequent flyer miles or other in-kind promotional benefits attributable to the taxpayer’s business or official travel.
There are, however, some types of miles awards the IRS might view as taxable. Examples include miles awarded as a prize in a sweepstakes and miles awarded as a promotion.
For instance, in the 2014 case of Shankar v. Commissioner, the U.S. Tax Court sided with the IRS in finding that airline miles awarded in conjunction with opening a bank account were indeed taxable. Part of the evidence of taxability was the fact that the bank had issued Forms 1099 MISC to customers who’d redeemed rewards points to buy airline tickets.
The value of the miles for tax purposes generally is their estimated retail value. If you’re concerned you’ve received miles awards that could be taxable, please contact us.
Archive of Past Monthly Newsletters
Oct 2017 - Wills and Living Trusts & 3 Strategies for Handling Estimated Tax Payments
Wills and Living Trusts: Estate Planning Imperatives
Well-crafted, up-to-date estate planning documents are an imperative for everyone. They also can help ease the burdens on your family during a difficult time. Two important examples: wills and living trusts.
A will is a legal document that arranges for the distribution of your property after you die and allows you to designate a guardian for minor children or other dependents. It should name the executor or personal representative who’ll be responsible for overseeing your estate as it goes through probate. (Probate is the court-supervised process of paying any debts and taxes and distributing your property after you die.) To be valid, a will must meet the legal requirements in your state.
If you die without a will (that is, “intestate”), the state will appoint an administrator to determine how to distribute your property based on state law. The administrator also will decide who will assume guardianship of any minor children or other dependents. Bottom line? Your assets may be distributed — and your dependents provided for — in ways that differ from what you would have wanted.
The living trust
Because probate can be time-consuming, expensive and public, you may prefer to avoid it. A living trust can help. It’s a legal entity to which you, as the grantor, transfer title to your property. During your life, you can act as the trustee, maintaining control over the property in the trust. On your death, the person (such as a family member or advisor) or institution (such as a bank or trust company) you’ve named as the successor trustee distributes the trust assets to the beneficiaries you’ve named.
Assets held in a living trust avoid probate — with very limited exceptions. Another benefit is that the successor trustee can take over management of the trust assets should you become incapacitated.
Having a living trust doesn’t eliminate the need for a will. For example, you can’t name a guardian for minor children or other dependents in a trust. However, a “pour over” will can direct that assets you own outside the living trust be transferred to it on your death.
There are other documents that can complement a will and living trust. A “letter of instruction,” for example, provides information that your family will need after your death. In it, you can express your desires for the memorial service, as well as the contact information for your employer, accountant and any other important advisors. (Note: It’s not a legal document.)
Also consider powers of attorney. A durable power of attorney for property allows you to appoint someone to act on your behalf on financial matters should you become incapacitated. A power of attorney for health care covers medical decisions and also takes effect if you become incapacitated. The person to whom you’ve transferred this power — your health care agent — can make medical decisions on your behalf.
These are just a few of the foundational elements of a strong estate plan. We can work with you and your attorney to address the tax issues involved.
3 Strategies for Handling Estimated Tax Payments
In today’s economy, many individuals are self-employed. Others generate income from interest, rent or dividends. If these circumstances sound familiar, you might be at risk of penalties if you don’t pay enough tax during the year through estimated tax payments and withholding. Here are three strategies to help avoid underpayment penalties:
1. Know the minimum payment rules. For you to avoid penalties, your estimated payments and withholding must equal at least:
- 90% of your tax liability for the year,
- 110% of your tax for the previous year, or
- 100% of your tax for the previous year if your adjusted gross income for the previous year was $150,000 or less ($75,000 or less if married filing separately).
2. Use the annualized income installment method. This method often benefits taxpayers who have large variability in income by month due to bonuses, investment gains and losses, or seasonal income — especially if it’s skewed toward year end. Annualizing calculates the tax due based on income, gains, losses and deductions through each “quarterly” estimated tax period.
3. Estimate your tax liability and increase withholding. If, as year end approaches, you determine you’ve underpaid, consider having the tax shortfall withheld from your salary or year-end bonus by December 31. Because withholding is considered to have been paid ratably throughout the year, this is often a better strategy than making up the difference with an increased quarterly tax payment, which may trigger penalties for earlier quarters.
Finally, beware that you also could incur interest and penalties if you’re subject to the additional 0.9% Medicare tax and it isn’t withheld from your pay and you don’t make sufficient estimated tax payments. Please contact us for help with this tricky tax task.
Sept 2017 - Understanding the Differences Between Health Care Accounts & 5 Keys to Disaster Planning
Understanding the Differences Between Health Care Accounts
Health care costs continue to be in the news and on everyone’s mind. As a result, tax-friendly ways to pay for these expenses are very much in play for many people. The three primary players, so to speak, are Health Savings Accounts (HSAs), Flexible Spending Arrangements (FSAs) and Health Reimbursement Arrangements (HRAs).
All provide opportunities for tax-advantaged funding of health care expenses. But what’s the difference between these three types of accounts? Here’s an overview of each one:
HSAs. If you’re covered by a qualified high-deductible health plan (HDHP), you can contribute pretax income to an employer-sponsored HSA — or make deductible contributions to an HSA you set up yourself — up to $3,400 for self-only coverage and $6,750 for family coverage for 2017. Plus, if you’re age 55 or older, you may contribute an additional $1,000.
You own the account, which can bear interest or be invested, growing tax-deferred similar to an IRA. Withdrawals for qualified medical expenses are tax-free, and you can carry over a balance from year to year.
FSAs. Regardless of whether you have an HDHP, you can redirect pretax income to an employer-sponsored FSA up to an employer-determined limit — not to exceed $2,600 in 2017. The plan pays or reimburses you for qualified medical expenses.
What you don’t use by the plan year’s end, you generally lose — though your plan might allow you to roll over up to $500 to the next year. Or it might give you a 2½-month grace period to incur expenses to use up the previous year’s contribution. If you have an HSA, your FSA is limited to funding certain “permitted” expenses.
HRAs. An HRA is an employer-sponsored arrangement that reimburses you for medical expenses. Unlike an HSA, no HDHP is required. Unlike an FSA, any unused portion typically can be carried forward to the next year. And there’s no government-set limit on HRA contributions. But only your employer can contribute to an HRA; employees aren’t allowed to contribute.
Please bear in mind that these plans could be affected by health care or tax legislation. Contact our firm for the latest information, as well as to discuss these and other ways to save taxes in relation to your health care expenses.
5 Keys to Disaster Planning For Individuals
Disaster planning is usually associated with businesses. But individuals need to prepare for worst-case scenarios, as well. Unfortunately, the topic can seem a little overwhelming. To help simplify matters, here are five keys to disaster planning that everyone should consider:
1. Insurance. Start with your homeowners’ coverage. Make sure your policy covers flood, wind and other damage possible in your region and that its dollar amount is adequate to cover replacement costs. Also review your life and disability insurance.
2. Asset documentation. Create a list of your bank accounts, titles, deeds, mortgages, home equity loans, investments and tax records. Inventory physical assets not only in writing (including brand names and model and serial numbers), but also by photographing or videoing them.
3. Document storage. Keep copies of financial and personal documents somewhere other than your home, such as a safe deposit box or the distant home of a trusted friend or relative. Also consider “cloud computing” — storing digital files with a secure Web-based provider.
4. Cash. You may not receive insurance money right away. A good rule of thumb is to set aside three to six months’ worth of living expenses in a savings or money market account. Also maintain a cash reserve in your home in a durable, fireproof safe.
5. An emergency plan. Establish a family emergency plan that includes evacuation routes, methods of getting in touch and a safe place to meet. Because a disaster might require you to stay in your home, stock a supply kit with water, nonperishable food, batteries and a first aid kit.
Aug 2017 - Roth IRA Rollover Opportunity & Shifting Capital Gains to Your Children
IRS Permits High-Earner Roth IRA Rollover Opportunity
Are you a highly compensated employee (HCE) approaching retirement? If so, and you have a 401(k), you should consider a potentially useful tax-efficient IRA rollover technique. The IRS has specific rules about how participants such as you can allocate accumulated 401(k) plan assets based on pretax and after-tax employee contributions between standard IRAs and Roth IRAs.
In 2017, the top pretax contribution that participants can make to a 401(k) is $18,000 ($24,000 for those 50 and older). Plans that permit after-tax contributions (several do) allow participants to contribute a total of $54,000 ($36,000 above the $18,000 pretax contribution limit). While some highly compensated supersavers may have significant accumulations of after-tax contributions in their 401(k) accounts, the tax law income caps block the highest paid HCEs from opening a Roth IRA.
However, under IRS rules, these participants can roll dollars representing their after-tax 401(k) contributions directly into a new Roth IRA when they retire or no longer work for the companies. Thus, they’ll ultimately be able to withdraw the dollars representing the original after-tax contributions — and subsequent earnings on those dollars — tax-free.
Participants can contribute rollover dollars to conventional and Roth IRAs on a pro-rata basis. For example, suppose a retiring participant had $1 million in his 401(k) plan account, $600,000 of which represents contributions. Suppose further that 70% of that $600,000 represents pretax contributions, and 30% is from after-tax contributions. IRS guidance clarifies that the participant can roll $700,000 (70% of the $1 million) into a conventional IRA, and $300,000 (30% of the $1 million) into a Roth IRA.
The IRS rules allow the retiree to roll over not only the after-tax contributions, but the earnings on those after-tax contributions (40% of the $300,000, or $120,000) to the Roth IRA provided that the $120,000 will be taxable for the year of the rollover.
Alternatively, the IRS rules allow the retiree to delay taxation on the earnings attributable to the after-tax contributions ($120,000) until the money is distributed by contributing that amount to a conventional IRA, and the remaining $180,000 to the Roth IRA.
Under each approach, the subsequent growth in the Roth IRA will be tax-free when withdrawn. Partial rollovers can also be made, and the same principles apply.
Golden years ahead
HCEs face some complex decisions when it comes to retirement planning. Let our firm help you make the right moves now for your golden years ahead.
Shifting Capital Gains to Your Children
If you’re an investor looking to save tax dollars, your kids might be able to help you out. Giving appreciated stock or other investments to your children can minimize the impact of capital gains taxes.
For this strategy to work best, however, your child must not be subject to the “kiddie tax.” This tax applies your marginal rate to unearned income in excess of a specified threshold ($2,100 in 2017) received by your child who at the end of the tax year was either: 1) under 18, 2) 18 (but not older) and whose earned income didn’t exceed one-half of his or her own support for the year (excluding scholarships if a full-time student), or 3) a full-time student age 19 to 23 who had earned income that didn’t exceed half of his or her own support (excluding scholarships).
Here’s how it works: Say Bill, who’s in the top tax bracket, wants to help his daughter, Molly, buy a new car. Molly is 22 years old, just out of college, and currently looking for a job — and, for purposes of the example, won’t be considered a dependent for 2017.
Even if she finds a job soon, she’ll likely be in the 10% or 15% tax bracket this year. To finance the car, Bill plans to sell $20,000 of stock that he originally purchased for $2,000. If he sells the stock, he’ll have to pay $3,600 in capital gains tax (20% of $18,000), plus the 3.8% net investment income tax, leaving $15,716 for Molly. But if Bill gives the stock to Molly, she can sell it tax-free and use the entire $20,000 to buy a car. (The capital gains rate for the two lowest tax brackets is generally 0%.)
Jul 2017 - Which Type of Mortgage Loan Meets Your Needs? & Know Your Tax Hand When it Comes to Gambling
Which Type of Mortgage Loan Meets Your Needs?
Few purchases during your lifetime will be as expensive as buying a home. Whether it’s your primary residence, a vacation home or an investment property, how you choose to pay for it can have a significant impact on your financial situation over time. If you’re considering a mortgage loan, understanding the main categories of mortgages — fixed-rate and adjustable-rate — and the situations they’re best designed for will help you match the right type for your needs.
Fixed-rate loans offer stability
A fixed-rate mortgage, as its name suggests, is a loan whose interest rate remains constant for the life of the loan — typically 15 or 30 years. One of the primary benefits of a fixed-rate loan is that it provides a measure of certainty about one of the biggest expenses in your monthly budget. With interest rates likely to rise after an extended period of historically low rates, you won’t have to worry about potentially higher payments in the future if you select a fixed-rate loan.
That said, if interest rates were to fall again, your fixed-rate loan would leave you unable to take advantage of the shift unless you refinance, which might involve fees. You’re also paying a premium for the stability offered by a fixed-rate mortgage. You could consider a 15-year fixed-rate loan, which would charge a lower rate than a 30-year loan, but the tradeoff will be higher monthly payments.
ARMs provide flexibility
Adjustable-rate mortgages (ARMs) typically offer a fixed interest rate for an initial period of years. This rate, which is usually lower than that of a comparable fixed-rate mortgage, resets periodically based on a benchmark interest rate. For example, a 5/1 ARM means that your interest rate is fixed for the first five years and then will adjust every year after that.
Paying less interest in the beginning frees your cash for other investments. You might also take advantage of an ARM if you’re confident that you’ll have more money in the future than you do today, or if you plan on selling your house before or soon after the initial fixed-rate period expires. When considering an ARM, you’ll need to assess your ability to keep up with potentially higher payments — say, if the initial period expires, your rate goes up and you’re unable to sell the home, or if your income changes.
The best for you
The right loan type depends, naturally, on your financial position. But whether you’re buying a primary residence, vacation home or investment property also plays a role. Regardless of which type of home you’re purchasing, having a basic knowledge of the loan types can help ease the buying process. Let our firm assist you in evaluating the best mortgage for your needs.
Know Your Tax Hand When it Comes to Gambling
A royal flush can be quite a rush. But the IRS casts a wide net when defining gambling income. It includes winnings from casinos, horse races, lotteries and raffles, as well as any cash or prizes (appraised at fair market value) from contests. If you participate in any of these activities, you must report such winnings as income on your federal return.
If you’re a casual gambler, report your winnings as “Other income” on Form 1040. You may also take an itemized deduction for gambling losses, but the deduction is limited to the amount of winnings.
In some cases, casinos and other payers provide IRS Form W-2G, “Certain Gambling Winnings” — particularly if the entity in question withholds federal income tax from winnings. The information from these forms needs to be included on your tax return.
If you gamble often and actively, you might qualify as a professional gambler, which comes with tax benefits: It allows you to deduct not only losses, but also wagering-related business expenses — such as transportation, meals and entertainment, tournament and casino admissions, and applicable website and magazine subscriptions.
To qualify as a professional, you must be able to demonstrate to the IRS that a “profit motive” exists. The agency looks at a list of nonexclusive factors when making this determination, including:
- Whether the taxpayer conducts the gambling activity in a “businesslike” manner,
- The quantity of time spent gambling, and
- How much income is earned from nongambling activities.
But don’t “go pro” for the tax benefits, since doing so is a major financial risk. If you enjoy the occasional game of chance, or particularly if you’re considering gambling as a profession, please contact our firm. We can help you manage the tax impact.
Jun 2017 - In Down Years, NOL Rules Can Offer Tax Relief & Renting Out Your Vacation Home?
In Down Years, NOL Rules Can Offer Tax Relief
From time to time, a business may find that its operating expenses and other deductions for a particular year exceed its income. This is known as incurring a net operating loss (NOL).
In such cases, companies (or their owners) may be able to snatch some tax relief from this revenue defeat. Under the Internal Revenue Code, a corporation or individual may deduct an NOL from its income.
3 ways to play
Generally, you take an NOL deduction in one of three ways:
1. Deducting the loss in previous years, called a “carryback,” which creates a refund,
2. Deducting the loss in future years, called a “carryforward,” which lowers your future tax liability, or
3. Doing a little bit of both.
A corporation or individual must carry back an NOL to the two years before the year it incurred the loss. But the carryback period may be increased to three years if a casualty or theft causes the NOL, or if you have a qualified small business and the loss is in a presidentially declared disaster area. The carryforward period is a maximum of 20 years.
Direction of travel
You must first carry back losses to the earliest tax year for which you qualify, depending on which carryback period applies. This can produce an immediate refund of taxes paid in the carryback years. From there, you may carry forward any remaining losses year by year up to the 20-year maximum.
You may, however, elect to forgo the carryback period and instead immediately carry forward a loss if you believe doing so will provide a greater tax benefit. But you’ll need to compare your marginal tax rate — that is, the tax rate of the last income dollar in the previous two years — with your expected marginal tax rates in future years.
For example, say your marginal tax rate was relatively low over the last two years, but you expect big profits next year. In this case, your increased income might put you in a higher marginal tax bracket. So you’d be smarter to waive the carryback period and carry forward the NOL to years in which you can use it to reduce income that otherwise would be taxed at the higher rate.
Then again, as of this writing, efforts are underway to pass tax law reform. So, if tax rates go down, it might be more beneficial to carry back an NOL as far as allowed before carrying it forward.
Whatever the reason
Many circumstances can create an NOL. Whatever the reason, the rules are complex. Let us help you work through the process.
Sidebar: AMT effect
One tricky aspect of navigating the net operating loss (NOL) rules is the impact of the alternative minimum tax (AMT). Many business owners wonder whether they can offset AMT liability with NOLs just as they can offset regular tax liability.
The answer is “yes” — you can deduct your AMT NOLs from your AMT income in generally the same manner as for regular NOLs. The excess of deductions allowed over the income recognized for AMT purposes is essentially the AMT NOL. But beware that different rules for deductions, exclusions and preferences apply to the AMT. (These rules apply to both individuals and corporations.)
Renting Out Your Vacation Home? Anticipate the Tax Impact
When buying a vacation home, the primary objective is usually to provide a place for many years of happy memories. But you might also view the property as an income-producing investment and choose to rent it out when you’re not using it. Let’s take a look at how the IRS generally treats income and expenses associated with a vacation home.
Mostly personal use
You can generally deduct interest up to $1 million in combined acquisition debt on your main residence and a second residence, such as a vacation home. In addition, you can also deduct property taxes on any number of residences.
If you (or your immediate family) use the home for more than 14 days and rent it out for less than 15 days during the year, the IRS will consider the property a “pure” personal residence, and you don’t have to report the rental income. But any expenses associated with the rental — such as advertising or cleaning — aren’t deductible.
More rental use
If you rent out the home for more than 14 days and you (or your immediate family) occupy the home for more than 14 days or 10% of the days you rent the property — whichever is greater — the IRS will still classify the home as a personal residence (in other words, vacation home), but you will have to report the rental income.
In this situation, you can deduct the personal portion of mortgage interest, property taxes and casualty losses as itemized deductions. In addition, the rental portion of your expenses is deductible up to the amount of rental income. If your rental expenses are greater than your rental income, you may not deduct the loss against other income.
If you (or your immediate family) use the vacation home for 14 days or less, or under 10% of the days you rent out the property, whichever is greater, the IRS will classify the home as a rental property. In this instance, while the personal portion of mortgage interest isn’t deductible, you may report as an itemized deduction the personal portion of property taxes. You must report the rental income and may deduct all rental expenses, including depreciation, subject to the passive activity loss rules.
This has been just a brief examination of some of the tax issues related to a vacation home. Please contact our firm for a comprehensive assessment of your situation.
May 2017 - IRD Issues When Inheriting Money & Reviewing the Innocent Spouse Relief Rules
Watch Out for IRD Issues When Inheriting Money
Once a relatively obscure concept, income in respect of a decedent (IRD) can create a surprisingly high tax bill for those who inherit certain types of property, such as IRAs or other retirement plans. Fortunately, there are ways to minimize or even eliminate the IRD tax bite.
How it works
Most inherited property is free from income taxes, but IRD assets are an exception. IRD is income a person was entitled to but hadn’t yet received at the time of his or her death. It includes:
- Distributions from tax-deferred retirement accounts, such as 401(k)s and IRAs,
- Deferred compensation benefits and stock option plans,
- Unpaid bonuses, fees and commissions, and
- Uncollected salaries, wages, and vacation and sick pay.
IRD isn’t reported on the deceased’s final income tax return, but it’s included in his or her taxable estate, which may generate estate tax liability if the deceased’s estate exceeds the $5.49 million (for 2017) estate tax exemption, less any gift tax exemption used during life. (Be aware that President Trump and congressional Republicans have proposed an estate tax repeal. It hasn’t been passed as of this writing, but check back with us for the latest information.)
Then it’s taxed — potentially a second time — as income to the beneficiaries who receive it. This income retains the character it would have had in the deceased’s hands. So, for example, income the deceased would have reported as long-term capital gains is taxed to the beneficiary as long-term capital gains.
What can be done
When IRD generates estate tax liability, the combination of estate and income taxes can devour an inheritance. The tax code alleviates this double taxation by allowing beneficiaries to claim an itemized deduction for estate taxes attributable to amounts reported as IRD. (The deduction isn’t subject to the 2% floor for miscellaneous itemized deductions.)
The estate tax attributable to IRD is equal to the difference between the actual estate tax paid by the estate and the estate tax that would have been payable if the IRD’s net value had been excluded from the estate.
Suppose, for instance, that you’re the beneficiary of an estate that includes a taxable IRA. If the estate tax is $150,000 with the retirement account and $100,000 without, the estate tax attributable to the IRD income is $50,000. But be careful, because any deductions in respect of a decedent must also be included when calculating the estate tax impact.
When multiple IRD assets and multiple beneficiaries are involved, complex calculations are necessary to properly allocate the income and deductions. Similarly, when a beneficiary receives IRD over a period of years — IRA distributions, for example — the deduction must be prorated based on the amounts distributed each year.
We can help
If you inherit property that could be considered IRD, please consult our firm for assistance in managing the tax consequences. With proper planning, you can keep the cost to a minimum.
Reviewing the Innocent Spouse Relief Rules
Married couples don’t always agree — and taxes are no exception. In certain cases, an “innocent” spouse can apply for relief from the responsibility of paying tax, interest and penalties arising from a spouse’s (or former spouse’s) improperly handled tax return. Although it isn’t easy to qualify, potentially affected taxpayers should review the rules.
Applicants may qualify for various forms of relief if they can meet the applicable IRS conditions. One factor that’s considered is whether the applicant received any significant direct or indirect benefit from the tax understatement. For instance, an applicant’s case could be weakened if he or she had used unreported income to pay extraordinary household expenses.
The IRS will also look at the distinctive aspects of the case. The fact that a spouse applying for relief has already divorced his or her partner is significant. Whether the applicant was abused physically or mentally will also play a role, as will whether he or she was in poor mental or physical health when the return(s) in question was signed. In addition, the IRS will consider whether the applicant would experience economic hardship without relief from a significant tax debt.
Generally, an applicant must request innocent spouse relief no later than two years after the date the IRS first attempted to collect the tax. But other forms of relief may still be available thereafter. Please contact our firm for more information.
Apr 2017 - ABLE Accounts & So You Just Filed Your Taxes
ABLE Accounts Can Help Support the Disabled
The Achieving a Better Life Experience (ABLE) Act of 2014 created a tax-advantaged savings account for people who have a qualifying disability (or are blind) before age 26. Modeled after the well-known Section 529 college savings plan, ABLE accounts offer many benefits. But it’s important to understand their limitations.
Tax and funding benefits
Like Section 529 plans, state-sponsored ABLE accounts allow parents and other family and friends to make substantial cash contributions. Contributions aren’t tax deductible, but accounts can grow tax-free, and earnings may be withdrawn free of federal income tax if they’re used to pay qualified expenses. ABLE accounts can be established under any state ABLE program, regardless of where you or the disabled account beneficiary live.
In the case of a Section 529 plan, qualified expenses include college tuition, room and board, and certain other higher education expenses. For ABLE accounts, “qualified disability expenses” include a broad range of costs, such as health care, education, housing, transportation, employment training, assistive technology, personal support services, financial management, legal expenses, and funeral and burial expenses.
An ABLE account generally won’t jeopardize the beneficiary’s eligibility for means-tested government benefits, such as Medicaid or Supplemental Security Income (SSI). To qualify for these benefits, a person’s resources must be limited to no more than $2,000 in “countable assets.”
Assets in an ABLE account aren’t counted, with two exceptions: 1) Distributions used for housing expenses count, and 2) if the account balance exceeds $100,000, the beneficiary’s eligibility for SSI is suspended so long as the excess amount remains in the account.
ABLE accounts offer some attractive benefits, but they’re far less generous than those offered by Sec. 529 plans. Maximum contributions to 529 plans vary from state to state, but they often reach as high as $350,000 or more. The same maximum contribution limits generally apply to ABLE accounts, but practically speaking they’re limited to $100,000, given the impact on SSI benefits.
Like a 529 plan, an ABLE account allows investment changes only twice a year. But ABLE accounts also impose an annual limit on contributions equal to the annual gift tax exclusion (currently $14,000). There’s no annual limit on contributions to Sec. 529 plans.
ABLE accounts have other limitations and disadvantages as well. Unlike a Sec. 529 plan, an ABLE account doesn’t allow the person who sets up the account to be the owner. Rather, the account’s beneficiary is the owner.
However, a person with signature authority — such as a parent, legal guardian or power of attorney holder — can manage the account if the beneficiary is a minor or otherwise unable to manage the account. Nevertheless, contributions are irrevocable and the account’s funders may not make withdrawals. The beneficiary can be changed to another disabled individual who’s a family member of the designated beneficiary.
Finally, be aware that, when an ABLE account beneficiary dies, the state may claim reimbursement of its net Medicaid expenditures from any remaining balance.
If you have a child or relative with a disability in existence before age 26, it’s worth exploring the feasibility of an ABLE account. Please contact our firm for more details.
So You Just Filed Your Taxes – Could an Audit Be Next?
Like many people, you probably feel a great sense of relief wash over you after your tax return is completed and filed. Unfortunately, even professionally prepared and accurate returns may sometimes be subject to an IRS audit.
The good news? Chances are slim that it will actually happen. Only a small percentage of returns go through the full audit process. Still, you’re better off informed than taken completely by surprise should your number come up.
A variety of red flags can trigger an audit. Your return may be selected because the IRS received information from a third party — say, the W-2 submitted by your employer — that differs from the information reported on your return. This is often the employer’s mistake or occurs following a merger or acquisition.
In addition, the IRS scores all returns through its Discriminant Inventory Function System (DIF). A higher DIF score may increase your audit chances. While the formula for determining a DIF score is a well-guarded IRS secret, it’s generally understood that certain things may increase the likelihood of an audit, such as:
- Running a traditionally cash-oriented business,
- Having a relatively high adjusted gross income,
- Using valid but complex tax shelters, or
- Claiming certain tax breaks, such as the home office deduction.
Bear in mind, though, that no single item will cause an audit. And, as mentioned, a relatively low percentage of returns are examined. This is particularly true as the IRS grapples with its own budget issues.
Finally, some returns are randomly chosen as part of the IRS’s National Research Program. Through this program, the agency studies returns to improve and update its audit selection techniques.
If you receive an audit notice, the first rule is: Don’t panic! Most are correspondence audits completed via mail. The IRS may ask for documentation on, for instance, your income or your purchase or sale of a piece of real estate.
Read the notice through carefully. The pages should indicate the items to be examined, as well as a deadline for responding. A timely response is important because it conveys that you’re organized and, thus, less likely to overlook important details. It also indicates that you didn’t need to spend extra time pulling together a story.
Your response (and ours)
Should an IRS notice appear in your mail, please contact our office. We can fully explain what the agency is looking for and help you prepare your response. If the IRS requests an in-person interview regarding the audit, we can accompany you — or even appear in your place if you provide authorization.
Mar 2017 - Got Nexus? & Four Tips for Donating Artwork to Charity
Got Nexus? Find Out Before Operating In Multiple States
For many years, business owners had to ask themselves one question when it came to facing taxation in another state: Do we have “nexus”? This term indicates a business presence in a given state that’s substantial enough to trigger the state’s tax rules and obligations.
Well, the question still stands. And if you’re considering operating your business in multiple states, or are already doing so, it’s worth reviewing the concept of nexus and its tax impact on your company.
Precisely what activates nexus in a given state depends on that state’s chosen criteria. Triggers can vary but common criteria include:
- Employing workers in the state,
- Owning (or, in some cases, even leasing) property there,
- Marketing your products or services in the state,
- Maintaining a substantial amount of inventory there, and
- Using a local telephone number.
Then again, one generally can’t say that nexus has a “hair trigger”. A minimal amount of business activity in a given state probably won’t create tax liability there.
For example, an HVAC company that makes a few tech calls a year across state lines probably wouldn’t be taxed in that state. Or let’s say you ask a salesperson to travel to another state to establish relationships or gauge interest. As long as he or she doesn’t close any sales, and you have no other activity in the state, you likely won’t have nexus.
As with many tax issues, the totality of facts and circumstances will determine whether you have nexus in a state. So it’s important to make assumptions either way. The tax impact could be significant, and its specifics will vary widely depending on just how the state in question approaches taxation.
For starters, strongly consider conducting a nexus study. This is a systematic approach to identifying the out-of-state taxes to which your business activities may expose you. The results of a nexus study may not necessarily be negative. You may find that your company’s overall tax liability is lower in a neighboring state. In such cases, it may be advantageous to create nexus in that state by, say, setting up a small office there. If all goes well, you may be able to allocate some income to that state and lower your tax bill.
Taxation and profitability
“The grass is always greener on the other side of the fence”, so the saying goes. If profitability beckons in another state, please contact our firm for help projecting how setting up shop there might affect your tax liability.
Sidebar: Service companies, beware of market-based sourcing
Nexus has been and remains the primary focus of companies considering whether and how they’d be taxed across state lines. (See main article.) But, recently, many states have established “market-based sourcing” for determining the tax liability of service companies that operate within their borders.
Under this approach, if the benefits of a service occur and will be used in another state, that state will tax the revenue gained from said service. “Service revenue” generally is defined as revenue from intangible assets — not the sales of tangible personal property.
Thus, in market-based sourcing states, the destination state of a service is the relevant taxation factor rather than the state in which the income-producing activity is performed (also known as the “cost of performance” method).
Four Tips for Donating Artwork to Charity
Individuals may want to donate artwork so it can be enjoyed by a wider audience or available for scholarly study or simply to make room for new artwork in their home. Here are four tips for donating artwork with an eye toward tax savings:
1. Get an appraisal. Donations of artwork valued at over $5,000 require a “qualified appraisal” by a “qualified appraiser”. IRS rules detail the requirements. In addition, auditors are required to refer all gifts of art valued at $20,000 or more to the agency’s Art Advisory Panel. The panel’s findings are the IRS’s official position on the art’s value, so it’s critical to provide a solid appraisal to support your valuation.
2. Donate to a public charity. Donations to a qualified public charity (such as a museum or university) potentially entitle you to deduct the artwork’s full fair market value. If you donate to a private foundation, your deduction will be limited to your cost. The total amount of charitable donations you may deduct in a given year is limited to a percentage of your adjusted gross income (50% for public charities, 30% for private foundations) with the excess carried forward for up to five years.
3. Beware the related-use rule. To qualify for a full fair-market-value deduction, the charity’s use of the artwork must be related to its tax-exempt purpose. Even if the related-use rule is satisfied initially, you may lose some or all of your deductions if the artwork is worth more than $5,000 and the charity sells or otherwise disposes of it within three years of receipt. If that happens, you may be able to preserve your tax benefits via a certification process. (For further details, please contact us.)
4. Consider a fractional donation. Donating a fractional interest allows you to save tax dollars without completely giving up the artwork. Say you donate a 25% interest in your art collection to a museum for it to display for three months annually. You could then deduct 25% of the collection’s fair market value and continue displaying the art in your home or business for most of the year.
The rules for fractional donations, and charitable contributions of artwork in general, can be tricky. Plus, tax law changes affecting deductions may occur in the coming year. Contact our firm for help.
Feb 2017 - Facing the Tax Challenges of Self-Employment & Phaseouts and Reductions
Facing the Tax Challenges of Self-Employment
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.
Phaseouts and Reductions: A Tax-Filing Reminder
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.
Jan 2017 - DAFs Bring an Investment Angle to Charitable Giving & Need to Sell Real Property?
DAFs Bring an Investment Angle to Charitable Giving
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.
Need to Sell Real Property? Try an Installment Sale
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.