Married couples often wonder whether they should file joint or separate tax returns. The answer depends on your individual tax situation.
It generally depends on which filing status results in the lowest tax. But keep in mind that, if you and your spouse file a joint return, each of you is “jointly and severally” liable for the tax on your combined income. And you’re both equally liable for any additional tax the IRS assesses, plus interest and most penalties. This means that the IRS can come after either of you to collect the full amount.
Although there are provisions in the law that offer relief, they have limitations. Therefore, even if a joint return results in less tax, you may want to file separately if you want to only be responsible for your own tax.
In most cases, filing jointly offers the most tax savings, especially when the spouses have different income levels. Combining two incomes can bring some of it out of a higher tax bracket. For example, if one spouse has $75,000 of taxable income and the other has just $15,000, filing jointly instead of separately can save $2,512.50 for 2020.
Filing separately doesn’t mean you go back to using the “single” rates that applied before you were married. Instead, each spouse must use “married filing separately” rates. They’re less favorable than the single rates.
However, there are cases when people save tax by filing separately. For example:
One spouse has significant medical expenses. For 2019 and 2020, medical expenses are deductible only to the extent they exceed 7.5% of adjusted gross income (AGI). If a medical expense deduction is claimed on a spouse’s separate return, that spouse’s lower separate AGI, as compared to the higher joint AGI, can result in larger total deductions.
Some tax breaks are only available on a joint return. The child and dependent care credit, adoption expense credit, American Opportunity tax credit and Lifetime Learning credit are only available to married couples on joint returns. And you can’t take the credit for the elderly or the disabled if you file separately unless you and your spouse lived apart for the entire year. You also may not be able to deduct IRA contributions if you or your spouse were covered by an employer retirement plan and you file separate returns. You also can’t exclude adoption assistance payments or interest income from series EE or Series I savings bonds used for higher education expenses.
Social Security benefits may be taxed more. Benefits are tax-free if your “provisional income” (AGI with certain modifications plus half of your Social Security benefits) doesn’t exceed a “base amount.” The base amount is $32,000 on a joint return, but zero on separate return (or $25,000 if the spouses didn’t live together for the whole year).
No hard and fast rules
The decision you make on your federal tax return may affect your state or local income tax bill, so the total tax impact should be compared. There’s often no simple answer to whether a couple should file separate returns. A number of factors must be examined. We can look at your tax bill jointly and separately. Contact us to prepare your return or if you have any questions.
Perhaps you’re an investor in mutual funds or you’re interested in putting some money into them. You’re not alone. The Investment Company Institute estimates that 56.2 million households owned mutual funds in mid-2017. But despite their popularity, the tax rules involved in selling mutual fund shares can be complex.
If you sell appreciated mutual fund shares that you’ve owned for more than one year, the resulting profit will be a long-term capital gain. As such, the maximum federal income tax rate will be 20%, and you may also owe the 3.8% net investment income tax.
When a mutual fund investor sells shares, gain or loss is measured by the difference between the amount realized from the sale and the investor’s basis in the shares. One difficulty is that certain mutual fund transactions are treated as sales even though they might not be thought of as such. Another problem may arise in determining your basis for shares sold.
What’s considered a sale
It’s obvious that a sale occurs when an investor redeems all shares in a mutual fund and receives the proceeds. Similarly, a sale occurs if an investor directs the fund to redeem the number of shares necessary for a specific dollar payout.
It’s less obvious that a sale occurs if you’re swapping funds within a fund family. For example, you surrender shares of an Income Fund for an equal value of shares of the same company’s Growth Fund. No money changes hands but this is considered a sale of the Income Fund shares.
Another example: Many mutual funds provide check-writing privileges to their investors. However, each time you write a check on your fund account, you’re making a sale of shares.
Determining the basis of shares
If an investor sells all shares in a mutual fund in a single transaction, determining basis is relatively easy. Simply add the basis of all the shares (the amount of actual cash investments) including commissions or sales charges. Then add distributions by the fund that were reinvested to acquire additional shares and subtract any distributions that represent a return of capital.
The calculation is more complex if you dispose of only part of your interest in the fund and the shares were acquired at different times for different prices. You can use one of several methods to identify the shares sold and determine your basis.
- First-in first-out. The basis of the earliest acquired shares is used as the basis for the shares sold. If the share price has been increasing over your ownership period, the older shares are likely to have a lower basis and result in more gain.
- Specific identification. At the time of sale, you specify the shares to sell. For example, “sell 100 of the 200 shares I purchased on June 1, 2015.” You must receive written confirmation of your request from the fund. This method may be used to lower the resulting tax bill by directing the sale of the shares with the highest basis.
- Average basis. The IRS permits you to use the average basis for shares that were acquired at various times and that were left on deposit with the fund or a custodian agent.
As you can see, mutual fund investing can result in complex tax situations. Contact us if you have questions. We can explain in greater detail how the rules apply to you.
If you’re getting ready to file your 2019 tax return, and your tax bill is higher than you’d like, there may still be an opportunity to lower it. If you qualify, you can make a deductible contribution to a traditional IRA right up until the Wednesday, April 15, 2020, filing date and benefit from the resulting tax savings on your 2019 return.
Do you qualify?
You can make a deductible contribution to a traditional IRA if:
- You (and your spouse) aren’t an active participant in an employer-sponsored retirement plan, or
- You (or your spouse) are an active participant in an employer plan, and your modified adjusted gross income (AGI) doesn’t exceed certain levels that vary from year-to-year by filing status.
For 2019, if you’re a joint tax return filer covered by an employer plan, your deductible IRA contribution phases out over $103,000 to $123,000 of modified AGI. If you’re single or a head of household, the phaseout range is $64,000 to $74,000 for 2019. For married filing separately, the phaseout range is $0 to $10,000. For 2019, if you’re not an active participant in an employer-sponsored retirement plan, but your spouse is, your deductible IRA contribution phases out with modified AGI of between $193,000 and $203,000.
Deductible IRA contributions reduce your current tax bill, and earnings within the IRA are tax deferred. However, every dollar you take out is taxed in full (and subject to a 10% penalty before age 59 1/2, unless one of several exceptions apply).
IRAs often are referred to as “traditional IRAs” to distinguish them from Roth IRAs. You also have until April 15 to make a Roth IRA contribution. But while contributions to a traditional IRA are deductible, contributions to a Roth IRA aren’t. However, withdrawals from a Roth IRA are tax-free as long as the account has been open at least five years and you’re age 59 1/2 or older.
Here are a couple other IRA strategies that might help you save tax.
1. Turn a nondeductible Roth IRA contribution into a deductible IRA contribution. Did you make a Roth IRA contribution in 2019? That may help you years down the road when you take tax-free payouts from the account. However, the contribution isn’t deductible. If you realize you need the deduction that a traditional IRA contribution provides, you can change your mind and turn that Roth IRA contribution into a traditional IRA contribution via the “recharacterization” mechanism. The traditional IRA deduction is then yours if you meet the requirements described above.
2. Make a deductible IRA contribution, even if you don’t work. In general, you can’t make a deductible traditional IRA contribution unless you have wages or other earned income. However, an exception applies if your spouse is the breadwinner and you manage the home front. In this case, you may be able to take advantage of a spousal IRA.
How much can you contribute?
For 2019 if you’re qualified, you can make a deductible traditional IRA contribution of up to $6,000 ($7,000 if you’re 50 or over).
In addition, small business owners can set up and contribute to a Simplified Employee Pension (SEP) plan up until the due date for their returns, including extensions. For 2019, the maximum contribution you can make to a SEP account is $56,000.
If you’d like more information about whether you can contribute to an IRA or SEP, contact us or ask about it when we’re preparing your return. We’d be happy to explain the rules and help you save the maximum tax-advantaged amount for retirement.
Right now, you may be more concerned about your 2019 tax bill than you are about your 2020 tax situation. That’s understandable because your 2019 individual tax return is due to be filed in less than three months.
However, it’s a good idea to familiarize yourself with tax-related amounts that may have changed for 2020. For example, the amount of money you can put into a 401(k) plan has increased and you may want to start making contributions as early in the year as possible because retirement plan contributions will lower your taxable income.
Note: Not all tax figures are adjusted for inflation and even if they are, they may be unchanged or change only slightly each year due to low inflation. In addition, some tax amounts can only change with new tax legislation.
So below are some Q&As about tax-related figures for this year.
How much can I contribute to an IRA for 2020?
If you’re eligible, you can contribute $6,000 a year into a traditional or Roth IRA, up to 100% of your earned income. If you’re age 50 or older, you can make another $1,000 “catch up” contribution. (These amounts are the same as they were for 2019.)
I have a 401(k) plan through my job. How much can I contribute to it?
For 2020, you can contribute up to $19,500 (up from $19,000) to a 401(k) or 403(b) plan. You can make an additional $6,500 catch-up contribution if you’re age 50 or older.
I sometimes hire a babysitter and a cleaning person. Do I have to withhold and pay FICA tax on the amounts I pay them?
In 2020, the threshold when a domestic employer must withhold and pay FICA for babysitters, house cleaners, etc. is $2,200 (up from $2,100 in 2019).
How much do I have to earn in 2020 before I can stop paying Social Security on my salary?
The Social Security tax wage base is $137,700 for this year (up from $132,900 last year). That means that you don’t owe Social Security tax on amounts earned above that. (You must pay Medicare tax on all amounts that you earn.)
I didn’t qualify to itemize deductions on my last tax return. Will I qualify for 2020?
The Tax Cuts and Jobs Act eliminated the tax benefit of itemizing deductions for many people by increasing the standard deduction and reducing or eliminating various deductions. For 2020, the standard deduction amount is $24,800 for married couples filing jointly (up from $24,400). For single filers, the amount is $12,400 (up from $12,200) and for heads of households, it’s $18,650 (up from $18,350). So if the amount of your itemized deductions (such as charitable gifts and mortgage interest) are less than the applicable standard deduction amount, you won’t itemize for 2020.
How much can I give to one person without triggering a gift tax return in 2020?
The annual gift exclusion for 2020 is $15,000 and is unchanged from last year. This amount is only adjusted in $1,000 increments, so it typically only increases every few years.
Your tax picture
These are only some of the tax figures that may apply to you. For more information about your tax picture, or if you have questions, don’t hesitate to contact us.
Many taxpayers make charitable gifts — because they’re generous and they want to save money on their federal tax bills. But with the tax law changes that went into effect a couple years ago and the many rules that apply to charitable deductions, you may no longer get a tax break for your generosity.
Are you going to itemize?
The Tax Cuts and Jobs Act (TCJA), signed into law in 2017, didn’t put new limits on or suspend the charitable deduction, like it did with many other itemized deductions. Nevertheless, it reduces or eliminates the tax benefits of charitable giving for many taxpayers.
Itemizing saves tax only if itemized deductions exceed the standard deduction. Through 2025, the TCJA significantly increases the standard deduction. For 2020, it is $24,800 for married couples filing jointly (up from $24,400 for 2019), $18,650 for heads of households (up from $18,350 for 2019), and $12,400 for singles and married couples filing separately (up from $12,200 for 2019).
Back in 2017, these amounts were $12,700, $9,350, $6,350 respectively. The much higher standard deduction combined with limits or suspensions on some common itemized deductions means you may no longer have enough itemized deductions to exceed the standard deduction. And if that’s the case, your charitable donations won’t save you tax.
To find out if you get a tax break for your generosity, add up potential itemized deductions for the year. If the total is less than your standard deduction, your charitable donations won’t provide a tax benefit.
You might, however, be able to preserve your charitable deduction by “bunching” donations into alternating years. This can allow you to exceed the standard deduction and claim a charitable deduction (and other itemized deductions) every other year.
What is the donation deadline?
To be deductible on your 2019 return, a charitable gift must have been made by December 31, 2019. According to the IRS, a donation generally is “made” at the time of its “unconditional delivery.” The delivery date depends in part on what you donate and how you donate it. For example, for a check, the delivery date is the date you mailed it. For a credit card donation, it’s the date you make the charge.
Are there other requirements?
If you do meet the rules for itemizing, there are still other requirements. To be deductible, a donation must be made to a “qualified charity” — one that’s eligible to receive tax-deductible contributions.
And there are substantiation rules to prove you made a charitable gift. For a contribution of cash, check, or other monetary gift, regardless of amount, you must maintain a bank record or a written communication from the organization you donated to that shows its name, plus the date and amount of the contribution. If you make a charitable contribution by text message, a bill from your cell provider containing the required information is an acceptable substantiation. Any other type of written record, such as a log of contributions, isn’t sufficient.
Do you have questions?
We can answer any questions you may have about the deductibility of charitable gifts or changes to the standard deduction and itemized deductions.
The IRS announced it is opening the 2019 individual income tax return filing season on January 27. Even if you typically don’t file until much closer to the April 15 deadline (or you file for an extension), consider filing as soon as you can this year. The reason: You can potentially protect yourself from tax identity theft — and you may obtain other benefits, too.
Tax identity theft explained
In a tax identity theft scam, a thief uses another individual’s personal information to file a fraudulent tax return early in the filing season and claim a bogus refund.
The legitimate taxpayer discovers the fraud when he or she files a return and is informed by the IRS that the return has been rejected because one with the same Social Security number has already been filed for the tax year. While the taxpayer should ultimately be able to prove that his or her return is the valid one, tax identity theft can cause major headaches to straighten out and significantly delay a refund.
Filing early may be your best defense: If you file first, it will be the tax return filed by a would-be thief that will be rejected, rather than yours.
Note: You can get your individual tax return prepared by us before January 27 if you have all the required documents. It’s just that processing of the return will begin after IRS systems open on that date.
Your W-2s and 1099s
To file your tax return, you must have received all of your W-2s and 1099s. January 31 is the deadline for employers to issue 2019 Form W-2 to employees and, generally, for businesses to issue Form 1099 to recipients of any 2019 interest, dividend or reportable miscellaneous income payments (including those made to independent contractors).
If you haven’t received a W-2 or 1099 by February 1, first contact the entity that should have issued it. If that doesn’t work, you can contact the IRS for help.
Other advantages of filing early
Besides protecting yourself from tax identity theft, another benefit of early filing is that, if you’re getting a refund, you’ll get it faster. The IRS expects most refunds to be issued within 21 days. The time is typically shorter if you file electronically and receive a refund by direct deposit into a bank account.
Direct deposit also avoids the possibility that a refund check could be lost or stolen or returned to the IRS as undeliverable. And by using direct deposit, you can split your refund into up to three financial accounts, including a bank account or IRA. Part of the refund can also be used to buy up to $5,000 in U.S. Series I Savings Bonds.
What if you owe tax? Filing early may still be beneficial. You won’t need to pay your tax bill until April 15, but you’ll know sooner how much you owe and can plan accordingly.
Be an early-bird filer
If you have questions about tax identity theft or would like help filing your 2019 return early, please contact us. We can help you ensure you file an accurate return that takes advantage of all of the breaks available to you.
If you save for retirement with an IRA or other plan, you’ll be interested to know that Congress recently passed a law that makes significant modifications to these accounts. The SECURE Act, which was signed into law on December 20, 2019, made these four changes.
Change #1: The maximum age for making traditional IRA contributions is repealed. Before 2020, traditional IRA contributions weren’t allowed once you reached age 70½. Starting in 2020, an individual of any age can make contributions to a traditional IRA, as long he or she has compensation, which generally means earned income from wages or self-employment.
Change #2: The required minimum distribution (RMD) age was raised from 70½ to 72. Before 2020, retirement plan participants and IRA owners were generally required to begin taking RMDs from their plans by April 1 of the year following the year they reached age 70½. The age 70½ requirement was first applied in the early 1960s and, until recently, hadn’t been adjusted to account for increased life expectancies.
For distributions required to be made after December 31, 2019, for individuals who attain age 70½ after that date, the age at which individuals must begin taking distributions from their retirement plans or IRAs is increased from 70½ to 72.
Change #3: “Stretch IRAs” were partially eliminated. If a plan participant or IRA owner died before 2020, their beneficiaries (spouses and non-spouses) were generally allowed to stretch out the tax-deferral advantages of the plan or IRA by taking distributions over the beneficiary’s life or life expectancy. This is sometimes called a “stretch IRA.”
However, for deaths of plan participants or IRA owners beginning in 2020 (later for some participants in collectively bargained plans and governmental plans), distributions to most non-spouse beneficiaries are generally required to be distributed within 10 years following a plan participant’s or IRA owner’s death. That means the “stretch” strategy is no longer allowed for those beneficiaries.
There are some exceptions to the 10-year rule. For example, it’s still allowed for: the surviving spouse of a plan participant or IRA owner; a child of a plan participant or IRA owner who hasn’t reached the age of majority; a chronically ill individual; and any other individual who isn’t more than 10 years younger than a plan participant or IRA owner. Those beneficiaries who qualify under this exception may generally still take their distributions over their life expectancies.
Change #4: Penalty-free withdrawals are now allowed for birth or adoption expenses. A distribution from a retirement plan must generally be included in income. And, unless an exception applies, a distribution before the age of 59½ is subject to a 10% early withdrawal penalty on the amount includible in income.
Starting in 2020, plan distributions (up to $5,000) that are used to pay for expenses related to the birth or adoption of a child are penalty-free. The $5,000 amount applies on an individual basis. Therefore, each spouse in a married couple may receive a penalty-free distribution up to $5,000 for a qualified birth or adoption.
These are only some of the changes included in the new law. If you have questions about your situation, don’t hesitate to contact us.
Technology has made it easier to work from home so lots of people now commute each morning to an office down the hall. However, just because you have a home office space doesn’t mean you can deduct expenses associated with it.
Regularly and exclusively
In order to be deductible for 2019 and 2020, you must be self-employed and the space must be used regularly (not just occasionally) and exclusively for business purposes. If, for example, your home office is also a guest bedroom or your children do their homework there, you can’t deduct the expenses associated with the space.
If you qualify, the home office deduction can be a valuable tax break. There are two options for the deduction:
- Write off a portion of your mortgage interest, property taxes, insurance, utilities and certain other expenses, as well as the depreciation allocable to the office space. This requires calculating, allocating and substantiating actual expenses.
- Take the “safe harbor” deduction. Only one simple calculation is necessary: $5 times the number of square feet of the office space. The safe harbor deduction is capped at $1,500 per year, based on a maximum of 300 square feet.
Changes through 2025
Under prior tax law, if you were an employee (as opposed to self-employed), you could deduct unreimbursed home office expenses as employee business expenses, subject to a floor of 2% of adjusted gross income (AGI) for all your miscellaneous expenses. To qualify under prior law, a home office had to be used for the “convenience” of your employer.
Unfortunately, the TCJA suspends the deduction for miscellaneous expenses through 2025. Without further action from Congress, employees won’t be able to benefit from this tax break for a while. However, deductions are still often available to self-employed taxpayers.
If, however, you’re self-employed, you can deduct eligible home office expenses against your self-employment income. Therefore, the deduction will still be available to you through 2025.
Be aware that we’ve covered only a few of the requirements here. We can help you determine if you’re eligible for a home office deduction and, if so, establish the appropriate method for getting the biggest possible deduction.
As part of a year-end budget bill, Congress just passed a package of tax provisions that will provide savings for some taxpayers. The White House has announced that President Trump will sign the Further Consolidated Appropriations Act of 2020 into law. It also includes a retirement-related law titled the Setting Every Community Up for Retirement Enhancement (SECURE) Act.
Here’s a rundown of some provisions in the two laws.
The age limit for making IRA contributions and taking withdrawals is going up. Currently, an individual can’t make regular contributions to a traditional IRA in the year he or she reaches age 70½ and older. (However, contributions to a Roth IRA and rollover contributions to a Roth or traditional IRA can be made regardless of age.)
Under the new rules, the age limit for IRA contributions is raised from age 70½ to 72.
The IRA contribution limit for 2020 is $6,000, or $7,000 if you’re age 50 or older (the same as 2019 limit).
In addition to the contribution age going up, the age to take required minimum distributions (RMDs) is going up from 70½ to 72.
It will be easier for some taxpayers to get a medical expense deduction. For 2019, under the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act (TCJA), you could deduct only the part of your medical and dental expenses that is more than 10% of your adjusted gross income (AGI). This floor makes it difficult to claim a write-off unless you have very high medical bills or a low income (or both). In tax years 2017 and 2018, this “floor” for claiming a deduction was 7.5%. Under the new law, the lower 7.5% floor returns through 2020.
If you’re paying college tuition, you may (once again) get a valuable tax break. Before the TCJA, the qualified tuition and related expenses deduction allowed taxpayers to claim a deduction for qualified education expenses without having to itemize their deductions. The TCJA eliminated the deduction for 2019 but now it returns through 2020. The deduction is capped at $4,000 for an individual whose AGI doesn’t exceed $65,000 or $2,000 for a taxpayer whose AGI doesn’t exceed $80,000. (There are other education tax breaks, which weren’t touched by the new law, that may be more valuable for you, depending on your situation.)
Some people will be able to save more for retirement. The retirement bill includes an expansion of the automatic contribution to savings plans to 15% of employee pay and allows some part-time employees to participate in 401(k) plans.
Also included in the retirement package are provisions aimed at Gold Star families, eliminating an unintended tax on children and spouses of deceased military family members.
These are only some of the provisions in the new laws. We’ll be writing more about them in the near future. In the meantime, contact us with any questions.
The number of people engaged in the “gig” or sharing economy has grown in recent years, according to a 2019 IRS report. And there are tax consequences for the people who perform these jobs, such as providing car rides, renting spare bedrooms, delivering food, walking dogs or providing other services.
Basically, if you receive income from one of the online platforms offering goods and services, it’s generally taxable. That’s true even if the income comes from a side job and even if you don’t receive an income statement reporting the amount of money you made.
IRS report details
The IRS recently released a report examining two decades of tax returns and titled “Is Gig Work Replacing Traditional Employment?” It found that “alternative, non-employee work arrangements” grew by 1.9% from 2000 to 2016 and more than half of the increase from 2013 to 2016 could be attributed to gig work mediated through online labor platforms.
The tax agency concluded that “traditional” work arrangements are not being supplanted by independent contract arrangements reported on 1099s. Most gig work is done by individuals as side jobs that supplement their traditional jobs. In addition, the report found that the people doing gig work via online platforms tend to be male, single, younger than other self-employed people and have experienced unemployment in that year.
Gig worker characteristics
The IRS considers gig workers as those who are independent contractors and conduct their jobs through online platforms. Examples include Uber, Lyft, Airbnb and DoorDash.
Unlike traditional employees, independent contractors don’t receive benefits associated with employment or employer-sponsored health insurance. They also aren’t covered by the minimum wage or other protections of federal laws, aren’t part of states’ unemployment insurance systems, and are on their own when it comes to training, retirement savings and taxes.
If you’re part of the gig or sharing economy, here are some considerations.
- You may need to make quarterly estimated tax payments because your income isn’t subject to withholding. These payments are generally due on April 15, June 15, September 15 and January 15 of the following year.
- You should receive a Form 1099-MISC, Miscellaneous Income, a Form 1099-K or other income statement from the online platform.
- Some or all of your business expenses may be deductible on your tax return, subject to the normal tax limitations and rules. For example, if you provide rides with your own car, you may be able to deduct depreciation for wear and tear and deterioration of the vehicle. Be aware that if you rent a room in your main home or vacation home, the rules for deducting expenses can be complex.
It’s critical to keep good records tracking income and expenses in case you are audited. Contact us if you have questions about your tax obligations as a gig worker or the deductions you can claim. You don’t want to get an unwelcome surprise when you file your tax return next year.
If you’re adopting a child, or you adopted one this year, there may be significant tax benefits available to offset the expenses. For 2019, adoptive parents may be able to claim a nonrefundable credit against their federal tax for up to $14,080 of “qualified adoption expenses” for each adopted child. (This amount is increasing to $14,300 for 2020.) That’s a dollar-for-dollar reduction of tax — the equivalent, for someone in the 24% marginal tax bracket, of a deduction of over $50,000.
Adoptive parents may also be able to exclude from their gross income up to $14,080 for 2019 ($14,300 for 2020) of qualified adoption expenses paid by an employer under an adoption assistance program. Both the credit and the exclusion are phased out if the parents’ income exceeds certain limits, as explained below.
Adoptive parents may claim both a credit and an exclusion for expenses of adopting a child. But they can’t claim both a credit and an exclusion for the same expense.
Qualified adoption expenses
To qualify for the credit or the exclusion, the expenses must be “qualified.” These are the reasonable and necessary adoption fees, court costs, attorney fees, travel expenses (including amounts spent for meals and lodging) while away from home, and other expenses directly related to the legal adoption of an “eligible child.”
Expenses in connection with an unsuccessful attempt to adopt an eligible child can qualify. However, expenses connected with a foreign adoption (one in which the child isn’t a U.S. citizen or resident) qualify only if the child is actually adopted.
Taxpayers who adopt a child with special needs get a special tax break. They will be deemed to have qualified adoption expenses in the tax year in which the adoption becomes final in an amount sufficient to bring their total aggregate expenses for the adoption up to $14,300 for 2020 ($14,080 for 2019). In other words, they can take the adoption credit or exclude employer-provided adoption assistance up to that amount, whether or not they had $14,300 for 2020 ($14,080 for 2019) of actual expenses.
Phase-out for high-income taxpayers
The credit allowable for 2019 is phased out for taxpayers with adjusted gross income (AGI) of $211,160 ($214,520 for 2020). It is eliminated when AGI reaches $251,160 for 2019 ($254,520 for 2020).
Taxpayer ID number required
The IRS can disallow the credit and the exclusion unless a valid taxpayer identification number (TIN) for the child is included on the return. Taxpayers who are in the process of adopting a child can get a temporary number, called an adoption taxpayer identification number (ATIN), for the child. This enables adoptive parents to claim the credit and exclusion for qualified expenses.
When the adoption becomes final, the adoptive parents must apply for a Social Security number for the child. Once obtained, that number, rather than the ATIN, is used.
We can help ensure that you meet all the requirements to get the full benefit of the tax savings available to adoptive parents. Please contact us if you have any questions
If you’re starting to fret about your 2019 tax bill, there’s good news — you may still have time to reduce your liability. Three strategies are available that may help you cut your taxes before year-end, including:
1. Accelerate deductions/defer income. Certain tax deductions are claimed for the year of payment, such as the mortgage interest deduction. So, if you make your January 2020 payment this month, you can deduct the interest portion on your 2019 tax return (assuming you itemize).
Pushing income into the new year also will reduce your taxable income. If you’re expecting a bonus at work, for example, and you don’t want the income this year, ask if your employer can hold off on paying it until January. If you’re self-employed, you can delay your invoices until late in December to divert the revenue to 2020.
You shouldn’t pursue this approach if you expect to land in a higher tax bracket next year. Also, if you’re eligible for the qualified business income deduction for pass-through entities, you might reduce the amount of that deduction if you reduce your income.
2. Maximize your retirement contributions. What could be better than paying yourself instead of Uncle Sam? Federal tax law encourages individual taxpayers to make the maximum allowable contributions for the year to their retirement accounts, including traditional IRAs and SEP plans, 401(k)s and deferred annuities.
For 2019, you generally can contribute as much as $19,000 to 401(k)s and $6,000 for traditional IRAs. Self-employed individuals can contribute up to 25% of your net income (but no more than $56,000) to a SEP IRA.
3. Harvest your investment losses. Losing money on your investments has a bit of an upside — it gives you the opportunity to offset taxable gains. If you sell underperforming investments before the end of the year, you can offset gains realized this year on a dollar-for-dollar basis.
If you have more losses than gains, you generally can apply up to $3,000 of the excess to reduce your ordinary income. Any remaining losses are carried forward to future tax years.
We can help
The strategies described above are only a sampling of strategies that may be available. Contact us if you have questions about these or other methods for minimizing your tax liability for 2019.
As we all know, medical services and prescription drugs are expensive. You may be able to deduct some of your expenses on your tax return but the rules make it difficult for many people to qualify. However, with proper planning, you may be able to time discretionary medical expenses to your advantage for tax purposes.
The basic rules
For 2019, the medical expense deduction can only be claimed to the extent your unreimbursed costs exceed 10% of your adjusted gross income (AGI). You also must itemize deductions on your return.
If your total itemized deductions for 2019 will exceed your standard deduction, moving or “bunching” nonurgent medical procedures and other controllable expenses into 2019 may allow you to exceed the 10% floor and benefit from the medical expense deduction. Controllable expenses include refilling prescription drugs, buying eyeglasses and contact lenses, going to the dentist and getting elective surgery.
In addition to hospital and doctor expenses, here are some items to take into account when determining your allowable costs:
1. Health insurance premiums. This item can total thousands of dollars a year. Even if your employer provides health coverage, you can deduct the portion of the premiums that you pay. Long-term care insurance premiums are also included as medical expenses, subject to limits based on age.
2. Transportation. The cost of getting to and from medical treatments counts as a medical expense. This includes taxi fares, public transportation, or using your own car. Car costs can be calculated at 20¢ a mile for miles driven in 2019, plus tolls and parking. Alternatively, you can deduct certain actual costs, such as for gas and oil.
3. Eyeglasses, hearing aids, dental work, prescription drugs and professional fees. Deductible expenses include the cost of glasses, hearing aids, dental work, psychiatric counseling and other ongoing expenses in connection with medical needs. Purely cosmetic expenses don’t qualify. Prescription drugs (including insulin) qualify, but over-the-counter aspirin and vitamins don’t. Neither do amounts paid for treatments that are illegal under federal law (such as marijuana), even if state law permits them. The services of therapists and nurses can qualify as long as they relate to a medical condition and aren’t for general health. Amounts paid for certain long-term care services required by a chronically ill individual also qualify.
4. Smoking-cessation and weight-loss programs. Amounts paid for participating in smoking-cessation programs and for prescribed drugs designed to alleviate nicotine withdrawal are deductible. However, nonprescription nicotine gum and patches aren’t. A weight-loss program is deductible if undertaken as treatment for a disease diagnosed by a physician. Deductible expenses include fees paid to join a program and attend periodic meetings. However, the cost of food isn’t deductible.
You can deduct the medical costs that you pay for dependents, such as your children. Additionally, you may be able to deduct medical costs you pay for other individuals, such as an elderly parent. If you have questions about medical expense deductions, contact us.
For tax purposes, December 31 means more than New Year’s Eve celebrations. It affects the filing status box that will be checked on your tax return for the year. When you file your return, you do so with one of five filing statuses, which depend in part on whether you’re married or unmarried on December 31.
More than one filing status may apply, and you can use the one that saves the most tax. It’s also possible that your status options could change during the year.
Here are the filing statuses and who can claim them:
- Single. This status is generally used if you’re unmarried, divorced or legally separated under a divorce or separate maintenance decree governed by state law.
- Married filing jointly. If you’re married, you can file a joint tax return with your spouse. If your spouse passes away, you can generally file a joint return for that year.
- Married filing separately. As an alternative to filing jointly, married couples can choose to file separate tax returns. In some cases, this may result in less tax owed.
- Head of household. Certain unmarried taxpayers may qualify to use this status and potentially pay less tax. The special rules that apply are described below.
- Qualifying widow(er) with a dependent child. This may be used if your spouse died during one of the previous two years and you have a dependent child. Other conditions also apply.
Head of household status
Head of household status is generally more favorable than filing as a single taxpayer. To qualify, you must “maintain a household” that, for more than half the year, is the principal home of a “qualifying child” or other relative that you can claim as your dependent.
A “qualifying child” is defined as someone who:
- Lives in your home for more than half the year,
- Is your child, stepchild, foster child, sibling, stepsibling or a descendant of any of these,
- Is under 19 years old or a student under age 24, and
- Doesn’t provide over half of his or her own support for the year.
Different rules may apply if a child’s parents are divorced. Also, a child isn’t a “qualifying child” if he or she is married and files jointly or isn’t a U.S. citizen or resident.
Maintaining a household
For head of household filing status, you’re considered to maintain a household if you live in it for the tax year and pay more than half the cost of running it. This includes property taxes, mortgage interest, rent, utilities, property insurance, repairs, upkeep, and food consumed in the home. Don’t include medical care, clothing, education, life insurance or transportation.
Under a special rule, you can qualify as head of household if you maintain a home for a parent of yours even if you don’t live with the parent. To qualify, you must be able to claim the parent as your dependent.
You must generally be unmarried to claim head of household status. If you’re married, you must generally file as either married filing jointly or married filing separately, not as head of household. However, if you’ve lived apart from your spouse for the last six months of the year and a qualifying child lives with you and you “maintain” the household, you’re treated as unmarried. In this case, you may be able to qualify as head of household.
If you have questions about your filing status, contact us.
You can reduce taxes and save for retirement by contributing to a tax-advantaged retirement plan. If your employer offers a 401(k) or Roth 401(k) plan, contributing to it is a taxwise way to build a nest egg.
If you’re not already contributing the maximum allowed, consider increasing your contribution rate between now and year end. Because of tax-deferred compounding (tax-free in the case of Roth accounts), boosting contributions sooner rather than later can have a significant impact on the size of your nest egg at retirement.
With a 401(k), an employee elects to have a certain amount of pay deferred and contributed by an employer on his or her behalf to the plan. The contribution limit for 2019 is $19,000. Employees age 50 or older by year end are also permitted to make additional “catch-up” contributions of $6,000, for a total limit of $25,000 in 2019.
The IRS just announced that the 401(k) contribution limit for 2020 will increase to $19,500 (plus the $6,500 catch-up contribution).
A traditional 401(k)
A traditional 401(k) offers many benefits, including these:
- Contributions are pretax, reducing your modified adjusted gross income (MAGI), which can also help you reduce or avoid exposure to the 3.8% net investment income tax.
- Plan assets can grow tax-deferred — meaning you pay no income tax until you take distributions.
- Your employer may match some or all of your contributions pretax.
Take a look at your contributions for this year. If your current contribution rate will leave you short of the limit, try to increase your contribution rate through the end of the year to get as close to that limit as you can afford. Keep in mind that your paycheck will be reduced by less than the dollar amount of the contribution, because the contributions are pretax — so, income tax isn’t withheld.
Employers may also include a Roth option in their 401(k) plans. If your employer offers this, you can designate some or all of your contributions as Roth contributions. While such contributions don’t reduce your current MAGI, qualified distributions will be tax- free.
Roth 401(k) contributions may be especially beneficial for higher-income earners, because they don’t have the option to contribute to a Roth IRA. Your ability to make a Roth IRA contribution in 2019 will be reduced if your adjusted gross income (AGI) in 2019 exceeds:
- $193,000 and your filing status in 2019 is married-filing jointly, or
- $122,000, and your filing status in 2019 is that of a single taxpayer.
Your ability to contribute to a Roth IRA in 2019 will be eliminated entirely if you’re a married-filing-jointly filer and your 2019 AGI equals or exceeds $203,000. The cutoff for single filers is $137,000 or more.
How much and which type
Do you have questions about how much to contribute or the best mix between regular and Roth 401(k) contributions? Contact us. We can discuss the tax and retirement-saving considerations in your situation.
Are you charitably minded and have a significant amount of money in an IRA? If you’re age 70½ or older, and don’t need the money from required minimum distributions, you may benefit by giving these amounts to charity.
IRA distribution basics
A popular way to transfer IRA assets to charity is through a tax provision that allows IRA owners who are 70½ or older to give up to $100,000 per year of their IRA distributions to charity. These distributions are called qualified charitable distributions, or QCDs. The money given to charity counts toward the donor’s required minimum distributions (RMDs), but doesn’t increase the donor’s adjusted gross income or generate a tax bill.
So while QCDs are exempt from federal income taxes, other traditional IRA distributions are taxable (either wholly or partially depending on whether you’ve made any nondeductible contributions over the years).
Unlike regular charitable donations, QCDs can’t be claimed as itemized deductions.
Keeping the donation out of your AGI may be important because doing so can:
- Help the donor qualify for other tax breaks (for example, a lower AGI can reduce the threshold for deducting medical expenses, which are only deductible to the extent they exceed 10% of AGI);
- Reduce taxes on your Social Security benefits; and
- Help you avoid a high-income surcharge for Medicare Part B and Part D premiums, (which kicks in if AGI hits certain levels).
In addition, keep in mind that charitable contributions don’t yield a tax benefit for those individuals who no longer itemize their deductions (because of the larger standard deduction under the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act). So those who are age 70½ or older and are receiving RMDs from IRAs may gain a tax advantage by making annual charitable contributions via a QCD from an IRA. This charitable contribution will reduce RMDs by a commensurate amount, and the amount of the reduction will be tax-free.
There’s a $100,000 limit on total QCDs for any one year. But if you and your spouse both have IRAs set up in your respective names, each of you is entitled to a separate $100,000 annual QCD limit, for a combined total of $200,000.
The QCD strategy can be a smart tax move for high-net-worth individuals over 70½ years old. If you’re interested in this opportunity, don’t wait until year end to act. Contact us for more information.
If you’re planning to sell assets at a loss to offset gains that have been realized during the year, it’s important to be aware of the “wash sale” rule.
How the rule works
Under this rule, if you sell stock or securities for a loss and buy substantially identical stock or securities back within the 30-day period before or after the sale date, the loss can’t be claimed for tax purposes. The rule is designed to prevent taxpayers from using the tax benefit of a loss without parting with ownership in any significant way. Note that the rule applies to a 30-day period before or after the sale date to prevent “buying the stock back” before it’s even sold. (If you participate in any dividend reinvestment plans, the wash sale rules may be inadvertently triggered when dividends are reinvested under the plan, if you’ve separately sold some of the same stock at a loss within the 30-day period.)
Keep in mind that the rule applies even if you repurchase the security in a tax-advantaged retirement account, such as a traditional or Roth IRA.
Although the loss can’t be claimed on a wash sale, the disallowed amount is added to the cost of the new stock. So, the disallowed amount can be claimed when the new stock is finally disposed of (other than in a wash sale).
Here’s an example
Let’s say you buy 500 shares of XYZ Inc. for $10,000 and sell them on November 5 for $3,000. On November 29, you buy 500 shares of XYZ again for $3,200. Since the shares were “bought back” within 30 days of the sale, the wash sale rule applies. Therefore, you can’t claim a $7,000 loss. Your basis in the new 500 shares is $10,200: the actual cost plus the $7,000 disallowed loss.
If only a portion of the stock sold is bought back, only that portion of the loss is disallowed. So, in the above example, if you’d only bought back 300 of the 500 shares (60%), you would be able to claim 40% of the loss on the sale ($2,800). The remaining $4,200 loss that is disallowed under the wash sale rule would be added to your cost of the 300 shares.
If you’ve cashed in some big gains in 2019, you may be looking for unrealized losses in your portfolio so you can sell those investments before year end. By doing so, you can offset your gains with your losses and reduce your 2019 tax liability. But don’t run afoul of the wash sale rule. Contact us if you have any questions.
There are several ways to save for your child’s or grandchild’s education, including with a Coverdell Education Savings Account (ESA). Although for federal tax purposes there’s no upfront deduction for contributions made to an ESA, the earnings on the contributions grow tax-free. In addition, no tax is due when the funds in the account are distributed, to the extent the amounts withdrawn don’t exceed the child’s qualified education expenses.
Qualified expenses include higher education tuition, fees, books and room, as well as elementary and secondary school expenses.
The annual limit that can be contributed to a child’s ESA is $2,000 per year — from all contributors for all ESAs for the same child. The maximum dollar amount that any individual can contribute is phased out if the contributor’s adjusted gross income (with certain modifications) exceeds $95,000 ($190,000 for married joint filers).
However, this phaseout is easily avoided. A child can contribute to his or her own ESA, so a parent or other person whose contribution may be limited by the phaseout rule can give the money to an ESA as custodian for the child. Under those circumstances, the child is considered to be the contributor and, if the child’s adjusted gross income is below $95,000, the phaseout won’t apply.
Contributions that exceed $2,000 in total for a child for a year are subject to a 6% penalty tax until the excess (plus earnings) are withdrawn.
How long can you make ESA contributions? They can be made until a child reaches age 18 (but this age limit doesn’t apply to a beneficiary with special needs who requires additional time to complete his or her education). A beneficiary doesn’t have to be your own child.
Taking money out
Withdrawals from an ESA during a year that exceed the child’s qualified education expenses for that year are included in the child’s income (to the extent of the earnings portion of the distribution) and are also subject to an additional 10% tax.
Tax-free transfers or rollovers of account balances from an ESA benefiting one beneficiary to another account benefiting another person are allowed, if the new beneficiary hasn’t reached 30, and is a member of the family of the old beneficiary. (The age limit doesn’t apply to a beneficiary with special needs.)
If you’re interested in discussing a Coverdell ESA, or other education planning options, please contact us.
“Thousands of people have lost millions of dollars and their personal information to tax scams,” according to the IRS. Criminals can contact victims through regular mail, telephone calls and email messages. Here are just two of the scams the tax agency has seen in recent months.
- Fake property liens. A tax bill is sent from a fictional government agency in the mail. The fake agency may have a legitimate sounding name such as the Bureau of Tax Enforcement. The bill is accompanied by a letter threatening an IRS lien or levy based on bogus overdue taxes. (A levy is a legal seizure of property to satisfy a tax debt. A lien is a legal claim against your property to secure payment of your tax debt.)
- Phony calls from the IRS. In this scam, criminals impersonating IRS employees call people and tell them that, if they don’t pay back taxes they owe, they will face arrest. The thieves then demand that the taxpayers pay their tax debts with a gift card, other prepaid cards or a wire transfer.
If you receive a text, letter, email or phone call purporting to be from the IRS, keep in mind that the IRS never calls taxpayers demanding immediate payment using a specific method of payment (such as a wire transfer or prepaid debit card). In general, the IRS sends bills or notices to taxpayers and gives them time to respond with questions or appeals. The tax agency also doesn’t threaten taxpayers with arrest.
In addition, the IRS doesn’t initiate contact by email, text message or social media channels to request information. Most contacts are initiated though regular mail delivered by the U.S. Postal Service. The IRS does use authorized private collection agencies to collect some overdue tax bills but these agencies also follow the same rules.
In some special circumstances, the IRS does call taxpayers or come to their homes or businesses. For example, the IRS may tour a business as part of an audit or during a criminal investigation. But even in those cases, taxpayers will generally receive several mailed IRS notices before the visit. And the IRS never demands that payment be made to any source other than the “United States Treasury.”
What to do if you’re contacted
You can contact us if the IRS gets in touch with you. If the contact involves a phone call, hang up immediately. You can forward an email or other tax-related scam to the IRS at email@example.com. To report an IRS impersonation scam, visit the Treasury Inspector General for Tax Administration at https://bit.ly/1ClYZbP. Be aware that criminals keep evolving their scams in an effort to steal people’s money and personal information. Remain on alert.
As we head toward the gift-giving season, you may be considering giving gifts of cash or securities to your loved ones. Taxpayers can transfer substantial amounts free of gift taxes to their children and others each year through the use of the annual federal gift tax exclusion. The amount is adjusted for inflation annually. For 2019, the exclusion is $15,000.
The exclusion covers gifts that you make to each person each year. Therefore, if you have three children, you can transfer a total of $45,000 to them this year (and next year) free of federal gift taxes. If the only gifts made during the year are excluded in this way, there’s no need to file a federal gift tax return. If annual gifts exceed $15,000, the exclusion covers the first $15,000 and only the excess is taxable. Further, even taxable gifts may result in no gift tax liability thanks to the unified credit (discussed below).
Note: this discussion isn’t relevant to gifts made from one spouse to the other spouse, because these gifts are gift tax-free under separate marital deduction rules.
Gifts by married taxpayers
If you’re married, gifts to individuals made during a year can be treated as split between you and your spouse, even if the cash or gift property is actually given to an individual by only one of you. By “gift-splitting,” up to $30,000 a year can be transferred to each person by a married couple, because two annual exclusions are available. For example, if you’re married with three children, you and your spouse can transfer a total of $90,000 each year to your children ($30,000 × 3). If your children are married, you can transfer $180,000 to your children and their spouses ($30,000 × 6).
If gift-splitting is involved, both spouses must consent to it. We can assist you with preparing a gift tax return (or returns) to indicate consent.
“Unified” credit for taxable gifts
Even gifts that aren’t covered by the exclusion, and that are therefore taxable, may not result in a tax liability. This is because a tax credit wipes out the federal gift tax liability on the first taxable gifts that you make in your lifetime, up to $11,400,000 (for 2019). However, to the extent you use this credit against a gift tax liability, it reduces (or eliminates) the credit available for use against the federal estate tax at your death.
Giving gifts of appreciated assets
Let’s say you own stocks and other marketable securities (outside of your retirement accounts) that have skyrocketed in value since they were acquired. A 15% or 20% tax rate generally applies to long-term capital gains. But there’s a 0% long-term capital gains rate for those in lower tax brackets. Even if your income is high, your family members in lower tax brackets may be able to benefit from the 0% long-term capital gains rate. Giving them appreciated stock instead of cash might allow you to eliminate federal tax liability on the appreciation, or at least significantly reduce it. The recipients can sell the assets at no or a low federal tax cost. Before acting, make sure the recipients won’t be subject to the “kiddie tax,” and consider any gift and generation-skipping transfer (GST) tax consequences.
Annual gifts are only one way to transfer wealth to your loved ones. There may be other effective tax and estate planning tools. Contact us before year end to discuss your options.
You may have Series EE savings bonds that were bought many years ago. Perhaps you store them in a file cabinet or safe deposit box and rarely think about them. You may wonder how the interest you earn on EE bonds is taxed. And if they reach final maturity, you may need to take action to ensure there’s no loss of interest or unanticipated tax consequences.
Series EE Bonds dated May 2005 and after earn a fixed rate of interest. Bonds purchased between May 1997 and April 30, 2005, earn a variable market-based rate of return.
Paper Series EE bonds were sold at half their face value. For example, if you own a $50 bond, you paid $25 for it. The bond isn’t worth its face value until it has matured. (The U.S. Treasury Department no longer issues EE bonds in paper form.) Electronic Series EE Bonds are sold at face value and are worth their full value when available for redemption.
The minimum term of ownership is one year, but a penalty is imposed if the bond is redeemed in the first five years. The bonds earn interest for 30 years.
How they’re taxed
Series EE bonds don’t pay interest currently. Instead, the accrued interest is reflected in the redemption value of the bond. The U.S. Treasury issues tables showing the redemption values.
The interest on EE bonds isn’t taxed as it accrues unless the owner elects to have it taxed annually. If an election is made, all previously accrued but untaxed interest is also reported in the election year. In most cases, this election isn’t made so bond holders receive the benefits of tax deferral.
If the election to report the interest annually is made, it will apply to all bonds and for all future years. That is, the election cannot be made on a bond-by-bond or year-by-year basis. However, there’s a procedure under which the election can be canceled.
If the election isn’t made, all of the accrued interest is finally taxed when the bond is redeemed or otherwise disposed of (unless it was exchanged for a Series HH bond). The bond continues to accrue interest even after reaching its face value, but at “final maturity” (after 30 years) interest stops accruing and must be reported.
Note: Interest on EE bonds isn’t subject to state income tax. And using the money for higher education may keep you from paying federal income tax on your interest.
Deferral won’t last forever
One of the principal reasons for buying EE bonds is the fact that interest can build up without having to currently report or pay tax on it. Unfortunately, the law doesn’t allow for this tax-free buildup to continue indefinitely. When the bonds reach final maturity, they stop earning interest.
Series EE bonds issued in January 1989 reached final maturity after 30 years, in January 2019. That means that not only have they stopped earning interest, but all of the accrued and as yet untaxed interest is taxable in 2019.
If you own EE bonds (paper or electronic), check the issue dates on your bonds. If they’re no longer earning interest, you probably want to redeem them and put the money into something more lucrative. Contact us if you have any questions about the taxability of savings bonds, including Series HH and Series I bonds.
We all know the cost of college is expensive. The latest figures from the College Board show that the average annual cost of tuition and fees was $10,230 for in-state students at public four-year universities — and $35,830 for students at private not-for-profit four-year institutions. These amounts don’t include room and board, books, supplies, transportation and other expenses that a student may incur.
Two tax credits
Fortunately, the federal government offers two sizable tax credits for higher education costs that you may be able to claim:
1. The American Opportunity credit. This tax break generally provides the biggest benefit to most taxpayers. The American Opportunity credit provides a maximum benefit of $2,500. That is, you may qualify for a credit equal to 100% of the first $2,000 of expenses for the year and 25% of the next $2,000 of expenses. It applies only to the first four years of postsecondary education and is available only to students who attend at least half time.
Basically, tuition, course materials and fees qualify for this credit. The credit is per eligible student and is subject to phaseouts based on modified adjusted gross income (MAGI). For 2019, the MAGI phaseout ranges are:
- Between $80,000 and $90,000 for unmarried individuals, and
- Between $160,000 and $180,000 for married joint filers.
2. The Lifetime Learning credit. This credit equals 20% of qualified education expenses for up to $2,000 per tax return. There are fewer restrictions to qualify for this credit than for the American Opportunity credit.
The Lifetime Learning credit can be applied to education beyond the first four years, and qualifying students may attend school less than half time. The student doesn’t even need to be part of a degree program. So, the credit works well for graduate studies and part-time students who take a qualifying course at a local college to improve job skills. It applies to tuition, fees and materials.
It’s also subject to phaseouts based on MAGI, however. For 2019, the MAGI phaseout ranges are:
- Between $58,000 and $68,000 for unmarried individuals, and
- Between $116,000 and $136,000 for married joint filers.
Note: You can’t claim either the American Opportunity Credit or the Lifetime Learning Credit for the same student or for the same expense in the same year.
Credit for what you’ve paid
So which higher education tax credit is right for you? A number of factors need to be reviewed before determining the answer to that question. Contact us for more information about how to take advantage of tax-favored ways to save or pay for college.
In addition to the difficult personal issues that divorce entails, several tax concerns need to be addressed to ensure that taxes are kept to a minimum and that important tax-related decisions are properly made. Here are four issues to understand if you are in the process of getting a divorce.
- Alimony or support payments. For alimony under divorce or separation agreements that are executed after 2018, there’s no deduction for alimony and separation support payments for the spouse making them. And the alimony payments aren’t included in the gross income of the spouse receiving them. (The rules are different for divorce or separation agreements executed before 2019.)
- Child support. No matter when the divorce or separation instrument is executed, child support payments aren’t deductible by the paying spouse (or taxable to the recipient).
- Personal residence. In general, if a married couple sells their home in connection with a divorce or legal separation, they should be able to avoid tax on up to $500,000 of gain (as long as they’ve owned and used the residence as their principal residence for two of the previous five years). If one spouse continues to live in the home and the other moves out (but they both remain owners of the home), they may still be able to avoid gain on the future sale of the home (up to $250,000 each), but special language may have to be included in the divorce decree or separation agreement to protect the exclusion for the spouse who moves out.
If the couple doesn’t meet the two-year ownership and use tests, any gain from the sale may qualify for a reduced exclusion due to unforeseen circumstances.
- Pension benefits. A spouse’s pension benefits are often part of a divorce property settlement. In these cases, the commonly preferred method to handle the benefits is to get a “qualified domestic relations order” (QDRO). This gives one spouse the right to share in the pension benefits of the other and taxes the spouse who receives the benefits. Without a QDRO the spouse who earned the benefits will still be taxed on them even though they’re paid out to the other spouse.
A range of other issues
These are just some of the issues you may have to deal with if you’re getting a divorce. In addition, you must decide how to file your tax return (single, married filing jointly, married filing separately or head of household). You may need to adjust your income tax withholding and you should notify the IRS of any new address or name change. There are also estate planning considerations. We can help you work through all of the financial issues involved in divorce.
If you’re self-employed and don’t have withholding from paychecks, you probably have to make estimated tax payments. These payments must be sent to the IRS on a quarterly basis. The third 2019 estimated tax payment deadline for individuals is Monday, September 16. Even if you do have some withholding from paychecks or payments you receive, you may still have to make estimated payments if you receive other types of income such as Social Security, prizes, rent, interest, and dividends.
You must make sufficient federal income tax payments long before the April filing deadline through withholding, estimated tax payments, or a combination of the two. If you fail to make the required payments, you may be subject to an underpayment penalty, as well as interest.
In general, you must make estimated tax payments for 2019 if both of these statements apply:
- You expect to owe at least $1,000 in tax after subtracting tax withholding and credits, and
- You expect withholding and credits to be less than the smaller of 90% of your tax for 2019 or 100% of the tax on your 2018 return — 110% if your 2018 adjusted gross income was more than $150,000 ($75,000 for married couples filing separately).
If you’re a sole proprietor, partner or S corporation shareholder, you generally have to make estimated tax payments if you expect to owe $1,000 or more in tax when you file your return.
Quarterly due dates
Estimated tax payments are spread out through the year. The due dates are April 15, June 15, September 15 and January 15 of the following year. However, if the date falls on a weekend or holiday, the deadline is the next business day (which is why the third deadline is September 16 this year).
Estimated tax is calculated by factoring in expected gross income, taxable income, deductions and credits for the year. The easiest way to pay estimated tax is electronically through the Electronic Federal Tax Payment System. You can also pay estimated tax by check or money order using the Estimated Tax Payment Voucher or by credit or debit card.
Most individuals make estimated tax payments in four installments. In other words, you can determine the required annual payment, divide the number by four and make four equal payments by the due dates. But you may be able to make smaller payments under an “annualized income method.” This can be useful to people whose income isn’t uniform over the year, perhaps because of a seasonal business. For example, let’s say your income comes exclusively from a business that you operate in a beach town during June, July and August. In this case, with the annualized income method, no estimated payment would be required before the usual September 15 deadline. You may also want to use the annualized income method if a large portion of your income comes from capital gains on the sale of securities that you sell at various times during the year.
Determining the correct amount
Contact us if you think you may be eligible to determine your estimated tax payments under the annualized income method, or you have any other questions about how the estimated tax rules apply to you.
As teachers head back for a new school year, they often pay for various expenses for which they don’t receive reimbursement. Fortunately, they may be able to deduct them on their tax returns. However, there are limits on this special deduction, and some expenses can’t be written off.
For 2019, qualifying educators can deduct some of their unreimbursed out-of-pocket classroom costs under the educator expense deduction. This is an “above-the-line” deduction, which means you don’t have to itemize your deductions in order to claim it.
Here are some details about the educator expense deduction:
- For 2019, educators can deduct up to $250 of trade or business expenses that weren’t reimbursed. (The deduction is $500 if both taxpayers are eligible educators who file a joint tax return, but these taxpayers can’t deduct more than $250 each.)
- Qualified expenses are amounts educators paid themselves during the tax year.
- Examples of expenses that educators can deduct include books, supplies, computer equipment (including software), other materials used in the classroom, and professional development courses.
- To be eligible, taxpayers must be kindergarten through grade 12 teachers, instructors, counselors, principals or aides. They must also work at least 900 hours a school year in a school that provides elementary or secondary education as determined under state law.
Educators should keep receipts when they make eligible expenses and note the date, amount and purpose of each purchase.
Teachers or professors may see advertisements for job-related courses in out-of-town or exotic locations. You may have wondered whether traveling to these courses is tax-deductible on teachers’ tax returns. The bad news is that, for tax years 2018–2025, it isn’t, because the outlays are employee business expenses.
Prior to 2018, employee business expenses could be claimed as miscellaneous itemized deductions. However, under the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act, miscellaneous itemized deductions aren’t deductible by individuals for tax years 2018–2025.
If you’re like many people, you’ve worked hard to accumulate a large nest egg in your traditional IRA (including a SEP-IRA). It’s even more critical to carefully plan for withdrawals from these retirement-savings vehicles.
Knowing the fine points of the IRA distribution rules can make a significant difference in how much you and your family will get to keep after taxes. Here are three IRA areas to understand:
- Taking early distributions. If you need to take money out of your traditional IRA before age 59½, any distribution to you will be generally taxable (unless nondeductible contributions were made, in which case part of each payout will be tax-free). In addition, distributions before age 59½ may be subject to a 10% penalty tax.
However, there are several ways that the penalty tax (but not the regular income tax) can be avoided. These exceptions include paying for unreimbursed medical expenses, paying for qualified educational expenses and buying a first home (up to $10,000).
- Naming your beneficiary (or beneficiaries). This decision affects the minimum amounts you must withdraw from the IRA when you reach age 70½; who will get what remains in the account at your death; and how that IRA balance can be paid out. What’s more, a periodic review of the individuals you’ve named as IRA beneficiaries is critical to assure that your overall estate planning objectives will be achieved. Review them when circumstances change in your personal life, finances and family.
- Taking required distributions. Once you reach age 70½, distributions from your traditional IRAs must begin. It doesn’t matter if you haven’t retired. If you don’t withdraw the minimum amount each year, you may have to pay a 50% penalty tax on what should have been taken — but wasn’t. In planning for required minimum distributions, your income needs must be weighed against the desirable goal of keeping the tax shelter of the IRA going for as long as possible for both yourself and your beneficiaries.
Keep more of your money
Prudently planning how to take money out of your traditional IRA can mean more money for you and your heirs. Keep in mind that Roth IRAs operate under a different set of rules than traditional IRAs. Contact us to review your traditional and Roth IRAs, and to analyze other aspects of your retirement planning.
When a married couple files a joint tax return, each spouse is “jointly and severally” liable for the full amount of tax on the couple’s combined income. Therefore, the IRS can come after either spouse to collect the entire tax — not just the part that’s attributed to one spouse or the other. This includes any tax deficiency that the IRS assesses after an audit, as well as any penalties and interest. (However, the civil fraud penalty can be imposed only on spouses who’ve actually committed fraud.)
In some cases, spouses are eligible for “innocent spouse relief.” This generally involves individuals who were unaware of a tax understatement that was attributable to the other spouse.
To qualify, you must show not only that you didn’t know about the understatement, but that there was nothing that should have made you suspicious. In addition, the circumstances must make it inequitable to hold you liable for the tax. This relief is available even if you’re still married and living with your spouse.
In addition, spouses may be able to limit liability for any tax deficiency on a joint return if they’re widowed, divorced, legally separated or have lived apart for at least one year.
Election to limit liability
If you make this election, the tax items that gave rise to the deficiency will be allocated between you and your spouse as if you’d filed separate returns. For example, you’d generally be liable for the tax on any unreported wage income only to the extent that you earned the wages.
The election won’t provide relief from your spouse’s tax items if the IRS proves that you knew about the items when you signed the return — unless you can show that you signed the return under duress. Also, the limitation on your liability is increased by the value of any assets that your spouse transferred to you in order to avoid the tax.
An “injured” spouse
In addition to innocent spouse relief, there’s also relief for “injured” spouses. What’s the difference? An injured spouse claim asks the IRS to allocate part of a joint refund to one spouse. In these cases, an injured spouse has all or part of a refund from a joint return applied against past-due federal tax, state tax, child or spousal support, or a federal nontax debt (such as a student loan) owed by the other spouse. If you’re an injured spouse, you may be entitled to recoup your share of the refund.
Whether, and to what extent, you can take advantage of the above relief depends on the facts of your situation. If you’re interested in trying to obtain relief, there’s paperwork that must be filed and deadlines that must be met. We can assist you with the details.
Also, keep “joint and several liability” in mind when filing future tax returns. Even if a joint return results in less tax, you may choose to file a separate return if you want to be certain of being responsible only for your own tax. Contact us with any questions or concerns.
Years ago, Congress enacted the “kiddie tax” rules to prevent parents and grandparents in high tax brackets from shifting income (especially from investments) to children in lower tax brackets. And while the tax caused some families pain in the past, it has gotten worse today. That’s because the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act (TCJA) made changes to the kiddie tax by revising the tax rate structure.
History of the tax
The kiddie tax used to apply only to children under age 14 — which provided families with plenty of opportunity to enjoy significant tax savings from income shifting. In 2006, the tax was expanded to children under age 18. And since 2008, the kiddie tax has generally applied to children under age 19 and to full-time students under age 24 (unless the students provide more than half of their own support from earned income).
What about the kiddie tax rate? Before the TCJA, for children subject to the kiddie tax, any unearned income beyond a certain amount was taxed at their parents’ marginal rate (assuming it was higher), rather than their own rate, which was likely lower.
Rate is increased
The TCJA doesn’t further expand who’s subject to the kiddie tax. But it has effectively increased the kiddie tax rate in many cases.
For 2018–2025, a child’s unearned income beyond the threshold ($2,200 for 2019) will be taxed according to the tax brackets used for trusts and estates. For ordinary income (such as interest and short-term capital gains), trusts and estates are taxed at the highest marginal rate of 37% once 2019 taxable income exceeds $12,750. In contrast, for a married couple filing jointly, the highest rate doesn’t kick in until their 2019 taxable income tops $612,350.
Similarly, the 15% long-term capital gains rate begins to take effect at $78,750 for joint filers in 2019 but at only $2,650 for trusts and estates. And the 20% rate kicks in at $488,850 and $12,950, respectively.
That means that, in many cases, children’s unearned income will be taxed at higher rates than their parents’ income. As a result, income shifting to children subject to the kiddie tax won’t save tax, but it could actually increase a family’s overall tax liability.
Note: For purposes of the kiddie tax, the term “unearned income” refers to income other than wages, salaries and similar amounts. Examples of unearned income include capital gains, dividends and interest. Earned income from a job or self-employment isn’t subject to kiddie tax.
Gold Star families hurt
One unfortunate consequence of the TCJA kiddie tax change is that some children in Gold Star military families, whose parents were killed in the line of duty, are being assessed the kiddie tax on certain survivor benefits from the Defense Department. In some cases, this has more than tripled their tax bills because the law treats their benefits as unearned income. The U.S. Senate has passed a bill that would treat survivor benefits as earned income but a companion bill in the U.S. House of Representatives is currently stalled.
To avoid inadvertently increasing your family’s taxes, be sure to consider the kiddie tax before transferring income-producing or highly appreciated assets to a child or grandchild who’s a minor or college student. If you’d like to shift income and you have adult children or grandchildren no longer subject to the kiddie tax but in a lower tax bracket, consider transferring assets to them. If your child or grandchild has significant unearned income, contact us to identify possible strategies that will help reduce the kiddie tax for 2019 and later years
If you’re lucky enough to be a winner at gambling or the lottery, congratulations! After you celebrate, be ready to deal with the tax consequences of your good fortune.
Winning at gambling
Whether you win at the casino, a bingo hall, or elsewhere, you must report 100% of your winnings as taxable income. They’re reported on the “Other income” line on Schedule 1 of your 1040 tax return. To measure your winnings on a particular wager, use the net gain. For example, if a $30 bet at the race track turns into a $110 win, you’ve won $80, not $110.
You must separately keep track of losses. They’re deductible, but only as itemized deductions. Therefore, if you don’t itemize and take the standard deduction, you can’t deduct gambling losses. In addition, gambling losses are only deductible up to the amount of gambling winnings. So you can use losses to “wipe out” gambling income but you can’t show a gambling tax loss.
Maintain good records of your losses during the year. Keep a diary in which you indicate the date, place, amount and type of loss, as well as the names of anyone who was with you. Save all documentation, such as checks or credit slips.
Winning the lottery
The chances of winning the lottery are slim. But if you don’t follow the tax rules after winning, the chances of hearing from the IRS are much higher.
Lottery winnings are taxable. This is the case for cash prizes and for the fair market value of any noncash prizes, such as a car or vacation. Depending on your other income and the amount of your winnings, your federal tax rate may be as high as 37%. You may also be subject to state income tax.
You report lottery winnings as income in the year, or years, you actually receive them. In the case of noncash prizes, this would be the year the prize is received. With cash, if you take the winnings in annual installments, you only report each year’s installment as income for that year.
If you win more than $5,000 in the lottery or certain types of gambling, 24% must be withheld for federal tax purposes. You’ll receive a Form W-2G from the payer showing the amount paid to you and the federal tax withheld. (The payer also sends this information to the IRS.) If state tax withholding is withheld, that amount may also be shown on Form W-2G.
Since your federal tax rate can be up to 37%, which is well above the 24% withheld, the withholding may not be enough to cover your federal tax bill. Therefore, you may have to make estimated tax payments — and you may be assessed a penalty if you fail to do so. In addition, you may be required to make state and local estimated tax payments.
We can help
If you’re fortunate enough to hit a sizable jackpot, there are other issues to consider, including estate planning. This article only covers the basic tax rules. Different rules apply to people who qualify as professional gamblers. Contact us with questions. We can help you minimize taxes and stay in compliance with all requirements.
You may have heard of the “nanny tax.” But even if you don’t employ a nanny, it may apply to you. Hiring a housekeeper, gardener or other household employee (who isn’t an independent contractor) may make you liable for federal income and other taxes. You may also have state tax obligations.
If you employ a household worker, you aren’t required to withhold federal income taxes from pay. But you may choose to withhold if the worker requests it. In that case, ask the worker to fill out a Form W-4. However, you may be required to withhold Social Security and Medicare (FICA) taxes and to pay federal unemployment (FUTA) tax.
FICA and FUTA tax
In 2019, you must withhold and pay FICA taxes if your household worker earns cash wages of $2,100 or more (excluding the value of food and lodging). If you reach the threshold, all the wages (not just the excess) are subject to FICA.
However, if a nanny is under age 18 and child care isn’t his or her principal occupation, you don’t have to withhold FICA taxes. So, if you have a part-time babysitter who is a student, there’s no FICA tax liability.
Both an employer and a household worker may have FICA tax obligations. As an employer, you’re responsible for withholding your worker’s FICA share. In addition, you must pay a matching amount. FICA tax is divided between Social Security and Medicare. The Social Security tax rate is 6.2% for the employer and 6.2% for the worker (12.4% total). Medicare tax is 1.45% each for both the employer and the worker (2.9% total).
If you want, you can pay your worker’s share of Social Security and Medicare taxes. If you do, your payments aren’t counted as additional cash wages for Social Security and Medicare purposes. However, your payments are treated as additional income to the worker for federal tax purposes, so you must include them as wages on the W-2 form that you must provide.
You also must pay FUTA tax if you pay $1,000 or more in cash wages (excluding food and lodging) to your worker in any calendar quarter. FUTA tax applies to the first $7,000 of wages paid and is only paid by the employer.
Reporting and paying
You pay household worker obligations by increasing your quarterly estimated tax payments or increasing withholding from wages, rather than making an annual lump-sum payment.
As a household worker employer, you don’t have to file employment tax returns, even if you’re required to withhold or pay tax (unless you own your own business). Instead, employment taxes are reported on your tax return on Schedule H.
When you report the taxes on your return, you include your employer identification number (not the same as your Social Security number). You must file Form SS-4 to get one.
However, if you own a business as a sole proprietor, you include the taxes for a household worker on the FUTA and FICA forms (940 and 941) that you file for your business. And you use your sole proprietorship EIN to report the taxes.
Keep careful records
Keep related tax records for at least four years from the later of the due date of the return or the date the tax was paid. Records should include the worker’s name, address, Social Security number, employment dates, dates and amount of wages paid and taxes withheld, and copies of forms filed.
Contact us for assistance or questions about how to comply with these employment tax requirements.
You may have heard about a proposal in Washington to cut the taxes paid on investments by indexing capital gains to inflation. Under the proposal, the purchase price of assets would be adjusted so that no tax is paid on the appreciation due to inflation.
While the fate of such a proposal is unknown, the long-term capital gains tax rate is still historically low on appreciated securities that have been held for more than 12 months. And since we’re already in the second half of the year, it’s a good time to review your portfolio for possible tax-saving strategies.
The federal income tax rate on long-term capital gains recognized in 2019 is 15% for most taxpayers. However, the maximum rate of 20% plus the 3.8% net investment income tax (NIIT) can apply at higher income levels. For 2019, the 20% rate applies to single taxpayers with taxable income exceeding $425,800 ($479,000 for joint filers or $452,400 for heads of households).
You also may be able to plan for the NIIT. It can affect taxpayers with modified AGI (MAGI) over $200,000 for singles and heads of households, or $250,000 for joint filers. You may be able to lower your tax liability by reducing your MAGI, reducing net investment income or both.
What about losing investments that you’d like to sell? Consider selling them and using the resulting capital losses to shelter capital gains, including high-taxed short-term gains, from other sales this year. You may want to repurchase those investments, so long as you wait at least 31 days to avoid the “wash sale” rule.
If your capital losses exceed your capital gains, the result would be a net capital loss for the year. A net capital loss can also be used to shelter up to $3,000 of 2019 ordinary income (or up to $1,500 if you’re married and file separately). Ordinary income includes items including salaries, bonuses, self-employment income, interest income and royalties. Any excess net capital loss from 2019 can be carried forward to 2020 and later years.
Consider gifting to young relatives
While most taxpayers with long-term capital gains pay a 15% rate, those in the 0% federal income tax bracket only pay a 0% federal tax rate on gains from investments that were held for more than a year. Let’s say you’re feeling generous and want to give some money to your children, grandchildren, nieces, nephews, or others. Instead of making cash gifts to young relatives in lower federal tax brackets, give them appreciated investments. That way, they’ll pay less tax than you’d pay if you sold the same shares.
(You can count your ownership period plus the gift recipient’s ownership period for purposes of meeting the more-than-one-year rule.)
Even if the appreciated shares have been held for a year or less before being sold, your relative will probably pay a much lower tax rate on the gain than you would.
Increase your return
Paying capital gains taxes on your investment profits reduces your total return. Look for strategies to grow your portfolio by minimizing the amount you must pay to the federal and state governments. These are only a few strategies that may be available to you. Contact us about your situation.
If you’re a volunteer who works for charity, you may be entitled to some tax breaks if you itemize deductions on your tax return. Unfortunately, they may not amount to as much as you think your generosity is worth.
Because donations to charity of cash or property generally are tax deductible for itemizers, it may seem like donations of something more valuable for many people — their time — would also be deductible. However, no tax deduction is allowed for the value of time you spend volunteering or the services you perform for a charitable organization.
It doesn’t matter if the services you provide require significant skills and experience, such as construction, which a charity would have to pay dearly for if it went out and obtained itself. You still don’t get to deduct the value of your time.
However, you potentially can deduct out-of-pocket costs associated with your volunteer work.
The basic rules
As with any charitable donation, to be able to deduct your volunteer expenses, the first requirement is that the organization be a qualified charity. You can check by using the IRS’s “Tax Exempt Organization Search” tool here.
If the charity is qualified, you may be able to deduct out-of-pocket costs that are unreimbursed; directly connected with the services you’re providing; incurred only because of your charitable work; and not “personal, living or family” expenses.
Expenses that may qualify
A wide variety of expenses can qualify for the deduction. For example, supplies you use in the activity may be deductible. And the cost of a uniform you must wear during the activity may also be deductible (if it’s required and not something you’d wear when not volunteering).
Transportation costs to and from the volunteer activity generally are deductible — either the actual expenses (such as gas costs) or 14 cents per charitable mile driven. The cost of entertaining others (such as potential contributors) on behalf of a charity may also be deductible. However, the cost of your own entertainment or meal isn’t deductible.
Deductions are permitted for away-from-home travel expenses while performing services for a charity. This includes out-of-pocket round-trip travel expenses, taxi fares and other costs of transportation between the airport or station and hotel, plus lodging and meals. However, these expenses aren’t deductible if there’s a significant element of personal pleasure associated with the travel, or if your services for a charity involve lobbying activities.
Recordkeeping is important
The IRS may challenge charitable deductions for out-of-pocket costs, so it’s important to keep careful records and receipts. You must meet the other requirements for charitable donations. For example, no charitable deduction is allowed for a contribution of $250 or more unless you substantiate the contribution with a written acknowledgment from the organization. The acknowledgment generally must include the amount of cash, a description of any property contributed, and whether you got anything in return for your contribution.
And, in order to get a charitable deduction, you must itemize. Under the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act, fewer people are itemizing because the law significantly increased the standard deduction amounts. So even if you have expenses from volunteering that qualify for a deduction, you may not get any tax benefit if you don’t have enough itemized deductions.
If you have questions about charitable deductions and volunteer expenses, please contact us.
During your working days, you pay Social Security tax in the form of withholding from your salary or self-employment tax. And when you start receiving Social Security benefits, you may be surprised to learn that some of the payments may be taxed.
If you’re getting close to retirement age, you may be wondering if your benefits are going to be taxed. And if so, how much will you have to pay? The answer depends on your other income. If you are taxed, between 50% and 85% of your payments will be hit with federal income tax. (There could also be state tax.)
Important: This doesn’t mean you pay 50% to 85% of your benefits back to the government in taxes. It means that you have to include 50% to 85% of them in your income subject to your regular tax rates.
Calculate provisional income
To determine how much of your benefits are taxed, you must calculate your provisional income. It starts with your adjusted gross income on your tax return. Then, you add certain amounts (for example, tax-exempt interest from municipal bonds). Add to that the income of your spouse, if you file jointly. To this, add half of the Social Security benefits you and your spouse received during the year. The figure you come up with is your provisional income. Now apply the following rules:
- If you file a joint tax return and your provisional income, plus half your benefits, isn’t above $32,000 ($25,000 for single taxpayers), none of your Social Security benefits are taxed.
- If your provisional income is between $32,001 and $44,000, and you file jointly with your spouse, you must report up to 50% of your Social Security benefits as income. For single taxpayers, if your provisional income is between $25,001 and $34,000, you must report up to 50% of your Social Security benefits as income.
- If your provisional income is more than $44,000, and you file jointly, you must report up to 85% of your Social Security benefits as income on Form 1040. For single taxpayers, if your provisional income is more than $34,000, the general rule is that you must report up to 85% of your Social Security benefits as income.
Caution: If you aren’t paying tax on your Social Security benefits now because your income is below the floor, or you’re paying tax on only 50% of those benefits, an unplanned increase in your income can have a significant tax cost. You’ll have to pay tax on the additional income, you’ll also have to pay tax on (or on more of) your Social Security benefits, and you may get pushed into a higher tax bracket.
For example, this might happen if you receive a large retirement plan distribution during the year or you receive large capital gains. With careful planning, you might be able to avoid this tax result.
Avoid a large tax bill
If you know your Social Security benefits will be taxed, you may want to voluntarily arrange to have tax withheld from the payments by filing a Form W-4V with the IRS. Otherwise, you may have to make estimated tax payments.
Contact us to help you with the exact calculations on whether your Social Security will be taxed. We can also help you with tax planning to keep your taxes as low as possible during retirement.
Now that most schools are out for the summer, you might be sending your children to day camp. It’s often a significant expense. The good news: You might be eligible for a tax break for the cost.
The value of a credit
Day camp is a qualified expense under the child and dependent care credit, which is worth 20% to 35% of qualifying expenses, subject to a cap. Note: Sleep-away camp does not qualify.
For 2019, the maximum expenses allowed for the credit are $3,000 for one qualifying child and $6,000 for two or more. Other expenses eligible for the credit include payments to a daycare center, nanny, or nursery school.
Keep in mind that tax credits are especially valuable because they reduce your tax liability dollar-for-dollar — $1 of tax credit saves you $1 of taxes. This differs from deductions, which simply reduce the amount of income subject to tax.
For example, if you’re in the 32% tax bracket, $1 of deduction saves you only $0.32 of taxes. So it’s important to take maximum advantage of all tax credits available to you.
For an expense to qualify for the credit, it must be related to employment. In other words, it must enable you to work — or look for work if you’re unemployed. It must also be for the care of your child, stepchild, foster child, or other qualifying relative who is under age 13, lives in your home for more than half the year and meets other requirements.
There’s no age limit if the dependent child is physically or mentally unable to care for him- or herself. Special rules apply if the child’s parents are divorced or separated or if the parents live apart.
Credit vs. FSA
If you participate in an employer-sponsored child and dependent care Flexible Spending Account (FSA), you can’t use expenses paid from or reimbursed by the FSA to claim the credit.
If your employer offers a child and dependent care FSA, you may wish to consider participating in the FSA instead of taking the credit. With an FSA for child and dependent care, you can contribute up to $5,000 on a pretax basis. If your marginal tax rate is more than 15%, participating in the FSA is more beneficial than taking the credit. That’s because the exclusion from income under the FSA gives a tax benefit at your highest tax rate, while the credit rate for taxpayers with adjusted gross income over $43,000 is limited to 20%.
Proving your eligibility
On your tax return, you must include the Social Security number of each child who attended the camp or received care. There’s no credit without it. You must also identify the organizations or persons that provided care for your child. So make sure to obtain the name, address and taxpayer identification number of the camp.
Additional rules apply to the child and dependent care credit. Contact us if you have questions. We can help determine your eligibility for the credit and other tax breaks for parents.
To help defray health care costs, many people now contribute to, or are thinking about setting up, Health Savings Accounts (HSAs). With these accounts, individuals can pay for certain medical expenses on a tax advantaged basis.
With HSAs, you take more responsibility for your health care costs. If you’re covered by a qualified high-deductible health plan, you can contribute pretax income to an employer-sponsored HSA — or make deductible contributions to an HSA you set up yourself.
You own the account, which can bear interest or be invested. It can grow 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. So, unlike Flexible Spending Accounts (FSAs), undistributed balances in HSAs aren’t forfeited at year end.
For the 2019 tax year, you can make a tax-deductible HSA contribution of up to $3,500 if you have qualifying self-only coverage or up to $7,000 if you have qualifying family coverage (anything other than self-only coverage). If you’re age 55 or older as of December 31, the maximum contribution increases by $1,000.
To be eligible to contribute to an HSA, you must have a qualifying high deductible health insurance policy and no other general health coverage. For 2019, a high deductible health plan is defined as one with a deductible of at least $1,350 for self-only coverage or $2,700 for family coverage.
For 2019, qualifying policies must have had out-of-pocket maximums of no more than $6,750 for self-only coverage or $13,500 for family coverage.
If you still have an HSA balance after reaching Medicare eligibility age (generally age 65), you can empty the account for any reason without a tax penalty. If you don’t use the withdrawal to cover qualified medical expenses, you’ll owe federal income tax and possibly state income tax. But the 20% tax penalty that generally applies to withdrawals not used for medical expenses won’t apply. There’s no tax penalty on withdrawals made after disability or death.
Alternatively, you can use your HSA balance to pay uninsured medical expenses incurred after reaching Medicare eligibility age. If your HSA still has a balance when you die, your surviving spouse can take over the account tax-free and treat it as his or her own HSA, if he or she is named as the beneficiary. In other cases, the date-of-death HSA balance must generally be included in taxable income on that date by the person who inherits the account.
Deadlines and deductions
If you’re eligible to make an HSA contribution, the deadline is April 15 of the following year (adjusted for weekends and holidays) to open an account and make a tax-deductible contribution for the previous year.
So, if you’re eligible, there’s plenty of time to make a deductible contribution for 2019. The deadline for making 2019 contributions is April 15, 2020.
The write-off for HSA contributions is an “above-the-line” deduction. That means you can claim it even if you don’t itemize.
In addition, an HSA contribution isn’t tied to income. Even wealthy people can make deductible HSA contributions if they have qualifying high deductible health insurance coverage and meet the other requirements.
HSAs can provide a smart tax-saving opportunity for individuals with qualifying high deductible health plans. Contact us to help you set up an HSA or decide how much to contribute for 2019.
You’ve probably seen or heard ads urging you to donate your car to charity. “Make a difference and receive tax savings,” one organization states. But donating a vehicle may not result in a big tax deduction — or any deduction at all.
Trade in, sell or donate?
Let’s say you’re buying a new car and want to get rid of your old one. Among your options are trading in the vehicle to the dealer, selling it yourself or donating it to charity.
If you donate, the tax deduction depends on whether you itemize and what the charity does with the vehicle. For cars worth more than $500, the deduction is the amount for which the charity actually sells the car, if it sells without materially improving it. (This limit includes vans, trucks, boats and airplanes.)
Because many charities wind up selling the cars they receive, your donation will probably be limited to the sale price. Furthermore, these sales are often at auction, or even salvage, and typically result in sales below the Kelley Blue Book® value. To further complicate matters, you won’t know the amount of your deduction until the charity sells the car and reports the sale proceeds to you.
If the charity uses the car in its operations or materially improves it before selling, your deduction will be based on the car’s fair market value at the time of the donation. In that case, fair market value is usually set according to the Blue Book listings.
In these cases, the IRS will accept the Blue Book value or another established used car pricing guide for a car that’s the same make, model, and year, sold in the same area and in the same condition, as the car you donated. In some cases, this value may exceed the amount you could get on a sale.
However, if the car is in poor condition, needs substantial repairs or is unsafe to drive, and the pricing guide only lists prices for cars in average or better condition, the guide won’t set the car’s value for tax purposes. Instead, you must establish the car’s market value by any reasonable method. Many used car guides show how to adjust value for items such as accessories or mileage.
You must itemize
In any case, you must itemize your deductions to get the tax benefit. You can’t take a deduction for a car donation if you take the standard deduction. Under the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act, fewer people are itemizing because the law significantly increased the standard deduction amounts. So even if you donate a car to charity, you may not get any tax benefit, because you don’t have enough itemized deductions.
If you do donate a vehicle and itemize, be careful to substantiate your deduction. Make sure the charity qualifies for tax deductions. If it sells the car, you’ll need a written acknowledgment from the organization with your name, tax ID number, vehicle ID number, gross proceeds of sale and other information. The charity should provide you with this acknowledgment within 30 days of the sale.
If, instead, the charity uses (or materially improves) the car, the acknowledgment needs to certify the intended use (or improvement), along with other information. This acknowledgment should be provided within 30 days of the donation.
Consider all factors
Of course, a tax deduction isn’t the only reason for donating a vehicle to charity. You may want to support a worthwhile organization. Or you may like the convenience of having a charity pick up a car at your home on short notice. But if you’re donating in order to claim a tax deduction, make sure you understand all the ramifications. Contact us if you have questions.
When you retire, you may consider moving to another state — say, for the weather or to be closer to your loved ones. Don’t forget to factor state and local taxes into the equation. Establishing residency for state tax purposes may be more complicated than it initially appears to be.
Identify all applicable taxes
It may seem like a no-brainer to simply move to a state with no personal income tax. But, to make a good decision, you must consider all taxes that can potentially apply to a state resident. In addition to income taxes, these may include property taxes, sales taxes and estate taxes.
If the states you’re considering have an income tax, look at what types of income they tax. Some states, for example, don’t tax wages but do tax interest and dividends. And some states offer tax breaks for pension payments, retirement plan distributions and Social Security payments.
Watch out for state estate tax
The federal estate tax currently doesn’t apply to many people. For 2019, the federal estate tax exemption is $11.4 million ($22.8 million for a married couple). But some states levy estate tax with a much lower exemption and some states may also have an inheritance tax in addition to (or in lieu of) an estate tax.
If you make a permanent move to a new state and want to escape taxes in the state you came from, it’s important to establish legal domicile in the new location. The definition of legal domicile varies from state to state. In general, your domicile is your fixed and permanent home location and the place where you plan to return, even after periods of residing elsewhere.
Each state has its own rules regarding domicile. You don’t want to wind up in a worst-case scenario: Two states could claim you owe state income taxes if you established domicile in the new state but didn’t successfully terminate domicile in the old one. Additionally, if you die without clearly establishing domicile in just one state, both the old and new states may claim that your estate owes income taxes and any state estate tax.
How do you establish domicile in a new state? The more time that elapses after you change states and the more steps you take to establish domicile in the new state, the harder it will be for your old state to claim that you’re still domiciled there for tax purposes. Some ways to help lock in domicile in a new state are to:
- Buy or lease a home in the new state and sell your home in the old state (or rent it out at market rates to an unrelated party),
- Change your mailing address at the post office,
- Change your address on passports, insurance policies, will or living trust documents, and other important documents,
- Register to vote, get a driver’s license and register your vehicle in the new state, and
- Open and use bank accounts in the new state and close accounts in the old one.
If an income tax return is required in the new state, file a resident return. File a nonresident return or no return (whichever is appropriate) in the old state. We can help with these returns.
Make an informed choice
Before deciding where you want to live in retirement, do some research and contact us. We can help you avoid unpleasant tax surprises.
The IRS just released its audit statistics for the 2018 fiscal year, and fewer taxpayers had their returns examined as compared with prior years. However, even though a small percentage of tax returns are being chosen for audit these days, that will be little consolation if yours is one of them.
Overall, just 0.59% of individual tax returns were audited in 2018, as compared with 0.62% in 2017. This was the lowest percentage of audits conducted since 2002.
However, as in the past, those with very high incomes face greater odds. For example, in 2018, 2.21% of taxpayers with adjusted gross incomes (AGIs) of between $1 million and $5 million were audited (down from 3.52% in 2017).
The richest taxpayers, those with AGIs of $10 million and more, experienced a steep decline in audits. In 2018, 6.66% of their returns were audited, compared with 14.52% in 2017.
Surviving an audit
Even though fewer audits are being performed, the IRS will still examine thousands of returns this year. With proper planning, you should fare well even if you’re one of the unlucky ones.
The easiest way to survive an IRS examination is to prepare in advance. On an ongoing basis, you should systematically maintain documentation — invoices, bills, canceled checks, receipts, or other proof — for all items reported on your tax returns.
Just because a return is selected for audit doesn’t mean that an error was made. Some returns are randomly selected based on statistical formulas. For example, IRS computers compare income and deductions on returns with what other taxpayers report. If an individual deducts a charitable contribution that’s significantly higher than what others with similar incomes report, the IRS may want to know why.
Returns can also be selected when they involve issues or transactions with other taxpayers who were previously selected for audit, such as business partners or investors.
The government generally has three years within which to conduct an audit, and often the exam won’t begin until a year or more after you file your return.
More audit details
The scope of an audit depends on the tax return’s complexity. A return reflecting business or real estate income and expenses is likely to take longer to examine than a return with only salary income.
An audit can be conducted by mail or through an in-person interview and review of records. The interview may be conducted at an IRS office or may be a “field audit” at the taxpayer’s home, business, or accountant’s office.
Important: Even if your return is audited, an IRS examination may be nothing to lose sleep over. In many cases, the IRS asks for proof of certain items and routinely “closes” the audit after the documentation is presented.
It’s advisable to have a tax professional represent you at an audit. A tax pro knows what issues the IRS is likely to scrutinize and can prepare accordingly. In addition, a professional knows that in many instances IRS auditors will take a position (for example, to disallow deduction of a certain expense) even though courts and other guidance have expressed a contrary opinion on the issue. Because pros can point to the proper authority, the IRS may be forced to throw in the towel.
If you receive an IRS audit letter or simply want to improve your recordkeeping, we’re here to assist you. Contact us to discuss this or any other aspect of your taxes.
Due to the massive changes in the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act (TCJA), the 2019 filing season resulted in surprises. Some filers who have gotten a refund in past years wound up owing money. The IRS reports that the number of refunds paid this year is down from last year — and the average refund is lower. As of May 10, 2019, the IRS paid out 101,590,000 refunds averaging $2,868. This compares with 102,582,000 refunds paid out in 2018 with an average amount of $2,940.
Of course, receiving a tax refund shouldn’t necessarily be your goal. It essentially means you’re giving the government an interest-free loan.
Law changes and withholding
Last year, the IRS updated the withholding tables that indicate how much employers should hold back from their employees’ paychecks. In general, the amount withheld was reduced. This was done to reflect changes under the TCJA — including the increase in the standard deduction, suspension of personal exemptions and changes in tax rates.
The new tables may have provided the correct amount of tax withholding for some individuals, but they might have caused other taxpayers to not have enough money withheld to pay their ultimate tax liabilities.
Conduct a “paycheck checkup”
The IRS is cautioning taxpayers to review their tax situations for this year and adjust withholding, if appropriate.
The tax agency has a withholding calculator to assist you in conducting a paycheck checkup. The calculator reflects tax law changes in areas such as available itemized deductions, the increased child credit, the new dependent credit and the repeal of dependent exemptions. You can access the IRS calculator at https://bit.ly/2aLxK0A.
Situations where changes are needed
There are a number of situations when you should check your withholding. In addition to tax law changes, the IRS recommends that you perform a checkup if you:
- Adjusted your withholding in 2018, especially in the middle or later part of the year,
- Owed additional tax when you filed your 2018 return,
- Received a refund that was smaller or larger than expected,
- Got married or divorced, had a child or adopted one,
- Purchased a home, or
- Had changes in income.
You can modify your withholding at any time during the year, or even multiple times within a year. To do so, you simply submit a new Form W-4 to your employer. Changes typically go into effect several weeks after a new Form W-4 is submitted. (For estimated tax payments, you can make adjustments each time quarterly estimated payments are due. The next payment is due on Monday, June 17.)
We can help
Contact us to discuss your specific situation and what you can do to remedy any shortfalls to minimize taxes due, as well as any penalties and interest. We can help you sort through whether or not you need to adjust your withholding.
Spring and summer are the optimum seasons for selling a home. And interest rates are currently attractive, so buyers may be out in full force in your area. Freddie Mac reports that the average 30-year fixed mortgage rate was 4.14% during the week of May 2, 2019, while the 15-year mortgage rate was 3.6%. This is down 0.41 and 0.43%, respectively, from a year earlier.
But before you contact a realtor to sell your home, you should review the tax considerations.
Sellers can exclude some gain
If you’re selling your principal residence, and you meet certain requirements, you can exclude up to $250,000 ($500,000 for joint filers) of gain. Gain that qualifies for the exclusion is also excluded from the 3.8% net investment income tax.
To qualify for the exclusion, you must meet these tests:
- The ownership test. You must have owned the property for at least two years during the five-year period ending on the sale date.
- The use test. You must have used the property as a principal residence for at least two years during the same five-year period. (Periods of ownership and use don’t need to overlap.)
In addition, you can’t use the exclusion more than once every two years.
Handling bigger gains
What if you’re fortunate enough to have more than $250,000/$500,000 of profit when selling your home? Any gain that doesn’t qualify for the exclusion generally will be taxed at your long-term capital gains rate, provided you owned the home for at least a year. If you didn’t, the gain will be considered short term and subject to your ordinary-income rate, which could be more than double your long-term rate.
Other tax issues
Here are some additional tax considerations when selling a home:
Keep track of your basis. To support an accurate tax basis, be sure to maintain thorough records, including information on your original cost and subsequent improvements, reduced by any casualty losses and depreciation claimed based on business use.
Be aware that you can’t deduct a loss. If you sell your principal residence at a loss, it generally isn’t deductible. But if part of your home is rented out or used exclusively for your business, the loss attributable to that portion may be deductible.
If you’re selling a second home (for example, a vacation home), be aware that it won’t be eligible for the gain exclusion. But if it qualifies as a rental property, it can be considered a business asset, and you may be able to defer tax on any gains through an installment sale or a Section 1031 exchange. Or you may be able to deduct a loss.
Your home is probably your largest investment. So before selling it, make sure you understand the tax implications. We can help you plan ahead to minimize taxes and answer any questions you have about your situation.
It’s that time of year when many people who filed their tax returns in April are checking their mail or bank accounts to see if their refunds have landed. According to the IRS, most refunds are issued in less than 21 calendar days. However, it may take longer — and in rare cases, refunds might not come at all.
Your refund status
If you’re curious about when your refund will arrive, you can use the IRS “Where’s My Refund?” tool. Go to https://bit.ly/2cl5MZo and click “Check My Refund Status.” You’ll need your Social Security number, your filing status (single, married joint filer, etc.) and your exact refund amount.
In some cases, taxpayers who are expecting a refund may be notified that all or part of their refunds aren’t going to be paid. A number of situations can cause this to happen.
Refunds settle debts
The Treasury Offset Program can use all, or part, of a refund to settle certain debts, including:
- Past-due federal tax debts,
- State income tax obligations,
- Past-due child and spousal support,
- Federal agency debts such as a delinquent student loan, and
- Certain unemployment compensation owed to a state.
If the federal government is going to “offset” a refund to pay past-due debts, a letter is sent to the taxpayer listing the original refund, the offset amount and the agency that received the payment. If the taxpayer wants to dispute the offset, he or she should contact the relevant federal agency.
If you file a joint tax return and your tax refund is applied to the past-due debts of your spouse, you may be able to get back your share of the joint refund. For example, let’s say a husband has back child support debt from before he was married. After he and his new spouse file a joint tax return, their joint refund is applied to his child support. His wife can apply for injured spouse relief to get her portion of the refund. This is done by filing Form 8379, “Injured Spouse Allocation.”
No passports in significant cases
Beyond having a refund taken by the government, owing a significant amount of back federal taxes can now also cause a taxpayer to have passport problems. Last year, the IRS began enforcing a tax law provision that gives the IRS the authority to notify the State Department about individuals who have “seriously delinquent tax debts.” The State Department is then tasked with denying the individuals new passports or revoking existing passports.
For these purposes, a seriously delinquent tax debt is defined as an inflation-adjusted $50,000 or more. For 2019, the threshold is $52,000.
In most cases, refunds are routinely sent to taxpayers within a few weeks. However, there may be some delays, or, in worst-case scenarios, refunds may be applied to debts owed to the federal or state governments. If you have questions about your refund, contact us.
While the number of plug-in electric vehicles (EVs) is still small compared with other cars on the road, it’s growing — especially in certain parts of the country. If you’re interested in purchasing an electric or hybrid vehicle, you may be eligible for a federal income tax credit of up to $7,500. (Depending on where you live, there may also be state tax breaks and other incentives.)
However, the federal tax credit is subject to a complex phaseout rule that may reduce or eliminate the tax break based on how many sales are made by a given manufacturer. The vehicles of two manufacturers have already begun to be phased out, which means they now qualify for only a partial tax credit.
Tax credit basics
You can claim the federal tax credit for buying a qualifying new (not used) plug-in EV. The credit can be worth up to $7,500. There are no income restrictions, so even wealthy people can qualify.
A qualifying vehicle can be either fully electric or a plug-in electric-gasoline hybrid. In addition, the vehicle must be purchased rather than leased, because the credit for a leased vehicle belongs to the manufacturer.
The credit equals $2,500 for a vehicle powered by a four-kilowatt-hour battery, with an additional $417 for each kilowatt hour of battery capacity beyond four hours. The maximum credit is $7,500. Buyers of qualifying vehicles can rely on the manufacturer’s or distributor’s certification of the allowable credit amount.
How the phaseout rule works
The credit begins phasing out for a manufacturer over four calendar quarters once it sells more than 200,000 qualifying vehicles for use in the United States. The IRS recently announced that GM had sold more than 200,000 qualifying vehicles through the fourth quarter of 2018. So, the phaseout rule has been triggered for GM vehicles, as of April 1, 2019. The credit for GM vehicles purchased between April 1, 2019, and September 30, 2019, is reduced to 50% of the otherwise allowable amount. For GM vehicles purchased between October 1, 2019, and March 31, 2020, the credit is reduced to 25% of the otherwise allowable amount. No credit will be allowed for GM vehicles purchased after March 31, 2020.
The IRS previously announced that Tesla had sold more than 200,000 qualifying vehicles through the third quarter of 2018. So, the phaseout rule was triggered for Tesla vehicles, effective as of January 1, 2019. The credit for Tesla vehicles purchased between January 1, 2019, and June 30, 2019, is reduced to 50% of the otherwise allowable amount. For Tesla vehicles purchased between July 1, 2019, and December 31, 2019, the credit is reduced to 25% of the otherwise allowable amount. No credit will be allowed for Tesla vehicles purchased after December 31, 2019.
Despite the phaseout kicking in for GM and Tesla vehicles, there are still many other EVs on the market if you’re interested in purchasing one. For an index of manufacturers and credit amounts, visit the IRS Web page. Contact us if you want more information about the tax breaks that may be available for these vehicles.
Unforeseen disasters happen all the time and they may cause damage to your home or personal property. Before the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act, eligible casualty loss victims could claim a deduction on their tax returns. But there are new restrictions that make these deductions much more difficult to take.
What’s considered a casualty for tax purposes? It’s a sudden, unexpected or unusual event, such as a hurricane, tornado, flood, earthquake, or fire; an accident or act of vandalism; or even a terrorist attack.
For losses incurred in 2018 through 2025, the TCJA generally eliminates deductions for personal casualty losses, except for losses due to federally declared disasters. For example, during 2019, there were presidential declarations of major disasters in parts of Iowa and Nebraska after severe storms and flooding. So victims there would be eligible for casualty loss deductions.
Note: There’s an exception to the general rule of allowing casualty loss deductions only in federally declared disaster areas. If you have personal casualty gains because your insurance proceeds exceed the tax basis of the damaged or destroyed property, you can deduct personal casualty losses that aren’t due to a federally declared disaster up to the amount of your personal casualty gains.
Special timing election
If your casualty loss is due to a federally declared disaster, a special election allows you to deduct the loss on your tax return for the preceding year. If you’ve already filed your return for the preceding year, you can file an amended return to make the election and claim the deduction in the earlier year. This can help you get extra cash when you need it.
This election must be made by no later than six months after the due date (without considering extensions) for filing your tax return for the year in which the disaster occurs. However, the election itself must be made on an original or amended return for the preceding year.
Calculating personal losses
To calculate the casualty loss deduction for personal-use property in an area declared a federal disaster, you must take the following three steps:
- Subtract any insurance proceeds.
- Subtract $100 per casualty event.
- Combine the results from the first two steps and then subtract 10% of your adjusted gross income (AGI) for the year you claim the loss deduction.
Important: Another factor that now makes it harder to claim a casualty loss is that you must itemize deductions to claim one. For 2018 through 2025, fewer people will itemize, because the TCJA significantly increased the standard deduction amounts. For 2019, they are $12,200 for single filers, $18,350 for heads of households, and $24,400 for married joint-filing couples.
So even if you qualify for a casualty deduction, you might not get any tax benefit, because you don’t have enough itemized deductions.
We can help
These are the rules for personal property. Keep in mind that the rules for business or income-producing property are different. If you have disaster-related losses, we can help you navigate the complex rules.
Once your 2018 tax return has been successfully filed with the IRS, you may still have some questions. Here are brief answers to three questions that we’re frequently asked at this time of year.
Question #1: What tax records can I throw away now?
At a minimum, keep tax records related to your return for as long as the IRS can audit your return or assess additional taxes. In general, the statute of limitations is three years after you file your return. So you can generally get rid of most records related to tax returns for 2015 and earlier years. (If you filed an extension for your 2015 return, hold on to your records until at least three years from when you filed the extended return.)
However, the statute of limitations extends to six years for taxpayers who understate their gross income by more than 25%.
You’ll need to hang on to certain tax-related records longer. For example, keep the actual tax returns indefinitely, so you can prove to the IRS that you filed a legitimate return. (There’s no statute of limitations for an audit if you didn’t file a return or you filed a fraudulent one.)
When it comes to retirement accounts, keep records associated with them until you’ve depleted the account and reported the last withdrawal on your tax return, plus three (or six) years. And retain records related to real estate or investments for as long as you own the asset, plus at least three years after you sell it and report the sale on your tax return. (You can keep these records for six years if you want to be extra safe.)
Question #2: Where’s my refund?
The IRS has an online tool that can tell you the status of your refund. Go to irs.gov and click on “Refund Status” to find out about yours. You’ll need your Social Security number, filing status and the exact refund amount.
Question #3: Can I still collect a refund if I forgot to report something?
In general, you can file an amended tax return and claim a refund within three years after the date you filed your original return or within two years of the date you paid the tax, whichever is later. So for a 2018 tax return that you filed on April 15 of 2019, you can generally file an amended return until April 15, 2022.
However, there are a few opportunities when you have longer to file an amended return. For example, the statute of limitations for bad debts is longer than the usual three-year time limit for most items on your tax return. In general, you can amend your tax return to claim a bad debt for seven years from the due date of the tax return for the year that the debt became worthless.
We can help
Contact us if you have questions about tax record retention, your refund or filing an amended return. We’re available all year long — not just at tax filing time!
Americans who are 65 and older qualify for basic Medicare insurance, and they may need to pay additional premiums to get the level of coverage they desire. The premiums can be expensive, especially if you’re married and both you and your spouse are paying them. But one aspect of paying premiums might be positive: If you qualify, they may help lower your tax bill.
Medicare premium tax deductions
Premiums for Medicare health insurance can be combined with other qualifying health care expenses for purposes of claiming an itemized deduction for medical expenses on your individual tax return. This includes amounts for “Medigap” insurance and Medicare Advantage plans. Some people buy Medigap policies because Medicare Parts A and B don’t cover all their health care expenses. Coverage gaps include co-payments, co-insurance, deductibles and other costs. Medigap is private supplemental insurance that’s intended to cover some or all gaps.
Fewer people now itemize
Qualifying for a medical expense deduction can be difficult for a couple of reasons. For 2019, you can deduct medical expenses only if you itemize deductions and only to the extent that total qualifying expenses exceeded 10% of AGI. (This threshold was 7.5% for the 2018 tax year.)
The Tax Cuts and Jobs Act nearly doubled the standard deduction amounts for 2018 through 2025. For 2019, the standard deduction amounts are $12,200 for single filers, $24,400 for married joint-filing couples and $18,350 for heads of households. So, fewer individuals are claiming itemized deductions.
However, if you have significant medical expenses (including Medicare health insurance premiums), you may itemize and collect some tax savings.
Important note: Self-employed people and shareholder-employees of S corporations can generally claim an above-the-line deduction for their health insurance premiums, including Medicare premiums. So, they don’t need to itemize to get the tax savings from their premiums.
Other deductible medical expenses
In addition to Medicare premiums, you can deduct a variety of medical expenses, including those for ambulance services, dental treatment, dentures, eyeglasses and contacts, hospital services, lab tests, qualified long-term care services, prescription medicines and others.
Keep in mind that many items that Medicare doesn’t cover can be written off for tax purposes, if you qualify. You can also deduct transportation expenses to get to medical appointments. If you go by car, you can deduct a flat 20-cents-per-mile rate for 2019, or you can keep track of your actual out-of-pocket expenses for gas, oil and repairs.
Need more information?
Contact us if you have additional questions about Medicare coverage options or claiming medical expense deductions on your personal tax return. Your advisor can help determine the optimal overall tax-planning strategy based on your personal circumstances.
Do you want to save more for retirement on a tax-favored basis? If so, and if you qualify, you can make a deductible traditional IRA contribution for the 2018 tax year between now and the tax filing deadline and claim the write-off on your 2018 return. Or you can contribute to a Roth IRA and avoid paying taxes on future withdrawals.
You can potentially make a contribution of up to $5,500 (or $6,500 if you were age 50 or older as of December 31, 2018). If you’re married, your spouse can potentially do the same, thereby doubling your tax benefits.
The deadline for 2018 traditional and Roth contributions for most taxpayers is April 15, 2019 (April 17 for those in Maine and Massachusetts).
There are some ground rules. You must have enough 2018 earned income (from jobs, self-employment or alimony) to equal or exceed your IRA contributions for the tax year. If you’re married, either spouse can provide the necessary earned income. And you can’t make a deductible contribution to a traditional IRA if you were 70½ or older as of December 31, 2018. (But you can make one to a Roth IRA after that age.)
Finally, deductible IRA contributions are phased out (reduced or eliminated) if last year’s modified adjusted gross income (MAGI) is too high.
Types of contributions
If you haven’t already maxed out your 2018 IRA contribution limit, consider making one of these three types of contributions by the April deadline:
1. Deductible traditional. With traditional IRAs, account growth is tax-deferred and distributions are subject to income tax. If you and your spouse don’t participate in an employer-sponsored plan such as a 401(k), the contribution is fully deductible on your 2018 tax return. If you or your spouse do participate in an employer-sponsored plan, your deduction is subject to the following MAGI phaseout:
• For married taxpayers filing jointly, the phaseout range is specific to each spouse based on whether he or she is a participant in an employer-sponsored plan:
o For a spouse who participated in 2018: $101,000–$121,000.
o For a spouse who didn’t participate in 2018: $186,000–$196,000.
• For single and head-of-household taxpayers participating in an employer-sponsored plan: $63,000–$73,000.
Taxpayers with MAGIs within the applicable range can deduct a partial contribution. But those with MAGIs exceeding the applicable range can’t deduct any IRA contribution.
2. Roth. Roth IRA contributions aren’t deductible, but qualified distributions — including growth — are tax-free, if you satisfy certain requirements.
Your ability to contribute, however, is subject to a MAGI-based phaseout:
• For married taxpayers filing jointly: $189,000–$199,000.
• For single and head-of-household taxpayers: $120,000–$135,000.
You can make a partial contribution if your 2018 MAGI is within the applicable range, but no contribution if it exceeds the top of the range.
3. Nondeductible traditional. If your income is too high for you to fully benefit from a deductible traditional or a Roth contribution, you may benefit from a nondeductible contribution to a traditional IRA. The account can still grow tax-deferred, and when you take qualified distributions, you’ll only be taxed on the growth.
Traditional and Roth IRAs provide a powerful way to save for retirement on a tax-advantaged basis. Contact us to learn more about making 2018 contributions and making the most of IRAs in 2019 and beyond.
If you participate in a qualified retirement plan, such as a 401(k), you must generally begin taking required withdrawals from the plan no later than April 1 of the year after which you turn age 70½. However, there’s an exception that applies to certain plan participants who are still working for the entire year in which they turn 70½.
The basics of RMDs
Required minimum distributions (RMDs) are the amounts you’re legally required to withdraw from your qualified retirement plans and traditional IRAs after reaching age 70½. Essentially, the tax law requires you to tap into your retirement assets — and begin paying taxes on them — whether you want to or not.
Under the tax code, RMDs must begin to be taken from qualified pension, profit sharing and stock bonus plans by a certain date. That date is April 1 of the year following the later of the calendar year in which an employee:
- Reaches age 70½, or
- Retires from employment with the employer maintaining the plan under the “still working” exception.
Once they begin, RMDs must generally continue each year. The tax penalty for withdrawing less than the RMD amount is 50% of the portion that should have been withdrawn but wasn’t.
However, there’s an important exception to the still-working exception. If owner-employees own at least 5% of the company, they must begin taking RMDs from their 401(k)s beginning at 70½, regardless of their work status.
The still-working rule doesn’t apply to distributions from IRAs (including SEPs or SIMPLE IRAs). RMDs from these accounts must begin no later than April 1 of the year following the calendar year such individuals turn age 70½, even if they’re not retired.
The law and regulations don’t state how many hours an employee needs to work in order to postpone 401(k) RMDs. There’s no requirement that he or she work 40 hours a week for the exception to apply. However, the employee must be doing legitimate work and receiving W-2 wages.
For a customized plan
The RMD rules for qualified retirement plans (and IRAs) are complex. With careful planning, you can minimize your taxes and preserve more assets for your heirs. If you’re still working after age 70½, it may be beneficial to delay taking RMDs but there could also be disadvantages. Contact us to customize the optimal plan based on your individual retirement and estate planning goals.
If you’re the parent of a child who is age 17 to 23, and you pay all (or most) of his or her expenses, you may be surprised to learn you’re not eligible for the child tax credit. But there’s a dependent tax credit that may be available to you. It’s not as valuable as the child tax credit, but when you’re saving for college or paying tuition, every dollar counts!
Background of the credits
The Tax Cuts and Jobs Act (TCJA) increased the child credit to $2,000 per qualifying child under the age of 17. The law also substantially increased the phaseout income thresholds for the credit so more people qualify for it. Unfortunately, the TCJA eliminated dependency exemptions for older children for 2018 through 2025. But the TCJA established a new $500 tax credit for dependents who aren’t under-age-17 children who qualify for the child tax credit. However, these individuals must pass certain tests to be classified as dependents.
A qualifying dependent for purposes of the $500 credit includes:
1. A dependent child who lives with you for over half the year and is over age 16 and up to age 23 if he or she is a student, and
2. Other nonchild dependent relatives (such as a grandchild, sibling, father, mother, grandfather, grandmother and other relatives).
To be eligible for the $500 credit, you must provide over half of the person’s support for the year and he or she must be a U.S. citizen, U.S. national or U.S. resident.
Both the child tax credit and the dependent credit begin to phase out at $200,000 of modified adjusted gross income ($400,000 for married joint filers).
The child’s income
After the TCJA passed, it was unclear if your child would qualify you for the $500 credit if he or she had any gross income for the year. Fortunately, IRS Notice 2018-70 favorably resolved the income question. According to the guidance, a dependent will pass the income test for the 2018 tax year if he or she has gross income of $4,150 or less. (The $4,150 amount will be adjusted for inflation in future years.)
More spending money
Although $500 per child doesn’t cover much for today’s college student, it can help with books, clothing, software and other needs. Contact us with questions about whether you qualify for either the child or the dependent tax credits.
Did you make large gifts to your children, grandchildren or other heirs last year? If so, it’s important to determine whether you’re required to file a 2018 gift tax return — or whether filing one would be beneficial even if it isn’t required.
Generally, you must file a gift tax return for 2018 if, during the tax year, you made gifts:
- That exceeded the $15,000-per-recipient gift tax annual exclusion (other than to your U.S. citizen spouse),
- That you wish to split with your spouse to take advantage of your combined $30,000 annual exclusion,
- That exceeded the $152,000 annual exclusion for gifts to a noncitizen spouse,
- To a Section 529 college savings plan and wish to accelerate up to five years’ worth of annual exclusions ($75,000) into 2018,
- Of future interests — such as remainder interests in a trust — regardless of the amount, or
- Of jointly held or community property.
Keep in mind that you’ll owe gift tax only to the extent an exclusion doesn’t apply and you’ve used up your lifetime gift and estate tax exemption ($11.18 million for 2018). As you can see, some transfers require a return even if you don’t owe tax.
No return required
No gift tax return is required if your gifts for the year consist solely of gifts that are tax-free because they qualify as:
- Annual exclusion gifts,
- Present interest gifts to a U.S. citizen spouse,
- Educational or medical expenses paid directly to a school or health care provider, or
- Political or charitable contributions.
But if you transferred hard-to-value property, such as artwork or interests in a family-owned business, consider filing a gift tax return even if you’re not required to. Adequate disclosure of the transfer in a return triggers the statute of limitations, generally preventing the IRS from challenging your valuation more than three years after you file.
Be ready for April 15
The gift tax return deadline is the same as the income tax filing deadline. For 2018 returns, it’s April 15, 2019 — or October 15, 2019, if you file for an extension. But keep in mind that, if you owe gift tax, the payment deadline is April 15, regardless of whether you file for an extension. If you’re not sure whether you must (or should) file a 2018 gift tax return, contact us.
It’s not just businesses that can deduct vehicle-related expenses. Individuals also can deduct them in certain circumstances. Unfortunately, the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act (TCJA) might reduce your deduction compared to what you claimed on your 2017 return.
For 2017, miles driven for business, moving, medical and charitable purposes were potentially deductible. For 2018 through 2025, business and moving miles are deductible only in much more limited circumstances. TCJA changes could also affect your tax benefit from medical and charitable miles.
Current limits vs. 2017
Before 2018, if you were an employee, you potentially could deduct business mileage not reimbursed by your employer as a miscellaneous itemized deduction. But the deduction was subject to a 2% of adjusted gross income (AGI) floor, which meant that mileage was deductible only to the extent that your total miscellaneous itemized deductions for the year exceeded 2% of your AGI. For 2018 through 2025, you can’t deduct the mileage regardless of your AGI. Why? The TCJA suspends miscellaneous itemized deductions subject to the 2% floor.
If you’re self-employed, business mileage is deducted from self-employment income. Therefore, it’s not subject to the 2% floor and is still deductible for 2018 through 2025, as long as it otherwise qualifies.
Miles driven for a work-related move in 2017 were generally deductible “above the line” (that is, itemizing isn’t required to claim the deduction). But for 2018 through 2025, under the TCJA, moving expenses are deductible only for certain military families.
Miles driven for health-care-related purposes are deductible as part of the medical expense itemized deduction. Under the TCJA, for 2017 and 2018, medical expenses are deductible to the extent they exceed 7.5% of your AGI. For 2019, the floor returns to 10%, unless Congress extends the 7.5% floor.
The limits for deducting expenses for charitable miles driven haven’t changed, but keep in mind that it’s an itemized deduction. So, you can claim the deduction only if you itemize. For 2018 through 2025, the standard deduction has been nearly doubled. Depending on your total itemized deductions, you might be better off claiming the standard deduction, in which case you’ll get no tax benefit from your charitable miles (or from your medical miles, even if you exceed the AGI floor).
Differing mileage rates
Rather than keeping track of your actual vehicle expenses, you can use a standard mileage rate to compute your deductions. The rates vary depending on the purpose and the year:
- Business: 54.5 cents (2018), 58 cents (2019)
- Medical: 18 cents (2018), 20 cents (2019)
- Moving: 18 cents (2018), 20 cents (2019)
- Charitable: 14 cents (2018 and 2019)
In addition to deductions based on the standard mileage rate, you may deduct related parking fees and tolls. There are also substantiation requirements, which include tracking miles driven.
Do you have questions about deducting vehicle-related expenses? Contact us. We can help you with your 2018 return and 2019 tax planning.
Incentive stock options (ISOs) are a popular form of compensation for executives and other employees of corporations. They allow you to buy company stock in the future at a fixed price equal to or greater than the stock’s fair market value on the ISO grant date. If the stock appreciates, you can buy shares at a price below what they’re then trading for. But careful tax planning is required because of the complex rules that apply.
Tax advantages abound
Although ISOs must comply with many rules, they receive tax-favored treatment. You owe no tax when ISOs are granted. You also owe no regular income tax when you exercise ISOs. There could be alternative minimum tax (AMT) consequences, but the AMT is less of a risk now because of the high AMT exemption under the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act.
There are regular income tax consequences when you sell the stock. If you sell the stock after holding it at least one year from the exercise date and two years from the grant date, you pay tax on the sale at your long-term capital gains rate. You also may owe the 3.8% net investment income tax (NIIT).
If you sell the stock before long-term capital gains treatment applies, a “disqualifying disposition” occurs and any gain is taxed as compensation at ordinary-income rates.
Impact on your 2018 return
If you were granted ISOs in 2018, there likely isn’t any impact on your 2018 income tax return. But if in 2018 you exercised ISOs or you sold stock you’d acquired via exercising ISOs, then it could affect your 2018 tax liability.
It’s important to properly report the exercise or sale on your 2018 return to avoid potential interest and penalties for underpayment of tax.
Planning for the future
If you receive ISOs in 2019 or already hold ISOs that you haven’t yet exercised, plan carefully when to exercise them. Waiting to exercise ISOs until just before the expiration date (when the stock value may be the highest, assuming the stock is appreciating) may make sense. But exercising ISOs earlier can be advantageous in some situations.
Once you’ve exercised ISOs, the question is whether to immediately sell the shares received or to hold on to them long enough to garner long-term capital gains treatment. The latter strategy often is beneficial from a tax perspective, but there’s also market risk to consider. For example, it may be better to sell the stock in a disqualifying disposition and pay the higher ordinary-income rate if it would avoid AMT on potentially disappearing appreciation.
The timing of the sale of stock acquired via an exercise could also positively or negatively affect your liability for higher ordinary-income tax rates, the top long-term capital gains rate and the NIIT.
If you need help tax planning for your ISOs, please contact us.
While the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act (TCJA) reduces most income tax rates and expands some tax breaks, it limits or eliminates several itemized deductions that have been valuable to many individual taxpayers. Here are five deductions you may see shrink or disappear when you file your 2018 income tax return:
1. State and local tax deduction. For 2018 through 2025, your total itemized deduction for all state and local taxes combined — including property tax — is limited to $10,000 ($5,000 if you’re married and filing separately). You still must choose between deducting income and sales tax; you can’t deduct both, even if your total state and local tax deduction wouldn’t exceed $10,000.
2. Mortgage interest deduction. You generally can claim an itemized deduction for interest on mortgage debt incurred to purchase, build or improve your principal residence and a second residence. Points paid related to your principal residence also may be deductible. For 2018 through 2025, the TCJA reduces the mortgage debt limit from $1 million to $750,000 for debt incurred after Dec. 15, 2017, with some limited exceptions.
3. Home equity debt interest deduction. Before the TCJA, an itemized deduction could be claimed for interest on up to $100,000 of home equity debt used for any purpose, such as to pay off credit cards (for which interest isn’t deductible). The TCJA effectively limits the home equity interest deduction for 2018 through 2025 to debt that would qualify for the home mortgage interest deduction.
4. Miscellaneous itemized deductions subject to the 2% floor. This deduction for expenses such as certain professional fees, investment expenses and unreimbursed employee business expenses is suspended for 2018 through 2025. If you’re an employee and work from home, this includes the home office deduction. (Business owners and the self-employed may still be able to claim a home office deduction against their business or self-employment income.)
5. Personal casualty and theft loss deduction. For 2018 through 2025, this itemized deduction is suspended except if the loss was due to an event officially declared a disaster by the President.
Be aware that additional rules and limits apply to many of these deductions. Also keep in mind that the TCJA nearly doubles the standard deduction. The combination of a much larger standard deduction and the reduction or elimination of many itemized deductions means that, even if itemizing has typically benefited you in the past, you might be better off taking the standard deduction when you file your 2018 return. Please contact us with any questions you have.
When you file your 2018 income tax return, you’ll likely find that some big tax law changes affect you — besides the much-discussed tax rate cuts and reduced itemized deductions. For 2018 through 2025, the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act (TCJA) makes significant changes to personal exemptions, standard deductions and the child credit. The degree to which these changes will affect you depends on whether you have dependents and, if so, how many. It also depends on whether you typically itemize deductions.
1. No more personal exemptions
For 2017, taxpayers could claim a personal exemption of $4,050 each for themselves, their spouses and any dependents. For families with children and/or other dependents, such as elderly parents, these exemptions could really add up.
For 2018 through 2025, the TCJA suspends personal exemptions. This will substantially increase taxable income for large families. However, enhancements to the standard deduction and child credit, combined with lower tax rates and other changes, might mitigate this increase.
2. Nearly doubled standard deduction
Taxpayers can choose to itemize certain deductions or take the standard deduction based on their filing status. Itemizing deductions when the total will be larger than the standard deduction saves tax, but it makes filing more complicated.
For 2017, the standard deductions were $6,350 for singles and separate filers, $9,350 for head of household filers, and $12,700 for married couples filing jointly.
The TCJA nearly doubles the standard deductions for 2018 to $12,000 for singles and separate filers, $18,000 for heads of households, and $24,000 for joint filers. For 2019, they’re $12,200, $18,350 and $24,400, respectively. (These amounts will continue to be adjusted for inflation annually through 2025.)
For some taxpayers, the increased standard deduction could compensate for the elimination of the exemptions, and perhaps provide some additional tax savings. But for those with many dependents or who itemize deductions, these changes might result in a higher tax bill — depending in part on the extent to which they can benefit from enhancements to the child credit.
3. Enhanced child credit
Credits can be more powerful than exemptions and deductions because they reduce taxes dollar-for-dollar, rather than just reducing the amount of income subject to tax. For 2018 through 2025, the TCJA doubles the child credit to $2,000 per child under age 17.
The TCJA also makes the child credit available to more families. For 2018 through 2025, the credit doesn’t begin to phase out until adjusted gross income exceeds $400,000 for joint filers or $200,000 for all other filers, compared with the 2017 phaseout thresholds of $110,000 and $75,000, respectively.
The TCJA also includes, for 2018 through 2025, a $500 credit for qualifying dependents other than qualifying children.
Maximize your tax savings
These are just some of the TCJA changes that may affect you when you file your 2018 tax return and for the next several years. We can help ensure you claim all of the breaks available to you on your 2018 return and implement TCJA-smart tax-saving strategies for 2019.
The IRS opened the 2018 income tax return filing season on January 28. Even if you typically don’t file until much closer to the April 15 deadline, this year consider filing as soon as you can. Why? You can potentially protect yourself from tax identity theft — and reap other benefits, too.
What is tax identity theft?
In a tax identity theft scheme, a thief uses your personal information to file a fraudulent tax return early in the tax filing season and claim a bogus refund.
You discover the fraud when you file your return and are informed by the IRS that the return has been rejected because one with your Social Security number has already been filed for the same tax year. While you should ultimately be able to prove that your return is the legitimate one, tax identity theft can cause major headaches to straighten out and significantly delay your refund.
Filing early may be your best defense: If you file first, it will be the tax return filed by a would-be thief that will be rejected — not yours.
What if you haven’t received your W-2s and 1099s?
To file your tax return, you must have received all of your W-2s and 1099s. January 31 was the deadline for employers to issue 2018 Form W-2 to employees and, generally, for businesses to issue Form 1099 to recipients of any 2018 interest, dividend or reportable miscellaneous income payments.
If you haven’t received a W-2 or 1099, first contact the entity that should have issued it. If that doesn’t work, you can contact the IRS for help.
What are other benefits of filing early?
Besides protecting yourself from tax identity theft, the most obvious benefit of filing early is that, if you’re getting a refund, you’ll get that refund sooner. The IRS expects more than nine out of ten refunds to be issued within 21 days.
But even if you owe tax, filing early can be beneficial. You still won’t need to pay your tax bill until April 15, but you’ll know sooner how much you owe and can plan accordingly. Keep in mind that some taxpayers who typically have gotten refunds in the past could find themselves owing tax when they file their 2018 return due to tax law changes under the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act (TCJA) and reduced withholding from 2018 paychecks.
If you have questions about tax identity theft or would like help filing your 2018 return early, please contact us. While the new Form 1040 essentially does fit on a postcard, many taxpayers will also have to complete multiple schedules along with the form. And the TCJA has changed many tax breaks. We can help you ensure you file an accurate return that takes advantage of all of the breaks available to you.
There are a few hurdles you must pass to benefit from the investment interest deduction even if you have investment interest expense:
1. You must itemize deductions. In the past this might not have been a hurdle, because you may have typically had enough itemized deductions to easily exceed the standard deduction. But the TCJA nearly doubled the standard deduction, to $24,000 (married couples filing jointly), $18,000 (heads of households) and $12,000 (singles and married couples filing separately) for 2018. Plus, some of your other itemized deductions, such as your state and local tax deduction, might be smaller on your 2018 return because of TCJA changes. So you might not have enough itemized deductions to exceed your standard deduction and benefit from itemizing.
2. You can’t have incurred the interest to produce tax-exempt income. For example, if you borrow money to invest in municipal bonds, which are exempt from federal income tax, you can’t deduct the interest.
3. You must have sufficient “net investment income.” The investment interest deduction is limited to your net investment income. For the purposes of this deduction, net investment income generally includes taxable interest, nonqualified dividends and net short-term capital gains, reduced by other investment expenses. In other words, long-term capital gains and qualified dividends aren’t included. However, any disallowed interest is carried forward. You can then deduct the disallowed interest in a later year if you have excess net investment income.
You may elect to treat net long-term capital gains or qualified dividends as investment income in order to deduct more of your investment interest. But if you do, that portion of the long-term capital gain or dividend will be taxed at ordinary-income rates.
Will interest expense save you tax?
As you can see, the answer to the question depends on multiple factors. We can review your situation and help you determine whether you can benefit from the investment interest expense deduction on your 2018 tax return.
To support a charitable deduction, you need to comply with IRS substantiation requirements. This generally includes obtaining a contemporaneous written acknowledgment from the charity stating the amount of the donation, whether you received any goods or services in consideration for the donation, and the value of any such goods or services.
“Contemporaneous” means the earlier of 1) the date you file your tax return, or 2) the extended due date of your return. So if you made a donation in 2018 but haven’t yet received substantiation from the charity, it’s not too late — as long as you haven’t filed your 2018 return. Contact the charity and request a written acknowledgment.
Keep in mind that, if you made a cash gift of under $250 with a check or credit card, generally a canceled check, bank statement or credit card statement is sufficient. However, if you received something in return for the donation, you generally must reduce your deduction by its value — and the charity is required to provide you a written acknowledgment as described earlier.
Substantiation is serious business
Don’t take the substantiation requirements lightly. In one U.S. Tax Court case, the taxpayers substantiated a donation deduction with canceled checks and a written acknowledgment. The IRS denied the deduction, however, because the acknowledgment failed to state whether the taxpayers received goods or services in consideration for their donation.
The taxpayers obtained a second acknowledgment including the required statement. But the Tax Court didn’t accept it because it wasn’t contemporaneous (that is, it was obtained after the tax return was filed).
2018 and 2019 deductions
Additional substantiation requirements apply to some types of donations. We can help you determine whether you have sufficient substantiation for the donations you hope to deduct on your 2018 income tax return — and guide you on the substantiation you’ll need for gifts you’re planning this year to ensure you can enjoy the desired deductions on your 2019 return.
While the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act (TCJA) generally reduced individual tax rates for 2018 through 2025, some taxpayers could see their taxes go up due to reductions or eliminations of certain tax breaks — and, in some cases, due to their filing status. But some may see additional tax savings due to their filing status.
Unmarried vs. married taxpayers
In an effort to further eliminate the marriage “penalty,” the TCJA made changes to some of the middle tax brackets. As a result, some single and head of household filers could be pushed into higher tax brackets more quickly than pre-TCJA. For example, the beginning of the 32% bracket for singles for 2018 is $157,501, whereas it was $191,651 for 2017 (though the rate was 33%). For heads of households, the beginning of this bracket has decreased even more significantly, to $157, 501 for 2018 from $212,501 for 2017.
Married taxpayers, on the other hand, won’t be pushed into some middle brackets until much higher income levels for 2018 through 2025. For example, the beginning of the 32% bracket for joint filers for 2018 is $315,001, whereas it was $233,351 for 2017 (again, the rate was 33% then).
2018 filing and 2019 brackets
Because there are so many variables, it will be hard to tell exactly how specific taxpayers will be affected by TCJA changes, including changes to the brackets, until they file their 2018 tax returns. In the meantime, it’s a good idea to begin to look at 2019. As before the TCJA, the tax brackets are adjusted annually for inflation.
Below is a look at the 2019 brackets under the TCJA. Contact us for help assessing what your tax rate likely will be for 2019 — and for help filing your 2018 tax return.
10%: $0 - $9,700
12%: $9,701 - $39,475
22%: $39,476 - $84,200
24%: $84,201 - $160,725
32%: $160,726 - $204,100
35%: $204,101 - $510,300
37%: Over $510,300
Heads of households
10%: $0 - $13,850
12%: $13,851 - $52,850
22%: $52,851 - $84,200
24%: $84,201 - $160,700
32%: $160,701 - $204,100
35%: $204,101 - $510,300
37%: Over $510,300
Married individuals filing joint returns and surviving spouses
10%: $0 - $19,400
12%: $19,401 - $78,950
22%: $78,951 - $168,400
24%: $168,401 - $321,450
32%: $321,451 - $408,200
35%: $408,201 - $612,350
37%: Over $612,350
Married individuals filing separate returns
10%: $0 - $9,700
12%: $9,701 - $39,475
22%: $39,476 - $84,200
24%: $84,201 - $160,725
32%: $160,726 - $204,100
35%: $204,101 - $306,175
37%: Over $306,175
While most provisions of the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act (TCJA) went into effect in 2018 and either apply through 2025 or are permanent, there are two major changes under the act for 2019. Here’s a closer look.
1. Medical expense deduction threshold
With rising health care costs, claiming whatever tax breaks related to health care that you can is more important than ever. But there’s a threshold for deducting medical expenses that was already difficult for many taxpayers to meet, and it may be even harder to meet this year.
The TCJA temporarily reduced the threshold from 10% of adjusted gross income (AGI) to 7.5% of AGI. Unfortunately, the reduction applies only to 2017 and 2018. So for 2019, the threshold returns to 10% — unless legislation is signed into law extending the 7.5% threshold. Only qualified, unreimbursed expenses exceeding the threshold can be deducted.
Also, keep in mind that you have to itemize deductions to deduct medical expenses. Itemizing saves tax only if your total itemized deductions exceed your standard deduction. And with the TCJA’s near doubling of the standard deduction for 2018 through 2025, many taxpayers who’ve typically itemized may no longer benefit from itemizing.
2. Tax treatment of alimony
Alimony has generally been deductible by the ex-spouse paying it and included in the taxable income of the ex-spouse receiving it. Child support, on the other hand, hasn’t been deductible by the payer or taxable income to the recipient.
Under the TCJA, for divorce agreements executed (or, in some cases, modified) after December 31, 2018, alimony payments won’t be deductible — and will be excluded from the recipient’s taxable income. So, essentially, alimony will be treated the same way as child support.
Because the recipient ex-spouse would typically pay income taxes at a rate lower than that of the paying ex-spouse, the overall tax bite will likely be larger under this new tax treatment. This change is permanent.
TCJA impact on 2018 and 2019
Most TCJA changes went into effect in 2018, but not all. Contact us if you have questions about the medical expense deduction or the tax treatment of alimony — or any other changes that might affect you in 2019. We can also help you assess the impact of the TCJA when you file your 2018 tax return.
Now that 2019 has begun, there isn’t too much you can do to reduce your 2018 income tax liability. But it’s smart to begin preparing for filing your 2018 return. Because the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act (TCJA), which was signed into law at the end of 2017, likely will have a major impact on your 2018 taxes, it’s a good time to review the most significant provisions impacting individual taxpayers.
Rates and exemptions
Generally, taxpayers will be subject to lower tax rates for 2018. But a couple of rates stay the same, and changes to some of the brackets for certain types of filers (individuals and heads of households) could cause them to be subject to higher rates. Some exemptions are eliminated, while others increase. Here are some of the specific changes:
- Drops of individual income tax rates ranging from 0 to 4 percentage points (depending on the bracket) to 10%, 12%, 22%, 24%, 32%, 35% and 37%
- Elimination of personal and dependent exemptions
- AMT exemption increase, to $109,400 for joint filers, $70,300 for singles and heads of households, and $54,700 for separate filers for 2018
- Approximate doubling of the gift and estate tax exemption, to $11.18 million for 2018
Credits and deductions
Generally, tax breaks are reduced for 2018. However, a few are enhanced. Here’s a closer look:
- Doubling of the child tax credit to $2,000 and other modifications intended to help more taxpayers benefit from the credit
- Near doubling of the standard deduction, to $24,000 (married couples filing jointly), $18,000 (heads of households) and $12,000 (singles and married couples filing separately) for 2018
- Reduction of the adjusted gross income (AGI) threshold for the medical expense deduction to 7.5% for regular and AMT purposes
- New $10,000 limit on the deduction for state and local taxes (on a combined basis for property and income or sales taxes; $5,000 for separate filers)
- Reduction of the mortgage debt limit for the home mortgage interest deduction to $750,000 ($375,000 for separate filers), with certain exceptions
- Elimination of the deduction for interest on home equity debt
- Elimination of the personal casualty and theft loss deduction (with an exception for federally declared disasters)
- Elimination of miscellaneous itemized deductions subject to the 2% floor (such as certain investment expenses, professional fees and unreimbursed employee business expenses)
- Elimination of the AGI-based reduction of certain itemized deductions
- Elimination of the moving expense deduction (with an exception for members of the military in certain circumstances)
- Expansion of tax-free Section 529 plan distributions to include those used to pay qualifying elementary and secondary school expenses, up to $10,000 per student per tax year
How are you affected?
As you can see, the TCJA changes for individuals are dramatic. Many rules and limits apply, so contact us to find out exactly how you’re affected. We can also tell you if any other provisions affect you, and help you begin preparing for your 2018 tax return filing and 2019 tax planning.
Retirement plan contribution limits are indexed for inflation, and many have gone up for 2019, giving you opportunities to increase your retirement savings:
- Elective deferrals to 401(k), 403(b), 457(b)(2) and 457(c)(1) plans: $19,000 (up from $18,500)
- Contributions to defined contribution plans: $56,000 (up from $55,000)
- Contributions to SIMPLEs: $13,000 (up from $12,500)
- Contributions to IRAs: $6,000 (up from $5,500)
One exception is catch-up contributions for taxpayers age 50 or older, which remain at the same levels as for 2018:
- Catch-up contributions to 401(k), 403(b), 457(b)(2) and 457(c)(1) plans: $6,000
- Catch-up contributions to SIMPLEs: $3,000
- Catch-up contributions to IRAs: $1,000
Keep in mind that additional factors may affect how much you’re allowed to contribute (or how much your employer can contribute on your behalf). For example, income-based limits may reduce or eliminate your ability to make Roth IRA contributions or to make deductible traditional IRA contributions.
For more on how to make the most of your tax-advantaged retirement-saving opportunities in 2019, please contact us.
Do you have investments outside of tax-advantaged retirement plans? If so, you might still have time to shrink your 2018 tax bill by selling some investments ― you just need to carefully select which investments you sell.
Try balancing gains and losses
If you’ve sold investments at a gain this year, consider selling some losing investments to absorb the gains. This is commonly referred to as “harvesting” losses.
If, however, you’ve sold investments at a loss this year, consider selling other investments in your portfolio that have appreciated, to the extent the gains will be absorbed by the losses. If you believe those appreciated investments have peaked in value, essentially you’ll lock in the peak value and avoid tax on your gains.
Review your potential tax rates
At the federal level, long-term capital gains (on investments held more than one year) are taxed at lower rates than short-term capital gains (on investments held one year or less). The Tax Cuts and Jobs Act (TCJA) retains the 0%, 15% and 20% rates on long-term capital gains. But, for 2018 through 2025, these rates have their own brackets, instead of aligning with various ordinary-income brackets.
For example, these are the thresholds for the top long-term gains rate for 2018:
- Singles: $425,800
- Heads of households: $452,400
- Married couples filing jointly: $479,000
But the top ordinary-income rate of 37%, which also applies to short-term capital gains, doesn’t go into effect until income exceeds $500,000 for singles and heads of households or $600,000 for joint filers. The TCJA also retains the 3.8% net investment income tax (NIIT) and its $200,000 and $250,000 thresholds.
Don’t forget the netting rules
Before selling investments, consider the netting rules for gains and losses, which depend on whether gains and losses are long term or short term. To determine your net gain or loss for the year, long-term capital losses offset long-term capital gains before they offset short-term capital gains. In the same way, short-term capital losses offset short-term capital gains before they offset long-term capital gains.
You may use up to $3,000 of total capital losses in excess of total capital gains as a deduction against ordinary income in computing your adjusted gross income. Any remaining net losses are carried forward to future years.
Time is running out
By reviewing your investment activity year-to-date and selling certain investments by year end, you may be able to substantially reduce your 2018 taxes. But act soon, because time is running out.
Keep in mind that tax considerations shouldn’t drive your investment decisions. You also need to consider other factors, such as your risk tolerance and investment goals.
We can help you determine what makes sense for you. Please contact us.
With the dawn of 2019 on the near horizon, here’s a quick list of tax and financial to-dos you should address before 2018 ends:
1. Check your FSA balance. If you have a Flexible Spending Account (FSA) for health care expenses, you need to incur qualifying expenses by December 31 to use up these funds or you’ll potentially lose them. (Some plans allow you to carry over up to $500 to the following year or give you a 2-1/2-month grace period to incur qualifying expenses.) Use expiring FSA funds to pay for eyeglasses, dental work or eligible drugs or health products.
2. Max out tax-advantaged savings. Reduce your 2018 income by contributing to traditional IRAs, employer-sponsored retirement plans or Health Savings Accounts to the extent you’re eligible. (Certain vehicles, including traditional and SEP IRAs, allow you to deduct contributions on your 2018 return if they’re made by April 15, 2019.)
3. Take RMDs. If you’ve reached age 70-1/2, you generally must take required minimum distributions (RMDs) from IRAs or qualified employer-sponsored retirement plans before the end of the year to avoid a 50% penalty. If you turned 70½ this year, you have until April 1, 2019, to take your first RMD. But keep in mind that, if you defer your first distribution, you’ll have to take two next year.
4. Consider a QCD. If you’re 70-1/2 or older and charitably inclined, a qualified charitable distribution (QCD) allows you to transfer up to $100,000 tax-free directly from your IRA to a qualified charity and to apply the amount toward your RMD. This is a big advantage if you wouldn’t otherwise qualify for a charitable deduction (because you don’t itemize, for example).
5. Use it or lose it. Make the most of annual limits that don’t carry over from year to year, even if doing so won’t provide an income tax deduction. For example, if gift and estate taxes are a concern, make annual exclusion gifts up to $15,000 per recipient. If you have a Coverdell Education Savings Account, contribute the maximum amount you’re allowed.
6. Contribute to a Sec. 529 plan. Sec. 529 prepaid tuition or college savings plans aren’t subject to federal annual contribution limits and don’t provide a federal income tax deduction. But contributions may entitle you to a state income tax deduction (depending on your state and plan).
7. Review withholding. The IRS cautions that people with more complex tax situations face the possibility of having their income taxes underwithheld due to changes under the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act. Use its withholding calculator (available at irs.gov) to review your situation. If it looks like you could face underpayment penalties, increase withholdings from your or your spouse’s wages for the remainder of the year. (Withholdings, unlike estimated tax payments, are treated as if they were paid evenly over the year.)
For assistance with these and other year-end planning ideas, please contact us.
As the holidays approach and the year draws to a close, many taxpayers make charitable gifts — both in the spirit of the season and as a year-end tax planning strategy. But with the tax law changes that go into effect in 2018 and the many rules that apply to the charitable deduction, it’s a good idea to check deductibility before making any year-end donations.
Confirm you can still benefit from itemizing
Last year’s Tax Cuts and Jobs Act (TCJA) didn’t put new limits on or suspend the charitable deduction, like it did to many other itemized deductions. Nevertheless, it will reduce or eliminate the tax benefits of charitable giving for many taxpayers this year.
Itemizing saves tax only if itemized deductions exceed the standard deduction. For 2018 through 2025, the TCJA significantly increases the standard deduction, to $24,000 for married couples filing jointly, $18,000 for heads of households, and $12,000 for singles and married couples filing separately.
The nearly doubled standard deduction combined with the new limits or suspensions of some common itemized deductions means you may no longer have enough itemized deductions to exceed the standard deduction. And if that’s the case, your donations won’t save you tax.
So before you make any year-end charitable gifts, total up your potential itemized deductions for the year, including the donations you’re considering. If the total is less than your standard deduction, your year-end donations won’t provide a tax benefit.
You might, however, be able to preserve your charitable deduction by “bunching” donations into alternating years. This can allow you to exceed the standard deduction and claim a charitable deduction (and other itemized deductions) every other year.
Meet the delivery deadline
To be deductible on your 2018 return, a charitable gift must be made by Dec. 31, 2018. According to the IRS, a donation generally is “made” at the time of its “unconditional delivery.” The delivery date depends in part on what you donate and how you donate it. Here are a few examples for common donations:
Check. The date you mail it.
Credit card. The date you make the charge.
Stock certificate. The date you mail the properly endorsed stock certificate to the charity.
Make sure the organization is “qualified”
To be deductible, a donation also must be made to a “qualified charity” — one that’s eligible to receive tax-deductible contributions.
The IRS’s online search tool, Tax Exempt Organization Search, can help you easily find out whether an organization is eligible to receive tax-deductible charitable contributions. You can access this tool at https://apps.irs.gov/app/eos/. Information about organizations eligible to receive deductible contributions is updated monthly. Remember that political donations aren’t deductible.
Consider other rules
We’ve discussed only some of the rules for the charitable deduction; many others apply. We can answer any questions you have about the deductibility of donations or changes to the standard deduction and itemized deductions.
Prepaying property taxes related to the current year but due the following year has long been one of the most popular and effective year-end tax-planning strategies. But does it still make sense in 2018?
The answer, for some people, is yes — accelerating this expense will increase their itemized deductions, reducing their tax bills. But for many, particularly those in high-tax states, changes made by the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act (TCJA) eliminate the benefits.
The TCJA made two changes that affect the viability of this strategy. First, it nearly doubled the standard deduction to $24,000 for married couples filing jointly, $18,000 for heads of household, and $12,000 for singles and married couples filing separately, so fewer taxpayers will itemize. Second, it placed a $10,000 cap on state and local tax (SALT) deductions, including property taxes plus income or sales taxes.
For property tax prepayment to make sense, two things must happen:
1. You must itemize (that is, your itemized deductions must exceed the standard deduction), and
2. Your other SALT expenses for the year must be less than $10,000.
If you don’t itemize, or you’ve already used up your $10,000 limit (on income or sales taxes or on previous property tax installments), accelerating your next property tax installment will provide no benefit.
Joe and Mary, a married couple filing jointly, have incurred $5,000 in state income taxes, $5,000 in property taxes, $18,000 in qualified mortgage interest, and $4,000 in charitable donations, for itemized deductions totaling $32,000. Their next installment of 2018 property taxes, $5,000, is due in the spring of 2019. They’ve already reached the $10,000 SALT limit, so prepaying property taxes won’t reduce their tax bill.
Now suppose they live in a state with no income tax. In that case, prepayment would potentially make sense because it would be within the SALT limit and would increase their 2018 itemized deductions.
Look before you leap
Before you prepay property taxes, review your situation carefully to be sure it will provide a tax benefit. And keep in mind that, just because prepayment will increase your 2018 itemized deductions, it doesn’t necessarily mean that’s the best strategy. For example, if you expect to be in a higher tax bracket in 2019, paying property taxes when due will likely produce a greater benefit over the two-year period.
For help determining whether prepaying property taxes makes sense for you this year, contact us. We can also suggest other year-end tips for reducing your taxes.
Will you be age 50 or older on December 31? Are you still working? Are you already contributing to your 401(k) plan or Savings Incentive Match Plan for Employees (SIMPLE) up to the regular annual limit? Then you may want to make “catch-up” contributions by the end of the year. Increasing your retirement plan contributions can be particularly advantageous if your itemized deductions for 2018 will be smaller than in the past because of changes under the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act (TCJA).
Catch-up contributions are additional contributions beyond the regular annual limits that can be made to certain retirement accounts. They were designed to help taxpayers who didn’t save much for retirement earlier in their careers to “catch up.” But there’s no rule that limits catch-up contributions to such taxpayers.
So catch-up contributions can be a great option for anyone who is old enough to be eligible, has been maxing out their regular contribution limit and has sufficient earned income to contribute more. The contributions are generally pretax (except in the case of Roth accounts), so they can reduce your taxable income for the year.
More benefits now?
This additional reduction to taxable income might be especially beneficial in 2018 if in the past you had significant itemized deductions that now will be reduced or eliminated by the TCJA. For example, the TCJA eliminates miscellaneous itemized deductions subject to the 2% of adjusted gross income floor — such as unreimbursed employee expenses (including home-off expenses) and certain professional and investment fees.
If, say, in 2018 you have $5,000 of expenses that in the past would have qualified as miscellaneous itemized deductions, an additional $5,000 catch-up contribution can make up for the loss of those deductions. Plus, you benefit from adding to your retirement nest egg and potential tax-deferred growth.
Other deductions that are reduced or eliminated include state and local taxes, mortgage and home equity interest expenses, casualty and theft losses, and moving expenses. If these changes affect you, catch-up contributions can help make up for your reduced deductions.
2018 contribution limits
Under 2018 401(k) limits, if you’re age 50 or older and you have reached the $18,500 maximum limit for all employees, you can contribute an extra $6,000, for a total of $24,500. If your employer offers a SIMPLE instead, your regular contribution maxes out at $12,500 in 2018. 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. Also keep in mind that additional rules and limits apply.
Catch-up contributions are also available for IRAs, but the deadline for 2018 contributions is later: April 15, 2019. And whether your traditional IRA contributions will be deductible depends on your income and whether you or your spouse participates in an employer-sponsored retirement plan. Please contact us for more information about catch-up contributions and other year-end tax planning strategies.
As we approach the end of 2018, it’s a good idea to review the mutual fund holdings in your taxable accounts and take steps to avoid potential tax traps. Here are some tips.
Avoid surprise capital gains
Unlike with stocks, you can’t avoid capital gains on mutual funds simply by holding on to the shares. Near the end of the year, funds typically distribute all or most of their net realized capital gains to investors. If you hold mutual funds in taxable accounts, these gains will be taxable to you regardless of whether you receive them in cash or reinvest them in the fund.
For each fund, find out how large these distributions will be and get a breakdown of long-term vs. short-term gains. If the tax impact will be significant, consider strategies to offset the gain. For example, you could sell other investments at a loss.
Avoid buying into a mutual fund shortly before it distributes capital gains and dividends for the year. There’s a common misconception that investing in a mutual fund just before the ex-dividend date (the date by which you must own shares to qualify for a distribution) is like getting free money.
In reality, the value of your shares is immediately reduced by the amount of the distribution. So you’ll owe taxes on the gain without actually making a profit.
If you plan to sell mutual fund shares that have appreciated in value, consider waiting until just after year end so you can defer the gain until 2019 — unless you expect to be subject to a higher rate next year. In that scenario, you’d likely be better off recognizing the gain and paying the tax this year.
When you do sell shares, keep in mind that, if you bought them over time, each block will have a different holding period and cost basis. To reduce your tax liability, it’s possible to select shares for sale that have higher cost bases and longer holding periods, thereby minimizing your gain (or maximizing your loss) and avoiding higher-taxed short-term gains.
Think beyond just taxes
Investment decisions shouldn’t be driven by tax considerations alone. For example, you need to keep in mind your overall financial goals and your risk tolerance.
But taxes are still an important factor to consider. Contact us to discuss these and other year-end strategies for minimizing the tax impact of your mutual fund holdings.
If you’re an executive or other key employee, your employer may offer you a nonqualified deferred compensation (NQDC) plan. As the name suggests, NQDC plans pay employees in the future for services currently performed. The plans allow deferral of the income tax associated with the compensation.
But to receive this attractive tax treatment, NQDC plans must meet many requirements. One is that employees must make the deferral election before the year they perform the services for which the compensation is earned. So, if you wish to defer part of your 2019 compensation, you generally must make the election by the end of 2018.
NQDC plans vs. qualified plans
NQDC plans differ from qualified plans, such as 401(k)s, in that:
- NQDC plans can favor highly compensated employees,
- Although your income tax liability can be deferred, your employer can’t deduct the NQDC until you recognize it as income, and
- Any NQDC plan funding isn’t protected from your employer’s creditors.
While some rules are looser for NQDC plans, there are also many rules that apply to them that don’t apply to qualified plans.
2 more NQDC rules
In addition to the requirement that deferral elections be made before the start of the year, there are two other important NQDC rules to be aware of:
1. Distributions. Benefits must be paid on a specified date, according to a fixed payment schedule or after the occurrence of a specified event — such as death, disability, separation from service, change in ownership or control of the employer, or an unforeseeable emergency.
2. Elections to make certain changes. The timing of benefits can be delayed but not accelerated. Elections to change the timing or form of a payment must be made at least 12 months in advance. Also, new payment dates must be at least five years after the date the payment would otherwise have been made.
Be aware that the penalties for noncompliance with NQDC rules can be severe: You can be taxed on plan benefits at the time of vesting, and a 20% penalty and interest charges also may apply. So if you’re receiving NQDC, check with your employer to make sure it’s addressing any compliance issues.
No deferral of employment tax
Another important NQDC tax issue is that employment taxes are generally due when services are performed or when there’s no longer a substantial risk of forfeiture, whichever is later. This is true even though the compensation isn’t actually paid or recognized for income tax purposes until later years.
So your employer may withhold your portion of the tax from your salary or ask you to write a check for the liability. Or your employer might pay your portion, in which case you’ll have additional taxable income.
Questions about NQDC — or other executive comp, such as incentive stock options or restricted stock? Contact us. We can answer them and help you determine what, if any, steps you need to take before year end to defer taxes and avoid interest and penalties.