Wheat Capital of the World CPA Blog

Wheat Capital of the World CPA Blog

Watch out for tax-related scams

by Chad Andra on 10/08/19


“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.

  1. 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.)
  2. 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.

Important reminders

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 protected]. 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.

Take advantage of the gift tax exclusion rules

by Chad Andra on 10/01/19


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.

Plan ahead

Annual gifts are only one way to transfer wealth to your loved ones. There may be other effective tax and estate planning tools. 

When is tax due on Series EE savings bonds?

by Chad Andra on 09/25/19


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.

Interest deferral

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. 

Uncle Sam may provide relief from college costs on your tax return

by Chad Andra on 09/17/19


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. 

Getting a divorce? There are tax issues you need to understand

by Chad Andra on 09/16/19


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.

  1. 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.)
  2. 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).
  3. 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.
  4. 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. It is important to work through all of the financial issues involved in divorce.

Expenses that teachers can and can’t deduct on their tax returns

by Chad Andra on 09/12/19


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.

Eligible deductions

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.

Ineligible deductions

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.

Taking distributions from your traditional IRA

by Chad Andra on 08/20/19


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:

  1. 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).
  2. 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.
  3. 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. 

“Innocent spouses” may get relief from tax liability

by Chad Andra on 08/18/19


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.)

Innocent spouses

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. 

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. 

The tax implications of being a winner

by Chad Andra on 08/06/19


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.

Planning & Rules

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.

The “kiddie tax” hurts families more than ever

by Chad Andra on 08/02/19


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.

Plan ahead

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

The “nanny tax” must be paid for more than just nannies

by Chad Andra on 08/02/19


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.

Summer: A good time to review your investments

by Chad Andra on 08/02/19


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. 

Volunteering for charity: Do you get a tax break?

by Chad Andra on 07/31/19


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 at https://www.irs.gov/charities-non-profits/tax-exempt-organization-search.

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.

You may have to pay tax on Social Security benefits

by Chad Andra on 07/31/19


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.

If your kids are off to day camp, you may be eligible for a tax break

by Chad Andra on 06/30/19


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.

Work-related expenses

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. 

Is an HSA right for you?

by Chad Andra on 06/18/19


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.

The basics

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.

Account balances

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.

Tax-smart opportunity

HSAs can provide a smart tax-saving opportunity for individuals with qualifying high deductible health plans.

Donating your vehicle to charity may not be a taxwise decision

by Chad Andra on 06/13/19


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. 

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