Are You Ignoring Retirement?

Are you ignoring your future retirement needs? That tends to happen when you are younger, retirement is far in the future, and you believe you have plenty of time to save for it. Some people ignore the issue until late in life and then have to scramble at the last minute to fund their retirement. Others even ignore the issue altogether, thinking their Social Security income (assuming they qualify for it) will take care of their retirement needs.

By current government standards, a single individual with $11,770 or a married couple with $15,930 of annual household income is at the 100% poverty level. If you compare those levels with potential Social Security income, you may find that expecting to retire on just Social Security income may result in a bleak retirement.

You can predict your future Social Security income by visiting the Social Security Administration’s Retirement Estimator. With the Retirement Estimator, you can plug in some basic information to get an instant, personalized estimate of your future benefits. Different life choices can alter the course of your future, so try out different scenarios—such as higher and lower future earnings amounts and various retirement dates—to get a good idea of how these scenarios can change your future benefit amounts. Once you’ve done this, consider what your retirement would be like with only Social Security income.

If you are fortunate enough to have an employer-, union- or government-funded retirement plan, determine how much you can expect to receive when you retire. Add that amount to any Social Security benefits you are entitled to and then consider what retirement would be like with that combined income. If this result portends an austere retirement, know that the sooner you start saving for retirement, the better off you will be.

With today’s relatively low interest rates and up-and-down stock market, it is much more difficult to grow a retirement plan with earnings than it was 10 or 20 years ago. With current interest rates barely mirroring inflation rates, there is little or no effective growth. That means one must set aside more of one’s current earnings for retirement to prepare for a comfortable retirement.

Retirement Planning Options

Because the government wants you to save and prepare for your own retirement, tax laws offer a variety of tax incentives for retirement savings plans, both for wage earners and for self-employed individuals and their employees. These plans include:

  • Traditional IRA – This plan allows up to $5,500 (or $6,500 for individuals age 50 and over) of tax-deductible contributions each year until reaching age 70½. However, the amount that can be deducted phases out for higher-income taxpayers who also have retirement plans through their employer.
  • Roth IRA – This plan also allows up to $5,500 (or $6,500 for individuals age 50 and over) of contributions each year. Like the Traditional IRA, the amount that can be contributed phases out for higher-income taxpayers; unlike the Traditional IRA, these amounts phase out even for those who do not have an employer-related retirement plan.
  • myRA Accounts – This relatively new retirement vehicle is designed to be a starter retirement plan for individuals with limited financial resources and those whose employers do not offer a retirement plan. The minimum amount required to establish one of these government-administered plans is $25, with monthly contributions as little as $2. Once the total value of the account reaches $15,000 or after 30 years, the account must be converted to a commercial Roth IRA account.
  • Employer 401(k) Plans – An employer 401(k) plan generally enables employees to contribute up to $18,000 per year, before taxes. In addition, taxpayers who are age 50 and over can contribute an extra $6,000 annually, for a total of $24,000. Many employers also match a percentage of the employee’s contribution, and this can amount to a significant sum for those who stay in the plan for many years.
  • Health Savings Accounts – Although established to help individuals with high-deductible health insurance plans pay medical expenses, these accounts can also be used as supplemental retirement plans if an individual has already maxed out his or her contributions to other types of plans. Annual contributions for these plans can be as much as $3,350 for individuals and $6,750 for families.
  • Tax Sheltered Annuities – These retirement accounts are for employees of public schools and certain tax-exempt organizations; they enable employees to make annual tax-deferred contributions of up to $18,000 (or $24,000 for those age 50 and over).
  • Self-Employed Retirement Plans – These plans, also referred to as Keogh plans, allow self-employed individuals to contribute 25% of their net business profits to their retirement plans. The contributions are pre-tax (which means that they reduce the individual’s taxable net profits), so the actual amount that can be contributed is 20% of the net profits.
  • Simplified Employee Pension (SEP) – This type of plan allows contributions in the same amounts as allowed for self-employed retirement plans, except that the retirement contributions are held in an IRA account under the control of the employee or self-employed individual. These accounts can be established after the end of the year, and contributions can be made for the prior year.

Each individual’s financial resources, family obligations, health, life expectancy, and retirement expectations will vary greatly, and there is no one-size-fits-all retirement savings strategy for everyone. Purchasing a home and putting children through college are examples of events that can limit an individual’s or family’s ability to make retirement contributions; these events must be accounted for in any retirement planning.

If you have questions about any of the retirement vehicles discussed above, please give this office a call.

Jointly or Separately – How to File After Saying I Do

A taxpayer’s filing status for the year is based upon his or her marital status at the close of the tax year. Thus, if you get married on the last day of the tax year, you are treated as married for the entire year. The options for married couples are to file jointly or separately. Both statuses can result in surprises for individuals who previously filed as unmarried. The surprises can be both pleasant and unpleasant.

Individuals filing jointly must combine their incomes, and if both spouses are working, combining income can trigger a number of unpleasant surprises, as many tax benefits are eliminated or reduced for higher-income taxpayers. The following are some of the more frequently encountered issues created by higher incomes:

  • Being pushed into a higher tax bracket
  • Causing capital gains to be taxed at higher rates
  • Reducing the child care credit
  • Limiting the deductible IRA amount
  • Triggering a tax on net investment income that only applies to higher-income taxpayers
  • Causing Social Security income to be taxed.
  • Reducing the Earned Income Tax Credit
  • Reducing or eliminating medical and/or miscellaneous itemized deductions
  • Causing the overall itemized deductions to be phased out
  • Causing the personal exemption deduction to be phased out

Filing separately generally will not alleviate the aforementioned issues because the tax code includes provisions to prevent married taxpayers from circumventing the loss of tax benefits that apply to higher-income taxpayers by filing separately.

On the other hand, if only one spouse has income, filing jointly will generally result in a lower tax because of the lower joint tax brackets and the additional exemption provided by the non-working spouse. In addition, some of the higher-income limitations that might have applied to an unmarried individual with the same amount of income may be reduced or eliminated on a joint return.

Filing as married but separate will generally result in a higher combined income tax for married taxpayers. The tax laws are written to prevent married taxpayers from filing separately to circumvent a limitation that would apply to them if they filed jointly. For instance, if a couple files separately, the tax code requires both to itemize their deductions if either does so, meaning that if one itemizes, the other cannot take the standard deduction. Another example relates to how a married couple’s Social Security (SS) benefits are taxed: on a joint return, none of the SS income is taxed until half of the SS benefits plus other income exceeds $32,000. On a married-but-separate return, the taxable threshold is reduced to zero.

Aside from the amount of tax, another consideration that married couples need to be aware of when deciding on their filing status is that when married taxpayers file jointly, they become jointly and individually responsible (often referred to as “jointly and severally liable”) for the tax and interest or penalty due on their returns. This is true even if they later divorce. When using the married-but-separate filing status, each spouse is only responsible for his or her own tax liability.

If you would like to evaluate the impact of marriage on your tax liability before saying “I do,” please give this office a call.

Don’t Miss Out on the Earned Income Tax Credit

The Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) is a tax benefit for working people who have low to moderate income. It provides a tax credit that is treated like tax withholding: it goes to pay an individual’s tax liability, and any excess is paid to the individual in the form of a tax refund.

Qualifications for the credit are based upon the amount of the filer’s earned income, the spouse’s earned income if the filer is married, and the number of qualified children on the tax return. Any child must either be under the age of 19 or be a full-time student under the age of 24 at the end of the year. Low-income earners between the ages of 25 and 64 who don’t have a qualifying child may also qualify.

Earned income generally means income from working, such as W-2 wages and self-employment income.

The credit increases as the taxpayer’s earned income or adjusted gross income (AGI) increases until it reaches a plateau, where it remains constant (at the maximum amount) until it reaches the AGI phase-out threshold. Once the threshold amount is exceeded, the credit is reduced by a set percentage; if income exceeds the top of the phase-out range, no credit is allowed.

Computing the credit, like all things tax, is complicated, and the credit is actually determined using IRS tables that reflect the dollar amounts at which phaseout begins and ends. However, the illustration below can help approximate the credit for 2015.

Example: A married couple with two children has earned income of $20,000 and a modified AGI of $21,000. If we multiply their earned income by their credit percentage ($20,000 x .40), we come up with $8,000. However, that exceeds the maximum credit of $5,548 for a married couple with two children, so their credit before any phaseout is $5,548. Since their modified AGI is less than the phaseout threshold, then their EITC is $5,548. Had their earned income been $10,000, then their credit would have been $4,000 ($10,000 x .40). If either their earned income or their modified AGI had exceeded $49,974, their EITC would have been totally phased out and they would not have gotten any credit.

There is also a limit on investment income a taxpayer can have and qualify for the EITC. For 2015, that limit is $3,400. Thus if a taxpayer qualifies for EITC but has investment income in excess of $3,400, the taxpayer will not receive any EITC.

Individuals that claim either the foreign earned income or foreign housing exclusion also will not qualify for the earned income credit.

Members of the military can elect to treat all or none of their nontaxable combat pay as earned income for the purposes of computing the EITC. The calculation providing the larger EITC benefit can be used.

Because the potential payout of this credit is so generous, it is the constant target of scammers, and in 2014 the government paid out nearly $18 billion in improper EITC payments. Besides scammers, the qualification for EITC is frequently contested between divorced parents who are both attempting to claim the same child in an effort to qualify for the EITC.

The IRS is authorized to ban taxpayers from claiming the EITC for two years if it determines during an audit that they claimed the credit improperly due to reckless or intentional disregard of the rules. Last year, there were more than 67,000 two-year bans in effect. The ban lasts 10 years if credit was claimed in an earlier year due to fraud.

The government wants those who are entitled to the credit to claim it, and so the IRS widely promotes the credit. However, the rules are quite complex and best addressed by a tax professional.

If you have questions about how the EITC might apply to you, please call this office for additional information. Please understand that a taxpayer who might not normally be required to file a return might still benefit from filing to claim the EITC.

ABLE Accounts And Individuals With Disabilities

Congress created Achieving Better Life Experience (ABLE) accounts in 2014. Prior to the creation of the ABLE accounts, individuals with disabilities who were eligible for Medicaid or federal Supplemental Security Income were limited to a maximum of $2,000 in assets, such as bank savings accounts.

However, ABLE accounts allow disabled people to have up to $100,000 in these accounts without jeopardizing their Medicaid or Supplemental Security Income.

Each state must enact its own legislation to make these accounts available in that particular state. Several have already done so or are in the process of doing so.

ABLE accounts are fashioned after qualified state tuition programs, sometimes referred to as Section 529 plans. Although there is no tax benefit associated with contributions to the accounts, the earnings in the accounts accumulate tax-free and are also tax-free if used for qualified expenses such as health care, education, legal, housing and transportation expenses. As a note of caution, qualified expenses do not include food, entertainment or vacations.

The accounts are available to individuals who became disabled before the age of 26. Once an account is established, anyone can contribute to it, provided that the sum of the contributions for the year does not exceed the annual gift tax exclusion, which is currently $14,000. These accounts are a less-expensive substitute for special needs trusts, which have significant administration costs. If contributions will exceed the annual gifting limit and $100,000 overall, a special needs trust will be required.

While ABLE accounts do fill a need, there are some downsides, including the current $14,000 per year limit on contributions; restrictions on using the funds for food, vacations and entertainment; and the fact that if the beneficiary passes away, the remaining funds cannot be left to siblings or others.

IRS Announces 2016 Standard Mileage Rates

As it does every year, the Internal Revenue Service recently announced the inflation-adjusted 2016 optional standard mileage rates used to calculate the deductible costs of operating an automobile for business, charitable, medical or moving purposes.

Beginning on Jan. 1, 2016, the standard mileage rates for the use of a car (or a van, pickup or panel truck) will be:

  • 54.0 cents per mile for business miles driven (including a 24-cent-per-mile allocation for depreciation). This is down from 57.5 cents in 2015;
  • 19 cents per mile driven for medical or moving purposes. This is down from 23 cents in 2015; and
  • 14 cents per mile driven in service of charitable organizations.

The standard mileage rate for business is based on an annual study of the fixed and variable costs of operating an automobile. The rate for medical and moving purposes is based on the variable costs as determined by the same study. The rate for using an automobile while performing services for a charitable organization is statutorily set and has been 14 cents for over 15 years.

Taxpayers always have the option of calculating the actual costs of using their vehicle for business rather than using the standard mileage rates. With the extension of the bonus depreciation though 2019, using the actual expense method may be a worthwhile consideration in the first year the vehicle is placed in service. The bonus depreciation allowance adds an additional $8,000 to the maximum first year depreciation deduction of passenger vehicles and light trucks that have an unloaded gross vehicle weight of 6,000 pounds or less.

However, the standard mileage rates cannot be used if the actual method (using Sec. 179, bonus depreciation and/or MACRS depreciation) has been used in previous years. This rule is applied on a vehicle-by-vehicle basis. In addition, the business standard mileage rate cannot be used for any vehicle used for hire or for more than four vehicles used simultaneously.

Employer reimbursement—Where employers reimburse employees for business-related car expenses using the standard mileage allowance method for each substantiated employment-connected business mile, the reimbursement is tax-free if the employee substantiates to the employer the time, place, mileage and purpose of employment-connected business travel.

Employees whose actual employment-related business mileage expenses exceed the employer’s reimbursement can deduct the difference on their income tax return as a miscellaneous itemized deduction subject to the 2%-of-AGI floor. However, an employee who leases an auto and is reimbursed using the mileage allowance method can‘t claim a deduction based on actual expenses unless he does so consistently beginning with the first business use of the auto.

Faster Write-Offs for Heavy Sport Utility Vehicles (SUVs)—Many of today’s SUV vehicles weigh more than 6,000 pounds and are therefore not subject to the luxury auto depreciation limit rules; so taxpayers with these vehicles can utilize both the §179 expense deduction (up to a maximum of $25,000) and the bonus depreciation (the §179 deduction must be applied first and then the bonus depreciation) to produce a sizable first-year tax deduction. However, the vehicle cannot exceed a gross unloaded vehicle weight of 14,000 pounds. Caution: Business autos are 5-year class life property. If the taxpayer subsequently disposes of the vehicle early, before the end of the 5-year period, as many do, a portion of the §179 expense deduction will be recaptured and must be added back to income (SE income for self-employed individuals). The future ramifications of deducting all or a significant portion of the vehicle’s cost using §179 should be considered.

If you have questions related to best methods of deducting the business use of your vehicle or the documentation required, please give this office a call.

Homeowner Energy Tax Credits Get New Life

Recently passed legislation has given new life to two homeowner energy credits that had expired or were about to expire, providing renewed opportunities to homeowners wanting to take advantage of these credits and reduce their energy costs.

Non-business Energy Credit—The first of the two credits is what the tax code refers to as the Non-business Energy Credit. A more descriptive title would be an energy saving credit since it applies to improvements to the taxpayer’s existing primary home to make it more energy efficient. This credit was extended for two more years, allowing homeowners to claim the credit for qualifying energy improvements made in 2015 and 2016.

The credit generally applies to insulation, storm windows and doors, and certain types of energy-efficient roofing materials, air-conditioning and hot water systems.

The credit is 10% of the cost of the energy-saving items but does not apply to the cost of installation and is limited to a lifetime maximum of $500. So if you have taken advantage of this credit in the past and received $500 or more in credit in a prior year, you cannot claim any additional credit.

In addition to the $500 overall limitation, there are also per-item limitations on the credit; for example, qualified windows and skylights—$200, qualified hot water boiler—$150 and qualified energy-efficient equipment—$300.

The credit is nonrefundable and can only be used to offset income taxes (including the alternative minimum tax).

Residential Energy Efficient Property Credit—The second credit to be extended is called the Residential Energy Efficient Property Credit. Better known as the home solar credit, it also provides credit for wind energy systems, geothermal systems and fuel cell systems.

The credit is generally 30% of the qualified property and installation costs, subject to some limitations for fuel cell and geothermal systems.

The credit, which was scheduled to expire after 2016, has been extended through 2021, but only for solar electric and solar hot water systems (excluding swimming pools). In addition, the credit percentage is phased out beginning after 2019. The following are the credit percentages allowed through 2021:

  • 2009 through 2021: No annual limit
  • 2009–2019: 30%
  • 2020: rate reduced to 26% and only on solar-related systems
  • 2021: rate reduced to 22% and only on solar-related systems

There is no limit on the actual credit other than the credit percentage. It is a nonrefundable credit and can be used to offset income tax liability (including the AMT). However, if the credit is unused because it exceeds the income tax amount, it can be carried over to another year as long as the credit has not expired.

Things to Consider—When considering whether or not to go to the expense of installing a solar system, you need to consider a number of issues:

  1. Is it cost effective considering your electric usage?
  2. How will you pay for it?
  3. If you finance it are the terms and interest rate reasonable for your financial situation?
  4. How will it affect your property’s value?
  5. Will you be able to benefit from the tax credits?

Installing solar is a big financial commitment and should be considered carefully. Don’t let a solar system salesperson rush you into a decision. If you need assistance analyzing the financial and tax aspects of installing a solar system, please give this office a call before you sign on the dotted line.

Affordable Care Act Reporting Relief for Employers

Beginning for the 2015 tax year, Applicable Large Employers (ALEs) are required to file Forms 1095-C and 1094-C with the IRS and provide a copy of the 1095-C to each of their employees. An ALE is generally an employer with 50 or more equivalent full time employees (EFTEs) in the prior year. Even though ALE’s with 99 or fewer EFTEs are not subject to the insurance mandate for 2015, they are subject to the 1094-C and 1095-C filing requirements for 2015.

IRS Form 1095 Reporting Extension

Because this is the first year for this requirement, the IRS has decided to provide first year (2015) filing relief for Forms 1095-B and 1095-C. The due dates for furnishing these forms are extended as follows:

  • The due date for providing the 2015 Form 1095-B and the 2015 Form 1095-C to the insured and employees is extended from February 1, 2016, to March 31, 2016.
  • The due date for health coverage providers and employers to furnish the 2015 Form 1094-B and the 2015 Form 1094-C to the IRS is extended from February 29, 2016, to May 31, 2016 if not filing electronically.
  • The due date for health coverage providers and employers electronically filing the 2015 Form 1094-B and the 2015 Form 1094-C with the IRS is extended from March 31, 2016, to June 30, 2016.

While the IRS is prepared to accept information reporting returns beginning in January 2016, employers and other coverage providers who can’t meet the original deadlines are encouraged to furnish statements and file the information returns as soon as they are ready.

The information provided to individuals on their copy of Form 1095-B or 1095-C is generally used to confirm that the individual had minimum essential coverage (and thus avoid the penalty that applies when not covered for the full year). However, with the extension of the filing dates for these forms, individuals may not have the forms in hand before filing their 2015 returns. For 2015 only, individuals who rely on other information received from their coverage providers about their coverage for purposes of filing their returns need not amend their returns once they receive Form 1095-B or Form 1095-C or any corrections, according to the IRS.

Likewise, individuals who, when filing their 2015 income tax returns, rely upon other information received from employers about their offers of coverage for purposes of determining eligibility for the premium tax credit need not amend their returns once they receive their Forms 1095-C or any corrected Forms 1095-C.