Was Your Refund Too High or Did You Owe Taxes? You Probably Need to Adjust Your W-4

If you are a wage earner and that is your primary source of income and you received a very large refund—or worse, if you owed money—then your employer is not withholding the correct amount of tax (but it probably isn’t your employer’s fault). Sure, you like a big refund, but you have to remember you are only getting your own money back that was over-withheld in the first place. Why not bank it and have access to it all year long instead of providing Uncle Sam with an interest-free loan?

Employers withhold tax based upon the information you provide them on Form W-4, and to adjust your withholding you will need to provide your employer with an updated W-4. Although the W-4 appears to be an easy form to fill out, this is where many taxpayers go wrong because they have other income, itemize their deductions or qualify for various tax credits.

You can solve this problem by using the IRS’s online W-4 calculator that helps taxpayers determine the correct amount of allowances to claim on their W-4. It takes into account a variety of issues, including itemized deductions, other income, tax credits, and tax already withheld.

You will need the following available before using the IRS calculator:

  • Your (and your spouse’s if you file jointly) most recent pay stub
  • A copy of your most recent income tax return

You will be required to estimate some values, so remember the results are only going to be as accurate as the input you provide.

Click Here To Access The IRS Withholding Calculator

Once you have determined the filing status and allowances to claim using the IRS calculator, download a copy of Form W-4, Employee’s Withholding Allowance Certificate, fill it in and give it to your employer.

Caution: If you are uncomfortable using the IRS’s online calculator, don’t understand some of the terminology, or have multiple jobs or a working spouse, you may need professional help to determine the correct number of W-4 allowances. Also the federal W-4 allowances may not translate properly for your state withholding.

Tip: Once your employer has implemented the new W-4 allowance, double-check the withholding to make sure it is approximately what you had intended. It is not uncommon for errors to occur in an employer’s payroll department that could lead to unpleasant surprises at tax time.

If you are self-employed, you generally pay estimated taxes instead of having payroll withholding. You may be self-employed and also have salaried employment, or your spouse may have payroll income or be self-employed. There are a multitude of possible combinations. If so, the IRS withholding calculator is not suitable for your needs, and you will probably need professional assistance in determining a combination of estimated taxes and payroll withholding.

Please call this office for assistance in preparing your W-4s and determining your estimated tax payments.

Are You Caring for a Disabled Family Member?

Many taxpayers prefer to care for ill or disabled family members in their homes as opposed to placing them in nursing homes, but doing this can be expensive, time-consuming, and exhausting. The government also recognizes home care as a means of reducing the government’s costs in terms of caring for individuals who otherwise would be institutionalized (because they require the type of care that is normally provided in a hospital, nursing facility, or intermediate care facility).

To promote home care and reduce the government’s institutional care expenses, Medicaid (through state agencies) pays home caregivers a small wage (usually reported on Form W-2 but sometimes on Form 1099-MISC) referred to as a Medicaid waiver payment to care for an individual in the care provider’s home.

The IRS historically has taken the position that these payments were taxable income to the caregiver. However, in a notice issued in 2014, the IRS announced that, if the care met certain requirements, it would no longer challenge the excludability of these wages and instead would treat them in the same manner as excludable difficulty-of-care payments under the foster care payments rule. This is the case even when the caregiver and the individual being cared for are related.

Therefore, the exclusion can be applied to all future years and to all prior open years if the following requirements are met:

  • The compensation must be required due to a physical, mental, or emotional handicap with respect to which the State has determined that there is a need for additional compensation.
  • The care must be provided in the care provider’s home. The “provider’s home” may be the care recipient’s home if the care provider resides there and regularly performs the routines of the provider’s private life, such as sharing meals and holidays with family. In contrast a care provider who sleeps at the care recipient’s home several nights a week but on weekends and holidays resides with his or her own family in a separate home would not be providing the care in the care provider’s home and would not qualify to exclude the Medicaid waiver payments received.
  • The payments must be designated as compensation for qualified foster care or difficulty of care.
  • To be excludable, the care payments are limited to a maximum of five individuals age 19 and older or ten individuals age 18 and younger.

Since these payments are now treated the same as qualified foster care difficulty-of-care payments, and since compensation for qualified foster care payments is mandatorily excluded, Medicaid waiver payments are also mandatorily excluded. That is, the care provider receiving these payments may not choose to include them in income.

This change is a double-edged sword, as some lower-income caregivers were previously able to qualify for the earned income tax credit (EITC) based upon this income.

The EITC is a refundable federal tax credit for lower-income taxpayers with earned income. The amount of credit is based on income and increases based on the number of children that the taxpayer has (qualified children include those under age 19 and full-time students under the age of 24; there is no age limit when the child is permanently and totally disabled).

Now, since these Medicaid payments are mandatorily excludable, the compensation no longer counts as earned income for the EITC.

On the other hand, those with substantial other income will welcome the IRS policy change, as it reduces their income and thus their income tax.

Still other care providers—those with earned income from other sources—may benefit from both the reduction of income and the EITC. The EITC phases out for higher-income individuals, so with the Medicaid waiver payment excluded, these individuals’ modified adjusted gross incomes may be reduced enough to qualify for the EITC based on their other earned income. These individuals also may benefit from a lower income tax based upon the exclusion.

As you can see, the impact of the exclusion can be quite different depending upon your particular circumstances. If you are receiving Medicaid waiver payments and have not yet dealt with the exclusion, please call this office to see how excluding these payments might affect you.

What Are the Tax Implications of Paying or Receiving Alimony?

Recently divorced individuals may pay or receive alimony. If this is your situation, here are some tips for how to correctly treat the payments on your tax return.

The first consideration is the definition of alimony. There are actually two definitions of alimony—one for payments made under divorce decrees and separation agreements established before 1985 and another for agreements established since that time. For the purposes of this article, only the rules for post-1984 decrees and agreements will be discussed.

For post-1984 decrees and agreements, alimony has the following requirements:

  • The payments must be in cash paid to a spouse, ex-spouse or third party on behalf of a spouse or ex-spouse, and the payments must be made after the divorce decree is finalized. If made under a separation agreement, the payments must be made after the execution of that agreement.
  • The payments must be required by a decree or instrument incident to divorce, a written separation agreement, or a support decree.
  • The payments cannot be designated as child support. Child support payments are neither income for the recipient nor a deduction for the payer.
  • Payments made while spouses or ex-spouses share the same household don’t qualify as alimony. This is true even if the spouses live separately within a dwelling unit.
  • The payments must end upon the death of the payee.
  • The payments cannot be contingent on the status of a child. This is to prevent child support from being disguised as deductible alimony.

If payments you receive from or make to a spouse or former spouse meet the definition of alimony, those payments are taxable for the recipient and deductible for the payer. There is one exception to this rule, however: A divorce decree or separation agreement can designate that alimony payments are neither deductible nor taxable. If this is the case, the payments are not reportable on either party’s tax return.

Here are some additional issues that should be considered.

  • The IRS requires that a taxpayer deducting alimony include the payee’s Social Security Number (SSN) on his or her tax return. Thus, the recipient must provide his or her SSN to the payer.
  • The IRS has noted that a significant number of taxpayers incorrectly report their alimony by either understating the income or overstating the amount paid. As a result, the IRS computer compares the amounts listed on the payer’s and recipient’s tax returns, and it will initiate a correspondence audit where there is a discrepancy.
  • The recipient of alimony payments may treat alimony payments as compensation even if those payments are that person’s only income. This allows alimony recipients to save for their retirement by making either Traditional or Roth IRA contributions, the rules for which require the contributor to have earned income or compensation. Alimony income satisfies this requirement.
  • If a divorce decree or other written instrument or agreement calls for both alimony and child support, and the person making the payments pays less than the total required, the payments apply first to child support. Any remaining amount is then considered alimony.
  • There is no income tax withholding from alimony payments, so the recipient may need to consider making estimated tax payments.

Other complications can occur that are not addressed here. If you have such complications or wish to discuss alimony as it applies to your circumstances, please give this office a call.

Understanding the Fine Points of Capital Gains and Losses

There is a category of income resulting from the sale of capital assets that receives special treatment for tax purposes.

A capital asset is defined to include property of any kind, whether held for business or personal use. Capital assets include all kinds of property, tangible and intangible; examples include land, buildings, plants and machinery, vehicles, furniture, jewelry, goodwill, tenancy rights, patents, trademarks, stocks and securities, mutual funds and homes.

Capital Gains – Generally, capital gains receive special tax rates if you have owned the capital asset for over a year, referred to as long-term capital gains. These special rates are 0%, 15% and 20% and are based on your regular tax bracket.

Thus:

  • To the extent your regular tax bracket is less than 25%, the capital gains tax is zero.
  • To the extent your regular tax bracket is 25% but less than 39.6%, the capital gains tax is 15%.
  • To the extent your regular tax bracket is 39.6% or greater, the capital gains tax is 20%.

However, if the capital asset was held less than a year and a day, referred to as short-term capital gains, the gains are taxed at regular tax rates.

Capital Losses – For capital assets used personally, such as your car, home, jewelry, household items, etc., no losses are allowed. Business and investment losses are allowed and can offset gains but can only produce a maximum net loss for the year of $3,000 ($1,500 if filing as married separate). Any losses not allowed because of the annual net loss limit are carried forward to the next year.

Gains and Losses – These are determined by subtracting the capital asset’s basis from the proceeds from sale, net of selling expenses. The basis of an asset is generally what you paid for it, but there are exceptions.

  • Gift – If the asset was a gift, your basis will be the giver’s basis at the time of the gift.
  • Inherited – If you inherit an asset, your basis generally is the fair market value of the asset on the date of the decedent’s death.
  • Business – The basis of a business asset is its “adjusted basis,” which is the cost adjusted for depreciation, improvements and casualty losses. In addition, there may be an element of ordinary income as a result of recaptured depreciation or reduction of basis due to cancellation of debt.
  • Investments – Your original basis of shares of stock will need to be adjusted for events such as stock splits, spin-offs and dividend reinvestments.
  • Personal Use – Even the basis of personal use property may be adjusted because of improvements, casualty losses and cancellation of debt.

Other Issues:

  • Net Investment Income – The Affordable Care Act included an additional tax on net investment income for higher-income taxpayers. This 3.8% tax applies to net investment income of individuals with modified adjusted gross incomes in excess of:
    $200,000 for unmarried taxpayers,
    $250,000 for married taxpayers filing jointly,
    $125,000 for married taxpayers filing separately.
  • Home Sale Exclusion – Where you have a gain from a primary residence you used and owned for 2 of the 5 years preceding the sale, married couples filing jointly can generally exclude $500,000 of the gain, and others can exclude $250,000. There are numerous special rules associated with home sales; call for additional information.
  • Wash Sales – To prevent taxpayers from selling a stock or security to produce a tax loss and then immediately buying it back, the tax code includes wash sale rules that prevent the loss from being claimed if the stock is repurchased 30 days before or after the sale resulting in the loss.

There are numerous other issues not covered in this article that can come into play depending upon your particular circumstances. If you are anticipating the sale of an asset that will result in a substantial gain or loss, you are encouraged to contact this office prior to the transaction to ensure you get the maximum benefits of the tax laws.

Tax Benefits for Members of the Clergy

Members of the clergy may qualify for two unique tax benefits: a tax-free parsonage allowance and exemption from self-employment tax on their ministerial earnings. Here are the details for both.

Parsonage/Rental Allowance Exclusion from Income – A “minister of the gospel” can qualify for the rental allowance exclusion from income if the home or rental allowance is provided as remuneration for services that are ordinarily the duties of a minister of the gospel. The following are qualifications and details for the exclusion allowance:

  • The allowance is excludable only to the extent that it is used for expenses related to the minister’s housing—e.g. rent, mortgage payments, utilities, repairs, etc.
  • The rental allowance is not excludable to the extent that it exceeds reasonable compensation for the minister’s services.
  • The allowance only applies to the minister’s primary residence.
  • The allowance cannot exceed the fair rental value of the home, including furnishings and appurtenances such as a garage, plus the cost of utilities.
  • The employing organization must designate the allowance by official action in advance of the payment. In addition, for a minister employed by a local congregation, the designation must come from the local church instead of the church’s national organization.
  • The portion of the minister’s business expenses attributable to tax-free income is not deductible. This rule does not apply to home mortgage interest or taxes, which are deductible in full if the minister itemizes deductions.
  • Retired clergy can exclude the rental value of a home or a rental allowance furnished as compensation for past services and authorized under a convention of their national church organization. However, the exclusion does not extend to the widow or widower of a retired clergyperson.

Minister’s Exemption from Self-Employment Tax – A minister who hasn’t taken a vow of poverty is subject to self-employment tax (SE tax) on income from services as a minister. (The church or other employing organization does not withhold Social Security or Medicare taxes from the minister’s compensation.) Non-reimbursed business expenses are deductible in computing earnings subject to SE tax, even though the expenses are deductible only as itemized deductions for income tax computation purposes.

An ordained minister may be granted an exemption from SE tax for ministerial services only. To qualify, the church employing the minister must qualify as a religious organization under Code Section 501(c)(3). Application for exemption is filed with Form 4361, Application for Exemption from Self-Employment Tax for Use by Ministers, Members of Religious Orders, and Christian Science Practitioners.

To claim the exemption from SE tax, the minister must meet all of the following conditions and file Form 4361 requesting exemption from SE tax. The minister must:

  • Be conscientiously opposed to public insurance because of his or her individual religious considerations (not because of a general conscience), or be opposed because of the principles of his or her religious denomination.
  • File for other than economic reasons.
  • Inform the church’s or order’s ordaining, commissioning, or licensing body that he or she is opposed to public insurance if a minister or a member of a religious order (other than a vow-of-poverty member). This requirement doesn’t apply to Christian Science practitioners or readers.
  • Establish that the organization that ordained, commissioned, or licensed him or her, or his or her religious order, is a tax-exempt religious organization.
  • Establish that the organization is a church or a convention or association of churches.
  • Not have previously elected to be covered by Social Security by filing Form 2031, Revocation of Exemption from Self-Employment Tax for Use by Ministers, Members of Religious Orders, and Christian Science Practitioners.

The Form 4361 application must be filed on or before the extended due date of the return for the second tax year for which the individual has net earnings from self-employment of $400 or more (part of which is from services as a minister). A late application will be rejected.

The time for applying starts over when a minister who was not opposed to accepting public insurance (i.e., Social Security benefits) re-enters a new ministry (e.g., adopts a new set of beliefs that include opposition to public insurance with a different church). However, the IRS has said that there is no second chance to apply for exemption by a minister who is ordained in a different church but whose belief regarding public insurance doesn’t change (i.e., the minister opposed acceptance of public insurance in both faiths).

Careful consideration should be made before applying for the exemption from SE tax since once the decision has been made, the election is irrevocable.

If you have questions related to either of these issues, please give this office a call.

Big Business Write-Offs Available

With the enactment of the Protecting Americans from Tax Hikes (PATH) Act, Congress made two significant business-friendly changes in the tax law, extending bonus depreciation and making the Section 179 deduction’s higher expensing amount permanent. This article examines these changes so that you can take full advantage of them in your trade or business.

Section 179 Deduction – This provision allows a business owner or entity to immediately expense, rather than capitalize (depreciate), the cost of new or used tangible property—both personal property and certain real property—placed in service during the tax year. The maximum amount is adjusted annually for inflation and is $500,000 for 2016. However, based on Code Section 179, the maximum amount is reduced dollar-for-dollar by the cost of property placed in service during the tax year in excess of $2,010,000 (for 2016; this is also inflation-adjusted annually).

The PATH Act also dealt with the option to revoke the Section 179 election without the consent of the IRS, making it permanent as well; however, once an election is made and revoked, it becomes irrevocable.

In addition, the PATH Act permanently allows the ability to apply Section 179 expensing to off-the-shelf computer software and qualified real property, which is defined as qualified leasehold or restaurant property and retail improvements. In addition, the $250,000 expense limitation and the carryover limitations have been removed. Finally, air conditioning and heating units are eligible for expensing after December 31, 2015.

Bonus Depreciation – Although the PATH Act did not make bonus depreciation permanent, it extended it through 2019 by slowly phasing it out by reducing the bonus percentage. Bonus depreciation allows businesses to take a depreciation deduction in the first year that the property, which must be acquired new, is placed in service. This depreciation can be for as much as 50% in the years 2012 through 2017 before phasing out in 2018 and 2019; it will no longer be available after 2019 without further Congressional action. The following are the bonus depreciation percentage rates through 2019:

  • 50% through 2017,
  • 40% for 2018 and
  • 30% for 2019.

Bonus depreciation generally applies to property with a class life of no more than 20 years. It also applies to:

  • Qualified leasehold property (qualified interior improvement to nonresidential property after the building is placed in service).
  • Certain fruit- or nut-bearing plants planted or grafted before January 1, 2020.

Luxury Automobile Rates – Bonus depreciation also impacts the first-year deduction for automobiles and small trucks; in the past, this has added $8,000 to the first-year allowable deduction. Now that the bonus depreciation is being extended and phased out, so is the bonus allowance for automobiles and small trucks. Thus, the luxury auto rates will increase based on the following bonus depreciation rates:

  • 2015 through 2017 – $8,000
  • 2018 – $6,400
  • 2019 – $4,800

If you need assistance regarding strategies for your business’s use of the Section 179 expense deduction or bonus depreciation, please call this office.