Twelve Common Tax Problems to Avoid

If you’re one of those who gets worked up over filing your tax return, there are specific steps you can take to help ease the struggle and avoid the most common tax issues that are reported each year.

Here are the top 12 tax issues, broken down into categories for business owners and individual taxpayers, and how everybody can minimize their impact this year.

If you own your own business:
1. Avoid penalties and fines by understanding the rules about deductions.
Though tax deductions are a great way to minimize taxes when they’re used the right way, they are frequently abused and overused. The whole point of deductions is to provide businesses the ability to eliminate taxes for items they purchased in the furtherance of their business. Though this includes capital expenditures, client gifts, and business travel, it does not mean that you can include expenses that you incur while talking about your business while you’re on vacation with your family. The IRS has published rules about how much of each expense can be deducted, what type of expense can be deducted and under what circumstance. If you include something that is questionable, you’re going to be asked to justify it, and if you can’t, you’re going to end up worse off than if you hadn’t made an attempt in the first place.

2. Failing to keep track of business expenses that can be deducted.
The flip side of people try to game the system by taking expenses to which they’re not entitled is people failing to deduct expenses that they could have because they’re not careful about keeping track. This frequently happens when people don’t have a credit card or account that is dedicated specifically to their business expenses, or when cash is used when traveling or attending business meetings. When you don’t deduct legitimate expenses, you’re cheating yourself out of tax savings, so start keeping all receipts, and talk to a tax professional so that you understand exactly what you can write off, and what you can’t.

Individual taxpayer problems:
3. Failing to choose a reputable professional tax preparer.
It’s nice of your cousin or next-door neighbor to offer to help, and you might save money by going to a storefront tax preparer that claims they will do the whole job quickly and at a low cost, but an awful lot of taxpayers end up in big trouble as a result of these types of offers. Whether the issue is incompetence or fraud, plenty of people are finding themselves facing penalties and fines or having their refund money stolen as a result of choosing the wrong tax preparer. Do your homework and be willing to spend the money to have your return prepared by a legitimate professional. The things to watch out for include promises of specific refund amounts prior to reviewing your documentation, fees that are based on the amount of your refund, and fly-by-night operations that appear right before tax season and then are gone on April 16th. If you do find a fraudulent tax preparer has victimized you, contact the IRS and attorney right away who will pursue justice and act as your advocate.

4. Filing after the deadline.
If you were late in filing last year, you had plenty of company – the IRS reported that almost 45 million taxpayers waited until April. But filing late is a mistake. You are likely to end up paying extra money in fines and penalties, and the later you are, the more likely you are to make errors that will make the entire process take longer and may lead to audits and delays. More importantly, if your lateness is a recurring theme and you still haven’t gotten in paperwork from previous years, it affects the accuracy of your current return and may impact your ability to get any refund or credit that you’re owed.

5. Failure to file a return at all.
Plenty of people disregard the tax laws and don’t submit a return. Many of them may not actually owe any taxes, while others reason that since they can’t afford to pay what they owe, they’re better off not submitting anything. This is absolutely wrong. If you are anticipating a problem with submitting the tax that you owe, you can file an installment agreement request that will help you set up a schedule of periodic payments instead of submitting the amount in full at tax time. This is a much better option than not filing, as even though you may have to pay some interest or penalties, they won’t be as punishing as the fees you’ll pay for failure to file a return. You can also choose to file an application for an automatic extension, which gives you more time to get the documentation together, if not the payments. Again, penalties and interest rates are much lower when you avail yourself of this option rather than failing to file.

6. Simple mathematical errors
Remember when you were a kid in math class and you’d get a quiz back with mistakes that you’d have spotted if you’d just double checked? Same is true with your taxes. Take the time to go back over your math before you sign on the dotted line or send your return in. It just takes a few extra minutes, and it can save a lot of time and aggravation. Alternatively, use a professional tax preparer and then you don’t have to worry about it at all.

7. Administrative errors
Just as you need to check that you’ve done your math computations correctly, you also need to take the time to take a second look at the forms that you’re filling out to make sure that you’ve filled in every box, used all the appropriate forms, and filled in your information correctly. You’d be amazed at how many people transpose the numbers of their social security number or whose handwriting is so bad that it can’t be read by the IRS and gets sent back. Take your time, be careful and do it right to save yourself a headache in the future. A few areas worth double-checking include:

  • Social Security Number
  • Bank Account Numbers and Routing Numbers
  • Signature and Date Lines

8. Not staying current with updates to tax laws.
Every year, there are new updates to the tax code that can make a big difference, and every year there are taxpayers who fail to take advantage of them because they simply weren’t aware that they existed. If you’re going to do your taxes yourself, take the time to stay up-to-date. Alternatively, you can work with a tax professional: part of their job is to know all the new laws and apply them to your best advantage.

9. Don’t use the wrong filing status.
Single. Head of Household. Married filing jointly. Married filing single. It can be very confusing to know which benefits you most, and choosing wrong can make an enormous difference. There are a lot of things that married couples are entitled to if they file jointly, and a lot of disadvantages to filing single. Take the time, do the math so that you know you’re doing the right thing.

10. Clutter may be bad, but you should hold on to your old tax returns.
No matter how much you try to keep it simple and purge old paperwork, your past tax return is one thing you really need to hold on to in case the IRS comes back and asks questions or you realize that you’re entitled to a refund if you file an amended return. Having the paperwork handy means you can give it to attorneys, mortgage brokers, accountants and the IRS itself in case they ask for it or if providing it would help your situation.

11. Learn about and take advantage of every potential deduction
Of all the painful mistakes that taxpayers make, overpaying is at the top of everybody’s list. What could be worse than giving the government more of your hard-earned money than you needed to? The best way to avoid this mistake is to go through the lists of possible deductions and write down every one you might be able to take, then see if you can use it.

12. Not using the right tax forms for your needs or status.
Though most people are familiar with the 1040 form, it’s not necessarily the right one for everyone. While the 1040 works for those who itemize or who own their own business, people who are W-2 employees without a lot of complicating factors may be better off using the 1040EZ form. Likewise, you need to make sure that there aren’t mistakes on any of the paperwork that you’re handing in, whether it’s your W-2 or information from any of your banks. Finally, many people are taking advantage of electronic filing to get their returns in on time and get their refunds more quickly, and if you’re doing that too, make sure that you’ve input the correct.

If there are errors on your W-2 Forms or other financial forms, make sure you address them sooner rather than later, or else the IRS will become involved. If you’re filing electronically, double check every digit of your information to avoid delays.

What if you can’t avoid a tax issue?
No matter how hard you try, at some point, you may find yourself facing one or more of the issues cited above (or something entirely different that we haven’t included). If that happens to you, contact us immediately for expert professional help.

Three Common Family Tax Mistakes

When it comes to transactions between family members, the tax laws are frequently overlooked, if not outright trampled upon. The following are three commonly encountered situations and the tax ramifications associated with each.

Renting to a Relative – When a taxpayer rents a home to a relative for long-term use as a principal residence, the rental’s tax treatment depends upon whether the property is rented at fair rental value (the rental value of comparable properties in the area) or at less than the fair rental value.

Rented at Fair Rental Value – If the home is rented to the relative at a fair rental value, it is treated as an ordinary rental reported on Schedule E, and losses are allowed, subject to the normal passive loss limitations.

Rented at Less Than Fair Rental Value – When a home is rented at less than the fair rental value, it is treated as being used personally by the owner; the expenses associated with the home are not deductible, and no depreciation is allowed. The result is that all of the rental income is fully taxable and reported as “other income” on the 1040. If the taxpayer were able to itemize their deductions, the property taxes on the home would be deductible, subject to the $10,000 cap on state and local taxes effective starting with 2018. The taxpayer might also be able to deduct the interest on the rental home by treating the home as their second home, up to the debt limits on a first and second home.

Possible Gift Tax Issue – There also could be a gift tax issue, depending if the difference between the fair rental value and the rent actually charged to the tenant-relative exceeds the annual gift tax exemption, which is $15,000 for 2018. If the home has more than one occupant, the amount of the difference would be prorated to each occupant, so unless there was a large difference ($15,000 per occupant, in 2018) between the fair rental value and actual rent, or other gifting was also involved, a gift tax return probably wouldn’t be needed in most cases.

Below-Market Loans – It is not uncommon to encounter situations where there are loans between family members, with no interest being charged or the interest rate being below market rates.

A below-market loan is generally a gift or demand loan where the interest rate is less than the applicable federal rate (AFR). The tax code defines the term “gift loan” as any below-market loan where the forgoing of interest is in the nature of a gift, while a “demand loan” is any loan that is payable in full at any time, at the lender’s demand. The AFR is established by the Treasury Department and posted monthly. As an example, the AFR rates for October 2018 were:

Term AFR (Annual) Oct. 2018
3 years or less 2.55%
Over 3 years but not over 9 years 2.83%
Over 9 years 2.99%

Generally, for income tax purposes:

Borrower – Is treated as paying interest at the AFR rate in effect when the loan was made. The interest is deductible for tax purposes if it otherwise qualifies. However, if the loan amount is $100,000 or less, the amount of the forgone interest deduction cannot exceed the borrower’s net investment income for the year.

Lender – Is treated as gifting to the borrower the amount of the interest between the interest actually paid, if any, and the AFR rate. Both the interest actually paid and the forgone interest are treated as investment interest income.

Exception – The below-market loan rules do not apply to gift loans directly between individuals if the loan amount is $10,000 or less. This exception does not apply to any gift loan directly attributable to the purchase or carrying of income-producing property.

Parent Transferring a Home’s Title to a Child – When an individual passes away, the fair market value (FMV) of all their assets is tallied up. If the value exceeds the lifetime estate tax exemption ($11,180,000 in 2018; about half that amount in 2017), then an estate tax return must be filed, which is rarely the case, given the generous amount of the exclusion. Because the FMV is used in determining the estate’s value, that same FMV, rather than the decedent’s basis, is the basis assigned to the decedent’s property that is inherited by the beneficiaries. The basis is the value from which gain or loss is measured, and if the date-of-death value is higher than the decedent’s basis was, this is often referred to as a step-up in basis.

If an individual gifts an asset to another person, the recipient generally receives it at the donor’s basis (no step-up in basis).

So, it is generally better for tax purposes to inherit an asset than to receive it as a gift.

Example: A parent owns a home worth (FMV) $350,000 that was originally purchased for $75,000. If the parent gifts the home to the child and the child sells the home for $350,000, the child will have a taxable gain of $275,000 ($350,000 − $75,000). However, if the child inherits the home, the child’s basis is the FMV at the date of the parent’s death. So in this case, if the date-of-death FMV is $350,000 and if the home is sold for $350,000, there will be no taxable gain.

This brings us to the issue at hand. A frequently encountered problem is when an elderly parent signs the title of his or her home over to a child or other beneficiary and continues to reside in the home. Tax law specifies that an individual who transfers a title and retains the right to live in a home for their lifetime has established a de facto life estate. As such, when the individual dies, the home’s value is included in the decedent’s estate, and no gift tax return is applicable. As a result, the beneficiary’s basis would be the FMV at the date of the decedent’s death.

On the other hand, if the elderly parent does not continue to reside in the home after transferring the title, no life estate has been established, and as discussed earlier, the transfer becomes a gift, and the child’s (gift recipient’s) basis would be the parent’s basis in the home at the date of the gift. In addition, if the child were to sell the home, the home gain exclusion would not apply unless the child moves into the home and meets the two-out-of-five-years use and ownership tests.

Another frequently encountered situation is when the parent simply adds the child’s name to the title, while retaining a partial interest. If the home is subsequently sold, the parent, provided they met the two-out-of-five-years use and ownership rules, would be able to exclude $250,000 ($500,000 if the parent is married and filing a joint return) of his, her or their portion of the gain. A gift tax return would be required for the year the child’s name was included on the title, and the child’s basis would be the portion of the parent’s adjusted basis transferred to the child. As mentioned previously, the child would not be able to use the home gain exclusion unless the child occupied and owned the home for two of the five years preceding the sale.

These are only three examples of the many tax complications that can occur in family transactions. It is better to structure a transaction within the parameters of tax law in the first place than to suffer unexpected consequences afterwards. We highly recommended that you contact us before completing any family financial transaction.

Understanding Tax-Deferred Investing

When you are attempting to save money for your children’s future education or your retirement, you may do so in a number of ways, Strategies include investing in the stock market, buying real estate for income and appreciation, or simply saving money in education savings accounts or retirement plans.

Knowing how these various savings vehicles are taxed is important for choosing the ones best suited to your particular circumstances. Let’s begin by examining the tax nuances of IRA accounts.

Individual Retirement Account (IRA) – There are two types of IRA accounts—the traditional and the Roth—and even though they are both IRAs, there is a huge difference in their tax treatment.

  • Traditional IRA – Contributions to a traditional IRA are generally tax-deductible unless you have a retirement plan at work, and then the IRA contribution may not be deductible if you are a higher-income taxpayer. All of the earnings from a traditional IRA are tax-deferred, meaning they are not taxable currently but will be when funds from the account are withdrawn; since the contributions were tax-deductible, everything you withdraw from the traditional IRA will be taxable. An exception to that last statement is when you didn’t claim a deduction for money that you contributed to the IRA, either by choice or when the law didn’t allow a deduction. In this case, withdrawals from a traditional IRA would be prorated as partly taxable and partly tax-free.
  • Roth IRA – Roth IRA contributions are never tax-deductible, but the earnings are never taxable if the account meets a 5-year aging rule and the distributions begin after you reach age 59.5.

So, which is best? Well, that depends upon your particular circumstances. If you need the tax deduction to fund the IRA, then by all means use the traditional IRA. However, if you can afford to the make a contribution without the deduction, then the Roth IRA will be the best because everything is tax-free when withdrawn, usually at retirement.

Retirement Plans – The tax code provides for a variety of retirement plans, both for employees and for self-employed individuals. These include: 401(k) deferred compensation plans, Keogh self-employed retirement plans, simplified employee plans (SEP), tax-sheltered annuity (403(b)) plans – most commonly for teachers and employees of nonprofits), and government employee plans (457) plans. For the most part, the consequences of these arrangements are the same as for a traditional IRA, allowing the amount contributed to be excluded from income (deferred), and then the distributions are fully taxable when they are taken. However, 401(k) and 457 plans may have a Roth option, under which there is no income exclusion for the contributions but the distributions at retirement are tax-free. If individuals have used both methods, the non-Roth contributions are deferred, and the earnings are fully taxable.

Bank Savings – When money is put away into a bank savings account or CD, the earnings are fully taxable in the year earned. However, after the tax on the annual earnings is paid, the full balance in the account is available, without any further tax.

Short- and Long-Term Capital Gains – Capital gains refers to the gain from the sale of capital assets – typically stocks, bonds, and real estate. Short-term capital gains are taxed at ordinary tax rates, while long-term capital gains enjoy special lower rates. For lower-income taxpayers, there is actually no tax on capital gains; for very high-income taxpayers, the capital gains rate maxes out at 20%, whereas the top regular tax rate for high-income taxpayers is 37%. However, for the average taxpayer, the capital gains rate is 15%, which provides a significant savings over the regular tax rates. To qualify for long-term treatment, the capital asset must be held for a year and a day.

Education Savings Accounts – The tax code provides two tax-advantaged plans that allow taxpayers to save for the cost of college for each eligible student: the Coverdell Education Savings Account and the Qualified Tuition Plan (frequently referred to as a Sec. 529 Plan). Neither provides tax-deductible contributions, but both plans’ earnings are tax-deferred and are tax-free if used for allowable expenses, such as tuition. Therefore, with either plan, the greatest benefit is derived by making contributions to the plan as soon as possible—even the day after a child is born—to accumulate years of investment earnings and maximize the benefits.

However, there are different limitations for the two plans, in that only $2,000 per year per student can be contributed to a Coverdell account, while huge amounts can be contributed to Sec. 529 plans, limited only by the estate-planning issues of each contributor and each state’s cap on account contributions, which goes into six figures.

Health Savings Accounts – A health savings account (HSA) can generally be established by taxpayers only if they have high-deductible health plans. The contributions are tax-deductible, the earnings accumulate tax-free, and the distributions are tax-free if used for qualified medical expenses. When part of an employer-sponsored plan, HSA contributions are excluded from the employee’s wages. Once the account owner reaches age 65, taxable but penalty-free distributions can be taken, even if they are not used to pay for medical expenses or to reimburse the taxpayer for medical expenses previously paid for out-of-pocket. Thus, these plans can serve as a combination tax-free medical reimbursement plan and taxable retirement savings arrangement. The maximum annual contribution is inflation adjusted; for 2018, it is $3,450 for self-only coverage and $6,900 for family coverage. Like other tax-advantaged plans, the key is to allow the account to grow through tax-deductible contributions and the accumulated earnings.

Unqualified Withdrawals – Be careful about making unqualified withdrawals – those that are taken before reaching retirement age, in the case of retirement plans, and those taken for unqualified expenses, in the case of education savings accounts and health savings accounts. Doing so can result in costly tax ramifications and potential penalties.

Like all tax matters, nothing is simple, and a myriad of rules apply to the foregoing arrangements. Please contact us for more information or a planning appointment.

Five Reasons to Amend a Previously Filed Tax Return

The most recent data from the IRS on individual tax returns indicates that of 131 million returns filed, about 5 million were expected to be amended. This comes to less than 4 percent, but that projection still affects a significant number of taxpayers. Filing an amended tax return can be a hassle that you definitely want to avoid if possible. But there are some situations where you’ll have to do so, and it’s prudent to seek out the help of a tax advisor who can guide you through the process. Here’s why you may need to file an amended tax return.

1. You made a math or data entry mistake and didn’t realize it until after you submitted your tax return.

For example, you added up your charitable deductions, and after filing your return, you realize you added them up incorrectly, and the difference was sizeable. Filing an amended return can correct that math error and get a refund.

Perhaps you were entering your gross income from your self-employed business into your software while it was late and you were tired, and you inadvertently transposed the numbers and entered the gross income as $78,000 when it was really $87,000. You will need an amended return to correct that error.

However, you would not usually amend a return if you incorrectly entered W-2 income since the IRS receives a copy of the W-2 and will compare it with what you reported and if there was an error, they will automatically make a correction and send you a bill or a refund as the case might be. The IRS website instructs taxpayers not to amend a return in such a situation.

The statute of limitations for refunds is three years for the due date the tax return and if the IRS has not automatically made the correction and you have a refund coming don’t let the statute of limitations expire before filing an amended return. That holds true for any situation were an amended return will result in a refund.

2. You used an incorrect filing status.

Single parents, caregivers of elderly parents, and recently married or divorced people often make the mistake of using “Single” status when it’s the wrong one. “Heads of Household” miss out on crucial tax benefits, while married people will generally need to use “Married Filing Separately” if they don’t wish to file a joint return with their spouse. Because filing status affects so many elements of your tax return, you need to file an amended return to pay additional taxes you owe or receive a refund once the correct one is used.

3. You didn’t realize that there was a tax benefit you qualified for, and you’d like to claim it now.

There are many frequently overlooked tax benefits a tax professional would be aware of that the average DIY person wouldn’t, such as the ability for most individuals and small business owners to make pension and profit-sharing contributions in a new year before the tax-filing deadline and still have it count for the current filing season.

This also works in reverse in that people accidentally claim benefits they weren’t actually entitled to. Often, the best way to know for sure is to consult a tax professional.

4. You had investing activities that affect your tax return.

Typically, you don’t realize a capital gain or loss until you actually sell an asset. But if securities become worthless, this results in a capital loss that needs to be reported the year it was deemed worthless, and not the year you discovered the fact. If this security was deemed worthless a long time ago, you may have to amend prior year returns to account for the capital loss.

This can be significant since you are limited to deducting $3,000 in capital losses from all of your other income and result in capital loss carryovers that last several years. If you have any other investment losses that were forgotten or miscalculated on your original tax return, filing an amended return is the next logical stop to ensure your carryovers are done correctly for future tax returns.

5. You received tax forms after filing your tax return.

If you were due a W-2 or 1099 form, you might not receive it when you’re initially preparing your taxes. It could be a surprise corrected form or the payer was just late sending it to you. But if you already filed your tax return, then got additional forms later on, amending your tax return becomes inevitable.

Amending your tax return can be a cumbersome process, especially if you’re self-employed and/or have a great deal of investing activity. Asking a tax professional to assist you with filing amended returns can eliminate the headaches that come with the process. Many even offer a free review of self-prepared returns and ask the right questions to determine if it’s worth it to amend this year’s return and any prior years’. You may also have to amend your state tax return(s), which can grow more complex if your residency is or was multistate.

Cryptocurrencies and Taxes

As our world has become more and more “digital,” it was only a matter of time before cryptocurrencies were developed. One of the first of these virtual currencies was Bitcoin, and the Bitcoin network came online in 2009. Since then, additional cryptocurrencies have been developed.

Cryptocurrencies are generally utilized for transactions by tech-savvy individuals and have a comparable value in real currency or take the place of real currency. These virtual currencies can be purchased with or exchanged into U.S. dollars, euros, and other real or virtual currencies.

Valuation – The value of a virtual currency is based upon market value, i.e., what a willing buyer will pay a willing seller – much like trading in stocks. On February 15, 2018, when this article was written and according to Oanda (an online currency converter), a Bitcoin, one of the more popular virtual currencies, was worth $9,025, and one was worth $995 one year earlier.

It took several years for the IRS to come up with guidance on how to deal to transactions involving virtual currencies. It finally issued Notice 2014-21 determining that virtual currency is treated as property and that the general tax principles applicable to property transactions apply to transactions using virtual currency. This can best be illustrated by example.

Example A: Taxpayer buys Bitcoins (BTC) to use when making online purchases without the need for a credit card. He buys one BTC for $2,425 and later uses it to buy goods (BTC was trading at $2,500 at the time he made his purchase). He has a $75 ($2,500 − $2,425) reportable capital gain. This is the same result that would have occurred if he had sold the BTC at the time of the purchase and used U.S. dollars to purchase the goods. This example points to the complicated record-keeping requirement to track BTC’s basis. Since this transaction was personal in nature, no loss would be allowed if the value of BTC had been less than $2,425 at the time when the goods were purchased.

Example B: Taxpayer buys Bitcoin (BTC) as an investment. The same rules apply as for stock transactions. Gains are taxable in the year realized, and any resulting loss, when combined with the other capital transactions for the year, are limited to $3,000 ($1,500 if a married taxpayer filing separate).

Character of the Gain or Loss – The character of the gain or loss generally depends on whether the virtual currency is a capital asset in the hands of the taxpayer. A taxpayer generally realizes capital gain or loss on the sale or exchange of virtual currency that is held as a capital asset. For example, stocks, bonds, and other investment property are generally capital assets. A taxpayer generally realizes ordinary gain or loss on the sale or exchange of virtual currency that he or she does not hold as a capital asset. Inventory and other property held mainly for sale to customers in a trade or business are examples of property that is not a capital asset.

Foreign Currency Transactions – Under currently applicable law, virtual currency is not treated as currency that could generate foreign currency gain or loss for U.S. federal tax purposes.

Foreign Bank and Financial Account (FBAR) Reporting – The IRS has stated a few years ago that virtual currency transactions need not be reported for purposes of Foreign Bank and Financial Account (FBAR) reporting. But the IRS cautioned that its position could change in the future. However, the IRS has not issued any announcements regarding a change in its position on FBAR filings for years through 2017.

Payment for Goods & Services – A taxpayer subject to U.S. taxation who receives virtual currency as payment for goods or services must, in computing gross business income, include the fair market value of the virtual currency, measured in U.S. dollars, as of the date that the virtual currency was received.

Acquiring Virtual Currency – One can go to online exchanges and purchase virtual currency. But care should be taken to make sure the exchange is reputable. Once you have the virtual currency in your online wallet, you are free to spend it with anyone who accepts that form of currency.

Virtual Currency Mining – Mining is a term used to describe how cryptographic information distributed within a virtual currency network is secured, authorized, and approved. In essence, it is the processing of payments that have taken place once they occur. It takes the place of banks, merchants’ accounts, and clearing houses like Visa. It essentially eliminates all of the third parties’ cuts of income from the transaction. It involves complex mathematical logarithms that need to be solved, and the mining process completes this task autonomously. For individuals who mine virtual currency, it is a trade or business, and they are subject to self-employment tax.

Apparently, virtual currency miners are also subject to Form 1099-K filing requirements if their transactions rise to the reporting threshold. In general, a third party that contracts with a substantial number of unrelated merchants to settle payments between the merchants and their customers is a third-party settlement organization (TPSO). A TPSO is required to report payments made to a merchant on a Form 1099-K, Payment Card and Third-Party Network Transactions. If, for the calendar year, both (1) the number of transactions settled for the merchant exceeds 200 and (2) the gross amount of payments made to the merchant exceeds $20,000, then 1099-K filing is required.

Employee Payments – If an employee is paid in virtual currency, then the fair market value of the virtual currency, measured in U.S. dollars, paid as wages is subject to federal income tax withholding, Federal Insurance Contributions Act (FICA) tax (Social Security and Medicare A), and Federal Unemployment Tax Act (FUTA) tax and must be reported on Form W-2, Wage and Tax Statement. The U.S. government doesn’t accept virtual currency for tax payments.

Independent Contractor Payments – The fair market value of virtual currency received for services performed as an independent contractor, measured in U.S. dollars as of the date of receipt, constitutes self-employment income to the independent contractor and is subject to the self-employment tax. Payments are subject to the normal 1099-MISC reporting requirement when the payments for the year measured in U.S. dollars are $600 or more.

IRS Enforcement Actions – Because fewer than 900 taxpayers reported virtual currency gains and losses each year on their tax returns from 2013 to 2015, the IRS is stepping up enforcement of the rules. Recently, the IRS won a court’s approval for a summons to obtain account and transaction information on more than 14,000 customers from Coinbase, a company that services buyers and sellers of Bitcoins. Based on the success in the Coinbase case, the IRS will likely expand its efforts to obtain information about cryptocurrency account owners from other companies dealing in Bitcoins and similar virtual currencies.

Also, beginning with 2018 returns, Sec. 1031 tax-deferred exchanges will only apply to real property; thus, investors in virtual currency who trade one type of virtual currency for another will be required to report their capital gains/losses and won’t be able to use the 1031 tax-deferral rules.

If you are investing, trading, or dealing in virtual currency and have any questions about how those activities will affect your tax situation, please give us a call.

Is Bunching Right for You?

 Note: The is one of a series of articles explaining how the various tax changes in the GOP’s Tax Cuts & Jobs Act (referred to as “the Act” in this article), which passed in late December of 2017, could affect you and your family, both in 2018 and future years. This series offers strategies that you can employ to reduce your tax liability under the new law.

The Act increased the standard deduction and placed new limitations on itemized deductions. Beginning with 2018 tax returns, the standard deductions will be:

  • $12,000 for single individuals and married people filing separately,
  • $18,000 for heads of household, and
  • $24,000 for married taxpayers filing jointly.

If your deductions exceed the standard deduction amount for your filing status, you are allowed to itemize the following deductions:

  • Medical expenses, to the extent they exceed 7.5% of your adjusted gross income (AGI);
  • Taxes paid during the year (for state or local income or sales tax and for real property or personal property taxes), limited to $10,000;
  • Home mortgage interest;
  • Investment interest;
  • Charitable contributions;
  • Gambling losses, to the extent of your gambling winnings; and
  • Certain infrequently encountered tier-1 miscellaneous deductions.

Are your itemized deductions typically roughly equal to the new standard deduction amount? If so, think about using a tax strategy known as bunching. In this technique, you take the standard deduction in one year and then itemize in the next. This is accomplished by planning the payment of your deductible expenses so as to maximize them in the years when you itemize deductions. Commonly bunched deductible expenses include medical expenses, taxes, and charitable contributions.

To clearly illustrate how bunching works, here are a few examples of deductible payments that generally provide enough flexibility:

  • Medical Expenses – Say that you contract with a dentist for your child’s braces. This dentist offers you the option of an up-front lump-sum payment or a payment plan. If you make the lump-sum payment, the entire cost will be credited in the year you paid it, thereby dramatically increasing your medical expenses for that year. If you do not have the cash available for the up-front payment, then you can pay by credit card, which is treated as a lump-sum payment for tax purposes. If you do so, you must realize that the interest on that payment is not deductible; you need to determine whether incurring the interest is worth the increased tax deduction. Another important issue related to medical deductions is that only the amount of medical expenses that exceeds 7.5% of your AGI is actually deductible. In addition, this 7.5% floor will increase to 10% after 2018. There is thus no tax benefit to bunching medical deductions if the total will be less than 7.5% of your AGI (or 10% beginning in 2019).
    If you have abnormally high income in the current year, you may wish to put off medical expense payments until the following year (e.g., if 10% of the following year’s income will be less than 7.5% of this year’s income).
  • Taxes – Property taxes are generally billed annually at midyear; most locales allow for these tax bills to be paid in semiannual or quarterly installments. Thus, you have the option of paying them all at once or paying them in installments. This provides the opportunity to bunch the tax payments by paying only one semiannual installment (or 2 quarterly installments) in one year and pushing off the other semiannual (or 2 quarterly) installments until the next year. Doing so allows you to deduct 1½ years of taxes in one year and half a year of taxes in the other. However, if you are thinking of making late property tax payments as a means of bunching, you should be cautious. Late payment penalties are likely to wipe out any potential tax savings.
    If you reside in a state that has a state income tax, any such tax that is paid or withheld during the year is deductible on federal taxes. For instance, if you are making quarterly estimated state tax payments, the fourth quarter estimated payment is generally due in January of the subsequent year. This gives you the opportunity to either make that payment before December 31 (thus enabling you to deduct the payment on the current year’s return) or pay it in January before the due date (thus enabling you to use it as a deduction in the subsequent year).
    Here is a word of caution about itemized tax deductions: Under the Act, a maximum of $10,000 is allowed under itemized tax deductions, so there is no benefit gained by prepaying taxes when your tax total is already $10,000 or more. In addition, taxes are not deductible at all under the alternative minimum tax, so individuals under that tax generally derive no benefits from itemized deductions.
  • Charitable Contributions – Charitable contributions are a nice fit for bunching because they are entirely at the taxpayer’s discretion. For example, if you normally tithe to your church, you can make your normal contributions during the year but then prepay the entire subsequent year’s tithe in a lump sum in December of the current year. If you do this for all contributions that you generally make to qualified organizations, you can double up on your contributions in one year and have no charitable deductions in the next year. Normally, charities are very active in their solicitations during the holiday season, which gives you the opportunity to make forward-looking contributions at the end of the current year or to simply wait a short time and make them after the end of the year. Charitable deductions do have a limit, but for most types of contributions, it is high: 60% of AGI, beginning in 2018.

If you have questions about bunching your deductions, or if you wish to do some in-depth strategizing about how this technique could benefit you, please call for an appointment.

Gambling and Tax Gotchas

Gambling is a recreational activity for many taxpayers, and as one might expect, the government takes a cut if you win and won’t allow you to claim a loss in excess of your winnings. In fact, there are far more tax issues related to gambling than you might expect, and they may be impacting your taxes in more ways than you might believe. So here is a rundown on the many issues, which I like to call “gotchas,” that can affect you.

Reporting Winnings – Taxpayers must report the full amount of their gambling winnings for the year as income on their 1040 return. Gambling income includes, but is not limited to, winnings from lotteries, raffles, lotto tickets and scratchers, horse and dog races, and casinos, as well as the fair market value of prizes such as cars, houses, trips, or other non-cash prizes. The full amount of the winnings must be reported, not the net after subtracting losses. The exception to the last statement is that the cost of the winning ticket or winning a spin on a slot machine is deductible from the gross winnings. For example, if you put $1 into a slot machine and win $500, you would include $499 as the amount of your gross winnings, even if you’d previously spent $50 feeding the machine.

Frequently, taxpayers with winnings only expect to report those winnings included on Form W-2G. However, that form is only issued for “Certain Gambling Winnings,” but the tax code requires all winnings to be reported. All winnings from gambling activities must be included when computing the deductible gambling losses, which is generally always an issue in a gambling loss audit.

GOTCHA #1 – Since you can’t net your winnings and losses, the full amount of your winnings ends up in your adjusted gross income (AGI). The AGI is used to limit other tax benefits as discussed later. So, the higher the AGI the more the tax benefits may be limited.

Reporting Losses – A taxpayer may deduct gambling losses suffered in the tax year as a miscellaneous itemized deduction (not subject to the 2% of AGI limitation), but only to the extent of that year’s gambling gains.

GOTCHA #2 – If you don’t itemize your deductions, you can’t deduct your losses. Thus, individuals taking the standard deduction will end up paying taxes on all of their winnings, even if they had a net loss.

Social Security Income – For taxpayers receiving Social Security benefits, whether those benefits are taxable depends upon the taxpayer’s income (AGI) for the year. The taxation threshold for Social Security benefits is $32,000 for married taxpayers filing jointly, $0 for married taxpayers filing separately, and $25,000 for all other filing statuses. If the sum of AGI (before including any SS income), interest income from municipal bonds, and one-half the amount of SS benefits received for the year exceeds the threshold amount, then 50–85% of the SS benefits is taxable.

GOTCHA #3 – So, if your gambling winnings push your AGI for the year over the threshold amount, your gambling winnings, even if you had a net loss, can cause some (up to 85%) of your Social Security benefits to be taxable.

Health Insurance Subsidies – Under Obamacare, lower income individuals who purchase their health insurance from a government marketplace are given a subsidy in the form of a tax credit to help pay the cost of their health insurance. That tax credit is based upon the AGIs of all members of the family, and the higher the family income, the lower the subsidy becomes.

GOTCHA #4 – Thus, the addition of gambling income to your family’s income can result in significant reductions in the insurance subsidy, requiring you to pay more for your family’s health insurance coverage for the year. Additionally, if your subsidy was based upon your estimated income for the year, if your premiums were reduced by applying the subsidy in advance, and if you subsequently had some gambling winnings, then you could get stuck with paying back some part of the subsidy when you file your return for the year.

Medicare B & D Premiums – If you are covered by Medicare, the amount you are required to pay (generally withheld from your Social Security benefits) for Medicare B premiums is normally between $109 and $134 per month and is based on your AGI two years prior. However, if that AGI is above $85,000 ($170,000 for married taxpayers filing jointly), the monthly premiums can increase to as much $428.60. If you also have prescription drug coverage through Medicare Part D, and if your AGI exceeds the $85,000/$170,000 threshold, your monthly surcharge for Part D coverage will range from $13.30 to $76.20 (2017 rates).

GOTCHA #5 – The addition of gambling winnings to your AGI can result in higher Medicare B & D premiums.

Online Gambling Accounts – If you have an online gambling account, there is a good chance that the account is with a foreign company. All U.S. persons with a financial interest or signature authority over foreign accounts with an aggregate balance of over $10,000 anytime during the prior calendar year must report those accounts to the Treasury by the April due date for filing individual tax returns or face draconian penalties.

GOTCHA #6 – Regardless of whether you are a winner or loser, if your online account was over $10,000, you will be required to file FinCEN Form 114 (Report of Foreign Bank and Financial Accounts), commonly referred to as the FBAR. For non-willful violations, civil penalties up to $10,000 may be imposed; the penalty for willful violations is the greater of $100,000 or 50% of the account’s balance at the time of the violation.

Other Limitations – The forgoing are the most significant “gotchas.” There are numerous other tax rules that limit tax benefits based on AGI, as discussed in gotcha #1. These include medical deductions, miscellaneous itemized deductions, casualty losses, overall itemized deductions, exemptions, child and dependent care credits, the child tax credit, and the earned income tax credit, just to name a few.

If you have questions related to gambling and taxes, please call us.

Does Your Employer Misclassify You as an Independent Contractor Instead of as an Employee?

It is not uncommon for employers to misclassify employees as independent contractors, either to intentionally avoid their withholding and tax responsibilities or because they are not aware of the laws regarding the issue. If your employer reports your income on a Form 1099 (as opposed to a W-2), you are being treated as an independent contractor, not as an employee. This can have significant ramifications in terms of how much you have to pay in income, Social Security, and Medicare taxes.

The general distinction, of course, is that an employee is an individual who works under the direction and control of an employer, and an independent contractor is a business owner or contractor who provides services to other businesses.

To determine whether a worker is an independent contractor or an employee, the IRS examines the relationship between the worker and the business and considers all evidence regarding control and independence. This evidence falls into the following three categories:

(1) Behavioral control covers whether the business has the right to direct or control how the work is done through instructions, training, or other means. Employees are generally given instructions on when and where to work, what tools to use, where to purchase supplies, what order to follow, and so on.

(2) Financial control covers whether the business has the right to control the financial and business aspects of the worker’s job. This includes the extent to which the worker has unreimbursed business expenses; the extent of his or her investment in the facilities being used; the extent to which his or her services are made available to the relevant market; how he or she is paid; and the extent to which he or she can realize a profit or incur a loss.

(3) Type of relationship includes any written contracts that describe the relationship the parties intended to create; the extent to which the worker is available to perform services for other, similar businesses; whether the business provides the worker with employee-type benefits, such as insurance, a pension plan, vacation pay, or sick pay; the permanency of the relationship; and the extent to which the worker’s services are a key aspect of the company’s regular business.

When a worker’s status is in doubt, Form SS-8 (Determination of Employee Work Status for Purposes of Federal Employment Taxes and Income Tax Withholding) can be used. This form may be completed by an employer or a worker; it asks the IRS to determine whether the worker is an employee or an independent contractor for federal tax purposes. Form SS-8 is filed separately from the requestor’s tax return. The IRS does not issue determinations for proposed employment arrangements or hypothetical situations, and it will only issue a determination if the statute of limitations for the year at issue hasn’t expired.

If an employee wants to avoid paying self-employed tax on 1099-MISC income after he or she has already been determined to be an employee – or when he or she has filed an SS-8 but has not received a response – that individual can file Form 8919, which only requires payment of what would have been withheld if the worker had been treated as an employee. Form 8919 requires the employee to choose one of these codes:

Code A. I filed Form SS-8 and received a determination letter stating that I am an employee of this firm.
Code C. I received other correspondence from the IRS that states I am an employee.
Code G. I filed Form SS-8 with the IRS but have not received a reply.
Code H. I received a Form W-2 and a Form 1099-MISC from this firm for the same tax year. The amount on Form 1099-MISC should have been included as wages on the Form W-2.

If using Code H, do not file an SS-8. Here are some examples of amounts that are sometimes erroneously included (but not necessarily deliberately misclassified) on Form 1099-MISC and that should be reported as wages on Form W-2: employee bonuses, awards, travel expense reimbursements not paid under an accountable plan, scholarships, and signing bonuses.

If Code G is used, both the employee and the firm that paid the employee may be contacted for additional information. Use of this code is not a guarantee that the IRS will agree with the worker’s opinion as to his or her status. If the IRS does not agree that the worker is an employee, the worker may be billed an additional amount for the employment tax, as well as penalties and interest resulting from the change in the worker’s status.

If the IRS determination is for multiple open years, the employee can amend returns for open years to recover a portion of the self-employed tax paid.

If you have questions about being misclassified as an independent contractor, please give this office a call.

Borrowing Money to Finance an Education?

If you are considering borrowing funds to finance your education or the education of your spouse or children, you may wish to take advantage of the available tax benefits.

If you itemize your deductions and have sufficient equity in your home, you might consider borrowing the needed cash from your home. Generally, homeowners can take $100,000 of equity debt on their home and still deduct interest against the regular tax. Unfortunately, the interest on equity debt is not deductible against the alternative minimum tax (AMT), so consider other alternatives first if you are subject to the AMT. However, even if you are subject to the AMT, your best option may still be taking equity from your home. You may lose the benefit of the interest deduction, but the low interest rate on home loans is still in your favor.

If you don’t itemize your deductions or are subject to the AMT, you may still be able to utilize the above-the-line education interest deduction. This deduction has several restrictive qualifications and is limited to a maximum annual deduction of $2,500. It is phased-out ratably for taxpayers with an AGI (income) of $65,000 to $80,000 ($135,000 to $165,000 for joint returns). These amounts are for 2017; contact this office for the amounts for other years.

The above-the-line interest deduction may only be claimed by a person who is legally obligated to make the payments on the qualified educational loan. However, tax regulations allow payments on above-the–line education interest made by someone other than the taxpayer/borrower to be treated as a gift, allowing the interest to be deductible by the taxpayer.

The above-the-line deduction is not limited to interest on government student loans. The interest paid on other types of loans qualifies, including a home equity loan and even credit card interest, if only qualified education expenses are charged on the account. The borrowed funds must be used solely for qualified educational purposes, and the lender cannot be a relative. Generally, the funds must be used for qualified expenses within a reasonable period of time, usually 90 days before or after borrowing the funds. A home equity line of credit can be used to meet these requirements by paying education expenses as they become due, provided that the loan is not used for another purpose.

If you are considering borrowing money to pay for education, it may be appropriate to consult with this office, since there are other limitations. Please call for assistance.

Tax Implications of Crowdfunding

Raising money through Internet crowdfunding sites prompts questions about the taxability of the money raised. A number of sites host money-raising projects for fees ranging from 5 to 9%, including GoFundMe, Kickstarter, and Indiegogo. Each site specifies its own charges, limitations, and withdrawal processes. Whether the money raised is taxable depends upon the purpose of the fundraising campaign.

Gifts – When an entity raises funds for its own benefit and the contributions are made out of detached generosity (and not because of any moral or legal duty or the incentive of anticipated economic benefit), the contributions are considered tax-free gifts to the recipient.

On the other hand, the contributor is subject to the gift tax rules if he or she contributes more than $14,000 to a particular fundraising effort that benefits one individual; the contributor is then liable to file a gift tax return. Unfortunately, regardless of the need, gifts to individuals are never tax deductible.

The “gift tax trap” occurs when an individual establishes a crowdfunding account to help someone else in need (whom we’ll call the beneficiary) and takes possession of the funds before passing the money on to the beneficiary. Because the fundraiser takes possession of the funds, the contributions are treated as a tax-free gift to the fundraiser. However, when the fundraiser passes the money on to the beneficiary, the money then is treated as a gift from the fundraiser to the beneficiary; if the amount is over $14,000, the fundraiser is required to file a gift tax return and to reduce his or her lifetime gift and estate tax exemption. Some crowdfunding sites allow the fundraiser to designate a beneficiary so that the beneficiary has direct access to the funds.

Charitable Gifts – Even if the funds are being raised for a qualified charity, the contributors cannot deduct the donations as charitable contributions without proper documentation. Taxpayers cannot deduct cash contributions, regardless of the amount, unless they can document the contributions in one of the following ways:

  • Contribution Less Than $250: To claim a deduction for a contribution of less than $250, the taxpayer must have a cancelled check, a bank or credit card statement, or a letter from the qualified organization; this proof must show the name of the organization, the date of the contribution, and the amount of the contribution.
  • Cash contributions of $250 or More – To claim a deduction for a contribution of $250 or more, the taxpayer must have a written acknowledgment of the contribution from the qualified organization; this acknowledgment must include the following details:
    • The amount of cash contributed;
    • Whether the qualified organization gave the taxpayer goods or services (other than certain token items and membership benefits) as a result of the contribution, along with a description and good-faith estimate of the value of those goods or services (other than intangible religious benefits); and
    • A statement that the only benefit received was an intangible religious benefit, if that was the case.

Thus, if the contributor is to claim a charitable deduction for the cash donation, some means of providing the contributor with a receipt must be established.

Business Ventures – When raising money for business projects, two issues must be contended with: the taxability of the money raised and the Security and Exchange Commission (SEC) regulations that come into play if the contributor is given an ownership interest in the venture.

  • No Business Interest Given – This applies when the fundraiser only provides nominal gifts, such as products from the business, coffee cups, or T-shirts; the money raised is taxable to the fundraiser.
  • Business Interest Provided – This applies when the fundraiser provides the contributor with partial business ownership in the form of stock or a partnership interest; the money raised is treated as a capital contribution and is not taxable to the fundraiser. (The amount contributed becomes the contributor’s tax basis in the investment.) When the fundraiser is selling business ownership, the resulting sales must comply with SEC regulations, which generally require any such offering to be registered with the SEC. However, the SEC regulations were modified in 2012 to carve out a special exemption for crowdfunding:
    • Fundraising Maximum – The maximum amount a business can raise without registering its offering with the SEC in a 12-month period is $1 million. Non-U.S. companies, businesses without a business plan, firms that report under the Exchange Act, certain investment companies, and companies that have failed to meet their reporting responsibilities may not participate.
    • Contributor Maximum – The amount an individual can invest through crowdfunding in any 12-month period is limited:
      • If the individual’s annual income or net worth is less than $100,000, his or her equity investment through crowdfunding is limited to the greater of $2,000 or 5% of the investor’s annual net worth.
      • If the individual’s annual income or net worth is at least $100,000, his or her investment via crowdfunding is limited to 10% of the investor’s net worth or annual income, whichever is less, up to an aggregate limit of $100,000.

If you have questions about crowdfunding-related tax issues, please give this office a call.