Year-end Tax Planning Is Not Business as Usual: Things You Need to Know

This has been a tumultuous year for taxes, with the tax reform that passed in late 2017 generally becoming effective in 2018, often with significant changes for both individuals and businesses. This is the first major tax reform legislation in more than 30 years. To implement it, the IRS will have to create or revise approximately 450 forms, publications and instructions and modify around 140 information technology systems. All of these changes are to ensure it can accommodate the newly revised or created tax forms, not to mention writing tax regulations for all of these changes – a daunting task for sure. The following issues could affect you and you may need to plan ahead.

Refund or Tax Due? – Most taxpayers are equating the recent tax reform to a larger refund when their 2018 tax return is prepared. However, that may not be the case because your tax refund is the difference between what you prepaid through payroll withholding and estimated tax payments and what you owe. Even if your tax bill is lower, if your prepayments were also lower, then your refund may not be as expected.

The passage of tax reform came on December 20, 2017, just days before employers needed Form W-4 – the Employee’s Withholding Allowance Certificate – for 2018 withholding information from their employees, which did not give the IRS time to adjust the form and withholding tables for the new law. It was not until late February that the IRS published revised withholding tables and an updated Form W-4. Even then, there was concern that some employers might be using the old W-4 with the new tables. On top of that, many taxpayers and tax professionals were finding that the revised W-4 and withholding tables did not produce an accurate result. The bottom line is that there is a real concern that many taxpayers are in for an unpleasant surprise at tax time – so much so that the IRS has been issuing almost daily notices warning taxpayers that they may be under-withheld. This is a real concern for 2018 returns, and you may wish to fine-tune your withholding before year’s end.

Underpayment of Taxes: Should your liability be greater than your prepayments by $1,000 or more, you may also be subject to underpayment penalties. This could simply be the result of under-withholding on your wages or underpaying estimated tax if you are self-employed, or of out-of-the-ordinary income, such as stock gains, sale of a business or rental or even winning big from the lottery. There are safe harbor prepayments to avoid a penalty, which require prepaying:

  • 90% of the current year’s tax liability,
  • 100% of the prior year’s tax liability, or
  • 110% of the prior year’s tax liability, if the prior year’s AGI was over $150,000.

If you are underpaid, there is still time to make adjustments and avoid or mitigate the penalty. Adjusting your payroll withholding is the best option, since withholding is treated as being paid ratably throughout the year, and the penalty is computed on a quarterly basis based on the prepayments through that quarter. However, as the end of the year gets closer, there is less and less time for revised withholding to kick in, so don’t delay in notifying your employer if you need to increase your withholding.

Alternative Minimum Tax (AMT): Although Congress had promised to repeal both individual and corporate AMT, they only repealed the corporate AMT. However, even though they didn’t repeal it for individuals, the tax reform act did increase the exemption amounts and phase-out thresholds, and it eliminated certain deductions that triggered the AMT, so that the AMT will impact fewer taxpayers, giving rise to these possible strategies:

Exercise Incentive Stock Options – These changes to the AMT may allow larger blocks of incentive stock options to be exercised, and the stock that’s issued can be held long-term and thus enjoy the lower capital gains tax rates without triggering the AMT. Some tax planning may be required, which may be a multi-year endeavor.

Recapture AMT – The higher exemptions and phase-outs provide a greater opportunity for taxpayers with AMT tax credit carryover to recapture AMT paid in prior years. If the current year’s regular tax exceeds the AMT, a taxpayer can claim the AMT credit carryover for the difference.

Avoid the Minimum Required Distribution Penalties: Once taxpayers reach the age of 70.5, they are required to take what is known as a “required minimum distribution” from their qualified retirement plan or IRA every year. If this is the first year that this rule applies to you and you haven’t taken your money out yet, there’s no need to panic – you don’t have to do so until some time during the first quarter of next year. Of course, if you wait until 2019 to take your 2018 distribution, you’re going to end up having to take two distributions in one year: one for 2018 and one for 2019. For those who fell into this category before 2018, you only have until December 31st to withdraw your 2018 distribution to avoid penalties.

Convert into a Roth IRA: If you have a traditional IRA and your income for 2018 has been very low, you may want to consider converting your traditional IRA into a Roth IRA and taking advantage of the tax-free distribution benefits of a Roth IRA in the future, especially if you can do so with little or no tax on the conversions. This will probably require a tax projection to determine an amount to convert and the tax cost, if any, of the conversion. However, the tax reform made conversions permanent, and once made, the conversion cannot be undone.

Review Portfolio for Losses: The conventional strategy is to offset as much of your gains as possible with losses from selling other assets in your portfolio. If you have an overall loss, the loss that can be used to offset income other than capital gains is limited to $3,000 ($1,500 for married taxpayers filing separately), and any excess loss carries over to the next year. Keep in mind that losses from the sale of business assets are generally separately allowed in full in the year of sale and are not mixed with the losses from the sale of capital assets.

Assets that are sold and not held long-term, referred to as short-term capital gains, do not receive the benefit of the special rates afforded to long-term capital gains. Taxpayers achieve a better overall tax benefit if they can arrange their transactions to offset short-term capital gains with long-term capital losses.

Make the Most of Higher Education Tax Credits: Both the Lifetime Learning education credit and the American Opportunity Credit allow qualified taxpayers who prepaid tuition bills in 2018 for an academic period that begins by the end of March 2019 to use the prepayments when claiming the 2018 credit. That means that if you are eligible to take the credit and you have not yet reached the 2018 maximum credit for qualified tuition and related expenses paid, you can bump up your credits by paying early for 2019 now. This may not apply to you if you’ve been paying tuition expenses for the entire 2018 tax year, but it will probably provide you with some additional help if your student just started college this fall.

Optimize Health Savings Account Contributions: Did you become eligible to make contributions to a Health Savings Account this year? If so, then you can make deductible contributions into that account up to its maximum amount, no matter when you became eligible. For 2018, the maximum deduction for self-only coverage is $3,450; for family coverage, it is $6,900. Empty Flexible Spending Accounts: If you have a flexible spending account, double-check to see if any remaining account balance can be used for medical expenses, including eyeglasses and/or other health care items covered by the FSA. Remember: funds not used by the account deadline will be forfeited.

Bunch Charitable Deductions: Many people who itemize take advantage of the ability to take a deduction for their donation to their favorite charity or house of worship. Did you know that you can choose to pay all or part of your 2019 planned giving in 2018 to increase the amount you deduct in 2018? Though this may not be appealing to those who itemize every year, you may find this to be an effective strategy if you only marginally itemize every year. Implementing this strategy means you will alternate between taking the standard deduction one year and itemizing the next, giving you a big boost in deductions on the year when you itemize.

Additionally, those who are required to take a required minimum distribution from their IRA because they are 70.5 or older can have their RMD paid directly to a qualified charity, and instead of getting a charitable deduction, the distribution is tax-free, which in turn might reduce the amount of your taxable Social Security income. If this strategy appeals to you, don’t wait until the last minute to implement it, as your IRA trustee or custodian will need time to process the paperwork and make the distribution to the charity or charities you designate.

Deductions – Although the tax reform increased the standard deduction, possibly making it a better choice for the federal return for some, most states did not conform to the federal changes, making it business as usual for itemizing on the state return.

Remember the Annual Gift Tax Exemption: One of the best ways to ultimately reduce your estate taxes and at the same time give to those you love is to take advantage of the annual gift tax exemption. Although the gifts are not tax-deductible, for tax year 2018, you are able to give $15,000 to each of as many people as you want without having to report the transfer to the government or pay any gift tax. If this is something that you want to do, make sure that you do so by the end of the year, as you are not able to carry the $15,000 over into 2019.

Home Equity Debt: The interest on home equity debt is not allowed as an itemized deduction for years 2018 through 2025. (Note: the term equity debt has a different meaning for tax purposes than for lenders. For tax purposes what lenders refer to as equity debt can actually be acquisition debt and may still be deductible if used to purchase or substantially improve a taxpayers home or second home.) But that doesn’t mean equity interest can’t be deducted somewhere else on your return as investment interest or business interest, if you can trace the use of the loan funds to a deductible use.

Retirement Savings: Be sure to maximize your retirement plan contributions before year-end. Once the year is gone, you have forever lost an opportunity to make this year’s annual tax-advantaged addition to your savings for future retirement, which won’t be all that pleasant without a substantial retirement nest egg. If your employer matches some of the amount you contribute to your 401(k) or another eligible retirement plan, be sure to contribute as much as you can to take full advantage of this perk. If the contributions are tax-deductible, such as to a traditional IRA, or made with pre-tax income, maximizing the contributions may also cut your tax bill.

Divorce in the Future: If you or someone you know is contemplating divorce, you should be aware of a big tax change related to alimony. For divorces finalized by the end of 2018, alimony payments are deductible by the one paying them and considered income to the one receiving them. However, for divorces finalized after 2018, alimony is no longer deductible by the payer and is no longer taxable for the recipient. This can have a significant impact on the terms negotiated during a divorce.

Maximize Business Expenses: Beginning in 2018, business owners are able to write off most business purchases using the very liberal 100% bonus depreciation and the Sec. 179 expensing allowance. But to benefit, the business asset must not only be purchased before year’s end, it must also be placed into service by year’s end.

New Flow-Through Deduction: Individuals with taxable incomes (net of capital gains) less than $157,500 and married couples filing jointly with taxable incomes less than $315,000 will enjoy the benefits of the new 20% pass-through deduction from business entities other than C-corporations. Taxpayers with higher incomes will want to determine if any change in compensation structure might increase the deduction.

Additionally, S-corporation employee-stockholders will need to make sure their salary meets the “reasonable compensation” requirements, since the wages are a critical factor in determining the flow-through deduction from an S-corporation.

Every taxpayer’s situation is unique, not all of the suggestions offered here may apply to you, and by no means does the list include all the changes brought about by tax reform. However, they cover many of the major issues for taxpayers and small businesses. If you had any major business, income, or family changes or if any of the issues discussed affect you, a year-end tax planning appointment may be appropriate. The best way to ensure that you are putting yourself into the best tax-advantaged position is to consider all of your tax options. Please call us with questions or to schedule an appointment.

Most Common Types of IRS Tax Problems

Receiving a notification from the Internal Revenue Service that there’s some kind of problem is one of the most disturbing situations an American taxpayer can experience. Just receiving an envelope with a return address from the IRS can strike fear. There are many different reasons that the IRS might reach out, but some are more common than others.

Here are the top issues that would cause a taxpayer to hear from the IRS or require you to resolve an issue:

  • An Error On Your Tax Return – Nobody’s perfect, and filling out tax returns is not an easy thing. If you’ve made a mistake, whether it’s something simple like filing status or number of dependents or something bigger like total income or incorrectly claiming a deduction, if you discover it on your own, all you need to do is file an amended return using form 1040X, the Amended Individual Income Tax Return. If the mistake means that you owe more money, quickly submitting the amount that you owe will help you avoid having to pay too much in penalties or interest. It’s not at all unusual for the IRS to discover mistakes – especially math mistakes – and they will generally notify you that they have made corrections on your behalf.
  • Mismatched/Underreported Income – Along the lines of the mistakes referenced above, there is a specific form that the IRS will send you if they determine that the amount of income you report on your tax return is different from what has been reported by employers. That form is the CP2000 Notice, and the agency will send it to you, notifying you of the corrected amount, should they review your return and feel that it is appropriate.
  • Failure to File a Tax Return – Filing a tax return isn’t necessarily required if you don’t owe money or if you’re owed a tax refund, but it’s not a good idea. Failing to file a return when you’re owed a refund puts you at risk of losing out on receiving the money you’ve owed – you have just three years to amend the problem if you want to get your money. For those who are in arrears to the IRS, there is a significant negative outcome to failing to file a return, including having to pay a “failure to file” penalty that can go as high as 25 percent of your unpaid tax bill: 5 percent of the amount you owe, plus interest, will be charged for each month for up to five months
  • You Owe the IRS for Taxes Not Paid – When the IRS calculates that you have not paid them the full amount that you owe, they will send you notification of what they believe the difference is via form CP14.
  • You Owe the IRS Penalties and Fees – When you don’t pay your taxes or you fail to file a return, the IRS will notify you that you owe them penalties, and possibly interest.
  • You Owe the IRS But Can’t Afford to Pay – There are many taxpayers who find themselves facing a tax bill that they are simply unable to pay all at once. If you fall into this category, the IRS does offer the option of paying in installments. To request this type of payment plan, contact the agency. If even paying in small increments is outside of your ability, you may be able to negotiate a reduced tax bill through what is called an Offer in Compromise.
  • Tax Debt Resulting in Tax Levy – If you are unable or unwilling to satisfy your tax debt, the IRS may opt for a tax levy, which is the legal seizure of your property in lieu of payment. A tax levy can take the form of real property such as real estate, your vehicle or personal property, or your wages, the money in your bank accounts or your financial accounts. Notification that a levy is being issued against you comes via either notice LT11, CP504, CP90, or CP91.
  • Notification that A Tax Lien Has Been Filed – If you have failed to pay your tax debt, the IRS may take action to protect its own interests ahead of other creditors by filing a tax lien. This comes in the form of Letter 3172, which will be sent to both you and your other creditors to let them know of the government’s claim against your financial assets, personal property and real estate. By sending this letter out, the government ensures that it will benefit from the liquidation of any of your property in order to satisfy the amount that it is owed. Once a lien has been placed on your property, it is extremely difficult to get out of until you’ve paid up.

A notification from the IRS is not something to be ignored. The best step is to take a deep breath, read the notice carefully, and contact our office for assistance.

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.

Reasonable Compensation and S Corporations

Unlike a C corporation, which itself pays the tax on its taxable income, an S corporation does not directly pay taxes on its income; instead, its income, losses, deductions, and credits are distributed across its shareholders’ individual tax returns on a pro rata basis. These distributions are not subject to self-employment (Social Security and Medicare) taxes. As a result, many S corporations ignore the requirement that each shareholder-employee must take reasonable compensation in the form of W-2 wages in exchange for services performed for the corporation. These wages are subject to Social Security and Medicare taxes (which the corporation and the employee generally split equally); the corporation is also responsible for paying the Federal Unemployment Tax (as well as any state unemployment taxes).

The Internal Revenue Code establishes that an officer of an S corporation is an employee of that corporation for Federal Unemployment Tax purposes. S corporations should not attempt to avoid paying this tax by treating their officers’ compensation as distributions rather than as wages.

This has been an issue for decades; in 1974, the IRS issued a ruling stating that, when a shareholder-employee fails to take a salary, or if that salary is unreasonable, an auditor should assert that the salary is unreasonable. The officer’s distributions will then be shifted to account for reasonable compensation, and he or she will be assessed the related employment taxes and penalties. At stake here are the employee’s 6.2% Social Security and 1.45% Medicare payroll taxes, the S corporation’s matching amounts, the Federal Unemployment Tax, and whatever state taxes happen to apply.

Who Is an Employee of the Corporation? – Generally, an officer of a corporation is considered an employee of that corporation. The fact that an officer is also a shareholder does not change the requirement that any payments made to that officer must be treated as wages. Courts have consistently held that S corporation shareholders who provide more than minor services to their corporation (and receive payment in return) are employees whose compensation is subject to federal taxes.

Tax regulations do provide an exception for officers who do not perform services or who perform only minor services. These officers are not considered employees.

What’s a Reasonable Salary? – The instructions for Form 1120S (“U.S. Income Tax Return for an S Corporation”) state: “Distributions and other payments by an S corporation to a corporate officer must be treated as wages to the extent the amounts are reasonable compensation for services rendered to the corporation.” There are no specific guidelines in the tax code regarding the definition of reasonable compensation. The various courts that have ruled on this issue have based their determinations on the facts and circumstances of the individual cases. These are some factors that courts have considered when determining reasonable compensation:

  • The officer’s training and experience
  • The officer’s duties and responsibilities
  • The time and effort that the officer devotes to the business
  • The corporation’s dividend history
  • The corporation’s payments to non-shareholder employees
  • The timing and manner of the bonuses paid to key people at the corporation
  • The payments that comparable businesses have made for similar services
  • The corporation’s compensation agreements
  • The formulas that similar corporations have used to determine compensation

The problem here, of course, is that it is easy for the IRS to simply list contributing factors that courts have used when determining reasonable compensation and leave it to each corporation to quantify these factors and determine a reasonable salary—all while retaining the ability to challenge the selected amount later if an auditor decides that the compensation is not reasonable. The IRS has a long history of examining S corporations’ tax returns to ensure that reasonable compensation is being paid, particularly when a corporation pays no compensation to employee-stockholders.

New Issue For 2018 – The late-2017 tax reform added a new flow-through deduction (also referred to as the “199A deduction” after the section of the tax code that describes it). This deduction applies to S corporations (among many other business entities) and adds another level of complexity to the determination of reasonable compensation.

    • The wages of an S corporation’s employee-stockholder are NOT treated as qualified business income (QBI) that is eligible for the individual’s 199A deduction. However, the corporation deducts these wages as a business expense when it calculates the profit that passes through to the shareholder as QBI on Schedule K-1. Thus, larger wages mean less K-1 flow-through income (QBI) and thus a smaller 199A deduction (as that is equal to 20% of QBI). In this case, S corporations tend to minimize stockholders’ salaries in order to maximize flow-through income; this strategy increases the employee-stockholder’s 199A deduction and lowers the payroll taxes for both the corporation and the employee-stockholder.
    • If married taxpayers who are filing a joint return have 1040 taxable income that exceeds $315,000 (or $157,500 for those with other filing statuses), the 199A deduction begins to be subject to a wage limitation. Once the 1040 taxable income for married taxpayers filing jointly exceeds $415,000 (or $207,500 for those with other filing statuses), the wage limitation is fully phased in. In that event, the 199A deduction becomes the lesser of the wage limitation or 20% of the QBI; if the wage limitation is zero, there is no 199A deduction.The wage limitation comprises the wages that the corporation paid, including those paid to stockholders, plus the unadjusted cost of the qualified property that the corporation owned and used during the year. To be more specific, the wage limitation is the larger of
      • 50% of the wages that the corporation paid or
      • 25% of the corporation’s paid wages plus 2.5% of the unadjusted cost of its qualified property.
Thus, for those high-income shareholders for whom the wage limitation applies, if the corporation pays no wages and has no qualified property, the shareholder will not have a 199A deduction.If an S corporation is a specified service trade or business, the 199A deduction phases out; for married taxpayers who are filing a joint return, it phases out at taxable incomes between $315,000 and $415,000 (for those with other filing statuses, it phases out between $157,500 and $207,500). The IRS describes specified service trades or businesses are those in the fields of health, law, accounting, actuarial science, performing arts, athletics, consulting, financial services, and brokerage services, as well as those for which reputation and/or skill are contributing factors (for more details on what constitutes an specified service trade or business, please give us a call).

Thus, if married taxpayers who are filing jointly have taxable income in excess of $415,000 (or $207,500 for those with other filing statuses), they receive no benefit from the wage limitation; therefore, they also tend to minimize their reasonable compensation in order to minimize their FICA taxes.

Of course, taxpayers cannot pick and choose a particular level of reasonable compensation to minimize their taxes or maximize their deductions; therein lies a trap. Taxpayers instead should consider all the factors related to reasonable compensation. However, pulling all the data together to support such a determination can be difficult and time-consuming. Some commercial firms have the necessary data and resources to properly apply the various factors mentioned in this article so as to determine the proper level of reasonable compensation; this can provide backup in the case of an IRS challenge.

Please give us a call if you have questions related to reasonable compensation for S corporation shareholders or how it impacts your specific tax situation.

Surrogacy Fees and Taxes

Articles about the taxability and deductibility of surrogacy fees are rare because there are far fewer surrogacies than conventional births. Surrogacy is a legal arrangement in which a surrogate mother, new parents and (often) a surrogacy agency enter into a binding contract. In the event of a breach of that contract, any party can be held to the terms of the agreement.

Tax Treatment for the Surrogate
The Internet contains a wide variety of opinions related to the taxability of the surrogacy fee to the surrogate mother. Some authors classify this fee as a gift; however, a U.S. Supreme Court decision (Commissioner vs. LoBue, Philip (1956, S Ct)) stated that, for tax purposes, gifts must be made out of detached or disinterested generosity. Any payment that parents make to a surrogate mother cannot reasonably be considered detached or disinterested, so surrogate fees are not gifts.

On the other hand, many surrogacy agencies advise their clients that surrogacy payments are for pain and suffering and thus are exempt under Sec 104 of the Internal Revenue Code (IRC). This section is about “compensation for injury or sickness”; however, the term “pain and suffering” does not appear anywhere in that section. Surrogacy does not meet the definition of an excludable physical injury under IRC Sec 104 such as an injury associated with a car accident, bungled surgery or other accident. Thus surrogacy fees do not fall under the compensation exclusion for injury or sickness.

IRC Sec 61 states, “Except as otherwise provided, gross income means all income from whatever source derived.” There is no exception in the code for surrogacy fees, so such fees are considered taxable income for the surrogate mother. To complicate matters, the surrogate mother is providing a personal service and thus may be subject to the self-employment (Social Security and Medicare) taxes in addition to income tax if such a fee is received in the course of business.

To be subject to Social Security taxes, the surrogacy arrangement would have to rise to the level of a trade or business. The determination of whether that is the case is dependent on the facts and circumstances of the individual surrogacy. For instance, if a surrogate has entered into such an arrangement previously or intends to do so again, the fee will likely be considered self-employment income. However, if the surrogacy is a one-time activity, an argument could be made that this act is not a business—in which case the surrogacy fee would not be subject to Social Security taxes.

If the fee is considered self-employment income, it may be offset with benefits that are available to any self-employed taxpayer, including the ability to deduct health insurance above the line rather than as an itemized deduction and the ability to make deductible contributions to a self-employed retirement plan or IRA. Although there are not many deductible business expenses in such a situation, the legal or other costs associated with drafting and executing the surrogacy contract are deductible.

A self-employment surrogacy activity would fall into the category of a specified service business for the purposes of the new, self-employed and pass-through business deduction that will be available in 2018 through 2025. Thus, provided that the surrogate mother’s return has taxable income that does not exceed $157,500 (or $315,000 if she is married and files a joint return with her spouse), she would be eligible for the new IRC Sec 199A pass-through deduction, which is equal to 20% of the net self-employment income. However, this deduction phases out at taxable incomes between $157,500 and $207,500 (or $315,000 and $415,000 if filing jointly). The income from self-employment surrogacy can be used to determine the earned income tax credit if a surrogate mother is otherwise qualified.

Unfortunately, tax novices on the Internet are creating their own interpretations of the tax code, and many of them are attempting to justify their preferences instead of instead of describing the actual rules.

As a result, many – dare we say, most – surrogate mothers are not reporting their surrogacy income. The IRS is not catching up with them because neither the parents nor the agencies are issuing 1099-MISC forms to surrogate mothers. The parents are under no obligation to issue a 1099-MISC because, for them, the payment is not related to a business. The agency, on the other hand, is a business, so if the surrogacy fee passes through it, the agency is obligated to issue a 1099-MISC.

Tax Treatment for the Parents
Surrogate mothers’ expenses are not specifically addressed in the IRC or in other regulations. Under current tax law, the only place that a surrogate fee could be deducted is as a medical expense. However, consider the following:

  • Medical deductions are allowed only for the medical care of the taxpayer and his or her spouse and dependents (IRC Sec 213(a)).
  • These expenses must be for the diagnosis, cure, mitigation, treatment, or prevention of disease, or for the purpose of affecting any structure or function of the body (IRC Sec 213(a)(1)(A)).

A surrogate mother is, by definition, neither the taxpayer nor the taxpayer’s spouse, and she is typically not a dependent, either. An unborn child is also not a dependent (Cassman v. United States, 31 Fed. Cl. 121 (1994)). Thus, medical expenses paid to a surrogate mother and her unborn child do not qualify for a medical deduction.

This fee also cannot be construed as a treatment for a female taxpayer’s inability to conceive.

Thus, the new parents cannot deduct the surrogacy fee or any agency fees, legal fees, and medical expenses for the surrogate mother and unborn fetus.

Please call us if you have questions about surrogacy fees and taxes.

Offer in Compromise FAQs

We’re all responsible for paying our fair share of taxes each year. But what happens when the amount that you owe is simply out of reach? What happens if you failed to make payments in a timely manner and your financial circumstances have shifted to the point where your cumulative debt is beyond your ability to pay? In the face of this untenable position, your best option for paying the IRS may be what is known as an Offer in Compromise.

The Goal of the Offer in Compromise
The Offer in Compromise, or OIC, was created to accomplish two goals: it allows American taxpayers who are unable to pay the full amount of their tax debt a way to negotiate a payment that is in keeping with their ability to pay, while at the same time providing the IRS with the ability to collect at least a portion of the amount that is owed to them. The process is neither simple nor fast: it generally takes at least one to two years for both sides to come to an agreement on an amount to be paid.

Even so, it has certain advantages for both sides.

An Offer in Compromise generally allows for resolution to be accomplished outside of court, with the agreed-to payment reflective of income and assets rather than the actual amount of debt that has accrued. Though it may seem a loss for the IRS, the agency ends up recovering more as a result of settling than they are likely to through a strong-arm collection process.

Understanding the Available Offer in Compromise Options
Taxpayers interested in pursuing an Offer in Compromise generally have three different options available to them under federal law. They are to suggest that they do not actually owe the tax debt that they are being charged with; to indicate that there simply are not enough assets or income to make a payment on the debt that has accrued; or to pursue a compromise based on either exceptional circumstances or economic hardship. This last option falls under the category of “effective tax administration,” and is notable because the taxpayer makes no argument as to either their ability to pay or whether they, in fact, owe the named amount.

Applying for an Offer in Compromise
The OIC process is both time-consuming and complicated. Applications require specific forms as well as extensive documentation, and all must be accurately prepared in keeping with IRS regulations. When mistakes are made or forms are incomplete the applications are quickly returned without the benefit of a review. To minimize both delay and frustration, it is strongly suggested that taxpayers looking to avail themselves of an OIC employ tax professionals for both the preparation of their paperwork and the negotiation of its terms.

Not Every OIC Application is Approved
It is also important to remember that an application for an OIC by no means guarantees the desired outcome. Submitting the specifics of your situation to a qualified tax professional will provide you with the ability to have your case reviewed by an expert who understands the process and the IRS criteria for approval, and who will be able to give you a reasoned perspective on the viability of your request.

Working with a professional will also provide you with reasonable expectations regarding the amount of time that the process will take and what your chances are of having your initial offer accepted. The program generally takes about two years from start to finish, and it is common for the IRS to make a counteroffer when the agency believes it will be able to collect more than the amount proffered by the applicant.

In evaluating your case, the Internal Revenue Service will likely pay less attention to the actual amount that is owed than the amount that the taxpayer is able to pay. This determination will be made on the basis of numerous factors, including income, assets, previous earnings capacity and anticipation of your earnings capacity in the future. Living expenses will also be taken into consideration.

The good news is that from the time that an application is sent in and while an IRS evaluation is taking place, most collection efforts are frozen. This generally provides tremendous relief from stress for taxpayers who have fallen behind in their payments and who feel unable to submit the amount that they owe.

If you have found yourself in this situation, contact us today to discuss your options. An experienced and knowledgeable tax expert will help you to understand, anticipate, and prepare for all aspects of the Offer in Compromise process, and will act as your advocate during sensitive negotiations.

Should I Use a Credit Card to Pay My Taxes?

With tax filing season out of the way, paying off those tax bills that weren’t paid by April 18th is the next major concern for people. While there are a few options for payment agreements if you can’t afford to write a check for the full amount immediately, there’s also the option of paying your tax bill with a credit card. It can be less confusing than navigating IRS payment plans, and if your credit card has a nice rewards program, then it’s something to think about.

Depending on how much you owe in taxes and what terms your credit card offers, it may or may not be worth putting your tax bill on your credit card. Here are some of the pros and cons of using a credit card to pay your taxes and why you would or wouldn’t want to pursue this option.

Processing Fees

Legally, the IRS cannot directly accept credit card payments so they use three different approved payment processors for taking credit and debit card payments. At the time of writing, the processor with the most favorable rate is pay1040.com. Their minimum processing fee is $2.59, otherwise charging 1.87% of your balance. So, if you owe $2,000 in taxes, then you’d be charged a total of $2,037.40.

Keep in mind that this processing fee is steeper the bigger that your outstanding balance is, and you need to pay it on top of whatever you’ll owe in interest. If you go on a payment plan and pay by direct debit or check, you’ll only pay the IRS interest rate and any applicable penalties with no processing fees.

Interest Rates and Balance Transfers

Interest rate varies by the credit card that you have, but the average rate is 15.07%. For the first quarter of 2018, the IRS interest rate on underpayments is 4% (expected to go up to 5% for the second quarter.) This interest rate is in addition to any applicable penalties like the .0.50% late fee that applies every month until the balance has been paid off. But the interest rate the IRS charges is a lot less than the average credit card interest rate.

If you anticipate paying your balance off over time, you will definitely pay a lot more interest with a credit card even if it’s less confusing to calculate than the IRS interest rates, which change more often. However, if you open a new credit card intended for balance transfer if your credit’s good, then you can get a few months to a whole year to pay off your balance at a 0% interest rate which both buys time and saves money. But if you’re late on the payments eventually and/or your credit isn’t that great, this isn’t a likely option.

Credit Card Rewards

Credit card rewards, like cash rebates and frequent flier miles, are what often makes the extra fees and interest tempting to put your tax balance on your credit card: Why not get a free vacation for paying your taxes?

But financial experts estimate that most credit card rewards only net you about 1% back of what you purchase. It’s worth sitting down and doing the math on how much the IRS interest rates and forgoing processing fees would save you so you can take that vacation out of pocket instead. Unless you plan on paying off your entire balance immediately and the reward offered is worth what you’ll pay in fees, reward programs aren’t likely to completely defray the costs of using a credit card for your taxes.

Tax Bills and Your Credit Report

Ultimately, if you need extra time to pay your taxes, you are better off with an IRS installment or short-term payment agreement since owing money on these plans does not appear on your credit report. However, carrying a balance will appear once you shift the responsibility from the IRS to your credit card company. In addition to impacting your available credit, it also affects your credit utilization score based on how much of your available credit is being used.

If you’re looking for housing, more credit, or other situations that warrant your credit report being pulled, then you’ll want to avoid paying your taxes with a credit card.

Ultimately, it’s up to you to weigh the risks and benefits of using a credit card to pay your taxes. If you’re taking a longer-term approach, an installment agreement is likely to cost you less both upfront and in the long run. If you have any questions related to the pros and cons of using a credit card to pay your taxes, please give us a call.

Checking Your Federal Refund Status Is Easy

If you have already filed your federal tax return and are due to receive a refund, you can check the status of your refund online.

Where’s My Refund? is an interactive tool on the IRS website. Regardless of whether you have split your refund among several accounts, opted for a direct deposit into one account, or asked the IRS to mail you a check, Where’s My Refund? will give you online access to your refund information 24 hours a day and 7 days a week.

If you e-file, you can use this tool to get your refund information 24 hours after the IRS acknowledges receipt of your return. Nine out of 10 taxpayers typically receive refunds in fewer than 21 days when they use e-file with direct deposit. If you file a paper return, refund information will be available starting four weeks after mailing your return. When you go to check the status of your refund, have a copy of your federal tax return handy. To access your personalized refund information, you must enter

  • your Social Security Number (or Individual Taxpayer Identification Number);
  • your filing status (single, married filing jointly, married filing separately, head of household, or qualifying widow(er)), and
  • the exact refund amount shown on your tax return.

Once you have entered your personal information, one of several personalized responses will come up:

  • acknowledgement that your return has been received and is being processed,
  • your refund’s mailing date or direct deposit date, or
  • a notice that the IRS could not deliver your refund due to an incorrect address, at which point, you can update your address online using the Where’s My Refund? feature.

Where’s My Refund? also includes links to customized information based on your specific situation. The links guide you through the steps to resolve any issues that are affecting your refund. For example, if you do not receive your refund within 28 days of the mailing date shown on Where’s My Refund?, you can start a refund trace online.

Where’s My Refund? is also accessible to visually impaired taxpayers who use the Job Access with Speech screen reader with a Braille display. Where’s My Refund? is compatible with various modes of this screen reader.

IRS2Go is a free IRS smartphone app that lets taxpayers check on the status of their tax refunds. For download information, visit IRS2Go. It is available for both Apple and Android.

Where’s My Refund? provides the most up-to-date information that the IRS has. There’s no need to call the IRS unless Where’s My Refund? tells you to do so. Where’s My Refund? is updated every 24 hours (usually overnight), so you only need to check it once a day. Please call us if you have any questions or encounter any problems.

If You Owe the IRS a Lot of Money, You May Not Want to Plan Any Out-of-the-Country Trips

As promised several months back, the IRS has begun to crack down on seriously delinquent taxpayers. A law passed on Dec. 4, 2015, that requires the IRS to notify the U.S. State Department when someone has “seriously delinquent tax debt,” after which the State Department will generally deny an application for issuance or renewal of a passport for that individual and can even revoke or limit a previously issued passport.

It has taken the IRS and the State Department some time to establish the procedures for this program, but they are finally in place and are being implemented in January 2018.

A “seriously delinquent tax debt” is the unpaid, legally enforceable, and assessed federal tax liability of an individual that is greater than $51,000, for which a notice of federal tax lien has been filed and the taxpayer’s right to a hearing has been exhausted or lapsed, or a levy has been issued. The total amount of all current tax liabilities (including penalties and interest) for all tax years and periods meeting these criteria is included in determining if the $51,000 threshold is met.

Seriously delinquent tax debts do not include those for which the IRS or the Justice Department and a taxpayer have entered into a valid payment agreement, such as an installment agreement or an offer-in-compromise payment plan. Tax debts for which collection has been suspended pending a due-process hearing or those suspended as a result of an innocent spouse claim are also excluded from the definition of a seriously delinquent tax debt.

The law requires the IRS to contemporaneously notify a taxpayer when it has certified the taxpayer as having a seriously delinquent tax debt, so that the taxpayer has time to request a judicial review before steps are taken to deny or revoke a passport.

This provision does not apply to an individual serving in a combat zone or participating in a contingency operation.

If you or someone you travel with has a seriously delinquent tax debt and you have questions about this subject, please give us a call.

Using Online Agents to Rent Your Home Short Term? You May Be Surprised at the Tax Ramifications

If you are among the many taxpayers renting your first or second home using rental agents or online rental services that match property owners with prospective renters, such as Airbnb, VRBO and HomeAway, then you should know the IRS has special rules related to short-term rentals.

When property is rented for short periods, special (and sometimes complex) taxation rules come into play, which can make the rents excludable from taxation; other situations may force the rental income and expenses to be reported on Schedule C (as opposed to Schedule E).

If you have been renting your home or second home for short periods of time, here is a synopsis of the rules governing short-term rentals so you can prepare yourself for the upcoming tax season.

  • Rented for Fewer Than 15 Days During the Year: If you rent your property for fewer than 15 days during the tax year, the rental income is not reportable, and the expenses associated with that rental are not deductible. However, interest and property taxes are still deductible as itemized deductions on your Schedule A.
  • Rented for an Average of 7 Days or Less: Under normal circumstances, rentals are treated as passive activities, which are reported on a Schedule E, and net profit from the rental activity is not subject to self-employment tax. But the special rules treat short-term rentals averaging 7 days or less as a trade or business similar to that of a hotel or motel, with the income and expenses reported on Schedule C, and the profits are subject to both income tax and self-employment tax.
  • Rented for an Average of 8 to 30 Days: Even rentals for longer than 7 days are treated as a trade or business when substantial personal services are provided to the short-term tenant. Substantial services are those that are primarily for your tenant’s convenience, such as regular cleaning, changing linen, or maid service. Substantial services do not include the furnishing of heat and light, the cleaning of public areas, trash collection, and such.
    When extraordinary services are provided, the rental is treated as a trade or business and reported on Schedule C regardless of the average rental period. However, it would be extremely rare for this to apply to short-term rentals of your home or second home.
  • Exception to the Significant Services Rule – If the personal services provided are similar to those that generally are provided in connection with long-term rentals of high-grade commercial or residential real property (such as the cleaning of public areas and trash collection), and if the rental also includes maid and linen services at a cost of less than 10% of the rental fee, then the personal services are neither significant nor extraordinary for the purposes of the 30-day rule.

A loss from this type of activity, even when reported on your Schedule C as a trade or business, is still treated as a passive activity loss and can only be deducted against passive income. The $25,000 loss allowance that applies to some Schedule E rentals is not available for rental activities reportable on Schedule C.

It is important that you keep a record of not only the rental income from each tenant but also the duration of each rental, so the average rental term for the year can be determined. If you have questions about your rental activities, please give us a call.