School’s Out – Who Is Going to Take Care of the Kids?

Article Highlights:

  • Child Age Limits
  • Employment-Related Expense
  • Married Taxpayer Earnings Limits
  • Disabled or Full-Time-Student Spouse
  • Expense Limits

Summer has just arrived, and working parents should know about a tax break. Many working parents must arrange for care of their children under 13 years of age (or any age if disabled) during the school vacation period. A popular solution — with a tax benefit — is a day camp program. The cost of day camp can count as an expense toward the child and dependent care credit. However, expenses for overnight camps, summer school, or tutoring programs do not qualify.

For an expense to qualify for the credit, it must be an “employment-related” expense; i.e., it must enable you and your spouse, if married, to work, and it must be for the care of your child, stepchild, foster child, brother, sister or stepsibling (or a descendant of any of these) who is under 13, lives in your home for more than half the year and does not provide more than half of his or her own support for the year. Married couples must file jointly, and both spouses must work (or one spouse must be a full-time student or disabled) to claim the credit.

The qualifying expenses are limited to the income you or your spouse, if married, earn from work, using the figure for whoever earns less. However, under certain conditions, when one spouse has no actual earned income and that spouse is a full-time student or disabled, that spouse is considered to have a monthly income of $250 (if the couple has one qualifying child) or $500 (two or more qualifying children). This means the income limitation is essentially removed for a spouse who is a student or disabled.

The qualifying expenses can’t exceed $3,000 per year if you have one qualifying child, while the limit is $6,000 per year for two or more qualifying persons. This limit does not need to be divided equally. For example, if you paid and incurred $2,500 of qualified expenses for the care of one child and $3,500 for the care of another child, you can use the total, $6,000, to figure the credit. The credit is computed as a percentage of your qualifying expenses; in most cases, 20%. (If your joint adjusted gross income [AGI] is $43,000 or less, the percentage will be higher, but it will not exceed 35%.)

Example: Al and Janice both work, each with earned income in excess of $40,000 per year. Janice has a part-time job, and her work hours coincide with the school hours of their 11-year-old daughter, Susan. However, during the summer vacation period, they place Susan in a day camp program that costs $4,000. Since the expense limitation for one child is $3,000, their child credit would be $600 (20% of $3,000).

The credit reduces a taxpayer’s tax bill dollar for dollar. Thus, in the above example, Al and Janice pay $600 less in taxes by virtue of the credit. However, the credit can only offset income tax and alternative minimum tax liability, and any excess is not refundable. The credit cannot be used to reduce self-employment tax, or the taxes imposed by the Affordable Care Act.

If the qualifying child turned 13 during the year, the care expenses paid for the child for the part of the year he or she was under age 13 will qualify.

If you have questions about how the childcare credit applies to your specific tax situation, please contact us.

Eldercare Can Be a Medical Deduction

Article Highlights:

  • Nursing Homes
  • Meals and Lodging
  • Home Care
  • Nursing Services
  • Caregiver Agencies
  • Household Employees

Because people are living longer now than ever before, many individuals are serving as care providers for loved ones (such as parents or spouses) who cannot live independently. Such individuals often have questions regarding the tax ramifications associated with the cost of such care. For these individuals, the cost of such care may be deductible as a medical expense.

Incapable of Self-Care – For the cost of caring for another person to qualify as a deductible medical expense, the person being cared for must be incapable of self-care. A person is considered incapable of self-care if, as a result of a physical or mental defect, that person is incapable of fulfilling his or her own hygiene or nutritional needs or if that person requires full-time care to ensure his or her own safety or the safety of others.

Assisted-Living Facilities – Generally, the entire cost of care at a nursing home, home for the aged, or assisted-living facility is deductible as a medical expense, provided that the person who lives at the facility is primarily there for medical care or is incapable of self-care. This includes the entire cost of meals and lodging at the facility. On the other hand, if the person is living at the facility primarily for personal reasons, then only the expenses that are directly related to medical care are deductible; the cost of meals and lodging is not a deductible medical expense.

Home Care – A common alternative to nursing homes is in-home care, in which day helpers or live-in caregivers provide care within the home. The services that these caregivers provide must be allocated into (nondeductible) household chores and (deductible) nursing services. These nursing services need not actually be provided by a nurse; they simply must be the same services that a nurse would normally provide (e.g., administering medication, bathing, feeding, and dressing). If the caregivers also provide general housekeeping services, then the portion of their pay that is attributable to household chores is not deductible.

The emotional and financial aspects of caring for a loved one can be overwhelming, and as a result, caregivers often overlook their burdensome tax and labor-law obligations. Sadly, these laws provide for no special relief from these tasks.

Is the Caregiver an Employee? – Because of the way that labor laws are written, it is important to determine if an in-home caregiver is an employee. The answer to this question can be very subjective. Caregivers’ services can be obtained in several ways:

  • Agency-provided caregivers are employees of the agency, which handles all the responsibilities of an employer. Thus, loved ones do not have any employment-tax or payroll-reporting responsibilities; however, such caregivers generally come at a substantially higher cost than others.
  • Self-employed caregivers pay all their expenses, are responsible for their own income reporting and taxes, and are not considered employees under federal or state law. The IRS lists 20 factors that it uses to determine whether an individual is an employee; the main factors are financial control, behavioral control, and the relationship between the parties. The household workers are typically classified as employees.
  • Household employees are subject to Social Security and Medicare taxes. The employer is thus responsible for withholding the employee’s share of these taxes and paying the employer’s share of payroll taxes. Fortunately for these employers, the special rules for household employees greatly simplify the payroll-withholding and income-reporting requirements. Any resulting federal payroll taxes are paid annually in conjunction with the employer’s individual 1040 tax return. Federal income-tax withholding is not required unless both the employer and the employee agree to do so. However, the employer is still required to issue a W-2 to the employee and to file that form with the federal government. The employer also must obtain federal and state employer ID numbers for reporting purposes. Some states have special provisions for the annual reporting and payment of state payroll taxes; these may be like the federal requirements.

    The employer’s portion of all employment taxes (Social Security, Medicare, and both federal and state unemployment taxes) related to deductible medical expenses are also deductible as a medical expense.

You may be thinking, “Wait a minute – the household employers I know pay in cash and do not pay payroll taxes or issue W-2s to their household employees.” This observation may be accurate, but such behavior is illegal, and it is not right to ignore the law. Think about what could happen if one of your household employees is injured on your property or if you dismiss such an employee under less-than-amicable circumstances. In such circumstances, the household employee will often be eager to report you to the state labor board or to file for unemployment compensation.

Note, however, that gardeners, pool cleaners, and repair people generally work on their own schedules, invest in their own equipment, have special skills, manage their own businesses, and bear the responsibility for any profit or loss. Such workers are not considered household employees.

Here are some additional issues to consider:

Overtime – Under the Fair Labor Standards Act, domestic employees are nonexempt workers and are entitled to overtime pay for any work beyond 40 hours in a given week. However, live-in employees are an exception to this rule in most states.

Hourly Pay or Salary – It is illegal to treat nonexempt employees as if they are salaried.

Separate Payrolls – Business owners may be tempted to include their household employees on their companies’ payrolls. However, any payments to household employees are personal expenses and thus are not allowable as business deductions. Thus, business owners must maintain separate payrolls for household employees; in other words, personal funds (not business funds) must be used to pay household workers.

Eligibility to Work in the U.S. – It is illegal to knowingly hire or continue to employ an alien who is not legally eligible to work in the U.S. When a household employee is hired to work on a regular basis, the employer and employee each must complete Form I-9 (Employment Eligibility Verification). The employer must carefully examine the employee’s documents to establish his or her identity and employment eligibility.

If you have questions related to eldercare or about how your state deals with related employment issues – or if you would like assistance in setting up a household payroll system – please contact us.

Short-Term Rental, Special Treatment

With the advent of online sites such as Airbnb, VRBO, and HomeAway, many individuals have taken to renting out their first or second home through these online rental sites, which match property owners with prospective renters. If you are doing that or are planning to do so, there are some special tax rules you need to know.

These special (and sometimes complex) taxation rules are based upon the length of time you rent your property out and with varying tax outcomes. In some situations, the rental income may be tax-free. In other situations, your rental income and expenses may need to be treated as a business, as opposed to a rental activity. The following is a general synopsis of the rules governing short-term rentals (those rented for average rental periods of 30 days or less).

Rented for Fewer Than 15 Days during the Year – When a property is rented 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. Interest and property taxes are not prorated, and the full amounts of the qualified mortgage interest and property taxes are reported as itemized deductions (as usual) on the taxpayer’s Schedule A.

The 7-Day and 30-Day Rules – Rentals are generally passive activities. However, an activity is not treated as a rental if either of these statements applies:

A. The average customer use of the property is for 7 days or fewer—or for 30 days or fewer, if the owner (or someone on the owner’s behalf) provides significant personal services.

B. The owner (or someone on the owner’s behalf) provides extraordinary personal services without regard to the property’s average period of customer use.

If the activity is not treated as a rental, then it will be treated as a trade or business, and the income and expenses, including prorated interest and taxes, will be reported on Schedule C instead of Schedule E, the IRS form used to report longer-term real estate rentals. IRS Publication 527 states: “If you provide substantial services that are primarily for your tenant’s convenience, such as regular cleaning, changing linen, or maid service, you report your rental income and expenses on Schedule C.” Substantial services do not include furnishing heat and light, cleaning public areas, collecting trash, and such.

Exception to the 30-Day 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 public area cleaning and trash collection), and if the rental also includes maid and linen services that cost less than 10% of the rental fee, then the personal services are neither significant nor extraordinary for the purposes of the 30-day rule.

Profits and Losses on Schedule C – Profit from a rental activity is not subject to self-employment tax, but a profitable rental activity that is reported as a business on Schedule C is subject to this tax. A loss from this type of activity is still treated as a passive activity loss unless the taxpayer meets the material participation test – generally, providing 500 or more hours of personal services during the year or qualifying as a real estate professional. Losses from passive activities are deductible only up to the passive income amount, but unused losses can be carried forward to future years. A special allowance for real-estate rental activities with active participation permits a loss against nonpassive income of up to $25,000 – but phases out when one’s modified adjusted gross income is between $100K and $150K. However, this allowance does NOT apply when the activity is reported on Schedule C.

These rules can be complicated; please call us to determine how they apply to your particular circumstances and what actions you can take to minimize the tax liability and maximize the tax benefits from your rental activities.

Important — Rental Owners! Guidance Related to the 20% Pass-Through Deduction

Ever since tax reform was passed over a year ago, taxpayers have been uncertain whether rental property will be classified as a trade or business for purposes of qualifying for the new IRC Sec 199A 20% pass-through deduction (commonly referred to as the 199A deduction).

Finally, on January 18, 2019, the IRS issued a notice which provided “safe harbor” conditions under which a rental real estate activity will be treated as a trade or business for purposes of the 199A deduction.

It’s important to note that this notice prescribes several conditions that must be met for a rental real estate enterprise (a tax term introduced by the IRS in this notice) to be deemed to be a trade or business and eligible for the section 199A 20% deduction. For purposes of this safe harbor, a rental real estate enterprise is defined as an interest in real property held for the production of rents and may consist of an interest in multiple properties.

Failure of the taxpayer to satisfy the requirements of this safe harbor does not preclude a taxpayer from otherwise establishing that a “rental real estate enterprise” is a trade or business for purposes of section 199A. The following are the requirements that must be satisfied for the safe harbor:

  1. Separate books and records must be maintained for each rental real estate enterprise;
    a. A real estate enterprise can consist of a single or multiple real estate rentals.
    b. Commercial and residential rentals cannot be combined in the same real estate enterprise.
  2. For years prior to 2023, at least 250 hours of rental services must be performed by the taxpayer and workers for the taxpayer for the year in question with reference to each rental real estate enterprise.
    A three-year lookback rule applies for taxable years for 2023 and following. It specifies that the taxpayer must meet the 250-hour requirement for the rental enterprise for any three of the five prior consecutive taxable years; and
  3. The taxpayer must maintain contemporaneous records, including time reports, logs, or similar documents, to document the following:
    a. hours of all services performed;
    b. a description of all services performed;
    c. dates on which such services were performed; and
    d. who performed the services.Because the safe harbor requirements were issued after the close of 2018, the requirement for contemporaneous records for 2018 will not apply.

    Rental services that may be counted toward the 250 hour requirement include: (i) advertising to rent or lease the real estate; (ii) negotiating and executing leases; (iii) verifying information contained in tenant applications; (iv) collecting rent; (v) daily operation, maintenance, and repair of the property; (vi) management of the real estate; (vii) purchase of materials for operation such as repairs; and (viii) supervision of employees and independent contractors.

    However, rental services do NOT include financial or investment management activities, such as arranging financing; procuring property; studying and reviewing financial statements or reports on operations, planning, managing, or constructing long-term capital improvements; or hours spent traveling to and from the real estate.

    Rental services counted toward the 250 requirement may be performed by owners or employees, agents, and/or independent contractors working for the owners.

Triple net Leases are not eligible for safe harbor. Real estate rented or leased under a triple net lease agreement is not eligible for this safe harbor. A triple net lease includes a lease agreement that requires the tenant or lessee to pay taxes, fees, and insurance, and to be responsible for maintenance activities for a property in addition to rent and utilities. Also ineligible for the safe harbor is a property leased under an agreement that requires the tenant or lessee to pay a portion of the taxes, fees, and insurance, and to be responsible for maintenance activities allocable to the portion of the property rented by the tenant.

Vacation rentals are not eligible for safe harbor. Real estate used as a residence by the taxpayer for any portion of the taxable year is not eligible for the safe harbor rules.

The Statement must be attached to the tax return. A statement signed by the taxpayer, or the person responsible for keeping the records with personal knowledge of them, must be attached to the return declaring that all of the safe harbor requirements have been met and must include the following language: “Under penalties of perjury, I (we) declare that I (we) have examined the statement, and, to the best of my (our) knowledge and belief, the statement contains all the relevant facts relating to the revenue procedure, and such facts are true, correct, and complete.”

Double-edged sword. The 199A deduction is 20% of a taxpayer’s qualified business income from all of the taxpayer’s trades or businesses subject to certain limitations. Many rentals do not show a profit and a rental that is treated as a trade or business that shows a loss for the year will reduce the qualified business income of other trades or businesses of an individual, and as a result, reduces the 199A deduction of that individual.

If you have questions regarding rentals as a trade or business or other issues related to this new 199A deduction, please call us to schedule a consultation.

If You Are a Recreational Gambler, Here Are Some Tax Issues You Need to Know

Gambling takes many forms: casino games, horse racing, sports book betting, lotto tickets, scratchers, bingo, etc. For virtually everyone, gambling is a recreational activity and, as such, is done for fun. For most gamblers, their losses for the year will exceed their winnings, and since losses in excess of winnings are not deductible, most gamblers don’t bother to report either, which isn’t in-line with the tax law’s filing requirements.

If your winnings at one time hit certain levels, the government requires the gambling establishment to collect your Social Security number and report your winnings to Uncle Sam on a Form W-2G. Gambling establishments will issue a Form W-2G if you:

  • Win $1,200 or more on a slot machine or from bingo.
  • Win $1,500 or more on a keno jackpot.
  • Win more than $5,000 in a poker tournament.
  • Win $600 or more from all other games, but only if the payout is at least 300 times your wager.

Reporting Winnings – Many individuals believe that they only have to report the winnings for which they receive a Form W2-G. Unfortunately, the IRS has a different viewpoint. Although you may be able to offset your reported gains with gambling losses, the IRS anticipates that you will also have had gambling winnings that were under the W2-G reporting threshold and will raise this issue during an audit.

Gambling Losses – The good news is that you can deduct gambling losses if you itemize your deductions but only to the extent of your gambling income. In other words, you can’t have a net gambling loss on your tax return. Bad news: if you don’t itemize your deductions, you will have to pay taxes on the entire winnings, even if you have a net gambling loss, as is the case for most individuals.

GAMBLING 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.

GAMBLING 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. The recent tax reform brought us significantly higher standard deduction amounts and, for itemized deductions, limited the deduction for state and local taxes and eliminated the deduction for unreimbursed employee business expenses and investment expenses, among other changes. The anticipated result is that fewer taxpayers will be itemizing their deductions and more gamblers will be paying taxes on their winnings.

Documenting Losses – The next logical question is: how are you going to document your gambling losses, if audited? Don’t rush down to the track and start collecting discarded tickets, since they generally aren’t acceptable documentation because of their ready availability. The IRS has published guidelines on acceptable documentation to verify losses. They indicate that an accurate diary or similar record that is regularly maintained by the taxpayer, supplemented by verifiable documentation, will usually be acceptable evidence to substantiate wagering winnings and losses. In general, this diary should contain at least the following information:

(1) the date and type of each specific wager or wagering activity,
(2) the name of the gambling establishment,
(3) the address or location of the gambling establishment,
(4) the names of other persons (if any) present with the taxpayer at the gambling establishment, and
(5) the amounts won or lost.
Save all available documentation, including items such as losing lottery and keno tickets, checks, and casino credit slips. You should also save any related documentation such as hotel bills, plane tickets, entry tickets, and other items that would document your presence at a gambling location. If you are a member of a slot club, the casino may be able to provide a record of your electronic play. You might also obtain affidavits from designated gambling officials at the gambling facility. With regard to specific wagering transactions, your winnings and losses might be further supported by:
  • Keno – Copies of keno tickets you purchased and that were validated by the gambling establishment.
  • Slot Machines – A record of all winnings by date and time for each machine that was played.
  • Table Games – The number of the table at which you were playing as well as casino credit card data indicating whether credit was issued in the pit or at the cashier’s cage.
  • Bingo – A record of the number of games played, the cost of the tickets purchased, and the amounts collected on winning tickets.
  • Racing – A record of the races, entries, amounts of wagers, and amounts collected on winning tickets and lost on losing tickets. Supplemental records can include unredeemed tickets and payment records from the racetrack.
  • Lotteries – A record of ticket purchase dates, winnings, and losses. Supplemental records can include unredeemed tickets, payment slips, and winning statements.

Other Tax Side Effects of Gambling – Because gambling income is reported in full as income and the losses are an itemized deduction, gambling winnings increase a taxpayer’s AGI for the year. An individual’s AGI is used to limit other tax benefits, and having gambling income can have an adverse impact on your taxes. Here are some examples:

  • Social Security Income – For taxpayers receiving Social Security benefits, whether those benefits are taxable depends upon the taxpayer’s 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 Social Security income), interest income from municipal bonds, and one-half the amount of Social Security benefits received for the year exceeds the threshold amount, then 50–85% of the Social Security benefits will be taxable.
    GAMBLING GOTCHA #3 – So, if your gambling winnings push your AGI for the year over the threshold amount, then 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’s income, the lower the subsidy will become.
    GAMBLING 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, your premiums were reduced by applying the subsidy in advance, and you subsequently had some gambling winnings, then you could get stuck paying back part of the subsidy when you file your return for the year.
  • Medicare B and 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 about $130–$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), then the monthly premiums can more than triple. If you also have prescription drug coverage through Medicare Part D and your AGI exceeds the $85,000/$170,000 threshold, then your monthly surcharge for Part D coverage will range from $13.30 to $74.80 (2018 rates).
    GAMBLING GOTCHA #5 – The addition of gambling winnings to your AGI can result in higher Medicare B and 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.
    GAMBLING GOTCHA #6 – Regardless of whether you were a winner or loser, if your online account was over $10,000, you will be required to file aFinCEN 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, 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 to schedule a consultation.

Wonder What a Tax Deduction Is Worth?

Individuals are always looking for tax deductions that can reduce their tax liability. But what is the actual tax benefit derived from a tax deduction? There is no straightforward answer because some deductions are above the line, others must be itemized, some must exceed a threshold amount before being deductible, and certain ones are not deductible for alternative minimum tax purposes, while business deductions can offset both income and self-employment tax. In other words, there are many factors to consider, and the tax benefits differ for each individual, depending on his or her particular situation and tax bracket.

For most non-business deductions, the savings are based upon your tax bracket. For example, if you are in the 12% tax bracket, a $1,000 deduction would save you $120 in taxes. On the other hand, if you are in the 32% tax bracket, the $1,000 deduction will save you $320 in taxes. Even so, if your taxable income is close to transitioning into the next-lower tax bracket, the benefit will be lower. You also need to consider whether the particular deduction is allowed on your state return and what your state tax bracket is to determine the total tax savings. Currently, the maximum federal tax bracket is 37%, meaning the most benefit that can be derived from a $1,000 income tax deduction is $370. Some individuals justify making discretionary purchases just because they are tax-deductible. Even in the highest tax bracket, you are still paying $630 out of pocket ($1,000 − $370), so it does not make sense to incur a tax-deductible expense just for the tax deduction.

Some deductions, such as IRA and self-employed retirement plan contributions, alimony, and student loan interest, are adjustments to income or what we call above-the-line deductions. These deductions, to the extent permitted by law, provide a dollar deduction for every dollar claimed. Deductions that fall into the itemized category must exceed the standard deduction for your filing status before any benefit can be derived. In addition, medical deductions are reduced by 7.5% of your adjusted gross income (AGI) in 2018, and most cash charitable deductions are limited to a maximum of 60% of your AGI. Under the tax reform, the deduction for state and local taxes has been capped at $10,000.

The most beneficial deductions are business deductions that offset both income tax and, depending upon the circumstances, self-employment tax. For 2018, the self-employment tax rate is 12.4% of the first $128,400 of net self-employment income plus 2.9% for the Medicare tax, with no cap. Some high-income taxpayers may pay an additional 0.9% Medicare tax. For self-employed businesses with less than $128,400 of net income, the self-employment tax rate is 15.3%. Thus, for small businesses with profits of less than $128,400, the benefit derived from deductions generally will include the taxpayer’s tax bracket plus 15.3%. For example, for a taxpayer in the 24% tax bracket, the benefit could be as much as 39.3% (24% + 15.3%) of the deduction. If the deduction were $2,000, the tax savings could be as much as $806 or more, when the taxpayer’s state income tax bracket is included.

If you are planning an expenditure and expect the tax deduction to help cover the cost, please consult with us in advance to ensure that the tax benefit will be what you anticipate.

Expecting Your Taxable Income to Be Low This Year? Take Advantage of It

If your taxable income is exceptionally low this year, or even if you expect not to be required to file a tax return this year, a number of tax opportunities may be available to you. But time is running short, since these opportunities will require action on your part before year’s end.

However, before we consider actual strategies, let’s look at key elements that govern tax rates and taxable income.

Adjusted Gross Income (AGI) – This is the sum of all of your income that’s subject to tax, such as wages, interest, dividends, gains from sales, net self-employment income, retirement income, minus items that are specifically deductible without having to itemize your deductions, including contributions to traditional IRAs and self-employed retirement plans, interest paid on student loans, contributions to health savings plans, and a limited number of others.

Taxable Income – To be simplistic, taxable income is your AGI less the greater of the standard deduction for your filing status or your itemized deductions:

AGI
XXXX
Deductions – XXXX
Taxable Income
XXXX

If the deductions exceed your AGI, then you can end up with a negative taxable income, which means that to the extent it is negative, you can actually add income or reduce your deductions without incurring any tax.

Graduated Individual Tax Rates – Ordinary individual tax rates are graduated. So as your taxable income increases, so does your tax rate. Thus, the lower your taxable income, the lower your tax rate will be. Your income tax is the result of multiplying your tax rate by your taxable income (but to simplify the computation for those with taxable income up to $100,000, the IRS figures the tax by income range and provides look-up tables, so for most taxpayers, their tax rate is not apparent). Individual ordinary tax rates range from 10% to as high as 37%. For 2018, the taxable income amounts for the three lowest tax rates – 10%, 12%, and 22% – are:

Filing Status
Single
Married Filing Jointly
Head of Household
Married Filing Separate
10%
$0–9,525
$0–19,050
$0–13,600
$0–9,525
12%
$9,526–38,700
$19,051–77,400
$13,601–51,800
$9,526–38,700
22%
$38,701–82,500
$77,401–165,000
$51,801–82,500
$38,701–82,500

So for instance, if you are single, your first $9,525 of taxable income is taxed at 10%. The next $29,174 ($9,526 to $38,700) is taxed at 12%, and the next $43,799 ($38,701 to $82,500) is taxed at 22%.

Here are some strategies you can employ for your tax benefit. However, these strategies may be interdependent on one another and your particular tax circumstances.

Take IRA Distributions – Depending upon your projected taxable income, you might consider taking an IRA distribution to add income for the year. For instance, if your projected taxable income is negative, then you can actually take a withdrawal of up to the negative amount without incurring any tax. Even if your projected taxable income is not negative and your normal taxable income would put you in the 22% or higher bracket, you might want to take out just enough to be taxed at the 10% or even the 12% tax rate. Of course, those are retirement dollars; consider moving them into a regular financial account set aside for your retirement. Also, be aware that distributions before age 59½ are subject to a 10% early-withdrawal penalty even if there is no tax liability, so this strategy isn’t recommended for those younger than 59½.

Redeem Government Bonds – If you have invested in U.S. government bonds, such as Series EE or I bonds, and you’ve been deferring paying tax on the interest from these bonds until they mature, you may want to cash in the bonds prior to the year when they mature, if that maturity date is within the next few years and to the extent that adding the bond interest to your other income for the year won’t push you out of the zero or 10% tax bracket and into a higher bracket. This strategy isn’t advisable if the interest you would earn on the bonds if you held them to maturity would be more than the tax you can save by cashing in the bonds during a low-income year.

Defer Deductions – When you itemize your deductions, you may claim only the deductions you actually pay during the tax year (the calendar year, for most folks). If your projected taxable income will be negative and you are planning on itemizing your deductions, you might consider putting off some of those year-end deductible payments until after the first of the year and preserving the deductions for next year. Such payments might include house of worship tithing, year-end charitable giving, tax payments (but not those incurring late payment penalties), estimated state income tax payments, and medical expenses.

Convert Traditional IRA Funds into a Roth IRA – Roth IRAs provide tax-free accumulation and tax-free retirement distributions. So to the extent of any negative taxable income or even just for the lower tax rates, you may wish to consider converting some or all of your traditional IRA into a Roth IRA. The lower income results in a lower tax rate, which will provide you with an opportunity to convert to a Roth IRA at a lower tax amount.

Zero Capital Gains Rate – There are three capital gains rates depending upon your taxable income. When your taxable income is in the lowest range, as shown in the table below, you will actually pay no tax on your long-term capital gains. Thus, if your taxable income is within the zero percent long-term capital gains rate bracket, this is an opportunity for you to sell some appreciated securities that you have owned for more than a year and pay no tax on the gains.

Long-Term Capital Gains Rates (2018)
Filing Status
0%
15%
20%
Single
$0–38,600
$38,601–425,800
$425,801 & Above
Head of Household
$0–51,700
$51,701–452,400
$452,401 & Above
Married Joint
$0–77,200
$77,201–479,000
$479,001 & Above
Married Separate
$0–38,600
$38,601–239,500
$239,501 & Above

Business Expenses – The tax code has some very liberal provisions that allow a business to currently expense, rather than capitalize and slowly depreciate, the purchase costs of certain property. In a low-income year, it may be appropriate to capitalize rather than expense these current-year purchases and preserve the depreciation deduction for higher-income years. This is especially true when taxable income is negative in the current year.

Affordable Care Act – On the negative side, if you have obtained your medical insurance through a government marketplace, employing any of the strategies mentioned above will increase your taxable income and could impact the amount of your allowable premium tax credit. As a result, you would likely have to repay some or all of any advance premium tax credit that was used to reduce your health insurance premiums; the credit is reconciled on your tax return.

If you would like to discuss how these strategies might provide you with tax benefits based upon your particular tax circumstances or would like to schedule a tax-planning appointment, please give us a call.

Legitimate Tax-Deductible Charity or Scam?

With the holiday season approaching, and with the great need for aid in the wake of the recent hurricanes and wildfires, you no doubt are being solicited for donations. However, do not be fooled by the scammers who come out from hiding whenever there is a disaster and during the holiday season. The last thing you want to do is get ripped off; not only will your charitable dollars go to waste, but you will also lose your tax deduction, as contributions are only tax-deductible if they are to qualified charities.

Soon, your physical and electronic mailboxes – not to mention your voicemail box – will be filled with charitable solicitations. Before you break out your checkbook, however, be sure to do your homework, especially if you are contemplating a donation to an organization that you are not already familiar with. The Federal Trade Commission suggests avoiding any charity or fundraiser that:

  • refuses to provide detailed information about its identity, mission, and costs, as well as how your donation will be used;
  • will not provide proof that your contribution would be tax-deductible;
  • uses a name that closely resembles that of a better-known (more reputable) organization;
  • thanks you for a pledge that you do not remember making;
  • uses high-pressure tactics to get you to donate immediately;
  • asks for donations in cash or asks you to wire money; or
  • offers to send a courier or overnight delivery service to collect a donation immediately.

Numerous websites can help you to check the validity of a charity. The IRS provides one, but it is rather cumbersome to use. Charity Navigator allows you to search for a charity name and provides details about that charity’s function. When in doubt, take the time to verify a charity’s legitimacy.

If you plan to itemize your deductions – after you have determined that you are not contributing to a scam operation – ensure that your charitable donations meet the requirements for being tax-deductible. The recipient organization must be one or more of the following:

  • a church, synagogue, mosque, or other place of worship;
  • a tax-exempt educational institution or hospital;
  • a federal, state, or local governmental unit, if the contribution is used for public purposes;
  • a publicly supported corporation, trust, fund, foundation, or community chest that is organized and operated only for charitable, religious, educational, scientific, or literary purposes; to prevent cruelty to children or animals; or to foster certain national or international amateur sports competitions; or
  • a certain type of private operating foundation or agricultural research organization.

Substantiation – First and foremost, you must receive substantiation of your cash gift in order to deduct it on your tax return; you also must itemize your deductions rather than use the standard deduction. Cash contributions include those paid by cash, check, electronic fund transfer, and credit card. However, you cannot deduct a cash contribution, regardless of the amount, unless you can document the contribution in one of the following ways:

  1. A bank record that shows the qualified organization’s name, as well as the date and amount of the contribution. Eligible bank records include a. a canceled check, b. a bank or credit union statement, or c. a credit card statement.
  2. A receipt (or a letter or other written communication) from the qualified organization showing the organization’s name, as well as the date and amount of the contribution.

Cash contributions of $250 or more – To claim a deduction for a contribution of $250 or more, you must provide a written acknowledgment of the contribution from the qualified organization. This acknowledgment must include the following details:

  1. The amount of cash contributed
  2. Whether the qualified organization gave the taxpayer goods or services (other than certain token items and membership benefits) as a result of the contribution, including a description and good-faith estimate of the value of those goods or services (not counting intangible religious benefits)
  3. A statement that you received no benefit (other than an intangible religious benefit)

The value of any goods or services received in exchange for a donation must be subtracted from the amount claimed as a contribution. If the acknowledgment does not show the date of the contribution, then you must also supply one of the bank records described above to verify the contribution date. If this acknowledgement includes the contribution date and meets the other requirements, it is not necessary to provide other records.

The acknowledgment must be in your hands before the date you file your tax return but not later than the April due date for return (or the extended due date of October if you filed an extension).

Christmas Kettles – It is quite common for charitable organizations to collect cash donations at malls during the holiday shopping season. Consider writing a check to place in these kettles rather than using cash so that you will have the substantiation required for a tax-deductible contribution.

Needy Individuals – You may wish to help out a needy family; although that is a very kind thing to do, no charitable deduction is allowed for such gifts to private individuals (either directly or as through a charitable organization).

GoFundMe – Through this website (and others like it), people raise funds for good causes such as starting a business, paying medical bills or funeral costs, replacing damaged or destroyed homes. However, these websites are not qualified charities for the purposes of claiming a charitable contribution on your tax return.

Special Contribution Rule for Taxpayers Age 70½ and Over – The tax code includes a special provision that allows taxpayers who are at least 70½ years old to directly transfer up to $100,000 from an IRA account to a qualified charity. Instead of receiving a charitable deduction, that person instead gets the benefit of the IRA distribution being nontaxable and counting toward the required minimum distribution for the year. This is especially beneficial for people who receive Social Security benefits and those who take the standard deduction. Although this is generally considered a good tax-saving strategy for those who can afford to make large donations, there is actually no minimum for this rule, so it will likely even benefit individuals in lower tax brackets.

Bunching – When taxpayers’ itemized deductions are only marginally different from the standard deduction, they can consider the method known as bunching. In this technique, the taxpayer make two years’ worth of donations in a single year and then skips making donations in the next year. For example, if you annually contribute $5,000 to a house of worship but have total itemized deductions that are consistently a few hundred dollars less than the standard deduction, you can instead double up by donating $10,000 in a single year. That way, you will be able to claim itemized deductions for the year when you make the donation and can then take the standard deduction in the following year.

For large donations, there are limitations based on adjusted gross income, and there are other available techniques, such as donor-advised funds. This article also did not covered donations of noncash items, such as used furniture or household goods; these have additional substantiation requirements. Please call us if you have questions, or if you would like to set up an appointment to strategize about maximizing the tax benefits of your charitable contributions.

Rejoice — Business Meals Are Still Deductible

f you are a business owner who is accustomed to treating clients to sporting events, golf getaways, concerts and the like, you were no doubt saddened by part of the tax reform that passed last December. A part of the tax reform did away with the business-related deductions for entertainment, amusement or recreation expenses, beginning in 2018. You can still entertain your clients; you just can’t deduct the costs of doing so as a business expense.

While the ban on deducting business entertainment was quite clear in the revised law, a lingering question among tax experts has been whether the tax reform’s definition of entertainment also applied to business meals, such as when you take a customer or business contact to lunch. Some were saying yes, and others no. Either way, both sides recommended keeping the required receipts and documentation until the issue was clarified.

The IRS recently issued some very business-friendly guidance, pending the release of more detailed regulations. In a notice, the IRS has announced that taxpayers generally may continue to deduct 50 percent of the food and beverage expenses associated with operating their trade or business, including business meals, provided:

  1. The expense is an ordinary and necessary expense paid or incurred during the taxable year in carrying out any trade or business;
  2. The expense is not lavish or extravagant under the circumstances;
  3. The taxpayer, or an employee of the taxpayer, is present at the furnishing of the food or beverages;
  4. The food and beverages are provided to a current or potential business customer, client, consultant or similar business contact; and
  5. Food and beverages provided during or at an entertainment activity are purchased separately from the entertainment, or the cost of the food and beverages is stated separately from the cost of the entertainment on one or more bills, invoices or receipts.

The IRS notice also included the following interesting examples related to #5: The taxpayer invites a business contact to a baseball game. The tickets to the game are entertainment and not deductible. However, the taxpayer also purchased hot dogs and a beverage for himself and the business contact. Because the food and drinks were purchased separately, they are not disallowed as entertainment and are deductible if they otherwise qualify as an ordinary and necessary business expense. Had the ticket price included the hot dogs and beverages, they would be treated as non-deductible entertainment. If the ticket price separately stated the ticket price and the food and beverage price, then the food and beverage portion would not be disallowed as entertainment.

Of course, the substantiation requirements still apply. You must be able to establish the amount spent, the time and place, the business purpose and the business relationship and names of the individuals involved. You should keep a diary, an account book, digital files or similar records with this information and record the details within a short time of incurring the expenses. If the meal expense is $75 or more, documentary proof (receipts, etc.) is also required.

If you are an employee, starting in tax year 2018, you will not be able to deduct your unreimbursed employee business expenses, including the cost of client meals. These expenses have been deductible as miscellaneous itemized deductions when you itemized deductions and when your total deductions in that category exceeded 2% of your adjusted gross income. Under the tax reform, this category of deductions is not deductible for years 2018 through 2025. So, unfortunately, the IRS’s expansive definition of meal expenses will not benefit you.

If you have questions related to business meals, substantiation, or the ban on entertainment expenses, please give us a call.

States Sue U.S. to Void $10,000 Cap on State and Local Tax Deduction

Four states – New York, Connecticut, Maryland and New Jersey – have sued the federal government to void the tax-reform cap on the federal itemized deduction for state and local taxes, contending that limiting the deduction is unconstitutional. The taxes at issue include state and local income taxes, real property (real estate) taxes and personal property taxes.

These states – all Democratic (blue states), with some of the highest state and local tax rates in the nation – saw this deduction limitation as political retribution from the Republican-controlled Congress and have passed state legislation attempting to circumvent the tax reform provision limiting the federal itemized deduction for state and local taxes (SALT) to $10,000.

Both NY and NJ have created charitable funds that their state constituents can contribute to and allows them to receive a credit against their state and local taxes. NY’s legislation allows 85% of the amount contributed to the fund as a credit against taxes, while NJ allows 90%. The Connecticut law allows municipalities to create charitable organizations that taxpayers can contribute to in support of town services, from which they then receive a corresponding credit on their local property taxes. Each of these measures essentially circumvents the $10,000 limitation on SALT deductions.

However, two big questions are whether a donation for which a donor receives personal benefit is really a deductible charitable contribution and whether the state legislatures really thought this through. These work-arounds overlook one of the long-standing definitions of a deductible charitable contribution: the donor cannot receive any personal benefit from the donation.

Recently, the IRS waded into the issue with Notice 2018-54 and an accompanying news release, informing taxpayers that it intends to propose regulations addressing the federal income tax treatment of certain payments made by taxpayers to state-established “charitable funds,” for which the contributors receive a credit against their state and local taxes – essentially, the work-arounds adopted or proposed by the states noted above and others. In general, the IRS indicated that the characterization of these payments would be determined under the Code, informed by substance-over-form principles and not the label assigned by the state.

The proposed regulations will:

  1. “Make clear” that the requirements of the Code, informed by substance-over-form principles (see below), govern the federal income tax treatment of such transfers; and
  2. Assist taxpayers in “understanding the relationship between the federal charitable contribution deduction and the new statutory limitation” on the SALT deduction.

Substance over form is a judicial doctrine in which a court looks to the objective economic realities of a transaction, rather than to the particular form the parties employed. In essence, the formalisms of a transaction are disregarded, and the substance is examined to determine its true nature.

The implication of the IRS’s reference to the substance-over-form doctrine is likely that the formal mechanisms for implementing the state work-arounds – e.g., charitable contributions to “charitable gifts trust funds” – will not dictate their tax treatment. That is to say, the IRS will not recognize a charitable contribution deduction that is a disguised SALT deduction.

While the notice only mentions work-arounds involving transfers to state-controlled funds, another type of work-around has been enacted, and others have been proposed. In addition to the “charitable gifts trust funds” described above, New York also created a new “employer compensation expense tax” that essentially converts employee income taxes into employer payroll taxes. The IRS stated in Information Release 2018-122 that it is “continuing to monitor other legislative proposals” to “ensure that federal law controls the characterization of deductions for federal income tax filings.”

Allowing these work-arounds to stand would open Pandora’s Box to other schemes to circumvent the charitable contribution rules. For example, a church could take donations and then give the parishioner credit for the parishioner’s children’s tuition at the church’s school – something that is not currently allowed.

Have these states set their citizens up for IRS troubles if they utilize these work-arounds? Are these states now concerned that their work-arounds might not pass muster and will be ruled invalid after several years in the courts, so they are now pre-emptively suing the federal government?

Taxpayers in states with work-arounds should carefully consider all potential ramifications when deciding whether to get involved with something that could drag through the courts for years, with potential interest and penalties on taxes owed if (more likely, when) the IRS prevails. If you have any questions, please do not hesitate to contact us.