Experience is the Difference®

Red stamp letters - ExpiredMost of the talk about possible tax legislation this year has focused on either wide-sweeping tax reform or taxes that are part of the Affordable Care Act. But there are a few other potential tax developments for individuals to keep an eye on.

Back in December of 2015, Congress passed the PATH Act, which made a multitude of tax breaks permanent. However, there were a few valuable breaks for individuals that it extended only through 2016. The question now is whether Congress will extend them for 2017. 

An education break

One break the PATH Act extended through 2016 was the above-the-line deduction for qualified tuition and related expenses for higher education. The deduction was capped at $4,000 for taxpayers whose adjusted gross income (AGI) didn’t exceed $65,000 ($130,000 for joint filers) or, for those beyond those amounts, $2,000 for taxpayers whose AGI didn’t exceed $80,000 ($160,000 for joint filers).

You couldn’t take the American Opportunity credit, its cousin the Lifetime Learning credit and the tuition deduction in the same year for the same student. If you were eligible for all three breaks, the American Opportunity credit would typically be the most valuable in terms of tax savings.  
But in some situations, the AGI reduction from the tuition deduction might prove more beneficial than taking the Lifetime Learning credit. For example, a lower AGI might help avoid having other tax breaks reduced or eliminated due to AGI-based phaseouts.  

Mortgage-related tax breaks

Under the PATH Act, through 2016 you could treat qualified mortgage insurance premiums as interest for purposes of the mortgage interest deduction. The deduction phased out for taxpayers with AGI of $100,000 to $110,000. 

The PATH Act likewise extended through 2016 the exclusion from gross income for mortgage loan forgiveness. It also modified the exclusion to apply to mortgage forgiveness that occurs in 2017 as long as it’s granted pursuant to a written agreement entered into in 2016. So even if this break isn’t extended, you might still be able to benefit from it on your 2017 income tax return.

Act now

Please check back with us for the latest information. In the meantime, keep in mind that, if you qualify and you haven’t filed your 2016 income tax return yet, you can take advantage of these breaks on that tax return. The deadline for individual extended returns is October 16, 2017.

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If you’re interested in lending money to your children or other family members, consider establishing a “family bank.” These entities enhance the benefits of intrafamily loans, while minimizing unintended consequences.

Upsides and downsides of intrafamily lending

Lending can be an effective way to provide your family financial assistance without triggering unwanted gift taxes. So long as a loan is structured in a manner similar to an arm’s-length loan between unrelated parties, it won’t be treated as a taxable gift. This means, among other things:

  • Documenting the loan with a promissory note,
  • Charging interest at or above the applicable federal rate,
  • Establishing a fixed repayment schedule, and
  • Ensuring that the borrower has a reasonable prospect of repaying the loan.

Even if taxes aren’t a concern, intrafamily loans offer important benefits. For example, they allow you to help your family financially without depleting your wealth or creating a sense of entitlement. Done right, these loans can promote accountability and help cultivate the younger generation’s entrepreneurial capabilities by providing financing to start a business.

Too often, however, people lend money to family members with little planning and regard for potential unintended consequences. Rash lending decisions can lead to misunderstandings, hurt feelings, conflicts among family members and false expectations. That’s where the family bank comes into play.

Make loans through a family bank

A family bank is a family-owned, family-funded entity — such as a dynasty trust, a family limited partnership or a combination of the two — designed for the sole purpose of making intrafamily loans. Often, family banks are able to make financing available to family members who might have difficulty obtaining a loan from a bank or other traditional funding sources or to lend at more favorable terms.

By “professionalizing” family lending activities, a family bank can preserve the tax-saving power of intrafamily loans while minimizing negative consequences. The key to avoiding family conflicts and resentment is to build a strong family governance structure that promotes communication, group decision making and transparency. 

Establishing clear guidelines regarding the types of loans the family bank is authorized to make — and allowing all family members to participate in the decision-making process — ensures that family members are treated fairly and avoids false expectations.

Contact us to learn more about the ins and outs of intrafamily lending.

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In today’s competitive environment, offering employees an equity interest in your business can be a powerful tool for attracting, retaining and motivating quality talent. If your business is organized as a partnership, however, there are some tax traps you should watch out for. Once an employee becomes a partner, you generally can no longer treat him or her as an employee for tax and benefits purposes, which has significant tax implications.

Employment taxes

Employees pay half of the Social Security and Medicare taxes on their wages, through withholdings from their paychecks. The employer pays the other half. Partners, on the other hand, are treated as being self-employed — they pay the full amount of “self-employment” taxes through quarterly estimates.

Often, when employees receive partnership interests, the partnership continues to treat them as employees for tax purposes, withholding employment taxes from their wages and paying the employer’s share. The problem with this practice is that, because a partner is responsible for the full amount of employment taxes, the partnership’s payment of a portion of those taxes will likely be treated as a guaranteed payment to the partner. 

That payment would then be included in income and trigger additional employment taxes. Any employment taxes not paid by the partnership on a partner’s behalf are the partner’s responsibility.

Treating a partner as an employee can also result in overpayment of employment taxes. Suppose your partnership pays half of a partner’s employment taxes and the partner also has other self-employment activities — for example, interests in other partnerships or sole proprietorships. If those activities generate losses, the losses will offset the partner’s earnings from your partnership, reducing or even eliminating self-employment taxes.

Employee benefits

Partners and employees are treated differently for purposes of many benefit plans. For example, employees are entitled to exclude the value of certain employer-provided health, welfare and fringe benefits from income, while partners must include the value in their income (although they may be entitled to a self-employed health insurance deduction). And partners are prohibited from participating in a cafeteria plan.

Continuing to treat a partner as an employee for benefits purposes may trigger unwanted tax consequences. And it could disqualify a cafeteria plan.

Partnership alternatives

There are techniques that allow you to continue treating newly minted partners as employees for tax and benefits purposes. For example, you might create a tiered partnership structure and offer employees of a lower-tier partnership interests in an upper-tier partnership. Because these employees aren’t partners in the partnership that employs them, many of the problems discussed above will be avoided. 

If your business is contemplating offering partnership interests to key employees, contact us for more information about the potential tax consequences and how to avoid any pitfalls.

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A potential downside of tax-deferred saving through a traditional retirement plan is that you’ll have to pay taxes when you make withdrawals at retirement. Roth plans, on the other hand, allow tax-free distributions; the tradeoff is that contributions to these plans don’t reduce your current-year taxable income. 

Unfortunately, your employer might not offer a Roth 401(k) or another Roth option, and modified adjusted gross income (MAGI)-based phaseouts may reduce or eliminate your ability to contribute to a Roth IRA. Fortunately, there is a solution: the “back door” Roth IRA.

Are you phased out?

The 2017 contribution limit for all IRAs combined is $5,500 (plus an additional $1,000 catch-up contribution if you’ll be age 50 or older by December 31). You can make a partial contribution if your MAGI falls within the applicable phaseout range, but no contribution if it exceeds the top of the range:

  • For married taxpayers filing jointly: $186,000–$196,000.
  • For single and head-of-household taxpayers: $118,000–$133,000.

(Note: Married taxpayers filing separately are subject to much lower phaseout ranges.)

Using the back door

If the income-based phaseout prevents you from making Roth IRA contributions and you don’t already have a traditional IRA, a “back door” IRA might be right for you. 

How does it work? You set up a traditional account and make a nondeductible contribution to it. You then wait until the transaction clears and convert the traditional account to a Roth account. The only tax due will be on any growth in the account between the time you made the contribution and the date of conversion, which should be little, if any, assuming you’re able to make the conversion quickly.

More limited tax benefit in some cases

If you do already have a traditional IRA, the back-door Roth IRA strategy is still available but there will be more tax liability on the conversion. A portion of the amount you convert to a Roth IRA will be considered attributable to deductible contributions and thus be taxable. It doesn’t matter if you set up a new traditional IRA for the nondeductible contributions; all of your traditional IRAs will be treated as one for tax purposes. 

Roth IRAs have other benefits and downsides you need to factor into your decision, and additional rules apply to IRA conversions. Please contact us for assistance in determining whether a backdoor Roth IRA is right for you.

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Think the rules for reporting employee stock options and restricted stock are too complicated? The Financial Accounting Standards Board (FASB) agrees — and it has simplified the rules starting in 2017 for public companies and 2018 for private companies. Here’s how. 

Old rules

Under current U.S. Generally Accepted Accounting Principles (GAAP), for each share-based payment, employers must determine whether the difference between the deduction for tax purposes and the compensation cost recognized for financial reporting purposes results in either an excess tax benefit or a tax deficiency. 

Currently, when the deduction for a share-based payment for income tax purposes exceeds the compensation cost for accounting purposes, the employer recognizes an excess tax benefit in additional paid-in capital, which is an equity account on the balance sheet. Conversely, tax deficiencies are recognized either as an offset to accumulated excess tax benefits, if any, or in the income statement. Excess tax benefits aren’t recognized until the deduction reduces taxes payable.

New rules

Accounting Standards Update (ASU) No. 2016-09, Compensation — Stock Compensation (Topic 718): Improvements to Employee Share-Based Payment Accounting, moves all accounting for income tax consequences of share-based payments to the income statement. Under the simplified rules:

  • All excess tax benefits and tax deficiencies will be recognized as income tax expense or benefit,
  • The tax effects of exercised or vested awards will be treated as discrete items in the reporting Employers will recognize excess tax benefits regardless of whether the benefit reduces taxes payable in the current period.

The new standard also calls for excess tax benefits to be classified on the statement of cash flows as an operating activity with other income tax cash flows. Under current GAAP, employers are required to separate excess tax benefits from other income tax cash flows and classify them as financing activities. 

Alternative for private companies

Many people forget that private companies also may award stock options and restricted shares to employees. However, it’s more challenging to value share-based awards for private companies, because their shares don’t trade in the public markets. 

The updated guidance provides a simplified formula for estimating the expected term for nonpublic entities that issue share-based payments based on a service or performance condition. Under this optional practical expedient, the expected term of a share-based payment will generally be the midpoint between the requisite service period and the contractual term of the award, if vesting is dependent only on a service condition. That formula also applies if the award is dependent on satisfying a performance condition that’s probable of being achieved.

Right for you?

Share-based payments can be an effective way for cash-strapped businesses to attract and retain executives. But the existing accounting rules have discouraged some companies from trying out employee stock options and restricted stock in their compensation plans. With simplification efforts in effect, it’s easier than ever to report these transactions. Contact us to discuss whether share-based payments could work for your company. 

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The IRS announced that it will begin conducting examinations with a new pilot program. The “IRS Taxpayer Digital Communications Secure Messaging” program is designed to save time and costs by reducing paper mail and phone correspondence. The IRS plans to invite 8,000 taxpayers who are currently undergoing correspondence examinations to participate. Tax preparers who have valid powers of attorney can also take part if their clients receive letters confirming eligibility. Taxpayers will register, communicate and transfer documents using Internet-based channels. 

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It can be difficult in the current job market for students and recent graduates to find summer or full-time jobs. If you’re a business owner with children in this situation, you may be able to provide them with valuable experience and income while generating tax savings for both your business and your family overall.

Shifting income

By shifting some of your business earnings to a child as wages for services performed by him or her, you can turn some of your high-taxed income into tax-free or low-taxed income. For your business to deduct the wages as a business expense, the work done by the child must be legitimate and the child’s wages must be reasonable.

Here’s an example of how this works: A business owner operating as a sole proprietor is in the 39.6% tax bracket. He hires his 17-year-old son to help with office work full-time during the summer and part-time into the fall. The son earns $6,100 during the year and doesn’t have any other earnings.

The business owner saves $2,415.60 (39.6% of $6,100) in income taxes at no tax cost to his son, who can use his $6,350 standard deduction (for 2017) to completely shelter his earnings. The business owner can save an additional $2,178 in taxes if he keeps his son on the payroll longer and pays him an additional $5,500. The son can shelter the additional income from tax by making a tax-deductible contribution to his own IRA.

Family taxes will be cut even if the employee-child’s earnings exceed his or her standard deduction and IRA deduction. That’s because the unsheltered earnings will be taxed to the child beginning at a rate of 10% instead of being taxed at the parent’s higher rate.

Saving employment taxes

If your business isn’t incorporated or a partnership that includes nonparent partners, you might also save some employment tax dollars. Services performed by a child under age 18 while employed by a parent aren’t considered employment for FICA tax purposes. And a similar exemption applies for federal unemployment tax (FUTA) purposes. It exempts earnings paid to a child under age 21 while employed by his or her parent.

If you have questions about how these rules apply in your particular situation or would like to learn about other family-related tax-saving strategies, contact us.

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Income and losses from investment real estate or rental property are passive by definition — unless you’re a real estate professional. Why does this matter? Passive income may be subject to the 3.8% net investment income tax (NIIT), and passive losses generally are deductible only against passive income, with the excess being carried forward.

Of course the NIIT is part of the Affordable Care Act (ACA) and might be eliminated under ACA repeal and replace legislation or tax reform legislation. But if/when such legislation will be passed and signed into law is uncertain. Even if the NIIT is eliminated, the passive loss issue will still be an important one for many taxpayers investing in real estate.

“Professional” requirements

To qualify as a real estate professional, you must annually perform:

  • More than 50% of your personal services in real property trades or businesses in which you materially participate, and
  • More than 750 hours of service in these businesses.

Each year stands on its own, and there are other nuances. (Special rules for spouses may help you meet the 750-hour test.)

Tax strategies

If you’re concerned you’ll fail either test and be subject to the 3.8% NIIT or stuck with passive losses, consider doing one of the following:

Increasing your involvement in the real estate activity. If you can pass the real estate professional tests, the activity no longer will be subject to passive activity rules.

Looking at other activities. If you have passive losses from your real estate investment, consider investing in another income-producing trade or business that will be passive to you. That way, you’ll have passive income that can absorb some or all of your passive losses.

Disposing of the activity. This generally allows you to deduct all passive losses — including any loss on disposition (subject to basis and capital loss limitations). But, again, the rules are complex.

Also be aware that the IRS frequently challenges claims of real estate professional status — and is often successful. One situation where the IRS commonly prevails is when the taxpayer didn’t keep adequate records of time spent on real estate activities.

If you’re not sure whether you qualify as a real estate professional, please contact us. We can help you make this determination and guide you on how to properly document your hours.

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If you recently filed for your 2016 income tax return (rather than filing for an extension) you may now be wondering whether it’s likely that your business could be audited by the IRS based on your filing. Here’s what every business owner should know about the process.

Catching the IRS’s eye

Many business audits occur randomly, but a variety of tax-return-related items are likely to raise red flags with the IRS and may lead to an audit. Here are a few examples:

  • Significant inconsistencies between previous years’ filings and your most current filing,
  • Gross profit margin or expenses markedly different from those of other businesses in your industry, and
  • Miscalculated or unusually high deductions.

An owner-employee salary that’s inordinately higher or lower than those in similar companies in his or her location can also catch the IRS’s eye, especially if the business is structured as a corporation.

Response measures

If you’re selected for an audit, you’ll be notified by letter. Generally, the IRS won’t make initial contact by phone. But if there’s no response to the letter, the agency may follow up with a call.

The good news is that many audits simply request that you mail in documentation to support certain deductions you’ve taken. Others may ask you to take receipts and other documents to a local IRS office. Only the most severe version, the field audit, requires meeting with one or more IRS auditors.

More good news: In no instance will the agency demand an immediate response. You’ll be informed of the discrepancies in question and given time to prepare. To do so, you’ll need to collect and organize all relevant income and expense records. If any records are missing, you’ll have to reconstruct the information as accurately as possible based on other documentation.

If the IRS selects you for an audit, our firm can help you:

  • Understand what the IRS is disputing (it’s not always crystal clear),
  • Gather the specific documents and information needed, and
  • Respond to the auditor’s inquiries in the most expedient and effective manner.

Don’t let an IRS audit ruin your year — be it this year, next year or whenever that letter shows up in the mail. By taking a meticulous, proactive approach to how you track, document and file your company’s tax-related information, you’ll make an audit much less painful and even decrease the chances that one happens in the first place.

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Many taxpayers have questions after they file their tax returns. The IRS provides answers to many of them. These are a few of the most common.

How can I check the status of my refund?
You can go online to check on your refund if it has been 24 hours since the IRS would have received your e-filed tax return or four weeks after you mailed your paper return. Go to www.irs.gov and click on "Where's My Refund?" You will need your Social Security number, your filing status, and the amount of your tax refund.

What records should I keep?
Keep receipts, canceled checks, or other substantiation for any deductions or credits you claimed. Also keep records that verify other items on your tax return (W-2s, 1099s, etc.). Keep a copy of the tax return, along with the supporting records, for seven years.

What if I discover that I made a mistake on my return?
If you discover that you failed to report some income or claim a deduction or tax credit to which you are entitled, you can correct the error by filing an amended tax return using Form 1040X, Amended U.S. Individual Income Tax Return.

What if my address changes after I file?
If you move or have an address change after filing your return, send Form 8822, Change of Address, to the IRS. You should also notify the Postal Service of your new address so that you'll receive any refund you're due or any notices sent by the IRS.

For answers to other tax questions you may have, give us a call.

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