Author Archives: CN Staff

Dodging Tax Penalties

Most taxpayers don’t intentionally incur tax penalties, but many who are penalized are simply not aware of the penalties or the impact they can have on their wallet. As tax season approaches, let’s look at some of the more commonly encountered penalties and how they may be avoided.

Underpayment of Estimated Taxes and Withholding – Taxpayers are required to pay their tax liability as they go during the year, either through withholding or by making estimated tax payments. If the taxpayer owes more than $1,000 when filing his or her return for the year, the IRS will assess the underpayment of estimated tax penalty, which is currently 4% of the underpayment computed quarterly. There are “safe harbor” payments that can protect you from this penalty, which include payments in the following amounts: 90% of the current year’s tax liability or 100% (110% for high-income taxpayers) of the prior year’s tax liability. Farmers and fishermen need only prepay 66-2/3% of the current liability or 100% of the prior year’s liability.

Late Paying Penalty – When the tax owed on a return is paid after the unextended due date of the tax return (usually April 15), the taxpayer is subject to a penalty of 1/2% per month (maximum 25%) on the unpaid balance. Taxpayers are frequently caught by this penalty when they need an extension to file their tax return. Many fail to realize that the extension does not include an extension to pay. The only way to avoid or minimize this penalty is to have no or little balance due on the return when it is finally filed. The extension form includes a provision to pay the projected balance owed when filing the extension.

Late Filing Penalty – If the return is filed after the due date, including extensions, a late filing penalty of 4.5% per month (maximum 22.5%) applies. The automatic extended due date for 2016 returns is October 18, 2017, but an extension request form must be filed by the April 2017 due date to qualify. Thus, the penalty would generally apply to 2016 returns filed after October 18, 2017. If the return is over 60 days late, the minimum penalty for failure to file is the lesser of $205 or 100% of the tax shown on the return. While the obvious way to avoid a late filing penalty is to file in a timely fashion, the IRS will consider abating the penalty if it can be proven that there was reasonable cause and no willful neglect for filing late.

Negligence – When underpayment is due to negligence on the part of the taxpayer or when there are errors in tax valuations, 20% of the tax underpayment is charged. This penalty is frequently encountered when the IRS adjusts a filed return due to unreported income or overstated deductions. To reduce the chance that you may be subject to this penalty, be sure you provide all of your W-2s, 1099s, K-1s, etc. for the preparation of your return, complete any organizer that have been requested and ensure that you can substantiate all of the deductions you claim.

Dishonored Check – The penalty for dishonored checks is 2% of the check amount, but if the amount is $1,250 or less, the penalty is the amount of the check or $25, whichever is less. If you don’t have sufficient funds to pay your tax when you file your return, rather than writing a check that you know will bounce, you may be able to arrange an installment payment plan with the IRS. You may still incur late payment charges, but the penalty rate is lower if you are on a payment plan.

Missing ID Number – This penalty of $50 for each missing number is charged when a taxpayer doesn’t provide a required Social Security number (SSN) for him or herself, a dependent or another person on his or her tax return or doesn’t. It is also charged when the taxpayer doesn’t provide his or her SSN to another person or entity when required.

There are more severe penalties not mentioned here that apply to fraudulent actions or claims. In addition to the late filing penalty, it is possible to have some of the other penalties abated for reasonable causes. If you have questions related to the application of any of these penalties, please give this office a call.

 

Thinking of Becoming a Real Estate Flipper?

With mortgage interest rates low and home prices finally making a comeback, flipping real estate appears to be on the rise. This activity is even the theme of several popular reality TV shows. House flipping is, essentially, purchasing a house or property, improving it and then selling it (presumably for a profit) in a short period of time. The key is to find a suitable fixer-upper that is priced under market for its location, fix it up and resell it for more than it cost to buy, hold, fix up and resell.

Are you contemplating trying your hand at flipping? If so, keep in mind that you will have a silent partner, Uncle Sam, who will be waiting to take his share of any profits in taxes. (And most likely, Sam’s cousin in your state capitol will expect a share, too.) Taxes play a significant role in the overall transaction, and tax treatment can be quite different depending upon whether you are a dealer, an investor or a homeowner. The following is the current tax treatment for each.

  • Dealer in Real Estate – Gains received by a non-corporate taxpayer from business operations as a real estate dealer are taxed as ordinary income (10% to 39.6%), and in addition, individual sole proprietors are subject to the self-employment tax of 15.3% of their net profit (the equivalent of the FICA taxes for a self-employed person). Higher-income sole proprietors are also subject to an additional 0.9% Medicare surtax on their earnings. Thus, a dealer will generally pay significantly more tax on the profit than an investor. On the other hand, if the flip results in a loss, the dealer would be able to deduct the entire loss in the year of sale, which would generally reduce his or her tax at the same rates.
  • Investor – Gains as an investor are subject to capital gains rates (maximum of 20%) if the property is held for more than a year (long term). If held short term (less than a year, as will likely be the case for most flippers), ordinary income rates (10% to 39.6%) will apply. An investor is not subject to the self-employment tax, but could be subject to the 3.8% surtax on net investment income for higher-income taxpayers. A downside for the investor who has a loss from the transaction is that, after combining all long- and short-term capital gains and losses for the year, his or her deductible loss is limited to $3,000, with any excess capital loss being carried over to the next year. The rules get a bit more complicated if the investor rents out the property while trying to sell it, but such rules are beyond the scope of this article.
  • Homeowner – If the individual occupies the property as the primary residence while it is being fixed up, he or she would be treated as an investor, with three major differences: (1) if the individual has owned and occupied the property for two years and has not used a homeowner gain exclusion in the two years prior to closing the sale, he or she can exclude gain of up to $250,000 ($500,000 for a married couple); (2) if the transaction results in a loss, the homeowner will not be able to deduct the loss or even use it to offset gains from other sales; and (3) some fix-up costs may be deemed to be repairs rather than improvements, and repairs on one’s primary residence are neither deductible nor includible as part of the cost basis of the home.

Being a homeowner is easily identifiable, but the distinction between a dealer and an investor is not clearly defined in the tax code. A real estate dealer is a person who buys and sells real estate property with a view to the trading profits to be derived and whose operations are so extensive as to constitute a separate business. A person acquiring property strictly for investment, though disposing of investment assets at intermittent intervals, generally does not deal in real estate on a regular basis.

This issue has been debated in the tax courts frequently, and both the IRS and the courts have taken the following into consideration:

  • whether the individual is already a dealer in real estate, such as a real estate sales person or broker;
  • the number and frequency of sales (flips);
  • whether the individual is more committed to another profession as opposed to fixing up and selling real estate; and
  • how much personal time is spent making improvements to the “flips” as opposed to another profession or employment.

The distinction between a dealer and an investor is truly based on the facts and circumstances of each case. Clearly, an individual who is not already in the real estate profession and flips one house is not a dealer. But one who flips five or more houses and/or properties and has substantial profits would probably be considered a dealer. Everything in between becomes various shades of grey, and the facts and circumstances of each case must be considered.

If you have additional questions about flipping real estate or need assistance with your specific situation, please give this office a call.

 

2016 Tax Moves That Take Advantage of One of Trump’s Tax Proposals

One of the tax proposals that President-elect Trump has made, which also falls in line with the general Republican tax proposals, is increasing the standard deduction for single taxpayers to $15,000 and to $30,000 for joint filers in 2017. That is more than double the standard deductions ($6,350 for singles and $12,700 for joint filers) that currently apply for 2017.

There is no guarantee of these higher standard deductions. But since both the House and Senate have Republican majorities, the odds seem to be in favor of this happening.

Assuming the standard deductions are increased, there is a way you can benefit in 2016. If your itemized deductions are generally lower than proposed increased amounts, you might consider prepaying as many itemized deduction expenses as possible in 2016 and then taking the standard deduction in 2017.

Considerations include prepaying your charitable tithing or other charitable obligations, property tax installments, and any state income tax that might be due on your 2016 return. Also consider any unpaid medical expenses and employee business expenses that might occur.

Call our office to see if this strategy might work for you without triggering the alternative minimum tax. But don’t delay; the expenses must be paid before year-end!

 

Not Business As Usual For Employers: W-2 and 1099-MISC Filing Dates Moved Up

The IRS, in an effort to combat rampant tax filing fraud, has introduced what they hope will be two new fraud-prevention measures for the upcoming filing season. The first will purposely delay until February 15 the issuance of refunds for tax returns where there is an earned income tax credit (EITC) and/or a refundable child tax credit (CTC), giving the IRS more time to match the income reported on these returns to the income reported by employers. These two tax credits have been the favorite target of scammers who have been filing fraudulent returns with stolen IDs and fabricated income before the IRS is able to verify the income and withholding claimed on the returns.

The second preventive measure is to require earlier filing of W-2 and 1099-MISC forms, which will enable the IRS to ferret out returns that report phony income and withholding. This measure will have a significant impact on employers by moving up the filing due date of the government’s copy of 2016 W-2s and 1099-MISCs to January 31, 2017 (the previous due date was February 28, or March 31 if filed electronically). January 31 has been and continues to be the date the forms are required to be provided to the employees (W-2s) or independent contractors (1099-MISCs).

The 30-day automatic extension to file W-2s is no longer automatic. The IRS anticipates that it will grant the non-automatic extension of time to file only in limited cases where the filer or transmitter’s explanation demonstrates that an extension of time to file is needed as a result of extraordinary circumstances.

With regard to the government’s copy of 1099-MISC forms, the earlier filing due date only applies to those 1099-MISC forms reporting non-employee compensation.

If you have questions related to earlier W-2 or 1099-MISC filing requirements, please give this office a call.

 

Have a Worthless Stock You Want to Write Off for 2016?

If you are like most investors, you occasionally will pick a loser that declines in value. Sometimes, a security can even become worthless when the issuing company goes out of business.

Gains and losses for securities are not recognized for tax purposes until the securities are sold or become worthless. If the security is sold for a loss, the date of loss is easily determined since it is the sale date. However, for worthless stocks, it is not that easy to determine the date of loss, and taxpayers cannot just pick the year they want to take the loss.

The IRS says a stock is worthless when a taxpayer can show that the security had value at the end of the year preceding the deduction year and that an identifiable event caused a loss in the deduction year. Just because an issuing company has filed bankruptcy does not necessarily mean its stock is worthless in that year. The company could be in reorganization, or the stocks might not be worthless until a later year.

Whatever you do, don’t wait until it’s too late to take your loss. If the IRS challenges the loss and the security is found to have become worthless in an earlier year, the current year’s loss will be denied. Your only recourse at that point is to amend your prior year’s returns to claim your loss, provided the three-year statute of limitation has not expired. If the loss is claimed too early, the IRS will also deny it (making you wait until a subsequent year when the stock actually becomes worthless).

Talk to your broker before the end of the year if you have holdings that have lost all, or nearly all, of their value and you want to be able to claim your investment in them as a loss on your 2016 return. Most brokerage firms will purchase worthless stock for a nominal amount (one cent) just to provide closure for their clients. This is probably the best solution for tax purposes. The sale will appear on Form 1099-B issued by the broker, and then you won’t have to debate with the IRS over when the stock became worthless.

As a reminder, losses from sales of capital assets such as stock are first used to offset any capital gains on the return for the year of the sale. If the amount of the gain isn’t enough to absorb all of the losses, up to $3,000 ($1,500 if married filing separate) can be used to offset other types of income. If there is still capital loss remaining, it is carried forward to the next tax year and, if necessary, to future years, until it is used up.

If you have questions related to the tax treatment of stock sales, please contact this office.

 

What Are the Tax Implications of Paying or Receiving Alimony?

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

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

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

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

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

Here are some additional issues that should be considered.

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

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

 

IRS Gearing Up For Home Mortgage Interest Audits

Many individuals who believe all of the interest reported by home mortgage lenders on the Form 1098 is automatically deductible may be in for a very unpleasant surprise when they file their 2016 tax returns. For many, all of the interest is not deductible, and Congress has mandated new reporting requirements for lenders that will help the IRS identify taxpayers who are deducting more than they are entitled to.

Deductible home mortgage interest is limited to interest on acquisition debt (up to $1 million of debt) and equity debt interest on up to $100,000 of equity debt secured by the taxpayer’s primary residence and a designated second residence. Acquisition debt is debt used to acquire or substantially improve the taxpayer’s primary or second home. Equity debt is debt that is not used to acquire or substantially improve one of those residences (essentially cash equity taken for other purposes). In addition, equity debt interest is not deductible against the alternative minimum tax, which is frequently encountered by higher income taxpayers.

To catch taxpayers deducting more home mortgage interest than they are entitled to, the IRS will be requiring lenders to report on Form 1098 the:

  • Date the loan was initiated – a factor used to determine if the loan is a refinanced loan and the interest being deducted is potentially in excess of the acquisition and equity debt limits.
  • Balance of the mortgage on the first day of the tax year – also a factor in determining if the interest being deducted is in excess of the acquisition and equity debt limits.
  • Address of the property securing the mortgage. This information will allow the IRS to determine if the taxpayer is including interest from more than the allowed primary and one secondary residence. This can also be used to identify interest on motorhomes and boats, which can be deducted as home mortgage interest if the taxpayer uses the motorhome or boat as a primary or secondary home, but which is not deductible against the AMT.

Taxpayers whose Form 1098 data indicates a potential for non-compliance can expect to be subjected to correspondence audits and to have the home mortgage interest included as part of an office audit.

Another mortgage interest issue is taxpayers who use home mortgages to finance rentals, businesses and other normally deductible uses but who may be allocating the interest between home mortgage interest and business or investment interest improperly, potentially resulting in an IRS adjustment.

If you have questions regarding your compliance with the home mortgage interest deduction requirements or feel you have not been in compliance in the past, please give this office a call.

2015 Transition Relief under the Employer Shared Responsibility Provisions

Under the Affordable Care Act, certain employers – referred to as applicable large employers (ALEs) – are subject to the employer shared responsibility provisions, which require ALEs to offer affordable minimum essential coverage healthcare coverage that provides minimum value to full-time employees and their dependents (but not their spouses). Failure to do so can result in the employer being liable for substantial penalties that the government refers to as shared responsibility payments.
Note: Whether an employer is subject to employer shared responsibility provisions is based upon the number of equivalent full-time employees (EFTEs) employed by the employer, generally in the prior year. However, the rules that determine who is a full-time employee are complicated. Generally, anyone who works at least 30 hours per week (or 130 hours in a calendar month) is considered a full-time employee. Part-time employees are those who are not full-time employees. All the hours worked by part-time employees for the month are combined and divided by 120, and this result is added to the number of full-time employees. This sum is the number of EFTEs for the month.

  Example – Equivalent Full-Time Employees – For his business, John has 45 full-time employees and 20 part-time employees. In January 2016, his part-time employees     worked 960 hours. That is the equivalent of 8 (960/120) full-time employees. Thus, John employed 53 (45 + 8) EFTEs in January. In this case, John’s business is subject to the employer shared responsibility provisions, but it is only required to offer coverage to full-time employees and their dependents.

The employer shared responsibility provisions were first effective on January 1, 2015, but transition relief from certain requirements is available for 2015, including the following:
• ALEs with fewer than 100 EFTEs won’t be assessed an employer shared responsibility payment for 2015 provided that certain conditions were met regarding the employer’s maintenance of the workforce and preexisting health coverage. ALEs that are eligible for this relief must provide a certification of eligibility as part of the required information reporting for 2015.
• ALEs were not required to offer coverage to full-time employees’ dependents for the 2015 plan year, provided that they meet certain conditions – including that they take steps to arrange for such coverage to begin in the 2016 plan year and that they do not drop current dependent coverage.
• In general, if an ALE does not offer minimum essential coverage to at least 95 percent of its full-time employees and their dependents, it may owe an employer shared responsibility payment based on its total number of full-time employees. For 2015, 70 percent is substituted for 95 percent. However, even if an employer offers minimum essential coverage to at least 70 percent of its full-time employees and their dependents for 2015, it may still owe the separate – generally smaller in the aggregate – employer shared responsibility payment that applies for each full-time employee who receives the premium tax credit for purchasing coverage through the Health Insurance Marketplace.
• If an ALE is subject to the employer shared responsibility payment because it doesn’t offer minimum essential coverage to its full-time employees and their dependents, the annual payment is generally $2,000 for each full-time employee – adjusted for inflation – after excluding the first 30 full-time employees from the calculation. For 2015, if ALEs subject to this employer shared responsibility payment have 100 or more EFTEs, their payments will be calculated by reducing the number of full-time employees by 80 rather than 30.
• Transition relief is available for certain employers that sponsor non-calendar-year plans for the months in 2015 prior to the beginning of the 2015 plan year, if the employer and the plan meet various conditions.
• Rather than being required to measure their ALE status based on the number of EFTEs for all twelve months of 2014, employers may instead base their 2015 ALE status on any consecutive six-month period from 2014 – as chosen by the employers.
For an employer with a non-calendar-year plan, the first four types of transition relief listed above also apply for the months in 2016 that are part of the 2015 plan year.
If you have questions related to your company’s employer shared responsibility, please give this office a call.

Back-Door Roth IRAs

Many individuals who are saving for retirement favor Roth IRAs over traditional IRAs because the former allows for both accumulation and post-retirement distributions to be tax-free. In comparison, contributions to traditional IRAs may be deductible, earnings are tax-deferred, and distributions are generally taxable. Anyone who is under age 70.5 and who has compensation can make a contribution to a traditional IRA (although the deduction may be limited). However, not everyone is allowed to make a Roth IRA contribution.

High-income taxpayers are limited in the annual amount they can contribute to a Roth IRA. The maximum contribution for 2016 is $5,500 ($6,500 if age 50 or older), but the allowable 2016 contribution for joint-filing taxpayers phases out at an adjustable gross income (AGI) between $184,000 and $194,000 (or an AGI between $0 and $9,999 for married taxpayers filing separately). For unmarried taxpayers, the phase-out is between $117,000 and $132,000.

However, tax law also includes a provision that allows taxpayers to convert their traditional IRA funds to Roth IRAs without any AGI restrictions. Although deductible contributions to a traditional IRA have AGI restrictions (for those who are in an employer’s plan), nondeductible contributions do not.

Thus, higher-income taxpayers can first make a nondeductible contribution to a traditional IRA and then convert that IRA to a Roth IRA. This is commonly referred to as a “back-door Roth IRA.”

BIG PITFALL: However, there is a big pitfall to back-door IRAs, and it can produce unexpected taxable income. Taxpayers and their investment advisers often overlook this pitfall, which revolves around the following rule: For distribution purposes, all of a taxpayer’s IRAs (except Roth IRAs) are considered to be one account, so distributions are considered to be taken pro rata from both the deductible and nondeductible portions of the IRA. The prorated amount of the deducted contributions is taxable. Thus, a taxpayer who is contemplating a back-door Roth IRA contribution must carefully consider and plan for the consequences of this “one IRA” rule before making the conversion.

There is a possible, although complicated, solution to this problem. Rolling over IRAs into other types of qualified retirement plans, such as employer retirement plans and 401(k) plans, is permitted tax-free. However, a rollover to a qualified plan is limited to the taxable portion of the IRA. If an employer’s plan permits, a taxpayer could roll the entire taxable portion of his or her IRA into the employer’s plan, leaving behind only nondeductible IRA contributions, which can then be converted into a Roth IRA tax-free.

Before taking any action, please call this office to discuss strategies for making Roth IRA contributions or to convert existing traditional IRAs into Roth IRAs.

 

Not All Home Mortgage Interest Is Deductible; The IRS is Watching

One of the current IRS audit initiatives is checking to see if taxpayers are deducting too much home equity debt interest. Generally, taxpayers are allowed to deduct the interest on up to $1 million of home acquisition debt (includes subsequent debt incurred to make improvements, but not repairs) and the interest on up to $100,000 of home equity debt. Equity debt is debt not incurred to acquire or improve the home. Taxpayers frequently exceed the equity debt limit and fail to adjust their interest deduction accordingly.

The best way to explain this interest deduction limitation is by example. Let’s assume you have never refinanced the original loan that was used to purchase your home, and the current principal balance of that acquisition debt is less than $1 million. However, you also have a line of credit on the home, and the debt on that line of credit is treated as equity debt. If the balance on that line of credit is $120,000, then you have exceeded the equity debt limitation and only 83.33% ($100,000/$120,000) of the equity line interest is deductible as home mortgage interest on Schedule A. The balance is not deductible unless you can trace the use of the excess debt to either investment or business use. If traceable to investments, the interest you pay on the amount traceable would be deductible as investment interest, which is also deducted on Schedule A but is limited to an amount equal to your net investment income (investment income less investment expenses). If the excess debt was used for business, you could deduct the interest on that excess debt on the appropriate business schedule.

Alternatively, the IRS allows you to elect to treat the equity line debt as “not secured” by the home, which would allow the interest on the entire equity debt to be traced to its use and deducted on the appropriate schedule if deductible. For instance, you borrow from the equity line for a down payment on a rental. If you make the “not secured” election, the interest on the amount borrowed for the rental down payment would be deductible on the Schedule E rental income and expense schedule and not subject to the home equity debt limitations.

However, one of the rules that allows home mortgage interest to be deductible is it must be secured by the home, and if the unsecured election is used, none of the interest can be traced back to the home itself. So, for example, if the equity line was used partly for the rental down payment and partially for personal reasons, the interest associated with the personal portion of the loan would not be deductible since you elected to treat it as not secured by your home.

Using the unsecured election can have unexpected results in the current year and in the future. You should use that election only after consulting with this office.

Generally, people not familiar with the sometimes complicated rules associated with home mortgage interest believe the interest shown on the Form 1098 issued by their lenders at the end of the year is fully deductible. In many cases when taxpayers have refinanced or have equity loans, that may be far from the truth and could result in an IRS inquiry and potential multi-year adjustments. In fact, for Forms 1098 issued after 2016 (thus effective for 2016 information), the IRS will be requiring lenders to include additional information, including the amount of the outstanding mortgage principal as of the beginning of the calendar year, the mortgage origination date and the address of the property securing the mortgage, which will provide the IRS with additional tools for audits.

When in doubt about how much interest you can deduct or if you have questions about how refinancing or taking on additional home mortgage debt will impact your taxes, please call this office for assistance.