Author Archives: CN Staff

Don’t Have a Retirement Plan? Maybe a SEP Is the Answer.

If you are like many small business owners, you probably find the year-end period to be a very busy time. You can’t close your books and determine your business’s profit until after the close of the year, and if this has been a good year, you may want to establish a retirement plan and make a contribution for 2015.

There are a number of retirement plan options available, including Keogh plans and 401(k)s. However, a simplified employee pension plan (SEP) may be your best option. Unlike with a Keogh plan, you don’t have to scramble to get a SEP established before year-end.

The reason a SEP is “simplified” is that its retirement contributions are deposited into an IRA account under the control of the SEP participant, thus eliminating most of the employer’s administrative duties. That is why these plans are sometimes referred to as SEP-IRAs.

SEPs function much like Keogh plans, and they allow tax-deductible contributions for both employees and self-employed individuals. For an employee, the maximum contribution for 2015 is the lesser of 25% of that employee’s compensation or $53,000. These contributions are excluded from the employees’ wages and are not subject to withholding for income tax or FICA. A self-employed person can contribute 25% of his or her compensation after deducting the employer’s contribution, which boils down to the smallest of 20% of the business’ net profit or $53,000. Each year, the employer can specify a compensation amount between zero and 25% (not exceeding the maximums for the year).

SEPs are a great option for startups and other small businesses that have unpredictable income and that may be leery of the long-term contribution matches required with other types of retirement plans. SEPs are also a great option for self-employed individuals with no employees, as the contributions are based upon net profits, allowing the business owner to select the maximum percentage while knowing that the required contribution will be small in low-income years.

Except for when employees are covered by collective bargaining agreements, an employer that elects to make a SEP contribution for the year must contribute to an employee’s retirement account if the employee is at least 21 years of age, has worked for the employer in at least three of the prior five calendar years, and has compensation for the year of at least $600.

Another advantage of SEP plans is that contributions are allowed after the account owner has reached the age of 70½—the age limit for traditional, non-SEP IRA contributions. This is true even though individuals must begin the required minimum distributions (RMDs) from the SEP once age 70½ is reached.

As with all traditional IRAs and qualified plans, distributions from a SEP are taxable and subject to a 10% early withdrawal penalty if withdrawn before age 59½.

To set up a SEP plan, you can adopt the IRS model plan by using Form 5305-SEP. This form is completed and retained for your records (not filed with the IRS). You can also open one with a financial institution. It may be prudent to adopt whatever plan is offered by the financial institution you’ll be dealing with to ensure that all plan requirements are met. If using a financial institution’s plan, be sure to discuss the plan’s fees.

A SEP may be the best option for your business’s retirement fund. Please call this office for more information on how a SEP plan might work for your particular business structure or to determine whether other options should be considered.

Penalty for not having health insurance surprises many

Many taxpayers are surprised by the size of the penalty being imposed for not having health insurance in 2015. This may be a wake-up call for many who didn’t realize the penalty is being phased in over a three-year period between 2014 and 2016, and the increases are substantial each year.

The penalty is determined by two methods, the flat dollar amount or a percentage of the taxpayer’s income, and the penalty is the GREATER of the two amounts.

The flat dollar amount is the sum of fixed dollar amounts for the year that apply to each member of the taxpayer’s family. However, there is a cap on the total flat dollar amount, which is equal to 3 times the adult penalty for the year. The table below shows the amount per family member and maximum flat dollar amounts for each of the three penalty phase-in years.

Year 2014 2015 2016
Adult Family Member $ 95.00 $325.00 $ 695.00
Member Under Age 18 $ 47.50 $162.50 $ 347.50
Maximum Flat Dollar Penalty $285.00 $975.00 $2,085.00

Example: Suppose, in 2015, a family of 3 (2 married adults and 1 child) all went without insurance for the entire year. Their flat dollar amount penalty would be $812.50 ($325 + $325 + 162.50).

The percentage-of-income penalty is a little more complicated, as the income used in the computation is the taxpayer’s household income reduced by the taxpayer’s tax return filing threshold for the year. Household income is the adjusted gross income from the tax returns for the year of all members of the taxpayer’s family who must file a tax return for income tax purposes.

The table below shows the percentage-of-income penalty for each of the three penalty phase-in years.
Year 2014 2015 2016
Percentage of income 1.0% 2.0% 2.5%

Example: Suppose the family in the previous example has a household income of $80,000 and their filing threshold is $20,600. Thus the income used in the computation would be $59,400 ($80,000 – $20,600), and the percentage-of-income penalty would be $1,188 ($59,400 x .02).
In our example, the taxpayer’s penalty for 2015 would be the greater of the two methods, which is $1,188. This substantially penalizes higher-income taxpayers, who can more readily afford health care insurance.

Another surprise to some taxpayers is that even if only one member of the family is uninsured, the percentage-of-income penalty applies if it is larger than the flat dollar amount for that one employee.

In closing, the penalties are actually computed by the month, so for example, if a taxpayer is uninsured for five months, then 5/12 of the penalty will apply.

If you have questions related to the penalty for not being insured or other tax provisions of the Affordable Care Act, please give the office a call.

Tax Benefits for Members of the Clergy

Members of the clergy may qualify for two unique tax benefits: a tax-free parsonage allowance and exemption from self-employment tax on their ministerial earnings. Here are the details for both.

Parsonage/Rental Allowance Exclusion from Income – A “minister of the gospel” can qualify for the rental allowance exclusion from income if the home or rental allowance is provided as remuneration for services that are ordinarily the duties of a minister of the gospel. The following are qualifications and details for the exclusion allowance:

• The allowance is excludable only to the extent that it is used for expenses related to the minister’s housing—e.g. rent, mortgage payments, utilities, repairs, etc.
• The rental allowance is not excludable to the extent that it exceeds reasonable compensation for the minister’s services.
• The allowance only applies to the minister’s primary residence.
• The allowance cannot exceed the fair rental value of the home, including furnishings and appurtenances such as a garage, plus the cost of utilities.
• The employing organization must designate the allowance by official action in advance of the payment. In addition, for a minister employed by a local congregation, the designation must come from the local church instead of the church’s national organization.
• The portion of the minister’s business expenses attributable to tax-free income is not deductible. This rule does not apply to home mortgage interest or taxes, which are deductible in full if the minister itemizes deductions.
• Retired clergy can exclude the rental value of a home or a rental allowance furnished as compensation for past services and authorized under a convention of their national church organization. However, the exclusion does not extend to the widow or widower of a retired clergyperson.

Minister’s Exemption from Self-Employment Tax – A minister who hasn’t taken a vow of poverty is subject to self-employment tax (SE tax) on income from services as a minister. (The church or other employing organization does not withhold Social Security or Medicare taxes from the minister’s compensation.) Non-reimbursed business expenses are deductible in computing earnings subject to SE tax, even though the expenses are deductible only as itemized deductions for income tax computation purposes.
An ordained minister may be granted an exemption from SE tax for ministerial services only. To qualify, the church employing the minister must qualify as a religious organization under Code Section 501(c)(3). Application for exemption is filed with Form 4361, Application for Exemption from Self-Employment Tax for Use by Ministers, Members of Religious Orders, and Christian Science Practitioners.

To claim the exemption from SE tax, the minister must meet all of the following conditions and file Form 4361 requesting exemption from SE tax. The minister must:

• Be conscientiously opposed to public insurance because of his or her individual religious considerations (not because of a general conscience), or be opposed because of the principles of his or her religious denomination.
• File for other than economic reasons.
• Inform the church’s or order’s ordaining, commissioning, or licensing body that he or she is opposed to public insurance if a minister or a member of a religious order (other than a vow-of-poverty member). This requirement doesn’t apply to Christian Science practitioners or readers.
• Establish that the organization that ordained, commissioned, or licensed him or her, or his or her religious order, is a tax-exempt religious organization.
• Establish that the organization is a church or a convention or association of churches.
• Not have previously elected to be covered by Social Security by filing Form 2031, Revocation of Exemption from Self-Employment Tax for Use by Ministers, Members of Religious Orders, and Christian Science Practitioners.

The Form 4361 application must be filed on or before the extended due date of the return for the second tax year for which the individual has net earnings from self-employment of $400 or more (part of which is from services as a minister). A late application will be rejected.
The time for applying starts over when a minister who was not opposed to accepting public insurance (i.e., Social Security benefits) re-enters a new ministry (e.g., adopts a new set of beliefs that include opposition to public insurance with a different church). However, the IRS has said that there is no second chance to apply for exemption by a minister who is ordained in a different church but whose belief regarding public insurance doesn’t change (i.e., the minister opposed acceptance of public insurance in both faiths).

Careful consideration should be made before applying for the exemption from SE tax since once the decision has been made, the election is irrevocable.

If you have questions related to either of these issues, please give this office a call.

Clock is Ticking for Retirement Plan Contributions

Did you know that you can make tax-deductible retirement savings contributions after the close of the tax year? Well, you can, and with the April tax deadline looming, the window of opportunity to maximize retirement and other special-purpose plan contributions for 2015 is closing. Many of those contributions not only build the retirement nest egg but also deliver tax deductions for the 2015 tax return. Let’s take a look at some of the ways a taxpayer can benefit.

Traditional IRA – The maximum contribution to an IRA for 2015 is $5,500 ($6,500 if over 49 years old). The 2015 contribution can be made up until April 18th. If the taxpayer is covered by another retirement plan, some or all of the contribution may not be deductible. To be eligible to contribute to an IRA of any type, the taxpayer, or spouse if married filing jointly, must have earned income, such as wages or self-employment income.

Roth IRA – This is a nondeductible retirement account, but the earnings are tax-free upon withdrawal, provided that the holding period and age requirements are met. Roth IRAs are a good alternative for many taxpayers who aren’t eligible to deduct contributions to a traditional IRA. The maximum deductible contribution for the 2015 tax year is $5,500 ($6,500 if the taxpayer is over 49 years old). The 2015 contribution can be made up until April 18th.

Caution: The combined traditional IRA and Roth IRA contributions are limited to $5,500 ($6,500 if the taxpayer is over 49 years old).

Spousal IRA – A non-working spouse can open and contribute to a traditional IRA or Roth IRA based upon the working spouse’s earned income, subject to the same contribution limits as the working spouse, but the combined contributions of both spouses cannot exceed the earned income of the working spouse. Contributions to spousal IRAs for 2015 must also be made by April 18th.

SEP-IRA (Simplified Employee Pension) – SEP-IRAs are tax-deferred plans for sole proprietorships and small businesses. They are probably the easiest way to build retirement dollars, requiring virtually no paperwork. Maximum contributions depend on your net earnings from your business. For 2015, the maximum contribution is the lesser of 25 percent of compensation or $53,000. The 2015 contribution can be made up to the due date of the return, including extensions. Thus, unlike a traditional or Roth IRA, funding of a SEP-IRA for 2015 may occur up to October 17, 2016, when an extension has been granted.

Solo 401(k) Plans – A growing number of self-employed individuals with no employees are forsaking the SEP-IRA for a newer type of retirement plan called the Solo 401(k), or Self-Employed 401(k), mostly for its higher contribution levels.

For 2015, the maximum contribution to a Solo 401(k) is the sum of (A) up to 25% of compensation and (B) salary deferral up to $18,000. The total of A and B can’t exceed $53,000 or 100% of compensation. Note that a Solo 401(k) account must have been established by December 31, 2015, to make 2015 contributions, which can then be made up to the extended due date of the return (October 17, 2016, for most taxpayers). If a Solo 401(k) account was not established by the end of 2015, open one now for 2016 contributions.

Health Savings Accounts (HSA) – An HSA is a tax-exempt trust or custodial account established exclusively for the purpose of paying qualified medical expenses of the account beneficiary. An HSA is designed to assist individuals who have high-deductible health plans (HDHP). A taxpayer is only eligible to establish an HSA if he or she has an HDHP. For 2015, this means that the plan must have a deductible amount of $1,300 or more for self-only coverage or $2,600 for family coverage. In addition, the annual maximum out-of-pocket costs for covered expenses can’t exceed $6,450 for a self-only plan or $12,900 for a family plan.

The maximum 2015 contribution for eligible individuals with self-only coverage under an HDHP is $3,350, while an eligible individual with family coverage under an HDHP can contribute up to $6,650. The contribution limit is increased by $1,000 for an eligible individual who was age 55 or older at the end of 2015; however, no contribution can be made as of the month that an individual is enrolled in Medicare.
Amounts contributed to an HSA belong to individuals and are completely portable. Every year, the money not spent on medical expenses stays in the account and gains interest tax-free, just like an IRA. Unused amounts remain available for later years (unlike amounts in Flexible Spending Arrangements that may be forfeited if not used by the end of the year). Contributions to an HSA for 2015 can be made through April 18, 2016.

Coverdell Education Savings Account – These plans were originally called Education IRAs, but that moniker created confusion because they were really not retirement accounts. They are now called Coverdell Education Savings Accounts, named after the late Senator from Iowa. Contributions, which can be made for a beneficiary who is under 18 years of age, are not tax-deductible, but the money grows tax-free if the distributions are used to pay qualified education expenses. The maximum annual contribution is $2,000 per beneficiary, but this amount could be reduced partly or totally depending on income. Contributions do not count toward IRA annual contribution limits; they are also due by April 18, 2016, to be considered as having been made for 2015.

Please note that information for each plan or account above has been abbreviated. Contact this office for specific details on how they may apply to your situation.

Tax Filing Deadline Rapidly Approaching

Just a reminder to those who have not yet filed their 2015 tax return that April 18, 2016 is the due date to either file your return and pay any taxes owed, or file for the automatic six-month extension and pay the tax you estimate to be due. Usually April 15 is the due date, but because Friday, April 15, is a legal holiday in the District of Columbia (where the IRS is headquartered), the filing date is advanced to the next day that isn’t a weekend or holiday – Monday, April 18 – even for taxpayers not living in DC.

In addition, the April 18, 2016 deadline also applies to the following:

Tax year 2015 balance-due payments – Taxpayers that are filing extensions are cautioned that the filing extension is an extension to file, NOT an extension to pay a balance due. Late payment penalties and interest will be assessed on any balance due, even for returns on extension. Taxpayers anticipating a balance due will need to estimate this amount and include their payment with the extension request.
Tax year 2015 contributions to a Roth or traditional IRA – April 18 is the last day contributions for 2015 can be made to either a Roth or traditional IRA, even if an extension is filed.
Individual estimated tax payments for the first quarter of 2016 – Taxpayers, especially those who have filed for an extension, are cautioned that the first installment of the 2016 estimated taxes are due on April 18. If you are on extension and anticipate a refund, all or a portion of the refund can be allocated to this quarter’s payment on the final return when it is filed at a later date. If the refund won’t be enough to fully cover the first installment, you may need to make a payment with the April 18 voucher. Please call this office for any questions.
Individual refund claims for tax year 2012 – The regular three-year statute of limitations expires on April 18 for the 2012 tax return. Thus, no refund will be granted for a 2012 original or amended return that is filed after April 18. Caution: The statute does not apply to balances due for unfiled 2012 returns.

Note: The deadline for any of the above actions is increased by an additional day, to April 19, 2016, for taxpayers who live in Maine or Massachusetts because of a holiday observed on the 18th in Massachusetts which affects the IRS Service Center located in Massachusetts that serves these two states.

If this office is holding up the completion of your returns because of missing information, please forward that information as quickly as possible in order to meet the April 18 deadline. Keep in mind that the last week of tax season is very hectic, and your returns may not be completed if you wait until the last minute. If it is apparent that the information will not be available in time for the April 18 deadline, then let the office know right away so that an extension request, and 2016 estimated tax vouchers if needed, may be prepared.

If your returns have not yet been completed, please call right away so that we can schedule an appointment and/or file an extension if necessary.

Owe Taxes and Can’t Pay?

Are you one of the unfortunate Americans that end up owing and cannot pay your tax liability?
The IRS encourages you to pay the full amount of your tax liability on time by imposing significant penalties and interest on late payments if you don’t. So if you are unable to pay the tax you owe, it is generally in your best interest to make other arrangements to obtain the funds for paying your taxes rather than be subjected to the government’s penalties and interest. Here are a few options to consider.

Family Loan – Obtaining a loan from a relative or friend may be the best bet because this type of loan is generally the least costly in terms of interest.
Credit Card – Another option is to pay by credit card with one of the service providers that work with the IRS. However, since the IRS will not pay the credit card discount fee, you will have to pay it and pay the higher credit card interest rates.
Installment Agreement – If you owe the IRS $50,000 or less, you may qualify for a streamlined installment agreement where you can make monthly payments for up to six years. You will still be subject to the late payment penalty, but it will be reduced by half. Interest will also be charged at the current rate, and there is a user fee to set up the payment plan. In making the agreement, a taxpayer agrees to keep all future years’ tax obligations current. If the taxpayer does not make payments on time or has an outstanding past due amount in a future year, they will be in default of their agreement and the IRS has the option of taking enforcement actions to collect the entire amount owed. Taxpayers seeking installment agreements exceeding $50,000 will need to validate their financial condition and need for an installment agreement by providing the IRS with a Collection Information Statement (financial statements). Taxpayers may also pay down their balance due to $50,000 or less to take advantage of the streamlined option.
• Tap a Retirement Account – This is possibly the worst option for obtaining funds to pay your taxes because you are jeopardizing your retirement and the distributions are generally taxable at your highest bracket, which adds more taxes to your existing problem. In addition, if you are under age 59½, the withdrawal is also subject to a 10% early withdrawal penalty that compounds the problem even further.

Whatever you decide, don’t just ignore your tax liability because that is the worst thing you can do. Please call this office for assistance.

ACA Reporting Relief for Employers

Beginning for the 2015 tax year, Applicable Large Employers (ALEs) are required file Forms 1095-C and 1094-C with the IRS and provide a copy of the 1095-C to each of their employees. An ALE is generally an employer with 50 or more equivalent full time employees (EFTEs) in the prior year. Even though ALE’s with 99 or fewer EFTEs are not subject to the insurance mandate for 2015, they are subject to the 1094-C and 1095-C filing requirements for 2015.

Because this is the first year for this requirement, the IRS has decided to provide first year (2015) filing relief for Forms 1095-B and 1095-C. The due dates for furnishing these forms are extended as follows:

• The due date for providing the 2015 Form 1095-B and the 2015 Form 1095-C to the insured and employees is extended from February 1, 2016, to March 31, 2016.

• The due date for health coverage providers and employers to furnish the 2015 Form 1094-B and the 2015 Form 1094-C to the IRS is extended from February 29, 2016, to May 31, 2016 if not filing electronically.

• The due date for health coverage providers and employers electronically filing the 2015 Form 1094-B and the 2015 Form 1094-C with the IRS is extended from March 31, 2016, to June 30, 2016.

While the IRS is prepared to accept information reporting returns beginning in January 2016, employers and other coverage providers who can’t meet the original deadlines are encouraged to furnish statements and file the information returns as soon as they are ready.
The information provided to individuals on their copy of Form 1095-B or 1095-C is generally used to confirm that the individual had minimum essential coverage (and thus avoid the penalty that applies when not covered for the full year). However, with the extension of the filing dates for these forms, individuals may not have the forms in hand before filing their 2015 returns. For 2015 only, individuals who rely on other information received from their coverage providers about their coverage for purposes of filing their returns need not amend their returns once they receive Form 1095-B or Form 1095-C or any corrections, according to the IRS.

Likewise, individuals who, when filing their 2015 income tax returns, rely upon other information received from employers about their offers of coverage for purposes of determining eligibility for the premium tax credit need not amend their returns once they receive their Forms 1095-C or any corrected Forms 1095-C.

Are You Ignoring Retirement?

Are you ignoring your future retirement needs? That tends to happen when you are younger, retirement is far in the future, and you believe you have plenty of time to save for it. Some people ignore the issue until late in life and then have to scramble at the last minute to fund their retirement. Others even ignore the issue altogether, thinking their Social Security income (assuming they qualify for it) will take care of their retirement needs.

By current government standards, a single individual with $11,770 or a married couple with $15,930 of annual household income is at the 100% poverty level. If you compare those levels with potential Social Security income, you may find that expecting to retire on just Social Security income may result in a bleak retirement.

You can predict your future Social Security income by visiting the Social Security Administration’s Retirement Estimator. With the Retirement Estimator, you can plug in some basic information to get an instant, personalized estimate of your future benefits. Different life choices can alter the course of your future, so try out different scenarios – such as higher and lower future earnings amounts and various retirement dates – to get a good idea of how these scenarios can change your future benefit amounts. Once you’ve done this, consider what your retirement would be like with only Social Security income.

If you are fortunate enough to have an employer-, union- or government-funded retirement plan, determine how much you can expect to receive when you retire. Add that amount to any Social Security benefits you are entitled to and then consider what retirement would be like with that combined income. If this result portends an austere retirement, know that the sooner you start saving for retirement, the better off you will be.

With today’s relatively low interest rates and up-and-down stock market, it is much more difficult to grow a retirement plan with earnings than it was 10 or 20 years ago. With current interest rates barely mirroring inflation rates, there is little or no effective growth. That means one must set aside more of one’s current earnings for retirement to prepare for a comfortable retirement.
Because the government wants you to save and prepare for your own retirement, tax laws offer a variety of tax incentives for retirement savings plans, both for wage earners and for self-employed individuals and their employees. These plans include:

Traditional IRA – This plan allows up to $5,500 (or $6,500 for individuals age 50 and over) of tax-deductible contributions each year until reaching age 70½. However, the amount that can be deducted phases out for higher-income taxpayers who also have retirement plans through their employer.
• Roth IRA – This plan also allows up to $5,500 (or $6,500 for individuals age 50 and over) of contributions each year. Like the Traditional IRA, the amount that can be contributed phases out for higher-income taxpayers; unlike the Traditional IRA, these amounts phase out even for those who do not have an employer-related retirement plan.
myRA Accounts – This relatively new retirement vehicle is designed to be a starter retirement plan for individuals with limited financial resources and those whose employers do not offer a retirement plan. The minimum amount required to establish one of these government-administered plans is $25, with monthly contributions as little as $2. Once the total value of the account reaches $15,000 or after 30 years, the account must be converted to a commercial Roth IRA account.
• Employer 401(k) Plans – An employer 401(k) plan generally enables employees to contribute up to $18,000 per year, before taxes. In addition, taxpayers who are age 50 and over can contribute an extra $6,000 annually, for a total of $24,000. Many employers also match a percentage of the employee’s contribution, and this can amount to a significant sum for those who stay in the plan for many years.
Health Savings Accounts – Although established to help individuals with high-deductible health insurance plans pay medical expenses, these accounts can also be used as supplemental retirement plans if an individual has already maxed out his or her contributions to other types of plans. Annual contributions for these plans can be as much as $3,350 for individuals and $6,750 for families.
• Tax Sheltered Annuities – These retirement accounts are for employees of public schools and certain tax-exempt organizations; they enable employees to make annual tax-deferred contributions of up to $18,000 (or $24,000 for those age 50 and over).
Self-Employed Retirement Plans – These plans, also referred to as Keogh plans, allow self-employed individuals to contribute 25% of their net business profits to their retirement plans. The contributions are pre-tax (which means that they reduce the individual’s taxable net profits), so the actual amount that can be contributed is 20% of the net profits.
Simplified Employee Pension (SEP) – This type of plan allows contributions in the same amounts as allowed for self-employed retirement plans, except that the retirement contributions are held in an IRA account under the control of the employee or self-employed individual. These accounts can be established after the end of the year, and contributions can be made for the prior year.

Each individual’s financial resources, family obligations, health, life expectancy, and retirement expectations will vary greatly, and there is no one-size-fits-all retirement savings strategy for everyone. Purchasing a home and putting children through college are examples of events that can limit an individual’s or family’s ability to make retirement contributions; these events must be accounted for in any retirement planning.

If you have questions about any of the retirement vehicles discussed above, please give this office a call. 775-283-5555

Jointly or Separately – How to File After Saying I Do

A taxpayer’s filing status for the year is based upon his or her marital status at the close of the tax year. Thus, if you get married on the last day of the tax year, you are treated as married for the entire year. The options for married couples are to file jointly or separately. Both statuses can result in surprises for individuals who previously filed as unmarried. The surprises can be both pleasant and unpleasant.

Individuals filing jointly must combine their incomes, and if both spouses are working, combining income can trigger a number of unpleasant surprises, as many tax benefits are eliminated or reduced for higher-income taxpayers. The following are some of the more frequently encountered issues created by higher incomes:

• Being pushed into a higher tax bracket
• Causing capital gains to be taxed at higher rates
• Reducing the child care credit
• Limiting the deductible IRA amount
• Triggering a tax on net investment income that only applies to higher-income taxpayers
• Causing Social Security income to be taxed.
• Reducing the Earned Income Tax Credit
• Reducing or eliminating medical and/or miscellaneous itemized deductions
• Causing the overall itemized deductions to be phased out
• Causing the personal exemption deduction to be phased out

Filing separately generally will not alleviate the aforementioned issues because the tax code includes provisions to prevent married taxpayers from circumventing the loss of tax benefits that apply to higher-income taxpayers by filing separately.

On the other hand, if only one spouse has income, filing jointly will generally result in a lower tax because of the lower joint tax brackets and the additional exemption provided by the non-working spouse. In addition, some of the higher-income limitations that might have applied to an unmarried individual with the same amount of income may be reduced or eliminated on a joint return.

Filing as married but separate will generally result in a higher combined income tax for married taxpayers. The tax laws are written to prevent married taxpayers from filing separately to circumvent a limitation that would apply to them if they filed jointly. For instance, if a couple files separately, the tax code requires both to itemize their deductions if either does so, meaning that if one itemizes, the other cannot take the standard deduction. Another example relates to how a married couple’s Social Security (SS) benefits are taxed: on a joint return, none of the SS income is taxed until half of the SS benefits plus other income exceeds $32,000. On a married-but-separate return, the taxable threshold is reduced to zero.

Aside from the amount of tax, another consideration that married couples need to be aware of when deciding on their filing status is that when married taxpayers file jointly, they become jointly and individually responsible (often referred to as “jointly and severally liable”) for the tax and interest or penalty due on their returns. This is true even if they later divorce. When using the married-but-separate filing status, each spouse is only responsible for his or her own tax liability.

If you would like to evaluate the impact of marriage on your tax liability before saying “I do,” please give this office a call.

All You Need to Know about the New Tax Extender Legislation

Congress has reached a bipartisan agreement on tax extenders, aptly named “Protecting Americans from Tax Hikes Act of 2015”. Much to everyone’s surprise, some were made permanent while others were only extended for a period of time. Congress also modified several provisions and added new ones to reduce tax fraud. Here is a look at some of the key provisions included in the legislation that pertain to individuals, small businesses, and certain energy-related provisions:

INDIVIDUAL PROVISIONS:

 

  • Child Credit – This credit was made permanent; it provides a $1,000 credit for each dependent child who is under the age of 17 at year’s end, who lived with the taxpayer for over half of the year and who meets the relationship test. The credit phases out for higher-income taxpayers, and a portion of the credit is refundable for lower-income taxpayers. The changes also include program integrity provisions that prohibit an individual from retroactively claiming the child credit by amending a return (or filing an original return if he or she failed to file) for any prior year in which the individual for whom the credit is claimed did not have an ITIN – generally a Social Security number).

After 2015, when a taxpayer improperly claims the credit, the legislation includes a disallowance period when no credit is allowed. For fraud, the disallowance period is 10 years, and for reckless or intentional disregard of rules and regulations, the disallowance period is 2 years.

 

  • American Opportunity Credit (AOTC) – This credit, which was due to expire after 2017, has been made permanent. This is a tax credit equal to 40% of the cost of tuition and qualifying expenses for higher education, with a maximum credit of $2,500. The credit applies to 100% of the first $2,000 and 25% of the next $2,000 of qualifying expenses. The credit offsets any tax liability, and 40% of the credit is refundable even if the taxpayer does not have any tax liability. It also phases out between $160,000 and $180,000 for married taxpayers filing jointly and between $80,000 and $90,000 for others – except for married taxpayers filing separately, who get no credit.

After 2015, when a taxpayer improperly claims the credit, the legislation includes a disallowance period when no credit is allowed. For fraud, the disallowance period is 10 years, and for reckless or intentional disregard of rules and regulations, the disallowance period is 2 years.

A provision was added that prohibits an individual from retroactively claiming the AOTC by amending a return or filing a late original return for any prior year when the individual or a student for whom the credit is claimed did not have an ITIN (generally a Social Security number).

  • Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) – The EITC is a refundable credit allowed to certain low-income workers who have W-2 wages and self-employed income. The credit is larger for taxpayers with children. The credit for taxpayers with children is based upon the number of children; those with three or more children receive the highest credit – as much as $6,269 in 2015. The higher credit for three or more children, which was a temporary provision that was set to expire after 2017, has been made permanent.

 

The changes also include added program integrity provisions that prohibit an individual from retroactively claiming the AOTC by amending a return (or filing an original return if the individual failed to file) for any prior year in which the individual for whom the credit is claimed did not have an ITIN (generally a Social Security number). The changes also reduced the marriage penalty by increasing the income phase-out for those filing jointly.

  • Teachers’ $250 Above-the-Line Deduction – This provision, which was available from 2002 through 2014, allows teachers and other eligible educators (levels kindergarten through grade 12) to take an above-the-line deduction of up to $250 for unreimbursed expenses incurred as part of their educational work. This deduction has been made permanent and modified by adjusting the $250 for inflation in years after 2015. In addition, professional development expenses were added to the qualified expenses allowed as part of the $250 deduction.
  • Transit Pass & Parking Fringe Benefit Parity – From 2010 through 2014, the monthly exclusion amount for employer-paid transit passes and qualified parking were temporarily the same. The parity of these two fringe benefits has been made permanent. Thus, for 2015 they will both be $250.

 

    • Optional Deduction of State and Local General Sales Taxes – Since 2004, taxpayers who itemized their deductions have had the option to deduct the Larger of (1) state and local income tax paid during the year, or (2) state and local sales tax paid during the year. This provision, which had been previously extended through 2014, provides the greatest benefit to those taxpayers who reside in a state that has no income tax (which include Alaska, Florida, Nevada, South Dakota, Texas, Washington and Wyoming). This election has been made permanent.

 

    • Above-the-Line Deduction for Qualified Tuition and Related Expenses – This above-the-line deduction for qualified higher education tuition and related expenses had been available from 2002 through 2014. The deduction includes adjusted gross income (AGI) limitations; it is not allowed for joint filers with an AGI of $160,000 or more ($85,000 for other filing statuses). This deduction has been retroactively extended through 2016.
  • Tax-Free IRA Distributions For Charitable Purposes – This provision was temporarily added in 2004 and originally expired in 2011; it was not extended until late in the year during the years 2012, 2013 and 2014, thus limiting its application in those three years. The provision allows taxpayers age 70.5 and over to directly transfer (not rolled over) funds from their IRA accounts to a qualified charity. The distribution is not taxable, but it does count toward the individuals’ required minimum distribution (RMD) for the year. The maximum allowable transfer is $100,000 per year. No charitable deduction is allowed, as the distribution is not taxable. This provision has been made permanent; it provides four potential tax advantages:

 

    1. The distribution is not included in income, thus lowering the taxpayer’s AGI, which in turn helps to avoid various AGI phase-outs and limitations.
    2. Keeping the AGI lower also helps to minimize the amount of Social Security income that is subject to tax for some taxpayers.
    3. Taxpayers using the standard deduction cannot get a charitable deduction, but they are essentially deducting the charitable deduction from their gross income when making contributions this way.
    4. The transferred distribution counts towards the taxpayer’s RMD for the year.

 

  • Discharge of Qualified Principal Residence Indebtedness – When an individual loses his or her home to foreclosure, abandonment or short sale or has a portion of his or her loan forgiven under the HAMP mortgage reduction plan, that person generally will end up with cancellation of debt (COD) income. COD income is taxable unless the taxpayer can exclude it. A taxpayer can exclude the COD income in the extent that he or she is insolvent (with debts exceeding assets immediately before the event occurs) using the insolvency exclusion.

Due to the housing market crash, in 2007, Congress added the qualified principal residence COD exclusion, which allowed taxpayers to exclude COD income to the extent that it was discharged acquisition debt. Acquisition debt is debt originally incurred to acquire a home or substantially improve it – not debt used for other purposes, which is called equity debt. However, equity debt is deemed to be discharged first, thus limiting the exclusion when both equity and acquisition debt are involved in the transaction.

The qualified principal residence COD exclusion had been previously extended but had expired at the end of 2014. This exclusion has been retroactively extended through 2016 (a two-year extension).

 

  • Mortgage Insurance Premiums – For tax years 2007 through 2014, taxpayers could deduct (as an itemized deduction) the cost of premiums for qualified mortgage insurance on a qualified personal residence (first or second home). To be deductible, the premiums must have been related to acquisition debt incurred after Dec. 31, 2006. However, this deduction phases out for higher-income taxpayers (generally those whose AGI exceeds $100,000). This provision, which had expired after 2014, has been retroactively extended through 2016, a two-year extension.

BUSINESS PROVISIONS:

 

    • Research Credit – Tax law provides a tax credit of up to 20% of qualified expenditures for businesses that develop, design or improve products, processes, techniques, formulas or software (and similar activities). The credit has been available off and on since 1981 without being made permanent. It had been extended several times but had expired at the end of 2014. This credit has been retroactively made permanent. In addition, it is not a tax preference for small businesses.

 

    • 100% Exclusion of Gain – Certain Small Business Stock – Previously, for stock issued after September 27, 2010, and before January 1, 2015, non-corporate taxpayers could exclude 100% of any gain realized on the sale or exchange of “qualified small business stock” held for more than 5 years. In addition, there was no alternative minimum tax (AMT) preference when the exclusion percentage was 100%. Generally, the term “qualified small business” means any domestic C corporation with assets of $50 million or less. This provision has been made permanent.

 

    • Differential Wage Payment Credit – Through 2014, eligible small business employers – generally those that have an average of fewer than 50 employees and that pay a individual called into active duty military service all or part of the wages that they would have otherwise received from the employer – can claim a credit. This differential wage payment credit is equal to 20% of up to $20,000 of differential pay made to an employee during the tax year. This credit has been retroactively made permanent; for years after 2015, the credit will apply to any size employer.
  • Work Opportunity Tax Credit (WOTC) – Through 2014, employers could elect to claim a WOTC for up to 40% of employees’ first-year wages for hiring workers from targeted groups – not exceeding wages of $6,000 (a maximum credit of $2,400). First-year wages are wages paid during the tax year for work performed during the one-year period beginning on the date when the employee begins work for the employer. This credit has been retroactively extended for five years through 2019; it applies to veterans and non-veterans and adds qualified long-term unemployment recipients to the list of targeted groups for years after 2015.

 

  • Section 179 Election – Since 2003, the Section 179 election has been temporarily increased from its statutory limit of $25,000 to between $100,000 and $500,000. Since 2010, the expense cap has been $500,000 (or $250,000 on a married-filing-separate tax return), and the investment limit has been $2 million. However, the last extension expired after 2014; without an extension, the cap would have returned to the statutory $25,000 limit in 2015. The statutory expensing limit of $500,000 and the $2 million investment limit have both been made permanent.

The application of the Section 179 election to “off-the-shelf” computer software, qualified leasehold improvements, qualified restaurant property and qualified retail improvements has also been made permanent.

 

    • Leasehold and Retail Improvements and Restaurant Property – The class life for qualified leasehold and retail Improvements and restaurant property had been temporarily included in the 15-year depreciation class life, as opposed to the 31-year category. Qualified leasehold and retail Improvements and restaurant property have been retroactively and permanently included in the 15-year MACRS class life.

 

  • Bonus Depreciation – As a means of stimulating the economy, a 50 percent bonus depreciation was temporarily implemented in 2008 and subsequently extended through 2014. For the period between September 8, 2010, and before January 1, 2012, it was even boosted to 100 percent. Bonus depreciation applies to personal tangible property placed in service during the year for which the original use began with the taxpayer.

The 50% bonus depreciation has been extended for 2 years (through 2016) for property placed in service before January 1, 2017. This generally applies to property with a class life of 20 years or less, to qualified leasehold improvements and to certain plants bearing fruits and nuts that are planted or grafted before January 1, 2020.

 

  • Enhanced First-Year Depreciation for Autos and Trucks – This is the so-called “luxury limit” on the deprecation deduction of passenger automobiles and light trucks used for business. For such vehicles placed in service in 2015, the limits are $3,160 and $3,460, respectively. In the past, the bonus depreciation had increased the first-year luxury limits by $8,000. Under the new law, the bonus depreciation applicable to luxury vehicles will be phased out through 2019. Thus, the luxury auto rates will be increased by the following bonus depreciation rates: $8,000 for 2015 through 2017, $6,000 for 2018 and $4,800 for 2019.

ENERGY PROVISIONS:

  • Residential Energy (Efficient) Property Credit – From 2006 through 2014, a nonrefundable credit had been available for qualified improvements to make the taxpayer’s existing primary home more energy efficient. Qualified improvements generally included insulation, storm windows and doors certain types of energy-efficient roofing materials, and energy-efficient air conditioning and hot-water systems. The credit was equal to 10% of the improvement’s cost (not including installation), with a lifetime credit of $500. The credit has been retroactively extended through 2016 (two years).

 

  • Credit for Fuel-Cell Vehicles – Through 2014, a taxpayer could claim a credit for vehicles fueled by chemically combining oxygen with hydrogen to create electricity. Generally, the credit was $4,000 for vehicles weighing 8,500 pounds or less (and up to $40,000 for heavier vehicles, depending on their weight). An additional $1,000 to $4,000 credit was available for cars and light trucks to the extent that their fuel economy exceeded the 2002 base fuel economy set forth in the Internal Revenue Code. This credit has been retroactively extended for two years through 2016.

If you have questions related to these or other, less commonly encountered provisions of the new law (Protecting Americans from Tax Hikes Act of 2015), please give this office a call. Benefiting from these provisions for 2015 will require taking action before year’s end. Please call if you need assistance.

Important Reminder for Purchasing Your Health Insurance Through The Government Marketplace

Article Highlights:

  • Determining Household Income
  • The Advanced Premium Tax Credit
  • Marketplace Estimate of Income
  • Modified Adjusted Gross Income
  • Who Is Family for Health Insurance Purposes?

When applying for insurance through a state or the federal health insurance marketplace, you will be asked to provide an estimate of your household income for 2016. Your household income is a key factor in determining if you are qualified for an insurance subsidy called the premium tax credit (PTC). Any premium tax credit that you are entitled to will be computed on your 2016 tax return when it is filed in 2017. However, the insurance marketplace will allow you to reduce your insurance premiums during the year by applying this credit in advance based upon the estimate of your household income you provided when applying for the insurance. This advance is referred to as the advanced premium tax credit (APTC).

It is very important to remember that the PTC is based on the actual family income when your tax return is filed in 2017—not on the estimate you provided when you enrolled—and if the APTC you received during 2016 was more than the PTC you are entitled to based upon your household income, you may be required to repay all or part of the APTC you received during 2016. Thus, it is important to correctly estimate your family’s household income when applying for the insurance and to report any significant income changes during the year on the insurance marketplace.

Household income includes the modified adjusted gross income (MAGI) of everyone in your family who is required to file a tax return. Your family includes you, your spouse, and everyone you are entitled to claim as a dependent on your tax return. MAGI is your family’s adjusted gross income (AGI) plus nontaxable social security, nontaxable interest and excluded foreign earned income.

As an example, say that you are married with one child. You have a W-2 income of $35,000 and nontaxable interest income of $150. Your spouse does not work, but your 16-year-old child works at a fast food restaurant and has a W-2 income of $4,000 for the year. Your AGI would be $35,000, which includes only your W-2 income. However, your MAGI would be $35,150 because it includes the nontaxable interest income. Since your child’s W-2 income is less than $6,300 (the standard deduction for 2016), your child is not required to file a tax return, and your child’s income (MAGI) is not included in the household income. Thus, your household income would be $35,150.

However, if your child’s W-2 income had been $7,000 (exceeding the standard deduction for the year), the child would have to file a tax return, and the child’s income would have to be included when determining your household income, which in this case would be $42,150 ($35,150 + $7,000). The addition of the child’s income to the household will significantly reduce the amount of PTC you are entitled to, and not including it when estimating your income will most likely result in you having to repay a significant amount of APTC on your 2016 tax return.

The computation of household income can become complicated when dependent children are working and when one or more forms of nontaxable income are received by a family member. It may be appropriate to consult with this office for assistance when determining household income.

Don’t Be a Victim to IRS Phone and E-Mail Scams

Thieves use taxpayers’ natural fear of the IRS and other government entities to ply their scams, including e-mail and phone scams, to steal your money. They also use phishing schemes to trick you into divulging your SSN, date of birth, account numbers, passwords and other personal data that allow them to scam the IRS and others using your name and destroy your credit in the process. They are clever and are always coming up with new and unique schemes to trick you.

These scams have reached epidemic proportions, and this article will hopefully provide you with the knowledge to identify scams and avoid becoming a victim.

The very first thing you should be aware of is that the IRS never initiates contact in any other way than by U.S. mail. So if you receive an e-mail or a phone call out of the blue with no prior contact, then it is a scam. DO NOT RESPOND to the e-mail or open any links included in the e-mail. If it is a phone call, simply HANG UP. 

Additionally, it is important for taxpayers to know that the IRS:

  • Never asks for credit card, debit card, or prepaid card information over the telephone. 
  • Never insists that taxpayers use a specific payment method to pay tax obligations. 
  • Never requests immediate payment over the telephone. 
  • Will not take enforcement action immediately following a phone conversation. Taxpayers usually receive prior written notification of IRS enforcement action involving IRS tax liens or levies. 

 

Phone Scams

Potential phone scam victims may be told that they owe money that must be paid immediately to the IRS or, on the flip side, that they are entitled to big refunds. When unsuccessful the first time, sometimes phone scammers call back trying a new strategy. Other characteristics of these scams include:

  • Scammers use fake names and IRS badge numbers. They generally use common names and surnames to identify themselves. 

 

Scammers may be able to recite the last four digits of a victim’s Social Security number. Make sure you do not provide the rest of the number or your birth date.

  • Scammers alter the IRS toll-free number that shows up on caller ID to make it appear that the IRS is calling. 
  • Scammers sometimes send bogus IRS e-mails to some victims to support their bogus calls. 
  • Victims hear background noise of other calls being conducted to mimic a call site. 
  • After threatening victims with jail time or driver’s license revocation, scammers hang up. Soon, others call back pretending to be from the local police or DMV, and the caller ID supports their claim. 

 

DON’T GET HOODWINKED. This is a scam. If you get a phone call from someone claiming to be from the IRS, DO NOT give the caller any information or money. Instead, you should immediately hang up. Call this office if you are concerned about the validity of the call.

IRS E-Mail Scam

Always remember, the first contact you will receive from the IRS will be by U.S. mail. If you receive e-mail or a phone call claiming to be from the IRS, consider it a scam.

Do not respond or click through to any embedded links. Instead, help the government combat these scams by forwarding the e-mail to phishing@irs.gov.

Unscrupulous people are out there dreaming up schemes to get your money. They become very active toward the end of the year and during tax season. They create bogus e-mails disguised as authentic e-mails from the IRS, your bank, or your credit card company, none of which ever request information that way. They are trying to trick you into divulging personal and financial information they can use to invade your bank accounts, make charges against your credit card or pretend to be you to file phony tax returns or apply for loans or credit cards. Don’t be a victim. 

STOP-THINK-DELETE.

Scammers become very active toward the end of the year and during tax season.

What they try to do is trick you into divulging your personal information, such bank account numbers, passwords, credit card numbers, Social Security numbers, etc.

You need to be very careful when responding to e-mails asking you to update such things as your account information, pin number, password, etc. First and foremost, you should be aware that no legitimate company would make such a request by e-mail. If you get such e-mails, they should be deleted and ignored, just like spam e-mails.

We have seen bogus e-mails that looked like they were from the IRS, well-known banks, credit card companies and other pseudo-legitimate enterprises. The intent is to trick you and have you click through to a website that also appears legitimate where they have you enter your secure information. Here are some examples:

  • E-mails that appeared to be from the IRS indicating you have a refund coming and that IRS official need information to process the refund. The IRS never initiates communication via e-mail! Right away, you know it is bogus. If you are concerned, please feel free to call this office. 
  • E-mails from a bank indicating it is holding a wire transfer and needs your bank routing information and account number. Don’t respond; if in doubt, call your bank. 
  • E-mails saying you have a foreign inheritance and require your bank information to wire the funds. The funds that will get wired are yours going the other way. Remember, if it is too good to be true, it generally is not true. 

 

We could go on and on with examples. The key here is for you to be highly suspicious of any e-mail requesting personal or financial information.

What’s in Your Wallet?

What is in your wallet or purse can make a big difference if it is stolen. Besides the credit cards and whatever cash or valuables you might be carrying, you also need to be concerned about your identity being stolen, which is a far more serious problem. Thieves can use your identity to set up phony bank accounts, take out loans, file bogus tax returns and otherwise invade your finances, and all an identity thief needs to be able to do these things is your name, Social Security number, and birth date.

Think about it: your driver’s license has two of the three keys to your identity. And if you also carry your Social Security card or Medicare card, bingo! An identity thief then has all the information he needs.

You can always cancel stolen credit cards or close compromised bank and charge accounts, but when someone steals your identity and opens accounts you don’t know about, you can’t take any mitigating action.

So if you carry your Social Security card along with your driver’s license, you may wish to rethink that habit for identity-safety purposes.

What You Should NEVER Do:

Never provide financial information over the phone, via the Internet or by e-mail unless you are absolutely sure of with whom you are dealing. That includes:

  • Social Security Number – Always resist giving your Social Security number to anyone. The more firms or individuals who have it, the greater the chance it can be stolen. 
  • Birth Date – Your birth date is frequently used as a cross check with your Social Security number. A combination of birth date and Social Security number can open many doors for ID thieves. Is your birth date posted on social media? Maybe it should not be! That goes for your children, as well.
  • Bank Account and Bank Routing Numbers – These along with your name and address will allow thieves to tap your bank accounts. To counter this threat, many banks now provide automated e-mails alerting you to account withdrawals and deposits.
  • Credit/Debit Card Numbers – Be especially cautious with these numbers, since they provide thieves with easy access to your accounts.

 

There are individuals whose sole intent is to steal your identity and sell it to others. Limit your exposure by minimizing the number of charges and credit card accounts you have. The more accounts have your information, the greater the chances of it being stolen. Don’t think all the big firms are safe; there have been several high-profile database breaches in the last year.

Email Phishing

Phishing (pronounced “fishing”) is the attempt to acquire sensitive information such as usernames, passwords, and credit card details (and sometimes, indirectly, money) by masquerading as a trustworthy entity in an electronic communication.

Communications purporting to be from popular social websites, auction sites, banks, online payment processors or IT administrators are commonly used to lure the unsuspecting public. Phishing e-mails may contain links to websites that are infected with malware. Phishing is typically carried out by e-mail spoofing or instant messaging, and it often directs users to enter details into a fake website that looks and feels almost identical to a legitimate one.

In the meantime, imagine trying to file your return and it gets rejected as already filed. You attempt to get a copy of the return but can’t because you don’t have the ID of the other unfortunate taxpayer who was used as the other spouse on the return. All the while, the scammers are enjoying their ill-gotten gains with impunity.

Fake Charities

Another fraud and ID theft scam associated with tax preparation involves charity scams. The fraudsters pop up whenever there are natural disasters, such as earthquakes or floods, trying to coax your client into making a donation that will go into the scammer’s pockets and not to help the victims of the disaster. These same crooks might also steal your client’s identity for other schemes. They use the phone, mail, e-mail, websites and social networking sites to perpetrate their crimes.

When disaster strikes, you can be sure that scam artists will be close behind. It is a natural instinct to want to provide assistance right away, but potential donors should exercise caution and make sure their hard-earned dollars go for the purpose intended, not to line the pockets of scam artists. You need to make your clients aware of this type of fraud.

The following are some tips to avoid fraudulent fundraisers:

  • Donate to known and trusted charities. Be on the alert for charities that seem to have sprung up overnight in connection with current events. 
  • Ask if a caller is a paid fundraiser, who he/she works for and what percentage of the donation goes to the charity and to the fundraiser. If a clear answer is not provided, consider donating to a different organization.
  • Don’t give out personal or financial information—including a credit card or bank account number—unless the charity is known and reputable.
  • Never send cash. The organization may never receive the donation, and there won’t be a record for tax purposes.
  • Never wire money to a charity. It’s like sending cash.
  • If a donation request comes from a group claiming to help a local community agency (such as local police or firefighters), ask the people at the local agency if they have heard of the group and are getting financial support.
  • Check out the charity with the Better Business Bureau (BBB), Wise Giving Alliance, Charity Navigator, Charity Watch, or IRS.gov.

 

Protecting Against Identity

Theft To give you an idea of just how big a problem identity theft has become for the IRS, it currently has more than 3,000 employees working on identity theft cases and has trained more than 35,000 employees who work with taxpayers to recognize identity theft and provide assistance when it occurs.

When ID theft happens, it becomes a huge problem for the taxpayer and the taxpayer’s tax preparer. So, the best way to combat ID theft is to protect against it in the first place and avoid becoming one of those unfortunate individuals who have to deal with it. Here are some tips to prevent you from becoming a victim:

  • Never carry a Social Security card or any documents that include your Social Security number (SSN) or Individual Taxpayer Identification Number (ITIN). 
  • Don’t give anyone your own or a family member’s SSN or ITIN just because they ask. Give it only when required. 
  • Protect financial information. 
  • Check your credit report every 12 months. Secure personal information at home.
  • Protect personal computers by using firewalls and anti-spam/virus software, updating security patches and changing passwords for Internet accounts.
  • Portable computers, tablets and smartphones can be stolen or lost. Limit the amount of personal information they contain that can be used for ID theft. Be extra vigilant against theft.
  • Don’t give personal information over the phone, through the mail or on the Internet without validating the source.

 
Identity & Tax Refund Theft Statistics Infographic

Article Highlights:

  • Individual Provisions
  • Business Provisions
  • Energy Provisions

Congress has reached a bipartisan agreement on tax extenders, aptly named “Protecting Americans from Tax Hikes Act of 2015”. Much to everyone’s surprise, some were made permanent while others were only extended for a period of time. Congress also modified several provisions and added new ones to reduce tax fraud. Here is a look at some of the key provisions included in the legislation that pertain to individuals, small businesses, and certain energy-related provisions:

INDIVIDUAL PROVISIONS:

 

  • Child Credit – This credit was made permanent; it provides a $1,000 credit for each dependent child who is under the age of 17 at year’s end, who lived with the taxpayer for over half of the year and who meets the relationship test. The credit phases out for higher-income taxpayers, and a portion of the credit is refundable for lower-income taxpayers. The changes also include program integrity provisions that prohibit an individual from retroactively claiming the child credit by amending a return (or filing an original return if he or she failed to file) for any prior year in which the individual for whom the credit is claimed did not have an ITIN – generally a Social Security number).

After 2015, when a taxpayer improperly claims the credit, the legislation includes a disallowance period when no credit is allowed. For fraud, the disallowance period is 10 years, and for reckless or intentional disregard of rules and regulations, the disallowance period is 2 years.

 

  • American Opportunity Credit (AOTC) – This credit, which was due to expire after 2017, has been made permanent. This is a tax credit equal to 40% of the cost of tuition and qualifying expenses for higher education, with a maximum credit of $2,500. The credit applies to 100% of the first $2,000 and 25% of the next $2,000 of qualifying expenses. The credit offsets any tax liability, and 40% of the credit is refundable even if the taxpayer does not have any tax liability. It also phases out between $160,000 and $180,000 for married taxpayers filing jointly and between $80,000 and $90,000 for others – except for married taxpayers filing separately, who get no credit.

After 2015, when a taxpayer improperly claims the credit, the legislation includes a disallowance period when no credit is allowed. For fraud, the disallowance period is 10 years, and for reckless or intentional disregard of rules and regulations, the disallowance period is 2 years.

A provision was added that prohibits an individual from retroactively claiming the AOTC by amending a return or filing a late original return for any prior year when the individual or a student for whom the credit is claimed did not have an ITIN (generally a Social Security number).

  • Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) – The EITC is a refundable credit allowed to certain low-income workers who have W-2 wages and self-employed income. The credit is larger for taxpayers with children. The credit for taxpayers with children is based upon the number of children; those with three or more children receive the highest credit – as much as $6,269 in 2015. The higher credit for three or more children, which was a temporary provision that was set to expire after 2017, has been made permanent.

 

The changes also include added program integrity provisions that prohibit an individual from retroactively claiming the AOTC by amending a return (or filing an original return if the individual failed to file) for any prior year in which the individual for whom the credit is claimed did not have an ITIN (generally a Social Security number). The changes also reduced the marriage penalty by increasing the income phase-out for those filing jointly.

  • Teachers’ $250 Above-the-Line Deduction – This provision, which was available from 2002 through 2014, allows teachers and other eligible educators (levels kindergarten through grade 12) to take an above-the-line deduction of up to $250 for unreimbursed expenses incurred as part of their educational work. This deduction has been made permanent and modified by adjusting the $250 for inflation in years after 2015. In addition, professional development expenses were added to the qualified expenses allowed as part of the $250 deduction.
  • Transit Pass & Parking Fringe Benefit Parity – From 2010 through 2014, the monthly exclusion amount for employer-paid transit passes and qualified parking were temporarily the same. The parity of these two fringe benefits has been made permanent. Thus, for 2015 they will both be $250.

 

    • Optional Deduction of State and Local General Sales Taxes – Since 2004, taxpayers who itemized their deductions have had the option to deduct the Larger of (1) state and local income tax paid during the year, or (2) state and local sales tax paid during the year. This provision, which had been previously extended through 2014, provides the greatest benefit to those taxpayers who reside in a state that has no income tax (which include Alaska, Florida, Nevada, South Dakota, Texas, Washington and Wyoming). This election has been made permanent.

 

    • Above-the-Line Deduction for Qualified Tuition and Related Expenses – This above-the-line deduction for qualified higher education tuition and related expenses had been available from 2002 through 2014. The deduction includes adjusted gross income (AGI) limitations; it is not allowed for joint filers with an AGI of $160,000 or more ($85,000 for other filing statuses). This deduction has been retroactively extended through 2016.
  • Tax-Free IRA Distributions For Charitable Purposes – This provision was temporarily added in 2004 and originally expired in 2011; it was not extended until late in the year during the years 2012, 2013 and 2014, thus limiting its application in those three years. The provision allows taxpayers age 70.5 and over to directly transfer (not rolled over) funds from their IRA accounts to a qualified charity. The distribution is not taxable, but it does count toward the individuals’ required minimum distribution (RMD) for the year. The maximum allowable transfer is $100,000 per year. No charitable deduction is allowed, as the distribution is not taxable. This provision has been made permanent; it provides four potential tax advantages:

 

    1. The distribution is not included in income, thus lowering the taxpayer’s AGI, which in turn helps to avoid various AGI phase-outs and limitations.
    2. Keeping the AGI lower also helps to minimize the amount of Social Security income that is subject to tax for some taxpayers.
    3. Taxpayers using the standard deduction cannot get a charitable deduction, but they are essentially deducting the charitable deduction from their gross income when making contributions this way.
    4. The transferred distribution counts towards the taxpayer’s RMD for the year.

 

  • Discharge of Qualified Principal Residence Indebtedness – When an individual loses his or her home to foreclosure, abandonment or short sale or has a portion of his or her loan forgiven under the HAMP mortgage reduction plan, that person generally will end up with cancellation of debt (COD) income. COD income is taxable unless the taxpayer can exclude it. A taxpayer can exclude the COD income in the extent that he or she is insolvent (with debts exceeding assets immediately before the event occurs) using the insolvency exclusion.

Due to the housing market crash, in 2007, Congress added the qualified principal residence COD exclusion, which allowed taxpayers to exclude COD income to the extent that it was discharged acquisition debt. Acquisition debt is debt originally incurred to acquire a home or substantially improve it – not debt used for other purposes, which is called equity debt. However, equity debt is deemed to be discharged first, thus limiting the exclusion when both equity and acquisition debt are involved in the transaction.

The qualified principal residence COD exclusion had been previously extended but had expired at the end of 2014. This exclusion has been retroactively extended through 2016 (a two-year extension).

 

  • Mortgage Insurance Premiums – For tax years 2007 through 2014, taxpayers could deduct (as an itemized deduction) the cost of premiums for qualified mortgage insurance on a qualified personal residence (first or second home). To be deductible, the premiums must have been related to acquisition debt incurred after Dec. 31, 2006. However, this deduction phases out for higher-income taxpayers (generally those whose AGI exceeds $100,000). This provision, which had expired after 2014, has been retroactively extended through 2016, a two-year extension.

BUSINESS PROVISIONS:

 

    • Research Credit – Tax law provides a tax credit of up to 20% of qualified expenditures for businesses that develop, design or improve products, processes, techniques, formulas or software (and similar activities). The credit has been available off and on since 1981 without being made permanent. It had been extended several times but had expired at the end of 2014. This credit has been retroactively made permanent. In addition, it is not a tax preference for small businesses.

 

    • 100% Exclusion of Gain – Certain Small Business Stock – Previously, for stock issued after September 27, 2010, and before January 1, 2015, non-corporate taxpayers could exclude 100% of any gain realized on the sale or exchange of “qualified small business stock” held for more than 5 years. In addition, there was no alternative minimum tax (AMT) preference when the exclusion percentage was 100%. Generally, the term “qualified small business” means any domestic C corporation with assets of $50 million or less. This provision has been made permanent.

 

    • Differential Wage Payment Credit – Through 2014, eligible small business employers – generally those that have an average of fewer than 50 employees and that pay a individual called into active duty military service all or part of the wages that they would have otherwise received from the employer – can claim a credit. This differential wage payment credit is equal to 20% of up to $20,000 of differential pay made to an employee during the tax year. This credit has been retroactively made permanent; for years after 2015, the credit will apply to any size employer.
  • Work Opportunity Tax Credit (WOTC) – Through 2014, employers could elect to claim a WOTC for up to 40% of employees’ first-year wages for hiring workers from targeted groups – not exceeding wages of $6,000 (a maximum credit of $2,400). First-year wages are wages paid during the tax year for work performed during the one-year period beginning on the date when the employee begins work for the employer. This credit has been retroactively extended for five years through 2019; it applies to veterans and non-veterans and adds qualified long-term unemployment recipients to the list of targeted groups for years after 2015.

 

  • Section 179 Election – Since 2003, the Section 179 election has been temporarily increased from its statutory limit of $25,000 to between $100,000 and $500,000. Since 2010, the expense cap has been $500,000 (or $250,000 on a married-filing-separate tax return), and the investment limit has been $2 million. However, the last extension expired after 2014; without an extension, the cap would have returned to the statutory $25,000 limit in 2015. The statutory expensing limit of $500,000 and the $2 million investment limit have both been made permanent.

The application of the Section 179 election to “off-the-shelf” computer software, qualified leasehold improvements, qualified restaurant property and qualified retail improvements has also been made permanent.

 

    • Leasehold and Retail Improvements and Restaurant Property – The class life for qualified leasehold and retail Improvements and restaurant property had been temporarily included in the 15-year depreciation class life, as opposed to the 31-year category. Qualified leasehold and retail Improvements and restaurant property have been retroactively and permanently included in the 15-year MACRS class life.

 

  • Bonus Depreciation – As a means of stimulating the economy, a 50 percent bonus depreciation was temporarily implemented in 2008 and subsequently extended through 2014. For the period between September 8, 2010, and before January 1, 2012, it was even boosted to 100 percent. Bonus depreciation applies to personal tangible property placed in service during the year for which the original use began with the taxpayer.

The 50% bonus depreciation has been extended for 2 years (through 2016) for property placed in service before January 1, 2017. This generally applies to property with a class life of 20 years or less, to qualified leasehold improvements and to certain plants bearing fruits and nuts that are planted or grafted before January 1, 2020.

 

  • Enhanced First-Year Depreciation for Autos and Trucks – This is the so-called “luxury limit” on the deprecation deduction of passenger automobiles and light trucks used for business. For such vehicles placed in service in 2015, the limits are $3,160 and $3,460, respectively. In the past, the bonus depreciation had increased the first-year luxury limits by $8,000. Under the new law, the bonus depreciation applicable to luxury vehicles will be phased out through 2019. Thus, the luxury auto rates will be increased by the following bonus depreciation rates: $8,000 for 2015 through 2017, $6,000 for 2018 and $4,800 for 2019.

ENERGY PROVISIONS:

  • Residential Energy (Efficient) Property Credit – From 2006 through 2014, a nonrefundable credit had been available for qualified improvements to make the taxpayer’s existing primary home more energy efficient. Qualified improvements generally included insulation, storm windows and doors certain types of energy-efficient roofing materials, and energy-efficient air conditioning and hot-water systems. The credit was equal to 10% of the improvement’s cost (not including installation), with a lifetime credit of $500. The credit has been retroactively extended through 2016 (two years).

 

  • Credit for Fuel-Cell Vehicles – Through 2014, a taxpayer could claim a credit for vehicles fueled by chemically combining oxygen with hydrogen to create electricity. Generally, the credit was $4,000 for vehicles weighing 8,500 pounds or less (and up to $40,000 for heavier vehicles, depending on their weight). An additional $1,000 to $4,000 credit was available for cars and light trucks to the extent that their fuel economy exceeded the 2002 base fuel economy set forth in the Internal Revenue Code. This credit has been retroactively extended for two years through 2016.

If you have questions related to these or other, less commonly encountered provisions of the new law (Protecting Americans from Tax Hikes Act of 2015), please give this office a call. Benefiting from these provisions for 2015 will require taking action before year’s end. Please call if you need assistance.

Important Reminder for Purchasing Your Health Insurance Through The Government Marketplace

Article Highlights:

  • Determining Household Income
  • The Advanced Premium Tax Credit
  • Marketplace Estimate of Income
  • Modified Adjusted Gross Income
  • Who Is Family for Health Insurance Purposes?

When applying for insurance through a state or the federal health insurance marketplace, you will be asked to provide an estimate of your household income for 2016. Your household income is a key factor in determining if you are qualified for an insurance subsidy called the premium tax credit (PTC). Any premium tax credit that you are entitled to will be computed on your 2016 tax return when it is filed in 2017. However, the insurance marketplace will allow you to reduce your insurance premiums during the year by applying this credit in advance based upon the estimate of your household income you provided when applying for the insurance. This advance is referred to as the advanced premium tax credit (APTC).

It is very important to remember that the PTC is based on the actual family income when your tax return is filed in 2017—not on the estimate you provided when you enrolled—and if the APTC you received during 2016 was more than the PTC you are entitled to based upon your household income, you may be required to repay all or part of the APTC you received during 2016. Thus, it is important to correctly estimate your family’s household income when applying for the insurance and to report any significant income changes during the year on the insurance marketplace.

Household income includes the modified adjusted gross income (MAGI) of everyone in your family who is required to file a tax return. Your family includes you, your spouse, and everyone you are entitled to claim as a dependent on your tax return. MAGI is your family’s adjusted gross income (AGI) plus nontaxable social security, nontaxable interest and excluded foreign earned income.

As an example, say that you are married with one child. You have a W-2 income of $35,000 and nontaxable interest income of $150. Your spouse does not work, but your 16-year-old child works at a fast food restaurant and has a W-2 income of $4,000 for the year. Your AGI would be $35,000, which includes only your W-2 income. However, your MAGI would be $35,150 because it includes the nontaxable interest income. Since your child’s W-2 income is less than $6,300 (the standard deduction for 2016), your child is not required to file a tax return, and your child’s income (MAGI) is not included in the household income. Thus, your household income would be $35,150.

However, if your child’s W-2 income had been $7,000 (exceeding the standard deduction for the year), the child would have to file a tax return, and the child’s income would have to be included when determining your household income, which in this case would be $42,150 ($35,150 + $7,000). The addition of the child’s income to the household will significantly reduce the amount of PTC you are entitled to, and not including it when estimating your income will most likely result in you having to repay a significant amount of APTC on your 2016 tax return.

The computation of household income can become complicated when dependent children are working and when one or more forms of nontaxable income are received by a family member. It may be appropriate to consult with this office for assistance when determining household income.

Don’t Be a Victim to IRS Phone and E-Mail Scams

Thieves use taxpayers’ natural fear of the IRS and other government entities to ply their scams, including e-mail and phone scams, to steal your money. They also use phishing schemes to trick you into divulging your SSN, date of birth, account numbers, passwords and other personal data that allow them to scam the IRS and others using your name and destroy your credit in the process. They are clever and are always coming up with new and unique schemes to trick you.

These scams have reached epidemic proportions, and this article will hopefully provide you with the knowledge to identify scams and avoid becoming a victim.

The very first thing you should be aware of is that the IRS never initiates contact in any other way than by U.S. mail. So if you receive an e-mail or a phone call out of the blue with no prior contact, then it is a scam. DO NOT RESPOND to the e-mail or open any links included in the e-mail. If it is a phone call, simply HANG UP. 

Additionally, it is important for taxpayers to know that the IRS:

  • Never asks for credit card, debit card, or prepaid card information over the telephone. 
  • Never insists that taxpayers use a specific payment method to pay tax obligations. 
  • Never requests immediate payment over the telephone. 
  • Will not take enforcement action immediately following a phone conversation. Taxpayers usually receive prior written notification of IRS enforcement action involving IRS tax liens or levies. 

 

Phone Scams

Potential phone scam victims may be told that they owe money that must be paid immediately to the IRS or, on the flip side, that they are entitled to big refunds. When unsuccessful the first time, sometimes phone scammers call back trying a new strategy. Other characteristics of these scams include:

  • Scammers use fake names and IRS badge numbers. They generally use common names and surnames to identify themselves. 

 

Scammers may be able to recite the last four digits of a victim’s Social Security number. Make sure you do not provide the rest of the number or your birth date.

  • Scammers alter the IRS toll-free number that shows up on caller ID to make it appear that the IRS is calling. 
  • Scammers sometimes send bogus IRS e-mails to some victims to support their bogus calls. 
  • Victims hear background noise of other calls being conducted to mimic a call site. 
  • After threatening victims with jail time or driver’s license revocation, scammers hang up. Soon, others call back pretending to be from the local police or DMV, and the caller ID supports their claim. 

 

DON’T GET HOODWINKED. This is a scam. If you get a phone call from someone claiming to be from the IRS, DO NOT give the caller any information or money. Instead, you should immediately hang up. Call this office if you are concerned about the validity of the call.

IRS E-Mail Scam

Always remember, the first contact you will receive from the IRS will be by U.S. mail. If you receive e-mail or a phone call claiming to be from the IRS, consider it a scam.

Do not respond or click through to any embedded links. Instead, help the government combat these scams by forwarding the e-mail to phishing@irs.gov.

Unscrupulous people are out there dreaming up schemes to get your money. They become very active toward the end of the year and during tax season. They create bogus e-mails disguised as authentic e-mails from the IRS, your bank, or your credit card company, none of which ever request information that way. They are trying to trick you into divulging personal and financial information they can use to invade your bank accounts, make charges against your credit card or pretend to be you to file phony tax returns or apply for loans or credit cards. Don’t be a victim. 

STOP-THINK-DELETE.

Scammers become very active toward the end of the year and during tax season.

What they try to do is trick you into divulging your personal information, such bank account numbers, passwords, credit card numbers, Social Security numbers, etc.

You need to be very careful when responding to e-mails asking you to update such things as your account information, pin number, password, etc. First and foremost, you should be aware that no legitimate company would make such a request by e-mail. If you get such e-mails, they should be deleted and ignored, just like spam e-mails.

We have seen bogus e-mails that looked like they were from the IRS, well-known banks, credit card companies and other pseudo-legitimate enterprises. The intent is to trick you and have you click through to a website that also appears legitimate where they have you enter your secure information. Here are some examples:

  • E-mails that appeared to be from the IRS indicating you have a refund coming and that IRS official need information to process the refund. The IRS never initiates communication via e-mail! Right away, you know it is bogus. If you are concerned, please feel free to call this office. 
  • E-mails from a bank indicating it is holding a wire transfer and needs your bank routing information and account number. Don’t respond; if in doubt, call your bank. 
  • E-mails saying you have a foreign inheritance and require your bank information to wire the funds. The funds that will get wired are yours going the other way. Remember, if it is too good to be true, it generally is not true. 

 

We could go on and on with examples. The key here is for you to be highly suspicious of any e-mail requesting personal or financial information.

What’s in Your Wallet?

What is in your wallet or purse can make a big difference if it is stolen. Besides the credit cards and whatever cash or valuables you might be carrying, you also need to be concerned about your identity being stolen, which is a far more serious problem. Thieves can use your identity to set up phony bank accounts, take out loans, file bogus tax returns and otherwise invade your finances, and all an identity thief needs to be able to do these things is your name, Social Security number, and birth date.

Think about it: your driver’s license has two of the three keys to your identity. And if you also carry your Social Security card or Medicare card, bingo! An identity thief then has all the information he needs.

You can always cancel stolen credit cards or close compromised bank and charge accounts, but when someone steals your identity and opens accounts you don’t know about, you can’t take any mitigating action.

So if you carry your Social Security card along with your driver’s license, you may wish to rethink that habit for identity-safety purposes.

What You Should NEVER Do:

Never provide financial information over the phone, via the Internet or by e-mail unless you are absolutely sure of with whom you are dealing. That includes:

  • Social Security Number – Always resist giving your Social Security number to anyone. The more firms or individuals who have it, the greater the chance it can be stolen. 
  • Birth Date – Your birth date is frequently used as a cross check with your Social Security number. A combination of birth date and Social Security number can open many doors for ID thieves. Is your birth date posted on social media? Maybe it should not be! That goes for your children, as well.
  • Bank Account and Bank Routing Numbers – These along with your name and address will allow thieves to tap your bank accounts. To counter this threat, many banks now provide automated e-mails alerting you to account withdrawals and deposits.
  • Credit/Debit Card Numbers – Be especially cautious with these numbers, since they provide thieves with easy access to your accounts.

 

There are individuals whose sole intent is to steal your identity and sell it to others. Limit your exposure by minimizing the number of charges and credit card accounts you have. The more accounts have your information, the greater the chances of it being stolen. Don’t think all the big firms are safe; there have been several high-profile database breaches in the last year.

Email Phishing

Phishing (pronounced “fishing”) is the attempt to acquire sensitive information such as usernames, passwords, and credit card details (and sometimes, indirectly, money) by masquerading as a trustworthy entity in an electronic communication.

Communications purporting to be from popular social websites, auction sites, banks, online payment processors or IT administrators are commonly used to lure the unsuspecting public. Phishing e-mails may contain links to websites that are infected with malware. Phishing is typically carried out by e-mail spoofing or instant messaging, and it often directs users to enter details into a fake website that looks and feels almost identical to a legitimate one.

In the meantime, imagine trying to file your return and it gets rejected as already filed. You attempt to get a copy of the return but can’t because you don’t have the ID of the other unfortunate taxpayer who was used as the other spouse on the return. All the while, the scammers are enjoying their ill-gotten gains with impunity.

Fake Charities

Another fraud and ID theft scam associated with tax preparation involves charity scams. The fraudsters pop up whenever there are natural disasters, such as earthquakes or floods, trying to coax your client into making a donation that will go into the scammer’s pockets and not to help the victims of the disaster. These same crooks might also steal your client’s identity for other schemes. They use the phone, mail, e-mail, websites and social networking sites to perpetrate their crimes.

When disaster strikes, you can be sure that scam artists will be close behind. It is a natural instinct to want to provide assistance right away, but potential donors should exercise caution and make sure their hard-earned dollars go for the purpose intended, not to line the pockets of scam artists. You need to make your clients aware of this type of fraud.

The following are some tips to avoid fraudulent fundraisers:

  • Donate to known and trusted charities. Be on the alert for charities that seem to have sprung up overnight in connection with current events. 
  • Ask if a caller is a paid fundraiser, who he/she works for and what percentage of the donation goes to the charity and to the fundraiser. If a clear answer is not provided, consider donating to a different organization.
  • Don’t give out personal or financial information—including a credit card or bank account number—unless the charity is known and reputable.
  • Never send cash. The organization may never receive the donation, and there won’t be a record for tax purposes.
  • Never wire money to a charity. It’s like sending cash.
  • If a donation request comes from a group claiming to help a local community agency (such as local police or firefighters), ask the people at the local agency if they have heard of the group and are getting financial support.
  • Check out the charity with the Better Business Bureau (BBB), Wise Giving Alliance, Charity Navigator, Charity Watch, or IRS.gov.

 

Protecting Against Identity

Theft To give you an idea of just how big a problem identity theft has become for the IRS, it currently has more than 3,000 employees working on identity theft cases and has trained more than 35,000 employees who work with taxpayers to recognize identity theft and provide assistance when it occurs.

When ID theft happens, it becomes a huge problem for the taxpayer and the taxpayer’s tax preparer. So, the best way to combat ID theft is to protect against it in the first place and avoid becoming one of those unfortunate individuals who have to deal with it. Here are some tips to prevent you from becoming a victim:

  • Never carry a Social Security card or any documents that include your Social Security number (SSN) or Individual Taxpayer Identification Number (ITIN). 
  • Don’t give anyone your own or a family member’s SSN or ITIN just because they ask. Give it only when required. 
  • Protect financial information. 
  • Check your credit report every 12 months. Secure personal information at home.
  • Protect personal computers by using firewalls and anti-spam/virus software, updating security patches and changing passwords for Internet accounts.
  • Portable computers, tablets and smartphones can be stolen or lost. Limit the amount of personal information they contain that can be used for ID theft. Be extra vigilant against theft.
  • Don’t give personal information over the phone, through the mail or on the Internet without validating the source.

 
Identity & Tax Refund Theft Statistics Infographic