Vernoia, Enterline + Brewer, CPA LLC

Archive for June, 2011

Latest IRS Statistics Reveal Typical Profiles Of Higher-Income Individuals

The trend in recent increases in numbers of federal individual income tax returns reporting incomes of $200,000 or more has reportedly hit a speed bump, according the a recently released IRS survey. The IRS’s Spring 2011 Statistics of Income (SOI) Bulletin reports a 3.5 percent drop in the number of individual returns reflecting adjusted gross income of $200,000 or more for tax year 2008, when the economic downturn officially started and the year for which the most recent full-year statistics are available.  This trend comes after several years of increases in the number of returns filed by higher income individuals.  The IRS received 4.3 million returns from taxpayers reporting adjusted gross income (AGI) of $200,000 or more for tax year 2008.  In contrast, the IRS received more than 4.5 million returns from taxpayers reporting AGI of $200,000 or more for tax year 2007.

Most pay higher taxes

IRS statistics reveal that most higher-income taxpayers do not engage in aggressive tax avoidance but, as a group, accept the tax that ordinarily must be paid on their income.  Three facts about the information the IRS extrapolated from returns filed by higher income individuals stand out:

  • Only a small percentage (0.4 percent) of higher-income individuals reported no U.S. income tax liability (of these returns, 0.2 percent reported no worldwide income tax liability).
  • Another relatively small group of higher-income individuals (0.9 percent) was able to offset a substantial fraction of income before being subject to taxation.
  • Overall, most higher-income individuals were subject to tax on their income.

Typical income profile

Among individuals whose returns reflected incomes of $200,000 or more for tax year 2008, the largest source of income was salaries and wages at $1.2 trillion.  More than 3.8 million returns from higher-income taxpayers reported income from salaries and wages.  Other significant sources of income included partnership and S corp income ($446 billion reported by 1.3 million taxpayers), income from sales of capital assets ($417 billion reported by 1.3 million taxpayers); dividends ($125 billion, reported by 3.2 million taxpayers); and royalties ($17 billion reported by over 300,000 taxpayers).

Typical deductions and credits

The most common deduction for returns reflecting incomes of $200,000 or more was the deduction for taxes paid. More than 4.1 million returns from higher income taxpayers reported deductions for taxes paid. The deduction for interest paid was the second-most common deduction among higher income taxpayers with more than 3.5 million returns reporting deductions for interest paid (of which 3.3 million returns reflected home mortgage interest). Over 3.9 million returns from higher income taxpayers reflected deductions for charitable contributions.

Among the various tax credits, the credit for foreign taxes paid was the most common among returns filed by higher income taxpayers.  More than 1.5 million returns reflected the foreign tax credit. Just over 300,000 returns reported the child tax credit.

What is backup withholding?

Most people are familiar with tax withholding, which most commonly takes place when an employer deducts and withholds income and other taxes from an employee’s wages. However, many taxpayers are unaware that the IRS also requires payors to withhold income tax from certain reportable payments, such as interest and dividends, when a payee’s taxpayer identification number (TIN) is missing or incorrect. This is known as “backup withholding.”

Backup Withholding in General

A payor must deduct, withhold, and pay over to the IRS a backup withholding tax on any reportable payments that are not otherwise subject to withholding if:

  • the payee fails to furnish a TIN to the payor in the manner required;
  • the IRS or a broker notifies the payor that the TIN provided by the payee is incorrect;
  • the IRS notifies the payor that the payee failed to report or underreported the prior year’s interest or dividends; or
  • the payee fails to certify on Form W-9, Request for Taxpayer Identification Number and Certification, that he or she is not subject to withholding for previous underreporting of interest or dividend payments.

The backup withholding rate is equal to the fourth lowest income tax rate under the income tax rate brackets for unmarried individuals.

Only reportable payments are subject to backup withholding. Backup withholding is not required if the payee is a tax-exempt, governmental, or international organization. Similarly, payments of interest made to foreign persons are generally not subject to information reporting; therefore, these payees are not subject to backup withholding. Additionally, a payor is not required to backup withhold on reportable payments for which there is documentary evidence, under the rules on interest payments, that the payee is a foreign person, unless the payor has actual knowledge that the payee is a U.S. person. Furthermore, backup withholding is not required on payments for which a 30 percent amount was withheld by another payor under the rules on foreign withholding.

Reportable Payments

Reportable payments generally include the following types of payments of more than $10:

  • Interest;
  • Dividends;
  • Patronage dividends (payments from farmers’ cooperatives) paid in money;
  • Payments of $600 or more made in the course of a trade or business;
  • Payments for a nonemployee’s services provided in the course of a trade or business;
  • Gross proceeds from transactions reported by a broker or barter exchange;
  • Cash payments from certain fishing boat operators to crew members that represent a share of the proceeds of the catch; and
  • Royalties.

Reportable payments also include payments made after December 31, 2011, in settlement of payment card transactions.

Failure to Furnish TIN

Payees receiving reportable payments through interest, dividend, patronage dividend, or brokerage accounts must provide their TIN to the payor in writing and certify under penalties of perjury that the TIN is correct. Payees receiving other reportable payments must still provide their TIN to the payor, but they may do so orally or in writing, and they are not required to certify under penalties of perjury that the TIN is correct.

A payee who does not provide a correct taxpayer identification number (TIN) to the payer is subject to backup withholding. A person is treated as failing to provide a correct TIN if the TIN provided does not contain the proper number of digits (nine) or if the number is otherwise obviously incorrect, for example, because it contains a letter as one of its digits.

The IRS compares TINs provided by taxpayers with records of the Social Security Administration to check for discrepancies and notifies the bank or the payer of any problem accounts. The IRS has requested banks and other payers to notify their customers of these discrepancies so that correct TINs can be provided and the need for backup withholding avoided.

IRS streamlined offer-in-compromise program aims to cut red tape

The IRS’s streamlined offer-in-compromise (OIC) program is intended to speed up the processing of OICs for qualified taxpayers. Having started in 2010, the streamlined OIC program is relatively new. The IRS recently issued instructions to its examiners, urging them to process streamlined OICs as expeditiously as possible. One recent survey estimates that one in 15 taxpayers is now in arrears on tax payments to the IRS to at least some degree.  Because of continuing fallout from the economic downturn, however, the IRS has tried to speed up its compromise process to the advantage of both hard-pressed taxpayers and its collection numbers.

OIC program

The IRS OIC program on its face can appear very attractive to taxpayers with unpaid liabilities. An OIC is an agreement between a taxpayer and the IRS that settles the taxpayer’s tax liabilities for less than the full amount owed. Keep in mind that taxpayers do not automatically qualify for an OIC. The IRS has cautioned that, absent special circumstances, if you have the ability to fully pay your tax liability in a lump sum or via an installment agreement, an OIC will not be accepted.

The IRS may accept an offer in compromise based on three grounds:

  • Doubt as to collectibility
  • Doubt as to liability
  • Effective tax administration

The decision whether to accept or reject an OIC is entirely within the discretion of the IRS. Sometimes, but very rarely, an OIC will be deemed accepted because the IRS failed to reject it within 24 months of receiving the offer.

Streamlined OICs

The low acceptance rate of OICs has some lawmakers in Congress and taxpayer groups upset. One of the most vocal critics has been National Taxpayer Advocate Nina Olson who has urged the IRS to bring more taxpayers into the OIC program. Partly in response to this criticism, the IRS launched the streamlined OIC in 2010. The streamlined OIC program is intended to cut through much of the red tape that surrounds OICs. The IRS promised, among other things, to process streamlined OICs more quickly.

In February 2011, the IRS announced some changes to streamlined OICs. Streamlined OICs may be offered to taxpayers with total household incomes of $100,000 or less and who have a total tax liability of less than $50,000. Taxpayers who do not meet these requirements may apply for a traditional OIC.

Procedures

The streamlined procedures do not necessarily mean that the IRS will accept more OICs; merely that it will process the offers it receives more quickly. Since the streamlined OIC program is relatively new, the IRS has not yet reported how many streamlined offers it has accepted.

Before accepting or rejecting a streamlined OIC, IRS examiners must verify that the information provided by the taxpayer is correct. The IRS instructed examiners reviewing streamlined OICs to verify taxpayer information through internal research. Examiners will verify ownership of items such as real estate, motor vehicles and other property.

Examiners also will be able to communicate directly with taxpayers or their representatives. The IRS instructed examiners to contact taxpayers or their representatives by telephone whenever possible; rather than sending written notices. Three phone attempts should be made over two business days to contact the taxpayer or his/her representative. If the examiner reaches the taxpayer’s voicemail, the examiners should request a call-back within two business days.

The streamlined OIC program is not for everyone. Indeed, the acceptance rate for all OICs (just about 13,000 in fiscal year (FY) 2010) means that relatively few taxpayers will make an offer that the IRS will accept. Nonetheless, the OIC program is one tool that may be used by taxpayers with unpaid liabilities. If you have any questions about the IRS’s streamlined OIC or traditional OIC, please contact our office.

Actual vehicle expense method may help offset higher gas prices

As gasoline prices have climbed in 2011, many taxpayers who use a vehicle for business purposes are looking for the IRS to make a mid-year adjustment to the standard mileage rate. In the meantime, taxpayers should review the benefits of using the actual expense method to calculate their deduction. The actual expense method, while requiring careful recordkeeping, may help offset the cost of high gas prices if the IRS does not make a mid-year change to the standard mileage rate. Even if it does, you might still find yourself better off using the actual expense method, especially if your vehicle also qualifies for bonus depreciation.

Two methods

Taxpayers can calculate the amount of a deductible vehicle expense using one of two methods:

  • Standard mileage rate
  • Actual expense method

Under the standard mileage rate, taxpayers calculate the amount of the allowable deduction by multiplying all business miles driven during the year by the standard mileage rate. One of the chief attractions of the standard mileage rate is its ease of use. Taxpayers do not have to substantiate expense amounts; however, they must substantiate business purpose and other items. There are also limitations on use of the business standard mileage rate.

The standard mileage rate for 2011 for business use of a car (van, pickup or panel truck) is 51 cents-per-mile. The IRS calculates the standard mileage rate on an annual study of the fixed and variable costs of operating an automobile. The IRS set the standard mileage rate for 2011 in late 2010 when gasoline prices were lower than today. It is a flat amount, whether or not your vehicle is fuel efficient, operates on premium grade fuel, is brand new or ten years old, or is subject to high repair bills.

During past spikes in gasoline prices, the IRS has made a mid-year change to the standard mileage rate for business use of a vehicle. In 2008, the IRS increased the business standard mileage rate from 50.5 cents-per-mile to 58.5 cents-per-mile for last six months of 2008 because of high gasoline prices. The IRS made a similar mid-year adjustment in 2005 when it increased the business standard mileage rate after Hurricane Katrina.

At this time, it is unclear if the IRS will make a similar mid-year adjustment in 2011. IRS officials generally have declined to make any predictions. If the IRS does make a mid-year change, it will likely do so in late June, so the higher rate can apply to the last six months of 2011.

Actual expense method

Rather than rely on a mid-year adjustment from the IRS, which might not come, it’s a good idea to compare the actual vehicle costs versus the business standard mileage rate. Taxpayers who use the actual expense method must keep track of all costs related to the vehicle during the year. The cost of operating a vehicle includes these expenses:

  • Gasoline
  • Repair and maintenance costs
  • Cleaning
  • Tires
  • Depreciation
  • Lease payments (if the taxpayer leases the vehicle)
  • Interest on a vehicle loan
  • Insurance
  • Personal property taxes on the vehicle

“Doing the math” this year in weighing whether to take the actual expense method not only should factor in the cost of gasoline but also what depreciation or expensing deductions you will be gaining by using the actual expense method. Enhanced bonus depreciation and enhanced “section 179” expensing for 2011 can increase your deduction for a newly-purchased vehicle in its first year tremendously if the actual expense method is elected.

Certain other costs are deductible whether you take the actual expense method or the standard mileage rate. This group includes parking charges, garage fees and tolls. Expenses incurred for the personal use of your vehicle are generally not deductible. An allocation must be made when the vehicle is used partly for personal purposes

Switching methods

Once actual depreciation in excess of straight-line has been claimed on a vehicle, the standard mileage rate cannot be used for the vehicle in any future year. Absent that prohibition (which usually is triggered if depreciation is taken), a business can switch between the standard mileage rate and actual expense methods from year to year. Businesses that switch methods now cannot make change methods effective in mid-year; you must apply one method retroactively from January 1.

Recordkeeping

The actual expense method requires taxpayers to substantiate every expense. This recordkeeping requirement can be challenging. For example, taxpayers who fill-up often at the gas pump need to keep a record of every purchase. The same is true for tune-ups and other maintenance and repair activity. One way to simplify recordkeeping is to charge all vehicle related expenses to one credit card.

Our office will keep you posted of developments. If you have any questions about the actual expense method or the business standard mileage rate, please contact our office.