Vernoia, Enterline + Brewer, CPA LLC

Archive for October, 2011

Year-end Tax Planning for Individuals

2011 year end tax planning for individuals lacks some of the drama of recent years but can be no less rewarding.  Last year, individual taxpayers were facing looming tax increases as the calendar changed from 2010 to 2011; particularly, increased tax rates on wages, interest and other ordinary income, and higher rates on long-term capital gains and qualified dividends.

Thanks to legislation enacted at the end of 2010, tax rates are stable for 2011 and 2012, although the uncertainty will return as 2013 approaches, as political pressure in Washington builds to do something quickly for the economy. Ordinary income tax rates for individuals currently are 10, 15, 25, 28, 33 and 35 percent; capital gains rates are zero and 15 percent.

President Obama has proposed to preserve these tax rates for taxpayers with income below $200,000 (individuals) and $250,000 (married couples filing jointly) and to raise the rates for taxpayers in these higher-income brackets. If Congress is gridlocked and takes no action, everybody’s rates will rise, but again, not until 2013.

Expiring tax breaks

Unfortunately, not all is quiet on the tax front despite no dramatic rate changes until 2013. There are some specific tax provisions that will terminate at the end of 2011, unless Congress and the President agree to extend them. These include the tuition and fees above-the-line deduction for high education expenses, which can be as high as $4,000. Another expiring provision is the deduction for mortgage insurance premiums, which covers premiums paid for qualified mortgage insurance.

Several other benefits (“extenders”) are also scheduled to expire after 2011:

  • The state and local sales tax deduction;
  • The classroom expense deduction for teachers;
  • Nonbusiness energy credits;
  • The exclusion for distributions of up to $100,000 from an IRA to charity;
  • A higher deduction limit for charitable contributions of appreciated property for conservation purposes.

Retirement accounts

An old standby that makes sense from year-to-year is maximizing contributions to an IRA. The contribution is deductible up to $5,000 ($6,000 for taxpayers over 50), depending on some specific taxpayer income levels and circumstances. Taxpayers in a 401(k) plan can reduce their income by contributing to their employer plan, for which the limit in 2011 is $16,500.

In 2010, it was particularly important to consider whether to convert a traditional IRA to a Roth IRA, because the income realized on conversion could be recognized over two years. While a conversion continues to be worthwhile to consider (because distributions from a Roth IRA are not taxable), there are no longer any special break to defer a portion of the income from the conversion.

 Alternative minimum tax

The AMT has been “patched” for 2011. The exemptions have been temporarily increased from the normal statutory levels to the “patched” levels:

  • From $33,750 to $48,450 for single individuals;
  • From $45,000 to  $74,450 for married couples filing jointly and surviving spouses; and
  • From $22,500 to $37,335 for married couples filing separately.

The amounts return to the “normal levels” of $33,750/$45,000/$22,500, respectively, in 2012 unless Congress takes action to maintain the patch. Elimination of the AMT is a goal of long-term tax reform, but the loss of revenue has been considered too high in the past. Without  the “patch,” the Congressional Budget Office estimates that an additional 20 million middle-class taxpayers would suddenly become subject to an AMT once designed only for millionaires.

While planning for the AMT is difficult, taxpayers may want to consider realizing AMT income, such as capital gains, in 2011, when the patch is higher, rather than in 2012.


Taxpayers can take advantage of 2011 provisions to realize last-minute tax benefits. Some of these benefits may not be available in 2012.  It is worthwhile to look at these planning opportunities as part of an overall year-year financial strategy.

Year-end Business Tax Planning

Many tax benefits for business will either expire at the end of 2011 or become less valuable after 2011. Two of the most important benefits are bonus depreciation and Code Sec. 179 expensing. Both apply to investments in tangible property that can be depreciated. Other sunsetting opportunities might also be considered.

Bonus depreciation

Bonus depreciation is 100 percent for 2011. A business can write-off, in the first year, the entire cost of its investment in new depreciable property. Under current law, bonus depreciation will decrease to 50 percent in 2012 and will terminate after 2012. (These deadlines are extended one year for certain transportation property and property with a longer production period). President Obama has proposed to extend 100 percent bonus depreciation through 2012. Normally, this would have a good chance of being approved, but with the focus on deficit reduction and the linking of tax benefits to tax increases, it is not at all clear what will happen.

So, if a business has income in 2011 and plans to invest in depreciable property, it is worthwhile to consider making that investment in 2011, while the available write-off is at its highest. Under normal depreciation rules, a business will still be able to claim accelerated write-offs, but this may be 50 percent or less of the cost of the property, with the balance written-off over several years, instead of all in one year.

Planning for bonus depreciation is important because the property must satisfy placed-in-service and acquisition date requirements. Property is placed in service when it is in a condition or state of readiness on a regular ongoing basis for a specifically assigned function in a trade or business. The acquisition date rules may vary. For 2011, property is acquired when the taxpayer incurs or pays its cost. This could occur when the property is delivered, but it could also be when title to the property passes. For 2012, property is acquired when the taxpayer takes physical possession of the property.

Code Sec. 179 expensing

Code Sec. 179 expensing (first-year writeoff) has been around for awhile, but at higher amounts more recently. While there is no limit on bonus depreciation, expensing is limited to a statutory amount. For 2011, this amount is $500,000. It is scheduled to drop to $125,000 in 2012 and to $25,000 after 2012 (adjusted for inflation). Moreover, the cap is reduced for the amount of total investment in Code Sec. 179 property. The phaseout threshold is $2 million for 2011, dropping to $500,000 for 2012 and $200,000 for 2013 and subsequent years. For businesses who want to invest in depreciable property, the payoff is definitely greater in 2011. Taxpayers taking advantage of expensing should write off assets that would otherwise have the longest recovery periods.

Other 2011 benefits

Some other important benefits expire at the end of 2011 or become less valuable. A significant benefit in 2011 is the 100 percent exclusion for small business stock. After 2012, the normal exclusion rate will drop to 50 percent, although it has been 75 percent in recent years. The exclusion is based on the year the stock is acquired; the stock must be held for five years before sold and satisfy other requirements.

Another important benefit is the 20 percent research credit. The credit has been extended one year at a time for a long period, so it is likely to be extended again. Nevertheless, until Congress acts, there is some uncertainty for research expenses incurred after 2011.


To maximize the benefits of 2011 year-end tax planning, a business must be proactive in determining what upcoming capital investments might be accelerated into this year and what investments become cost effective because of the immediate tax benefits that they offer. Some business-related tax benefits will be less valuable after 2011; for others, it is not clear what Congress and the administration will do in terms of surprising taxpayers with a year-end tax bill. Please contact us at (908) 725-4414 if you have any questions over how year-end tax strategies that begin now and continue through December can help maximize tax benefits for your business.

Gov. Proposed Tax Reforms

Autumn 2011 in Washington, D.C. is expected to be a season of contentious debates over tax reform, and at the heart of the debate is the amount of taxes paid by higher-income individuals.  President Obama wants Congress to raise taxes on higher-income individuals to help reduce the federal government’s budget deficit and to pay for a jobs program.  Many lawmakers, especially Republicans, are opposed to any tax increases. The two sides appear far apart but the need to cut the nation’s deficit could encourage compromise.

Bush-era tax cuts

In 2001, Congress enacted the Economic Growth and Tax Reconciliation Act (EGTRRA), which set in motion a gradual decrease in the individual marginal income tax rates and the federal estate tax, along with marriage penalty relief, the introduction of a new 10 percent tax bracket and more.  The Jobs and Growth Tax Act of 2003 accelerated the reductions in the individual tax rates and also reduced capital gains and dividend tax rates (currently taxed at 15 percent for taxpayers in tax brackets above 15 percent and at zero percent for or all other taxpayers).  All of these tax cuts are collectively known as the Bush-era tax cuts.

In 2010, Congress passed, and President Obama signed, the Tax Relief, Unemployment Insurance Reauthorization and Job Creation Act. The 2010 Tax Relief Act extended the Bush-era tax cuts through the end of 2012. The extension proved especially valuable for higher-income taxpayers.  Without the extension, the top two individual income tax rates would have risen from 33 and 35 percent to 36 and 39.6 percent, respectively, after December 31, 2010.

White House proposals

President Obama released a Deficit Reduction Plan on September 19 and proposed to allow the Bush-era tax cuts to expire for higher-income taxpayers and to return the federal estate tax to its 2009 parameters.  The White House broadly defines higher-income taxpayers for purposes of the Bush-era tax cuts as individuals with annual incomes over $200,000 and families with annual incomes over $250,000.

The President’s Deficit Reduction Plan would:

–Allow the Bush-era high-income tax cuts to expire

–Return the federal estate tax to its 2009 levels

–Reduce the value of itemized deductions and other tax preferences to 28 percent for families with incomes over $250,000

All of these changes would apparently take place after 2012.

Keep in mind that if Congress does nothing before 2013, the Bush-era tax cuts are scheduled to automatically expire after 2012. Tax rates would not only rise for higher-income individuals but for all taxpayers.  The federal estate tax would return to its pre-EGTRRA levels (with some minor modifications) and capital gains/dividends would be taxed at much less taxpayer-friendly rates than under current law.

Additionally, higher-income individuals will pay more in taxes after 2012 because of existing laws. An additional 0.9 percent Medicare tax on wages and self-employment income and a 3.8 percent Medicare contribution tax on unearned income are scheduled to take effect after 2012 for higher-income taxpayers.

Buffett Rule

President Obama has asked Congress to enact legislation to provide that no household making over $1 million annually should pay a smaller share of its income in taxes than middle-income families. President Obama calls this tax treatment, the “Buffett Rule” after billionaire investor Warren Buffett, who said that his effective tax rate is lower than the tax rate of his secretary.

The White House has been deliberately vague on the mechanics of the Buffet Rule. In his Deficit Reduction Plan, President Obama said that the Buffett Rule would be enacted as part of overall tax reform, which increases the progressivity of the Tax Code.

The Buffett Rule could take the shape of increased taxes on capital gains and dividends.  Higher-income individuals typically have a significant portion of their income from investment activity. The Buffett Rule could also reform the alternative minimum tax (AMT). The AMT was originally enacted to prevent very wealthy taxpayers from avoiding taxes. Because the AMT was not indexed for inflation, and for other reasons, the AMT has encroached on middle income taxpayers.

Payroll tax cuts

The 2010 Tax Relief Act enacted a temporary payroll tax holiday. The employee-share of OASDI taxes is reduced from 6.2 percent to 4.2 percent for calendar year 2011 up to the Social Security wage base ($106,800 for 2011). An individual with earnings at or above $106,800 in 2011 receives a $2,136 tax benefit. Self-employed individuals receive a comparable tax benefit.  Under current law, the payroll tax holiday ends after December 31, 2011 and the employee-share of OASDI taxes is scheduled to revert to 6.2 percent.

President Obama has proposed to extend and enhance the payroll tax cut for calendar year 2012.  The employee-share of OASDI taxes for 2012 would be reduced from 6.2 percent to 3.1 percent, under the President’s proposal.

The President’s proposal has a reasonably good chance of being enacted.  Taxpayers have become accustomed to the two percent reduction in effect for 2011. Moreover, lawmakers are reluctant to raise taxes in an election year.  However, opponents of any extension question its impact on the long-term health of Social Security.

If you have any questions about the proposals being debated in Washington, please contact our office at (908) 725-4414

Avoid the 10% tax on early retirement withdrawals

Taxpayers who wish to withdraw funds from a retirement account such as an IRA before they reach the age of 59½, can do so without their distributions becoming subject to the additional 10 percent tax. One option is to have their distributions made in substantially equal periodic payments, as outlined in Sec. 72(t) of the IRC. Taxpayers can use one of three methods to calculate these substantially equal payments:

(1) Required minimum distribution method. Under this method, a taxpayer divides the retirement account’s principal by the appropriate number on the IRS’s life expectancy table for the year in which distributions will begin. That number depends upon the taxpayer’s age. Payment amounts will be predetermined each year by dividing the remaining principal by the number corresponding to the taxpayer’s age. Note: Although this method of computation is much simpler than the second and third, it results in lower annual distributions. The length of time, however, over which the distributions are made is generally greater than for the amortization and annuitization methods.

(2) Fixed amortization method. Under the amortization method, the annual amount of payments is fixed at the time the first payment is made. The amount of the annual distribution is determined by amortizing the taxpayer’s account balance using the appropriate reasonable interest rate released by the IRS over a number of years, which equals the life expectancy of the account owner.

(3) Fixed annuitization method. As with the amortization method, all resulting annual payments remain the same for each succeeding year. The amount of the payments is determined by dividing the account principal by the appropriate annuity factor, which is based on the IRS’s mortality table and an interest rate of not more than 120% of the federal mid-term rate.

Payments made calculated through the annuitization method are generally the highest. Taxpayers electing to use this method should be aware that higher annual payments will more quickly exhaust their principal. So long as the distribution payment scheme remains unmodified for a five year period beginning from the first payment date, the distributions will not be subject to the additional 10 percent tax.

Taxes on Social Security Survivor Benefits

When an individual dies, certain family members may be eligible for Social Security benefits. In certain cases, the recipient of Social Security survivor benefits may incur a tax liability.

Family members

Family members who can collect benefits include children if they are unmarried and are younger than 18 years old; or between 18 and 19 years old, but in an elementary or secondary school as full-time students; or age 18 or older and severely disabled (the disability must have started before age 22).  If the individual has enough credits, Social Security pays a one-time death benefit of $255 to the decedent’s spouse or minor children if they meet certain requirements.

Benefit amount

The benefit amount is based on the earnings of the decedent.  The more the decedent paid into Social Security, the larger the benefit amount. Social Security uses the decedent’s basic benefit amount and calculates what percentage survivors may receive. That percentage depends on the age of the survivors and their relationship to the decedent. Children, for example, receive 75 percent of the decedent’s benefit amount.


The person who has the legal right to receive Social Security benefits must determine whether the benefits are taxable. For example, if a taxpayer receives checks that include benefits paid to the taxpayer and the taxpayer’s child, the child’s benefits are not considered in determining whether the taxpayer’s benefits are taxable. Instead, one half of the portion of the benefits that belongs to the child must be added to the child’s other income to see whether any of those benefits are taxable to the child.

Social security benefits are included in gross income only if the recipient’s “provisional income” exceeds a specified amount, called the “base amount” or “adjusted base amount.”  There are two tiers of benefit inclusion. A 50-percent rate is used to figure the taxable part of income that exceeds the base amount but does not exceed the higher adjusted base amount. An 85-percent rate is used to figure the taxable part of income that exceeds the adjusted base amount.

Up to 50 percent of Social Security benefits could be included in taxable income if a recipient’s provisional income is more than the following base amounts:

–$25,000 for single individuals, qualifying surviving spouses, heads of household, and married individuals who live apart from their spouse for the entire tax year and file a separate return; and

–$32,000 for married individuals filing a joint return;

–zero for married individuals who do not file a joint return and do not live apart from their spouse during the entire tax year

Up to 85 percent of benefits could be included in taxable income if a recipient’s provisional income is more than the following adjusted base amounts:

–$34,000 for single individuals, qualifying surviving spouses, heads of household, and married individuals who live apart from their spouse for the entire tax year and file a separate return; and

–$44,000 for married individuals filing a joint return;

–zero for married individuals who do not file a joint return and do not live apart from their spouse during the entire tax year.

If the taxpayer’s provisional income does not exceed the base amount, no part of Social Security benefits will be taxed. For taxpayers whose income exceeds the base amount, but not the higher adjusted base amount, the amount of benefits that must be included in income is the lesser of:

–One-half of the annual benefits received; or

–One-half of the amount that remains after subtracting the appropriate base amount from the taxpayer’s provisional income.

Taxpayers whose provisional income exceeds the adjusted base amount must include in income the lesser of:

–85 percent of the annual benefits received; or

–85 percent of the excess of the taxpayer’s provisional income over the applicable adjusted base amount plus the smaller of: (a) the amount calculated under the 50-percent rules above, or (b) one-half of the difference between the taxpayer’s applicable adjusted base amount and the applicable base amount. One-half of the difference between the base amount and the adjusted base amount is $6,000 for married taxpayers filing jointly and $4,500 for other taxpayers. For taxpayers who are married, not living apart from their spouse, and filing separately, the amount will always be zero.

If you have any questions about the taxation of Social Security benefits, please contact our office at (908) 725-4414