Vernoia, Enterline + Brewer, CPA LLC

Archive for November, 2011

Inflation adjustments reduce tax liability in 2012

The IRS recently announced that inflation is increasing many dollar amounts in the Tax Code for 2012. For taxpayers, the inflation adjustments may help reduce their overall tax liability in 2012.

Inflation adjustments

Many provisions in the Tax Code are required to be adjusted annually for inflation. These include various deductions, exemptions and exclusion amounts. The tax law also requires that the individual income tax brackets be adjusted annually for inflation. Low inflation in 2009 and 2010 resulted in many of the provisions experiencing no increases for 2010 and 2011. Next year is different. In October, the IRS announced that inflation is running at just over 3.8 percent. In response, the IRS adjusted a number of amounts in the Tax Code upward for 2012.

Retirement accounts

401(k) plans. For 2012, the maximum amount an individual can contribute tax-free to a 401(k) plan increases $500 from $16,500 to $17,000. However, some 401(k) plans limit maximum contributions to levels below the ceiling in the Tax Code.

IRAs. The deduction for taxpayers making contributions to a traditional IRA is phased out for single individuals and heads of households who are covered by a workplace retirement plan and whose modified adjusted gross incomes fall within certain ranges. For 2012, the income phaseout range starts at $58,000 and ends at $68,000, up from $56,000 and $66,000, respectively, for 2011. For married couples filing jointly, in which the spouse who makes the IRA contribution is covered by a workplace retirement plan, the income phaseout range for 2012 starts at $92,000 and ends at $112,000, up from $90,000 and $110,000, respectively, for 2011. For an IRA contributor who is not covered by a workplace retirement plan and is married to someone who is covered, the deduction is phased out for 2012 if the couple’s income is between $173,000 and $183,000, up from $169,000 and $179,000, respectively, for 2011. Roth IRAs are subject to similar rules. The AGI limit for maximum Roth IRA contributions for a married couple filing a joint return for 2012 is $173,000, an increase of $4,000 from 2011. The AGI limitation for all other taxpayers (other than married taxpayers filing separate returns) increases from $107,000 for 2011 to $110,000 for 2012.

Saver’s credit. The Code Sec. 25B credit rewards eligible individuals with a tax credit for contributing to a retirement plan or an IRA. For 2012, the AGI limit for the “saver’s credit” increases for single individuals to $28,750, an increase of $500 from 2011. The AGI limit for married couples filing joint returns increases from $56,500 for 2011 to $57,500 for 2012.

Individual income tax brackets Inflation also impacts the individual income tax rate brackets (which are 10, 15, 25, 28, 33, and 35 percent, respectively, for 2011 and 2012). Indexing of the income tax rate brackets effectively lowers tax bills by including more of an individual’s income in lower brackets.

More inflation adjustments

Standard deduction. Taxpayers who elect not to itemize deductions use the standard deduction amount. The standard deduction increases by $500 for married couples filing a joint return from $11,400 for 2011 to $11,900 for 2012. The standard deduction for single individuals increases from $5,700 for 2011 to $5,950 for 2012.

Personal exemption. Taxpayers may claim a personal exemption deduction (and an exemption deduction for each person they claim as a dependent). The amount of the personal exemption and the dependency exemption increases from $3,700 for 2011 to $3,800 for 2012. The Tax Relief, Unemployment Insurance Reauthorization and Job Creation Act of 2010 (2010 Tax Relief Act) repealed the personal exemption phaseout for higher income taxpayers for 2011 and 2012.

Estate tax. The 2010 Tax Relief Act provided that the basic exclusion amount for determining the amount of the unified credit against estate tax for estates of decedents dying after December 31, 2009 is $5 million. The $5 million amount is adjusted for inflation for tax years beginning after December 31, 2011. For 2012, the inflation-adjusted amount is $5,120,000.

Gift tax exclusion. For 2012, you can give up to $13,000 to any person without incurring gift tax. Married couples can gift up to $26,000 tax-free to any person. There is no limit on the number of individuals you can make the $13,000 ($26,000) gift. The $13,000 and $26,000 amounts are unchanged from 2011.

If you have any questions about these or other inflation adjustments, please contact our office at (908) 725-4414.

Independent Contractor vs. Employee

In light of the IRS’s new Voluntary Worker Classification Settlement Program (VCSP), which it announced this fall, the distinction between independent contractors and employees has become a “hot issue” for many businesses. The IRS has devoted considerable effort to rectifying worker misclassification in the past, and continues the trend with this new program.  It is available to employers that have misclassified employees as independent contractors and wish to voluntarily rectify the situation before the IRS or Department of Labor initiates an examination.

The distinction between independent contractors and employees is significant for employers, especially when they file their federal tax returns. While employers owe only the payment to independent contractors, employers owe employees a series of federal payroll taxes, including Social Security, Medicare, Unemployment, and federal tax withholding. Thus, it is often tempting for employers to avoid these taxes by classifying their workers as independent contractors rather than employees.

If, however, the IRS discovers this misclassification, the consequences might include not only the requirement that the employer pay all owed payroll taxes, but also hefty penalties. It is important that employers be aware of the risk they take by classifying a worker who should or could be an employee as an independent contractor.

“All the facts and circumstances”

The IRS considers all the facts and circumstances of the parties in determining whether a worker is an employee or an independent contractor. These are numerous and sometimes confusing, but in short summary, the IRS traditionally considers 20 factors, which can be categorized according to three aspects: (1) behavioral control; (2) financial control; (3) and the relationship of the parties.

Examples of behavioral and financial factors that tend to indicate a worker is an employee include:

  • The worker is required to comply with instructions about when, where, and how to work;
  • The worker is trained by an experienced employee, indicating the employer wants services performed in a particular manner;
  • The worker’s hours are set by the employer;
  • The worker must submit regular oral or written reports to the employer;
  • The worker is paid by the hour, week, or month;
  • The worker receives payment or reimbursement from the employer for his or her business and traveling expenses; and
  • The worker has the right to end the employment relationship at any time without incurring liability.

In other words, any existing facts or circumstances that point to an employer’s having more behavioral and/or financial control over the worker tip the balance towards classifying that worker as an employee rather than a contractor. The IRS’s factors do not always apply, however; and if one or several factors indicate independent contractor status, but more indicate the worker is an employee, the IRS may still determine the worker is an employee.

Finally, in examining the relationship of the parties, benefits, permanency of the employment term, and issuance of a Form W-2 rather than a Form 1099 are some indicators that the relationship is that of an employer–employee.

Conclusion

Worker classification is fact-sensitive, and the IRS may see a worker you may label an independent contractor in a very different light. One key point to remember is that the IRS generally frowns on independent contractors and actively looks for factors that indicate employee status.

Please do not hesitate to call our offices at (908) 725-4414 if you would like a reassessment of how you are currently classifying workers in your business, as well as an evaluation of whether IRS’s new Voluntary Classification Program may be worth investigating.

Year-end charitable contributions

Charitable contributions traditionally peak at the end of the year-end. While tax savings may not be your prime motivator for making a gift to charity, your donation could help your tax bottom-line for 2011. As with many tax incentives, the rules for tax-deductible charitable contributions are complex, especially the rules for substantiating your donation. Also important to keep in mind are some enhanced charitable giving incentives scheduled to expire at the end of 2011.

Tips

The IRS has posted tips for deducting charitable contributions on its website. The tips are a good refresher of the fundamental rules for deducting charitable contributions:

–To be tax-deductible, a contribution must be made to a quailed qualified organization.

–To deduct a charitable contribution, you must file Form 1040 and itemize deductions on Schedule A.

–If you receive a benefit because of your contribution such as merchandise, tickets to a ball game or other goods and services, then you can deduct only the amount that exceeds the fair market value of the benefit received.

–Donations of clothing and household items must generally be in good used condition or better to be tax-deductible.

–Special rules apply to donations of motor vehicles.

–Many donations must be substantiated; the substantiation rules vary for different donations.

Qualified organizations

Some individuals are surprised to learn that their donation is not tax-deductible because the recipient is not a qualified charitable organization.  Generally, churches, temples, synagogues, mosques, and other religious organizations are qualified charitable organizations. Nonprofit community service, educational, and health organizations are also generally qualified charitable organizations. Special rules apply to foreign charities. If you have any questions whether the organization is a qualified charitable organization, please contact our office.

Substantiation rules

In 2006, Congress significantly revised the rules for substantiating your charitable contributions. Unless a contribution is properly substantiated, the IRS may deny your deduction.

Regardless of the amount, to deduct a contribution of cash, check, or other monetary gift, you must maintain a bank record, payroll deduction records or a written communication from the organization containing the name of the organization, the date of the contribution and amount of the contribution. Remember, this rule applies to all cash contributions, even contributions of small monetary amounts.  The IRS will not accept certain personal records. For example, you cannot substantiate a contribution by reference to a diary or notes made at the time of the donation.

In recent years, text message donations have grown in popularity. For text message donations, a telephone bill will meet the record-keeping requirement if it shows the name of the receiving organization, the date of the contribution, and the amount given.

To claim a deduction for contributions of cash or property equaling $250 or more you must have a bank record, payroll deduction records or a written acknowledgment from the qualified organization showing the amount of the cash and a description of any property contributed, and whether the organization provided any goods or services in exchange for the gift.

One document may satisfy both the written communication requirement for monetary gifts and the written acknowledgement requirement for all contributions of $250 or more. If your total deduction for all noncash contributions for the year is over $500, you must complete and attach IRS Form 8283, Noncash Charitable Contributions, to your return.

Additional rules apply for donations valued at more than $5,000. These donations generally require an appraisal and you must advise the IRS of that appraisal by filing a special form.

Expiring provisions

Under current law, certain IRA owners can directly transfer tax-free, up to $100,000 annually from the IRA to a qualified charitable organization. The benefit is limited.  The IRA owner must be age 70 ½ or older. Additionally, the contribution does not qualify for the deduction for charitable donations. To qualify, the IRA funds must be contributed directly by the IRA trustee to the qualified charitable organization. You can also take advantage of this tax incentive if you itemize or do not itemize deductions.

Unless extended, this incentive is scheduled to expire after December 31, 2011. It is unclear if Congress will extend the incentive into 2012 or beyond. If you are considering a charitable contribution from your IRA, please contact our office so we can review the rules in detail.

Several other enhanced charitable giving incentives are also scheduled to expire at the end of 2011. They include special rules for contributions of food inventory, contributions of computer equipment to schools by corporations, and other special rules for corporations.

Clothing and household items

Cleaning out your closet can help generate year-end tax savings. However, not all charitable contributions of clothing and household items are deductible.  Generally, clothing and household items donated to a charitable organization must be in good used or better condition. Other rules also apply to donations of clothing and household items.

Motor vehicles and other types of donations

The tax deduction for a motor vehicle, boat or airplane donated to charity is fraught with complexity. The substantiation requirements depend on the amount of your claimed deduction. If you are considering donating a motor vehicle, boat or airplane to charity, please contact our office so we can help you navigate the substantiation rules to maximize your tax benefits.

The rules for donations of conservation easements, intellectual property and other items likewise require expert planning. Otherwise, you could miss the tax benefit.

Limitations

The Tax Code includes a number of provisions limiting tax-deductible contributions. Limitations may be based on the individual’s income, the type of donation and the nature of the recipient organization. Our office can describe how these limitations may impact you.

In past years, a provision known as the limitation on itemized deductions applied to higher-income individuals. This provision reduces the total amount of a higher-income individual’s otherwise allowable deductions; however, some deductions are not impacted. For 2011 and 2012, this limitation does not apply.

If you have any questions about the mechanics of tax-deductible charitable contributions, please contact our office (908) 725-4414.

Avoid pitfalls with FSA

Under a flexible spending arrangement (FSA), an amount is credited to an account that is used to reimburse an employee, generally, for health care or dependent care expenses. The employer must maintain the FSA. Amounts may be contributed to the account under an employee salary reduction agreement or through employer contributions.

Use-it or lose-it

The general rule is that no contribution or benefit from an FSA may be carried over to a subsequent plan year. Unused benefits or contributions remaining at the end of the plan year (or at the end of a grace period) are forfeited. This is known as the “use it or lose it” rule. The plan cannot pay the unused benefits back to the employee, and cannot carry over the unused benefits to the following calendar year.

Example. An employer maintains a cafeteria plan with a health FSA. The plan does not have a grace period. Arthur, an employee, contributes $250 a month to the FSA, or a total of $3,000 for the calendar year. At the end of the year (December 31), Arthur has incurred medical expenses of only $1,200 and makes claims for those expenses. He has $1,800 of unused benefits. Under the “use it or lose it” rule, Arthur forfeits the $1,800.

Grace period

Because the “use it or lose it” rule seemed harsh, the IRS gave employers the option to provide a grace period at the end of the calendar year. The grace period may extend for 2½ months, but must not extend beyond the 15th day of the third month following the end of the plan year. Medical expenses incurred during the grace period may be reimbursed using contributions from the previous year.

Example. Beulah contributes $3,000 to her health FSA for 2010. The FSA is on January 1 through December 31 calendar year.  On December 31, 2010, Beulah has $1,800 of unused contributions. Her employer provides a grace period through March 15, 2011. On January 20, 2011, Beulah incurs $1,500 of additional medical expenses. Because these expenses were incurred during the grace period, Beulah can be reimbursed the $1,500 from her 2010 contributions. On March 15, 2011, she has $300 of unused benefits from 2010 and forfeits this amount.

Exceptions

There are other exceptions to the prohibition against deferred compensation within the operation of an FSA. A cafeteria plan is permitted, but not required, to reimburse employees for orthodontia services before the services are provided, even if the services will be provided over a period of two years or longer. The employee must be required to pay in advance to receive the services.

Another exception is provided for durable medical equipment that has a useful life extending beyond the health FSA’s period of coverage (the calendar year, plus any grace period). For example, a health FSA is permitted to reimburse the cost of a wheelchair for an employee.

If you have any questions on setting up an FSA, whether as an employer or an employee, and which benefits must be covered and which are optional, please do not hesitate to call this office at (908) 725-4414.

Deduct Job Hunting Expenses

Job-hunting expenses are generally deductible if you are not searching for a job in a new field. This can be useful in a tough job market. It does not matter whether your job hunt is successful, or whether you are employed or unemployed when you are looking. The expenses are deductible as a miscellaneous itemized deduction. You can deduct job-hunting expenses if the amount of all your miscellaneous itemized deductions exceeds two percent of your adjusted gross income. However, if you claim the standard deduction, you cannot deduct job-hunting expenses. Therefore, as a practical matter for many job seekers, job hunting expenses do not materialize as a tax deduction. For those who are able to use job seeking expenses as a deduction, it can be difficult to determine what a new field is.

A professional photographer who pursues a job in the retail industry clearly is searching in a new field and cannot deduct any of his or her job-hunting expenses. But there are exceptions. The IRS has allowed persons who retired from the military to search for jobs in new fields and claim their job-hunting expenses. Taking a temporary job while searching for permanent employment in your current field will not be considered a job change that disqualifies your job-hunting expenses. Persons entering the job market for the first time, such as college students, and persons who have been out of the job market for a long period of time, such as parents of young children, cannot deduct their job-hunting expenses. However, a college student who worked in a particular field while in school may be able to deduct job-hunting expenses.

Deductible expenses include typing, printing and mailing a resume. Long-distance phone calls are also deductible. You can deduct travel costs for going on a job search or an interview, including air transportation, railroad, or car expenses. The standard rate for car expenses for business is 51 cents per mile for the first six months of 2011, and 55.5 cents per mile for the period July 1-December 31, 2011. Amounts you pay to a job counselor, employment agency or job referral service are all deductible. It is important to keep records of your costs. While your individual expenses may not be substantial, your total expenses can add up to a significant amount.