Vernoia, Enterline + Brewer, CPA LLC

Archive for December, 2011

Fate of Bush-era tax cuts

Congress’ Joint Select Committee on Deficit Reduction (the so-called “super committee”) failed to reach an agreement by its November 23 deadline after weeks of sparring over the Bush-era tax cuts.  The Budget Control Act of 2011 created the bipartisan super committee in August and instructed it to develop proposals to reduce the federal budget deficit by November 23.  The super committee held many meetings and reportedly debated several proposals, all behind closed doors, to reform the Tax Code and entitlement programs. In the end, however, Democrats and the GOP remained far apart on taxes and entitlement programs and announced they could not agree on a final proposal.

Bush-era tax cuts

One tax item in particular appeared to frustrate the progress of the super committee:  the fate of the Bush-era tax cuts.  Last year, the White House and Congress agreed to extend the Bush-era tax cuts through 2012. Under current law, the following Bush-era tax cuts (not an exhaustive list) will expire after 2012 unless extended:

  • Reduced individual income tax rates (10, 15, 28, 33, and 35 percent)
  • Reduced capital gains and dividends tax rates
  • Marriage penalty relief (expanded 15 percent tax bracket for joint filers and standard deduction for married couples twice that of single individuals)
  • Repeal of the limitation on itemized deductions for higher income taxpayers
  • Repeal of the phase out of personal exemptions for higher income taxpayers

In September, President Obama sent the super committee a plan that would have extended the Bush-era tax cuts for lower and moderate income individuals but not for higher income taxpayers (which the White House defines as single individuals with incomes over $200,000 and married couples with incomes over $250,000).   The House GOP presented a plan that would have lowered the maximum individual and corporate tax rates to 25 percent.  Several committees and individual lawmakers also sent deficit reduction plans to the super committee.

In the days leading up to the November deadline, Democratic and Republican members of the super committee acknowledged that they had reached little common ground over the fate of the Bush-era tax cuts. On November 21, the co-chairs of the super committee announced that that they “[had] come to the conclusion that it will not be possible to make any bipartisan agreement available to the public before the committee’s deadline.”

With the super committee sidelined, the fate of the Bush-era tax cuts moves to Congress and the White House.  The GOP-controlled House could try to extend the Bush-era tax cuts in stand-alone legislation but any bill would likely fail to pass the Senate. Additionally, President Obama has repeatedly said he will veto legislation that extends the Bush-era tax cuts for higher income taxpayers.

Payroll tax cut

More immediately, the White House and Congress are currently debating the fate of extending for another year the 2011 payroll tax cut. Wage earners and self-employed individuals took home more pay in 2011 because of a temporary reduction in the employee-share of old age, survivors and disability (OASDI) taxes.  The employee-share of OASDI taxes was reduced from 6.2 percent to 4.2 percent for calendar year 2011 (with similar relief provided to self-employed individuals). ). Although both sides of the aisle in Congress agree that an extension through 2012 is desirable, consensus must be achieved in agreeing to ways to pay for its $263 billion price tag.  An agreement is expected sometime in December, although prospects are not entirely certain.

Budget cuts

The super committee’s failure to deliver a deficit reduction plan automatically triggers spending cuts after 2012. Under the Budget Control Act, the spending reductions will be achieved through a combination of sequestration (for FY 2013) and the downward adjustment of discretionary spending limits for FY 2014-FY 2021. This means that Congress must determine the manner in which reductions are made to the federal government’s budget, including the IRS, through the annual appropriations process each year.  However, some programs, such as Social Security and Medicaid, are exempt from the budget cuts.

President Obama and Congress could agree to modify the spending reductions under the Budget Control Act.  On November 21, President Obama said he will veto any bills that remove the automatic triggers in the Budget Control Act. President Obama is reportedly using the veto threat to keep pressure on Congress to reach an agreement over the fate of the Bush-era tax cuts and entitlement spending.

If you have any questions about the super committee, the Bush-era tax cuts or the prospects for tax reform, please contact our office at (908) 725-4414.

3% Withholding Repeal and Job Creation Act

On November 21, President Obama signed into law the 3% Withholding Repeal and Job Creation Act. The new law does much more than merely repeal withholding on government contractors. The new law enhances the Work Opportunity Tax Credit (WOTC) for veterans of the U.S. Armed Forces, expands the IRS’ continuous levy authority, and more.

Government withholding

The Tax Increase Prevention and Reconciliation Act of 2005 (2005 Tax Act) created a new withholding requirement for government agencies. The federal government, and every state and local government, would be required to withhold income tax at the rate of three percent on certain payments to persons providing any property or services. Some payments, such as payments of interest, were exempt.

The government withholding requirement was originally scheduled to apply to payments made after December 31, 2010. Congress delayed the effective date to payments made after December 31, 2011. The IRS issued final regulations in 2011, further delaying the effective date to payments made after December 31, 2012.

Since passage of the 2005 Tax Act, momentum for the repeal of withholding on government contractors has grown. The Senate approved the 3% Repeal Act unanimously on November 10, and the House voted 422–0 in favor of the bill on November 16. The 3% Repeal Act repeals government withholding as if it had never been enacted.

Veterans

The WOTC provides employers an incentive to hire individuals from various target groups, including veterans, The 3% Repeal Act modifies the WOTC for qualified veterans. The WOTC enhancements for veterans are called the Returning Heroes Tax Credit and the Wounded Warrior Tax Credit.

Returning Heroes Tax Credit. The Returning Heroes Tax Credit encourages employers to hire unemployed veterans. Employers hiring short-term unemployed veterans (generally veterans who have been unemployed for at least four weeks but less than six months) may be eligible for a credit of up to $2,400 per employee. The credit reaches $5,600 per employee if the employer hires a veteran who has been unemployed for longer than six months.

Wounded Warriors Tax Credit. The Wounded Warriors Tax Credit rewards employers that hire unemployed veterans with service connected disabilities. The credit reaches $9,600 per employee for employers that hire long-term unemployed veterans with service connected disabilities and $4,800 per employee for employers that hire short-term unemployed veterans with service-connected disabilities.

The 3% Repeal Act also extends the current WOTC for qualified veterans who receive food stamps through the end of 2012. The credit for qualified veterans in this target group can reach $2,400 per employee. Additionally, the 3% Repeal Act makes the WOTC for qualified veterans available to tax-exempt employers and streamlines the certification process.

The changes to the WOTC under the 3% Repeal Act are effective for veterans who begin work for an employer after November 21, 2011 (the date of enactment of the new law). The 3% Repeal Act, however, is temporary and its enhancements to the WOTC for veterans will expire after 2012 unless extended by Congress.

IRS continuous levy

The Taxpayer Relief Act of 1997 authorized the IRS to collect overdue tax debts of individuals and businesses that receive federal payments by levying up to 15 percent of each payment until the debt is paid. In 2004, Congress increased the percentage to 100 percent in case of certain payments due to vendors of services or goods sold or leased to the federal government. The 3% Repeal Act authorizes the IRS to continuously levy at 100 percent on payments for goods, services and property due to vendors of the federal government. This change is effective for levies issued after November 21, 2011 (the date of enactment of the new law).

More provisions

The 3% Repeal Act also:

  • Changes the definition of modified adjusted gross income for purposes of the Code Sec. 36B health insurance premium assistance tax credit and certain other federal health care programs
  • Extends information sharing between the IRS and the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA)
  • Enhances federal job training programs for veterans
  • Directs the Treasury Department to prepare a report on the tax gap and government contractors

If you have any questions about the 3% Withholding Repeal Act, please contact our office at (908) 725-4414.

Year-end investment strategies

As 2011 winds down, investors should consider several last-minute strategies to improve their bottom line tax liability. Many of these strategies follow traditional advice applicable to any year-end. Others, however, are unique to 2011, not only because of the continuing impact of the economy but also because of major tax changes that are threatening for 2013, which is just a little more than a year away.

Long- and short-term gains

Long-term stock gains and qualified cash dividends continue to be taxed at the favorable maximum rate of 15 percent in 2011 and again in 2012. For lower-income investors in the 10 and 15 percent income tax brackets, a zero rate applies to stock gains and dividend income. Long-term capital gains rates apply to stock (and other investments) held for more than one year. Qualified dividend rates apply for stock held more than 60 days of a prescribed period around the dividend’s record date. Short-term gains are taxed at ordinary income rates and apply to stock held for one year or less.

If your stock has declined in value, it may make sense to sell it and recognize the loss. Capital losses have to be netted against capital gains, but net capital losses can be deducted dollar-for-dollar against ordinary income, up to $3,000 a year ($1,500 for married individuals filing separately). Excess capital losses above $3,000 are carried over to the following year and can be deducted against another $3,000 of ordinary income (after netting with any capital gains in the succeeding year).

Wash sale rules

If you expect the market to improve, you may want to hold on to your stock, even if it has dropped in value. It may be tempting to sell the stock, to recognize the loss, and then repurchase the same stock;however, the tax code under its so-called wash sale rules will not let you take the loss if you purchase identical stock within 30 days before or after you sell your shares. Another option is to sell your shares, wait 31 days, and then repurchase the stock.

Timing

Stock traded in an over-the-counter market or on a regulated national securities exchange is generally treated as sold on the date the taxpayer enters into a binding contract to sell the stock. This is the trade date, in contrast to the settlement date, when deliveries of the stock certificate and payment are made (generally the fifth business day after the trade date). The trade date is also the end of the selling taxpayer’s holding period for purposes of determining long- or short-term gain.

For short sales, however, the IRS insists on following a rule with a slight twist.  If the stock price falls and a gain will result, the gain is realized on the trade date, when the seller directs his or her broker to purchase shares. On the other hand, if the price rises and a loss will result, the loss is not realized until the stock is delivered on the settlement date.

In either case, remember that for 2011, December 31 falls on a Saturday, making December 30, 2011 the last day on which the public stock exchanges are open.

Long-term holding period

This year, year-end tax selling strategies should also be coordinated with year-end tax buying. In addition to the traditional attention given to the wash-sale rules on the repurchase of securities, investors should be aware that the rates on long-term capital gains quite possibility will be going up dramatically after 2012, when the Bush-era tax rates end.  In default of Congressional action, the maximum rate on net long-term capital gains will rise from 15 percent to 20 percent.  Since long-term gain is available only on assets held for more than one year, investors should be aware that the gain on stock and other capital assets purchased after 2011 quite likely will be subject to a higher tax rate. Year-end 2011 should therefore present an opportunity to get your long-term investment strategies in order so that, if forced to sell at year-end 2012 before a 2013 rate increase, you will be able to take advantage of the lower long-term rates.

If you would like further to refine your year-end investment strategies, please do not hesitate to contact this office at (908) 725-4414.

FAQ: Does sick pay get any special tax treatment?

The term “sick pay” can refer to a variety of payments. Some of these payments are nontaxable, while others are treated as taxable income. Some of the taxable payments are treated as compensation, subject to income tax withholding and employment taxes; others are exempt from some employment taxes.

Amounts received for personal injury or sickness through an accident or health plan are taxable income if the employer paid for the plan. If the coverage is provided through a cafeteria plan, the employer, not the employee, is considered to have paid the premiums; thus, the benefits are included in income. If, on the other hand, the employee paid the entire cost of the premiums (or included the premiums in income), then any amounts paid under the plan for personal injury or sickness are not included in income.

An employee who is injured on the job may receive workers’ compensation under a workers’ compensation act. These amounts are fully exempt from income and employment taxes. However, the exemption does not apply to retirement plan benefits that are based on age, length of service, or prior contributions, even if retirement was triggered by occupational sickness or injury. The exemption also does not apply to amounts that exceed the amount provided in the worker’s compensation act. There is no exemption under these plans for amounts received as compensation for a nonoccupational injury or sickness.

Compensatory damages paid for physical injury or physical sickness are not taxable, whether paid in a lump sum or as periodic payments. This applies to amounts received through prosecution of a legal suit or action or through a settlement agreement in lieu of prosecution.  Other nontaxable benefits include disability benefits paid for loss of income or earning capacity as a result of injuries under a no-fault automobile insurance policy.

Payments for permanent injury or loss of a bodily function under an employer-financed accident or health plan are excludible. The payments must be based on the nature of the injury rather than on the length of time the employee is absent from work.

Disability income plans are employer plans that provide full or partial income replacement for employees who become disabled. Employer-provided disability income benefits generally are taxable to employees. Similarly, sick pay that is a continuation of some or all of an employee’s compensation is subject to income tax withholding if paid by the employer. The first six months of payments for sickness or disability, when the employee is off work, are subject to employment taxes, but payments made after the expiration of six months are not subject to FICA (Social Security) and FUTA (unemployment) taxes.

Reimbursements from an employer’s plan for medical expenses are not includible in income and are not subject to income tax withholding. If the employer has no plan or system and pays medical expenses for sickness or disability, the payments are subject to FICA and FUTA for the first six months. Of course, reimbursements of amounts deducted in a prior year must be included in income. Medical reimbursements provided under a self-insured employer plan are not subject to income tax withholding, even if the amounts are included in income.

Payments for sick leave or accumulated sick leave are taxable compensation.

Is your asset “in use” for depreciation deductions?

Depreciation is a reasonable allowance for wear and tear on property used in a trade or business or for the production of income. Property is depreciable if it has a useful life greater than one year and depreciates in value. Property that appreciates in value may also  depreciate if subject to wear and tear. Depreciation ends in the tax year that the asset is retired from service (by sale, exchange, abandonment or destruction) or that the asset is fully depreciated.

Assets with useful lives of one year or less can be deducted as current expenses in the year of their costs. Depreciation cannot be claimed on an asset that is acquired and disposed of in the same year.

Depreciation begins in the tax year that the property is placed in service for either the production of income or for use in a trade or business. Property generally is considered placed in service when it is in a condition or state of readiness to be used on a regular, ongoing basis. The property must be available for a specifically assigned function in a trade or business (or for the production of income).

An asset actually put to use in a trade or business is clearly considered placed in service. If, on the other hand, an asset is not actually put to use, it is generally not considered placed in service unless the taxpayer has done everything he or she can to put the asset to use. For example, a barge was considered placed in service in the year it was acquired, even though it could not be actually used because the body of water was frozen. For a building that is intended to house machinery and equipment, the building’s state of readiness is determined without regard to whether the machinery and equipment has been placed in service. Leased property is placed in service by the lessor when the property is held out for lease.

Generally, the year property is placed in service is the tax year of acquisition, but it could be a later time. An asset cannot be placed in service any sooner than the time that the business actually begins to operate.

In the case of agriculture, livestock cannot be depreciated until it reaches maturity and can be used; orchards cannot be depreciated until the trees produce marketable quantities of crops. Prior to those times, costs must be capitalized and cannot be written off.

Especially at year-end, placing an asset in service before the new year can mean the difference between claiming a substantial amount of depreciation on this year’s return instead of waiting a full year. If you have any questions on how to qualify a business asset under this deadline, please contact this office at (908) 725-4414.