Vernoia, Enterline + Brewer, CPA LLC

Archive for March, 2012

Payroll tax holiday extended

On February 22, President Obama signed the Middle Class Tax Relief and Job Creation Act of 2012.  The new law extends the employee-side payroll tax holiday, giving wage earners and self-employed individuals 12 months of reduced payroll taxes in 2012.

2011 payroll tax holiday

Until 2011, the Old-Age, Survivors and Disability Insurance (OASDI) tax rate for employees was 6.2 percent (12.4 percent for self-employed individuals who pay both the employee-share and the employer-share).  These taxes help to fund Social Security.

In 2011, a payroll tax holiday took effect.  The payroll tax holiday reduced the employee-share of OASDI taxes by two percentage points from 6.2 percent to 4.2 percent for calendar year 2011 up to the Social Security wage base of $106,800.  The payroll tax holiday also gave a similar percentage reduction to self-employed individuals for calendar year 2011.

Two-month extension

The 2011 payroll tax holiday was originally enacted as a one-year tax break.  It was scheduled to expire after December 31, 2011.

In December 2011, Congress approved a two-month extension of the payroll tax holiday for January and February 2012.  The two-month extension provided for a 4.2 percent OASDI tax rate for individuals receiving wages and a comparable benefit for self-employed individuals through the end of February 2012.

Tough negotiations

In early 2012, lawmakers began negotiations over extending the two-month payroll tax holiday for the remainder of the year.  The 2011 payroll tax holiday had not been offset; that is, the lost revenue had not been made up elsewhere.  The two-month extension had been offset by higher fees on certain government-backed mortgages. Some lawmakers wanted any full-year extension of the payroll tax cut to be offset.

Several offsets were proposed and rejected, including a surtax on individuals with incomes over $1 million and repeal of certain business tax preferences.  In the end, lawmakers could not agree on any offsets and decided to extend the payroll tax holiday without paying for it.  They did agree to pay for extended unemployment benefits and the so-called Medicare “doc fix” with offsets.

The House passed the Middle Class Tax Relief and Job Creation Act of February 17 as did the Senate.  President Obama signed the bill on February 22.

2012 payroll tax holiday

The 2012 payroll tax holiday is essentially an extension of the 2011 payroll tax holiday. This means that wage earners pay OASDI taxes at a rate of 4.2 percent for calendar year 2012 up to the Social Security wage base ($110,100 for 2012). Self-employed individuals also benefit from a two-percentage point reduction in OASDI taxes for calendar year 2012.  The OASDI tax rate for employers, however, is not reduced and remains at 6.2 percent for calendar year 2012.

According to the White House, an “average” taxpayer should expect to see about $1,000 in savings in 2012.  An individual who makes at or above the Social Security wage base for 2012 ($110,100) will see a $2,202 benefit.

No recapture rule

In good news for some taxpayers, the Middle Class Tax Relief and Job Creation Act repeals a recapture rule Congress had imposed on the two-month extension.  The recapture rule was intended to prevent higher income individuals from enjoying too great a benefit from the payroll tax cut if it was not extended for all of 2012.  Because the payroll tax cut has been extended through the end of 2012, the recapture rule is expressly removed in the new law.

Employers and payroll processors

Because the 2012 payroll tax cut holiday is essentially an extension of the 2011 payroll tax cut holiday, employers and payroll processors should expect few glitches. The IRS has reported it anticipates no problems in administering the extension through the end of 2012. It has already issued a revised 2012 Form 941, Employer’s Quarterly Federal Tax Return, for use by employers to cover their revised reporting responsibilities.

If you have any questions about the 2012 payroll tax holiday, please contact our office at 1 (908) 725-4414.

Tax-wise retirement options

Retired employees often start taking benefits by age 65 and, under the minimum distribution rules, must begin taking distributions from their retirement plans when they reach age 70 ½. According to Treasury, a 65-year old female has an even chance of living past age 86, while a 65-year old male has an even chance of living past age 84. The government has become concerned that taxpayers who normally retire at age 65 or even age 70 will outlive their retirement benefits.

The government has found that most employees want at least a partial lump sum payment at retirement, so that some cash is currently available for living expenses. However, under current rules, most employer plans do not offer a partial lump sum coupled with a partial annuity. Employees often are faced with an “all or nothing” decision, where they would have to take their entire retirement benefit either as a lump sum payment when they retire, or as an annuity that does not make available any immediate lump-sum cash cushion. For retirees who live longer, it becomes difficult to stretch their lump sum benefits.

Longevity solution

To address this dilemma, the government is proposing new retirement plan rules to allow plans to make available a partial lump sum payment while allowing participants to take an annuity with the other portion of their benefits. Furthermore, to address the problem of employees outliving their benefits, the government would also encourage plans to offer “longevity” annuities. These annuities would not begin paying benefits until ages 80 or 85. They would provide you a larger annual payment for the same funds than would an annuity starting at age 70 ½. Of course, one reason for the better buy-in price is that you or your heirs would receive nothing if you die before the age 80 or 85 starting date. But many experts believe that it is worth the cost to have the security of knowing that this will help prevent you from “outliving your money.”

To streamline the calculation of partial annuities, the government would allow employees receiving lump-sum payouts from their 401(k) plans to transfer assets into the employer’s existing defined benefit (DB) plan and to purchase an annuity through the DB plan. This would give employees access to the DB plans low-cost annuity purchase rates.

According to the government, the required minimum distribution (RMD) rules are a deterrent to longevity annuities. Because of the minimum distribution rules, plan benefits that could otherwise be deferred until ages 80 or 85 have to start being distributed to a retired employee at age 70 ½. These rules can affect distributions from 401(k) plans, 403(b) tax-sheltered annuities, individual retirement accounts under Code Sec. 408, and eligible governmental deferred compensation plans under Code Sec. 457.

Tentative limitations

The IRS proposes to modify the RMD rules to allow a portion of a participant’s retirement account to be set aside to fund the purchase of a deferred annuity. Participants would be able to exclude the value of this qualified longevity annuity contract (QLAC) from the account balance used to calculate RMDs. Under this approach, up to 25 percent of the account balance could be excluded. The amount is limited to 25 percent to deter the use of longevity annuities as an estate planning device to pass on assets to descendants.

Coming soon

Many of these changes are in proposed regulations and would not take effect until the government issues final regulations. The changes would apply to distributions with annuity starting dates in plan years beginning after final regulations are published, which could be before the end of 2012. Our office will continue to monitor the progress of this important development.

Framework for new tax reforms

A reduced corporate tax rate, elimination of many business tax preferences, a new minimum tax on overseas profits, and much more are all part of President Obama’s recently released Framework for Business Tax Reform (the “Framework”). The much-anticipated blueprint of the administration’s plans for corporate tax reform was unveiled on February 22, 2012, in Washington, D.C.

The Framework contains a large number of general business-oriented proposals which, according to the administration, will make the Tax Code less complicated for businesses and increase the nation’s competitiveness in the global economy. A reduction in the corporate tax rate would be fully paid for by repeal of business tax preferences. The Framework also calls for a new minimum tax on overseas profits and encourages companies to return work to the U.S. by offering a new relocation tax incentive.

Congressional reaction to the administration’s Framework was mixed. Democrats in Congress generally applauded the Framework for laying out a plan to reduce the corporate tax rate, a proposal that enjoys bipartisan support in Congress. Republicans were less enthusiastic, but some GOP lawmakers said that the Framework could serve as a starting point for comprehensive tax reform. While the November elections certainly play a part in the release of the current proposals, major tax reform now is considered inevitable by most observers. The question remains, however, as to how it will develop over the coming months.

Five-part framework

The President’s overall proposal, which currently is framed only in general terms, is grounded in five elements:

–Eliminating tax expenditures and subsidies, broadening the corporate tax base, and cutting the corporate tax rate from 35 percent to 28 percent;

–Strengthening U.S. manufacturing and innovation by effectively lowering the rate for manufacturers to 25 percent (through an enhanced manufacturing credit), making the research tax credit permanent, and providing a number of clean-energy incentives;

–Fixing the international tax system that includes imposing a minimum tax on overseas profits, creating a 20 percent tax credit for moving operations back to the U.S., denying deductions for moving operations overseas, limiting the transfer of patents and other intellectual property to offshore subsidiaries, and delaying deductions for interest paid for overseas investments;

–Simplifying and cutting taxes for small businesses (not just for corporations) through a number of reforms, including a 100 percent expensing up to $1 million; cash accounting for businesses with gross receipts up to $5 million; enhanced deductions for startup expenses, and an enhanced Code Section 45R small employer health insurance tax credit; and

–Restoring fiscal responsibility and not add to the deficit through making reform revenue neutral, including a need to do so for whatever portion of the $250 billion in reoccurring extender tax benefits that Congress deems necessary to continue.

Individual tax reform

In unveiling this framework for business tax reform, Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner stated that individual tax reform does not necessarily need to be considered at the same time as business tax reform.  With individual tax reform clearly the most politically volatile component to total tax reform, most Washington observers believe that tax reform will follow a sequential route, with business tax reform going first.

Protection against taxpayer identity theft

The number of tax return-related identity theft incidents has almost doubled in the past three years to well over half a million reported during 2011, according to a recent report by the Treasury Inspector General for Tax Administration (TIGTA). Identity theft in the context of tax administration generally involves the fraudulent use of someone else’s identity in order to claim a tax refund. In other cases an identity thief might steal a person’s information to obtain a job, and the thief’s employer may report income to the IRS using the legitimate taxpayer’s Social Security Number, thus making it appear that the taxpayer did not report all of his or her income.

In light of these dangers, the IRS has taken numerous steps to combat identity theft and protect taxpayers. There are also measures that you can take to safeguard yourself against identity theft in the future and assist the IRS in the process.

IRS does not solicit financial information via email or social media

The IRS will never request a taxpayer’s personal or financial information by email or social media such as Facebook or Twitter. Likewise, the IRS will not alert taxpayers to an audit or tax refund by email or any other form of electronic communication, such as text messages and social media channels.

If you receive a scam email claiming to be from the IRS, forward it to the IRS at phishing@irs.gov. If you discover a website that claims to be the IRS but does not begin with ‘www.irs.gov’, forward that link to the IRS at phishing@irs.gov.

How identity thieves operate

Identity theft scams are not limited to users of email and social media tools. Scammers may also use a phone or fax to reach their victims to solicit personal information. Other means include:

-Stealing your wallet or purse
-Looking through your trash
-Accessing information you provide to an unsecured Internet site.

How do I know if I am a victim?

Your identity may have been stolen if a letter from the IRS indicates more than one tax return was filed for you or the letter states you received wages from an employer you don’t know. If you receive such a letter from the IRS, leading you to believe your identity has been stolen, respond immediately to the name, address or phone number on the IRS notice. If you believe the notice is not from the IRS, contact the IRS to determine if the letter is a legitimate IRS notice.

If your tax records are not currently affected by identity theft, but you believe you may be at risk due to a lost wallet, questionable credit card activity, or credit report, you need to provide the IRS with proof of your identity. You should submit a copy of your valid government-issued identification, such as a Social Security card, driver’s license or passport, along with a copy of a police report and/or a completed IRS Form 14039, Identity Theft Affidavit, which should be faxed to the IRS at 1-978-684-4542.

What should I do if someone has stolen my identity?

If you discover that someone has filed a tax return using your SSN you should contact the IRS to show the income is not yours. After the IRS authenticates who you are, your tax record will be updated to reflect only your information. The IRS will use this information to minimize future occurrences.

What other precautions can I take?

There are many things you can do to protect your identity. One is to be careful while distributing your personal information. You should show employers your Social Security card to your employer at the start of a job, but otherwise do not routinely carry your card or other documents that display your SSN.

Only use secure websites while making online financial transactions, including online shopping. Generally a secure website will have an icon, such as a lock, located in the lower right-hand corner of your web browser or the address bar of the website with read “https://…” rather than simply “http://.”

Never open suspicious attachments or links, even just to see what they say. Never respond to emails from unknown senders. Install anti-virus software, keep it updated, and run it regularly.

For taxpayers planning to e-file their tax returns, the IRS recommends use of a strong password. Afterwards, save the file to a CD or flash drive and keep it in a secure location. Then delete the personal return information from the computer hard drive.

Finally, if working with an accountant, query him or her on what measures they take to protect your information.

FAQ: Employer responsibility payments under the PPACA?

The Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (PPACA) introduced many new requirements for individuals and employers. One of the new requirements is an employer shared responsibility assessable payment.  At this time, there is little guidance for employers other than the language of the PPACA and some requests for comments from government agencies. The IRS, the U.S. Department of Labor (DOL) and the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) are developing guidance for employers.

Shared responsibility payment

The PPACA imposes a shared responsibility assessable payment on certain large employers (Code Sec. 4980H). The provisions about shared responsibility for large employers are among the most complex in the PPACA.

Generally, a large employer will be subject to an assessable payment if any full-time employee is certified to receive a premium assistance tax credit and either the employer does not offer full-time employees (and their dependents) the opportunity to enroll in minimum essential coverage under an employer plan (Code Sec. 4980H(a)) or the employer offers full-time employees (and their dependents) the opportunity to enroll in minimum essential coverage that either is unaffordable or does not provide minimum value (Code Sec. 4980H(b)).   The shared responsibility payment requirement is scheduled to be effective after 2013.

The PPACA describes how to calculate the shared responsibility payment.  The annual assessable payment under Code Sec. 4980H(a) is based on all (excluding the first 30) full-time employees. The annual assessable payment under Code Sec. 4980H(b) is based on the number of full-time employees who are certified to receive an advance payment of an applicable premium tax credit.

The shared responsibility payment requirement applies to “large” employers.  The PPACA describes a large employer as generally an employer that employed an average of at least 50 full-time employees on business days during the preceding calendar year.  The PPACA includes special rules for employers that employ seasonal workers.  The PPACA exempts small firms that have fewer than 50 full-time employees.

More guidance expected

In 2011, the IRS, DOL and HHS alerted employers that the agencies would be developing rules and regulations to implement the PPACA’s shared responsibility payment requirement.  The agencies also requested comments from employers and interested parties.

The IRS observed that the definitions of employer and employee are key in determining whether and, if so, to what extent, an employer may incur a shared responsibility payment.  The IRS indicated that it would likely define “employer” to mean the entity that is the employer of an employee under the common-law test.  Generally, employee would mean a worker who is an employee under the common-law test.  An employer’s status as a large employer would be based on the sum of full-time employees and full-time equivalent employees, the IRS noted.

Keep in mind that the IRS’s observations are just that at this time. The IRS has not issued proposed regulations.  It is unclear when proposed regulations may be released. Additionally, the Supreme Court has agreed to take up the PPACA and the Court could rule that all or part of the PPACA, including the employer shared responsibility payment, is unconstitutional.