Vernoia, Enterline + Brewer, CPA LLC

Archive for November, 2012

Year-end tax planning moves forward with or without Congress

The fate of many of the tax incentives taxpayers have grown accustomed to over recent years will likely remain up in the air until Congress and the Administration finally face off weeks before year-end 2012. While the results of Election Day will have bearing on the outcome, no crystal ball can predict how the ultimate short-term compromise will unfold. As a result, some year-end tax planning must be deferred and executed ”at the eleventh hour” only after Congress passes and the President signs what will likely result in a stopgap, temporary compromise for 2013. Tax rates for higher-bracket individuals and a long list of “extenders” provisions such as the child tax credit, the enhanced education credits and the optional deduction for state and local sales tax, hang in the balance. Real tax reform for 2014 and beyond, in any event, won’t be hammered out until 2013 is well underway.

Traditional Planning for Individuals

2012 year-end legislation clearly plays a major role in 2012 year-end tax planning for many taxpayer. Nevertheless, traditional year-end tax planning should not be overlooked in the meantime. In many cases, attention to traditional considerations, now, will prove more important to a majority of taxpayers’ bottom line. Here is a checklist of some traditional year-end planning considerations not to be overlooked:

  • Changes in filing status: marriage, divorce, death of a spouse, or a change in head-of-household status during 2012 (or anticipated for 2013) will impact on your tax bracket and bottom line tax liability. Anticipate the additional expense or lower tax bill that a change in filing status may bring.
  • Birth of a child, adoption, combined families through re-marriage, and even the ages of children in 2012 and 2013 can matter to year-end tax planning. Dependency exemptions in some instances depend upon the amount of support provided within the tax year. The ability to take advantage of the child tax credit, the child-care credit, the earned income credit, application of the kiddie tax, and the ability to be covered under a parent’s health insurance under the new health care law in part hinges upon how a “child” is defined within certain age limits (varying from under age 13, to under age 17, 19, 24 or 26, depending upon the provision).
  • Retirement and semi-retirement is also a major event for tax purposes for which first-year “required minimum distributions” from retirement savings must be calculated and made. Also an important year-end consideration for the newly retired is facing what is typically an entirely new matrix of investment income considerations focused on “smoothing” the amount of income and deductions among several years to achieve maximum tax results.
  • Timing the recognition of capital gains and losses is important, in particular to maximize offsetting short-term gains (that are tax at ordinary income rates) with short-term losses. Also especially relevant to 2012 year-end timing of capital gains and losses is the introduction of a 3.8 percent Medicare contributions tax that will be assessed on excess net investment income starting in 2013.
  • Projecting available itemized deductions for 2012, then controlling whether a better tax result might take place by deferring or accelerating some of those deductions, is frequently important. Some taxpayers who are close to the amount of their standard deduction amount may want to load deductions into a single year, say 2013, so they have enough to itemize deductions for that year, while still be entitled to the maximum amount of their standard deduction into an adjacent year (2012 in our example). Other taxpayers need to be aware of alternative minimum tax (AMT) exposure in which many deductions become cut back or eliminated.
  • Unusual expenses that may generate an atypical deduction or credit, such as emergency medical expenses, moving expenses, or unemployment and job-search expenses, may need special attention. In connection with medical expenses, and particularly relevant to 2012 year-end planning, is the increase in the floor on deductible medical expenses from 7.5 percent adjusted gross income (AGI) in 2012 to 10 percent AGI in 2013 (7.5 percent for those who reach 65 years of age by the close of the tax year).
  • Gift giving, both charitable and for estate planning purposes, usually reaches a high point at year end and for good reason. In addition to better knowing what assets remain available for gifting (or what income needs offsetting with a charitable deduction), certain tax benefits cannot be accumulated but must be used or lost each year. For example, the $13,000 annual gift tax exclusion per recipient cannot be carried over and used in addition to the $14,000 gift tax exclusion that will be available in 2013. A gift of $13,000 on December 31, 2012 and a $14,000 gift on January 1, 2013, for example, amount to a $27,000 tax-free gift; while a $27,000 gift all on January 1, 2013 will subject $13,000 of that gift to potential gift tax. A charitable gift can frequently require the same timing finesse, for example, if donors find themselves in a higher tax bracket in a particular year or not being able to otherwise itemize deductions.

Traditional Planning for Businesses

Businesses also face some traditional strategic decisions that often can only be made at year-end:

  • Capital purchases that qualify for accelerated depreciation, bonus depreciation or so-called Section 179 expensing should be timed to fall into the current or the upcoming year, as the overall profit and loss of a business dictates. “Placed in service” requirements in addition to timing the purchase of equipment also apply to maximizing tax benefits.
  • Determination of whether a business is on the cash or accrual method of accounting for tax purposes is also critical to year-end business strategies. Businesses using the cash basis method of accounting recognize and report income when the business actually or constructively receives cash or its equivalent; for accrual-basis taxpayers, generally the right to receive income, rather than actual receipt, determines the year of inclusion of income.
  • Compensation and shareholder or partner distributions from a business, and drawing the often fine line between the two, can make a considerable difference to a business owner’s overall tax liability for the year. Differences often hinge upon whether self-employment tax is paid, or whether a distribution is taxed as ordinary income or at the capital gains rate.
  • Determining the difference between ordinary business activities and passive activities before implementing a year-end strategy also just makes good sense. Rental income or losses, and other passive activity gains and losses, must be netted separately from business gains and losses. Year-end timing for one does not necessarily help control your bottom-line tax cost on the other.

Please contact us at (908) 725-4414 if you have any questions about how traditional year-end planning might benefit your bottom line. Once Congress acts on year-end tax legislation this year, we also suggest that most taxpayers consider what steps may then be taken before the 2012 tax year closes to mitigate against any unfavorable new tax provisions.

Steps to qualify for bonus depreciation before year-end 2012

The tax code provides for 50 percent first-year bonus depreciation for 2012. If property qualifies for bonus depreciation, the taxpayer can deduct 50 percent of the cost of the property in 2012. This can help a business bear the cost of investing in needed equipment, as well as facilitate cash flow and provide operating funds for the business. It is not too late to qualify for 50-percent bonus depreciation for 2012.

In 2011, bonus depreciation was 100 percent. There have been proposals to reinstate 100 percent bonus depreciation for 2012, but they have not been acted on. For 2012, 50 percent bonus depreciation is available. It expires at the end of 2012 and is not available for 2013. (Note that certain longer production-period property and transportation property still qualifies for 100 percent bonus depreciation if it is acquired and placed in service during 2012.)

Qualified property must be depreciable under the Modified Accelerated Cost Recovery System (MACRS) and have a recovery period of 20 years or less. Qualified property also includes computer software, water utility property, and qualified leasehold improvement property. The property generally has to be depreciable under MACRS; thus, intangible assets amortized over 15 years do not qualify for bonus depreciation.

There are other requirements for taking 50-percent bonus depreciation in 2012. The original use of the property must begin with the taxpayer. The property must be new, must be acquired before January 1, 2013 (title must pass), and must be placed in service before January 1, 2013. Being placed in service requires that the property be installed and ready for use in the business. The property must be 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 the trade or business.

The original use is the first use to which the property is put. That, if a taxpayer purchases used property from another business, the property will not qualify for bonus depreciation. However, if the taxpayer makes additional expenditures to recondition or rebuild acquired property, these expenses can satisfy the original use requirement. A person who acquires new property for personal use and then converts it to business use is still considered the original user of the property.

The acquisition date rules require that there not be a written binding contract in effort before January 1, 2008 to acquire the property. Property can qualify if the taxpayer entered into a written binding contract for its acquisition after December 31, 2007 and before January 1, 2013. Self-manufactured property can qualify if the taxpayer begins manufacturing, constructing or producing the property before January 1, 2013. Property is deemed acquired when reduced to physical possession or control. Regardless of the manner of acquisition, the property must be placed in service before January 1, 2013.

If the business does not have profits in the current year, it can use the bonus depreciation deduction to create a net operating loss, which can then be carried back (or forward) to a profitable year and generate a refund. However, bonus depreciation is not mandatory. Taxpayers may choose to elect out of bonus depreciation, so that they can spread depreciation deductions more evenly over future years.

If you need further assistance in arranging any capital purchases for your business to qualify for bonus depreciation before it sunsets at the end of 2012, please contact this office at (908) 725-4414.

Retirement loans as ready cash—the pros and cons

Although it is generally not considered prudent to withdraw funds from a retirement savings account until retirement, sometimes it may appear that life leaves no other option. However, borrowing from certain qualified retirement savings account rather than taking an outright distribution might prove the best solution to getting you through a difficult period. If borrowing from a 401(k) plan or other retirement savings plan becomes necessary, for example to pay emergency medical expenses or for a replacement vehicle essential to getting to work, you should be aware that there is a right way and a number of wrong ways to go about it.

When a plan loan is not a taxable distribution

In general, a loan from a qualified employer plan, such as a 401(a) or 401(k) account, must be treated as a taxable distribution unless you can meet certain requirements with respect to amount, repayment period, and repayment method.

First, however, the terms of the employer-plan must allow for plan loans. Due to administrative costs and other considerations, plan loans are made optional for employer plans. If permitted, however, loans must be made available to all employees.

A loan to a participant or beneficiary is generally not treated as a taxable distribution if:

  • The loan is evidenced by a legally enforceable written agreement that specifies the amount and term of the loan and the repayment schedule;
  • The amount of the loan does not exceed $50,000 or half of the participant’s vested accrued benefit under the plan (whichever is less);
  • The loan, by its terms, requires repayment within five years, except for certain home loans; and
  • The loan is amortized in level installments over the term of the loan.

Plan loans may be made only from employer-based plans. Individual retirement accounts (IRAs) cannot be used as collateral for a loan, nor can a direct loan be made from the IRA to the account holder.

Calculating the amount of the plan loan

In addition to the $50,000 or 50-percent vested benefit rule, several other provisions apply to the amount of the plan loan. First, a plan participant may take out a loan of up to $10,000, even if that $10,000 is more than one-half of the present value of his vested accrued benefit. Second, if a plan participant decides to take out another plan loan, the new maximum amount of the total plan loans will be determined by the following method:

($50,000 − (highest outstanding loan balance during the preceding 12-month period − outstanding balance on the date of the new loan)) = new plan loan maximum.

That new plan maximum must be reduced further by any outstanding loan balance.

Repayment period

Participants must repay a loan within five years. There is one exception, however, for a loan used to make a purchase of a first-time home that is a principal residence. The loan term may then be as long as 30 years.

If a participant defaults on a loan payment, the entire principal may become due under the terms of the plan. In addition, most plan terms require that you repay the loan within 60 days if you leave or lose your job. If you cannot repay at that time, the balance of the loan is usually considered a taxable distribution deducted from your remaining retirement plan account balance. That deemed distribution may also incur a 10 percent early distribution penalty.

Repayment method

Loan repayments must be made at least every quarter, and are generally deducted automatically from a participant’s paycheck. Defaulting on a loan causes the IRS to treat the entire outstanding loan balance as a premature (and therefore a taxable) distribution from the employer plan. A deemed distribution occurs at the time of the failure to pay an installment, but the plan administrator can allow a grace period. The deemed distribution then becomes subject to both income tax and the 10-percent early withdrawal penalty.

There are benefits to borrowing from an employer retirement plan, such as providing a ready-made source of credit and the benefit of returning interest paid back into the plan account rather than into the pockets of a third-party lender. There are also many drawbacks to taking out a plan loan. To learn more, please contact our offices at (908) 725-4414.

How do I? Compute deductible investment expenses

Deductible investment expenses fall into three basic categories:

(1)  Expenses that are directly deductible against particular items of income, without reduction;
(2)  Expenses of producing income that are taken as miscellaneous itemized deductions; and
(3)  Investment interest expense.

The first category applies to rent and royalty income. Expenses attributable to rents and royalties may be deducted in full from gross income in computing adjusted gross income. The expenses are allowed whether or not the taxpayer itemizes deductions. Rental and royalty income and deductions are reported on Schedule E, Supplemental Income and Loss. The totals are then carried over to Form 1040, line 17 (note: references to particular line numbers in this article are to the 2011 Form 1040 since the IRS is not expected to release 2012 Form 1040 until late December, after Congress acts on 2012 legislation).

This first category also applies to direct costs from purchasing and selling stock (e.g. sales commissions) that are included in cost basis or deducted from amounts realized.

The second category applies to a host of expenses that may be related to investments and financial activities but do not necessarily relate to a particular investment. These expenses can be deducted as ordinary and necessary expenses incurred either for the production of income, or for the management, conservation, or maintenance of property held for the production of income. Examples include expenses for investment counsel, investment advice and management, custodial fees, office rent, clerical help, travel to broker’s offices and investment sites, bank fees and safe deposit box rentals, fees for IRAs, and subscriptions to investment-related publications.

This second category is included in miscellaneous itemized deductions on line 23 (other expenses) of Form 1040, Schedule A, Itemized Deductions (2011 form). Miscellaneous itemized deductions, together with unreimbursed job expenses and tax preparation fees, are only deductible to the extent their total exceeds two percent of adjusted gross income (line 38 of 2011 Form 1040). Most taxpayers will only choose to report their itemized deductions if they exceed the standard deduction, which for 2011 is $11,600, married filing jointly and qualified widow or widower; $8,500, head of household; and $5,800, single taxpayers or married filing jointly.

The third category is investment interest expense. Money borrowed to buy property that is held for investment is investment interest. The deduction is limited to net investment income, determined after deducting investment expenses, such as depreciation, that are directly connected with the production of the investment income. The deductible amount is calculated on Form 4952, Investment Interest Expense Deduction, and carried over to Line 14 (Interest You Paid) of Schedule A.

Taxpayers cannot deduct interest incurred to produce tax-exempt income. Investment interest does not include home mortgage interest or interest taken into account in computing income or loss from a passive activity.

As you can see, the deduction of investment expenses can be complex.  Timing these expenses to align themselves with more comprehensive strategies, such as at year end, can create additional issues.  If you have questions about the treatment of these expenses, please contact our office at (908) 725-4414

FAQ: Are donations of used vehicles still fully deductible?

In recent years, the IRS has been cracking down on abuses of the tax deduction for donations to charity and contributions of used vehicles have been especially scrutinized. The charitable contribution rules, however, are far from being easy to understand. Many taxpayers genuinely are confused by the rules and unintentionally value their contributions to charity at amounts higher than appropriate.

Vehicle donations

According to the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT), there are approximately 250 million registered passenger motor vehicles in the United States. The U.S. is the largest passenger vehicle market in the world.  Potentially, each one of these vehicles could be a charitable donation and that is why the IRS takes such a sharp look at contributions of used vehicles and claims for tax deductions. The possibility for abuse of the charitable contribution rules is large.

Bona fide charities

Before looking at the tax rules, there is an important starting point.  To claim a tax deduction, your contribution must be to a bona fide charitable organization. Only certain categories of exempt organizations are eligible to receive tax-deductible charitable contributions.

Many charitable organizations are so-called “501(c)(3)” organizations (named after the section of the Tax Code that governs charities. The IRS maintains a list of qualified Code Sec. 501(c)(3) organizations. Not all charitable organizations are Code Sec. 501(c)(3)s. Churches, synagogues, temples, and mosques, for example, are not required to file for Code Sec. 501(c)(3) status. Special rules also apply to fraternal organizations, volunteer fire departments and veterans organizations. If you have any questions about a charitable organization, please contact our office.

Tax rules

In past years, many taxpayers would value the amount of their used vehicle donation based on information in a buyer’s guide. Today, the value of your used vehicle donation depends on what the charitable organization does with the vehicle.

In many cases, the charitable organization will sell your used vehicle. If the charity sells the vehicle, your tax deduction is limited to the gross proceeds that the charity receives from the sale. The charitable organization must certify that the vehicle was sold in an arm’s length transaction between unrelated parties and identify the date the vehicle was sold by the charity and the amount of the gross proceeds.

There are exceptions to the rule that your tax deduction is limited to the gross proceeds that the charity receives from the sale of your used vehicle. You may be able to deduct the vehicle’s fair market value if the charity intends to make a significant intervening use of the vehicle, a material improvement to the vehicle, or give or sell the vehicle to a qualified needy individual. If you have any questions about what a charity intends to do with your vehicle, please contact our office.

Written acknowledgment

The charitable organization must give you a written acknowledgment of your used vehicle donation. The rules differ depending on the amount of your donation.  If you claim a deduction of more than $500 but not more than $5,000 for your vehicle donation, the written acknowledgment from the charity must:

  • Identify the charity’s name, the date and location of the donation
  • Describe the vehicle
  • Include a statement as to whether the charity provided any goods or services in return for the car other than intangible religious benefits and, if so, a description and good faith estimate of the value of the goods and services
  • Identify your name and taxpayer identification number
  • Provide the vehicle identification number

The written acknowledgement generally must be provided to you within 30 days of the sale of the vehicle.  Alternatively, the charitable organization may in certain cases, provide you a completed Form 1098-C, Contributions of Motor Vehicles, Boats, and Airplanes, that contains the same information.

The written acknowledgment requirements for claiming a deduction under $500 or over $5,000 are similar to the ones described above but there are some differences. For example, if your deduction is expected to be more than $5,000 and not limited to the gross proceeds from the sale of your used vehicle, you must obtain a written appraisal of the vehicle. Our office can help guide you through the many steps of donating a vehicle valued at more than $5,000.

If you are planning to donate a used vehicle, please contact our office and we can discuss the tax rules in more detail.