Vernoia, Enterline + Brewer, CPA LLC

Archive for December, 2012

White House, Congress seek to avert “fiscal cliff”

All eyes are on Washington as the White House and the GOP seek to avoid the so-called “fiscal cliff” before the end of the year.  President Obama and House Republicans are negotiating the fate of the Bush-era tax cuts, mandatory spending cuts and more in the last weeks of 2012 and negotiations are expected to go right up to the end of the year.  At the same time, the IRS has cautioned that the start of the 2013 filing season could be delayed for many taxpayers because of late tax legislation.

Taxes and spending

Almost immediately after President Obama won re-election, Democrats and Republicans scrambled to stake out their positions over the fiscal cliff.  Unless the White House and the GOP reach an agreement, the Bush-era tax cuts will expire for all taxpayers after 2012 and across-the-board spending cuts will take effect.  Many popular but temporary tax incentives, known as tax extenders, expired after 2011, with many more scheduled to expire after 2012.  The alternative minimum tax (AMT), intended many years ago to apply to wealthy taxpayers, is on track to encroach on more middle income taxpayers because it is not indexed for inflation.  Also, the employee-side payroll tax cut is scheduled to expire after 2012.

Since winning a second term, President Obama has repeated that the Bush-era tax cuts should expire for higher income individuals after 2012.  The top two tax rates would rise to 36 percent and 39.6 percent after 2012. All of the remaining rates would be extended.  Tax rates on capital gains and dividends would also increase for higher income individuals. On the campaign trail, President Obama described higher income taxpayers as individuals with incomes above $200,000 and families with incomes above $200,000.

President Obama has talked about trimming $4 trillion from the federal budget deficit.  Approximately $1.6 trillion would come from increased taxes on higher income individuals.  To achieve a target of $1.6 trillion in tax revenue, the Bush-era tax cuts could not be extended for higher income individuals.  Other incentives for higher income individuals would likely be curtailed or possibly eliminated under the President’s plan. These include the personal exemption phaseout (PEP) and the Pease limitation on itemized deductions. President Obama may also re-propose his “Buffett Rule,” which, the President has explained, would ensure that individuals making over $1 million a year pay a minimum effective tax rate of at least 30 percent.

The GOP, its majority reduced in the House after the November elections, has offered few details about its plans to avoid the fiscal cliff.  House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, has indicated that the GOP may be open to raising revenue by closing tax loopholes and capping certain unspecified deductions for higher income individuals.  Revenue could also be raised by limiting or abolishing business tax deductions and credits.  Among the business tax incentives most often hinted at for elimination are ones for oil and gas producers. President Obama, however, has said that he will not support a deficit reduction plan that relies on closing undefined tax loopholes.

Possible scenarios

Looking ahead, several scenarios may play out before year-end.  President Obama and the GOP could agree on a tax and deficit reduction package that meets or comes close to the President’s targets.  President Obama and the GOP may agree to extend the Bush-era tax cuts and delay the spending cuts for three or six months to give everyone more time to negotiate a long-term deal.  On the other hand, both sides could fail to reach any agreement before year-end and the Bush-era tax cuts would expire as scheduled.  The spending cuts also would kick-in as scheduled.

Filing season

Whenever Congress changes the tax laws, the IRS has to reprogram its return processing systems.  Tax laws passed late in 2012 have the potential to delay the start of the 2013 filing season depending on how long it takes the IRS to reprogram its systems.

IRS officials have told Congress that they are preparing for late tax legislation, especially legislation on the AMT.  In past years, Congress has routinely “patched” the AMT to shield middle income taxpayers from its reach.  The IRS appears to be anticipating that Congress will patch the AMT for 2012.  If Congress does not, the IRS has warned that the start of the 2013 filing season could be delayed for as many as 60 million taxpayers.

The IRS also must reprogram its processing systems for the tax extenders.  These tax law changes generally do not require the level of reprogramming the AMT patch requires.  The IRS has predicted that any year-end extension of the extenders will be manageable.

Please contact our office at (908) 725-4414  if you have any questions about the tax and spending negotiations underway in Washington.

Additional 0.9% Medicare tax on wages starts January 1st

President Obama’s health care package enacted two new taxes that take effect January 1, 2013. One of these taxes is the additional 0.9 percent Medicare tax on earned income; the other is the 3.8 percent tax on net investment income. The 0.9 percent tax applies to individuals; it does not apply to corporations, trusts or estates. The 0.9 percent tax applies to wages, other compensation, and self-employment income that exceed specified thresholds.

Additional tax on higher-income earners

There is no cap on the application of the 0.9 percent tax. Thus, all earned income that exceeds the applicable thresholds is subject to the tax. The thresholds are $200,000 for a single individual; $250,000 for married couples filing a joint return; and $125,000 for married filing separately. The 0.9 percent tax applies to the combined earned income of a married couple. Thus, if the wife earns $220,000 and the husband earns $80,000, the tax applies to $50,000, the amount by which the combined income exceeds the $250,000 threshold for married couples.

The 0.9 percent tax applies on top of the existing 1.45 percent Hospital Insurance (HI) tax on earned income. Thus, for income above the applicable thresholds, a combined tax of 2.35 percent applies to the employee’s earned income. Because the employer also pays a 1.45 percent tax on earned income, the overall combined rate of Medicare taxes on earned income is 3.8 percent (thus coincidentally matching the new 3.8 percent tax on net investment income).

Passthrough treatment

For partners in a general partnership and shareholders in an S corporation, the tax applies to earned income that is paid as compensation to individuals holding an interest in the entity. Partnership income that passes through to a general partner is treated as self-employment income and is also subject to the tax, assuming the income exceeds the applicable thresholds. However, partnership income allocated to a limited partner is not treated as self-employment and would not be subject to the 0.9 percent tax. Furthermore, under current law, income that passes through to S corporation shareholders is not treated as earned income and would not be subject to the tax.

Withholding rules

Withholding of the additional 0.9 percent Medicare tax is imposed on an employer if an employee receives wages that exceed $200,000 for the year, whether or not the employee is married. The employer is not responsible for determining the employee’s marital status. The penalty for underpayment of estimated tax applies to the 0.9 percent tax. Thus, employees should realize that the employee may be responsible for estimated tax, even though the employer does not have to withhold.

Planning techniques

One planning device to minimize the tax  would be to accelerate earned income, such as a bonus, into 2012. Doing this would also avoid any increase in the income tax rates in 2013 from the sunsetting of the Bush tax rates. Holders of stock-based compensation may want to trigger recognition of the income in 2012, by exercising stock options or by making an election to recognize income on restricted stock.

Another planning device would be to set up an S corp, rather than a partnership, for operating a business, so that the income allocable to owners is not treated as earned income. An entity operating as a partnership could be converted to an S corp.

If you have any questions surrounding how the new 0.9 percent Medicare tax will affect the take home pay of you or your spouse, or how to handle withholding if you are a business owner, please contact this office at (908) 725-4414.

Bonuses and year-end tax planning

As the end of the calendar year approaches, taxpayers ordinarily prefer to minimize current-year income by deferring the inclusion of taxable income to the following year, while accelerating deductions to the current year. However, as many taxpayers are aware, individual income tax rates may increase in 2013, with the potential for dramatic increases for higher-income individuals (if not all individuals).

While it is unclear how many taxpayers will see tax increases in 2013, it is certain that rates will not be any lower than they are in 2012. Thus, some, if not all, individuals will have an incentive to accelerate income into 2012.

Annual bonuses for 2012

Employees earning annual bonuses for services performed in 2012 ordinarily would receive the bonus in 2013. And generally the employer would take the deduction in 2013. However, some employees may prefer to receive the bonus in 2012, to take advantage of the lower current tax rates. An employer may want to deduct the bonus in the earlier year, to reduce taxable income. The IRS recently issued Chief Counsel Advice (CCA 201246029) on the treatment of a bonus that illustrates some of the practical obstacles to accelerating bonus income.

A lesson learned

In the CCA, the employer awarded bonuses for the calendar year (the year of service) based on company performance. The total bonus amount accrued for financial accounting purposes at the end of the year. The bonuses were paid early in the following year, after the employer finalized the amounts, provided that the employee still worked for the company.

In Rev. Rul. 2011-29, the IRS determined that the employer can accrue liability, and take a deduction, for bonuses in the earlier year, where the employer can establish the fact of the liability for bonuses paid to a group of employees, even though the recipients’ identities and amounts payable were determined in the following year. In contrast, in the CCA, the IRS concluded that the taxpayer’s liability to pay bonuses was not fixed until the contingency was satisfied – the employee had to be still employed on the date of payment. Therefore, the bonuses were not deductible until the following year, when they were paid.

While the CCA does not discuss it, presumably if the employer paid the bonuses in the year of service (2012), they would be deductible in that same year. The employees would take the bonuses into income in 2012, when tax rates were lower. Furthermore, the income would avoid the new 0.9 percent additional Medicare tax on earned income, which takes effect in 2013.

Important timing exception

In the CCA, the timing was identical for the employer and the employee. Under Code Sec. 404, concerning deferred compensation, the employer may not deduct the bonus until the same time that the employee takes it into income. Under an exception, however,  if the employer pays the bonus in 2013 but within 2 ½ months after the end of 2012, an accrual basis taxpayer can deduct the payment in the current year, even though the employee would not include it in income until it is paid in 2013. This presumes that the bonuses are fixed at the end of 2012 and that the employer does not use a plan like the one described in the CCA.

FAQ: Should I convert to a Roth IRA before 2012 ends?

With 2013 bearing down on us, we hope you have a moment to spare from holiday preparation for some good old-fashioned year-end tax planning. By now you must be familiar with the term “fiscal cliff” and how the expiring provisions, tax rates, and budget appropriations may affect small business, big business, and politics in Washington, DC. However, the looming expiration dates for the Bush-era tax cuts and other tax provisions set to become effective in 2013 may also have consequences for how you save for retirement. This year we have advice for IRA account holders in particular:

Avoiding increased tax. If you have a traditional individual retirement account (IRA) and you are thinking about converting to a Roth so you can accumulate tax-free earnings, you might want to do it before the year ends. First, if you are in a high-income tax bracket, your taxes are likely to increase if the Bush-tax cuts expire. Converting from a traditional IRA to a Roth IRA creates a taxable event, and you may lose more money to the government by converting in 2013 than you would if you convert before 2012 ends.

Secondly, taxpayers whose projected 2013 adjusted gross income (AGI) will approach $250,000 (or $200,000 for single filers) may want to avoid converting their traditional IRA in 2013. The addition of their IRA assets to their AGI may push them within the income range limits for taxpayers subject to the 3.8 percent tax on net investment income that goes into effect in 2013.

Please note that the converted IRA assets would not themselves be subject to the 3.8 percent surtax. However the surtax would apply to any investment income the taxpayer has. Such investment income would include items such as (but not limited to) dividends, rents, royalties, interest, except municipal-bond interest, capital gains, and income from the sale of a principal residence worth more than the $250,000/$500,000 exclusions.

Undoing a conversion. You might be asking what would happen if you convert to a Roth IRA in 2012 and then Congress extends the current tax rates. In such cases, you would have until October 15, 2013 to undo the transaction. You could put the money back into your traditional IRA as if you had never converted in the first place. In other words, there would be no taxable event.

2010 conversion and deferral. Taxpayers who already converted their traditional IRA to a Roth IRA in 2010 were given a one-time privilege of deferring half of the income from the conversion to 2011 and the other half until 2012. If taxpayers elected to defer their IRA conversion income in this way, the 2012 tax year has arrived. They must report that second half of their conversion income on their 2012 tax returns. If you are a taxpayer who must report income from a previous Roth IRA conversion in 2012, it might not be in your best interest to generate additional income by converting yet another IRA before the year ends.

Contributions. The 2012 year-end will also bring several changes to the rules on IRA contributions, which may affect your planning. In 2013, the limits on maximum annual contributions to an IRA will go up from $5,000 to $5,500 ($6,500 for contributors age of 50 and over, up from $6,000 in 2012). This increase in contribution limits is the first time the IRS has adjusted the limit since 2008.

The adjusted gross income level at which taxpayers must begin to phase-out their contributions will also go up in 2013:

Income levels for a traditional IRA contribution
 

2013

2012

Singles

$59,000 to $69,000

$58,000 to $68,000

Married (filing jointly)*

$95,000 to $115,000

$92,000 to $112,000

Married (filing jointly)**

$178,000 to $188,000

$173,000 to $183,000

*If the spouse who makes the IRA contribution is covered by a workplace retirement plan.
**If the contributing spouse is not covered by a workplace retirement plan, but is married to a spouse who is covered.

 

Income levels for a Roth IRA contribution

 

2013

2012

Singles $112,000 to $127,000 $110,000 to $125,000
Married (filing jointly) $178,000 to $188,000 $173,000 to $183,000

However, tax planners should note that the deadline for making IRA contributions for the 2012 tax year remains unchanged. You still have until your filing date, which is April 15, 2013, to make contributions for 2012.

Low interest rates as a tax advantage

Certain planning techniques involve the use of interest rates to value interests being transferred to charity or to private beneficiaries. While the use of these techniques does not necessarily depend on the interest rate, low interest rates may increase their value.

Taxpayers can obtain a deduction by giving a partial interest in property to a charity, using a trust. Two types of trusts for this purpose are charitable lead trusts and charitable remainder trusts. In a charitable lead trust, the taxpayer funding the trust gives an income interest to charity and the remainder interest to a family member or other preferred beneficiary. In a charitable remainder trust, an individual receives trust income and a charity is entitled to the remainder interest.

AFRs

The IRS’s applicable federal rate (AFR) is used to value these different interests in trusts. Right now, AFRs are relatively low. For example, for December 2012, the AFR for determining the present value of an annuity, an interest for life or a term of years, or a remainder or reversionary interest is only 1.2 percent, a very low rate.

CLTs

When AFRs are low, certain transfer mechanisms become even more useful. In a charitable lead trust (CLT), a low AFR increases the present value of the charity’s income interest. This increases the value of the charitable deduction for the income interest, and reduces the value of the remainder interest passing to private individuals. (For a charitable remainder trust, the same mechanism increases the present value of the individual beneficiary’s income interest, and reduces the value of the remainder interest going to charity.)

PRTs

Another device is a personal residence trust (PRT), where the grantor retains the right to live in the house, instead of receiving income payments, and gives the remainder interest in the property to charity. This provides a current charitable deduction. The amount of the charitable contribution is the fair market value of the property, discounted by the AFR. The lower the AFR, the higher is the value of the remainder interest, and the greater the charitable deduction.

A PRT can also be used to give the remainder interest to a family member or other individual. In this case, the transfer of the remainder interest is subject to gift tax. The lower the AFR, the greater is the value of the remainder interest, and the greater the gift tax.

Loans to family members

Another situation in which low interest rates can work to a taxpayer’s advantage is a loan between family members. For the loan to be bona fide, interest generally must be charged on the loan. However, the lower the AFR, the lower will be the market rate for interest that has to be charged to the borrower. If the interest rate is too low, the IRS may impute a higher rate of interest on the loan, which could result in a gift of the foregone interest to the borrower. Again, when the AFR is low, the lender can make a loan at a lower interest rate.

If you are interested in exploring further how any of the above-mentioned planning techniques can benefit your tax situation especially while interest rates remain low, please do not hesitate to contact this office at (908) 725-4414.