Vernoia, Enterline + Brewer, CPA LLC

Archive for December, 2013

FAQs: How do I time a year-end stock sale?

Stock held by an investor is a capital asset under the tax law. Gain from the sale of stock held for more than a year qualifies as long-term capital gain, taxed at a reduced rate (zero, 15 or 20 percent) compared to the rates that apply to ordinary income. To achieve these favorable rates, investors generally want to hold their stock for more than a year. (Note: Depending on economic conditions, an investor may decide it is better to lock-in gains by selling the stock, even if the holding period is one year or less and the gains would be short-term.)

Trade Date

A transfer of stock traded on an exchange involves a trade date and a settlement date. Stock is considered purchased or sold for tax purposes on its trade date, when the trade is made, rather than on its settlement date, when the stock is delivered and payment is made. There is a gap between the trade date and the settlement date, with the trade date coming first. Conversely, if an investor wants to realize a loss in the current year from a sale of stock, the investor must ensure that the trade date is on or before December 31.

Holding Period

The stock’s holding period is based on the trade date. The holding period actually begins on the day after the trade date and includes the day it is disposed of. The settlement date is not relevant when computing the holding period. The holding period is measured in calendar months, not days; thus, one month has elapsed on the same date of the succeeding month as the date of purchase, regardless of the number of days in the month.

Example. Benny buys stock on December 16, 2012 and sells the stock on December 16, 2013. Benny has held the stock for exactly one year; any gain will be short-term capital gain. The fact that the settlement date is not until December 20 does not lengthen the holding period. If Benny instead sells the stock on December 17, 2013, he will have held the stock for more than a year (one year and one day); any gain will be long-term capital gain.

For nonpublicly traded stock, the holding period begins with the receipt of title, and ends on the day of transfer, not the contract date.

Identification of Stock Sold

When the same stock is acquired on different dates, the first stock purchased is considered to be the first stock sold, unless the taxpayer can specifically identify the stock being sold. Securities left in the custody of a broker are adequately identified when the specific securities to be sold are indicated to the broker, and a written confirmation of the identification is received within a reasonable time. This identification process can also apply to stock issued without certificates. Stock acquired at different times (and usually at different prices) can be treated as different lots; the seller can identify the specific lot being sold.

Broker Reporting

Brokers report stock sales on Form 1099-B, Proceeds From Broker and Barter Exchange Transactions. For corporate stock purchased in or after 2011, brokers must report not only the sales proceeds but the dates of acquisition and sale, the type of gain or loss, and the cost or other basis.

Brokers must provide this information to their customers by February 15 of the succeeding year. Taxpayers should check the basis reported by the broker and should contact their broker immediately if they feel that the information is incorrect. The broker can issue a corrected Form 1099-B. If the broker reports an incorrect basis, and the taxpayer is not able to get it corrected, the taxpayer may have to go through the expense of substantiating the basis to the IRS.

How do I? deduct year-end bonuses in the current year

Taxpayers generally prefer to accelerate deductions to reduce their current year income and taxes. In some situations, the tax code’s accounting rules allow an accrual-basis employer to deduct a year-end employee bonus in the current year, even though the bonus will not be paid until the following year. A recent IRS Chief Counsel memorandum (FAA 20134301F) highlights some of the pitfalls that can affect when bonus compensation is deductible.

Accrual Method

Under the accrual-method of accounting (in contrast to the cash-method of accounting), a liability is incurred, and can be deducted, in the year in which:

  1. All the events have occurred that establish the fact of the liability;
  2. The amount of the liability can be determined with reasonable accuracy; and
  3. Economic performance has occurred.

The first factor, the all-events test, is met when the event fixing the liability occurs and payment is unconditionally due. Although an expense may be deductible before it is payable, liability must be firmly established. The “fact of liability” depends on whether legal rights or obligations exist as of the close of the year, not the probability that the rights will arise in the future.

Bonus Plans

An employer may establish an arrangement or plan that will pay a bonus to its employees in the succeeding year, based on an evaluation of current year performance. Performance could be determined by objective factors, such as numerical goals set for the company or the employee. These bonuses may be deductible in the earlier year even though the employee, who must figure taxes on the cash method, won’t need to recognize the income until it is paid. Or performance may be based on more subjective factors, such as an individual performance appraisal or the employer’s discretion. These bonuses may be deductible in the later year. The requirements for awarding the bonus must be scrutinized, to determine when the liability becomes certain.

Is the liability deductible?

The IRS has stated that a bonus can be deducted in the current year if, under a bonus plan, the employee is notified in the current year the employee will receive a bonus, even though the bonus is not calculated or paid until the following year. An employer’s bonus liability that is ascertainable by a fixed standard, such as a percentage of profits at the close of the year, accrues and is deductible in the current year even though the computations are not made until the following year.

A bonus is not deductible prior to payment if an employee must remain employed until the time of payment, and if a forfeited bonus reverts to the employer. However, even if an employee must be employed until paid, the IRS has ruled that a bonus is deductible under a pooled arrangement providing that any forfeited bonuses are reallocated to the employees as a group, where the minimum amount payable to the group is determinable through a fixed formula at the end of the year or by board action before the end of the year.

Employers may be denied a deduction in the current year if there are uncertainties or conditions on payment. As stated above, a condition that the employee must remain with the company until payment prevents accrual before the payment. A deduction is not available if the payment is subject to significant contingencies involving corporate affairs, such as approval by the board, or a requirement that the company attain a particular cash position. If there is no set formula, and bonuses will not be determined until after the close of the year, the bonuses do not accrue until the later year.

In the IRS memorandum, Chief Counsel determined that a bonus could not be accrued in the earlier year in the following situations:

  1. The employer retained the right to unilaterally modify or eliminate the bonus plan or the bonuses themselves at any time, in its discretion. The employer had no legal obligation to pay the bonus until it was actually paid.
  2. The plan requires a committee of the board of directors to act in the following year to approve the bonus computation and the payment of bonuses. There is no legal obligation because the committee must approve the bonuses, and that approval is not automatic.
  3. The bonus depends not only on objective formulas but also on the employee’s individual performance score, based on appraisals that are not performed until after the end of the year.

There is a tension between the employer’s desire to accelerate the deduction and its desire to retain maximum control over the payment of bonuses. An employer that wants to deduct the bonuses in an earlier year must be willing to relinquish some of its discretion to determine the bonus.

IRS latest business audit strategy includes Fast Track, new IDR processes

The IRS has made several changes to its examination (aka, “audit”) functions that are designed to expedite the process and relieve some burden on business taxpayers. These include the expansion of the Fast Track Settlement (FTS) program for small business, self-employed (SB/SE) taxpayers and a new process for issuing information document requests (IDRs) in large case audits.

Fast Track Settlement

The IRS launched the FTS program in 2005 to help small business taxpayers expedite case resolution. Small business FTS is modeled on a similar program for taxpayers in the IRS Large Business and International (LB&I) Division.

The goal of small business FTS is to complete cases within 60 days of their acceptance into the program. Under FTS, taxpayers under examination with issues in dispute work directly with IRS representatives from SB/SE’s Examination Division and Appeals to resolve those issues. An Appeals Officer, trained in mediation, serves as a neutral party and employs dispute resolution techniques to facilitate settlement between the parties.

Application. To request to participate in small business FTS, the taxpayer and the SB/SE Group Manager submit Form 14017, Application for Fast Track Settlement. The taxpayer or the IRS examination representative may initiate Fast Track for eligible cases, usually before a 30-day letter is issued.

If the case is accepted and an agreement is reached, the IRS will use established issue or case closing procedures and applicable agreement forms, including preparation of a Form 906 specific matters closing agreement, if appropriate. If the case is not accepted the IRS explained that SB/SE or Appeals will inform the taxpayer of the basis for this decision and discuss other dispute resolution opportunities.

Qualifying issues. Small business FTS is generally available if:

  • Issues are fully developed;
  • The taxpayer has stated a position in writing or filed a small case request for cases in which the total amount for any tax period is less than $25,000; and
  • There are a limited number of unagreed issues.

Small business FTS is unavailable for Collection Appeals Program, Collection Due Process, Offer-In-Compromise and Trust Fund Recovery cases, except as provided in any guidance issued by the IRS; correspondence examination cases worked solely in a Campus/Service Center site; and cases in which the taxpayer has failed to respond to IRS communications.

Information Document Requests

The IRS Large Business & International (LB&I) Division has issued a new directive (LB&I-04-1113-009) that expands on an earlier directive from in June (LB&I-04-0613-004) by itemizing the requirements for IRS agents preparing information document requests (IDRs). The new directive also outlines the mandatory three-part enforcement process for taxpayers that do not timely respond to an IDR. While IDRs are common for large business taxpayers, the IRS also uses them in auditing certain small business issues.

June directive. The original June 2013 directive set forth general principles and several mandatory actions that examiners must take while issuing IDRs. These principles are reiterated in the November directive.

The June directive also provided that IDRs issued after June 30, 2013 must comply with these principles. In particular, the IRS reported that the mandatory training emphasized that employees must focus their IDRs on specific issues relevant to the exam. IRS employees are required to discuss the IDRs and issues with the taxpayer, as well as what would be an appropriate deadline for the response to the request. The deadline must fall within a “reasonable timeframe” and be “mutually agreed upon.” If the examiner does not receive a response by this date, and the IDR otherwise met the requirements listed under the directive, the case will proceed into the enforcement process outlined in the new directive from November 2013.

November directive. If a taxpayer does not respond to the IRS by the date indicated in the IDR, the case must proceed to the graduated, three-step enforcement process outlined in Attachment 2 of the November directive. This process, assuming the taxpayer could not respond to the IDRs by the dates specified at each step, would involve first a delinquency notice, then a pre-summons letter, and finally a summons.

The IRS has recently promoted the revised IDR enforcement process as a “win-win” for both the IRS and taxpayers. However, some practitioners have expressed concerns that the rigid deadlines in the new enforcement process will have the opposite effect and result in more summonses being issued. Practitioners recommend that taxpayers proactively involve themselves in the initial IDR process to ensure that the IDR, once issued, provides them with enough time to supply the requested information.

If you have questions relating to the IRS’s new FTS or IDR programs, please contact our offices at (908) 725-4414.

Grace period option in (FSA) health flexible spending plans

Health flexible spending arrangements (health FSAs) are popular savings vehicles for medical expenses, but their use has been held back by a strict use-or-lose rule. The IRS recently announced a significant change to encourage more employers to offer health FSAs and boost enrollment. At the plan sponsor’s option, employees participating in health FSAs will be able to carry over, instead of forfeiting, up to $500 of unused funds remaining at year-end.

Health expenses

Health FSAs are designed to reimburse participants for certain health care expenditures, typically expenses that qualify for the medical and dental expense deduction. Medical supplies, such as eye glasses and bandages, are usually treated as qualified expenses. However, nonprescription medicines (other than insulin) are not considered qualified medical expenses.

Health FSAs are often funded through voluntary salary reduction agreements with the participant’s employer under a cafeteria plan. In that case, they are very taxpayer-friendly because no federal employment or federal income taxes are deducted from the employee’s contribution. The employer may also contribute to a health FSA. However, there are special rules which govern employer contributions.

Typically, participants designate at the beginning of the year the amount they want to contribute to their health FSA and these amounts are deducted from their pay. For 2014, an employee’s salary reduction contributions cannot exceed $2,500. The $2,500 cap is very important because cafeteria plans that do not limit health FSA contributions to $2,500 are not treated as cafeteria plans, and all benefits offered under the plan are included in the participants’ gross income.

Use-or-lose rule

As mentioned, the use-or-lose rule is a drawback to health FSAs. Unused amounts remaining in the health FSA at year-end are forfeited. Employers are not allowed to refund any unused funds in a health FSA. Critics of the use-or-lose rule argue that it has discouraged participation in health FSAs because many employees do not want to risk forfeiting unused funds. Often, participants have to scramble at year-end to use their health FSA dollars

Grace period option

A few years ago, the IRS modified the use-or-lose rule. The IRS allowed cafeteria plans to adopt a grace period. Participants can use amounts remaining in a health FSA at year-end for up to an additional two months and 15 days. This grace period is optional. Employers are not required to offer the grace period, although many do.

Carryover option

At its option, an employer may now amend its cafeteria plan to provide for the carryover to the immediately following year of up to $500 of any amount remaining unused as of the end of the year in a health FSA. The carryover of up to $500 may be used to pay or reimburse qualified expenses under the health FSA incurred during the entire plan year to which it is carried over. Additionally, the carryover does not count against or otherwise affect the salary reduction limit ($2,500 for 2014) for health FSAs. However, the new rules do not allow participants to cash out unused health FSA amounts or convert them to other types of benefits.

The maximum carryover amount is $500. An employer can choose to offer a $0 carryover, a $500 carryover or any amount in between. As we discussed, the carryover is optional. Employers can choose not to offer any carryover.

Employers cannot offer both the grace period and the carryover. It is a choice of either the grace period or the carryover….or neither. The employer and not the participant decides. In regulations, the IRS described how employers can amend their cafeteria plans to provide for the carryover and how they can, if they choose, replace the grace period with the carryover.

Let’s take a look at an example: Jacob participates in a health FSA under his employer’s cafeteria plan. At year-end, Jacob has $255 remaining in his health FSA. Jacob’s employer never offered a grace period but opted to allow participants to carry over up to $300 of unused health FSA dollars. Jacob can carry over all of his $255 in unused health FSA dollars.

If you have any questions about the new carryover option or health FSAs, please contact our office at (908) 725-4414.

Year-end developments impact 2014 filing season

Tax season is scheduled to begin shortly and, as in past years, there are some possible glitches to be mindful of. Already, the IRS has alerted taxpayers that the start of filing season will be delayed. Late tax legislation, although unlikely, could result in a further delay. Some new requirements under the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act have been waived for 2014, but others have not. The IRS also is facing the prospect of another government shutdown in January.

Filing season

In recent years, the IRS has had to delay the start of the filing season to reprogram its return processing systems for changes in the tax laws. The 2014 filing season will also be delayed but not, as of today, because of new tax laws. The IRS operated with minimal staffing during the 16-day government shutdown in October and fell behind in its scheduled maintenance and programming of its return processing systems because employees were furloughed. At this time, the IRS expects the 2014 filing season to be delayed for possibly two weeks.

Before the shutdown, the IRS had anticipated opening the 2014 filing season on January 21, 2014. With a one- to two-week delay, the IRS would start accepting and processing returns no earlier than January 28, 2014 and no later than February 4, 2014. Individuals who file early in anticipation of receiving a refund will likely see their refunds delayed. The IRS is expected to make a final determination on the start date of the 2014 filing season in mid-December. Our office will keep you posted of developments.

Taxpayers are also waiting on some important final forms for the 2014 filing season, including Form 8960, Net Investment Income Tax. The Affordable Care Act created the new 3.8 tax on qualified net investment income, effective January 1, 2013. Additionally, the IRS has indicated that more guidance will be available for married same-sex couples. Since publication of the IRS’s initial guidance, questions have surfaced concerning employee benefits, return filing and other issues affecting married same-sex couples and domestic partners (whom the IRS does not treat as married). Late-year guidance on either the 3.8 percent net investment income tax or same-sex tax issues may require last-minute changes in year-end tax strategies.

Another shutdown possible

The IRS is currently operating under a stop-gap funding measure, which ended the government shutdown in October. Funding under the stop-gap measure is scheduled to lapse after January 15, 2014. A House-Senate budget conference committee is attempting to reconcile competing fiscal year (FY) 2014 budget bills. So far, lawmakers appear to have made little progress.

A mid-January shutdown could further delay the start of the filing season. In a November 18 letter to IRS Acting Commissioner Daniel Werfel, the American Institute of Certified Public Accountants (AICPA) expressed concern that another government shutdown would result in a huge strain on taxpayers and tax professionals trying to timely file and report their income taxes by April 15. “The IRS keeping more essential positions working during January would help make the already delayed filing season operate as smoothly as possible,” the AICPA told Werfel. The AICPA also recommended that the Taxpayer Advocate Service, which closed during the October shutdown, remain open in the event of another lapse in appropriations.

Tax legislation

Although many tax bills have been introduced in Congress, 2013 is likely to end without lawmakers tackling comprehensive tax reform. The House Ways and Means Committee and the Senate Finance Committee have both prepared discussion drafts on tax reform, covering a host of tax issues. One possible reason for the lack of movement of tax reform appears to be lukewarm interest, at best, from the House and Senate leaders. This could change in 2014 but it is too early to make any predictions.

One path for tax reform could be the House-Senate budget conference committee. However, as mentioned, the committee has not yet produced any concrete proposals. Several lawmakers have recommended that the committee strike a deal to lower corporate tax rates in exchange for businesses giving up unspecified tax breaks. Many Republicans want to keep scheduled across-the-board spending cuts in place for 2014 and beyond; many Democrats want to replace the spending cuts with new revenue raisers. The conference committee has a mid-December deadline to reach an agreement.

A package of so-called tax extenders-popular but temporary tax incentives-could move before year-end but more likely will be taken up by Congress early next year. Unlike last year, the expiring incentives do not affect 2013 returns filed in 2014. Eligible taxpayers will be able to claim the state and local sales tax deduction, the higher education tuition deduction, the teachers’ classroom expense deduction, home energy tax breaks, and many others on their 2013 returns. If you have any questions about the expiring incentives, please contact our office.

Affordable Care Act

Starting January 1, 2014, the Affordable Care Act requires individuals to carry minimum essential health insurance (unless they are exempt) or make a shared responsibility payment. Tax credits and cost-sharing also kick-in next year. At this time, it appears unlikely that the Obama administration will delay the individual mandate. The employer mandate, however, is delayed. Employer reporting (and reporting by some insurers) will not apply until 2015, but is optional for 2014. Generally, employer reporting applies to employers with at least 50 full-time employees on business days during the preceding calendar year.

November was dominated by news of technical troubles for the online Affordable Care Act Marketplaces and the cancellation of some individual insurance policies that did not meet new standards. The White House has made getting the online Marketplaces running at 100 percent a priority and also gave states the option of allowing individuals to re-enroll in coverage that would otherwise be terminated. The fix is temporary and individuals will need to find alternative coverage for 2015 and beyond. Small businesses also may have received cancellation notices and should be exploring alternative coverage.

If you have any questions about year-end tax developments, please contact our office at (908) 725-4414.