Tax Compliance – Taxation

Real estate investor vs. professional: Why it matters

Income and losses from investment real estate or rental property are passive by definition — unless you’re a real estate professional. Why does this matter? Passive income may be subject to the 3.8% net investment income tax (NIIT), and passive losses generally are deductible only against passive income, with the excess being carried forward.

Of course the NIIT is part of the Affordable Care Act (ACA) and might be eliminated under ACA repeal and replace legislation or tax reform legislation. But if/when such legislation will be passed and signed into law is uncertain. Even if the NIIT is eliminated, the passive loss issue will still be an important one for many taxpayers investing in real estate.

“Professional” requirements

To qualify as a real estate professional, you must annually perform:

  • More than 50% of your personal services in real property trades or businesses in which you materially participate, and
  • More than 750 hours of service in these businesses.

Each year stands on its own, and there are other nuances. (Special rules for spouses may help you meet the 750-hour test.)

Tax strategies

If you’re concerned you’ll fail either test and be subject to the 3.8% NIIT or stuck with passive losses, consider doing one of the following:

Increasing your involvement in the real estate activity. If you can pass the real estate professional tests, the activity no longer will be subject to passive activity rules.

Looking at other activities. If you have passive losses from your real estate investment, consider investing in another income-producing trade or business that will be passive to you. That way, you’ll have passive income that can absorb some or all of your passive losses.

Disposing of the activity. This generally allows you to deduct all passive losses — including any loss on disposition (subject to basis and capital loss limitations). But, again, the rules are complex.

Also be aware that the IRS frequently challenges claims of real estate professional status — and is often successful. One situation where the IRS commonly prevails is when the taxpayer didn’t keep adequate records of time spent on real estate activities.

If you’re not sure whether you qualify as a real estate professional, please contact us at (214) 696-1922. We can help you make this determination and guide you on how to properly document your hours.

© 2017

Turning next year’s tax refund into cash in your pocket now

Each year, millions of taxpayers claim an income tax refund. To be sure, receiving a payment from the IRS for a few thousand dollars can be a pleasant influx of cash. But it means you were essentially giving the government an interest-free loan for close to a year, which isn’t the best use of your money.

Fortunately, there is a way to begin collecting your 2017 refund now: You can review the amounts you’re having withheld and/or what estimated tax payments you’re making, and adjust them to keep more money in your pocket during the year.

Reasons to modify amounts

It’s particularly important to check your withholding and/or estimated tax payments if:

  • You received an especially large 2016 refund,
  • You’ve gotten married or divorced or added a dependent,
  • You’ve purchased a home,
  • You’ve started or lost a job, or
  • Your investment income has changed significantly.

Even if you haven’t encountered any major life changes during the past year, changes in the tax law may affect withholding levels, making it worthwhile to double-check your withholding or estimated tax payments.

Making a change

You can modify your withholding at any time during the year, or even several times within a year. To do so, you simply submit a new Form W-4 to your employer. Changes typically will go into effect several weeks after the new Form W-4 is submitted. For estimated tax payments, you can make adjustments each time quarterly payments are due.

While reducing withholdings or estimated tax payments will, indeed, put more money in your pocket now, you also need to be careful that you don’t reduce them too much. If you don’t pay enough tax during the year, you could end up owing interest and penalties when you file your return, even if you pay your outstanding tax liability by the April 2018 deadline.

If you’d like help determining what your withholding or estimated tax payments should be for the rest of the year, please contact us.

© 2017

A timely postmark on your tax return may not be enough to avoid late-filing penalties

Because of a weekend and a Washington, D.C., holiday, the 2016 tax return filing deadline for individual taxpayers is Tuesday, April 18. The IRS considers a paper return that’s due April 18 to be timely filed if it’s postmarked by midnight. But dropping your return in a mailbox on the 18th may not be sufficient.

An example

Let’s say you mail your return with a payment on April 18, but the envelope gets lost. You don’t figure this out until a couple of months later when you notice that the check still hasn’t cleared.

You then refile and send a new check. Despite your efforts to timely file and pay, you’re hit with failure-to-file and failure-to-pay penalties totaling $1,500.

Avoiding penalty risk

To avoid this risk, use certified or registered mail or one of the private delivery services designated by the IRS to comply with the timely filing rule, such as:

• DHL Express 9:00, Express 10:30, Express 12:00 or Express Envelope,
• FedEx First Overnight, Priority Overnight, Standard Overnight or 2Day, or
• UPS Next Day Air Early A.M., Next Day Air, Next Day Air Saver, 2nd Day Air A.M. or 2nd Day Air.

Beware: If you use an unauthorized delivery service, your return isn’t “filed” until the IRS receives it. See IRS.gov for a complete list of authorized services.

Another option

If you’re concerned about meeting the April 18 deadline, another option is to file for an extension. If you owe tax, you’ll still need to pay that by April 18 to avoid risk of late-payment penalties as well as interest.

If you’re owed a refund and file late, you won’t be charged a failure-to-file penalty. However, filing for an extension may still be a good idea.

We can help you determine if filing for an extension makes sense for you — and help estimate whether you owe tax and how much you should pay by April 18.

© 2017

2016 IRA contributions — it’s not too late!

Yes, there’s still time to make 2016 contributions to your IRA. The deadline for such contributions is April 18, 2017. If the contribution is deductible, it will lower your 2016 tax bill. But even if it isn’t, making a 2016 contribution is likely a good idea.

Benefits beyond a deduction

Tax-advantaged retirement plans like IRAs allow your money to grow tax-deferred — or, in the case of Roth accounts, tax-free. But annual contributions are limited by tax law, and any unused limit can’t be carried forward to make larger contributions in future years.

This means that, once the contribution deadline has passed, the tax-advantaged savings opportunity is lost forever. So it’s a good idea to use up as much of your annual limit as possible.

Contribution options

The 2016 limit for total contributions to all IRAs generally is $5,500 ($6,500 if you were age 50 or older on December 31, 2016). If you haven’t already maxed out your 2016 limit, consider making one of these types of contributions by April 18:

1. Deductible traditional. If you and your spouse don’t participate in an employer-sponsored plan such as a 401(k) — or you do but your income doesn’t exceed certain limits — the contribution is fully deductible on your 2016 tax return. Account growth is tax-deferred; distributions are subject to income tax.

2. Roth. The contribution isn’t deductible, but qualified distributions — including growth — are tax-free. Income-based limits, however, may reduce or eliminate your ability to contribute.

3. Nondeductible traditional. If your income is too high for you to fully benefit from a deductible traditional or a Roth contribution, you may benefit from a nondeductible contribution to a traditional IRA. The account can still grow tax-deferred, and when you take qualified distributions you’ll be taxed only on the growth. Alternatively, shortly after contributing, you may be able to convert the account to a Roth IRA with minimal tax liability.

Want to know which option best fits your situation? Contact us.

© 2017

What the self-employed need to know about employment taxes

In addition to income tax, you must pay Social Security and Medicare taxes on earned income, such as salary and self-employment income. The 12.4% Social Security tax applies only up to the Social Security wage base of $118,500 for 2016. All earned income is subject to the 2.9% Medicare tax.

The taxes are split equally between the employee and the employer. But if you’re self-employed, you pay both the employee and employer portions of these taxes on your self-employment income.

Additional 0.9% Medicare tax

Another employment tax that higher-income taxpayers must be aware of is the additional 0.9% Medicare tax. It applies to FICA wages and net self-employment income exceeding $200,000 per year ($250,000 for married filing jointly and $125,000 for married filing separately).

If your wages or self-employment income varies significantly from year to year or you’re close to the threshold for triggering the additional Medicare tax, income timing strategies may help you avoid or minimize it. For example, as a self-employed taxpayer, you may have flexibility on when you purchase new equipment or invoice customers. If your self-employment income is from a part-time activity and you’re also an employee elsewhere, perhaps you can time with your employer when you receive a bonus.

Something else to consider in this situation is the withholding rules. Employers must withhold the additional Medicare tax beginning in the pay period when wages exceed $200,000 for the calendar year — without regard to an employee’s filing status or income from other sources. So your employer might not withhold the tax even though you are liable for it due to your self-employment income.

If you do owe the tax but your employer isn’t withholding it, consider filing a W-4 form to request additional income tax withholding, which can be used to cover the shortfall and avoid interest and penalties. Or you can make estimated tax payments.

Deductions for the self-employed

For the self-employed, the employer portion of employment taxes (6.2% for Social Security tax and 1.45% for Medicare tax) is deductible above the line. (No portion of the additional Medicare tax is deductible, because there’s no employer portion of that tax.)

As a self-employed taxpayer, you may benefit from other above-the-line deductions as well. You can deduct 100% of health insurance costs for yourself, your spouse and your dependents, up to your net self-employment income. You also can deduct contributions to a retirement plan and, if you’re eligible, an HSA for yourself. Above-the-line deductions are particularly valuable because they reduce your adjusted gross income (AGI) and modified AGI (MAGI), which are the triggers for certain additional taxes and the phaseouts of many tax breaks.

For more information on the ins and outs of employment taxes and tax breaks for the self-employed, please contact us.

© 2016

Is your executive compensation reasonable?

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A brief overview of the President-elect’s tax plan for individuals

Now that Donald Trump has been elected President of the United States and Republicans have retained control of both chambers of Congress, an overhaul of the U.S. tax code next year is likely. President-elect Trump’s tax reform plan, released earlier this year, includes the following changes that would affect individuals:

• Reducing the number of income tax brackets from seven to three, with rates on ordinary income of 12%, 25% and 33% (reducing rates for many taxpayers but resulting in a tax hike for certain single filers),
• Aligning the 0%, 15% and 20% long-term capital gains and qualified dividends rates with the new brackets,
• Eliminating the head of household filing status (which could cause rates to go up for some of these filers, who would have to file as singles),
• Abolishing the net investment income tax,
• Eliminating the personal exemption (but expanding child-related breaks),
• More than doubling the standard deduction, to $15,000 for singles and $30,000 for married couples filing jointly,
• Capping itemized deductions at $100,000 for single filers and $200,000 for joint filers,
• Abolishing the alternative minimum tax, and
• Abolishing the federal gift and estate tax, but disallowing the step-up in basis for estates worth more than $10 million.

The House Republicans’ plan is somewhat different. And because Republicans didn’t reach the 60 Senate members necessary to become filibuster-proof, they may need to compromise on some issues in order to get their legislation through the Senate. The bottom line is that exactly which proposals will make it into legislation and signed into law is uncertain, but major changes are just about a sure thing.

If it looks like you could be eligible for lower income tax rates next year, it may make sense to accelerate deductible expenses into 2016 (when they may be more valuable) and defer income to 2017 (when it might be subject to a lower tax rate). But if it looks like your rates could be higher next year, the opposite approach may be beneficial.

In either situation, there is some risk to these strategies, given the uncertainty as to exactly what tax law changes will be enacted. We can help you create the best year-end tax strategy based on how potential changes may affect your specific situation.

© 2016

Should you make a “charitable IRA rollover” in 2016?

Last year a break valued by many charitably inclined retirees was made permanent: the charitable IRA rollover. If you’re age 70½ or older, you can make direct contributions — up to $100,000 annually — from your IRA to qualified charitable organizations without owing any income tax on the distributions.

Satisfy your RMD

A charitable IRA rollover can be used to satisfy required minimum distributions (RMDs). You must begin to take annual RMDs from your traditional IRAs in the year in which you reach age 70½. If you don’t comply, you can owe a penalty equal to 50% of the amount you should have withdrawn but didn’t. (An RMD deferral is allowed for the initial year, but you’ll have to take two RMDs the next year.)

So if you don’t need the RMD for your living expenses, a charitable IRA rollover can be a great way to comply with the RMD requirement without triggering the tax liability that would occur if the RMD were paid out to you.

Additional benefits

You might be able to achieve a similar tax result from taking the RMD payout and then contributing that amount to charity. But it’s more complex because you must report the RMD as income and then take an itemized deduction for the donation. This has two more possible downsides:

• The reported RMD income might increase your income to the point that you’re pushed into a higher tax bracket, certain additional taxes are triggered and/or the benefits of certain tax breaks are reduced or eliminated. It could even cause Social Security payments to become taxable or increase income-based Medicare premiums and prescription drug charges.
• If your donation would equal a large portion of your income for the year, your deduction might be reduced due to the percentage-of-income limit. You generally can’t deduct cash donations that exceed 50% of your adjusted gross income for the year. (Lower limits apply to donations of long-term appreciated securities or made to private foundations.) You can carry forward the excess up to five years, but if you make large donations every year, that won’t help you.

A charitable IRA rollover avoids these potential negative tax consequences.

Have questions about charitable IRA rollovers or other giving strategies? Please contact Mark Patten at 214-696-1922. We can help you create a giving plan that will meet your charitable goals and maximize your tax savings.

© 2016

The IRS can reclassify S corporation distributions as wages

If you run your business as an S corporation, you’re probably both a shareholder and an employee. As such, the corporation pays you a salary that reflects the work you do for the business — and you (and your company) must remit payroll tax on some or all of your wages.

By distributing profits in the form of dividends rather than salary, an S corporation and its owners can avoid payroll taxes on these amounts. Because of the additional 0.9% Medicare tax on wages in excess of $200,000 ($250,000 for joint filers and $125,000 for married filing separately), the potential tax savings from classifying payments as dividends rather than salary may be even greater than it once would have been.

IRS audit target

But paying little or no salary is risky. The IRS targets S corporations with owners’ salaries that it considers unreasonably low and assesses unpaid payroll taxes, penalties and interest.

To avoid such a result, S corporations should establish and document reasonable salaries for each position using compensation surveys, comparable industry studies, company financial data and other evidence. Spell out the reasons for compensation amounts in your corporate minutes. Have the minutes reviewed by a tax professional before being finalized.

Prove a salary is reasonable

There are no specific guidelines for reasonable compensation in the tax code or regulations. Various courts, which have ruled on this issue, have based their determinations on the facts and circumstances of each case. Factors considered in determining reasonable compensation include:
• Training and experience,
• Duties and responsibilities,
• Time and effort devoted to the business,
• Dividend history,
• Payments to non-owner employees,
• Timing and manner of paying bonuses to key people, and
• Compensation agreements.

Ascertain the right mix

Do you have questions about compensation? Contact us. We can help you determine the mix of salary and dividends that can keep your tax liability as low as possible while standing up to IRS scrutiny.

© 2016

Lower gas costs = lower business driving tax deductions

This year, the optional standard mileage rate used to calculate the deductible costs of operating an automobile for business went down. The reason? Compared with last year, the cost of driving is less because gas prices are lower.

Two options

If you use a vehicle for business, you can generally deduct the actual expenses attributable to your business use. This includes gas, oil, tires, insurance, repairs, licenses and vehicle registration fees. In addition, you can claim a depreciation allowance for the vehicle, based on the percentage of business use. However, depreciation write-offs are subject to “luxury car” limits.

But some taxpayers don’t want to keep track of actual vehicle-related expenses. Another option: You may be able to use the IRS’s standard mileage rate. With this approach, you don’t have to account for all your actual expenses, although you still must record certain information, such as the mileage for each business trip, the date and the destination.

This year’s rate

Beginning on January 1, 2016, the standard mileage rate for the business use of a car (van, pickup or panel truck) is 54 cents per mile. For 2015, the rate was 57.5 cents per mile.

The cents-per-mile rate is adjusted annually by the IRS. It is based on an annual study commissioned by the IRS about the costs of operating a vehicle.

Current gas costs

On June 15, 2016, the national average price of a gallon of regular unleaded gas was $2.36 and it fell below $2 a gallon earlier this year. This is down from the average price of $2.80 per gallon a year earlier. (There are variations in fuel prices from one state to another so the per-gallon price in your state could be higher or lower.)

Going forward

Not all taxpayers can use the cents-per-mile rate. It depends on how they’ve claimed deductions for the same vehicle in the past.

If you have questions about deducting mileage expenses in your situation, contact us.

© 2016