When teachers are setting up their classrooms for the new school year, it’s common for them to pay for a portion of their classroom supplies out of pocket. A special tax break allows these educators to deduct some of their expenses. This educator expense deduction is especially important now due to some changes under the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act (TCJA).
The old miscellaneous itemized deduction
Before 2018, employee expenses were potentially deductible if they were unreimbursed by the employer and ordinary and necessary to the “business” of being an employee. A teacher’s out-of-pocket classroom expenses could qualify.
But these expenses had to be claimed as a miscellaneous itemized deduction and were subject to a 2% of adjusted gross income (AGI) floor. This meant employees, including teachers, could enjoy a tax benefit only if they itemized deductions (rather than taking the standard deduction) and all their deductions subject to the floor, combined, exceeded 2% of their AGI.
Now, for 2018 through 2025, the TCJA has suspended miscellaneous itemized deductions subject to the 2% of AGI floor. Fortunately, qualifying educators can still deduct some of their unreimbursed out-of-pocket classroom costs under the educator expense deduction.
The above-the-line educator expense deduction
Back in 2002, Congress created the above-the-line educator expense deduction because, for many teachers, the 2% of AGI threshold for the miscellaneous itemized deduction was difficult to meet. An above-the-line deduction is one that’s subtracted from your gross income to determine your AGI.
You don’t have to itemize to claim an above-the-line deduction. This is especially significant with the TCJA’s near doubling of the standard deduction, which means fewer taxpayers will benefit from itemizing.
Qualifying elementary and secondary school teachers and other eligible educators (such as counselors and principals) can deduct up to $250 of qualified expenses. If you’re married filing jointly and both you and your spouse are educators, you can deduct up to $500 of unreimbursed expenses — but not more than $250 each.
Qualified expenses include amounts paid or incurred during the tax year for books, supplies, computer equipment (including related software and services), other equipment and supplementary materials that you use in the classroom. For courses in health and physical education, the costs of supplies are qualified expenses only if related to athletics.
Many rules, many changes
Some additional rules apply to the educator expense deduction. Contact us for more details or to discuss other tax deductions that may be available to you this year. The TCJA has made significant changes to many deductions for individuals.
Now that the gift and estate tax exemption has reached a record high of $11.18 million (for 2018), it may seem that gifting assets to loved ones is less important than it was in previous years. However, lifetime gifts continue to provide significant benefits, whether your estate is taxable or not.
Let’s examine three reasons why making gifts remains an important part of estate planning:
1. Lifetime gifts reduce estate taxes. If your estate exceeds the exemption amount — or you believe it will in the future — regular lifetime gifts can substantially reduce your estate tax bill.
The annual gift tax exclusion allows you to give up to $15,000 per recipient ($30,000 if you “split” gifts with your spouse) tax-free without using up any of your gift and estate tax exemption. In addition, direct payments of tuition or medical expenses on behalf of your loved ones are excluded from gift tax.
Taxable gifts — that is, gifts beyond the annual exclusion amount and not eligible for the tuition and medical expense exclusion — can also reduce estate tax liability by removing future appreciation from your taxable estate. You may be better off paying gift tax on an asset’s current value rather than estate tax on its appreciated value down the road.
When gifting appreciable assets, however, be sure to consider the potential income tax implications. Property transferred at death receives a “stepped-up basis” equal to its date-of-death fair market value, which means the recipient can turn around and sell the property free of capital gains taxes. Property transferred during life retains your tax basis, so it’s important to weigh the estate tax savings against the potential income tax costs.
2. Tax laws aren’t permanent. Even if your estate is within the exemption amount now, it pays to make regular gifts. Why? Because even though the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act doubled the exemption amount, and that amount will be adjusted annually for inflation, the doubling expires after 2025. Without further legislation, the exemption will return to an inflation-adjusted $5 million in 2026.
Thus, taxpayers with estates in roughly the $6 million to $11 million range (twice that for married couples), whose estates would escape estate taxes if they were to die while the doubled exemption is in effect, still need to keep potential post-2025 estate tax liability in mind in their estate planning.
3. Gifts provide nontax benefits. Tax planning aside, there are other reasons to make lifetime gifts. For example, perhaps you wish to use gifting to shape your family members’ behavior — for example, by providing gifts to those who attend college. And if you own a business, gifts of interests in the business may be a key component of your ownership and management succession plan. Or you might simply wish to see your loved ones enjoy the gifts.
Regardless of the amount of your wealth, consider a program of regular lifetime giving. We can help you devise and incorporate a gifting program as part of your estate plan.
If your small business doesn’t offer its employees a retirement plan, you may want to consider a SIMPLE IRA. Offering a retirement plan can provide your business with valuable tax deductions and help you attract and retain employees. For a variety of reasons, a SIMPLE IRA can be a particularly appealing option for small businesses. The deadline for setting one up for this year is October 1, 2018.
SIMPLE stands for “savings incentive match plan for employees.” As the name implies, these plans are simple to set up and administer. Unlike 401(k) plans, SIMPLE IRAs don’t require annual filings or discrimination testing.
SIMPLE IRAs are available to businesses with 100 or fewer employees. Employers must contribute and employees have the option to contribute. The contributions are pretax, and accounts can grow tax-deferred like a traditional IRA or 401(k) plan, with distributions taxed when taken in retirement.
As the employer, you can choose from two contribution options:
- Make a “nonelective” contribution equal to 2% of compensation for all eligible employees. You must make the contribution regardless of whether the employee contributes. This applies to compensation up to the annual limit of $275,000 for 2018 (annually adjusted for inflation).
- Match employee contributions up to 3% of compensation. Here, you contribute only if the employee contributes. This isn’t subject to the annual compensation limit.
Employees are immediately 100% vested in all SIMPLE IRA contributions.
Employee contribution limits
Any employee who has compensation of at least $5,000 in any prior two years, and is reasonably expected to earn $5,000 in the current year, can elect to have a percentage of compensation put into a SIMPLE IRA.
SIMPLE IRAs offer greater income deferral opportunities than ordinary IRAs, but lower limits than 401(k)s. An employee may contribute up to $12,500 to a SIMPLE IRA in 2018. Employees age 50 or older can also make a catch-up contribution of up to $3,000. This compares to $5,500 and $1,000, respectively, for ordinary IRAs, and to $18,500 and $6,000 for 401(k)s. (Some or all of these limits may increase for 2019 under annual cost-of-living adjustments.)
You’ve got options
A SIMPLE IRA might be a good choice for your small business, but it isn’t the only option. The more-complex 401(k) plan we’ve already mentioned is one alternative. Some others are a Simplified Employee Pension (SEP) and a defined-benefit pension plan. These two plans don’t allow employee contributions and have other pluses and minuses. Contact us to learn more about a SIMPLE IRA or to hear about other retirement plan alternatives for your business.
There’s no law that says you can’t prepare your own estate plan. And with an abundance of online services that automate the creation of wills and other documents, it’s easy to do. But unless your estate is small and your plan is exceedingly simple, the pitfalls of do-it-yourself (DIY) estate planning can be many.
Dotting the i’s and crossing the t’s
A common mistake people make with DIY estate planning is to neglect the formalities associated with the execution of wills and other documents. Rules vary from state to state regarding the number and type of witnesses who must attest to a will and what, specifically, they must attest to.
Also, states have different rules about interested parties (that is, beneficiaries) serving as witnesses to a will or trust. In many states, interested parties are ineligible to serve as witnesses. In others, an interested-party witness triggers an increase in the required number of witnesses (from two to three, for example).
Keeping abreast of tax law changes
Legislative developments during the last several years demonstrate how changes in the tax laws from one year to the next can have a dramatic impact on your estate planning strategies. DIY service providers don’t offer legal or tax advice — and provide lengthy disclaimers to prove it. Thus, they cannot be expected to warn users that tax law changes may adversely affect their plans.
Consider this example: A decade ago, in 2008, George used an online service to generate estate planning documents. At the time, his estate was worth $4 million and the federal estate tax exemption was $2 million.
George’s plan provided for the creation of a trust for the benefit of his children, funded with the maximum amount that could be transferred free of federal estate tax, with the remainder going to his wife, Ann. If George died in 2008, for example, $2 million would have gone into the trust and the remaining $2 million would have gone to Ann.
Suppose, however, that George dies in 2018, when the federal estate tax exemption has increased to $11.18 million and his estate has grown to $10 million. Under the terms of his plan, the entire $10 million — all of which can be transferred free of federal estate tax — will pass to the trust, leaving nothing for Ann.
While even a qualified professional couldn’t have predicted in 2008 what the estate tax exemption would be at George’s death, he or she could have structured a plan that would provide the flexibility needed to respond to tax law changes.
Don’t try this at home
These are just a few examples of the many pitfalls associated with DIY estate planning. To help ensure that you achieve your estate planning objectives, contact us to review your existing plan.
With its many changes to individual tax rates, brackets and breaks, the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act (TCJA) means taxpayers need to revisit their tax planning strategies. Certain strategies that were once tried-and-true will no longer save or defer tax. But there are some that will hold up for many taxpayers. And they’ll be more effective if you begin implementing them this summer, rather than waiting until year end. Take a look at these three ideas, and contact us to discuss what midyear strategies make sense for you.
1. Look at your bracket
Under the TCJA, the top income tax rate is now 37% (down from 39.6%) for taxpayers with taxable income over $500,000 (single and head-of-household filers) or $600,000 (married couples filing jointly). These thresholds are higher than for the top rate in 2017 ($418,400, $444,550 and $470,700, respectively). So the top rate might be less of a concern.
However, singles and heads of households in the middle and upper brackets could be pushed into a higher tax bracket much more quickly this year. For example, for 2017 the threshold for the 33% tax bracket was $191,650 for singles and $212,500 for heads of households. For 2018, the rate for this bracket has been reduced slightly to 32% — but the threshold for the bracket is now only $157,500 for both singles and heads of households.
So a lot more of these filers could find themselves in this bracket. (Fortunately for joint filers, their threshold for this bracket has increased from $233,350 to $315,000.)
If you expect this year’s income to be near the threshold for a higher bracket, consider strategies for reducing your taxable income and staying out of the next bracket. For example, you could take steps to accelerate deductible expenses.
But carefully consider the changes the TCJA has made to deductions. For example, you might no longer benefit from itemizing because of the nearly doubled standard deduction and the reduction or elimination of certain itemized deductions. For 2018, the standard deduction is $12,000 for singles, $18,000 for heads of households and $24,000 for joint filers.
2. Incur medical expenses
One itemized deduction the TCJA has retained and — temporarily — enhanced is the medical expense deduction. If you expect to benefit from itemizing on your 2018 return, take a look at whether you can accelerate deductible medical expenses into this year.
You can deduct only expenses that exceed a floor based on your adjusted gross income (AGI). Under the TCJA, the floor has dropped from 10% of AGI to 7.5%. But it’s scheduled to return to 10% for 2019 and beyond.
Deductible expenses may include:
- Health insurance premiums,
- Long-term care insurance premiums,
- Medical and dental services and prescription drugs, and
- Mileage driven for health care purposes.
You may be able to control the timing of some of these expenses so you can bunch them into 2018 and exceed the floor while it’s only 7.5%.
3. Review your investments
The TCJA didn’t make changes to the long-term capital gains rate, so the top rate remains at 20%. However, that rate now kicks in before the top ordinary-income tax rate. For 2018, the 20% rate applies to taxpayers with taxable income exceeding $425,800 (singles), $452,400 (heads of households), or $479,000 (joint filers).
If you’ve realized, or expect to realize, significant capital gains, consider selling some depreciated investments to generate losses you can use to offset those gains. It may be possible to repurchase those investments, so long as you wait at least 31 days to avoid the “wash sale” rule.
You also may need to plan for the 3.8% net investment income tax (NIIT). It can affect taxpayers with modified AGI (MAGI) over $200,000 for singles and heads of households, $250,000 for joint filers. You may be able to lower your tax liability by reducing your MAGI, reducing net investment income or both.
The S corporation business structure offers many advantages, including limited liability for owners and no double taxation (at least at the federal level). But not all businesses are eligible • and, with the new 21% flat income tax rate that now applies to C corporations, S corps may not be quite as attractive as they once were.
The primary reason for electing S status is the combination of the limited liability of a corporation and the ability to pass corporate income, losses, deductions and credits through to shareholders. In other words, S corps generally avoid double taxation of corporate income — once at the corporate level and again when distributed to the shareholder. Instead, S corp tax items pass through to the shareholders’ personal returns and the shareholders pay tax at their individual income tax rates.
But now that the C corp rate is only 21% and the top rate on qualified dividends remains at 20%, while the top individual rate is 37%, double taxation might be less of a concern. On the other hand, S corp owners may be able to take advantage of the new qualified business income (QBI) deduction, which can be equal to as much as 20% of QBI.
You have to run the numbers with your tax advisor, factoring in state taxes, too, to determine which structure will be the most tax efficient for you and your business.
S eligibility requirements
If S corp status makes tax sense for your business, you need to make sure you qualify • and stay qualified. To be eligible to elect to be an S corp or to convert to S status, your business must:
- Be a domestic corporation and have only one class of stock,
- Have no more than 100 shareholders, and
- Have only “allowable” shareholders, including individuals, certain trusts and estates. Shareholders can’t include partnerships, corporations and nonresident alien shareholders.
In addition, certain businesses are ineligible, such as insurance companies.
Another important consideration when electing S status is shareholder compensation. The IRS is on the lookout for S corps that pay shareholder-employees an unreasonably low salary to avoid paying Social Security and Medicare taxes and then make distributions that aren’t subject to payroll taxes.
Compensation paid to a shareholder should be reasonable considering what a nonowner would be paid for a comparable position. If a shareholder’s compensation doesn’t reflect the fair market value of the services he or she provides, the IRS may reclassify a portion of distributions as unpaid wages. The company will then owe payroll taxes, interest and penalties on the reclassified wages.
Pros and cons
S corp status isn’t the best option for every business. To ensure that you’ve considered all the pros and cons, contact us. Assessing the tax differences can be tricky — especially with the tax law changes going into effect this year.
If you gamble, be sure you understand the tax consequences. Both wins and losses can affect your income tax bill. And changes under the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act (TCJA) could also have an impact.
Wins and taxable income
You must report 100% of your gambling winnings as taxable income. The value of complimentary goodies (“comps”) provided by gambling establishments must also be included in taxable income as winnings.
Winnings are subject to your regular federal income tax rate. You might pay a lower rate on gambling winnings this year because of rate reductions under the TCJA.
Amounts you win may be reported to you on IRS Form W-2G (“Certain Gambling Winnings”). In some cases, federal income tax may be withheld, too. Anytime a Form W-2G is issued, the IRS gets a copy. So if you’ve received such a form, remember that the IRS will expect to see the winnings on your tax return.
Losses and tax deductions
You can write off gambling losses as a miscellaneous itemized deduction. While miscellaneous deductions subject to the 2% of adjusted gross income floor are not allowed for 2018 through 2025 under the TCJA, the deduction for gambling losses isn’t subject to that floor. So gambling losses are still deductible.
But the TCJA’s near doubling of the standard deduction for 2018 (to $24,000 for married couples filing jointly, $18,000 for heads of households and $12,000 for singles and separate filers) means that, even if you typically itemized deductions in the past, you may no longer benefit from itemizing. Itemizing saves tax only when total itemized deductions exceed the applicable standard deduction.
Also be aware that the deduction for gambling losses is limited to your winnings for the year, and any excess losses cannot be carried forward to future years. Also, out-of-pocket expenses for transportation, meals, lodging and so forth can’t be deducted unless you qualify as a gambling professional.
And, for 2018 through 2025, the TCJA modifies the limit on gambling losses for professional gamblers so that all deductions for expenses incurred in carrying out gambling activities, not just losses, are limited to the extent of gambling winnings.
Tracking your activities
To claim a deduction for gambling losses, you must adequately document them, including:
- The date and type of gambling activity.
- The name and address or location of the gambling establishment.
- The names of other persons (if any) present with you at the gambling establishment. (Obviously, this is not possible when the gambling occurs at a public venue such as a casino, race track, or bingo parlor.)
- The amount won or lost.
You can document income and losses from gambling on table games by recording the number of the table you played and keeping statements showing casino credit issued to you. For lotteries, you can use winning statements and unredeemed tickets as documentation.
Please contact us if you have questions or want more information about the tax treatment of gambling wins and losses.
The pieces of tax legislation garnering the most attention these days are the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act (TCJA) signed into law last December and the possible “Tax Reform 2.0” that Congress might pass this fall. But for certain individual taxpayers, what happens with “extenders” legislation is also important.
Back in December of 2015, Congress passed the PATH Act, which made a multitude of tax breaks permanent. However, there were a few valuable breaks for individuals that it extended only through 2016. The TCJA didn’t address these breaks, but they were retroactively extended through December 31, 2017, by the Bipartisan Budget Act of 2018 (BBA), which was signed into law on February 9, 2018.
Now the question is whether Congress will extend them for 2018 and, if so, when. In July, House Ways and Means Committee Chair Kevin Brady (R-TX) released a broad outline of what Tax Reform 2.0 legislation may contain. And he indicated that it probably wouldn’t include the so-called “extenders” but that they would likely be addressed by separate legislation.
Mortgage insurance and loan forgiveness
Under the BBA, through 2017, you could treat qualified mortgage insurance premiums as interest for purposes of the mortgage interest deduction. This was an itemized deduction that phased out for taxpayers with AGI of $100,000 to $110,000.
The BBA likewise extended through 2017 the exclusion from gross income for mortgage loan forgiveness. It also allowed the exclusion to apply to mortgage forgiveness that occurs in 2018 as long as it’s granted pursuant to a written agreement entered into in 2017. So even if this break isn’t extended, you might still be able to benefit from it on your 2018 income tax return.
Tuition and related expenses
Also available through 2017 under the BBA was the above-the-line deduction for qualified tuition and related expenses for higher education. It was capped at $4,000 for taxpayers whose adjusted gross income (AGI) didn’t exceed $65,000 ($130,000 for joint filers) or, for those beyond those amounts, $2,000 for taxpayers whose AGI didn’t exceed $80,000 ($160,000 for joint filers).
You couldn’t take the American Opportunity credit, its cousin the Lifetime Learning credit and the tuition deduction in the same year for the same student. If you were eligible for all three breaks, the American Opportunity credit would typically be the most valuable in terms of tax savings.
But in some situations, the AGI reduction from the tuition deduction might prove more beneficial than taking the Lifetime Learning credit. For example, a lower AGI might help avoid having other tax breaks reduced or eliminated due to AGI-based phaseouts.
Still time …
There’s still plenty of time for Congress to extend these breaks for 2018. And, if you qualify and you haven’t filed your 2017 income tax return yet, there’s even still time to take advantage of these breaks on that tax return. The deadline for individual extended 2017 returns is October 15, 2018. Contact us with questions about these breaks and whether you can benefit.
No matter how diligently you prepare, your estate plan can quickly be derailed if you or a loved one requires long-term home health care or an extended stay at a nursing home or assisted living facility.
The annual cost of long-term care (LTC) can reach as high as six figures, and this expense isn’t covered by traditional health insurance policies, Social Security or Medicare. So it’s important to have a plan to finance these costs, either by setting aside some of your savings or purchasing insurance.
An LTC insurance policy supplements your traditional health insurance by covering services that assist you or a loved one with one or more activities of daily living (ADLs). Generally, ADLs include eating, bathing and dressing.
LTC coverage is relatively expensive, but it may be possible to reduce the cost by purchasing a tax-qualified policy. Generally, benefits paid in accordance with an LTC policy are tax-free. In addition, if a policy is tax-qualified, your premiums are deductible (as medical expenses) up to a specified limit.
To qualify, a policy must:
- Be guaranteed renewable and noncancelable regardless of health,
- Not delay coverage of pre-existing conditions more than six months,
- Not condition eligibility on prior hospitalization,
- Not exclude coverage based on a diagnosis of Alzheimer’s disease, dementia, or similar conditions or illnesses, and
- Require a physician’s certification that you’re either unable to perform at least two of six ADLs or you have a severe cognitive impairment and that this condition has lasted or is expected to last at least 90 days.
It’s important to weigh the pros and cons of tax-qualified policies. The primary advantage is the premium deduction. But keep in mind that medical expenses, including LTC insurance premiums, are deductible only if you itemize and only to the extent they exceed 7.5% of your adjusted gross income (AGI) in 2018 or 10% of AGI in future years (unless Congress extends the lower threshold). So some people may not have enough medical expenses to benefit from this advantage. It’s also important to weigh any potential tax benefits against the advantages of nonqualified policies, which may have less stringent eligibility requirements.
Think long term
Given the potential magnitude of long-term care expenses, the earlier you begin planning, the better. We can help you review your options and analyze the relative benefits and risks.
The Tax Cuts and Jobs Act (TCJA) liberalized the eligibility rules for using the cash method of accounting, making this method — which is simpler than the accrual method — available to more businesses. Now the IRS has provided procedures a small business taxpayer can use to obtain automatic consent to change its method of accounting under the TCJA. If you have the option to use either accounting method, it pays to consider whether switching methods would be beneficial.
Cash vs. accrual
Generally, cash-basis businesses recognize income when it’s received and deduct expenses when they’re paid. Accrual-basis businesses, on the other hand, recognize income when it’s earned and deduct expenses when they’re incurred, without regard to the timing of cash receipts or payments.
In most cases, a business is permitted to use the cash method of accounting for tax purposes unless it’s:
- Expressly prohibited from using the cash method, or
- Expressly required to use the accrual method.
Cash method advantages
The cash method offers several advantages, including:
Simplicity. It’s easier and cheaper to implement and maintain.
Tax-planning flexibility. It offers greater flexibility to control the timing of income and deductible expenses. For example, it allows you to defer income to next year by delaying invoices or to shift deductions into this year by accelerating the payment of expenses. An accrual-basis business doesn’t enjoy this flexibility. For example, to defer income, delaying invoices wouldn’t be enough; the business would have to put off shipping products or performing services.
Cash flow benefits. Because income is taxed in the year it’s received, the cash method does a better job of ensuring that a business has the funds it needs to pay its tax bill.
Accrual method advantages
In some cases, the accrual method may offer tax advantages. For example, accrual-basis businesses may be able to use certain tax-planning strategies that aren’t available to cash-basis businesses, such as deducting year-end bonuses that are paid within the first 2½ months of the following year and deferring income on certain advance payments.
The accrual method also does a better job of matching income and expenses, so it provides a more accurate picture of a business’s financial performance. That’s why it’s required under Generally Accepted Accounting Principles (GAAP).
If your business prepares GAAP-compliant financial statements, you can still use the cash method for tax purposes. But weigh the cost of maintaining two sets of books against the potential tax benefits.
Making a change
Keep in mind that cash and accrual are the two primary tax accounting methods, but they’re not the only ones. Some businesses may qualify for a different method, such as a hybrid of the cash and accrual methods.
If your business is eligible for more than one method, we can help you determine whether switching methods would make sense and can execute the change for you if appropriate.