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Hastily choosing an executor can lead to problems after your death

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Choosing the right executor — sometimes known as a “personal representative” — is critical to the smooth administration of an estate. Yet many people treat this decision as an afterthought. Given an executor’s many responsibilities and complex tasks, it pays to put some thought into the selection.

Job description

An executor’s duties may include:

  • Collecting, protecting and taking inventory of the estate’s assets,
  • Filing the estate’s tax returns and paying its taxes,
  • Handling creditors’ claims and the estate’s claims against others,
  • Making investment decisions,
  • Distributing property to beneficiaries, and
  • Liquidating assets if necessary.

You don’t necessarily have to choose a professional executor or someone with legal or financial expertise. Often, lay people can handle the job, hiring professionals as needed (at the estate’s expense) to handle matters beyond their expertise.

Candidate considerations

Many people choose a family member or close friend for the job, but this can be a mistake for two reasons. First, a person who’s close to you may be too grief-stricken to function effectively. Second, if your executor stands to gain from the will, he or she may have a conflict of interest — real or perceived — which can lead to will contests or other disputes by disgruntled family members.

If either of these issues is a concern, consider choosing an independent outsider as executor. Some people appoint co-executors — one trusted friend who knows the family and understands its dynamics, and one independent executor with business, financial or legal expertise.

Designate a backup

Regardless of whom you choose, be sure to designate at least one backup executor to serve in the event that your first choice dies or becomes incapacitated before it’s time to settle your estate — or turns down the job. Contact us for answers to your questions about choosing the right executor.

© 2019

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There's still time to get substantiation for 2018 donations

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If you’re like many Americans, letters from your favorite charities have been appearing in your mailbox in recent weeks acknowledging your 2018 year-end donations. But what happens if you haven’t received such a letter — can you still claim an itemized deduction for the gift on your 2018 income tax return? It depends.

Basic requirements

To support a charitable deduction, you need to comply with IRS substantiation requirements. This generally includes obtaining a contemporaneous written acknowledgment from the charity stating the amount of the donation, whether you received any goods or services in consideration for the donation, and the value of any such goods or services.

“Contemporaneous” means the earlier of 1) the date you file your tax return, or 2) the extended due date of your return. So if you made a donation in 2018 but haven’t yet received substantiation from the charity, it’s not too late — as long as you haven’t filed your 2018 return. Contact the charity and request a written acknowledgment.

Keep in mind that, if you made a cash gift of under $250 with a check or credit card, generally a canceled check, bank statement or credit card statement is sufficient. However, if you received something in return for the donation, you generally must reduce your deduction by its value — and the charity is required to provide you a written acknowledgment as described earlier.

Substantiation is serious business

Don’t take the substantiation requirements lightly. In one U.S. Tax Court case, the taxpayers substantiated a donation deduction with canceled checks and a written acknowledgment. The IRS denied the deduction, however, because the acknowledgment failed to state whether the taxpayers received goods or services in consideration for their donation.

The taxpayers obtained a second acknowledgment including the required statement. But the Tax Court didn’t accept it because it wasn’t contemporaneous (that is, it was obtained after the tax return was filed).

2018 and 2019 deductions

Additional substantiation requirements apply to some types of donations. We can help you determine whether you have sufficient substantiation for the donations you hope to deduct on your 2018 income tax return — and guide you on the substantiation you’ll need for gifts you’re planning this year to ensure you can enjoy the desired deductions on your 2019 return.

© 2019

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Many tax-related limits affecting businesses increase for 2019

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A variety of tax-related limits affecting businesses are annually indexed for inflation, and many have gone up for 2019. Here’s a look at some that may affect you and your business.

Deductions

  • Section 179 expensing:
    • Limit: $1.02 million (up from $1 million)
    • Phaseout: $2.55 million (up from $2.5 million)
  • Income-based phase-ins for certain limits on the Sec. 199A qualified business income deduction:
    • Married filing jointly: $321,400-$421,400 (up from $315,000-$415,000)
    • Married filing separately: $160,725-$210,725 (up from $157,500-$207,500)
    • Other filers: $160,700-$210,700 (up from $157,500-$207,500)

Retirement plans

  • Employee contributions to 401(k) plans: $19,000 (up from $18,500)
  • Catch-up contributions to 401(k) plans: $6,000 (no change)
  • Employee contributions to SIMPLEs: $13,000 (up from $12,500)
  • Catch-up contributions to SIMPLEs: $3,000 (no change)
  • Combined employer/employee contributions to defined contribution plans (not including catch-ups): $56,000 (up from $55,000)
  • Maximum compensation used to determine contributions: $280,000 (up from $275,000)
  • Annual benefit for defined benefit plans: $225,000 (up from $220,000)
  • Compensation defining “highly compensated employee”: $125,000 (up from $120,000)
  • Compensation defining “key employee”: $180,000 (up from $175,000)

Other employee benefits

  • Qualified transportation fringe-benefits employee income exclusion: $265 per month (up from $260)
  • Health Savings Account contributions:
    • Individual coverage: $3,500 (up from $3,450)
    • Family coverage: $7,000 (up from $6,900)
    • Catch-up contribution: $1,000 (no change)
  • Flexible Spending Account contributions:
    • Health care: $2,700 (up from $2,650)
    • Dependent care: $5,000 (no change)

Additional rules apply to these limits, and they are only some of the limits that may affect your business. Please contact us for more information.

© 2019

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What will your marginal income tax rate be?

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While the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act (TCJA) generally reduced individual tax rates for 2018 through 2025, some taxpayers could see their taxes go up due to reductions or eliminations of certain tax breaks — and, in some cases, due to their filing status. But some may see additional tax savings due to their filing status.

Unmarried vs. married taxpayers

In an effort to further eliminate the marriage “penalty,” the TCJA made changes to some of the middle tax brackets. As a result, some single and head of household filers could be pushed into higher tax brackets more quickly than pre-TCJA. For example, the beginning of the 32% bracket for singles for 2018 is $157,501, whereas it was $191,651 for 2017 (though the rate was 33%). For heads of households, the beginning of this bracket has decreased even more significantly, to $157,501 for 2018 from $212,501 for 2017.

Married taxpayers, on the other hand, won’t be pushed into some middle brackets until much higher income levels for 2018 through 2025. For example, the beginning of the 32% bracket for joint filers for 2018 is $315,001, whereas it was $233,351 for 2017 (again, the rate was 33% then).

2018 filing and 2019 brackets

Because there are so many variables, it will be hard to tell exactly how specific taxpayers will be affected by TCJA changes, including changes to the brackets, until they file their 2018 tax returns. In the meantime, it’s a good idea to begin to look at 2019. As before the TCJA, the tax brackets are adjusted annually for inflation.

Below is a look at the 2019 brackets under the TCJA. Contact us for help assessing what your tax rate likely will be for 2019 — and for help filing your 2018 tax return.

Single individuals

10%: $0 - $9,700
12%: $9,701 - $39,475
22%: $39,476 - $84,200
24%: $84,201 - $160,725
32%: $160,726 - $204,100
35%: $204,101 - $510,300
37%: Over $510,300

Heads of households

10%: $0 - $13,850
12%: $13,851 - $52,850
22%: $52,851 - $84,200
24%: $84,201 - $160,700
32%: $160,701 - $204,100
35%: $204,101 - $510,300
37%: Over $510,300

Married individuals filing joint returns and surviving spouses

10%: $0 - $19,400
12%: $19,401 - $78,950
22%: $78,951 - $168,400
24%: $168,401 - $321,450
32%: $321,451 - $408,200
35%: $408,201 - $612,350
37%: Over $612,350

Married individuals filing separate returns

10%: $0 - $9,700
12%: $9,701 - $39,475
22%: $39,476 - $84,200
24%: $84,201 - $160,725
32%: $160,726 - $204,100
35%: $204,101 - $306,175
37%: Over $306,175

© 2019

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Sudden impact: When a spouse unexpectedly dies

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What if the unthinkable happens and your spouse dies unexpectedly? Would you be prepared to cope emotionally and financially? As the surviving spouse, you’ll face several tasks and challenges.

First steps first

By no means complete, the following are areas that will need to be addressed:

Death certificates. One of the first things to do is obtain death certificates, which you’ll need to provide for various dealings with financial institutions and others. While it may be difficult to estimate how many death certificates will ultimately be requested of you, you’ll probably want to start with at least a dozen.

Notifications. You must get the word out to other interested parties, including your spouse’s employer, if applicable; credit card companies; life insurance companies; retirement plan and IRA administrators; the state motor vehicle agency; the state office for inheritance tax, if applicable; and your attorney.

Social Security benefits. If your spouse was receiving benefits, consult with the Social Security Administration as to the benefits available to a surviving spouse. Frequently, modifications are required if the survivor was the lower-earning spouse. Even if your spouse wasn’t receiving benefits yet, you may be eligible for survivor benefits, depending on your age and other factors.

Insurance. Don’t assume that everything about your insurance will stay the same. Review your various policies to ensure that you’ll have the optimal coverage going forward. Make whatever beneficiary changes are required.

Retirement plans and IRAs. You may face important decisions regarding employer retirement plans, such as 401(k) plans, as well as traditional and Roth IRAs. For example, if your spouse had a traditional IRA, you can complete a timely rollover to an IRA of your own without owing any tax. Conversely, you might opt for a lump-sum payout from a 401(k) or IRA should you need the funds.

Investments. Review the investments that were owned solely by your spouse, as well as those you owned jointly. When you have time, sit down with your financial advisor to chart out a path for the future, focusing on changes in personal objectives, time horizon and risk tolerance.

Estate tax filing. Although federal estate tax returns generally are required for only the wealthiest individuals, you may choose to file a return to establish the value of inherited assets. Generally, the return is due within nine months of the date of the death.

Finally, review your estate plan

Once you’re over the initial shock of the death, sit down with your attorney and review your estate plan. You’ll likely need to make several revisions in areas where you named your spouse as beneficiary. If you need help during this difficult time, please turn to us.

© 2019

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Higher mileage rate may mean larger tax deductions for business miles in 2019

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This year, the optional standard mileage rate used to calculate the deductible costs of operating an automobile for business increased by 3.5 cents, to the highest level since 2008. As a result, you might be able to claim a larger deduction for vehicle-related expense for 2019 than you can for 2018.

Actual costs vs. mileage rate

Businesses can generally deduct the actual expenses attributable to business use of vehicles. This includes gas, oil, tires, insurance, repairs, licenses and vehicle registration fees. In addition, you can claim a depreciation allowance for the vehicle. However, in many cases depreciation write-offs on vehicles are subject to certain limits that don’t apply to other types of business assets.

The mileage rate comes into play when taxpayers don’t want to keep track of actual vehicle-related expenses. 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.

The mileage rate approach also is popular with businesses that reimburse employees for business use of their personal automobiles. Such reimbursements can help attract and retain employees who’re expected to drive their personal vehicle extensively for business purposes. Why? Under the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act, employees can no longer deduct unreimbursed employee business expenses, such as business mileage, on their individual income tax returns.

But be aware that you must comply with various rules. If you don’t, you risk having the reimbursements considered taxable wages to the employees.

The 2019 rate

Beginning on January 1, 2019, the standard mileage rate for the business use of a car (van, pickup or panel truck) is 58 cents per mile. For 2018, the rate was 54.5 cents per mile.

The business cents-per-mile rate is adjusted annually. It is based on an annual study commissioned by the IRS about the fixed and variable costs of operating a vehicle, such as gas, maintenance, repair and depreciation. Occasionally, if there is a substantial change in average gas prices, the IRS will change the mileage rate midyear.

More considerations

There are certain situations where you can’t use the cents-per-mile rate. It depends in part on how you’ve claimed deductions for the same vehicle in the past or, if the vehicle is new to your business this year, whether you want to take advantage of certain first-year depreciation breaks on it.

As you can see, there are many variables to consider in determining whether to use the mileage rate to deduct vehicle expenses. Contact us if you have questions about tracking and claiming such expenses in 2019 — or claiming them on your 2018 income tax return.

© 2019

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Have you had your annual estate plan checkup?

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An annual estate plan checkup is critical to the health of your estate plan. Because various exclusion, exemption and deduction amounts are adjusted for inflation, they can change from year to year, impacting your plan.

2019 vs. 2018 amounts

Here are a few key figures for 2018 and 2019:

Lifetime gift and estate tax exemption

  • 2018: $11.18 million
  • 2019: $11.40 million

Generation-skipping transfer tax exemption

  • 2018: $11.18 million
  • 2019: $11.40 million

Annual gift tax exclusion

  • 2018: $15,000
  • 2019: $15,000

Marital deduction for gifts to a noncitizen spouse

  • 2018: $152,000
  • 2019: $155,000

You may need to update your estate plan based on these changes. But the beginning of the year isn’t the only time for an estate plan checkup. Whenever there are significant changes in your family, such as births, deaths, marriages or divorces, it’s a good idea to revisit your estate plan. Your plan also merits a look any time your financial situation changes significantly.

Turn to us for help

If you haven’t yet had your annual estate plan checkup, please contact us. Or, if you don’t yet have an estate plan, we can help you create one.

© 2019

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2 major tax law changes for individuals in 2019

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While most provisions of the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act (TCJA) went into effect in 2018 and either apply through 2025 or are permanent, there are two major changes under the act for 2019. Here’s a closer look.

1. Medical expense deduction threshold

With rising health care costs, claiming whatever tax breaks related to health care that you can is more important than ever. But there’s a threshold for deducting medical expenses that was already difficult for many taxpayers to meet, and it may be even harder to meet this year.

The TCJA temporarily reduced the threshold from 10% of adjusted gross income (AGI) to 7.5% of AGI. Unfortunately, the reduction applies only to 2017 and 2018. So for 2019, the threshold returns to 10% — unless legislation is signed into law extending the 7.5% threshold. Only qualified, unreimbursed expenses exceeding the threshold can be deducted.

Also, keep in mind that you have to itemize deductions to deduct medical expenses. Itemizing saves tax only if your total itemized deductions exceed your standard deduction. And with the TCJA’s near doubling of the standard deduction for 2018 through 2025, many taxpayers who’ve typically itemized may no longer benefit from itemizing.

2. Tax treatment of alimony

Alimony has generally been deductible by the ex-spouse paying it and included in the taxable income of the ex-spouse receiving it. Child support, on the other hand, hasn’t been deductible by the payer or taxable income to the recipient.

Under the TCJA, for divorce agreements executed (or, in some cases, modified) after December 31, 2018, alimony payments won’t be deductible — and will be excluded from the recipient’s taxable income. So, essentially, alimony will be treated the same way as child support.

Because the recipient ex-spouse would typically pay income taxes at a rate lower than that of the paying ex-spouse, the overall tax bite will likely be larger under this new tax treatment. This change is permanent.

TCJA impact on 2018 and 2019

Most TCJA changes went into effect in 2018, but not all. Contact us if you have questions about the medical expense deduction or the tax treatment of alimony — or any other changes that might affect you in 2019. We can also help you assess the impact of the TCJA when you file your 2018 tax return.

© 2019

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Is there still time to pay 2018 bonuses and deduct them on your 2018 return?

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There aren’t too many things businesses can do after a year ends to reduce tax liability for that year. However, you might be able to pay employee bonuses for 2018 in 2019 and still deduct them on your 2018 tax return. In certain circumstances, businesses can deduct bonuses employees have earned during a tax year if the bonuses are paid within 2½ months after the end of that year (by March 15 for a calendar-year company).

Basic requirements

First, only accrual-basis taxpayers can take advantage of the 2½ month rule. Cash-basis taxpayers must deduct bonuses in the year they’re paid, regardless of when they’re earned.

Second, even for accrual-basis taxpayers, the 2½ month rule isn’t automatic. The bonuses can be deducted on the tax return for the year they’re earned only if the business’s bonus liability was fixed by the end of the year.

Passing the test

For accrual-basis taxpayers, a liability (such as a bonus) is deductible when it is incurred. To determine this, the IRS applies the “all-events test.” Under this test, a liability is incurred when:

  • All events have occurred that establish the taxpayer’s liability,
  • The amount of the liability can be determined with reasonable accuracy, and
  • Economic performance has occurred.

Generally, the last requirement isn’t an issue; it’s satisfied when an employee performs the services required to earn a bonus. But the first two requirements can delay your tax deduction until the year of payment, depending on how your bonus plan is designed.

For example, many bonus plans require an employee to still be an employee on the payment date to receive the bonus. Even when the amount of each employee’s bonus is fixed at the end of the tax year, if employees who leave the company before the payment date forfeit their bonuses, the all-events test isn’t satisfied until the payment date. Why? The business’s liability for bonuses isn’t fixed until then.

Diving into a bonus pool

Fortunately, it’s possible to accelerate deductions with a carefully designed bonus pool arrangement. According to the IRS, employers may deduct bonuses in the year they’re earned — even if there’s a risk of forfeiture — as long as any forfeited bonuses are reallocated among the remaining employees in the bonus pool rather than retained by the employer.

Under such a plan, an employer satisfies the all-events test because the aggregate bonus amount is fixed at the end of the year. It doesn’t matter that amounts allocated to specific employees aren’t determined until the payment date.

When you can deduct bonuses

So does your current bonus plan allow you to take 2018 deductions for bonuses paid in early 2019? If you’re not sure, contact us. We can review your situation and determine when you can deduct your bonus payments.

If you’re an accrual taxpayer but don’t qualify to accelerate your bonus deductions this time, we can help you design a bonus plan for 2019 that will allow you to accelerate deductions when you file your 2019 return next year.

© 2019

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A review of significant TCJA provisions impacting individual taxpayers

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Now that 2019 has begun, there isn’t too much you can do to reduce your 2018 income tax liability. But it’s smart to begin preparing for filing your 2018 return. Because the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act (TCJA), which was signed into law at the end of 2017, likely will have a major impact on your 2018 taxes, it’s a good time to review the most significant provisions impacting individual taxpayers.

Rates and exemptions

Generally, taxpayers will be subject to lower tax rates for 2018. But a couple of rates stay the same, and changes to some of the brackets for certain types of filers (individuals and heads of households) could cause them to be subject to higher rates. Some exemptions are eliminated, while others increase. Here are some of the specific changes:

  • Drops of individual income tax rates ranging from 0 to 4 percentage points (depending on the bracket) to 10%, 12%, 22%, 24%, 32%, 35% and 37%
  • Elimination of personal and dependent exemptions
  • AMT exemption increase, to $109,400 for joint filers, $70,300 for singles and heads of households, and $54,700 for separate filers for 2018
  • Approximate doubling of the gift and estate tax exemption, to $11.18 million for 2018

Credits and deductions

Generally, tax breaks are reduced for 2018. However, a few are enhanced. Here’s a closer look:

  • Doubling of the child tax credit to $2,000 and other modifications intended to help more taxpayers benefit from the credit
  • Near doubling of the standard deduction, to $24,000 (married couples filing jointly), $18,000 (heads of households) and $12,000 (singles and married couples filing separately) for 2018
  • Reduction of the adjusted gross income (AGI) threshold for the medical expense deduction to 7.5% for regular and AMT purposes
  • New $10,000 limit on the deduction for state and local taxes (on a combined basis for property and income or sales taxes; $5,000 for separate filers)
  • Reduction of the mortgage debt limit for the home mortgage interest deduction to $750,000 ($375,000 for separate filers), with certain exceptions
  • Elimination of the deduction for interest on home equity debt
  • Elimination of the personal casualty and theft loss deduction (with an exception for federally declared disasters)
  • Elimination of miscellaneous itemized deductions subject to the 2% floor (such as certain investment expenses, professional fees and unreimbursed employee business expenses)
  • Elimination of the AGI-based reduction of certain itemized deductions
  • Elimination of the moving expense deduction (with an exception for members of the military in certain circumstances)
  • Expansion of tax-free Section 529 plan distributions to include those used to pay qualifying elementary and secondary school expenses, up to $10,000 per student per tax year

How are you affected?

As you can see, the TCJA changes for individuals are dramatic. Many rules and limits apply, so contact us to find out exactly how you’re affected. We can also tell you if any other provisions affect you, and help you begin preparing for your 2018 tax return filing and 2019 tax planning.

© 2019

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