Still important: The tax impact of business travel

With conference calls and Web meetings increasingly prevalent, business travel isn’t what it used to be. But if your company is still sending employees out on the road, it remains important to understand the tax ramifications.

Fringe benefits

Generally, for federal tax purposes, a company may deduct all ordinary and necessary expenses paid or incurred during the tax year in carrying on any trade or business. This includes travel expenses that aren’t deemed lavish or extravagant.

For employees, travel expenses are typically considered a “working condition fringe benefit” and, therefore, not included in gross income. Working condition fringe benefits are any property or service provided to an employee to the extent that, if he or she paid for the property or service, it would be tax-deductible.

Accountable plan

Under the Internal Revenue Code, an advance or reimbursement for travel expenses made to an employee under an “accountable plan” is deductible by the employer and not subject to FICA and income tax withholding. In general, an advance or reimbursement is treated as made under an accountable plan if an employee:

  • Receives the advance or reimbursement for a deductible business expense paid or incurred while performing services for his or her employer,
  • Accounts for the expense to his employer within a reasonable period of time and in an adequate manner, and
  • Returns any excess reimbursement or allowance within a reasonable period of time.

By contrast, an advance or reimbursement made under a “nonaccountable plan” isn’t considered a working condition fringe benefit — it’s treated as compensation. Thus, the amount is fully taxable to the employee, and subject to FICA and income tax withholding by the employer.

Travel status

Although business transportation — going from one place to another without an overnight stay — is deductible, attaining “business travel status” fully opens the door to substantial tax benefits. Under business travel status, the entire cost of lodging and incidental expenses, and 50% of meal expenses, is generally deductible by the employer that pays the bill. What’s more, those amounts don’t equate to any taxable income for employees who, as mentioned, are reimbursed under an accountable plan.

So how does a business trip qualify for business travel status? It must involve overnight travel; an employee traveling away from his or her tax home; and a temporary trip undertaken solely, or primarily, for ordinary and necessary business reasons.

Bear in mind that “overnight” travel doesn’t necessarily mean an employee must be away from dusk till dawn. Any trip that’s long enough to require sleep or rest to enable the taxpayer to continue working is considered “overnight.”

Furthermore, there’s an exception under which local, “nonlavish” lodging expenses incurred while not away from home overnight on business may be deductible if all facts and circumstances so indicate. One factor specified in the regs is whether the employee incurs the expense because of a bona fide employment condition or requirement.

Crucial details

Even if your company has pumped the brakes on business trips, knowing the tax rules can save you valuable dollars on those “must go” travel engagements. We can help you with the crucial details — and particularly in setting up an accountable plan if you don’t already have one.

© 2017

Help prevent tax identity theft by filing early

If you’re like many Americans, you might not start thinking about filing your tax return until close to this year’s April 17 deadline. You might even want to file for an extension so you don’t have to send your return to the IRS until October 15.

But there’s another date you should keep in mind: the day the IRS begins accepting 2017 returns (usually in late January). Filing as close to this date as possible could protect you from tax identity theft.

Why it helps

In an increasingly common scam, thieves use victims’ personal information to file fraudulent tax returns electronically and claim bogus refunds. This is usually done early in the tax filing season. When the real taxpayers file, they’re notified that they’re attempting to file duplicate returns.

A victim typically discovers the fraud after he or she files a tax return and is informed by the IRS that the return has been rejected because one with the same Social Security number has already been filed for the same tax year. The IRS then must determine who the legitimate taxpayer is.

Tax identity theft can cause major complications to straighten out and significantly delay legitimate refunds. But if you file first, it will be the tax return filed by a potential thief that will be rejected — not yours.

What to look for

Of course, in order to file your tax return, you’ll need to have your W-2s and 1099s. So another key date to be aware of is January 31 — the deadline for employers to issue 2017 W-2s to employees and, generally, for businesses to issue 1099s to recipients of any 2017 interest, dividend or reportable miscellaneous income payments. So be sure to keep an eye on your mailbox or your employer’s internal website.

Additional bonus

An additional bonus: If you’ll be getting a refund, filing early will generally enable you to receive and enjoy that money sooner. (Bear in mind, however, that a law requires the IRS to hold until February 15 refunds on returns claiming the earned income tax credit or refundable child tax credit.) Let us know if you have questions about tax identity theft or would like help filing your 2017 return early.

© 2017

Owner-employees need to stay up to speed on employment taxes

Keeping up with the complexity of the Internal Revenue Code is challenging for an individual and even more so for a business owner. But, if you’re someone who handles both roles — an owner-employee — the difficulty level is particularly high. Nonetheless, it’s important to stay up to speed on your specific obligations. As you’re no doubt aware, much depends on the structure of your company.

Partnerships and LLCs

Generally, all trade or business income that flows through to you for income tax purposes is subject to self-employment taxes — even if the income isn’t actually distributed to you. But such income may not be subject to self-employment taxes if you’re a limited partner or member of a limited liability company whose ownership is equivalent to a limited partnership interest. Whether the additional 0.9% Medicare tax on earned income or the 3.8% net investment income tax (NIIT) applies also is complex to determine.

S corporations

Under an S corporation, only income you receive as salary is subject to employment taxes and, if applicable, the 0.9% Medicare tax. To reduce these taxes, you may want to keep your salary relatively — but not unreasonably — low and increase your distributions of company income (which generally isn’t taxed at the corporate level or subject to the 0.9% Medicare tax or 3.8% NIIT).

C corporations

For C corporations, only income you receive as salary is subject to employment taxes. If applicable, the 0.9% Medicare tax may be due as well. Nevertheless, you may prefer to take more income as salary (which is deductible at the corporate level) as opposed to dividends (which aren’t deductible at the corporate level, are taxed at the shareholder level and could be subject to the 3.8% NIIT) if the overall tax paid by both the corporation and you would be less. Warning: The IRS is cracking down on misclassification of corporate payments to shareholder-employees, so tread carefully.

Latest info

As this article went to press, tax law reform efforts were underway that may affect some of this article’s content. Please contact our firm for the latest information.

© 2017

4 financial planning tips for second marriages

Every year, a substantial percentage of weddings aren’t first-time nuptials but second (or subsequent) marriages. Here are four tips to help such partners better manage the situation:

  1. Take inventoryIdentify the assets and liabilities each person brings to the union. If one spouse has significant debt, how will the couple manage it? Or if one spouse holds significant savings or investments, both partners should decide whether ownership changes should occur.
  2.  Complete any paperworkFor instance, if a former spouse remains listed as the beneficiary of a retirement account, he or she may ultimately receive the asset — even if the account owner intended it to go to a new spouse. (Note: In community property states, a former spouse may still be entitled to a portion of the account.) Therefore, beneficiary change documents may need to be executed.
  3.  Consider executing new willsThis is particularly true if one spouse would like children from a previous marriage to receive, for example, a pre-existing business or personal property. If these wishes aren’t spelled out, the assets may not pass down as intended.
  4. Seek professional adviceLaws regarding divorce and remarriage vary by state. Consult an attorney and contact our firm to discuss tax and financial ramifications.

© 2017

Tax calendar

January 16 — Individual taxpayers’ final 2016 estimated tax payment is due.

January 31 — File 2017 Forms W-2 (“Wage and Tax Statement”) with the Social Security Administration and provide copies to your employees.

  • File 2017 Forms 1099-MISC (“Miscellaneous Income”) reporting nonemployee compensation payments in box 7 with the IRS and provide copies to recipients.
  • Most employers must file Form 941 (“Employer’s Quarterly Federal Tax Return”) to report Medicare, Social Security, and income taxes withheld in the fourth quarter of 2017. If your tax liability is less than $2,500, you can pay it in full with a timely filed return. If you deposited the tax for the quarter in full and on time, you have until February 12 to file the return. Employers who have an estimated annual employment tax liability of $1,000 or less may be eligible to file Form 944 (“Employer’s Annual Federal Tax Return”).
  • File Form 940 (“Employer’s Annual Federal Unemployment [FUTA] Tax Return”) for 2017. If your undeposited tax is $500 or less, you can either pay it with your return or deposit it. If it is more than $500, you must deposit it. However, if you deposited the tax for the year in full and on time, you have until February 12 to file the return.
  • File Form 943 (“Employer’s Annual Federal Tax Return for Agricultural Employees”) to report Social Security, Medicare, and withheld income taxes for 2017. If your tax liability is less than $2,500, you can pay it in full with a timely filed return. If you deposited the tax for the year in full and on time, you have until February 12 to file the return.
  • File Form 945 (“Annual Return of Withheld Federal Income Tax”) for 2017 to report income tax withheld on all nonpayroll items, including backup withholding and withholding on pensions, annuities, IRAs, etc. If your tax liability is less than $2,500, you can pay it in full with a timely filed return. If you deposited the tax for the year in full and on time, you have until February 12 to file the return.

February 28 — File 2017 Forms 1099-MISC with the IRS.

March 15 — 2017 tax returns must be filed or extended for calendar-year partnerships and S corporations. If the return is not extended, this is also the last day to make 2017 contributions to pension and profit-sharing plans.

© 2017

Educate employees on required minimum distribution rules

The deadline for taking 2017 required minimum distributions (RMDs) is rapidly approaching: December 31, 2017. If you own a business and offer a 401(k) plan, it’s a good time to think about how you can make sure your older employees are aware of the RMD obligations, including how the rules differ for IRAs vs. 401(k) plans.

IRAs vs. 401(k)s

To avoid a huge penalty, individuals must take RMDs from their IRAs (other than Roth IRAs) on reaching age 70½. However, the first payment can be delayed until April 1 of the year following the year in which the individual turns 70½. (Beware: Different RMD rules apply to inherited IRAs.)

Distributions from 401(k)s are different; current employees don’t have to take 401(k) RMDs. Although the regulations don’t state how many hours employees need to work to postpone 401(k) RMDs, they must be doing legitimate work and receiving W-2 wages.

There’s an important exception, however: Owner-employees (if they own at least 5% of the company) must begin taking RMDs from the 401(k) beginning at 70½, regardless of work status.

If someone has multiple IRAs, it doesn’t matter which one he or she takes RMDs from so long as the total amount reflects their aggregate IRA assets. In contrast, RMDs based on 401(k) plan assets must be taken specifically from the 401(k) plan account.

Calculating RMDs

RMD amounts change each year as the retiree ages, based on the applicable IRS life expectancy table.

For example, at age 72, the “distribution period” is 25.6, meaning that the IRS life expectancy table assumes that the account holder will live about another 25½ years. Thus, someone age 72 must withdraw 1/25.6 of his or her IRA or 401(k) account. Percentage-wise, that is 3.91%.

If someone lives to age 90, the distribution period would be 11.4, resulting in an 8.77% RMD. Although the percentage amount increases over time, the IRS rules don’t force retirees to zero out their accounts. Still, if an account holder lives long enough, he or she isn’t likely to have a lot of funds remaining in the account at death.

Informed and happy

Remember, informed employees are happy employees — which can lead to more engaged, productive employees. We’d be happy to assist you in providing the most current, accurate information.

Sidebar: Other facts about RMDs

Here are some additional facts about required minimum distributions (RMDs) that you can share with employees:

Beneficiary spouses. Account holders who have a beneficiary spouse at least 10 years younger are subject to a different RMD life expectancy table that allows them to take out smaller amounts to preserve retirement assets for the younger spouse.

Tax penalty. The tax penalty for withdrawing less than the RMD amount is 50% of the portion that should have been withdrawn but wasn’t.

Form of distribution. RMDs can be taken in cash or in stock shares whose value is the same as the RMD amount. Although taking stock shares can be administratively burdensome, doing so can allow account holders to defer incurring brokerage commissions on securities they don’t want to sell. Their tax basis in the stock (for future capital gains liability calculation purposes) will reset to the value of the securities when they’re distributed.

© 2017

DAPTs offer a homegrown approach to asset protection

Your assets face many potential threats to their value, such as market volatility and inflation. Another threat, especially if you’re at high risk for lawsuits, is creditors. The most effective way to protect assets from such a threat may be to transfer them to children or other family members, either outright or in trust, with no strings attached. So long as the transfer isn’t fraudulent — that is, intended to delay or defraud known creditors — creditors won’t be able to touch the assets.

If you wish to retain some control over your wealth, however, consider an asset protection trust. For affluent families with significant liability concerns, foreign asset protection trusts probably offer the greatest protection. But if you prefer to avoid the complexity and expense of these arrangements, look into a domestic asset protection trust (DAPT).

How does it work?

A DAPT is an irrevocable, spendthrift trust established in one of the 16 states that currently authorize this trust type (Alaska, Colorado, Delaware, Hawaii, Mississippi, Missouri, Nevada, New Hampshire, Ohio, Oklahoma, Rhode Island, South Dakota, Tennessee, Utah, Virginia and Wyoming). Unlike trusts in other jurisdictions, a DAPT offers creditor protection even if you’re a discretionary beneficiary of the trust.

You don’t necessarily have to live in one of the previously listed states. But, to set up a trust in a state where you don’t reside, you’ll typically need to move some or all of the trust assets there and engage a bank or trust company in the state to administer the trust.

DAPT protection varies from state to state, so it’s important to shop around. For example, different jurisdictions have different statute of limitations periods, which determine how long you’ll have to wait until full asset protection kicks in. (During the limitations period, creditors can challenge transfers to the trust.) Also, most of the DAPT laws contain exceptions for certain types of creditors, such as divorcing spouses, child support creditors and pre-existing tort creditors.

Usually, DAPTs are incomplete gift trusts, which give you some flexibility to change beneficiaries or otherwise control asset disposition. But it’s also possible to structure a DAPT as a completed gift trust, thereby removing the assets (and any future appreciation of those assets) from your taxable estate.

What’s the primary risk?

A DAPT’s main disadvantage is the uncertainty over whether it will withstand a court challenge. Although they’ve been around since 1997, DAPTs haven’t been widely tested in court.

Most experts agree that, if you live in one of the states with a DAPT statute, a properly designed and funded DAPT will likely be effective. But some uncertainty surrounds trusts established by nonresidents.

Is it the right move?

There are other ways to protect your assets from creditors, such as through insurance or use of various business entity structures. We can help you decide whether a DAPT is the right move.

© 2017

5 common mistakes when applying for financial aid

Given the astronomical cost of college, even well-off parents should consider applying for financial aid. A single misstep, however, can harm your child’s eligibility. Here are five common mistakes to avoid:

  1. Presuming you don’t qualify. It’s difficult to predict whether you’ll qualify for aid, so apply even if you think your net worth is too high. Keep in mind that, generally, the value of your principal residence or any qualified retirement assets isn’t included in your net worth for financial aid purposes.
  2. Filing the wrong forms. Most colleges and universities, and many states, require you to submit the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) for need-based aid. Some schools also require it for merit-based aid. In addition, a number of institutions require the CSS/Financial Aid PROFILE®, and specific types of aid may have their own paperwork requirements.
  3. Missing deadlines. Filing deadlines vary by state and institution, so note the requirements for each school to which your child applies. Some schools provide financial aid to eligible students on a first-come, first-served basis until funding runs out, so the earlier you apply, the better. This may require you to complete your income tax return early.
  4. Picking favoritesThe FAFSA allows you to designate up to 10 schools with which your application will be shared. Some families list these schools in order of preference, but there’s a risk that schools may use this information against you. Schools at the top of the list may conclude that they can offer less aid because your child is eager to attend. To avoid this result, consider listing schools in alphabetical order.
  5. Mistaking who’s responsibleIf you’re divorced or separated, the FAFSA should be completed by the parent with whom your child lived for the majority of the 12-month period ending on the date the application is filed. This is true regardless of which parent claims the child as a dependent on his or her tax return.

The rule provides a significant planning opportunity if one spouse is substantially wealthier than the other. For example, if the child lives with the less affluent spouse for 183 days and with the other spouse for 182 days, the less affluent spouse would file the FAFSA, improving eligibility for financial aid.

These are just a few examples of financial aid pitfalls. Let us help you navigate the process and explore other ways to finance college.

© 2017

Ensuring your year-end donations are tax deductible

Many people make donations at the end of the year. To be deductible on your 2017 return, a charitable donation must be made by December 31, 2017. According to the IRS, a donation generally is “made” at the time of its “unconditional delivery.” But what does this mean?

Is it the date you write a check or charge an online gift to your credit card? Or is it the date the charity actually receives the funds? In practice, the delivery date depends in part on what you donate and how you donate it. Here are a few common examples:

Checks. The date you mail it.

Credit cards. The date you make the charge.

Pay-by-phone accounts. The date the financial institution pays the amount.

Stock certificates. The date you mail the properly endorsed stock certificate to the charity.

To be deductible, a donation must be made to a “qualified charity” — one that’s eligible to receive tax-deductible contributions. The IRS’s online search tool, “Exempt Organizations (EO) Select Check,” can help you more easily find out whether an organization is eligible to receive tax-deductible charitable contributions. You can access it at https://www.irs.gov/charities-non-profits/exempt-organizations-select-check. Information about organizations eligible to receive deductible contributions is updated monthly.

Many additional rules apply to the charitable donation deduction, so please contact us if you have questions about the deductibility of a gift you’ve made or are considering making. But act soon — you don’t have much time left to make donations that will reduce your 2017 tax bill.

© 2017

Handle with care: Mutual funds and taxes

Many people overlook taxes when planning their mutual fund investments. But you’ve got to handle these valuable assets with care. Here are some tips to consider.

Avoid year-end investments

Typically, mutual funds distribute accumulated dividends and capital gains toward the end of the year. But don’t fall for the common misconception that investing in a fund just before a distribution date is like getting “free money.”

True, you’ll receive a year’s worth of income right after you invest. But the value of your shares will immediately drop by the same amount, so you won’t be any better off. Plus, you’ll be liable for taxes on the distribution as if you had owned your shares all year.

You can get a general idea of when a particular fund anticipates making a distribution by checking its website periodically. Also make a note of the “record date” — investors who own fund shares on that date will participate in the distribution.

Invest in tax-efficient funds

Actively managed funds tend to be less tax efficient. They buy and sell securities more frequently, generating a greater amount of capital gain, much of it short-term gain taxable at ordinary income rates rather than the lower, long-term capital gains rates.

Consider investing in tax-efficient funds instead. For example, index funds generally have lower turnover rates. And “passively managed” funds (sometimes described as “tax managed” funds) are designed to minimize taxable distributions.

Another option is exchange-traded funds (ETFs). Unlike mutual funds, which generally redeem shares by selling securities, ETFs are often able to redeem securities “in kind” — that is, to swap them for other securities. This limits an ETF’s recognition of capital gains, making it more tax efficient.

This isn’t to say that tax-inefficient funds don’t have a place in your portfolio. In some cases, actively managed funds may offer benefits, such as above-market returns, that outweigh their tax costs.

Watch out for reinvested distributions

Many investors elect to have their distributions automatically reinvested in their funds. Be aware that those distributions are taxable regardless of whether they’re reinvested or paid out in cash.

Reinvested distributions increase your tax basis in a fund, so track your basis carefully. If you fail to account for these distributions, you’ll end up paying tax on them twice — once when they’re paid and again when you sell your shares in the fund.

Fortunately, under current rules, mutual fund companies are required to track your basis for you. But you still may need to track your basis in funds you owned before 2012 when this requirement took effect, or if you purchased units in the fund outside of the current broker holding your units.

Do your due

Tax considerations should never be the primary driver of your investment decisions. Yet it’s important to do your due diligence on the potential tax consequences of funds you’re considering — particularly for your taxable accounts.

 

Sidebar: Directing tax-inefficient funds into nontaxable accounts

If you invest in actively managed or other tax-inefficient funds, ideally you should put these holdings in nontaxable accounts, such as a traditional IRA or 401(k). Because earnings in these accounts are tax-deferred, distributions from funds they hold won’t have any tax consequences until you withdraw them. And if the funds are held in a Roth account, those distributions will escape taxation altogether.