Dynasty trusts are more valuable than ever

The Tax Cuts and Jobs Act (TCJA), signed into law this past December, affects more than just income taxes. It’s brought great changes to estate planning and, in doing so, bolstered the potential value of dynasty trusts.

Exemption changes

Let’s start with the TCJA. It doesn’t repeal the estate tax, as had been discussed before its passage. The tax was retained in the final version of the law. For the estates of persons dying, and gifts made, after December 31, 2017, and before January 1, 2026, the gift and estate tax exemption and the generation-skipping transfer tax exemption amounts have been increased to an inflation-adjusted $10 million, or $20 million for married couples (expected to be $11.2 million and $22.4 million, respectively, for 2018).

Absent further congressional action, the exemptions will revert to their 2017 levels (adjusted for inflation) beginning January 1, 2026. The marginal tax rate for all three taxes remains at 40%.

GST avoidance

Now let’s turn to dynasty trusts. These irrevocable arrangements allow substantial amounts of wealth to grow free of federal gift, estate and generation-skipping transfer (GST) taxes, largely because of their lengthy terms. The specific longevity of a dynasty trust depends on the law of the state in which it’s established. Some states allow trusts to last for hundreds of years or even in perpetuity.

Where the TCJA and dynasty trusts come together is in the potential to avoid the GST tax. It levies an additional 40% tax on transfers to grandchildren or others that skip a generation, potentially consuming substantial amounts of wealth. The key to avoiding the tax is to leverage your GST tax exemption, which, under the TCJA, will be higher than ever starting in 2018.

Assuming you haven’t yet used any of your gift and estate tax exemption, you can transfer $10 million to a properly structured dynasty trust. There’s no gift tax on the transaction because it’s within your unused exemption amount. And the funds, plus future appreciation, are removed from your taxable estate.

Most important, by allocating your GST tax exemption to your trust contributions, you ensure that any future distributions or other transfers of trust assets to your grandchildren or subsequent generations will avoid GST taxes. This is true even if the value of the assets grows well beyond the exemption amount or the exemption is reduced in the future.

Best interests

Naturally, setting up a dynasty trust is neither simple nor quick. You’ll need to choose a structure, allocate assets (such as securities, real estate, life insurance policies and business interests), and name a trustee. Our firm can work with your attorney to maximize the tax benefits and help ensure the trust is in the best interests of your estate.

Sidebar: Nontax reasons to set up a dynasty trust

Regardless of the tax implications, there are valid nontax reasons to set up a dynasty trust. First, you can designate the beneficiaries of the trust assets spanning multiple generations. Typically, you might provide for the assets to follow a line of descendants, such as children, grandchildren, great-grandchildren, etc. You can also impose certain restrictions, such as limiting access to funds until a beneficiary earns a college degree.

Second, by placing assets in a properly structured trust, those assets can be protected from the reach of a beneficiary’s creditors, including claims based on divorce, a failed business or traffic accidents.

© 2018

Heed the warning signs of W-2 phishing scams

A growing number of businesses have been victimized by W-2 phishing scams. In a traditional phishing scam, a criminal tricks someone into providing confidential information and then uses it to steal money and/or the victim’s identity. The W-2 phishing scam is a variation on this.

Whether you’re a business owner, work in management or are simply an employee, it’s important to be able to recognize this dangerous ploy. The better educated a company’s employees are, the less likely that it will suffer at the hands of these criminals.

How it works

In a W-2 phishing scam, cybercriminals send emails to company employees — typically in payroll, benefits or HR departments — that claim to be from management. The emails request a list of employees along with their W-2 forms, Social Security numbers or other confidential data.

Here are some examples straight from the IRS:

  • “Kindly send me the individual 2015 W-2 (PDF) and earnings summary of all W-2 of our company staff for a quick review.”
  • “Can you send me the updated list of employees with full details (Name, Social Security Number, Date of Birth, Home Address, Salary)?”

If the employee responds with data, criminals can use the information to file fraudulent tax returns in the employees’ names, seeking refunds.

The scam is particularly nefarious because the employees it targets probably believe that, in complying with the emailed instructions, they’re doing exactly what they’re supposed to. Moreover, at first glance, the emails typically appear legitimate. Many contain the company’s logo and the name of an actual executive, typically gleaned from publicly available information.

The increasing number of such scams prompted the IRS to issue an alert in 2016: “IRS Alerts Payroll and HR Professionals to Phishing Scheme Involving W-2s.” More recently, in November 2017, the agency issued another stern warning on its website, entitled “Employers, Payroll Officials: Avoid the W-2 Email Scam.”

Education is key

While these scams have become more prevalent, businesses (and other employers) can take steps to reduce their risks. Because the scams target humans, rather than the technology itself, education is key. Inform all employees, and particularly those in areas that handle sensitive data, of the scams. Remind them not to click on links or download attachments from emails that were unsolicited or sent by those they don’t know.

Employees often are nervous about questioning a request that appears to come from upper management, so encourage them to double-check any request for sensitive information, no matter who appears to be making it. They should do this not by responding to the email in question, but by talking with a trusted supervisor or colleague.

Precautions necessary

With sensible precautions, your company can reduce the risk of falling victim to a W-2 phishing scam. Contact us for the latest information about any tax-related fraud issues.

© 2018

Business owners: Brush up on bonus depreciation

Every company needs to upgrade its assets once in a while, whether desks and chairs or a huge piece of complex machinery. But before you go shopping this year, be sure to brush up on the enhanced bonus depreciation tax breaks created under the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act (TCJA) passed late last year.

Old law

Qualified new — not used — assets that your business placed in service before September 28, 2017, fall under pre-TCJA law. For these items, you can claim a 50% first-year bonus depreciation deduction. This tax break is available for the cost of new computer systems, purchased software, vehicles, machinery, equipment, office furniture and so forth.

In addition, 50% bonus depreciation can be claimed for qualified improvement property, which means any qualified improvement to the interior portion of a nonresidential building if the improvement is placed in service after the date the building is placed in service. But qualified improvement costs don’t include expenditures for the enlargement of a building, an elevator or escalator, or the internal structural framework of a building.

New law

Bonus depreciation improves significantly under the TCJA. For qualified property placed in service from September 28, 2017, through December 31, 2022 (or by December 31, 2023, for certain property with longer production periods), the first-year bonus depreciation percentage is increased to 100%. In addition, the 100% deduction is allowed for both new and used qualifying property.

The new law also allows 100% bonus depreciation for qualified film, television and live theatrical productions placed in service on or after September 28, 2017. Productions are considered placed in service at the time of the initial release, broadcast or live commercial performance.

In later years, bonus depreciation is scheduled to be reduced to 80% for property placed in service in 2023, 60% for property placed in service in 2024, 40% for property placed in service in 2025 and 20% for property placed in service in 2026.

Important: For certain property with longer production periods, the preceding reductions are delayed by one year. For example, 80% bonus depreciation will apply to long-production-period property placed in service in 2024.

More details

If and when bonus depreciation isn’t available to your company, a similar tax break — the Section 179 deduction — may be able to provide comparable benefits. Please contact our firm for more details on how either might help your business.

© 2018

The changing face of personal exemptions and the standard deduction

Personal tax exemptions and the standard deduction have looked largely the same for quite some time. But, in light of the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act (TCJA) passed late last year, many individual taxpayers may find themselves confused by the changing face of these tax-planning elements. Here are some clarifications.

For 2017, taxpayers can claim a personal exemption of $4,050 each for themselves, their spouses and any dependents. If they choose not to itemize, they can take a standard deduction based on their filing status: $6,350 for singles and separate filers, $9,350 for head of household filers, and $12,700 for married couples filing jointly.

For 2018 through 2025, the TCJA suspends personal exemptions but roughly doubles the standard deduction amounts to $12,000 for singles and separate filers, $18,000 for heads of households, and $24,000 for joint filers. The standard deduction amounts will be adjusted for inflation beginning in 2019.

For some taxpayers, the increased standard deduction could compensate for the elimination of the exemptions, and perhaps even provide some additional tax savings. But for those with many dependents or who itemize deductions, these changes might result in a higher tax bill — depending in part on the extent to which they can benefit from family tax credits.

© 2018

Take a look at the domestic production activities deduction

The domestic production activities deduction (DPAD) provides a tax break for certain “domestic production activities.” Unfortunately, many businesses tend to overlook this valuable tax break because they believe it’s applicable only to certain industries. In fact, the deduction remains available to a wide range of businesses for the 2017 tax year.

Significant benefits

Calculating the DPAD is complex. Generally, the deduction is equal to the lesser of 9% (6% for “oil-related” activities) of a company’s income from qualified production activities or its taxable income. In addition, the deduction can’t exceed 50% of W-2 wages for the year that are attributable to domestic production.

To determine its qualified income, a business needs to start with its gross receipts from qualified domestic production activities and subtract the cost of goods sold and certain other costs allocable to those activities.

Industry specifics

Over the last couple of years, the IRS has issued guidance related to the application of the DPAD to several specific industries. These include:

Contract manufacturing. Which party to a contract manufacturing arrangement is entitled to claim the DPAD? Under current rules, the answer depends on which party enjoys the benefits and bears the burdens of ownership. That, in turn, depends on several factors, including which party:

  • Retains legal title to manufactured property during production,
  • Controls the property and the process,
  • Bears the risk of loss or damage,
  • Receives profits from the property’s sale, and
  • Pays property taxes.

To eliminate the uncertainty associated with this analysis, proposed regulations would establish a bright-line test under which the party that actually performs the activity would be entitled to claim the deduction.

Construction. Qualified production activities include those associated with the construction or substantial renovation of U.S. real property, including those “typically performed by a general contractor,” such as management and oversight of the construction process. Proposed regulations would clarify that a contractor whose activities are limited to approving and authorizing invoices and payments is ineligible for the DPAD.

Testing and packaging. Under current rules, qualified production activities may include testing of component parts, packaging, repackaging, labeling and “minor assembly.” Proposed regulations would exclude these activities if the taxpayer isn’t otherwise involved in manufacturing, producing, growing or extracting the property in question.

Assistance available

If your business has claimed the DPAD before, or if you think you may be able to for the 2017 tax year, please contact us. We can assist you with both the calculations involved and compliance with IRS rules.

Sidebar: Treatment of W-2 wages under DPAD

The IRS has provided guidance on the W-2 wage limitation to taxpayers with a short taxable year as it applies to the domestic production activities deduction. Wages are calculated on a calendar-year basis, and there had been some uncertainty over the treatment of wages paid during a short tax year that didn’t include a calendar year end. Temporary regulations provide that wages paid to employees during such a short tax year are included for the purposes of the W-2 wage limitation.

The temporary regulations also clarify the treatment of wages when a business is acquired or disposed of during the year. If employees receive wages from two different taxpayers, those wages are allocated between the taxpayers based on the employees’ respective periods of employment with each taxpayer.

© 2018

Making 2017 retirement plan contributions in 2018

The clock is ticking down to the tax filing deadline. The good news is that you still may be able to save on your impending 2017 tax bill by making contributions to certain retirement plans.

For example, if you qualify, you can make a deductible contribution to a traditional IRA right up until the April 17, 2018, filing date and still benefit from the resulting tax savings on your 2017 return. You also have until April 17 to make a contribution to a Roth IRA.

And if you happen to be a small business owner, you can set up and contribute to a Simplified Employee Pension (SEP) plan up until the due date for your company’s tax return, including extensions.

Deadlines and limits

Let’s look at some specifics. For IRA and Roth IRA contributions, the maximum regular contribution is $5,500. Plus, if you were at least age 50 on December 31, 2017, you are eligible for an additional $1,000 “catch-up” contribution.

There are also age limits. You must have been under age 70½ on December 31, 2017, to contribute to a traditional IRA. Contributions to a Roth can be made regardless of age, if you meet the other requirements.

For a SEP, the maximum contribution is $54,000, and must be made by the April 17th date, or by the extended due date (up to Monday, October 15, 2018) if you file a valid extension. (There’s no SEP catch-up amount.)

Phaseout ranges

If not covered by an employer’s retirement plan, your contributions to a traditional IRA are not affected by your modified adjusted gross income (MAGI). Otherwise, when you (or a spouse, if married) are active in an employer’s plan, available contributions begin to phase out within certain MAGI ranges.

For married couples filing jointly, the MAGI range is $99,000 to $119,000. For singles or heads of household, it’s $62,000 to $72,000. For those married but filing separately, the MAGI range is $0 to $10,000, if you lived with your spouse at any time during the year. A phaseout occurs between AGI of $186,000 and $196,000 if a spouse participates in an employer-sponsored plan.

Contributions to Roth IRAs phase out at mostly different ranges. For married couples filing jointly, the MAGI range is $186,000 to $196,000. For singles or heads of household, it’s $118,000 to $133,000. But for those married but filing separately, the phaseout range is the same: $0 to $10,000, if you lived with your spouse at any time during the year.

Essential security

Saving for retirement is essential for financial security. What’s more, the federal government provides tax incentives for doing so. Best of all, as mentioned, you still have time to contribute to an IRA, Roth IRA or SEP plan for the 2017 tax year. Please contact our firm for further details and a personalized approach to determining how to best contribute to your retirement plan or plans.

© 2018

Do you know the tax impact of your collectibles?

They say one person’s trash is another person’s treasure. This may hold true when it comes to collectibles — those various objets d’art for which many people will pay good money. But if you’re considering selling or donating some of your precious items, be sure to consider the tax impact on your 2017 return.

Sales

The IRS views most collectibles, other than those held for sale by dealers, as capital assets. As a result, any gain on the sale of a collectible that you’ve had for more than one year generally is treated as a long-term capital gain.

But while long-term capital gains on many types of assets are taxed at either 15% or 20% for the 2017 tax year, capital gains on collectibles are taxed at 28%. (As with other short-term capital gains, the tax rate when you sell a collectible that you’ve had for one year or less typically will be your ordinary-income tax rate.)

Determining the gain on a sale requires first determining your “basis” — generally, your cost to acquire the collectible. If you purchased it, your basis is the amount you paid for the item, including any brokers’ fees.

If you inherited the collectible, your basis is its fair market value at the time you inherited it. The fair market value can be determined in several ways, such as by an appraisal or through an analysis of the prices obtained in sales of similar items at about the same time.

Donations

If you want to donate a collectible, your tax deduction will likely depend both on its value and on the way in which the item will be used by the qualified charitable organization receiving it.

For you to deduct the fair market value of the collectible, the donation must meet what’s known as the “related use” test. That is, the charity’s use of the donated item must be related to its mission. This probably would be the case if, for instance, you donated a collection of political memorabilia to a history museum that then puts it on display.

Conversely, if you donated the collection to a hospital, and it sold the collection, the donation likely wouldn’t meet the related-use test. Instead, your deduction typically would be limited to your basis.

Proper handling

There are a number of other rules that may come into play when selling or donating collectibles. Our firm can help you handle the transaction properly on your 2017 return.

© 2018

When an elderly parent might qualify as your dependent

It’s not uncommon for adult children to help support their aging parents. If you’re in this position, you might qualify for an adult-dependent exemption to deduct up to $4,050 for each person claimed on your 2017 return.

Basic qualifications

For you to qualify for the adult-dependent exemption, in most cases your parent must have less gross income for the tax year than the exemption amount. (Exceptions may apply if your parent is permanently and totally disabled.) Social Security is generally excluded, but payments from dividends, interest and retirement plans are included.

In addition, you must have contributed more than 50% of your parent’s financial support. If you shared caregiving duties with one or more siblings and your combined support exceeded 50%, the exemption can be claimed even though no one individually provided more than 50%. However, only one of you can claim the exemption in this situation.

Important factors

Although Social Security payments can usually be excluded from the adult dependent’s income, they can still affect your ability to qualify. Why? If your parent is using Social Security money to pay for medicine or other expenses, you may find that you aren’t meeting the 50% test.

Also, if your parent lives with you, the amount of support you claim under the 50% test can include the fair market rental value of part of your residence. If the parent lives elsewhere — in his or her own residence or in an assisted-living facility or nursing home — any amount of financial support you contribute to that housing expense counts toward the 50% test.

Easing the burden

An adult-dependent exemption is just one tax break that you may be able to employ on your 2017 tax return to ease the burden of caring for an elderly parent. Contact us for more information on qualifying for this break or others.

© 2018

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