How to be tax-smart when it comes to mutual funds

Mutual funds are so common these days that many people overlook the tax considerations involved. Here are some tips on how to be tax-smart with these investment vehicles.

Avoid year-end investments

Typically, mutual funds distribute accumulated dividends and capital gains toward the end of the year. It’s generally wise to avoid investing in a fund shortly before such a distribution. Why? Because you’ll end up paying taxes on gains you didn’t share in.

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 fund anticipates making a distribution by checking its website periodically. It’s also important to make a note of the “record date” — because investors who own shares of the fund on that date participate in the distribution.

Invest in tax-efficient funds

When it comes to tax efficiency, not all funds are created equal. Actively managed funds tend to be less tax efficient — that is, they buy and sell securities more frequently, generating a greater amount of capital gains, much of it short-term gains taxable at ordinary-income rates. To reduce your tax liability, consider investing in tax-efficient funds, such as index funds, which generally have lower turnover rates, and “passively managed” funds (sometimes described as “tax managed” funds), which 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.

But don’t ignore tax-inefficient funds

Tax-inefficient funds may 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.

If you invest in actively managed or other tax-inefficient funds, ideally you should hold them in nontaxable accounts, such as traditional IRAs or 401(k) plan accounts. 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, qualifying distributions will escape taxation altogether.

Make no assumptions

It’s important to do your due diligence on mutual funds. Don’t assume that a fund that historically has been tax efficient will stay that way in the future. Feel free to contact our firm for help.

Sidebar: Reinvested distributions can lead to double taxation

Many investors elect to have their distributions automatically reinvested in their mutual funds. But it’s important to remember that those distributions are taxable regardless of whether they’re reinvested or paid out in cash.

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

© 2018

Deducting home equity interest under the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act

Passage of the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act (TCJA) in December 2017 has led to confusion over some longstanding deductions. In response, the IRS recently issued a statement clarifying that the interest on home equity loans, home equity lines of credit and second mortgages will, in many cases, remain deductible.

How it used to be

Under prior tax law, a taxpayer could deduct “qualified residence interest” on a loan of up to $1 million secured by a qualified residence, plus interest on a home equity loan (other than debt used to acquire a home) up to $100,000. The home equity debt couldn’t exceed the fair market value of the home reduced by the debt used to acquire the home.

For tax purposes, a qualified residence is the taxpayer’s principal residence and a second residence, which can be a house, condominium, cooperative, mobile home, house trailer or boat. The principal residence is where the taxpayer resides most of the time; the second residence is any other residence the taxpayer owns and treats as a second home. Taxpayers aren’t required to use the second home during the year to claim the deduction. If the second home is rented to others, though, the taxpayer also must use it as a home during the year for the greater of 14 days or 10% of the number of days it’s rented.

In the past, interest on qualifying home equity debt was deductible regardless of how the loan proceeds were used. A taxpayer could, for example, use the proceeds to pay for medical bills, tuition, vacations, vehicles and other personal expenses and still claim the itemized interest deduction.

What’s deductible now

The TCJA limits the amount of the mortgage interest deduction for taxpayers who itemize through 2025. Beginning in 2018, for new home purchases, a taxpayer can deduct interest only on acquisition mortgage debt of $750,000.

On February 21, the IRS issued a release (IR 2018-32) explaining that the law suspends the deduction only for interest on home equity loans and lines of credit that aren’t used to buy, build or substantially improve the taxpayer’s home that secures the loan. In other words, the interest isn’t deductible if the loan proceeds are used for certain personal expenses, but it is deductible if the proceeds go toward, for example, a new roof on the home that secures the loan. The IRS further stated that the deduction limits apply to the combined amount of mortgage and home equity acquisition loans — home equity debt is no longer capped at $100,000 for purposes of the deduction.

Further clarifications

As a relatively comprehensive new tax law, the TCJA will likely be subject to a variety of clarifications before it settles in. Please contact our firm for help better understanding this provision or any other.

© 2018

3 common types of IRS tax penalties

Around this time of year, many people have filed and forgotten about their 2017 tax returns. But you could get an abrupt reminder in the form of an IRS penalty. Here are three common types and how you might seek relief:

  1. Failure-to-file and failure-to-pay. The IRS will consider any reason that establishes that you were unable to meet your federal tax obligations despite using “all ordinary business care and prudence” to do so. Frequently cited reasons include fire, casualty, natural disaster or other disturbances. The agency may also accept death, serious illness, incapacitation or unavoidable absence of the taxpayer or an immediate family member.

If you don’t have a good reason for filing or paying late, you may be able to apply for a first-time penalty abatement (FTA) waiver. To qualify for relief, you must have: 1) received no penalties (other than estimated tax penalties) for the three tax years preceding the tax year in which you received a penalty, 2) filed all required returns or filed a valid extension of time to file, and 3) paid, or arranged to pay, any tax due. Despite the expression “first-time,” you can receive FTA relief more than once, so long as at least three years have elapsed.

  1. Estimated tax miscalculation. It’s possible, but unlikely, to obtain relief from estimated tax penalties on grounds of casualty, disaster or other unusual circumstances. You’re more likely to get these penalties abated if you can prove that the IRS made an error, such as crediting a payment to the wrong tax period, or that calculating the penalty using a different method (such as the annualized income installment method) would reduce or eliminate the penalty.
  2. Tax-filing inaccuracy. These penalties may be imposed, for example, if the IRS finds that your return was prepared negligently or that there’s a substantial understatement of tax. You can obtain relief from these penalties if you can demonstrate that you properly disclosed your tax position in your return and that you had a reasonable basis for taking that position.

Generally, you have a reasonable basis if your chances of withstanding an IRS challenge are greater than 50%. Reliance on a competent tax advisor greatly improves your odds of obtaining penalty relief. Other possible grounds for relief include computational errors and reliance on an inaccurate W-2, 1099 or other information statement.

© 2018

Beware of tax traps when making an employee a partner

In today’s competitive employment market, offering an employee an equity interest in your business can be a powerful tool for attracting and retaining top talent. If your company is organized as a partnership, however, beware of the tax traps of doing so.

Employees pay half of the Social Security and Medicare taxes on their wages, through withholdings from their paychecks. The employer pays the other half. Partners, on the other hand, are treated as being self-employed — they pay the full amount of “self-employment” taxes through quarterly estimates.

Often, when employees receive partnership interests, the partnership incorrectly continues to treat them as employees for tax purposes, withholding employment taxes from their wages and paying the employer’s share. The problem with this practice is that, because a partner is responsible for the full amount of employment taxes, the partnership’s payment of a portion of those taxes could be treated as a guaranteed payment to the partner.

That payment would then be included in income and trigger additional employment taxes. Any employment taxes not paid by the partnership on a partner’s behalf are the partner’s responsibility.

Treating a partner as an employee can also result in overpayment of employment taxes. Suppose your partnership pays half of a partner’s employment taxes and the partner also has other self-employment activities — for example, interests in other partnerships or sole proprietorships. If those activities generate losses, the losses will offset the partner’s earnings from your partnership, reducing or even eliminating self-employment taxes.

As you can see, there’s much to consider. Please contact our firm before making this move.

© 2018

Do you have your own wealth management plan?

Fingerprints: There are no two alike. So it should be with your wealth management plan. Taking a boilerplate approach could prevent you from achieving your specific goals. Here are some key points to consider when devising a plan that’s all your own.

Many variables

For your plan to be as unique as you, it should reflect variables such as:

  • Age,
  • Health status,
  • Risk tolerance, and
  • How you plan to use your assets now and going forward.

Risk tolerance is a particularly important point. Some people are naturally more willing to risk a loss for the opportunity of a larger gain. Others are uncomfortable with any possibility of loss even though this certainty may mean a lower potential return.

But risk tolerance also may be affected by age. If you’re retired or close to retirement, for example, a more conservative approach to investing, saving and spending is likely appropriate. By contrast, if you’re several decades away from retirement, you’ll more likely benefit from taking at least a few carefully considered chances to build wealth and keep ahead of inflation.

Withdrawal strategy

Another important component of a personal wealth management plan is your withdrawal strategy. For example, if you’re close to retirement, you need to withdraw from your accounts carefully to avoid having insufficient funds during retirement. Withdraw too little, however, and you could miss opportunities to enjoy life. (You also could face severe tax penalties if you don’t take required minimum distributions.)

Like your wealth management plan, your withdrawal strategy will be highly personal. The amount of income you’ll need in retirement will depend on your priorities. If you’re planning to travel extensively, your needs will be very different from what they’ll be if your primary goal is to stay close to home to spend more time with your family.

If you own assets in a variety of tax-free (such as a Roth IRA), tax-deferred (such as a 401(k) plan or traditional IRA) and taxable savings vehicles, there can be some significant tax implications to how you withdraw your assets. Conventional wisdom says that taxable assets should be withdrawn first, leaving your tax-advantaged holdings more time to grow. This approach may work in some situations, but it’s not necessarily the correct approach for everyone. (And minimum annual distributions are required from certain tax-advantaged accounts, generally after age 70½.)

Necessary help

Your wealth management plan should be carefully designed and maintained to suit the many distinctive elements of your life. But that doesn’t mean you must go about it alone. Please contact our firm for help not only creating a plan, but also checking in on it regularly to see whether any adjustments are necessary.

Sidebar: Don’t forget about estate planning

If your net worth is large enough that estate taxes are a concern, making annual gifts can be a surprisingly powerful way to reduce your taxable estate. In fact, making annual gifts can help you accomplish two important goals: removing assets from your estate and passing along assets to loved ones. Current federal law allows annual tax-free gifts of $15,000 per recipient per year ($30,000 for married couples).

Just make sure your gifting strategy is well integrated into your overall estate plan. Such a plan might also involve trusts and other mechanisms for distributing your wealth.

© 2018

Choosing between a calendar tax year and a fiscal tax year

Many business owners use a calendar year as their company’s tax year. It’s intuitive and aligns with most owners’ personal returns, making it about as simple as anything involving taxes can be. But for some businesses, choosing a fiscal tax year can make more sense.

What’s a fiscal tax year?

A fiscal tax year consists of 12 consecutive months that don’t begin on January 1 or end on December 31 — for example, July 1 through June 30. The year doesn’t necessarily need to end on the last day of a month. It might end on the same day each year, such as the last Friday in March. (This is known as a 52- or 53-week year.)

Flow-through entities (partnerships, S corporations and, typically, limited liability companies) using a fiscal tax year must file their returns by the 15th day of the third month following the close of their fiscal year. So, if their fiscal year ends on March 31, they need to file their returns by June 15. (Fiscal-year C corporations generally must file their returns by the 15th day of the fourth month following the fiscal year close.)

When does it make sense?

A key factor to consider is that, if you adopt a fiscal tax year, you must use the same period in maintaining your books and reporting income and expenses. For many seasonal businesses, a fiscal year can present a more accurate picture of the company’s performance.

For example, a snowplowing business might make the bulk of its revenue between November and March. Splitting the revenue between December and January to adhere to a calendar year end would make obtaining a solid picture of performance over a single season difficult.

In addition, if many businesses within your industry use a fiscal year end and you want to compare your performance to that of your peers, you’ll probably achieve a more accurate comparison if you’re using the same fiscal year.

Before deciding to change your fiscal year, be aware that the IRS requires businesses that don’t keep books and have no annual accounting period, as well as most sole proprietorships, to use a calendar year.

Does it matter?

If your company decides to change its tax year, you’ll need to obtain permission from the IRS. The change also will likely create a one-time “short tax year” — a tax year that’s less than 12 months. In this case, your income tax typically will be based on annualized income and expenses. But you might be able to use a relief procedure under Section 443(b)(2) of the Internal Revenue Code to reduce your tax bill.

Although choosing a tax year may seem like a minor administrative matter, it can have an impact on how and when a company pays taxes. We can help you determine whether a calendar or fiscal year makes more sense for your business.

© 2018

Get an early tax “refund” by adjusting your withholding

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

Fortunately, there’s a way to begin collecting your 2018 refund now: You can review the amounts you’re having withheld and/or what estimated tax payments you’re making, and adjust them to keep more money in your pocket during the year.

Choosing to adjust

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

  • You received an especially large 2017 refund,
  • You’ve gotten married or divorced or added a dependent,
  • You’ve bought a home,
  • You’ve started or lost a job, or
  • Your investment income has changed significantly.

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

Making a change

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

While reducing withholdings or estimated tax payments will, indeed, put more money in your pocket now, you also need to be careful that you don’t reduce them too much. If you don’t pay enough tax throughout the year on a timely basis, you could end up owing interest and penalties when you file your return, even if you pay your outstanding tax liability by the April 2019 deadline.

Getting help

One timely reason to consider adjusting your withholding is the passage of the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act late last year. In fact, the IRS had to revise its withholding tables to account for the increase to the standard deduction, suspension of personal exemptions, and changes in tax rates and brackets. If you’d like help determining what your withholding or estimated tax payments should be for the rest of the year, please contact us.

© 2018

Foreign accounts call for specific reporting requirements

In an increasingly globalized society, many people choose to open offshore accounts to deposit a portion of their wealth. When doing so, it’s important to follow the IRS’s strict foreign accounts reporting requirements. In a nutshell, if you have a financial interest in or signature authority over any foreign accounts, including bank accounts, brokerage accounts, mutual funds or trusts, you must disclose those accounts to the IRS and you may have additional reporting requirements.

To do so, your tax preparer will check the box on line 7a of Schedule B (“Interest and Ordinary Dividends”) of Form 1040 — regardless of the account value. If the total value of your foreign financial assets exceeds $50,000 ($100,000 for joint filers) at the end of the tax year or exceeds $75,000 ($150,000 for joint filers) at any time during the tax year, you must provide account details on Form 8938 (“Statement of Specified Foreign Financial Assets”) and attach it to your tax return.

Finally, if the aggregate value of your foreign accounts is $10,000 or more during the calendar year, file FinCEN (Financial Crimes Enforcement Network) Form 114 — “Report of Foreign Bank and Financial Accounts (FBAR).” The current deadline for filing the form electronically with FinCEN is April 15, 2018, with an automatic extension to October 15.

Failure to disclose an offshore account could result in substantial IRS penalties, including collecting three to six years’ worth of back taxes, interest, a 20% to 40% accuracy-related penalty and, in some cases, a 75% fraud penalty. For further information, contact us.

© 2018

No kidding: Child credit to get even more valuable

The child credit has long been a valuable tax break. But, with the passage of the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act (TCJA) late last year, it’s now even better — at least for a while. Here are some details that every family should know.

Amount and limitations

For the 2017 tax year, the child credit may help reduce federal income tax liability dollar-for-dollar by up to $1,000 for each qualifying child under age 17. So if you haven’t yet filed your personal return or you might consider amending it, bear this in mind.

The credit is, however, subject to income limitations that may reduce or even eliminate eligibility for it depending on your filing status and modified adjusted gross income (MAGI). For 2017, the limits are $110,000 for married couples filing jointly, and $55,000 for married taxpayers filing separately. (Singles, heads of households, and qualifying widows and widowers are limited to $75,000 in MAGI.)

Exciting changes

Now the good news: Under the TCJA, the credit will double to $2,000 per child under age 17 starting in 2018. The maximum amount refundable (because a taxpayer’s credits exceed his or her tax liability) will be limited to $1,400 per child.

The TCJA also makes the child credit available to more families than in the past. That’s because, beginning in 2018, the credit won’t begin to phase out until MAGI exceeds $400,000 for married couples or $200,000 for all other filers, compared with the 2017 phaseouts of $110,000 and $75,000. The phaseout thresholds won’t be indexed for inflation, though, meaning the credit will lose value over time.

In addition, the TCJA includes (starting in 2018) a $500 nonrefundable credit for qualifying dependents other than qualifying children (for example, a taxpayer’s 17-year-old child, parent, sibling, niece or nephew, or aunt or uncle). Importantly, these provisions expire after 2025.

Qualifications to consider

Along with the income limitations, there are other qualification requirements for claiming the child credit. As you might have noticed, a qualifying child must be under the age of 17 at the end of the tax year in question. But the child also must be a U.S. citizen, national or resident alien, and a dependent claimed on the parents’ federal tax return who’s their own legal son, daughter, stepchild, foster child or adoptee. (A qualifying child may also include a grandchild, niece or nephew.)

As a child gets older, other circumstances may affect a family’s ability to claim the credit. For instance, the child needs to have lived with his or her parents for more than half of the tax year.

Powerful tool

Tax credits can serve as powerful tools to help you manage your tax liability. So if you may qualify for the child credit in 2017, or in years ahead, please contact our firm to discuss the full details of how to go about claiming it properly.

© 2018

Getting to know your credit and debit cards a bit better

Virtually everyone has a credit and debit card these days. But many of us still live in fear of these plastic necessities because we’re not terribly familiar with the fine print of the arrangements under which they operate. Let’s get to know them a bit better.

Credit cards

If your credit card is used without your permission, you may be responsible for up to $50 in charges, according to the Federal Trade Commission (FTC). If your card is lost or stolen and you report the loss before your card is used in a fraudulent transaction, you can’t be held responsible for any unauthorized charges. Some card issuers protect customers regardless of when — or if — they notify the card company.

When reporting a card loss or fraudulent transaction, contact the card company via phone; many provide toll-free numbers that are answered around the clock. In addition, the FTC advises following up via a letter or email. It should include your account number, the date you noticed the card was missing (if applicable), and the date you initially reported the card loss or fraudulent transaction.

Debit dangers

Debit card liability can be a little riskier. It generally depends on whether the card was lost or stolen or is still in your possession, the type of transaction, and when you reported the loss or unauthorized transaction.

According to the FTC, if you report a missing debit card before any unauthorized transactions are made, you aren’t responsible for the unauthorized transactions. If you report a card loss within two business days after you learn of the loss, your maximum liability for unauthorized transactions is $50.

If you report the card loss after that time but within 60 calendar days of the date your statement showing an unauthorized transaction was mailed, liability can jump to $500. Finally, if you report the card loss more than 60 calendar days after your statement showing unauthorized transactions was mailed, you could be liable for all the funds taken from your account.

If you notice an unauthorized debit card transaction on your statement, but your card is in your possession, you have 60 calendar days after the statement showing the unauthorized transaction is mailed to report it and still avoid liability.

While the lower protections required on debit cards may make you wonder whether you’re safer using a credit card, some debit card companies offer protections that go above what the law requires. Check with your provider.

Risk management steps

Taking a few simple steps can help cut the risk that you’ll be held liable for unauthorized use of your credit or debit card. First, carry only cards you need and destroy old ones, shredding them if possible. Don’t provide your card number over the phone or online unless you’ve initiated the contact.

In addition, choose a PIN that’s not easily guessed and make sure to memorize it. If you have online access, take a few moments to scan transactions every time you log on or at least once a week. If you still use paper statements, be sure to review them when they arrive in the mail. If you notice a transaction that isn’t yours, report it to your credit card issuer or bank right away.

Finally, keep a list of important numbers and relevant data stored separately from the cards themselves. Having this information handy will make it easier to report a missing card or suspicious transaction quickly.

Ins and outs

Many of us have grown so familiar with our credit and debit cards that we take them for granted. But keep in touch with their ins and outs. We can answer any further questions you may have.

© 2018