Take note of the distinctive features of Roth IRAs

For some people, Roth IRAs can offer income and estate tax benefits that are preferable to those offered by traditional IRAs. However, it’s important to take note of just what the distinctive features of a Roth IRA are before making the choice.

Traditional vs. Roth

The biggest difference between traditional and Roth IRAs is how taxes affect contributions and distributions. Contributions to traditional IRAs generally are made with pretax dollars, reducing your current taxable income and lowering your current tax bill. You pay taxes on the funds when you make withdrawals. As a result, if your current tax bracket is higher than what you expect it will be after you retire, a traditional IRA can be advantageous.

In contrast, contributions to Roth IRAs are made with after-tax funds. You pay taxes on the funds now, and your withdrawals won’t be taxed (provided you meet certain requirements). This can be advantageous if you expect to be in a higher tax bracket in retirement or if tax rates increase.

Roth distributions differ from traditional IRA distributions in yet another way. Withdrawals aren’t counted when calculating the taxable portion of your Social Security benefits.

Additional advantages

A Roth IRA may offer a greater opportunity to build up tax-advantaged funds. Your contributions can continue after you reach age 70½ as long as you’re earning income, and the entire balance can remain in the account until your death. In contrast, beginning with the year you reach age 70½, you can’t contribute to a traditional IRA — even if you do have earned income. Further, you must start taking required minimum distributions (RMDs) from a traditional IRA no later than April 1 of the year following the year you reach age 70½.

Avoiding RMDs can be a valuable benefit if you don’t need your IRA funds to live on during retirement. Your Roth IRA can continue to grow tax-free over your lifetime. When your heirs inherit the account, they’ll be required to take distributions — but spread out over their own lifetimes, allowing a continued opportunity for tax-free growth on assets remaining in the account. Further, the distributions they receive from the Roth IRA won’t be subject to income tax.

Many vehicles

As you begin planning for retirement (or reviewing your current plans), it’s important to consider all retirement planning vehicles. A Roth IRA may or may not be one of them. Please contact our firm for individualized help in determining whether it’s a beneficial choice.

Sidebar: TCJA eliminated option to recharacterize Roths

The passage of the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act late last year had a marked impact on Roth IRAs: to wit, taxpayers who wish to convert a pretax traditional IRA into a posttax Roth IRA can no longer “recharacterize” (that is, reverse) the conversion for 2018 and later years.

The IRS recently clarified in FAQs on its website that, if you converted a traditional IRA into a Roth account in 2017, you can still reverse the conversion as long as it’s done by October 15, 2018. (This deadline applies regardless of whether you extend the deadline for filing your 2017 federal income tax return to October 15.)

Also, recharacterization is still an option for other types of contributions. For example, you can still make a contribution to a Roth IRA and subsequently recharacterize it as a contribution to a traditional IRA (before the applicable deadline).

© 2018

Assessing your exposure to the estate tax and gift tax

When Congress was debating tax law reform last year, there was talk of repealing the federal estate and gift taxes. As it turned out, rumors of their demise were highly exaggerated. Both still exist and every taxpayer with a high degree of wealth shouldn’t let either take their heirs by surprise.

Exclusions and exemptions

For 2018, the lifetime gift and estate tax exemption is $11.18 million per taxpayer. (The exemption is annually indexed for inflation.) If your estate doesn’t exceed your available exemption at your death, no federal estate tax will be due.

Any gift tax exemption you use during life does reduce the amount of estate tax exemption available at your death. But not every gift you make will use up part of your lifetime exemption. For example:

  • Gifts to your U.S. citizen spouse are tax-free under the marital deduction, as are transfers at death (bequests).
  • Gifts and bequests to qualified charities aren’t subject to gift and estate taxes.
  • Payments of another person’s health care or tuition expenses aren’t subject to gift tax if paid directly to the provider.
  • Each year you can make gifts up to the annual exclusion amount ($15,000 per recipient for 2018) tax-free without using up any of your lifetime exemption.

It’s important to be aware of these exceptions as you pass along wealth to your loved ones.

A simple projection

Here’s a simplified way to help project your estate tax exposure. Take the value of your estate, net of any debts. Also subtract any assets that will pass to charity on your death.

Then, if you’re married and your spouse is a U.S. citizen, subtract any assets you’ll pass to him or her. (But keep in mind that there could be estate tax exposure on your surviving spouse’s death, depending on the size of his or her estate.) The net number represents your taxable estate.

You can then apply the exemption amount you expect to have available at death. Remember, any gift tax exemption amount you use during your life must be subtracted. But if your spouse predeceases you, then his or her unused estate tax exemption, if any, may be added to yours (provided the applicable requirements are met).

If your taxable estate is equal to or less than your available estate tax exemption, no federal estate tax will be due at your death. But if your taxable estate exceeds this amount, the excess will be subject to federal estate tax.

Be aware that many states impose estate tax at a lower threshold than the federal government does. So, you could have state estate tax exposure even if you don’t need to worry about federal estate tax.

Strategies to consider

If you’re not sure whether you’re at risk for the estate tax, or if you’d like to learn about gift and estate planning strategies to reduce your potential liability, please contact us.

© 2018

LLC and LLP owners should befriend the PAL rules

The limited liability company (LLC) and limited liability partnership (LLP) business structures have their advantages. But, in years past, the IRS treated LLC and LLP owners as limited partners for purposes of the passive activity loss (PAL) rules. This could be a tax negative. Fortunately, LLC and LLP owners can now be treated as general partners, which means they can meet any one of seven “material participation” tests to avoid passive treatment.

Rules to own by

The PAL rules prohibit taxpayers from offsetting losses from passive business activities (such as limited partnerships or rental properties) against nonpassive income (such as wages, interest, dividends and capital gains). Disallowed (that is, suspended) losses may be carried forward to future years and deducted from passive income or claimed when the passive business interest is disposed in a taxable transaction.

There are two types of passive activities: 1) trade or business activities in which you don’t materially participate during the year, and 2) rental activities, even if you do materially participate (unless you qualify as a “real estate professional”).

The 7 tests

Material participation in this context means participation on a “regular, continuous and substantial” basis. Unless you’re a limited partner, you’re deemed to materially participate in a business activity if you meet just one of seven tests:

  1. You participate in the activity more than 500 hours during the year.
  2. Your participation constitutes substantially all participation for the year by anyone, including nonowners.
  3. You participate more than 100 hours and as much or more than any other person.
  4. The activity is a “significant participation activity” — that is, you participate more than 100 hours but less than one or more other people, yet your participation in all significant participation activities for the year totals more than 500 hours.
  5. You materially participated in the activity for any five of the preceding 10 tax years.
  6. The activity is a personal service activity in which you materially participated in any three previous tax years.
  7. Regardless of the number of hours, based on all the facts and circumstances, you participate in the activity on a regular, continuous and substantial basis.

The rules are more restrictive for limited partners, who can establish material participation only by satisfying tests 1, 5 or 6. If you have questions about meeting the material participation tests, please contact us.

© 2018

Is your company overpaying on sales and use taxes?

It’s a safe bet that state tax authorities will let you know if your business hasn’t paid enough sales and use taxes. But the lines of communication may not be so open if you’re overpaying. For this reason, many businesses use reverse audits to find overpayments so they can seek reimbursements.

In most states, businesses are exempt from sales tax on equipment used in manufacturing or recycling, and many states don’t require them to pay taxes on the utilities and chemicals used in these processes, either. In some states, custom software and other computer equipment are exempt if used for research and development projects. These are just a few examples of potentially available exemptions.

Many companies have sales and use tax compliance systems to guard against overpaying, but if you haven’t reviewed yours recently, check to make sure it’s functioning properly. Employee turnover, business expansion or downsizing, and simple mistakes all can take their toll.

A formal reverse audit can extend across your business, going back as far as the statute of limitations on state tax reviews. If your state auditors can review all records for the four years preceding the audit, for example, the audit could encompass the same timeframe.

To be clear, reverse audits are often time consuming and complex. But a well-executed one can not only reap tax refund rewards now, but also help update your compliance systems going forward. Let us help you target the exemptions available to your business and ensure refund claims are properly prepared before submittal.

© 2018

Don’t let the kiddie tax play costly games with you

It’s not uncommon for parents, grandparents and others to make financial gifts to minors and young adults. Perhaps you want to transfer some appreciated stock to a child or grandchild to start them on their journey toward successful wealth management. Or maybe you simply want to remove some assets from your taxable estate or shift income into a lower tax bracket. Whatever the reason, beware of the “kiddie tax.” It can play costly games with the unwary.

An evolving concept

Years ago, the kiddie tax applied only to those under age 14. But, more recently, the age limits were revised to children under age 19 and to full-time students under age 24 (unless the students’ earned income is more than half of their own support).

Another important, and even more recent, change to the kiddie tax occurred under the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act (TCJA). Before passage of this law, the net unearned income of a child was taxed at the parents’ tax rates if the parents’ tax rates were higher than the tax rates of the child. The remainder of a child’s taxable income — in other words, earned income from a child’s job, plus unearned income up to $2,100 (for 2018), less the child’s standard deduction — was taxed at the child’s rates. The kiddie tax applied to a child if the child:

  • Hadn’t reached the age of 19 by the close of the tax year, or the child was a full-time student under the age of 24 whose earned income was less than half of their own support, and either of the child’s parents was alive at such time,
  • Had unearned income exceeding $2,100 (for 2018), and
  • Didn’t file a joint return.

Now, under the TCJA, for tax years beginning after December 31, 2017, the taxable income of a child attributable to earned income is taxed under the rates for single individuals, and taxable income of a child attributable to net unearned income is taxed according to the brackets applicable to trusts and estates. This rule applies to the child’s ordinary income and his or her income taxed at preferential rates. As under previous law, the kiddie tax can potentially apply until the year a child turns 24.

The tax in action

Let’s say you transferred to your 16-year-old some stock you’d held for several years that had appreciated $10,000. You were thinking she’d be eligible for the 0% long-term gains rate and so could sell the stock with no tax liability for your family. But you’d be in for an unhappy surprise: Assuming your daughter had no other unearned income, in 2018 $7,900 of the gain would be taxed at the estate and trust capital gains rates, equal to a tax of $795.

Or let’s say you transferred the appreciated stock to your 18-year-old grandson with the plan that he could sell the stock tax-free to pay for his college tuition. He won’t end up with the entire $10,000 gain available for tuition because of the kiddie tax liability.

Fortunately, there may be ways to achieve your goals without triggering the kiddie tax. For example, if you’d like to shift income and you have adult children (older than 24) who’re no longer subject to the kiddie tax but in a lower tax bracket, consider transferring income-producing or highly appreciated assets to them.

A risky time

Many families wait until the end of the year to make substantial, meaningful gifts. But, given what’s at stake, now is a good time to start a methodical process to determine the best possible way to pass along your wealth. After all, with the many changes made under the TCJA, the kiddie tax might affect you in ways you weren’t expecting. The best advice is to simply run the numbers with an expert’s help. Please contact our firm for more information and some suggestions on how to achieve your financial goals.

© 2018

4 questions to ask before hiring household help

When you hire someone to work in your home, you may become an employer. Thus, you may have specific tax obligations, such as withholding and paying Social Security and Medicare (FICA) taxes and possibly federal and state unemployment insurance. Here are four questions to ask before you say, “You’re hired.”

  1. Who’s considered a household employee?

A household worker is someone you hire to care for your children or other live-in family members, clean your house, cook meals, do yard work or provide similar domestic services. But not everyone who works in your home is an employee.

For example, some workers are classified as independent contractors. These self-employed individuals typically provide their own tools, set their own hours, offer their services to other customers and are responsible for their own taxes. To avoid the risk of misclassifying employees, however, you may want to assume that a worker is an employee unless your tax advisor tells you otherwise.

  1. When do I pay employment taxes?

You’re required to fulfill certain state and federal tax obligations for any person you pay $2,100 or more annually (in 2018) to do work in or around your house. (The threshold is adjusted annually for inflation.)

In addition, you’re required to pay the employer’s half of FICA (Social Security and Medicare) taxes (7.65% of cash wages) and to withhold the employee’s half. For employees who earn $1,000 or more in a calendar quarter, you must also pay federal unemployment taxes (FUTA) equal to 6% of the first $7,000 in cash wages. And, depending on your resident state, you may be required to make state unemployment contributions, but you’ll receive a FUTA credit for those contributions, up to 5.4% of wages.

You don’t have to withhold federal (and, in most cases, state) income taxes, unless you and your employees agree to a withholding arrangement. But regardless of whether you withhold income taxes, you’re required to report employees’ wages on Form W-2.

  1. Are there exceptions?

Yes. You aren’t required to pay employment taxes on wages you pay to your spouse, your child under age 21, your parent (unless an exception is met) or an employee who is under age 18 at any time during the year, providing that performing household work isn’t the employee’s principal occupation. If the employee is a student, providing household work isn’t considered his or her principal occupation.

  1. How do I make tax payments?

You pay any federal employment and withholding taxes by attaching Schedule H to your Form 1040. You may have to pay state taxes separately and more frequently (usually quarterly). Keep in mind that this may increase your own tax liability at filing, though the Schedule H tax isn’t subject to estimated tax penalties.

If you owe FICA or FUTA taxes or if you withhold income tax from your employee’s wages, you need an employer identification number (EIN).

There’s no statute of limitations on the failure to report and remit federal payroll taxes. You can be audited by the IRS at any time and be required to pay back taxes, penalties and interest charges. Our firm can help ensure you comply with all the requirements.

© 2018

ESOPs offer businesses tax and other benefits

Wouldn’t it be great if your employees worked as if they owned the company? An employee stock ownership plan (ESOP) could make that a reality.

Under an ESOP, employee participants take part ownership of the business through a retirement savings arrangement. Meanwhile, the business and its existing owner(s) can benefit from some tax breaks, an extra-motivated workforce and potentially a smoother path for succession planning.

How ESOPs work

To implement an ESOP, you establish a trust fund and either:

  • Contribute shares of stock or money to buy the stock (an “unleveraged” ESOP), or
  • Borrow funds to initially buy the stock, and then contribute cash to the plan to enable it to repay the loan (a “leveraged” ESOP).

The shares in the trust are allocated to individual employees’ accounts, often using a formula based on their respective compensation. The business must formally adopt the plan and submit plan documents to the IRS, along with certain forms.

Tax impact

Among the biggest benefits of an ESOP is that contributions to qualified retirement plans such as ESOPs typically are tax-deductible for employers. However, employer contributions to all defined contribution plans, including ESOPs, are generally limited to 25% of covered payroll. But C corporations with leveraged ESOPs can deduct contributions used to pay interest on the loans. That is, the interest isn’t counted toward the 25% limit.

Dividends paid on ESOP stock passed through to employees or used to repay an ESOP loan may be tax-deductible for C corporations, so long as they’re reasonable. Dividends voluntarily reinvested by employees in company stock in the ESOP also are usually deductible by the business. (Employees, however, should review the tax implications of dividends.)

In another potential benefit, shareholders in some closely held C corporations can sell stock to the ESOP and defer federal income taxes on any gains from the sale, with several stipulations. One is that the ESOP must own at least 30% of the company’s stock immediately after the sale. In addition, the sellers must reinvest the proceeds (or an equivalent amount) in qualified replacement property securities of domestic operation corporations within a set period.

Finally, when a business owner is ready to retire or otherwise depart the company, the business can make tax-deductible contributions to the ESOP to buy out the departing owner’s shares or have the ESOP borrow money to buy the shares.

Risks to consider

An ESOP’s tax impact for entity types other than C corporations varies somewhat from what we’ve discussed here. And while an ESOP offers many potential benefits, it also presents risks such as complexity of setup and administration and a strain on cash flow in some situations. For help determining whether one may make sense for your business, contact us.

© 2018

Retirement plan options for business owners

As a business owner, you may have most of your money tied up in your company — making saving for retirement especially challenging. If you haven’t already set up a tax-advantaged retirement plan, think about setting one up this year.

Keep in mind that, if you have employees, they generally must be allowed to participate in the plan, provided they work enough hours and meet other qualification requirements. Here are a few options to consider:

Profit-sharing plans. This is a defined contribution plan that allows discretionary employer contributions and flexibility in plan design. You can make deductible 2018 contributions as late as the due date of your 2018 income tax return, including extensions — provided your plan existed on December 31, 2018.

Simplified Employee Pensions (SEPs). A SEP is a defined contribution plan that provides benefits like those of a profit-sharing plan. But you can establish a SEP in one year and still make deductible contributions as late as the due date of your income tax return for the previous year, including extensions. Another benefit is that a SEP is easier to administer than a profit-sharing plan.

Defined benefit plans. This plan sets a future pension benefit and then actuarially calculates the contributions needed to attain that benefit. The maximum annual benefit generally is $220,000 for 2018 (up from $215,000 for 2017) — or 100% of average earned income for the highest three consecutive years, if less. Because it’s actuarially driven, the contribution needed to attain the projected future annual benefit may exceed the maximum contributions allowed by other plans, depending on your age and the desired benefit.

You can make deductible 2018 contributions until the due date of your 2018 income tax return, including extensions — provided your plan existed on December 31, 2018. Warning: Employer contributions are generally required and must be paid quarterly if there was a shortfall in funding for the prior year.

© 2018

Tax calendar

July 16 — If the monthly deposit rule applies, employers must deposit the tax for payments in June for Social Security, Medicare, withheld income tax, and nonpayroll withholding.

July 31 — If you have employees, a federal unemployment tax (FUTA) deposit is due if the FUTA liability through June exceeds $500.

  • The second quarter Form 941 (“Employer’s Quarterly Federal Tax Return”) is also due today. (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 August 10 to file the return.

August 15 — If the monthly deposit rule applies, employers must deposit the tax for payments in July for Social Security, Medicare, withheld income tax, and nonpayroll withholding.

September 15 — Third quarter estimated tax payments are due for individuals, trusts, and calendar-year corporations.

  • If a six-month extension was obtained, partnerships should file their 2017 Form 1065 by this date.
  • If a six-month extension was obtained, calendar-year S corporations should file their 2017 Form 1120S by this date.
  • If the monthly deposit rule applies, employers must deposit the tax for payments in August for Social Security, Medicare, withheld income tax, and nonpayroll withholding.

© 2018

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