Six Must-Dos When You Donate to Charity

Charity Donations Donations are a great way to give to a deserving charity, and they also give back in the form of a tax deduction. Unfortunately, charitable donations are under scrutiny by the IRS, and many donations without adequate documentation are being rejected.

Here are six things you need to do to ensure your charitable donation will be tax-deductible.

 

Bullet Point Make sure your charity is eligible. Only donations to qualified charitable organizations registered with the IRS are tax-deductible. You can confirm an organization qualifies by calling the IRS at (877) 829-5500 or visiting the IRS website.
Bullet Point Itemize. You must itemize your deductions using Schedule A in order to take a deduction for a donation. If you’re going to itemize your return to take advantage of charitable deductions, it also makes sense to look for other itemized deductions. These include state and local taxes, real estate taxes, home mortgage interest and eligible medical expenses over a certain threshold.
Bullet Point Get receipts. Get receipts for your deductible donations. Receipts are not filed with your tax return but must be kept with your tax records. You must get the receipt at the time of the donation or the IRS may not allow the deduction.
Bullet Point Pay attention to the calendar. Donations are deductible in the year they are made. To be deductible in 2017, donations must be made by Dec. 31, although there is an exception. Donations made by credit card are deductible even if you don’t pay off the charge until the following year, as long as the donation is reported on your credit card statement by Dec. 31. Similarly, donation checks written before Dec. 31 are deductible in the year written, even if the check is not cashed until the following year.
Bullet Point Take extra steps for noncash donations. You can make a donation of clothing or items around the home you no longer use. If you decide to make one of these noncash donations, it is up to you to determine the value of the donation. However, many charities provide a donation guide to help you determine the value. Your donated items must be in good or better condition and you should receive a receipt from the charitable organization for your donations. If your noncash donations are greater than $500, you must file a Form 8283 to provide additional information to the IRS. For noncash donations greater than $5,000, you must also get an independent appraisal to certify the worth of the items.
Bullet Point Keep track of mileage. If you drive for charitable purposes, this mileage can be deductible as well. For example, miles driven to deliver meals to the elderly, to be a volunteer coach or to transport others to and from a charitable event, can be deducted at 14 cents per mile. A contemporaneous log of the mileage must be maintained to substantiate your charitable driving.

Remember, charitable giving can be a valuable tax deduction — but only if you take the right steps.

 

 

Year-End Tax Checklist

Year-End Tax Checklist

Now is a good time to review your year-end tax situation while there is still time to act. Here’s a handy checklist to help you do that. There are details on “must-dos” to get the most out of your charitable donations. As the year draws to a close, there are several tax-saving ideas you should consider. Use this checklist to make sure you don’t miss an opportunity before the year is out.

Bullet Point Retirement distributions and contributions. Make final contributions to your qualified retirement plan, and take any required minimum distributions from your retirement accounts. The penalty for not taking minimum distributions can be high.
Bullet Point Investment management. Rebalance your investment portfolio, and take any final investment gains and losses. Capital losses can be used to net against your capital gains. You can also take up to $3,000 of capital losses in excess of capital gains each year and use it to lower your taxable ordinary income.
Bullet Point Last-minute charitable giving. Make a late-year charitable donation. Even better, make the donation with appreciated stock you’ve owned more than a year. You often can make a larger donation and get a larger deduction without paying capital gains taxes.
Bullet Point Noncash donation opportunity. Gather up noncash items for donation, document the items, and give those in good condition to your favorite charity. Make sure you get a receipt from the charity, and take a photo of the items donated.
Bullet Point Gifts to dependents and others. You may provide gifts to an individual of up to $14,000 per year in total. Remember that all gifts given (birthdays, holidays, etc.) count toward the annual total.
Bullet Point Organize records now. Start collecting and organizing your end-of-year tax records. Estimate your tax liability and make any required estimated tax payments.

 

 

Fix Your Overfunded Accounts

Home office deductions

Is socking away large sums in a tax-deferred retirement account ever a bad idea? It is when you exceed the annual IRS limits. Whether intentional or not, the penalties can be painful. Here’s how overfunding occurs and what steps to take to fix the problem.

How overfunding happens

Overfunding retirement accounts happens more than you may realize. It can be the result of a job change that causes you to participate in two different employer retirement plans. Sometimes people forget they made IRA contributions early in the year and do it again later. Others forget that the IRA limit is the total of all accounts, not per account. The rules are complicated. Traditional IRAs can’t be contributed to after age 70½, while Roth IRA contributions are subject to income limits. Plus all contributions are predicated on having earned income.

IRAs

The annual Roth and Traditional IRA contribution limit is $5,500 ($6,500 if age 50 or older). If you surpass this amount, you pay a 6 percent penalty on the overpayment every year until it’s corrected, plus a potential 10 percent penalty on the investment income attributed to the overfunded amount.

The fix: If the overfunding is discovered before the filing deadline (plus extensions), you can withdraw the excess and any income earned on the contribution to avoid the 6 percent penalty. You will potentially owe a 10 percent penalty in addition to ordinary income tax on the earnings of the excess contributions if you’re under age 59½. Often you can apply the contribution to the next year. If your issue is due to age (70½ or older for a Traditional IRA) or income limit (for a Roth IRA), consider recharacterizing your contribution from one IRA type to another.

401(k)s

The rules for correcting an overfunded 401(k) are a little more rigid. You have until April 15 to return the funds, period. The nature of the penalty is also different. The excess amount is taxable in the year of the overfunding, plus taxable again when withdrawn. So, you could pay the penalty multiple times on the same amount. And, in certain cases, overfunding a 401(k) could cause it to lose its qualified status.

The fix: If you suspect an overpayment situation, contact your employer as soon as possible. Adjust your contribution amount before the end of the year and try to get the problem resolved that way.

Dos and Don’ts of Business Expensing

Home office deductions

Knowing whether you can or can’t expense a purchase for business purposes can be complicated. However, there are a few hard-and-fast rules to help you.

According to the IRS, business expenses must be ordinary and necessary to be deductible. That means they are common and accepted in your business, as well as helpful and appropriate. You’ll need to maintain records (such as statements and ledgers) and supporting documents (receipts and invoices) to substantiate your deductions. Certain expenses are subject to extra requirements, as described below.

Travel expenses pertain to business trips and can include transportation to and from airports, your hotel and business meeting places. They also generally include lodging, meals, tips and other related incidentals.

Do: + Maintain trip logs describing your business expenses and the purpose of each. If your trip is mostly for business but includes personal components, separate them in your log. These nondeductible personal items could include extending your stay for a vacation or taking personal side trips.
+ Deduct travel-related meal costs, but only up to the 50 percent limit allowed by the IRS.
Don’t: Rely on estimates to determine the business vs. personal components of your expenses.
Deduct any of your travel expenses if your trip is primarily for personal purposes.
Deduct any of your meal costs if they could be considered unreasonably extravagant.

Entertainment expenses need to be either directly related to or associated with the conduct of your business. That means that business is the main purpose of the activities and it’s highly likely you’ll get income or future business benefits. Expenses from entertainment that aren’t considered directly related may still be deductible if they are associated with your business and happen right before or after an important business discussion.

Do: + Keep records of entertainment expenses, including who was present and clear descriptions of the nature, dates and times of the pertinent business discussions.
+ Deduct up to 50 percent of entertainment expenses, as allowed by the IRS.
Don’t: Claim the costs of pleasure boat outings or entertainment facilities (e.g., hunting lodges) that are not related to business activity.

Business use of your personal car is calculated according to your actual business-related expenses, or by multiplying your business mileage by the prescribed IRS rate (53.5 cents per mile in 2017).

Do: + Log odometer readings for each business trip and record your business purpose.
+ Claim actual business deductions by applying the ratio of your business-miles-to-total mileage.
Don’t: Claim mileage or expenses pertaining to commuting to and from work.

If you have any questions about how to handle your business expenses, reach out for further guidance.

Renew Your ITIN Now

Home office deductions

If you have an Individual Taxpayer Identification Number (ITIN) rather than a Social Security number (SSN), you may need to take action now or you’ll be unable to file a tax return for 2017.

Here is what you need to know.

What to know about ITINs

ITINs are identification numbers issued by the U.S. government for individuals who do not qualify to receive a SSN. An ITIN can be used to file tax returns and is also a form of identification often required by banks, insurance companies and other institutions. Unfortunately, ITINs are also a source of identity fraud. To combat this, the 2015 PATH Act made substantial changes to the program. Now a number of ITINs will expire if not renewed by Dec. 31.

Bullet Point No ITIN, no problem. If you do not have an ITIN, but have a SSN, this expiration does not affect you.
Bullet Point No tax return in past three years. ITINs that have not been used to file a tax return at least once in the past three years will automatically expire on Dec. 31.
Bullet Point Specific middle digit numbers expire. The new law creates a rolling expiration date for all issued ITINs. The key number to look for is in this position: 9xx-XX-xxxx. If it’s a 70, 71, 72, or 80, you’ll need to renew it. Last year the middle digits of 78 and 79 expired.

Renew your ITIN

Don’t wait until the last minute to discover your tax return has been rejected and your refund delayed because of an expired ITIN. To renew, fill out Form W-7 with the required support documents. To learn more, visit the ITIN information page on the IRS website, Individual Taxpayer Identification Number.

Contractor or Employee?

Company benefits

Knowing the difference is important

Is a worker an independent contractor or an employee? This seemingly simple question is often the contentious subject of IRS audits. As an employer, getting this wrong could cost you plenty in the way of Social Security, Medicare, and other employment-related taxes. Here is what you need to know.

 The basics…

 

As the worker. If you are a contractor and not considered an employee you must:

Bullet Point Employee Pay self-employment taxes (Social Security and Medicare-related taxes)
Bullet Point Employee Make estimated federal and state tax payments.
Bullet Point Employee Handle your own benefits, insurance and bookkeeping.

As the employer. You must ensure your employee versus independent contractor determination is correct. Getting this wrong in the eyes of the IRS can lead to:

Bullet Point Employer Payment and penalties related to Social Security and Medicare taxes.
Bullet Point Employer Payment of possible overtime including penalties for a contractor reclassified as an employee.
Bullet Point Employer Legal obligation to pay for benefits.

Things to consider

When the IRS recharacterizes an independent contractor as an employee they look at the business relationship between the employer and the worker. The IRS focuses on the degree of control exercised by the employer over the work done and they assess the worker’s independence. Here are some guidelines:

Bullet Point Consider The more the employer has the right to control the work (when, how and where the work is done), the more likely the worker is an employee.
Bullet Point Consider The more the financial relationship is controlled by the employer the more likely the relationship will be seen as an employee and not an independent contractor. To clarify this, an independent contractor should have a contract, have multiple customers, invoice the company for work done, and handle financial matters in a professional manner.
Bullet Point Consider The more businesslike the arrangement the more likely you have an independent contractor relationship.

While there are no hard-set rules, the more reasonable your basis for classification and the more consistently it is applied, the more likely an independent contractor classification will not be challenged.

Say Goodbye to the College Tuition Deduction

Mortarboard and money

It’s hard enough to watch your child leave for college. Now you also have to say goodbye to the tuition and fees tax deduction. Congress decided not to extend this $4,000 deduction for 2017, leaving many parents worried that college will now be more expensive.

But it isn’t as bad as it sounds. That’s because Congress left in place two popular education credits that often offer a more valuable tax break:

Bullet Point The AOTC. The American Opportunity Tax Credit (AOTC) is a credit of up to $2,500 per student per year for qualified undergraduate tuition, fees and course materials. The deduction phases out at higher income levels, and is eliminated altogether for married couples with a modified adjusted gross income of $180,000 ($90,000 for singles).
Bullet Point Lifetime Learning Credit. The Lifetime Learning Credit provides an annual credit of 20 percent on the first $10,000 of tuition and fees, for either undergraduate or graduate level classes. There is no lifetime limit on the credit, but only couples making less than $132,000 per year (or singles making $66,000) qualify. Unlike the AOTC, this deduction is per tax return, not per student.

So who is affected by the loss of the tuition and fees deduction? If you are paying for your student’s graduate-level courses and are making too much to qualify for the Lifetime Learning Credit, the tuition and fees deduction was generally the only means you had to reduce your tax bill.

But there’s still hope! In addition to the two alternative education credits, there are many other tax benefits that reduce the cost of education. There are breaks for employer-provided tuition assistance, deductions for student loan interest, tax-beneficial college savings options, and many other tax-planning alternatives. Please call if you’d like an overview of the alternatives available to you.

Is Your HSA a Retirement Tool?

How much do you need to retire

The Good, the Bad and the Ugly
Health Savings Accounts (HSAs) are a great way to pay for medical expenses, and since unused funds roll over from year to year, the account can also provide a source of retirement savings in addition to other plans like 401(k)s or IRAs.
But be aware HSAs can also come with significant disadvantages and less flexibility when compared with other retirement investment tools.

 

The Good

HSAs work best when they are used for their designed purpose: to pay for qualified medical expenses. Neither your original contributions to an HSA nor your investment earnings are taxed when used this way.

This makes HSA funds valuable, given that medical costs are one of our largest expenses as we age. The Employee Benefit Research Institute estimates the average 65-year-old couple needs $264,000 to pay for medical care over the course of their retirement. Being able to cover that amount with pre-tax dollars greatly extends the value of retirement savings.

In addition, unlike other retirement plans, there is no required distribution of funds after you reach age 70½.

The Bad

First, you can only contribute to an HSA if you have a high-deductible health insurance plan. That means you will pay more out of pocket each year when you need to use health services, which could make it difficult to build a balance within your HSA.

Second, contributions are limited. Currently, annual contributions to HSAs are limited to $3,400 a year for individuals and $6,750 a year for families. These limits get bumped up by $1,000 for people aged 55 or older. You also may only contribute to an HSA until your retirement age.

Finally, HSAs typically have fewer investment options compared with other investment tools including 401(k)s and IRAs. The accounts often have high management and administrative fees. All this makes building HSA earnings tough to do.

The Ugly

The worst thing about HSAs: before you reach age 65, non-medical withdrawals from HSAs come with a whopping 20 percent penalty. Plus non-medical withdrawls are taxed as income. Even after age 65, both contributions and earnings are taxed when they are withdrawn for non-medical expenses.

In this way, HSAs compare unfavorably with 401(k)s and IRAs, which end their early withdrawal period earlier, at age 59½. They also have lower early withdrawal penalties of just 10 percent.

HSAs are a powerful tool to help manage the ever-rising costs of health care. Knowing the rules and the costs associated with using these funds outside of medical expenses can help you get the most out of an HSA and avoid costly missteps.

Five Home Office Deduction Mistakes

Home office deductions

If you operate a business out of your home, you may be able to deduct a wide variety of expenses. These may include part of your rent or mortgage costs, insurance, utilities, repairs, maintenance, and cleaning costs related to the space you use.

It is a tricky area of the tax code that’s full of pitfalls for the unwary. Here are some of the top mistakes people make.

Bullet Point Not taking it. This is probably the biggest mistake those with home offices make. Some believe the deduction is too complicated, while others believe taking a home office deduction increases your chance of being audited. While the rules can be complicated, there are now simple home office deduction methods available to every business.
Bullet Point Not exclusive or regular. Your home office must be used exclusively and regularly for your business.
Exclusively: If you use a spare bedroom as a business office, it can’t double as a guest room, a playroom for the kids, or a place to store your hockey gear. Any kind of non-business use can invalidate your deduction.
Regularly: Your office should be the primary place you conduct your regular business activities. That doesn’t mean that you have to use it every day nor does it stop you from doing work outside the office, but it should be the primary place for business activities such as record keeping, billing, making appointments, ordering equipment, or storing supplies.
Bullet Point Mixing use with other work. If you are an employee for someone else in addition to running your own business, be careful in using your home office to do work for your employer. Generally, IRS rules state you can use a home office deduction as an employee only if your employer doesn’t provide you with a local office.Unfortunately, this means if you run a side business out of your home office, you cannot also bring work home from your employer and do it in your home office. That could invalidate your use of the home office deduction.
Bullet Point The recapture problem. If you have been using your home office deduction, including depreciating part of your home, you could be in for a future tax surprise. When you later sell your home you will need to account for this depreciation. The depreciation recapture rules create a possible tax liability for many unsuspecting home office users.
Bullet Point Not Getting Help. There are special rules that apply to your use of the home office deduction if:
You are an employee of someone else.
You are running a daycare or assisted living facility out of your home.
You have a business renting out your primary residence or a vacation home.

 

The home office deduction can be tricky, so ask for help, especially if you fall under one of these cases.

Business or Hobby?

Credit Score Ingredients

When you incorrectly claim your favorite hobby as a business, it’s like waving a red flag that says “Audit Me!” to the IRS. However, there are tax benefits if you can correctly categorize your activity as a business.

Why does hobby versus business activity matter?

Chiefly, you’re allowed to reduce your taxable income by the amount of your qualified business expenses, even if your business activity results in a loss.

On the other hand, you cannot deduct losses from hobby activities. Hobby expenses are treated as miscellaneous itemized deductions and don’t reduce taxable income until they (and other miscellaneous expenses) surpass 2 percent of your adjusted gross income.

Here are some tips to determine whether you can define your activity as a business.

BUSINESS versus HOBBY
You have a reasonable expectation of making a profit. Profit Motive You may sell occasionally, but making money is not your main goal.
You invest significant personal time and effort. You depend on the resulting income. Effort and Income It’s something you do in your free time; you make the bulk of your money elsewhere.
Your expenses are ordinary and necessary to run your business. Reasonable Expenses Your expenses are driven by your personal preferences and not strictly necessary.
You have a track record in this industry, and/or a history of making profits. Background You don’t have professional training in the field and have rarely or never turned a profit.
You have multiple customers or professional clients. Customers You have few customers, mainly relatives and friends.
You keep professional records, including a separate checkbook and balance sheet; you have business cards, stationery and a branded business website. Professionalism You don’t keep strict professional records of your activities; you don’t have a formal business website or business cards.

The IRS will consider all these factors to make a broad determination whether you operate your activity in a businesslike manner. If you need help ensuring you meet these criteria, reach out to schedule an appointment.