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.

 

 

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.

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.

Simplified Home Office Deduction

Time ClockThere’s a simple “safe harbor” home office deduction.

You take the square footage of your office, up to 300 square feet, and multiply it by $5. This gives you a potential $1,500 deduction under the simplified option. However, your savings could be much greater than $1,500, so it’s often worth getting help to calculate your full deduction using the standard rules.

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.

Do-It-Yourself Identity Theft Protection

Credit Score Ingredients

Identity theft is a growing problem in the United States, and dozens of companies offering various forms of identity theft protection have sprung up to combat it. Unfortunately, these services often do little to actually protect people’s identities, according to a study released by the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO).

Both the GAO study and consumer protection organizations like The Identity Theft Council point out that consumers have more effective, low-cost methods to protect themselves from identity theft. Here are some of their tips:

 

Bullet Point Monitor your own credit. You can get a free credit report from each of the three credit reporting agencies once a year at www.annualcreditreport.com. You can stagger your request from each agency so that you can check your credit history for any suspicious new account openings every four months.

In addition, one of the most effective things only you can do yourself is to scan your monthly credit card and bank account statements. If you see any irregularities, contact the financial institution at once and let them know if you believe any charges are the result of identity theft.

Bullet Point Place a fraud alert. You can place a free fraud alert on your identity if you believe you’ve become vulnerable for any reason, either because you lost your wallet, had your home or car broken into, or had your information stolen online. All you have to do is call any of the three credit reporting agencies (Equifax 1-888-766-0008; Experian 1-888-397-3742; or TransUnion 1-800-680-7289) and they will notify the other two.

Placing a fraud alert lasts for 90 days. Any credit provider will have to take extra steps to verify the identity of any person who tries to use your credit and open new accounts. It can be renewed for free every 90 days.

Bullet Point Freeze your credit. If you aren’t going to be applying for new credit for a while, one of the most effective things you can do to combat identity theft is to put a temporary freeze on your credit. You’ll have to call each of the three credit reporting agencies and may be required to pay a small fee ($5 to $10 each) to freeze your account, after which no one will be able to access your credit to open new accounts. It won’t affect your credit rating or your ability to use your existing accounts.

Keep in mind that while this shuts down other people from accessing your credit, it also stops you from opening new accounts. It typically takes three days for the agencies to unfreeze your accounts, so keep that in mind if you want to apply for new credit, or need to allow a potential new employer to access your credit report as part of a background check.

Bullet Point Do your taxes early. One of the most common kinds of identity theft is when people use a stolen Social Security number and other personal information to file a fraudulent tax return in the hope of snatching a refund. Your best defense is to simply file your return as soon as possible. Once the IRS receives your return, it shuts the door on potential identity thieves.

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.

 

Marriage Tax Tips

Credit Score Ingredients

If you recently got married, plan to get married, or know someone taking the matrimonial plunge, here are some important tax tips every new bride and groom should know.

 

 

 

 

 

1 Notify Social Security. Notify the Social Security Administration (SSA) of any name changes by filling out Form SS-5. The IRS matches names with the SSA and may reject your joint tax return if the names don’t match what the SSA has on file.
1 Address change notification. If either of you are moving, update your address with your employer as well as the Postal Service. This will ensure your W-2s are correctly stated and delivered to you at the end of the year. You will also need to update the IRS with your new address using Form 8822.
1 Review your benefits. Getting married allows you to make mid-year changes to employer benefit plans. Take the time to review health, dental, auto, and home insurance plans and update your coverage. If both of you have employer health plans, you need to decide whether it makes sense for each of you to keep your plans or whether it’s better for one to join the other’s plan as a spouse. Pay special attention to the tax implication of changes in health savings accounts, dependent childcare benefits and other employer pre-tax benefits.
1 Update your withholdings. You will need to recalculate your payroll withholdings and file new W-4s reflecting your new status. If both of you work, your combined income could put you in a higher tax bracket. This can result in reduced and phased-out benefits. This phenomenon is known as the “marriage penalty.”
1 Update beneficiaries and other legal documents. Review your legal documents to make sure the names and addresses reflect your new marital status. This includes bank accounts, credit cards, property titles, insurance policies and living wills. Even more importantly, review and update beneficiaries on each of your retirement savings accounts and pensions.
1 Understand the tax impact of your residence. If you are selling one or two residences, review how capital gains tax laws apply to your situation. This is especially important if one of you has been in your home for only a short time or if either home has appreciated in value. This review should be done prior to getting married to maximize your tax benefits.
1 Sit down with an expert. It is natural for newlyweds to focus their attention on the big day. There are so many decisions to be made from selecting a venue to planning the honeymoon. Because of this, reviewing your tax situation often is an afterthought. Do not make this mistake. A simple tax and financial planning session prior to the big day can save on future headaches and avoid potentially expensive tax mistakes.

If you’d like a review of how marriage will affect your tax and financial situation, call at your earliest opportunity.