If you’re approaching retirement, you probably want to ensure the money you’ve saved in retirement plans lasts as long as possible. If so, be aware that a law was recently enacted that makes significant changes to retirement accounts. The SECURE Act, which was signed into law in late 2019, made a number of changes of interest to those nearing retirement.

You can keep making traditional IRA contributions if you’re still working 

Before 2020, traditional IRA contributions weren’t allowed once you reached age 70½. But now, an individual of any age can make contributions to a traditional IRA, as long as he or she has compensation, which generally means earned income from wages or self-employment. So if you work part time after retiring, or do some work as an independent contractor, you may be able to continue saving in your IRA if you’re otherwise eligible.

The required minimum distribution (RMD) age was raised from 70½ to 72. 

Before 2020, retirement plan participants and IRA owners were generally required to begin taking RMDs from their plans by April 1 of the year following the year they reached age 70½. The age 70½ requirement was first applied in the early 1960s and, until recently, hadn’t been adjusted to account for increased life expectancies.

For distributions required to be made after December 31, 2019, for individuals who attain age 70½ after that date, the age at which individuals must begin taking distributions from their retirement plans or IRAs is increased from 70½ to 72.

“Stretch IRAs” have been partially eliminated 

If a plan participant or IRA owner died before 2020, their beneficiaries (spouses and non-spouses) were generally allowed to stretch out the tax-deferral advantages of the plan or IRA by taking distributions over the life or life expectancy of the beneficiaries. This was sometimes called a “stretch IRA.”

However, for deaths of plan participants or IRA owners beginning in 2020 (later for some participants in collectively bargained plans and governmental plans), distributions to most non-spouse beneficiaries are generally required to be distributed within 10 years following a plan participant’s or IRA owner’s death. Therefore, the “stretch” strategy is no longer allowed for those beneficiaries.

There are some exceptions to the 10-year rule. For example, it’s still allowed for: the surviving spouse of a plan participant or IRA owner; a child of a plan participant or IRA owner who hasn’t reached the age of majority; a chronically ill individual; and any other individual who isn’t more than 10 years younger than a plan participant or IRA owner. Those beneficiaries who qualify under this exception may generally still take their distributions over their life expectancies.

More changes may be ahead

These are only some of the changes included in the SECURE Act. In addition, there’s bipartisan support in Congress to make even more changes to promote retirement saving. Last year, a law dubbed the SECURE Act 2.0 was introduced in the U.S. House of Representatives. At this time, it’s unclear if or when it could be enacted. We’ll let you know about any new opportunities. In the meantime, if you have questions about your situation, don’t hesitate to contact us.

© 2021 Covenant CPA

If you’re getting ready to file your 2020 tax return, and your tax bill is higher than you’d like, there might still be an opportunity to lower it. If you qualify, you can make a deductible contribution to a traditional IRA right up until the April 15, 2021 filing date and benefit from the tax savings on your 2020 return.

Who is eligible?

You can make a deductible contribution to a traditional IRA if:

  • You (and your spouse) aren’t an active participant in an employer-sponsored retirement plan, or
  • You (or your spouse) are an active participant in an employer plan, but your modified adjusted gross income (AGI) doesn’t exceed certain levels that vary from year-to-year by filing status.

For 2020, if you’re a joint tax return filer and you are covered by an employer plan, your deductible IRA contribution phases out over $104,000 to $124,000 of modified AGI. If you’re single or a head of household, the phaseout range is $65,000 to $75,000 for 2020. For married filing separately, the phaseout range is $0 to $10,000. For 2020, if you’re not an active participant in an employer-sponsored retirement plan, but your spouse is, your deductible IRA contribution phases out with modified AGI of between $196,000 and $206,000.

Deductible IRA contributions reduce your current tax bill, and earnings within the IRA are tax deferred. However, every dollar you take out is taxed in full (and subject to a 10% penalty before age 59 1/2, unless one of several exceptions apply).

IRAs often are referred to as “traditional IRAs” to differentiate them from Roth IRAs. You also have until April 15 to make a Roth IRA contribution. But while contributions to a traditional IRA are deductible, contributions to a Roth IRA aren’t. However, withdrawals from a Roth IRA are tax-free as long as the account has been open at least five years and you’re age 59 1/2 or older. (There are also income limits to contribute to a Roth IRA.)

Here are two other IRA strategies that may help you save tax.

1. Turn a nondeductible Roth IRA contribution into a deductible IRA contribution. Did you make a Roth IRA contribution in 2020? That may help you in the future when you take tax-free payouts from the account. However, the contribution isn’t deductible. If you realize you need the deduction that a traditional IRA contribution provides, you can change your mind and turn a Roth IRA contribution into a traditional IRA contribution via the “recharacterization” mechanism. The traditional IRA deduction is then yours if you meet the requirements described above.

2. Make a deductible IRA contribution, even if you don’t work. In general, you can’t make a deductible traditional IRA contribution unless you have wages or other earned income. However, an exception applies if your spouse is the breadwinner and you are a homemaker. In this case, you may be able to take advantage of a spousal IRA.

What’s the contribution limit?

For 2020 if you’re eligible, you can make a deductible traditional IRA contribution of up to $6,000 ($7,000 if you’re 50 or over).

In addition, small business owners can set up and contribute to a Simplified Employee Pension (SEP) plan up until the due date for their returns, including extensions. For 2020, the maximum contribution you can make to a SEP is $57,000.

If you want more information about IRAs or SEPs, contact us or ask about it when we’re preparing your return. We can help you save the maximum tax-advantaged amount for retirement.

© 2021 Covenant CPA

If you’re like many Americans, letters from your favorite charities may be appearing in your mailbox acknowledging your 2020 donations. But what happens if you haven’t received such a letter — can you still claim a deduction for the gift on your 2020 income tax return? It depends.

What is required

To support a charitable deduction, you need to comply with IRS substantiation requirements. This generally includes obtaining a contemporaneous written acknowledgment from the charity stating the amount of the donation, whether you received any goods or services in consideration for the donation and the value of any such goods or services.

“Contemporaneous” means the earlier of:

  • The date you file your tax return, or
  • The extended due date of your return.

So if you made a donation in 2020 but haven’t yet received substantiation from the charity, it’s not too late — as long as you haven’t filed your 2020 return. Contact the charity and request a written acknowledgment.

Keep in mind that, if you made a cash gift of under $250 with a check or credit card, generally a canceled check, bank statement or credit card statement is sufficient. However, if you received something in return for the donation, you generally must reduce your deduction by its value — and the charity is required to provide you a written acknowledgment as described earlier.

New deduction for non-itemizers

In general, taxpayers who don’t itemize their deductions (and instead claim the standard deduction) can’t claim a charitable deduction. Under the CARES Act, individuals who don’t itemize deductions can claim a federal income tax write-off for up to $300 of cash contributions to IRS-approved charities for the 2020 tax year. The same $300 limit applies to both unmarried taxpayers and married joint-filing couples.

Even better, this tax break was extended to cover $300 of cash contributions made in 2021 under the Consolidated Appropriations Act. The new law doubles the deduction limit to $600 for married joint-filing couples for cash contributions made in 2021.

2020 and 2021 deductions

Additional substantiation requirements apply to some types of donations. We can help you determine whether you have sufficient substantiation for the donations you hope to deduct on your 2020 income tax return — and guide you on the substantiation you’ll need for gifts you’re planning this year to ensure you can enjoy the desired deductions on your 2021 return.

© 2021 Covenant CPA

Many people are more concerned about their 2020 tax bills right now than they are about their 2021 tax situations. That’s understandable because your 2020 individual tax return is due to be filed in less than three months (unless you file an extension).

However, it’s a good idea to acquaint yourself with tax amounts that may have changed for 2021. Below are some Q&As about tax amounts for this year.

Be aware that not all tax figures are adjusted annually for inflation and even if they are, they may be unchanged or change only slightly due to low inflation. In addition, some amounts only change with new legislation.

How much can I contribute to an IRA for 2021?

If you’re eligible, you can contribute $6,000 a year to a traditional or Roth IRA, up to 100% of your earned income. If you’re 50 or older, you can make another $1,000 “catch up” contribution. (These amounts were the same for 2020.)

I have a 401(k) plan through my job. How much can I contribute to it?

For 2021, you can contribute up to $19,500 (unchanged from 2020) to a 401(k) or 403(b) plan. You can make an additional $6,500 catch-up contribution if you’re age 50 or older.

I sometimes hire a babysitter and a cleaning person. Do I have to withhold and pay FICA tax on the amounts I pay them?

In 2021, the threshold when a domestic employer must withhold and pay FICA for babysitters, house cleaners, etc., is $2,300 (up from $2,200 in 2020).

How much do I have to earn in 2021 before I can stop paying Social Security on my salary?

The Social Security tax wage base is $142,800 for this year (up from $137,700 last year). That means that you don’t owe Social Security tax on amounts earned above that. (You must pay Medicare tax on all amounts that you earn.)

I didn’t qualify to itemize deductions on my last tax return. Will I qualify for 2021?

A 2017 tax law eliminated the tax benefit of itemizing deductions for many people by increasing the standard deduction and reducing or eliminating various deductions. For 2021, the standard deduction amount is $25,100 for married couples filing jointly (up from $24,800). For single filers, the amount is $12,550 (up from $12,400) and for heads of households, it’s $18,800 (up from $18,650). If the amount of your itemized deductions (such as mortgage interest) are less than the applicable standard deduction amount, you won’t itemize for 2021.

If I don’t itemize, can I claim charitable deductions on my 2021 return?

Generally, taxpayers who claim the standard deduction on their federal tax returns can’t deduct charitable donations. But thanks to the CARES Act that was enacted last year, single and married joint filing taxpayers can deduct up to $300 in donations to qualified charities on their 2020 federal returns, even if they claim the standard deduction. The Consolidated Appropriations Act extended this tax break into 2021 and increased the amount that married couples filing jointly can claim to $600.

How much can I give to one person without triggering a gift tax return in 2021?

The annual gift exclusion for 2021 is $15,000 (unchanged from 2020). This amount is only adjusted in $1,000 increments, so it typically only increases every few years.

Your tax situation

These are only some of the tax amounts that may apply to you. Contact us for more information about your tax situation, or if you have questions

© 2021 Covenant CPA

Although electric vehicles (or EVs) are a small percentage of the cars on the road today, they’re increasing in popularity all the time. And if you buy one, you may be eligible for a federal tax break.

The tax code provides a credit to purchasers of qualifying plug-in electric drive motor vehicles including passenger vehicles and light trucks. The credit is equal to $2,500 plus an additional amount, based on battery capacity, that can’t exceed $5,000. Therefore, the maximum credit allowed for a qualifying EV is $7,500.

The EV definition

For purposes of the tax credit, a qualifying vehicle is defined as one with four wheels that’s propelled to a significant extent by an electric motor, which draws electricity from a battery. The battery must have a capacity of not less than four kilowatt hours and be capable of being recharged from an external source of electricity.

The credit may not be available because of a per-manufacturer cumulative sales limitation. Specifically, it phases out over six quarters beginning when a manufacturer has sold at least 200,000 qualifying vehicles for use in the United States (determined on a cumulative basis for sales after December 31, 2009). For example, Tesla and General Motors vehicles are no longer eligible for the tax credit.

The IRS provides a list of qualifying vehicles on its website and it recently added a number of models that are eligible. You can access the list here: https://bit.ly/2Yrhg5Z.

Here are some additional points about the plug-in electric vehicle tax credit:

  • It’s allowed in the year you place the vehicle in service.
  • The vehicle must be new.
  • An eligible vehicle must be used predominantly in the U.S. and have a gross weight of less than 14,000 pounds.

Electric motorcycles

There’s a separate 10% federal income tax credit for the purchase of qualifying electric two-wheeled vehicles manufactured primarily for use on public thoroughfares and capable of at least 45 miles per hour (in other words, electric-powered motorcycles). It can be worth up to $2,500. This electric motorcycle credit was recently extended to cover qualifying 2021 purchases.

These are only the basic rules. There may be additional incentives provided by your state. Contact us if you’d like to receive more information about the federal plug-in electric vehicle tax break.

© 2021 Covenant CPA

If you have a traditional IRA or tax-deferred retirement plan account, you probably know that you must take required minimum distributions (RMDs) when you reach a certain age — or you’ll be penalized. The CARES Act, which passed last March, allowed people to skip taking these withdrawals in 2020 but now that we’re in 2021, RMDs must be taken again.

The basics

Once you attain age 72 (or age 70½ before 2020), you must begin taking RMDs from your traditional IRAs and certain retirement accounts, including 401(k) plans. In general, RMDs are calculated using life expectancy tables published by the IRS. If you don’t withdraw the minimum amount each year, you may have to pay a 50% penalty tax on what you should have taken out — but didn’t. (Roth IRAs don’t require withdrawals until after the death of the owner.)

You can always take out more than the required amount. In planning for distributions, your income needs must be weighed against the desirable goal of keeping the tax shelter of the IRA going for as long as possible for both yourself and your beneficiaries.

In order to provide tax relief due to COVID-19, the CARES Act suspended RMDs for calendar year 2020 — but only for that one year. That meant that taxpayers could put off RMDs, not have to pay tax on them and allow their retirement accounts to keep growing tax deferred.

Begin taking RMDs again

Many people hoped that the RMD suspension would be extended into 2021. However, the Consolidated Appropriations Act, which was enacted on December 27, 2020, to provide more COVID-19 relief, didn’t extend the RMD relief. That means if you’re required to take RMDs, you need to take them this year or face a penalty.

Note: The IRS may waive part or all of the penalty if you can prove that you didn’t take RMDs due to reasonable error and you’re taking steps to remedy the shortfall. In these cases, the IRS reviews the information a taxpayer provides and decides whether to grant a request for a waiver.

Keep more of your money

Feel free to contact us if have questions about calculating RMDs or avoiding the penalty for not taking them. We can help make sure you keep more of your money.

© 2021 Covenant CPA

The IRS announced it is opening the 2020 individual income tax return filing season on February 12. (This is later than in past years because of a new law that was enacted late in December.) Even if you typically don’t file until much closer to the April 15 deadline (or you file for an extension), consider filing earlier this year. Why? You can potentially protect yourself from tax identity theft — and there may be other benefits, too.

How is a person’s tax identity stolen?

In a tax identity theft scheme, a thief uses another individual’s personal information to file a fraudulent tax return early in the filing season and claim a bogus refund.

The real taxpayer discovers the fraud when he or she files a return and is told by the IRS that the return is being rejected because one with the same Social Security number has already been filed for the tax year. While the taxpayer should ultimately be able to prove that his or her return is the legitimate one, tax identity theft can be a hassle to straighten out and significantly delay a refund.

Filing early may be your best defense: If you file first, it will be the tax return filed by a potential thief that will be rejected — not yours.

Note: You can get your individual tax return prepared by us before February 12 if you have all the required documents. It’s just that processing of the return will begin after IRS systems open on that date.

When will you receive your W-2s and 1099s?

To file your tax return, you need all of your W-2s and 1099s. January 31 is the deadline for employers to issue 2020 Form W-2 to employees and, generally, for businesses to issue Form 1099s to recipients of any 2020 interest, dividend or reportable miscellaneous income payments (including those made to independent contractors).

If you haven’t received a W-2 or 1099 by February 1, first contact the entity that should have issued it. If that doesn’t work, you can contact the IRS for help.

How else can you benefit by filing early? 

In addition to protecting yourself from tax identity theft, another benefit of early filing is that, if you’re getting a refund, you’ll get it faster. The IRS expects most refunds to be issued within 21 days. The time is typically shorter if you file electronically and receive a refund by direct deposit into a bank account.

Direct deposit also avoids the possibility that a refund check could be lost, stolen, returned to the IRS as undeliverable or caught in mail delays.

If you haven’t received an Economic Impact Payment (EIP), or you didn’t receive the full amount due, filing early will help you to receive the amount sooner. EIPs have been paid by the federal government to eligible individuals to help mitigate the financial effects of COVID-19. Amounts due that weren’t sent to eligible taxpayers can be claimed on your 2020 return.

Do you need help?

If you have questions or would like an appointment to prepare your return, please contact us. We can help you ensure you file an accurate return that takes advantage of all of the breaks available to you.

© 2021 Covenant CPA

Attending college is one of the biggest investments that parents and students ever make. If you or your child (or grandchild) attends (or plans to attend) an institution of higher learning, you may be eligible for tax breaks to help foot the bill.

The Consolidated Appropriations Act, which was enacted recently, made some changes to the tax breaks. Here’s a rundown of what has changed.

Deductions vs. credits

Before the new law, there were tax breaks available for qualified education expenses including the Tuition and Fees Deduction, the Lifetime Learning Credit and the American Opportunity Tax Credit.

Tax credits are generally better than tax deductions. The difference? A tax deduction reduces your taxable income while a tax credit reduces the amount of taxes you owe on a dollar-for-dollar basis.

First, let’s look at the deduction

For 2020, the Tuition and Fees Deduction could be up to $4,000 at lower income levels or up to $2,000 at middle income levels. If your 2020 modified adjusted gross income (MAGI) allows you to be eligible, you can claim the deduction whether you itemize or not. Here are the income thresholds:

  • For 2020, a taxpayer with a MAGI of up to $65,000 ($130,000 for married filing jointly) could deduct qualified expenses up to $4,000.
  • For 2020, a taxpayer with a MAGI between $65,001 and $80,000 ($130,001 and $160,000 for married filing jointly) could deduct up to $2,000.
  • For 2020, the allowable 2020 deduction was phased out and was zero if your MAGI was more than $80,000 ($160,000 for married filing jointly).

As you’ll see below, the Tuition and Fees Deduction is not available after the 2020 tax year.

Two credits aligned

Before the new law, an unfavorable income phase-out rule applied to the Lifetime Learning Credit, which can be worth up to $2,000 per tax return annually. For 2021 and beyond, the new law aligns the phase-out rule for the Lifetime Learning Credit with the more favorable phase-out rule for the American Opportunity Tax Credit, which can be worth up to $2,500 per student each year. The CAA also repeals the Tuition and Fees Deduction for 2021 and later years. Basically, the law trades the old-law write-off for the more favorable new-law Lifetime Learning Credit phase-out rule.

Under the CAA, both the Lifetime Learning Credit and the American Opportunity Tax Credit are phased out for 2021 and beyond between a MAGI of $80,001 and $90,000 for unmarried individuals ($160,001 and $180,000 for married couples filing jointly). Before the new law, the Lifetime Learning Credit was phased out for 2020 between a MAGI of $59,001 and $69,000 for unmarried individuals ($118,001 and $138,000 married couples filing jointly).

Best for you

Talk with us about which of the two remaining education tax credits is the most beneficial in your situation. Each of them has its own requirements. There are also other education tax opportunities you may be able to take advantage of, including a Section 529 tuition plan and a Coverdell Education Savings Account.

© 2021 Covenant CPA

The new COVID-19 relief law that was signed on December 27, 2020, contains a multitude of provisions that may affect you. Here are some of the highlights of the Consolidated Appropriations Act, which also contains two other laws: the COVID-related Tax Relief Act (COVIDTRA) and the Taxpayer Certainty and Disaster Tax Relief Act (TCDTR).

Direct payments

The law provides for direct payments (which it calls recovery rebates) of $600 per eligible individual ($1,200 for a married couple filing a joint tax return), plus $600 per qualifying child. The U.S. Treasury Department has already started making these payments via direct bank deposits or checks in the mail and will continue to do so in the coming weeks.

The credit payment amount is phased out at a rate of $5 per $100 of additional income starting at $150,000 of modified adjusted gross income for marrieds filing jointly and surviving spouses, $112,500 for heads of household, and $75,000 for single taxpayers.

Medical expense tax deduction

The law makes permanent the 7.5%-of-adjusted-gross-income threshold on medical expense deductions, which was scheduled to increase to 10% of adjusted gross income in 2021. The lower threshold will make it easier to qualify for the medical expense deduction.

Charitable deduction for non-itemizers

For 2020, individuals who don’t itemize their deductions can take up to a $300 deduction per tax return for cash contributions to qualified charitable organizations. The new law extends this $300 deduction through 2021 for individuals and increases it to $600 for married couples filing jointly. Taxpayers who overstate their contributions when claiming this deduction are subject to a 50% penalty (previously it was 20%).

Allowance of charitable contributions 

In response to the pandemic, the limit on cash charitable contributions by an individual in 2020 was increased to 100% of the individual’s adjusted gross income (AGI). (The usual limit is 60% of adjusted gross income.) The new law extends this rule through 2021.

Energy tax credit

A credit of up to $500 is available for purchases of qualifying energy improvements made to a taxpayer’s main home. However, the $500 maximum allowance must be reduced by any credits claimed in earlier years. The law extends this credit, which was due to expire at the end of 2020, through 2021.

Other energy-efficient provisions

There are a few other energy-related provisions in the new law. For example, the tax credit for a qualified fuel cell motor vehicle and the two-wheeled plug-in electric vehicle were scheduled to expire in 2020 but have been extended through the end of 2021.

There’s also a valuable tax credit for qualifying solar energy equipment expenditures for your home. For equipment placed in service in 2020, the credit rate is 26%. The rate was scheduled to drop to 22% for equipment placed in service in 2021 before being eliminated for 2022 and beyond.

Under the new law, the 26% credit rate is extended to cover equipment placed in service in 2021 and 2022 and the law also extends the 22% rate to cover equipment placed in service in 2023. For 2024 and beyond, the credit is scheduled to vanish.

Maximize tax breaks

These are only a few tax breaks contained in the massive new law. We’ll make sure that you claim all the tax breaks you’re entitled to when we prepare your tax return.

© 2021 Covenant CPA

If you’re self-employed and don’t have withholding from paychecks, you probably have to make estimated tax payments. These payments must be sent to the IRS on a quarterly basis. The fourth 2020 estimated tax payment deadline for individuals is Friday, January 15, 2021. Even if you do have some withholding from paychecks or payments you receive, you may still have to make estimated payments if you receive other types of income such as Social Security, prizes, rent, interest, and dividends.

Pay-as-you-go system

You must make sufficient federal income tax payments long before the April filing deadline through withholding, estimated tax payments, or a combination of the two. If you fail to make the required payments, you may be subject to an underpayment penalty, as well as interest.

In general, you must make estimated tax payments for 2020 if both of these statements apply:

  1. You expect to owe at least $1,000 in tax after subtracting tax withholding and credits, and
  2. You expect withholding and credits to be less than the smaller of 90% of your tax for 2020 or 100% of the tax on your 2019 return — 110% if your 2019 adjusted gross income was more than $150,000 ($75,000 for married couples filing separately).

If you’re a sole proprietor, partner or S corporation shareholder, you generally have to make estimated tax payments if you expect to owe $1,000 or more in tax when you file your return.

Quarterly due dates

Estimated tax payments are spread out through the year. The due dates are April 15, June 15, September 15 and January 15 of the following year. However, if the date falls on a weekend or holiday, the deadline is the next business day.

Estimated tax is calculated by factoring in expected gross income, taxable income, deductions and credits for the year. The easiest way to pay estimated tax is electronically through the Electronic Federal Tax Payment System. You can also pay estimated tax by check or money order using the Estimated Tax Payment Voucher or by credit or debit card.

Seasonal businesses

Most individuals make estimated tax payments in four installments. In other words, you can determine the required annual payment, divide the number by four and make four equal payments by the due dates. But you may be able to make smaller payments under an “annualized income method.” This can be useful to people whose income isn’t uniform over the year, perhaps because of a seasonal business. You may also want to use the annualized income method if a large portion of your income comes from capital gains on the sale of securities that you sell at various times during the year.

Determining the correct amount

Contact us if you think you may be eligible to determine your estimated tax payments under the annualized income method, or you have any other questions about how the estimated tax rules apply to you.

© 2020 Covenant CPA