COVID-19 has changed our lives in many ways, and some of the changes have tax implications. Here is basic information about two common situations.

1. Working from home.

Many employees have been told not to come into their workplaces due to the pandemic. If you’re an employee who “telecommutes” — that is, you work at home, and communicate with your employer mainly by telephone, videoconferencing, email, etc. — you should know about the strict rules that govern whether you can deduct your home office expenses.

Unfortunately, employee home office expenses aren’t currently deductible, even if your employer requires you to work from home. Employee business expense deductions (including the expenses an employee incurs to maintain a home office) are miscellaneous itemized deductions and are disallowed from 2018 through 2025 under the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act.

However, if you’re self-employed and work out of an office in your home, you can be eligible to claim home office deductions for your related expenses if you satisfy the strict rules.

2. Collecting unemployment

Millions of Americans have lost their jobs due to COVID-19 and are collecting unemployment benefits. Some of these people don’t know that these benefits are taxable and must be reported on their federal income tax returns for the tax year they were received. Taxable benefits include the special unemployment compensation authorized under the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act.

In order to avoid a surprise tax bill when filing a 2020 income tax return next year, unemployment recipients can have taxes withheld from their benefits now. Under federal law, recipients can opt to have 10% withheld from their benefits to cover part or all their tax liability. To do this, complete Form W4-V, Voluntary Withholding Request, and give it to the agency paying benefits. (Don’t send it to the IRS.)

We can help

We can assist you with advice about whether you qualify for home office deductions, and how much of these expenses you can deduct. We can also answer any questions you have about the taxation of unemployment benefits as well as any other tax issues that you encounter as a result of COVID-19.

© 2020 Covenant CPA

Despite the COVID-19 pandemic, students are going back to school this fall, either remotely, in-person or under a hybrid schedule. In any event, parents may be eligible for certain tax breaks to help defray the cost of education.

Here is a summary of some of the tax breaks available for education.

1. Higher education tax credits. Generally, you may be able to claim either one of two tax credits for higher education expenses — but not both.

  • With the American Opportunity Tax Credit (AOTC), you can save a maximum of $2,500 from your tax bill for each full-time college or grad school student. This applies to qualified expenses including tuition, room and board, books and computer equipment and other supplies. But the credit is phased out for moderate-to-upper income taxpayers. No credit is allowed if your modified adjusted gross income (MAGI) is over $90,000 ($180,000 for joint filers).
  • The Lifetime Learning Credit (LLC) is similar to the AOTC, but there are a few important distinctions. In this case, the maximum credit is $2,000 instead of $2,500. Furthermore, this is the overall credit allowed to a taxpayer regardless of the number of students in the family. However, the LLC is also phased out under income ranges even lower than the AOTC. You can’t claim the credit if your MAGI is $68,000 or more ($136,000 or more if you file a joint return).

For these reasons, the AOTC is generally preferable to the LLC. But parents have still another option.

2. Tuition-and-fees deduction. As an alternative to either of the credits above, parents may claim an above-the-line deduction for tuition and related fees. This deduction is either $4,000 or $2,000, depending on the taxpayer’s MAGI, before it is phased out. No deduction is allowed for MAGI above $80,000 for single filers and $160,000 for joint filers.

The tuition-and-fees deduction, which has been extended numerous times, is currently scheduled to expire after 2020. However, it’s likely to be revived again by Congress.

In addition to these tax breaks, there are other ways to save and pay for college on a tax advantaged basis. These include using Section 529 plans and Coverdell Education Savings Accounts. There are limits on contributions to these saving vehicles.

Note: Thanks to a provision in the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act, a 529 plan can now be used to pay for up to $10,000 annually for a child’s tuition at a private or religious elementary or secondary school.

Final lesson

Typically, parents are able to take advantage of one or more of these tax breaks, even though some benefits are phased out above certain income levels. Contact us to maximize the tax breaks for your children’s education.

© 2020 Covenant CPA

If you’re getting close to retirement, you may wonder: Are my Social Security benefits going to be taxed? And if so, how much will you have to pay?

It depends on your other income. If you’re taxed, between 50% and 85% of your benefits could be taxed. (This doesn’t mean you pay 85% of your benefits back to the government in taxes. It merely that you’d include 85% of them in your income subject to your regular tax rates.)

Crunch the numbers

To determine how much of your benefits are taxed, first determine your other income, including certain items otherwise excluded for tax purposes (for example, tax-exempt interest). Add to that the income of your spouse, if you file joint tax returns. To this, add half of the Social Security benefits you and your spouse received during the year. The figure you come up with is your total income plus half of your benefits. Now apply the following rules:

1. If your income plus half your benefits isn’t above $32,000 ($25,000 for single taxpayers), none of your benefits are taxed.

2. If your income plus half your benefits exceeds $32,000 but isn’t more than $44,000, you will be taxed on one half of the excess over $32,000, or one half of the benefits, whichever is lower.

Here’s an example

For example, let’s say you and your spouse have $20,000 in taxable dividends, $2,400 of tax-exempt interest and combined Social Security benefits of $21,000. So, your income plus half your benefits is $32,900 ($20,000 + $2,400 +1/2 of $21,000). You must include $450 of the benefits in gross income (1/2 ($32,900 − $32,000)). (If your combined Social Security benefits were $5,000, and your income plus half your benefits were $40,000, you would include $2,500 of the benefits in income: 1/2 ($40,000 − $32,000) equals $4,000, but 1/2 the $5,000 of benefits ($2,500) is lower, and the lower figure is used.)

Important: If you aren’t paying tax on your Social Security benefits now because your income is below the floor, or you’re paying tax on only 50% of those benefits, an unplanned increase in your income can have a triple tax cost. You’ll have to pay tax on the additional income, you’ll have to pay tax on (or on more of ) your Social Security benefits (since the higher your income the more of your Social Security benefits that are taxed), and you may get pushed into a higher marginal tax bracket.

For example, this situation might arise if you receive a large distribution from an IRA during the year or you have large capital gains. Careful planning might be able to avoid this negative tax result. You might be able to spread the additional income over more than one year, or liquidate assets other than an IRA account, such as stock showing only a small gain or stock with gain that can be offset by a capital loss on other shares.

If you know your Social Security benefits will be taxed, you can voluntarily arrange to have the tax withheld from the payments by filing a Form W-4V. Otherwise, you may have to make estimated tax payments. Contact us for assistance or more information.

© 2020 Covenant CPA

In the COVID-19 era, many parents are hiring nannies and babysitters because their daycare centers and summer camps have closed. This may result in federal “nanny tax” obligations.

Keep in mind that the nanny tax may apply to all household workers, including housekeepers, babysitters, gardeners or others who aren’t independent contractors.

If you employ someone who’s subject to the nanny tax, you aren’t required to withhold federal income taxes from the individual’s pay. You only must withhold if the worker asks you to and you agree. (In that case, ask the nanny to fill out a Form W-4.) However, you may have other withholding and payment obligations.

Withholding FICA and FUTA

You must withhold and pay Social Security and Medicare taxes (FICA) if your nanny earns cash wages of $2,200 or more (excluding food and lodging) during 2020. If you reach the threshold, all of the wages (not just the excess) are subject to FICA.

However, if your nanny is under 18 and childcare isn’t his or her principal occupation, you don’t have to withhold FICA taxes. Therefore, if your nanny is really a student/part-time babysitter, there’s no FICA tax liability.

Both employers and household workers have an obligation to pay FICA taxes. Employers are responsible for withholding the worker’s share of FICA and must pay a matching employer amount. FICA tax is divided between Social Security and Medicare. Social Security tax is 6.2% for the both the employer and the worker (12.4% total). Medicare tax is 1.45% each for both the employer and the worker (2.9% total).

If you prefer, you can pay your nanny’s share of Social Security and Medicare taxes, instead of withholding it from pay.

Note: It’s unclear how these taxes will be affected by the executive order that President Trump signed on August 8, which allows payroll taxes to be deferred from September 1 through December 31, 2020.

You also must pay federal unemployment (FUTA) tax if you pay $1,000 or more in cash wages (excluding food and lodging) to your worker in any calendar quarter of this year or last year. FUTA tax applies to the first $7,000 of wages. The maximum FUTA tax rate is 6%, but credits reduce it to 0.6% in most cases. FUTA tax is paid only by the employer.

Reporting and paying

You pay nanny tax by increasing your quarterly estimated tax payments or increasing withholding from your wages — rather than making an annual lump-sum payment.

You don’t have to file any employment tax returns, even if you’re required to withhold or pay tax (unless you own a business, see below). Instead, you report employment taxes on Schedule H of your tax return.

On your return, you include your employer identification number (EIN) when reporting employment taxes. The EIN isn’t the same as your Social Security number. If you need an EIN, you must file Form SS-4.

However, if you own a business as a sole proprietor, you must include the taxes for your nanny on the FICA and FUTA forms (940 and 941) that you file for your business. And you use the EIN from your sole proprietorship to report the taxes. You also must provide your nanny with a Form W-2.

Recordkeeping

Maintain careful tax records for each household employee. Keep them for at least four years from the later of the due date of the return or the date the tax was paid. Records include: employee name, address, Social Security number; employment dates; wages paid; withheld FICA or income taxes; FICA taxes paid by you for your worker; and copies of forms filed.

Contact us for help or with questions about how to comply with these requirements.

© 2020 Covenant CPA

Does your employer provide you with group term life insurance? If so, and if the coverage is higher than $50,000, this employee benefit may create undesirable income tax consequences for you.

“Phantom income”

The first $50,000 of group term life insurance coverage that your employer provides is excluded from taxable income and doesn’t add anything to your income tax bill. But the employer-paid cost of group term coverage in excess of $50,000 is taxable income to you. It’s included in the taxable wages reported on your Form W-2 — even though you never actually receive it. In other words, it’s “phantom income.”

What’s worse, the cost of group term insurance must be determined under a table prepared by IRS even if the employer’s actual cost is less than the cost figured under the table. Under these determinations, the amount of taxable phantom income attributed to an older employee is often higher than the premium the employee would pay for comparable coverage under an individual term policy. This tax trap gets worse as the employee gets older and as the amount of his or her compensation increases.

Check your W-2

What should you do if you think the tax cost of employer-provided group term life insurance is undesirably high? First, you should establish if this is actually the case. If a specific dollar amount appears in Box 12 of your Form W-2 (with code “C”), that dollar amount represents your employer’s cost of providing you with group-term life insurance coverage in excess of $50,000, less any amount you paid for the coverage. You’re responsible for federal, state and local taxes on the amount that appears in Box 12 and for the associated Social Security and Medicare taxes as well.

But keep in mind that the amount in Box 12 is already included as part of your total “Wages, tips and other compensation” in Box 1 of the W-2, and it’s the Box 1 amount that’s reported on your tax return

Consider some options

If you decide that the tax cost is too high for the benefit you’re getting in return, you should find out whether your employer has a “carve-out” plan (a plan that carves out selected employees from group term coverage) or, if not, whether it would be willing to create one. There are several different types of carve-out plans that employers can offer to their employees.

For example, the employer can continue to provide $50,000 of group term insurance (since there’s no tax cost for the first $50,000 of coverage). Then, the employer can either provide the employee with an individual policy for the balance of the coverage, or give the employee the amount the employer would have spent for the excess coverage as a cash bonus that the employee can use to pay the premiums on an individual policy.

Contact us if you have questions about group term coverage or how much it is adding to your tax bill.

© 2020 Covenant CPA

COVID-19 is changing the landscape for many schools this fall. But many children and young adults are going back, even if it’s just for online learning, and some parents will be facing tuition bills. If your child has been awarded a scholarship, that’s cause for celebration! But be aware that there may be tax implications.

Scholarships (and fellowships) are generally tax-free for students at elementary, middle and high schools, as well as those attending college, graduate school or accredited vocational schools. It doesn’t matter if the scholarship makes a direct payment to the individual or reduces tuition.

Tuition and related expenses

However, for a scholarship to be tax-free, certain conditions must be satisfied. A scholarship is tax-free only to the extent it’s used to pay for:

  • Tuition and fees required to attend the school and
  • Fees, books, supplies and equipment required of all students in a particular course.

For example, if a computer is recommended but not required, buying one wouldn’t qualify. Other expenses that don’t qualify include the cost of room and board, travel, research and clerical help.

To the extent a scholarship award isn’t used for qualifying items, it’s taxable. The recipient is responsible for establishing how much of an award is used for tuition and eligible expenses. Maintain records (such as copies of bills, receipts and cancelled checks) that reflect the use of the scholarship money.

Award can’t be payment for services

Subject to limited exceptions, a scholarship isn’t tax-free if the payments are linked to services that your child performs as a condition for receiving the award, even if the services are required of all degree candidates. Therefore, a stipend your child receives for required teaching, research or other services is taxable, even if the child uses the money for tuition or related expenses.

What if you, or a family member, is an employee of an education institution that provides reduced or free tuition? A reduction in tuition provided to you, your spouse or your dependents by the school at which you work isn’t included in your income and isn’t subject to tax.

Returns and recordkeeping

If a scholarship is tax-free and your child has no other income, the award doesn’t have to be reported on a tax return. However, any portion of an award that’s taxable as payment for services is treated as wages. Estimated tax payments may have to be made if the payor doesn’t withhold enough tax. Your child should receive a Form W-2 showing the amount of these “wages” and the amount of tax withheld, and any portion of the award that’s taxable must be reported, even if no Form W-2 is received.

These are just the basic rules. Other rules and limitations may apply. For example, if your child’s scholarship is taxable, it may limit other higher education tax benefits to which you or your child are entitled. As we approach the new school year, best wishes for your child’s success in school. And please contact us if you wish to discuss these or other tax matters further.

© 2020 Covenant CPA

Did you recently file your federal tax return and were surprised to find you owed money? You might want to change your withholding so that this doesn’t happen next year. You might even want to do that if you got a big refund. Receiving a tax refund essentially means you’re giving the government an interest-free loan.

Withholding changes

In 2018, the IRS updated the withholding tables that indicate how much employers should hold back from their employees’ paychecks. In general, the amount withheld was reduced. This was done to reflect changes under the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act — including an increase in the standard deduction, suspension of personal exemptions and changes in tax rates.

The tables may have provided the correct amount of tax withholding for some individuals, but they might have caused other taxpayers to not have enough money withheld to pay their ultimate tax liabilities.

Review and possibly adjust

The IRS is advising taxpayers to review their tax situations for this year and adjust withholding, if appropriate.

The tax agency has a withholding calculator to assist you in conducting a paycheck checkup. The calculator reflects tax law changes in areas such as available itemized deductions, the increased child credit, the new dependent credit and the repeal of dependent exemptions. You can access the IRS calculator here: https://bit.ly/2OqnUod.

Changes may be needed if…

There are some situations when you should check your withholding. In addition to tax law changes, the IRS recommends that you perform a checkup if you:

  • Adjusted your withholding in 2019, especially in the middle or later part of the year,
  • Owed additional tax when you filed your 2019 return,
  • Received a refund that was smaller or larger than expected,
  • Got married or divorced, had a child or adopted one,
  • Purchased a home, or
  • Had changes in income.

You can modify your withholding at any time during the year, or even multiple times within a year. To do so, you simply submit a new Form W-4 to your employer. Changes typically go into effect several weeks after a new Form W-4 is submitted. (For estimated tax payments, you can make adjustments each time quarterly estimated payments are due. The next payments are due on July 15 and September 15.)

Good time to plan ahead

There’s still time to remedy any shortfalls to minimize taxes due for 2020, as well as any penalties and interest. Contact us if you have any questions or need assistance. We can help you determine if you need to adjust your withholding.

© 2020 Covenant CPA

The tax filing deadline for 2019 tax returns has been extended until July 15 this year, due to the COVID-19 pandemic. After your 2019 tax return has been successfully filed with the IRS, there may still be some issues to bear in mind. Here are three considerations.

1. Some tax records can now be thrown away

You should keep tax records related to your return for as long as the IRS can audit your return or assess additional taxes. In general, the statute of limitations is three years after you file your return. So you can generally get rid of most records related to tax returns for 2016 and earlier years. (If you filed an extension for your 2016 return, hold on to your records until at least three years from when you filed the extended return.)

However, the statute of limitations extends to six years for taxpayers who understate their gross income by more than 25%.

You’ll need to hang on to certain tax-related records longer. For example, keep the actual tax returns indefinitely, so you can prove to the IRS that you filed a legitimate return. (There’s no statute of limitations for an audit if you didn’t file a return or you filed a fraudulent one.)

When it comes to retirement accounts, keep records associated with them until you’ve depleted the account and reported the last withdrawal on your tax return, plus three (or six) years. And retain records related to real estate or investments for as long as you own the asset, plus at least three years after you sell it and report the sale on your tax return. (You can keep these records for six years if you want to be extra safe.)

2. You can check up on your refund

The IRS has an online tool that can tell you the status of your refund. Go to irs.gov and click on “Get Your Refund Status” to find out about yours. You’ll need your Social Security number, filing status and the exact refund amount.

3. You can file an amended return if you forgot to report something

In general, you can file an amended tax return and claim a refund within three years after the date you filed your original return or within two years of the date you paid the tax, whichever is later. So for a 2019 tax return that you file on July 15, 2020, you can generally file an amended return until July 15, 2023.

However, there are a few opportunities when you have longer to file an amended return. For example, the statute of limitations for bad debts is longer than the usual three-year time limit for most items on your tax return. In general, you can amend your tax return to claim a bad debt for seven years from the due date of the tax return for the year that the debt became worthless.

We can help

Contact us if you have questions about tax record retention, your refund or filing an amended return. We’re not just available at tax filing time — we’re here all year!

© 2020 Covenant CPA

The IRS and the U.S. Treasury had disbursed 160.4 million Economic Impact Payments (EIPs) as of May 31, 2020, according to a new report. These are the payments being sent to eligible individuals in response to the economic threats caused by COVID-19. The U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) reports that $269.3 billion of EIPs have already been sent through a combination of electronic transfers to bank accounts, paper checks and prepaid debit cards.

Eligible individuals receive $1,200 or $2,400 for a married couple filing a joint return. Individuals may also receive up to an additional $500 for each qualifying child. Those with adjusted gross income over a threshold receive a reduced amount.

Deceased individuals

However, the IRS says some payments were sent erroneously and should be returned. For example, the tax agency says an EIP made to someone who died before receipt of the payment should be returned. Instructions for returning the payment can be found here: https://bit.ly/31ioZ8W

The entire EIP should be returned unless it was made to joint filers and one spouse hadn’t died before receipt. In that case, you only need to return the EIP portion made to the decedent. This amount is $1,200 unless your adjusted gross income exceeded $150,000. If you cannot deposit the payment because it was issued to both spouses and one spouse is deceased, return the check as described in the link above. Once the IRS receives and processes your returned payment, an EIP will be reissued.

The GAO report states that almost 1.1 million payments totaling nearly $1.4 billion had been sent to deceased individuals, as of April 30, 2020. However, these figures don’t “reflect returned checks or rejected direct deposits, the amount of which IRS and the Treasury are still determining.”

In addition, the IRS states that EIPs sent to incarcerated individuals should be returned.

Payments that don’t have to be returned

The IRS notes on its website that some people receiving an erroneous payment don’t have to return it. For example, if a child’s parents who aren’t married to each other both get an additional $500 for the same qualifying child, one of them isn’t required to pay it back.

But each parent should keep Notice 1444, which the IRS will mail to them within 15 days after the EIP is made, with their 2020 tax records.

Some individuals still waiting

Be aware that the government is still sending out EIPs. If you believe you’re eligible for one but haven’t received it, you will be able to claim your payment when you file your 2020 tax return.

If you need the payment sooner, you can call the IRS EIP line at 800-919-9835 but the Treasury Department notes that “call volumes are high, so call times may be longer than anticipated.”

© 2020 Covenant CPA

As you may have heard, the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act allows “qualified” people to take certain “coronavirus-related distributions” from their retirement plans without paying tax.

So how do you qualify? In other words, what’s a coronavirus-related distribution?

Early distribution basics

In general, if you withdraw money from an IRA or eligible retirement plan before you reach age 59½, you must pay a 10% early withdrawal tax. This is in addition to any tax you may owe on the income from the withdrawal. There are several exceptions to the general rule. For example, you don’t owe the additional 10% tax if you become totally and permanently disabled or if you use the money to pay qualified higher education costs or medical expenses

New exception

Under the CARES Act, you can take up to $100,000 in coronavirus-related distributions made from an eligible retirement plan between January 1 and December 30, 2020. These coronavirus-related distributions aren’t subject to the 10% additional tax that otherwise generally applies to distributions made before you reach age 59½.

What’s more, a coronavirus-related distribution can be included in income in installments over a three-year period, and you have three years to repay it to an IRA or plan. If you recontribute the distribution back into your IRA or plan within three years of the withdrawal date, you can treat the withdrawal and later recontribution as a totally tax-free rollover.

In new guidance (Notice 2020-50) the IRS explains who qualifies to take a coronavirus-related distribution. A qualified individual is someone who:

  • Is diagnosed (or whose spouse or dependent is diagnosed) with COVID-19 after taking a test approved by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (including a test authorized under the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act); or
  • Experiences adverse financial consequences as a result of certain events. To qualify under this test, the individual (or his or her spouse or member of his or her household sharing his or her principal residence) must:
    • Be quarantined, be furloughed or laid off, or have work hours reduced due to COVID-19;
    • Be unable to work due to a lack of childcare because of COVID-19;
    • Experience a business that he or she owns or operates due to COVID-19 close or have reduced hours;
    • Have pay or self-employment income reduced because of COVID-19; or
    • Have a job offer rescinded or start date for a job delayed due to COVID-19.

Favorable rules

As you can see, the rules allow many people — but not everyone — to take retirement plan distributions under the new exception. If you decide to take advantage of it, be sure to keep good records to show that you qualify. Be careful: You’ll be taxed on the coronavirus-related distribution amount that you don’t recontribute within the three-year window. But you won’t have to worry about owing the 10% early withdrawal penalty if you’re under 59½. Other rules and restrictions apply. Contact us if you have questions or need assistance.

© 2020 Covenant CPA