If you have a life insurance policy, you probably want to make sure that the life insurance benefits your family will receive after your death won’t be included in your estate. That way, the benefits won’t be subject to the federal estate tax.

Under the estate tax rules, life insurance will be included in your taxable estate if either:

  • Your estate is the beneficiary of the insurance proceeds, or
  • You possessed certain economic ownership rights (called “incidents of ownership”) in the policy at your death (or within three years of your death).

The first situation is easy to avoid. You can just make sure your estate isn’t designated as beneficiary of the policy.

The second situation is more complicated. It’s clear that if you’re the owner of the policy, the proceeds will be included in your estate regardless of the beneficiary. However, simply having someone else possess legal title to the policy won’t prevent this result if you keep so-called “incidents of ownership” in the policy. If held by you, the rights that will cause the proceeds to be taxed in your estate include:

  • The right to change beneficiaries,
  • The right to assign the policy (or revoke an assignment),
  • The right to borrow against the policy’s cash surrender value,
  • The right to pledge the policy as security for a loan, and
  • The right to surrender or cancel the policy.

Keep in mind that merely having any of the above powers will cause the proceeds to be taxed in your estate even if you never exercise the power.

Buy-sell agreements

If life insurance is obtained to fund a buy-sell agreement for a business interest under a “cross-purchase” arrangement, it won’t be taxed in your estate (unless the estate is named as beneficiary). For example, say Andrew and Bob are partners who agree that the partnership interest of the first of them to die will be bought by the surviving partner. To fund these obligations, Andrew buys a life insurance policy on Bob’s life. Andrew pays all the premiums, retains all incidents of ownership, and names himself as beneficiary. Bob does the same regarding Andrew. When the first partner dies, the insurance proceeds aren’t taxed in the first partner’s estate.

Life insurance trusts

An irrevocable life insurance trust (ILIT) is an effective vehicle that can be set up to keep life insurance proceeds from being taxed in the insured’s estate. Typically, the policy is transferred to the trust along with assets that can be used to pay future premiums. Alternatively, the trust buys the insurance with funds contributed by the insured person. So long as the trust agreement gives the insured person none of the ownership rights described above, the proceeds won’t be included in his or her estate.

The three-year rule

If you’re considering setting up a life insurance trust with a policy you own now or you just want to assign away your ownership rights in a policy, contact us to help you make these moves. Unless you live for at least three years after these steps are taken, the proceeds will be taxed in your estate. For policies in which you never held incidents of ownership, the three-year rule doesn’t apply. Don’t hesitate to contact us with any questions about your situation.

© 2020 Covenant CPA

If you own a home, the interest you pay on your home mortgage may provide a tax break. However, many people believe that any interest paid on their home mortgage loans and home equity loans is deductible. Unfortunately, that’s not true.

First, keep in mind that you must itemize deductions in order to take advantage of the mortgage interest deduction.

Deduction and limits for “acquisition debt”

A personal interest deduction generally isn’t allowed, but one kind of interest that is deductible is interest on mortgage “acquisition debt.” This means debt that’s: 1) secured by your principal home and/or a second home, and 2) incurred in acquiring, constructing or substantially improving the home. You can deduct interest on acquisition debt on up to two qualified residences: your primary home and one vacation home or similar property.

The deduction for acquisition debt comes with a stipulation. From 2018 through 2025, you can’t deduct the interest for acquisition debt greater than $750,000 ($375,000 for married filing separately taxpayers). So if you buy a $2 million house with a $1.5 million mortgage, only the interest you pay on the first $750,000 in debt is deductible. The rest is nondeductible personal interest.

Higher limit before 2018 and after 2025

Beginning in 2026, you’ll be able to deduct the interest for acquisition debt up to $1 million ($500,000 for married filing separately). This was the limit that applied before 2018.

The higher $1 million limit applies to acquisition debt incurred before Dec. 15, 2017, and to debt arising from the refinancing of pre-Dec. 15, 2017 acquisition debt, to the extent the debt resulting from the refinancing doesn’t exceed the original debt amount. Thus, taxpayers can refinance up to $1 million of pre-Dec. 15, 2017 acquisition debt, and that refinanced debt amount won’t be subject to the $750,000 limitation.

The limit on home mortgage debt for which interest is deductible includes both your primary residence and your second home, combined. Some taxpayers believe they can deduct the interest on $750,000 for each mortgage. But if you have a $700,000 mortgage on your primary home and a $500,000 mortgage on your vacation place, the interest on $450,000 of the total debt will be nondeductible personal interest.

“Home equity loan” interest

“Home equity debt,” as specially defined for purposes of the mortgage interest deduction, means debt that: is secured by the taxpayer’s home, and isn’t “acquisition indebtedness” (meaning it wasn’t incurred to acquire, construct or substantially improve the home). From 2018 through 2025, there’s no deduction for home equity debt interest. Note that interest may be deductible on a “home equity loan,” or a “home equity line of credit,” if that loan fits the tax law’s definition of “acquisition debt” because the proceeds are used to substantially improve or construct the home.

Home equity interest after 2025

Beginning with 2026, home equity debt up to certain limits will be deductible (as it was before 2018). The interest on a home equity loan will generally be deductible regardless of how you use the loan proceeds.

Thus, taxpayers considering taking out a home equity loan— one that’s not incurred to acquire, construct or substantially improve the home — should be aware that interest on the loan won’t be deductible. Further, taxpayers with outstanding home equity debt (again, meaning debt that’s not incurred to acquire, construct or substantially improve the home) will currently lose the interest deduction for interest on that debt.

Contact us with questions or if you would like more information about the mortgage interest deduction.

© 2020 Covenant CPA

In many industries, offering a 401(k) plan is a competitive necessity. If you don’t offer one and a competitor does, it could mean the difference in a job candidate’s decision to accept their offer over yours. It could even send employees heading for the door.

Assuming you do offer a 401(k), the challenge then becomes plan maintenance and compliance. Just as you presumably visit your doctor annually for a checkup, you should review the administrative processes and fiduciary procedures associated with your plan at least once a year. Let’s look at some important areas of consideration:

Investments. Study your plan’s investment choices to determine whether the selections available to participants are appropriate. Does the lineup offer options along the risk-and-return spectrum for all ages of participants? Are any pre-mixed funds, which are based on age or expected retirement date, appropriate for your employee population?

If the plan includes a default investment for participants who have failed to direct investment contributions, check the option to ensure that it continues to be appropriate. If your company plan doesn’t have a written investment policy in place or doesn’t use an independent outside consultant to assist in selecting and monitoring investments, consider incorporating these into your investment procedures.

Fees. 401(k) plan fees often come under criticism in the media and can aggravate employees who follow their accounts closely. Calculate the amount of current participant fees associated with your plan’s investments and benchmark them against industry standards.

Investment managers. Have you documented in writing the processes your plan has in place for the selection and monitoring of investment managers? If not, doing so in consultation with an attorney is highly advisable. If you have, reread the documents to ensure they’re still accurate and comprehensive.

Administrator. Solicit and monitor participant feedback on the administrator so that you know about grumblings before they grow into heated complaints. Further, put criteria in place to assess the plan administrator’s performance on an ongoing basis and to benchmark performance against industry standards.

Compliance. Are your plan’s administrative procedures in compliance with current regulations? If you intend your plan to be a participant-directed individual account plan, are all the provisions of ERISA Section 404(c) being followed? Have there been any major changes to 401(k) regulations over the last year? These are just a few critical questions to ask and answer.

A 401(k) is usually among the most valued benefits a business can offer its employees, but you’ve got to keep a close and constant eye on its details. We’d be happy to help you assess the costs and other financial details of your company’s plan.

© 2020 Covenant CPA

If you’re a parent, or if you’re planning on having children, you know that it’s expensive to pay for their food, clothes, activities and education. Fortunately, there’s a tax credit available for taxpayers with children under the age of 17, as well as a dependent credit for older children.

Recent tax law changes

Changes made by the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act (TCJA) make the child tax credit more valuable and allow more taxpayers to be able to benefit from it. These changes apply through 2025.

Prior law: Before the TCJA kicked in for the 2018 tax year, the child tax credit was $1,000 per qualifying child. But it was reduced for married couples filing jointly by $50 for every $1,000 (or part of $1,000) by which their adjusted gross income (AGI) exceeded $110,000 ($75,000 for unmarried taxpayers). To the extent the $1,000-per-child credit exceeded a taxpayer’s tax liability, it resulted in a refund up to 15% of earned income (wages or net self-employment income) above $3,000. For taxpayers with three or more qualifying children, the excess of the taxpayer’s Social Security taxes for the year over the taxpayer’s earned income credit for the year was refundable. In all cases, the refund was limited to $1,000 per qualifying child.

Current law. Starting with the 2018 tax year, the TCJA doubled the child tax credit to $2,000 per qualifying child under 17. It also allows a $500 credit (per dependent) for any of your dependents who aren’t qualifying children under 17. There’s no age limit for the $500 credit, but tax tests for dependency must be met. Under the TCJA, the refundable portion of the credit is increased to a maximum of $1,400 per qualifying child. In addition, the earned threshold is decreased to $2,500 (from $3,000 under prior law), which has the potential to result in a larger refund. The $500 credit for dependents other than qualifying children is nonrefundable.

More parents are eligible

The TCJA also substantially increased the “phase-out” thresholds for the credit. Starting with the 2018 tax year, the total credit amount allowed to a married couple filing jointly is reduced by $50 for every $1,000 (or part of a $1,000) by which their AGI exceeds $400,000 (up from the prior threshold of $110,000). The threshold is $200,000 for other taxpayers. So, if you were previously prohibited from taking the credit because your AGI was too high, you may now be eligible to claim the credit.

In order to claim the credit for a qualifying child, you must include the child’s Social Security number (SSN) on your tax return. Under prior law, you could also use an individual taxpayer identification number (ITIN) or adoption taxpayer identification number (ATIN). If a qualifying child doesn’t have an SSN, you won’t be able to claim the $1,400 credit, but you can claim the $500 credit for that child using an ITIN or an ATIN. The SSN requirement doesn’t apply for non-qualifying-child dependents, but you must provide an ITIN or ATIN for each dependent for whom you’re claiming a $500 credit.

The changes made by the TCJA generally make these credits more valuable and more widely available to many parents.

If you have children and would like to determine if these tax credits can benefit you, please contact us or ask about them when we prepare your tax return.

© 2020 Covenant CPA

Married couples often wonder whether they should file joint or separate tax returns. The answer depends on your individual tax situation.

It generally depends on which filing status results in the lowest tax. But keep in mind that, if you and your spouse file a joint return, each of you is “jointly and severally” liable for the tax on your combined income. And you’re both equally liable for any additional tax the IRS assesses, plus interest and most penalties. This means that the IRS can come after either of you to collect the full amount.

Although there are provisions in the law that offer relief, they have limitations. Therefore, even if a joint return results in less tax, you may want to file separately if you want to only be responsible for your own tax.

In most cases, filing jointly offers the most tax savings, especially when the spouses have different income levels. Combining two incomes can bring some of it out of a higher tax bracket. For example, if one spouse has $75,000 of taxable income and the other has just $15,000, filing jointly instead of separately can save $2,512.50 for 2020.

Filing separately doesn’t mean you go back to using the “single” rates that applied before you were married. Instead, each spouse must use “married filing separately” rates. They’re less favorable than the single rates.

However, there are cases when people save tax by filing separately. For example:

One spouse has significant medical expenses. For 2019 and 2020, medical expenses are deductible only to the extent they exceed 7.5% of adjusted gross income (AGI). If a medical expense deduction is claimed on a spouse’s separate return, that spouse’s lower separate AGI, as compared to the higher joint AGI, can result in larger total deductions.

Some tax breaks are only available on a joint return. The child and dependent care credit, adoption expense credit, American Opportunity tax credit and Lifetime Learning credit are only available to married couples on joint returns. And you can’t take the credit for the elderly or the disabled if you file separately unless you and your spouse lived apart for the entire year. You also may not be able to deduct IRA contributions if you or your spouse were covered by an employer retirement plan and you file separate returns. You also can’t exclude adoption assistance payments or interest income from series EE or Series I savings bonds used for higher education expenses.

Social Security benefits may be taxed more. Benefits are tax-free if your “provisional income” (AGI with certain modifications plus half of your Social Security benefits) doesn’t exceed a “base amount.” The base amount is $32,000 on a joint return, but zero on separate return (or $25,000 if the spouses didn’t live together for the whole year).

No hard and fast rules

The decision you make on your federal tax return may affect your state or local income tax bill, so the total tax impact should be compared. There’s often no simple answer to whether a couple should file separate returns. A number of factors must be examined. We can look at your tax bill jointly and separately. Contact us to prepare your return or if you have any questions.

© 2020 Covenant CPA

Many taxpayers make charitable gifts — because they’re generous and they want to save money on their federal tax bills. But with the tax law changes that went into effect a couple years ago and the many rules that apply to charitable deductions, you may no longer get a tax break for your generosity.

Are you going to itemize?

The Tax Cuts and Jobs Act (TCJA), signed into law in 2017, didn’t put new limits on or suspend the charitable deduction, like it did with many other itemized deductions. Nevertheless, it reduces or eliminates the tax benefits of charitable giving for many taxpayers.

Itemizing saves tax only if itemized deductions exceed the standard deduction. Through 2025, the TCJA significantly increases the standard deduction. For 2020, it is $24,800 for married couples filing jointly (up from $24,400 for 2019), $18,650 for heads of households (up from $18,350 for 2019), and $12,400 for singles and married couples filing separately (up from $12,200 for 2019).

Back in 2017, these amounts were $12,700, $9,350, $6,350 respectively. The much higher standard deduction combined with limits or suspensions on some common itemized deductions means you may no longer have enough itemized deductions to exceed the standard deduction. And if that’s the case, your charitable donations won’t save you tax.

To find out if you get a tax break for your generosity, add up potential itemized deductions for the year. If the total is less than your standard deduction, your charitable donations won’t provide a tax benefit.

You might, however, be able to preserve your charitable deduction by “bunching” donations into alternating years. This can allow you to exceed the standard deduction and claim a charitable deduction (and other itemized deductions) every other year.

What is the donation deadline?

To be deductible on your 2019 return, a charitable gift must have been made by December 31, 2019. According to the IRS, a donation generally is “made” at the time of its “unconditional delivery.” The delivery date depends in part on what you donate and how you donate it. For example, for a check, the delivery date is the date you mailed it. For a credit card donation, it’s the date you make the charge.

Are there other requirements?

If you do meet the rules for itemizing, there are still other requirements. To be deductible, a donation must be made to a “qualified charity” — one that’s eligible to receive tax-deductible contributions.

And there are substantiation rules to prove you made a charitable gift. For a contribution of cash, check, or other monetary gift, regardless of amount, you must maintain a bank record or a written communication from the organization you donated to that shows its name, plus the date and amount of the contribution. If you make a charitable contribution by text message, a bill from your cell provider containing the required information is an acceptable substantiation. Any other type of written record, such as a log of contributions, isn’t sufficient.

Do you have questions?

We can answer any questions you may have about the deductibility of charitable gifts or changes to the standard deduction and itemized deductions.

© 2020 Covenant CPA

The IRS announced it is opening the 2019 individual income tax return filing season on January 27. Even if you typically don’t file until much closer to the April 15 deadline (or you file for an extension), consider filing as soon as you can this year. The reason: You can potentially protect yourself from tax identity theft — and you may obtain other benefits, too.

Tax identity theft explained

In a tax identity theft scam, 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 legitimate taxpayer discovers the fraud when he or she files a return and is informed by the IRS that the return has been 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 valid one, tax identity theft can cause major headaches 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 would-be thief that will be rejected, rather than yours.

Note: You can get your individual tax return prepared by us before January 27 if you have all the required documents. It’s just that processing of the return will begin after IRS systems open on that date.

Your W-2s and 1099s

To file your tax return, you must have received all of your W-2s and 1099s. January 31 is the deadline for employers to issue 2019 Form W-2 to employees and, generally, for businesses to issue Form 1099 to recipients of any 2019 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.

Other advantages of filing early

Besides 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 or stolen or returned to the IRS as undeliverable. And by using direct deposit, you can split your refund into up to three financial accounts, including a bank account or IRA. Part of the refund can also be used to buy up to $5,000 in U.S. Series I Savings Bonds.

What if you owe tax? Filing early may still be beneficial. You won’t need to pay your tax bill until April 15, but you’ll know sooner how much you owe and can plan accordingly.

Be an early-bird filer

If you have questions about tax identity theft or would like help filing your 2019 return early, please contact us. We can help you ensure you file an accurate return that takes advantage of all of the breaks available to you.

© 2020 Covenant CPA

If you save for retirement with an IRA or other plan, you’ll be interested to know that Congress recently passed a law that makes significant modifications to these accounts. The SECURE Act, which was signed into law on December 20, 2019, made these four changes.

Change #1: The maximum age for making traditional IRA contributions is repealed. Before 2020, traditional IRA contributions weren’t allowed once you reached age 70½. Starting in 2020, an individual of any age can make contributions to a traditional IRA, as long he or she has compensation, which generally means earned income from wages or self-employment.

Change #2: 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.

Change #3: “Stretch IRAs” were 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 beneficiary’s life or life expectancy. This is 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. That means 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.

Change #4: Penalty-free withdrawals are now allowed for birth or adoption expenses. A distribution from a retirement plan must generally be included in income. And, unless an exception applies, a distribution before the age of 59½ is subject to a 10% early withdrawal penalty on the amount includible in income.

Starting in 2020, plan distributions (up to $5,000) that are used to pay for expenses related to the birth or adoption of a child are penalty-free. The $5,000 amount applies on an individual basis. Therefore, each spouse in a married couple may receive a penalty-free distribution up to $5,000 for a qualified birth or adoption.

Questions?

These are only some of the changes included in the new law. If you have questions about your situation, don’t hesitate to contact us.

© 2020 Covenant CPA

Technology has made it easier to work from home so lots of people now commute each morning to an office down the hall. However, just because you have a home office space doesn’t mean you can deduct expenses associated with it.

Regularly and exclusively

In order to be deductible for 2019 and 2020, you must be self-employed and the space must be used regularly (not just occasionally) and exclusively for business purposes. If, for example, your home office is also a guest bedroom or your children do their homework there, you can’t deduct the expenses associated with the space.

Two options

If you qualify, the home office deduction can be a valuable tax break. There are two options for the deduction:

  • Write off a portion of your mortgage interest, property taxes, insurance, utilities and certain other expenses, as well as the depreciation allocable to the office space. This requires calculating, allocating and substantiating actual expenses.
  • Take the “safe harbor” deduction. Only one simple calculation is necessary: $5 times the number of square feet of the office space. The safe harbor deduction is capped at $1,500 per year, based on a maximum of 300 square feet.

Changes through 2025

Under prior tax law, if you were an employee (as opposed to self-employed), you could deduct unreimbursed home office expenses as employee business expenses, subject to a floor of 2% of adjusted gross income (AGI) for all your miscellaneous expenses. To qualify under prior law, a home office had to be used for the “convenience” of your employer.

Unfortunately, the TCJA suspends the deduction for miscellaneous expenses through 2025. Without further action from Congress, employees won’t be able to benefit from this tax break for a while. However, deductions are still often available to self-employed taxpayers.

If, however, you’re self-employed, you can deduct eligible home office expenses against your self-employment income. Therefore, the deduction will still be available to you through 2025.

More requirements

Be aware that we’ve covered only a few of the requirements here. We can help you determine if you’re eligible for a home office deduction and, if so, establish the appropriate method for getting the biggest possible deduction.

© 2019 Covenant CPA

As part of a year-end budget bill, Congress just passed a package of tax provisions that will provide savings for some taxpayers. The White House has announced that President Trump will sign the Further Consolidated Appropriations Act of 2020 into law. It also includes a retirement-related law titled the Setting Every Community Up for Retirement Enhancement (SECURE) Act.

Here’s a rundown of some provisions in the two laws.

The age limit for making IRA contributions and taking withdrawals is going up. Currently, an individual can’t make regular contributions to a traditional IRA in the year he or she reaches age 70½ and older. (However, contributions to a Roth IRA and rollover contributions to a Roth or traditional IRA can be made regardless of age.)

Under the new rules, the age limit for IRA contributions is raised from age 70½ to 72.

The IRA contribution limit for 2020 is $6,000, or $7,000 if you’re age 50 or older (the same as 2019 limit).

In addition to the contribution age going up, the age to take required minimum distributions (RMDs) is going up from 70½ to 72.

It will be easier for some taxpayers to get a medical expense deduction. For 2019, under the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act (TCJA), you could deduct only the part of your medical and dental expenses that is more than 10% of your adjusted gross income (AGI). This floor makes it difficult to claim a write-off unless you have very high medical bills or a low income (or both). In tax years 2017 and 2018, this “floor” for claiming a deduction was 7.5%. Under the new law, the lower 7.5% floor returns through 2020.

If you’re paying college tuition, you may (once again) get a valuable tax break. Before the TCJA, the qualified tuition and related expenses deduction allowed taxpayers to claim a deduction for qualified education expenses without having to itemize their deductions. The TCJA eliminated the deduction for 2019 but now it returns through 2020. The deduction is capped at $4,000 for an individual whose AGI doesn’t exceed $65,000 or $2,000 for a taxpayer whose AGI doesn’t exceed $80,000. (There are other education tax breaks, which weren’t touched by the new law, that may be more valuable for you, depending on your situation.)

Some people will be able to save more for retirement. The retirement bill includes an expansion of the automatic contribution to savings plans to 15% of employee pay and allows some part-time employees to participate in 401(k) plans.

Also included in the retirement package are provisions aimed at Gold Star families, eliminating an unintended tax on children and spouses of deceased military family members.

Stay tuned

These are only some of the provisions in the new laws. We’ll be writing more about them in the near future. In the meantime, contact us with any questions.

© 2019 Covenant CPA