The Tax Cuts and Jobs Act (TCJA) has enhanced two depreciation-related breaks that are popular year-end tax planning tools for businesses. To take advantage of these breaks, you must purchase qualifying assets and place them in service by the end of the tax year. That means there’s still time to reduce your 2018 tax liability with these breaks, but you need to act soon.

Section 179 expensing

Sec. 179 expensing is valuable because it allows businesses to deduct up to 100% of the cost of qualifying assets in Year 1 instead of depreciating the cost over a number of years. Sec. 179 expensing can be used for assets such as equipment, furniture and software. Beginning in 2018, the TCJA expanded the list of qualifying assets to include qualified improvement property, certain property used primarily to furnish lodging and the following improvements to nonresidential real property: roofs, HVAC equipment, fire protection and alarm systems, and security systems.

The maximum Sec. 179 deduction for 2018 is $1 million, up from $510,000 for 2017. The deduction begins to phase out dollar-for-dollar for 2018 when total asset acquisitions for the tax year exceed $2.5 million, up from $2.03 million for 2017.

100% bonus depreciation

For qualified assets that your business places in service in 2018, the TCJA allows you to claim 100% first-year bonus depreciation • compared to 50% in 2017. This break is available when buying computer systems, software, machinery, equipment and office furniture. The TCJA has expanded eligible assets to include used assets; previously, only new assets were eligible.

However, due to a TCJA drafting error, qualified improvement property will be eligible only if a technical correction is issued. Also be aware that, under the TCJA, certain businesses aren’t eligible for bonus depreciation in 2018, such as real estate businesses that elect to deduct 100% of their business interest and auto dealerships with floor plan financing (if the dealership has average annual gross receipts of more than $25 million for the three previous tax years).

Traditional, powerful strategy

Keep in mind that Sec. 179 expensing and bonus depreciation can also be used for business vehicles. So purchasing vehicles before year end could reduce your 2018 tax liability. But, depending on the type of vehicle, additional limits may apply.

Investing in business assets is a traditional and powerful year-end tax planning strategy, and it might make even more sense in 2018 because of the TCJA enhancements to Sec. 179 expensing and bonus depreciation. If you have questions about these breaks or other ways to maximize your depreciation deductions, please contact us at 205-345-9898.

© 2018 Covenant CPA

A tried-and-true year end tax strategy is to make charitable donations. As long as you itemize and your gift qualifies, you can claim a charitable deduction. But did you know that you can enjoy an additional tax benefit if you donate long-term appreciated stock instead of cash?

2 benefits from 1 gift

Appreciated publicly traded stock you’ve held more than one year is long-term capital gains property. If you donate it to a qualified charity, you may be able to enjoy two tax benefits:

  1. If you itemize deductions, you can claim a charitable deduction equal to the stock’s fair market value, and
  2. You can avoid the capital gains tax you’d pay if you sold the stock.

Donating appreciated stock can be especially beneficial to taxpayers facing the 3.8% net investment income tax (NIIT) or the top 20% long-term capital gains rate this year.

Stock vs. cash

Let’s say you donate $10,000 of stock that you paid $3,000 for, your ordinary-income tax rate is 37% and your long-term capital gains rate is 20%. Let’s also say you itemize deductions.

If you sold the stock, you’d pay $1,400 in tax on the $7,000 gain. If you were also subject to the 3.8% NIIT, you’d pay another $266 in NIIT.

By instead donating the stock to charity, you save $5,366 in federal tax ($1,666 in capital gains tax and NIIT plus $3,700 from the $10,000 income tax deduction). If you donated $10,000 in cash, your federal tax savings would be only $3,700.

Watch your step

First, remember that the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act nearly doubled the standard deduction, to $12,000 for singles and married couples filing separately, $18,000 for heads of households, and $24,000 for married couples filing jointly. The charitable deduction will provide a tax benefit only if your total itemized deductions exceed your standard deduction. Because the standard deduction is so much higher, even if you’ve itemized deductions in the past, you might not benefit from doing so for 2018.

Second, beware that donations of long-term capital gains property are subject to tighter deduction limits — 30% of your adjusted gross income for gifts to public charities, 20% for gifts to nonoperating private foundations (compared to 60% and 30%, respectively, for cash donations).

Finally, don’t donate stock that’s worth less than your basis. Instead, sell the stock so you can deduct the loss and then donate the cash proceeds to charity.

Minimizing tax and maximizing deductions

For charitably inclined taxpayers who own appreciated stock and who’ll have enough itemized deductions to benefit from itemizing on their 2018 tax returns, donating the stock to charity can be an excellent year-end tax planning strategy. This is especially true if the stock is highly appreciated and you’d like to sell it but are worried about the tax liability. Please contact us with any questions you have about minimizing capital gains tax or maximizing charitable deductions at 205-345-9898.

© 2018 Covenant CPA

With millions of dollars at stake, an overextended real estate developer has a lot to lose if lack of funds causes a project to collapse. To attract investment capital, some developers have been known to resort to financial statement fraud. If you’re considering financing a project, you need to know how to spot such deception.

Ample opportunity to cheat

There are many ways to falsify a financial picture. For projects in the planning phase, a company seeking financing may provide overstated appraisals of the completed property. Or it may fail to mention its inability to secure utility access or approval from local authorities to rezone the property’s intended location.

For projects already under construction, the developer may inflate the percentage of development completed or amount of materials already purchased. Or a developer could neglect to report funds received from previous lenders or investors.

Sweat the small stuff

To avoid shady deals, review project proposals carefully. For example:

Look at supporting documents. In their rush to “improve” financials by manipulating income statements, balance sheets and cash flow statements, some companies may overlook supporting documents such as project-related budgets and forecasts. Compare these to the company’s primary financial statements and, if you find discrepancies, ask for a detailed explanation.

Scrutinize line items. Certain financial statement line items tend to correspond to each other. For example, labor expense and the accounts payable balance should increase at a rate similar to the percentage of construction completed to date. If line items appear out of sync, ask to see the books of original entry such as the accounts payable aging reports or salary expense reports.

Employ analytical techniques. Common size analysis can help you verify the integrity of specific line items. The process converts each item to a percentage of a base number. For example, to analyze wages and benefits expense, you would divide wages and benefits expense by revenue. Once you’ve converted every line item on the income statement to a percentage of revenue, you can compare the percentages within a reporting period and against prior and subsequent reporting periods.

Professional skepticism

Given the inherent complexity of commercial and residential construction projects, there are plenty of ways for unscrupulous developers to con lenders and investors. Contact us at 205-345-9898. We can help you determine whether a project’s financial statements appear sound.

© 2018 Covenant CPA

For investors, fall is a good time to review year-to-date gains and losses. Not only can it help you assess your financial health, but it also can help you determine whether to buy or sell investments before year end to save taxes. This year, you also need to keep in mind the impact of the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act (TCJA). While the TCJA didn’t change long-term capital gains rates, it did change the tax brackets for long-term capital gains and qualified dividends.

For 2018 through 2025, these brackets are no longer linked to the ordinary-income tax brackets for individuals. So, for example, you could be subject to the top long-term capital gains rate even if you aren’t subject to the top ordinary-income tax rate.

Old rules

For the last several years, individual taxpayers faced three federal income tax rates on long-term capital gains and qualified dividends: 0%, 15% and 20%. The rate brackets were tied to the ordinary-income rate brackets.

Specifically, if the long-term capital gains and/or dividends fell within the 10% or 15% ordinary-income brackets, no federal income tax was owed. If they fell within the 25%, 28%, 33% or 35% ordinary-income brackets, they were taxed at 15%. And, if they fell within the maximum 39.6% ordinary-income bracket, they were taxed at the maximum 20% rate.

In addition, higher-income individuals with long-term capital gains and dividends were also hit with the 3.8% net investment income tax (NIIT). It kicked in when modified adjusted gross income exceeded $200,000 for singles and heads of households and $250,000 for married couples filing jointly. So, many people actually paid 18.8% (15% + 3.8%) or 23.8% (20% + 3.8%) on their long-term capital gains and qualified dividends.

New rules

The TCJA retains the 0%, 15% and 20% rates on long-term capital gains and qualified dividends for individual taxpayers. However, for 2018 through 2025, these rates have their own brackets. Here are the 2018 brackets:

  • Singles:
    • 0%: $0 – $38,600
    • 15%: $38,601 – $425,800
    • 20%: $425,801 and up
  • Heads of households:
    • 0%: $0 – $51,700
    • 15%: $51,701 – $452,400
    • 20%: $452,401 and up
  • Married couples filing jointly:
    • 0%: $0 – $77,200
    • 15%: $77,201 – $479,000
    • 20%: $479,001 and up

For 2018, the top ordinary-income rate of 37%, which also applies to short-term capital gains and nonqualified dividends, doesn’t go into effect until income exceeds $500,000 for singles and heads of households or $600,000 for joint filers. (Both the long-term capital gains brackets and the ordinary-income brackets will be indexed for inflation for 2019 through 2025.) The new tax law also retains the 3.8% NIIT and its $200,000 and $250,000 thresholds.

More thresholds, more complexity

With more tax rate thresholds to keep in mind, year-end tax planning for investments is especially complicated in 2018. If you have questions, please contact us at 205-345-9898.

© 2018 Covenant CPA

Estate planning and investment risk management go hand in hand. After all, an estate plan is effective only if you have some wealth to transfer to the next generation. One of the best ways to reduce your investment risk is to diversify your holdings. But it’s not unusual for affluent people to end up with a significant portion of their wealth concentrated in one or two stocks.

There are many ways this can happen, including the exercise of stock options, participation in equity-based compensation programs, or receipt of stock in a merger or acquisition.

Sell the stock

To reduce your investment risk, the simplest option is to sell some or most of the stock and reinvest in a more diversified portfolio. This may not be an option, however, if you’re not willing to pay the resulting capital gains taxes, if there are legal restrictions on the amount you can sell and the timing of a sale, or if you simply wish to hold on to the stock.

To soften the tax hit, consider selling the stock gradually over time to spread out the capital gains. Or, if you’re charitably inclined, contribute the stock to a charitable remainder trust (CRT). The trust can sell the stock tax-free, reinvest the proceeds in more diversified investments, and provide you with a current tax deduction and a regular income stream. (Be aware that CRT payouts are taxable — usually a combination of ordinary income, capital gains and tax-free amounts.)

Keep the stock

To reduce your risk without selling the stock:

  • Use a hedging technique. For example, purchase put options to sell your shares at a set price.
  • Buy other securities to rebalance your portfolio. Consider borrowing the funds you need, using the concentrated stock as collateral.
  • Invest in a stock protection fund. These funds allow investors who own concentrated stock positions in different industries to pool their risks, essentially insuring their holdings against catastrophic loss.

If you have questions about specific assets in your estate, contact us at 205-345-9898. We can help you preserve as much of your estate as possible so that you have more to pass on to your loved ones.

© 2018 Covenant CPA

Do you own a vacation home? If you both rent it out and use it personally, you might save tax by taking steps to ensure it qualifies as a rental property this year. Vacation home expenses that qualify as rental property expenses aren’t subject to the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act’s (TCJA’s) new limit on the itemized deduction for state and local taxes (SALT) or the lower debt limit for the itemized mortgage interest deduction.

Rental or personal property?

If you rent out your vacation home for 15 days or more, what expenses you can deduct depends on how the home is classified for tax purposes, based on the amount of personal vs. rental use:

Rental property. If you (or your immediate family) use the home for 14 days or less, or under 10% of the days you rent out the property, whichever is greater, the IRS will classify the home as a rental property. You can deduct rental expenses, including losses, subject to the real estate activity rules.

Your deduction for property tax attributable to the rental use of the home isn’t subject to the TCJA’s new SALT deduction limit. And your deduction for mortgage interest on the home isn’t subject to the debt limit that applies to the itemized deduction for mortgage interest. You can’t deduct any interest that’s attributable to your personal use of the home, but you can take the personal portion of property tax as an itemized deduction (subject to the new SALT limit).

Nonrental property. If you (or your immediate family) use the home for more than 14 days or 10% of the days you rent out the property, whichever is greater, the IRS will classify the home as a personal residence. You can deduct rental expenses only to the extent of your rental income. Any excess can be carried forward to offset rental income in future years.

If you itemize deductions, you also can deduct the personal portion of both property tax and mortgage interest, subject to the TCJA’s new limits on those deductions. The SALT deduction limit is $10,000 for the combined total of state and local property taxes and either income taxes or sales taxes ($5,000 for married taxpayers filing separately). For mortgage interest debt incurred after December 15, 2017, the debt limit (with some limited exceptions) has been reduced to $750,000.

Be aware that many taxpayers who have itemized in the past will no longer benefit from itemizing because of the TCJA’s near doubling of the standard deduction. Itemizing saves tax only if total itemized deductions exceed the standard deduction for the taxpayer’s filing status.

Year-to-date review

Keep in mind that, if you rent out your vacation home for less than 15 days, you don’t have to report the income. But expenses associated with the rental (such as advertising and cleaning) won’t be deductible.

Now is a good time to review your vacation home use year-to-date to project how it will be classified for tax purposes. By increasing the number of days you rent it out and/or reducing the number of days you use it personally between now and year end, you might be able to ensure it’s classified as a rental property and save some tax. But there also could be circumstances where personal property treatment would be beneficial. Please contact us at 205-345-9898 to discuss your particular situation.

© 2018 Covenant CPA

If you’ve done any research into employee benefits for your business recently, you may have come across a bit of alphabet soup in the form of “HSA + HDHP.” Although perhaps initially confusing, this formula represents an increasingly popular model for health care benefits — that is, offering a Health Savings Account (HSA) coupled with, as required by law, a high-deductible health plan (HDHP).

Requirements

An HSA operates somewhat like a Flexible Spending Account (FSA), which employers can also offer to eligible employees. An FSA permits eligible employees to defer a pretax portion of their pay to later use to reimburse out-of-pocket medical expenses. But, unlike an FSA, an HSA is permitted to carry over unused account balances to the next year and beyond.

The most significant requirement for offering your employees an HSA is that, as mentioned, you must also cover them under an HDHP. For 2019, this means that each participant’s health insurance coverage must come with at least a $1,350 deductible for single coverage or $2,700 for family coverage. It’s okay if the HDHP doesn’t impose any deductible for preventive care (such as annual checkups), but participants can’t be eligible for Medicare benefits or claimed as a dependent on another person’s tax return.

The benefit of the high deductible requirement is that premiums for HDHPs are typically less expensive than for health plans with lower deductibles. You and your employees can use some or all of the money saved on premiums to fund their HSAs.

Pretax contributions

You and the employee combined can make pretax HSA contributions in 2019 of up to $3,500 for single coverage or $7,000 for family coverage. An account beneficiary who is age 55 or older by the end of the tax year for which the HSA contribution is made may contribute an additional $1,000.

The good news for you, the business owner: First, employer contributions are optional. Second, pretax contributions to an employee’s HSA, whether by you or the employee, are exempt from Social Security, Medicare and unemployment taxes.

Growing popularity

Just how popular is the HSA + HDHP model? A 2018 report by the trade association America’s Health Insurance Plans found that enrollment in these plans increased by nearly 400% over the last 10 years — from about 4.5 million in 2007 to about 21.8 million in 2017. Of course, this doesn’t mean your business should blindly jump on the bandwagon. Contact us at 205-345-9898 to discuss the concept further or for other ideas regarding affordable employee benefits.

© 2018 Covenant Consulting CPA

There continues to be much uncertainty about the Affordable Care Act and how such uncertainty will impact health care costs. So it’s critical to leverage all tax-advantaged ways to fund these expenses, including HSAs, FSAs and HRAs. Here’s how to make sense of this alphabet soup of health care accounts.

HSAs

If you’re covered by a qualified high-deductible health plan (HDHP), you can contribute pretax income to an employer-sponsored Health Savings Account — or make deductible contributions to an HSA you set up yourself — up to $3,450 for self-only coverage and $6,900 for family coverage for 2018. Plus, if you’re age 55 or older, you may contribute an additional $1,000.

You own the account, which can bear interest or be invested, growing tax-deferred similar to an IRA. Withdrawals for qualified medical expenses are tax-free, and you can carry over a balance from year to year.

FSAs

Regardless of whether you have an HDHP, you can redirect pretax income to an employer-sponsored Flexible Spending Account up to an employer-determined limit — not to exceed $2,650 in 2018. The plan pays or reimburses you for qualified medical expenses.

What you don’t use by the plan year’s end, you generally lose — though your plan might allow you to roll over up to $500 to the next year. Or it might give you a grace period of two and a half months to incur expenses to use up the previous year’s contribution. If you have an HSA, your FSA is limited to funding certain “permitted” expenses.

HRAs

A Health Reimbursement Account is an employer-sponsored account that reimburses you for medical expenses. Unlike an HSA, no HDHP is required. Unlike an FSA, any unused portion typically can be carried forward to the next year.

There’s no government-set limit on HRA contributions. But only your employer can contribute to an HRA; employees aren’t allowed to contribute.

Maximize the benefit

If you have one of these health care accounts, it’s important to understand the applicable rules so you can get the maximum benefit from it. But tax-advantaged accounts aren’t the only way to save taxes in relation to health care. If you have questions about tax planning and health care expenses, please contact us at 205-345-9898.

© 2018 Covenant Consulting CPA

Over the last several years, virtual currency has become increasingly popular. Bitcoin is the most widely recognized form of virtual currency, also commonly referred to as digital, electronic or crypto currency.

While most smaller businesses aren’t yet accepting bitcoin or other virtual currency payments from their customers, more and more larger businesses are. And the trend may trickle down to smaller businesses. Businesses also can pay employees or independent contractors with virtual currency. But what are the tax consequences of these transactions?

Bitcoin 101

Bitcoin has an equivalent value in real currency and can be digitally traded between users. It also can be purchased with real currencies or exchanged for real currencies. Bitcoin is most commonly obtained through virtual currency ATMs or online exchanges.

Goods or services can be paid for using “bitcoin wallet” software. When a purchase is made, the software digitally posts the transaction to a global public ledger. This prevents the same unit of virtual currency from being used multiple times.

Tax impact

Questions about the tax impact of virtual currency abound. And the IRS has yet to offer much guidance.

The IRS did establish in a 2014 ruling that bitcoin and other convertible virtual currency should be treated as property, not currency, for federal income tax purposes. This means that businesses accepting bitcoin payments for goods and services must report gross income based on the fair market value of the virtual currency when it was received, measured in equivalent U.S. dollars.

When a business uses virtual currency to pay wages, the wages are taxable to the employees to the extent any other wage payment would be. You must, for example, report such wages on your employees’ W-2 forms. And they’re subject to federal income tax withholding and payroll taxes, based on the fair market value of the virtual currency on the date received by the employee.

When a business uses virtual currency to pay independent contractors or other service providers, those payments are also taxable to the recipient. The self-employment tax rules generally apply, based on the fair market value of the virtual currency on the date received. Payers generally must issue 1099-MISC forms to recipients.

Finally, payments made with virtual currency are subject to information reporting to the same extent as any other payment made in property.

Deciding whether to go virtual

Accepting bitcoin can be beneficial because it may avoid transaction fees charged by credit card companies and online payment providers (such as PayPal) and attract customers who want to use virtual currency. But the IRS is targeting virtual currency transactions in an effort to raise tax revenue, and it hasn’t issued much guidance on the tax treatment or reporting requirements. So bitcoin can also be a bit risky from a tax perspective.

To learn more about tax considerations when deciding whether your business should accept bitcoin or other virtual currencies — or use them to pay employees, independent contractors or other service providers — contact Covenant Consulting at (205) 345-9898 today or go to  www.covenantcpa.com for the office near you.

Today many employees receive stock-based compensation from their employer as part of their compensation and benefits package. The tax consequences of such compensation can be complex — subject to ordinary-income, capital gains, employment and other taxes. But if you receive restricted stock awards, you might have a tax-saving opportunity in the form of the Section 83(b) election.

Convert ordinary income to long-term capital gains

Restricted stock is stock your employer grants you subject to a substantial risk of forfeiture. Income recognition is normally deferred until the stock is no longer subject to that risk (that is, it’s vested) or you sell it.

At that time, you pay taxes on the stock’s fair market value (FMV) at your ordinary-income rate. The FMV will be considered FICA income, so it also could trigger or increase your exposure to the additional 0.9% Medicare tax.

But you can instead make a Sec. 83(b) election to recognize ordinary income when you receive the stock. This election, which you must make within 30 days after receiving the stock, allows you to convert future appreciation from ordinary income to long-term capital gains income and defer it until the stock is sold.

The Sec. 83(b) election can be beneficial if the income at the grant date is negligible or the stock is likely to appreciate significantly. With ordinary-income rates now especially low under the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act (TCJA), it might be a good time to recognize such income.

Weigh the potential disadvantages

There are some potential disadvantages, however:

  • You must prepay tax in the current year — which also could push you into a higher income tax bracket or trigger or increase the additional 0.9% Medicare tax. But if your company is in the earlier stages of development, the income recognized may be relatively small.
  • Any taxes you pay because of the election can’t be refunded if you eventually forfeit the stock or sell it at a decreased value. However, you’d have a capital loss in those situations.
  • When you sell the shares, any gain will be included in net investment income and could trigger or increase your liability for the 3.8% net investment income tax.

It’s complicated

As you can see, tax planning for restricted stock is complicated. Let us know if you’ve recently been awarded restricted stock or expect to be awarded such stock this year. We can help you determine whether the Sec. 83(b) election makes sense in your specific situation.

© 2018 Covenant Consulting