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

Here are some of the key tax-related deadlines affecting businesses and other employers during the fourth quarter of 2018. Keep in mind that this list isn’t all-inclusive, so there may be additional deadlines that apply to you. Contact us to ensure you’re meeting all applicable deadlines and to learn more about the filing requirements.

October 15

  • If a calendar-year C corporation that filed an automatic six-month extension:
    • File a 2017 income tax return (Form 1120) and pay any tax, interest and penalties due.
    • Make contributions for 2017 to certain employer-sponsored retirement plans.

October 31

  • Report income tax withholding and FICA taxes for third quarter 2018 (Form 941) and pay any tax due. (See exception below under “November 13.”)

November 13

  • Report income tax withholding and FICA taxes for third quarter 2018 (Form 941), if you deposited on time and in full all of the associated taxes due.

December 17

  • If a calendar-year C corporation, pay the fourth installment of 2018 estimated income taxes.

Contact us at 205-345-9898 to learn more.

© 2018 Covenant CPA

Every business with more than one owner needs a buy-sell agreement to handle both expected and unexpected ownership changes. When creating or updating yours, be sure you’re prepared for the valuation issues that will come into play.

Issues, what issues?

Emotions tend to run high when owners face a “triggering event” that activates the buy-sell. Such events include the death of an owner, the divorce of married owners or an owner dispute.

The departing owner (or his or her estate) suddenly is in the position of a seller who wants to maximize buyout proceeds. The buyer’s role is played by either the other owners or the business itself — and it’s in the buyer’s financial interest to pay as little as possible. A comprehensive buy-sell agreement takes away the guesswork and helps ensure that all parties are treated equitably.

Some owners decide to have the business valued annually to minimize surprises when a buyout occurs. This is often preferable to using a static valuation formula in the buy-sell agreement, because the value of the interest is likely to change as the business grows and market conditions evolve.

What are our protocols?

At minimum, the buy-sell agreement needs to prescribe various valuation protocols to follow when the agreement is triggered, including:

  • How “value” will be defined,
  • Who will value the business,
  • Whether valuation discounts will apply,
  • Who will pay appraisal fees, and
  • What the timeline will be for the valuation process.

It’s also important to discuss the appropriate “as of” date for valuing the business interest. The loss of a key person could affect the value of a business interest, so timing may be critical.

Are we ready?

Business owners tend to put planning issues on the back burner — especially when they’re young and healthy and owner relations are strong. But the more details that you put in place today, including a well-crafted buy-sell agreement with the right valuation components, the easier it will be to resolve buyout issues when they arise. Our firm would be happy to help, contact us at 205-345-9898.

© 2018 Covenant Consulting CPA

To avoid interest and penalties, you must make sufficient federal income tax payments long before your April filing deadline through withholding, estimated tax payments, or a combination of the two. The third 2018 estimated tax payment deadline for individuals is September 17.

If you don’t have an employer withholding tax from your pay, you likely need to make estimated tax payments. But even if you do have withholding, you might need to pay estimated tax. It can be necessary if you have more than a nominal amount of income from sources such as self-employment, interest, dividends, alimony, rent, prizes, awards or the sales of assets.

A two-prong test

Generally, you must pay estimated tax for 2018 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 2018 or 100% of the tax on your 2017 return — 110% if your 2017 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 payments

Estimated tax payments are spaced through the year into four periods or due dates. Generally, the due dates are April 15, June 15 and September 15 of the tax year and January 15 of the next year, unless the date falls on a weekend or holiday (hence the September 17 deadline this year).

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.

Confirming withholding

If you determine you don’t need to make estimated tax payments for 2018, it’s a good idea to confirm that the appropriate amount is being withheld from your paycheck. To reflect changes under the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act (TCJA), the IRS updated the tables that indicate how much employers should withhold from their employees’ pay, generally reducing the amount withheld.

The new tables might cause some taxpayers to not have enough withheld to pay their ultimate tax liabilities under the TCJA. The IRS has updated its withholding calculator (available at irs.gov) to assist taxpayers in reviewing their situations.

Avoiding penalties

Keep in mind that, if you underpaid estimated taxes in earlier quarters, you generally can’t avoid penalties by making larger estimated payments in later quarters. But if you also have withholding, you may be able to avoid penalties by having the estimated tax shortfall withheld.

To learn more about estimated tax and withholding — and for help determining how much tax you should be paying during the year — contact us at 205-345-9898.

© 2018 Covenant Consulting CPA

Classifying a worker as an independent contractor frees a business from payroll tax liability and allows it to forgo providing overtime pay, unemployment compensation and other employee benefits. It also frees the business from responsibility for withholding income taxes and the worker’s share of payroll taxes.

For these reasons, the federal government views misclassifying a bona fide employee as an independent contractor unfavorably. If the IRS reclassifies a worker as an employee, your business could be hit with back taxes, interest and penalties.

Key factors

When assessing worker classification, the IRS typically looks at the:

Level of behavioral control. This means the extent to which the company instructs a worker on when and where to do the work, what tools or equipment to use, whom to hire, where to purchase supplies and so on. Also, control typically involves providing training and evaluating the worker’s performance. The more control the company exercises, the more likely the worker is an employee.

Level of financial control. Independent contractors are more likely to invest in their own equipment or facilities, incur unreimbursed business expenses, and market their services to other customers. Employees are more likely to be paid by the hour or week or some other time period; independent contractors are more likely to receive a flat fee.

Relationship of the parties. Independent contractors are often engaged for a discrete project, while employees are typically hired permanently (or at least for an indefinite period). Also, workers who serve a key business function are more likely to be classified as employees.

The IRS examines a variety of factors within each category. You need to consider all of the facts and circumstances surrounding each worker relationship.

Protective measures

Once you’ve completed your review, there are several strategies you can use to minimize your exposure. When in doubt, reclassify questionable independent contractors as employees. This may increase your tax and benefit costs, but it will eliminate reclassification risk.

From there, modify your relationships with independent contractors to better ensure compliance. For example, you might exercise less behavioral control by reducing your level of supervision or allowing workers to set their own hours or work from home.

Also, consider using an employee-leasing company. Workers leased from these firms are employees of the leasing company, which is responsible for taxes, benefits and other employer obligations.

Handle with care

Keep in mind that taxes, interest and penalties aren’t the only possible negative consequences of a worker being reclassified as an employee. In addition, your business could be liable for employee benefits that should have been provided but weren’t. Fortunately, careful handling of contractors can help ensure that independent contractor status will pass IRS scrutiny. Contact us at 205-345-9898 if you have questions about worker classification.

© 2018 Covenant Consulting CPA

Now that the gift and estate tax exemption has reached a record high of $11.18 million (for 2018), it may seem that gifting assets to loved ones is less important than it was in previous years. However, lifetime gifts continue to provide significant benefits, whether your estate is taxable or not.

Let’s examine three reasons why making gifts remains an important part of estate planning:

1. Lifetime gifts reduce estate taxes. If your estate exceeds the exemption amount — or you believe it will in the future — regular lifetime gifts can substantially reduce your estate tax bill.

The annual gift tax exclusion allows you to give up to $15,000 per recipient ($30,000 if you “split” gifts with your spouse) tax-free without using up any of your gift and estate tax exemption. In addition, direct payments of tuition or medical expenses on behalf of your loved ones are excluded from gift tax.

Taxable gifts — that is, gifts beyond the annual exclusion amount and not eligible for the tuition and medical expense exclusion — can also reduce estate tax liability by removing future appreciation from your taxable estate. You may be better off paying gift tax on an asset’s current value rather than estate tax on its appreciated value down the road.

When gifting appreciable assets, however, be sure to consider the potential income tax implications. Property transferred at death receives a “stepped-up basis” equal to its date-of-death fair market value, which means the recipient can turn around and sell the property free of capital gains taxes. Property transferred during life retains your tax basis, so it’s important to weigh the estate tax savings against the potential income tax costs.

2. Tax laws aren’t permanent. Even if your estate is within the exemption amount now, it pays to make regular gifts. Why? Because even though the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act doubled the exemption amount, and that amount will be adjusted annually for inflation, the doubling expires after 2025. Without further legislation, the exemption will return to an inflation-adjusted $5 million in 2026.

Thus, taxpayers with estates in roughly the $6 million to $11 million range (twice that for married couples), whose estates would escape estate taxes if they were to die while the doubled exemption is in effect, still need to keep potential post-2025 estate tax liability in mind in their estate planning.

3. Gifts provide nontax benefits. Tax planning aside, there are other reasons to make lifetime gifts. For example, perhaps you wish to use gifting to shape your family members’ behavior — for example, by providing gifts to those who attend college. And if you own a business, gifts of interests in the business may be a key component of your ownership and management succession plan. Or you might simply wish to see your loved ones enjoy the gifts.

Regardless of the amount of your wealth, consider a program of regular lifetime giving. We can help you devise and incorporate a gifting program as part of your estate plan, contact us at 205-345-9898.

© 2018 Covenant Consulting CPA

The Tax Cuts and Jobs Act (TCJA) provides a valuable new tax break to noncorporate owners of pass-through entities: a deduction for a portion of qualified business income (QBI). The deduction generally applies to income from sole proprietorships, partnerships, S corporations and, typically, limited liability companies (LLCs). It can equal as much as 20% of QBI. But once taxable income exceeds $315,000 for married couples filing jointly or $157,500 for other filers, a wage limit begins to phase in.

Full vs. partial phase-in

When the wage limit is fully phased in, at $415,000 for joint filers and $207,500 for other filers, the QBI deduction generally can’t exceed the greater of the owner’s share of:

  • 50% of the amount of W-2 wages paid to employees during the tax year, or
  • The sum of 25% of W-2 wages plus 2.5% of the cost of qualified business property (QBP).

When the wage limit applies but isn’t yet fully phased in, the amount of the limit is reduced and the final deduction is calculated as follows:

  1. The difference between taxable income and the applicable threshold is divided by $100,000 for joint filers or $50,000 for other filers.
  2. The resulting percentage is multiplied by the difference between the gross deduction and the fully wage-limited deduction.
  3. The result is subtracted from the gross deduction to determine the final deduction.

Some examples

Let’s say Chris and Leslie have taxable income of $600,000. This includes $300,000 of QBI from Chris’s pass-through business, which pays $100,000 in wages and has $200,000 of QBP. The gross deduction would be $60,000 (20% of $300,000), but the wage limit applies in full because the married couple’s taxable income exceeds the $415,000 top of the phase-in range for joint filers. Computing the deduction is fairly straightforward in this situation.

The first option for the wage limit calculation is $50,000 (50% of $100,000). The second option is $30,000 (25% of $100,000 + 2.5% of $200,000). So the wage limit — and the deduction — is $50,000.

What if Chris and Leslie’s taxable income falls within the phase-in range? The calculation is a bit more complicated. Let’s say their taxable income is $400,000. The full wage limit is still $50,000, but only 85% of the full limit applies:

($400,000 taxable income – $315,000 threshold)/$100,000 = 85%

To calculate the amount of their deduction, the couple must first calculate 85% of the difference between the gross deduction of $60,000 and the fully wage-limited deduction of $50,000:

($60,000 – $50,000) × 85% = $8,500

That amount is subtracted from the $60,000 gross deduction for a final deduction of $51,500.

That’s not all

Be aware that another restriction may apply: For income from “specified service businesses,” the QBI deduction is reduced if an owner’s taxable income falls within the applicable income range and eliminated if income exceeds it. Please contact us at 205-345-9898 to learn whether your business is a specified service business or if you have other questions about the QBI deduction.

© 2018 Covenant Consulting 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

When teachers are setting up their classrooms for the new school year, it’s common for them to pay for a portion of their classroom supplies out of pocket. A special tax break allows these educators to deduct some of their expenses. This educator expense deduction is especially important now due to some changes under the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act (TCJA).

The old miscellaneous itemized deduction

Before 2018, employee expenses were potentially deductible if they were unreimbursed by the employer and ordinary and necessary to the “business” of being an employee. A teacher’s out-of-pocket classroom expenses could qualify.

But these expenses had to be claimed as a miscellaneous itemized deduction and were subject to a 2% of adjusted gross income (AGI) floor. This meant employees, including teachers, could enjoy a tax benefit only if they itemized deductions (rather than taking the standard deduction) and all their deductions subject to the floor, combined, exceeded 2% of their AGI.

Now, for 2018 through 2025, the TCJA has suspended miscellaneous itemized deductions subject to the 2% of AGI floor. Fortunately, qualifying educators can still deduct some of their unreimbursed out-of-pocket classroom costs under the educator expense deduction.

The above-the-line educator expense deduction

Back in 2002, Congress created the above-the-line educator expense deduction because, for many teachers, the 2% of AGI threshold for the miscellaneous itemized deduction was difficult to meet. An above-the-line deduction is one that’s subtracted from your gross income to determine your AGI.

You don’t have to itemize to claim an above-the-line deduction. This is especially significant with the TCJA’s near doubling of the standard deduction, which means fewer taxpayers will benefit from itemizing.

Qualifying elementary and secondary school teachers and other eligible educators (such as counselors and principals) can deduct up to $250 of qualified expenses. If you’re married filing jointly and both you and your spouse are educators, you can deduct up to $500 of unreimbursed expenses — but not more than $250 each.

Qualified expenses include amounts paid or incurred during the tax year for books, supplies, computer equipment (including related software and services), other equipment and supplementary materials that you use in the classroom. For courses in health and physical education, the costs of supplies are qualified expenses only if related to athletics.

Many rules, many changes

Some additional rules apply to the educator expense deduction. Contact us for more details or to discuss other tax deductions that may be available to you this year. The TCJA has made significant changes to many deductions for individuals. Contact us at 205-345-9898 to learn more.

© 2018 Covenant Consulting CPA

Even though you can’t physically touch digital assets, they’re just as important to include in your estate plan as your material assets. Digital assets may include online bank and brokerage accounts, digital photo galleries, and even email and social media accounts.

If you die without addressing these assets in your estate plan, your loved ones or other representatives may not be able to access them without going to court — or, worse yet, may not even know they exist.

Virtual documents in lieu of hard copies

Traditionally, when a loved one dies, family members go through his or her home to look for personal and business documents, including tax returns, bank and brokerage account statements, stock certificates, contracts, insurance policies, loan agreements, and so on. They may also collect photo albums, safe deposit box keys, correspondence and other valuable items.

Today, however, many of these items may not exist in “hard copy” form. Unless your estate plan addresses these digital assets, how will your family know where to find them or how to gain access?

Suppose, for example, that you opened a brokerage account online and elected to receive all of your statements electronically. Typically, the institution sends you an email — which you may or may not save — alerting you that the current statement is available. You log on to the institution’s website and view the statement, which you may or may not download to your computer.

If something were to happen to you, would your family or executor know that this account exists? Perhaps you save all of your statements and correspondence related to the account on your computer. But would your representatives know where to look? And if your computer is password protected, do they know the password?

Revealing your digital assets

The first step in accounting for digital assets is to conduct an inventory of any computers, servers, handheld devices, websites or other places where these assets are stored.

Although you might want to provide in your will for the disposition of certain digital assets, a will isn’t the place to list passwords or other confidential information. For one thing, a will is a public document.

One solution is writing an informal letter to your executor or personal representative that lists important accounts, website addresses, usernames and passwords. The letter can be stored with a trusted advisor or in some other secure place.

Another solution is to establish a master password that gives the representative access to a list of passwords for all your important accounts, either on your computer or through a Web-based “password vault.”

We can help you account for any digital assets in your estate plan. Contact us at 205-345-9898

© 2018 Covenant Consulting CPA