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

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

As we all know, medical services and prescription drugs are expensive. You may be able to deduct some of your expenses on your tax return but the rules make it difficult for many people to qualify. However, with proper planning, you may be able to time discretionary medical expenses to your advantage for tax purposes.

The basic rules

For 2019, the medical expense deduction can only be claimed to the extent your unreimbursed costs exceed 10% of your adjusted gross income (AGI). You also must itemize deductions on your return.

If your total itemized deductions for 2019 will exceed your standard deduction, moving or “bunching” nonurgent medical procedures and other controllable expenses into 2019 may allow you to exceed the 10% floor and benefit from the medical expense deduction. Controllable expenses include refilling prescription drugs, buying eyeglasses and contact lenses, going to the dentist and getting elective surgery.

In addition to hospital and doctor expenses, here are some items to take into account when determining your allowable costs:

1. Health insurance premiums. This item can total thousands of dollars a year. Even if your employer provides health coverage, you can deduct the portion of the premiums that you pay. Long-term care insurance premiums are also included as medical expenses, subject to limits based on age.

2. Transportation. The cost of getting to and from medical treatments counts as a medical expense. This includes taxi fares, public transportation, or using your own car. Car costs can be calculated at 20¢ a mile for miles driven in 2019, plus tolls and parking. Alternatively, you can deduct certain actual costs, such as for gas and oil.

3. Eyeglasses, hearing aids, dental work, prescription drugs and professional fees. Deductible expenses include the cost of glasses, hearing aids, dental work, psychiatric counseling and other ongoing expenses in connection with medical needs. Purely cosmetic expenses don’t qualify. Prescription drugs (including insulin) qualify, but over-the-counter aspirin and vitamins don’t. Neither do amounts paid for treatments that are illegal under federal law (such as marijuana), even if state law permits them. The services of therapists and nurses can qualify as long as they relate to a medical condition and aren’t for general health. Amounts paid for certain long-term care services required by a chronically ill individual also qualify.

4. Smoking-cessation and weight-loss programs. Amounts paid for participating in smoking-cessation programs and for prescribed drugs designed to alleviate nicotine withdrawal are deductible. However, nonprescription nicotine gum and patches aren’t. A weight-loss program is deductible if undertaken as treatment for a disease diagnosed by a physician. Deductible expenses include fees paid to join a program and attend periodic meetings. However, the cost of food isn’t deductible.

Dependent expenses

You can deduct the medical costs that you pay for dependents, such as your children. Additionally, you may be able to deduct medical costs you pay for other individuals, such as an elderly parent. If you have questions about medical expense deductions, contact us.

© 2019 Covenant CPA

What is your taxpayer filing status?

For tax purposes, December 31 means more than New Year’s Eve celebrations. It affects the filing status box that will be checked on your tax return for the year. When you file your return, you do so with one of five filing statuses, which depend in part on whether you’re married or unmarried on December 31.

More than one filing status may apply, and you can use the one that saves the most tax. It’s also possible that your status options could change during the year.

Here are the filing statuses and who can claim them:

  1. Single. This status is generally used if you’re unmarried, divorced or legally separated under a divorce or separate maintenance decree governed by state law.
  2. Married filing jointly. If you’re married, you can file a joint tax return with your spouse. If your spouse passes away, you can generally file a joint return for that year.
  3. Married filing separately. As an alternative to filing jointly, married couples can choose to file separate tax returns. In some cases, this may result in less tax owed.
  4. Head of household. Certain unmarried taxpayers may qualify to use this status and potentially pay less tax. The special rules that apply are described below.
  5. Qualifying widow(er) with a dependent child. This may be used if your spouse died during one of the previous two years and you have a dependent child. Other conditions also apply.

Head of household status

Head of household status is generally more favorable than filing as a single taxpayer. To qualify, you must “maintain a household” that, for more than half the year, is the principal home of a “qualifying child” or other relative that you can claim as your dependent.

A “qualifying child” is defined as someone who:

  • Lives in your home for more than half the year,
  • Is your child, stepchild, foster child, sibling, stepsibling or a descendant of any of these,
  • Is under 19 years old or a student under age 24, and
  • Doesn’t provide over half of his or her own support for the year.

Different rules may apply if a child’s parents are divorced. Also, a child isn’t a “qualifying child” if he or she is married and files jointly or isn’t a U.S. citizen or resident.

Maintaining a household

For head of household filing status, you’re considered to maintain a household if you live in it for the tax year and pay more than half the cost of running it. This includes property taxes, mortgage interest, rent, utilities, property insurance, repairs, upkeep, and food consumed in the home. Don’t include medical care, clothing, education, life insurance or transportation.

Under a special rule, you can qualify as head of household if you maintain a home for a parent of yours even if you don’t live with the parent. To qualify, you must be able to claim the parent as your dependent.

Marital status

You must generally be unmarried to claim head of household status. If you’re married, you must generally file as either married filing jointly or married filing separately, not as head of household. However, if you’ve lived apart from your spouse for the last six months of the year and a qualifying child lives with you and you “maintain” the household, you’re treated as unmarried. In this case, you may be able to qualify as head of household.

If you have questions about your filing status, contact us.

© 2019 Covenant CPA

When is tax due on Series EE savings bonds?

You may have Series EE savings bonds that were bought many years ago. Perhaps you store them in a file cabinet or safe deposit box and rarely think about them. You may wonder how the interest you earn on EE bonds is taxed. And if they reach final maturity, you may need to take action to ensure there’s no loss of interest or unanticipated tax consequences.

Interest deferral

Series EE Bonds dated May 2005 and after earn a fixed rate of interest. Bonds purchased between May 1997 and April 30, 2005, earn a variable market-based rate of return.

Paper Series EE bonds were sold at half their face value. For example, if you own a $50 bond, you paid $25 for it. The bond isn’t worth its face value until it has matured. (The U.S. Treasury Department no longer issues EE bonds in paper form.) Electronic Series EE Bonds are sold at face value and are worth their full value when available for redemption.

The minimum term of ownership is one year, but a penalty is imposed if the bond is redeemed in the first five years. The bonds earn interest for 30 years.

How they’re taxed

Series EE bonds don’t pay interest currently. Instead, the accrued interest is reflected in the redemption value of the bond. The U.S. Treasury issues tables showing the redemption values.

The interest on EE bonds isn’t taxed as it accrues unless the owner elects to have it taxed annually. If an election is made, all previously accrued but untaxed interest is also reported in the election year. In most cases, this election isn’t made so bond holders receive the benefits of tax deferral.

If the election to report the interest annually is made, it will apply to all bonds and for all future years. That is, the election cannot be made on a bond-by-bond or year-by-year basis. However, there’s a procedure under which the election can be canceled.

If the election isn’t made, all of the accrued interest is finally taxed when the bond is redeemed or otherwise disposed of (unless it was exchanged for a Series HH bond). The bond continues to accrue interest even after reaching its face value, but at “final maturity” (after 30 years) interest stops accruing and must be reported.

Note: Interest on EE bonds isn’t subject to state income tax. And using the money for higher education may keep you from paying federal income tax on your interest.

Deferral won’t last forever

One of the principal reasons for buying EE bonds is the fact that interest can build up without having to currently report or pay tax on it. Unfortunately, the law doesn’t allow for this tax-free buildup to continue indefinitely. When the bonds reach final maturity, they stop earning interest.

Series EE bonds issued in January 1989 reached final maturity after 30 years, in January 2019. That means that not only have they stopped earning interest, but all of the accrued and as yet untaxed interest is taxable in 2019.

If you own EE bonds (paper or electronic), check the issue dates on your bonds. If they’re no longer earning interest, you probably want to redeem them and put the money into something more lucrative. Contact us if you have any questions about the taxability of savings bonds, including Series HH and Series I bonds.

© 2019 Covenant CPA

We all know the cost of college is expensive. The latest figures from the College Board show that the average annual cost of tuition and fees was $10,230 for in-state students at public four-year universities — and $35,830 for students at private not-for-profit four-year institutions. These amounts don’t include room and board, books, supplies, transportation and other expenses that a student may incur.

Two tax credits

Fortunately, the federal government offers two sizable tax credits for higher education costs that you may be able to claim:

1. The American Opportunity credit. This tax break generally provides the biggest benefit to most taxpayers. The American Opportunity credit provides a maximum benefit of $2,500. That is, you may qualify for a credit equal to 100% of the first $2,000 of expenses for the year and 25% of the next $2,000 of expenses. It applies only to the first four years of postsecondary education and is available only to students who attend at least half time.

Basically, tuition, course materials and fees qualify for this credit. The credit is per eligible student and is subject to phaseouts based on modified adjusted gross income (MAGI). For 2019, the MAGI phaseout ranges are:

  • Between $80,000 and $90,000 for unmarried individuals, and
  • Between $160,000 and $180,000 for married joint filers.

2. The Lifetime Learning credit. This credit equals 20% of qualified education expenses for up to $2,000 per tax return. There are fewer restrictions to qualify for this credit than for the American Opportunity credit.

The Lifetime Learning credit can be applied to education beyond the first four years, and qualifying students may attend school less than half time. The student doesn’t even need to be part of a degree program. So, the credit works well for graduate studies and part-time students who take a qualifying course at a local college to improve job skills. It applies to tuition, fees and materials.

It’s also subject to phaseouts based on MAGI, however. For 2019, the MAGI phaseout ranges are:

  • Between $58,000 and $68,000 for unmarried individuals, and
  • Between $116,000 and $136,000 for married joint filers.

Note: You can’t claim either the American Opportunity Credit or the Lifetime Learning Credit for the same student or for the same expense in the same year.

Credit for what you’ve paid

So which higher education tax credit is right for you? A number of factors need to be reviewed before determining the answer to that question. Contact us for more information about how to take advantage of tax-favored ways to save or pay for college.

© 2019 Covenant CPA

If you’re self-employed and don’t have withholding from paychecks, you probably have to make estimated tax payments. These payments must be sent to the IRS on a quarterly basis. The third 2019 estimated tax payment deadline for individuals is Monday, September 16. Even if you do have some withholding from paychecks or payments you receive, you may still have to make estimated payments if you receive other types of income such as Social Security, prizes, rent, interest, and dividends.

Pay-as-you-go system

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

In general, you must make estimated tax payments for 2019 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 2019 or 100% of the tax on your 2018 return — 110% if your 2018 adjusted gross income was more than $150,000 ($75,000 for married couples filing separately).

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

Quarterly due dates

Estimated tax payments are spread out through the year. The due dates are April 15, June 15, September 15 and January 15 of the following year. However, if the date falls on a weekend or holiday, the deadline is the next business day (which is why the third deadline is September 16 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.

Seasonal businesses

Most individuals make estimated tax payments in four installments. In other words, you can determine the required annual payment, divide the number by four and make four equal payments by the due dates. But you may be able to make smaller payments under an “annualized income method.” This can be useful to people whose income isn’t uniform over the year, perhaps because of a seasonal business. For example, let’s say your income comes exclusively from a business that you operate in a beach town during June, July and August. In this case, with the annualized income method, no estimated payment would be required before the usual September 15 deadline. You may also want to use the annualized income method if a large portion of your income comes from capital gains on the sale of securities that you sell at various times during the year.

Determining the correct amount

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

© 2019 Covenant CPA

As teachers head back for a new school year, they often pay for various expenses for which they don’t receive reimbursement. Fortunately, they may be able to deduct them on their tax returns. However, there are limits on this special deduction, and some expenses can’t be written off.

For 2019, qualifying educators can deduct some of their unreimbursed out-of-pocket classroom costs under the educator expense deduction. This is an “above-the-line” deduction, which means you don’t have to itemize your deductions in order to claim it.

Eligible deductions

Here are some details about the educator expense deduction:

  • For 2019, educators can deduct up to $250 of trade or business expenses that weren’t reimbursed. (The deduction is $500 if both taxpayers are eligible educators who file a joint tax return, but these taxpayers can’t deduct more than $250 each.)
  • Qualified expenses are amounts educators paid themselves during the tax year.
  • Examples of expenses that educators can deduct include books, supplies, computer equipment (including software), other materials used in the classroom, and professional development courses.
  • To be eligible, taxpayers must be kindergarten through grade 12 teachers, instructors, counselors, principals or aides. They must also work at least 900 hours a school year in a school that provides elementary or secondary education as determined under state law.

Educators should keep receipts when they make eligible expenses and note the date, amount and purpose of each purchase.

Ineligible deductions

Teachers or professors may see advertisements for job-related courses in out-of-town or exotic locations. You may have wondered whether traveling to these courses is tax-deductible on teachers’ tax returns. The bad news is that, for tax years 2018–2025, it isn’t, because the outlays are employee business expenses.

Prior to 2018, employee business expenses could be claimed as miscellaneous itemized deductions. However, under the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act, miscellaneous itemized deductions aren’t deductible by individuals for tax years 2018–2025.

© 2019 Covenant CPA

When a married couple files a joint tax return, each spouse is “jointly and severally” liable for the full amount of tax on the couple’s combined income. Therefore, the IRS can come after either spouse to collect the entire tax — not just the part that’s attributed to one spouse or the other. This includes any tax deficiency that the IRS assesses after an audit, as well as any penalties and interest. (However, the civil fraud penalty can be imposed only on spouses who’ve actually committed fraud.)

Innocent spouses

In some cases, spouses are eligible for “innocent spouse relief.” This generally involves individuals who were unaware of a tax understatement that was attributable to the other spouse.

To qualify, you must show not only that you didn’t know about the understatement, but that there was nothing that should have made you suspicious. In addition, the circumstances must make it inequitable to hold you liable for the tax. This relief is available even if you’re still married and living with your spouse.

In addition, spouses may be able to limit liability for any tax deficiency on a joint return if they’re widowed, divorced, legally separated or have lived apart for at least one year.

Election to limit liability

If you make this election, the tax items that gave rise to the deficiency will be allocated between you and your spouse as if you’d filed separate returns. For example, you’d generally be liable for the tax on any unreported wage income only to the extent that you earned the wages.

The election won’t provide relief from your spouse’s tax items if the IRS proves that you knew about the items when you signed the return — unless you can show that you signed the return under duress. Also, the limitation on your liability is increased by the value of any assets that your spouse transferred to you in order to avoid the tax.

An “injured” spouse

In addition to innocent spouse relief, there’s also relief for “injured” spouses. What’s the difference? An injured spouse claim asks the IRS to allocate part of a joint refund to one spouse. In these cases, an injured spouse has all or part of a refund from a joint return applied against past-due federal tax, state tax, child or spousal support, or a federal nontax debt (such as a student loan) owed by the other spouse. If you’re an injured spouse, you may be entitled to recoup your share of the refund.

Whether, and to what extent, you can take advantage of the above relief depends on the facts of your situation. If you’re interested in trying to obtain relief, there’s paperwork that must be filed and deadlines that must be met. We can assist you with the details.

Also, keep “joint and several liability” in mind when filing future tax returns. Even if a joint return results in less tax, you may choose to file a separate return if you want to be certain of being responsible only for your own tax. Contact us with any questions or concerns.

© 2019 Covenant CPA