When Congress authorized an additional $600 in monthly unemployment benefits as part of the CARES Act, out-of-work Americans weren’t the only ones it helped. Criminals have descended like locusts on state unemployment insurance agencies, using stolen identities to fraudulently claim both standard benefits and the additional funds administered by the Pandemic Unemployment Assistance (PUA) program. States have lost hundreds of millions of dollars. Individuals have also suffered, as government efforts to control fraud have clogged up benefit systems and delayed payments to the jobless.

States struggle

Washington state was the first to experience a COVID-19 outbreak and has since estimated losses of $650 million to unemployment insurance fraud. According to the Secret Service, a scam was detected when someone noticed that multiple direct deposits of benefits had been made to individuals residing out of state. These deposits were subsequently transferred overseas — likely by organized crime gangs.

But Washington is hardly alone. Many other states have discovered fraud. In May, Rhode Island’s labor agency reported that it had almost as many illegitimate unemployment insurance claims as legitimate ones. And widescale fraud in Michigan forced that state to stop payment on nearly 20% of unemployment claims pending review.

Fighting back

If you’re currently employed and receive an unemployment benefit check or debit card or a letter confirming an application for unemployment benefits, immediately contact your state. If you can’t get ahold of your state agency (a problem encountered by thousands of potential fraud victims), report your suspicions to police and the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) at identitytheft.gov. Your identity has likely been stolen and sold to criminals on the dark web. Be sure to request copies of your credit reports and review them for illegitimate activity.

Businesses can help fight unemployment insurance fraud, too. The FTC suggests that companies:

  • Ask employees to speak up if they suspect their identities are being used to perpetrate unemployment insurance fraud, 
  • Direct HR to flag state unemployment agency notices about currently employed workers,
  • Report suspected fraud to a state agency — preferably via its website,
  • Provide a copy of the documentation to affected employees and let them know if the state requires them to also make a report,
  • Bolster cybersecurity to prevent the loss of personal data that could be used to commit fraud.

This last tip is particularly important if your employees currently are working from home.

An easy target

The pandemic has probably unleashed more fraud activity than any other recent event. Even though PUA program payments were due to expire on July 25, state unemployment benefits are too easy and lucrative a target for fraudsters to pass up. But you can do your part to help disrupt these schemes.

© 2020 Covenant CPA

Are you a multitasker? If so, you may appreciate an estate planning technique that can convert assets into a stream of lifetime income, provide a current tax deduction and leave the remainder to your favorite charity — all in one fell swoop. It’s the aptly named charitable remainder trust (CRT).

A CRT in action

You can set up one of two CRT types: a charitable remainder annuity trust (CRAT) or a charitable remainder unitrust (CRUT) and fund it with assets you own. The trust then pays out income to the designated beneficiary or beneficiaries — for example, the trust creator or a spouse — for life or a term of 20 years or less. Alternatively, if certain requirements are met, you can choose to have income paid to your children, other family members or an entity.

If it suits your needs, you may postpone taking income distributions until a later date. In the meantime, the assets in the CRT (ideally) continue to appreciate in value.

Typically, a CRT is funded with income-producing assets, such as real estate, securities and even stock in your own company. (Note: S corporation stock can’t be used for this purpose.) These assets may be supplemented by cash deposits or the transfer can be all cash.

When you transfer assets to the CRT, you qualify for a current tax deduction based on several factors, including the value of the assets at the time of transfer, the ages of the income beneficiaries and the Section 7520 rate. Generally, the greater the payout, the lower the deduction.

A matter of control

An important decision relating to a CRT is naming the trustee to manage its affairs. The trustee should be someone with the requisite financial acumen and knowledge of your personal situation. Thus, it could be an advisor, an institutional entity, a family member, a close friend or even you.

Because of the significant dollars at stake, many trust creators opt for a professional, perhaps someone who specializes in managing trust assets. If you’re leaning toward this option, interview several candidates and consider factors such as experience, investment performance and level of services provided.

If you decide to take on the task yourself, consider using a third-party professional to handle most of the paperwork and provide other support.

During the CRT’s term, it’s the trustee — not the charity — who calls the shots. The trustee is obligated to adhere to the terms of the trust and follow your instructions. Thus, you still maintain some measure of control. In fact, you may retain the right to change the trustee if you become dissatisfied or designate a different charity to receive the remainder assets.

Is a CRT right for you?

The short answer is that it depends on your specific circumstances. Be aware that a CRT is irrevocable. In other words, once it’s executed, there’s no going back and you generally can’t make other changes. So, you must be fully committed to this approach. Contact us with any questions.

© 2020 Covenant CPA

The IRS recently released the 2021 inflation-adjusted amounts for Health Savings Accounts (HSAs). 

HSA basics

An HSA is a trust created or organized exclusively for the purpose of paying the “qualified medical expenses” of an “account beneficiary.” An HSA can only be established for the benefit of an “eligible individual” who is covered under a “high deductible health plan.” In addition, a participant can’t be enrolled in Medicare or have other health coverage (exceptions include dental, vision, long-term care, accident and specific disease insurance).

In general, a high deductible health plan (HDHP) is a plan that has an annual deductible that isn’t less than $1,000 for self-only coverage and $2,000 for family coverage. In addition, the sum of the annual deductible and other annual out-of-pocket expenses required to be paid under the plan for covered benefits (but not for premiums) cannot exceed $5,000 for self-only coverage, and $10,000 for family coverage.

Within specified dollar limits, an above-the-line tax deduction is allowed for an individual’s contribution to an HSA. This annual contribution limitation and the annual deductible and out-of-pocket expenses under the tax code are adjusted annually for inflation.

Inflation adjustments for 2021 contributions

In Revenue Procedure 2020-32, the IRS released the 2021 inflation-adjusted figures for contributions to HSAs, which are as follows:

Annual contribution limitation. For calendar year 2021, the annual contribution limitation for an individual with self-only coverage under a HDHP is $3,600. For an individual with family coverage, the amount is $7,200. This is up from $3,550 and $7,100, respectively, for 2020.

High deductible health plan defined. For calendar year 2021, an HDHP is a health plan with an annual deductible that isn’t less than $1,400 for self-only coverage or $2,800 for family coverage (these amounts are unchanged from 2020). In addition, annual out-of-pocket expenses (deductibles, co-payments, and other amounts, but not premiums) can’t exceed $7,000 for self-only coverage or $14,000 for family coverage (up from $6,900 and $13,800, respectively, for 2020).

A variety of benefits

There are many advantages to HSAs. Contributions to the accounts are made on a pre-tax basis. The money can accumulate year after year tax free and be withdrawn tax free to pay for a variety of medical expenses such as doctor visits, prescriptions, chiropractic care and premiums for long-term-care insurance. In addition, an HSA is “portable.” It stays with an account holder if he or she changes employers or leaves the work force. For more information about HSAs, contact your employee benefits and tax advisor.

© 2020 Covenant CPA

The IRS recently issued Notice 2020-23, expanding on previously issued guidance extending certain tax filing and payment deadlines in response to the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) crisis. This guidance applies to specified filing obligations and other “specified actions” that would otherwise be due on or after April 1, 2020, and before July 15, 2020. It extends the due date for specified actions to July 15, 2020.

Specified actions include any “specified time-sensitive action” listed in Revenue Procedure 2018-58, including many relating to employee benefit plans. The relief applies to any person required to perform specified actions within the relief window, and it’s automatic — your business doesn’t need to file any form, letter or other request with the IRS.

Filing extensions beyond July 15, 2020, may be sought using the appropriate extension form, but the extension won’t go beyond the original statutory or regulatory extension date. Here are some highlights of Notice 2020-23 specifically related to employee benefit plans:

Form 5500. The relief window covers Form 5500 filings for plan years that ended in September, October or November 2019, as well as Form 5500 deadlines within the window as a result of a previously filed extension request. These filings are now due by July 15, 2020. Notably, the relief window does not include the July 31, 2020 due date for 2019 Form 5500 filings for calendar-year plans. Those plans may seek a regular extension using Form 5558.

Retirement plans. The extended deadlines apply to correcting excess contributions and excess aggregate contributions (based on nondiscrimination testing) and excess deferrals. They also apply to:

  • Plan loan repayments,
  • The 60-day timeframe for rollover completion, and
  • The deadline for filing Form 8955-SSA to report information on separated plan participants with undistributed vested benefits.

The relief for excess deferrals is a change from previous guidance indicating that 2019 excess deferrals still needed to be corrected by April 15, 2020. In addition, while loan relief is already available to certain individuals for specified reasons related to COVID-19, this relief appears to apply more broadly — albeit for a shorter period. The Form 8955-SSA due date is the same as for the plan’s Form 5500, so the extension applies in the same manner.

Health Savings Accounts (HSAs). The notice extends the 60-day timeframe for completing HSA or Archer Medical Savings Account (MSA) rollovers. It also extends the deadline to report HSA or Archer MSA contribution information by filing Form 5498-SA and furnishing the information to account holders. The regular deadline for the 2019 Form 5498-SA would be June 1, 2020, placing it squarely within this relief period.

Business owners and their plan administrators should carefully review Notice 2020-23 in conjunction with Revenue Procedure 2018-58 to determine exactly what relief may be available. For example, the revenue procedure covers various cafeteria plan items, but many deadlines may fall outside the notice’s window. We can provide you with further information about this or other forms of federal relief.

© 2020 Covenant CPA

Given the escalating cost of employee health care benefits, your business may be interested in providing some of these benefits through an employer-sponsored Health Savings Account (HSA). For eligible individuals, HSAs offer a tax-advantaged way to set aside funds (or have their employers do so) to meet future medical needs. Here are the key tax benefits:

  • Contributions that participants make to an HSA are deductible, within limits.
  • Contributions that employers make aren’t taxed to participants.
  • Earnings on the funds within an HSA aren’t taxed, so the money can accumulate year after year tax free.
  • HSA distributions to cover qualified medical expenses aren’t taxed.
  • Employers don’t have to pay payroll taxes on HSA contributions made by employees through payroll deductions.

Who is eligible?

To be eligible for an HSA, an individual must be covered by a “high deductible health plan.” For 2019, a “high deductible health plan” is one with an annual deductible of at least $1,350 for self-only coverage, or at least $2,700 for family coverage. For self-only coverage, the 2019 limit on deductible contributions is $3,500. For family coverage, the 2019 limit on deductible contributions is $7,000. Additionally, annual out-of-pocket expenses required to be paid (other than for premiums) for covered benefits cannot exceed $6,750 for self-only coverage or $13,500 for family coverage.

An individual (and the individual’s covered spouse, as well) who has reached age 55 before the close of the tax year (and is an eligible HSA contributor) may make additional “catch-up” contributions for 2019 of up to $1,000.

Employer contributions

If an employer contributes to the HSA of an eligible individual, the employer’s contribution is treated as employer-provided coverage for medical expenses under an accident or health plan and is excludable from an employee’s gross income up to the deduction limitation. There’s no “use-it-or-lose-it” provision, so funds can be built up for years. An employer that decides to make contributions on its employees’ behalf must generally make comparable contributions to the HSAs of all comparable participating employees for that calendar year. If the employer doesn’t make comparable contributions, the employer is subject to a 35% tax on the aggregate amount contributed by the employer to HSAs for that period.

Distributions

HSA distributions can be made to pay for qualified medical expenses, which generally mean those expenses that would qualify for the medical expense itemized deduction. They include expenses such as doctors’ visits, prescriptions, chiropractic care and premiums for long-term care insurance.

If funds are withdrawn from the HSA for other reasons, the withdrawal is taxable. Additionally, an extra 20% tax will apply to the withdrawal, unless it’s made after reaching age 65, or in the event of death or disability.

As you can see, HSAs offer a flexible option for providing health care coverage, but the rules are somewhat complex. Contact us if you’d like to discuss offering this benefit to your employees.

© 2019 Covenant CPA

In addition to the difficult personal issues that divorce entails, several tax concerns need to be addressed to ensure that taxes are kept to a minimum and that important tax-related decisions are properly made. Here are four issues to understand if you are in the process of getting a divorce.

  1. Alimony or support payments. For alimony under divorce or separation agreements that are executed after 2018, there’s no deduction for alimony and separation support payments for the spouse making them. And the alimony payments aren’t included in the gross income of the spouse receiving them. (The rules are different for divorce or separation agreements executed before 2019.)
  2. Child support. No matter when the divorce or separation instrument is executed, child support payments aren’t deductible by the paying spouse (or taxable to the recipient).
  3. Personal residence. In general, if a married couple sells their home in connection with a divorce or legal separation, they should be able to avoid tax on up to $500,000 of gain (as long as they’ve owned and used the residence as their principal residence for two of the previous five years). If one spouse continues to live in the home and the other moves out (but they both remain owners of the home), they may still be able to avoid gain on the future sale of the home (up to $250,000 each), but special language may have to be included in the divorce decree or separation agreement to protect the exclusion for the spouse who moves out.

    If the couple doesn’t meet the two-year ownership and use tests, any gain from the sale may qualify for a reduced exclusion due to unforeseen circumstances.
  4. Pension benefits. A spouse’s pension benefits are often part of a divorce property settlement. In these cases, the commonly preferred method to handle the benefits is to get a “qualified domestic relations order” (QDRO). This gives one spouse the right to share in the pension benefits of the other and taxes the spouse who receives the benefits. Without a QDRO the spouse who earned the benefits will still be taxed on them even though they’re paid out to the other spouse.

A range of other issues

These are just some of the issues you may have to deal with if you’re getting a divorce. In addition, you must decide how to file your tax return (single, married filing jointly, married filing separately or head of household). You may need to adjust your income tax withholding and you should notify the IRS of any new address or name change. There are also estate planning considerations. We can help you work through all of the financial issues involved in divorce.

© 2019 Covenant CPA

Many companies now offer Health Reimbursement Arrangements (HRAs) in conjunction with high-deductible health plans (HDHPs). HRAs offer some advantages over the perhaps better-known HDHP companion account, the Health Savings Account (HSA). If you’re considering adding an HRA, you might assume that, as a business owner, you can participate in the HRA. But this may not be the case.

Following the rules

Whether an owner can participate in his or her company’s HRA depends on several factors, including how the company is organized and the amount of the business owned by each working owner. Tax-free benefits under an HRA can be provided only to:

  • Current and former employees (including retirees), and their spouses,
  • Covered tax dependents, and
  • Children who haven’t attained age 27 by the end of the tax year.

Owners who are “self-employed individuals” within the meaning of Internal Revenue Code Section (IRC) 401(c) aren’t considered employees for this purpose and aren’t allowed to participate in an HRA on a tax-favored basis.

Defining the self-employed

Generally, a self-employed individual is someone who has net earnings from self-employment as defined in IRC Sec. 1402(a), accounting for only earnings from a trade or business in which the “personal services of the taxpayer are a material income-producing factor.” Ineligible owners include partners, sole proprietors and more-than-2% shareholders in an S corporation. Stock ownership by employees of a C corporation doesn’t preclude their tax-favored HRA participation.

The ownership attribution rules in IRC Sec. 318 apply when determining who’s a more-than-2% shareholder of an S corporation, so any employee who’s the spouse, child, parent or grandparent of a more-than-2% shareholder of an S corporation would also be unable to participate in the S corporation’s HRA on a tax-favored basis. A disqualified individual (whether because of direct or attributed ownership) could, however, be the beneficiary of a qualifying participant’s HRA coverage if he or she is the qualifying participant’s spouse, tax dependent or child under age 27.

Comparing HRAs to HSAs

Although self-employed individuals can’t receive tax-free HSA contributions through a cafeteria plan, at least they can have HSAs. This relative advantage has led some employers to favor HSA programs over HRAs.

But HRAs have other advantages for employers, including more control over how amounts are spent and typically lower costs relative to the nominal amount of benefits provided. (While the full HSA contribution must be funded with cash, HRAs typically are notional accounts that need only be funded when participants incur expenses, and not all participants will incur expenses up to the limit established by the employer.) Thus, the decision can seldom be made based on the participation rules alone.

Going in smart

Controlling costs remains a challenge for most businesses that offer health care benefits. An HRA may be a feasible solution, but make sure you know all the rules going in. Our firm can help you choose health care benefits that suit you and your employees.

© 2019 Covenant CPA

If your estate plan includes a revocable trust — also known as a “living” trust — it’s critical to ensure that the trust is properly funded. Revocable trusts offer significant benefits, including asset management (in the event you become incapacitated) and probate avoidance. But these benefits aren’t available if you don’t fund the trust.

Funding the trust

Funding a living trust is a simple matter of transferring ownership of assets to the trust or, in some cases, designating the trust as beneficiary. Assets you should consider transferring include real estate, bank accounts, certificates of deposit, stocks and other investments, partnership and business interests, vehicles, and personal property (such as furniture and collectibles).

Be aware that moving an IRA or qualified retirement plan to a revocable trust can trigger unwanted tax consequences. Rather than transfer these assets to the trust, be sure that the trust is properly designed to allow you to designate the trust as beneficiary and enjoy the tax benefits of doing so. For insurance policies and annuities, you can either transfer ownership or change the beneficiary designation. In some cases, it may be advisable to hold a life insurance policy in an irrevocable life insurance trust to shield the proceeds from estate taxes.

Avoiding a pitfall

Most people are diligent about funding a trust at the time they sign the trust documents. But trouble can arise when they acquire new assets after the trust is established. Unless you transfer new assets to your trust, or designate the trust as beneficiary, they won’t enjoy the trust’s benefits.

So to make the most of a revocable trust, be sure that each time you acquire a significant asset, you take steps to transfer it to the trust or complete the appropriate beneficiary designation. A living trust is a key component of many people’s estate plan. Contact us to help ensure yours is properly funded at 205-345-9898 or email us at info@covenantcpa.com.

© 2019 CovenantCPA

With the federal gift and estate tax exemption at $11.40 million for 2019, people whose estates are below the exemption amount are shifting their focus to income tax reduction. High-income taxpayers — particularly those who live in high-income-tax states — may want to consider incomplete nongrantor trusts, which make it possible to eliminate state taxes on trust income.

Defining an incomplete nongrantor trust

Generally, trusts are classified as either grantor trusts or nongrantor trusts. In a grantor trust, you, as “grantor,” establish the trust and retain certain powers over it. You’re treated as the trust’s owner for income tax purposes and pay taxes on income generated by the trust assets.

In a nongrantor trust, you relinquish certain controls over the trust so that you aren’t considered the owner for income tax purposes. Instead, the trust becomes a separate legal entity, with income tax responsibility shifting to the trust itself. By setting up the trust in a no-income-tax state (typically by having it administered by a trust company located in that state), it’s possible to avoid state income taxes.

Ordinarily, when you contribute assets to a nongrantor trust you make a taxable gift to the trust beneficiaries. By structuring the trust as an incomplete nongrantor trust, you can avoid triggering gift taxes, or tapping your gift and estate tax exemption. This requires relinquishing just enough control to ensure nongrantor status, while retaining enough control so that transfers to the trust aren’t considered completed gifts for gift-tax purposes.

Analyzing the benefits

Although the trust will allow you to receive distributions, assets you place in the trust should produce income that you don’t need. If you take money out, trust taxable income could follow to you and be taxed in your state of residence.

Incomplete nongrantor trusts aren’t right for everyone. It depends on your particular circumstances and the tax laws in your home state.

While this strategy can produce significant state income tax savings, it may increase federal income taxes, depending on your individual tax bracket. Nongrantor trusts pay federal income taxes at the highest marginal rate (currently, 37%) once income reaches $12,700 for 2019, while the 37% rate threshold is $612,350 for married couples filing jointly and $510,300 for singles and heads of households. If you’re not in the 37% bracket, the increased federal income taxes the incomplete nongrantor trust would pay might outweigh the state income tax savings.

Also, if federal estate taxes aren’t a concern now but could be in the future — such as if your estate could exceed the estate tax exemption when it drops to an inflation-adjusted $5 million in 2026, as currently scheduled — be sure to consider the potential estate tax consequences. Incomplete gifts remain in your estate for estate tax purposes.

Is it right for you?

To determine whether an incomplete nongrantor trust is right for you, weigh the potential state income tax savings against the potential federal estate and income tax costs. Contact us with any questions at 205-345-9898.

© 2018 Covenant CPA

Will you be age 50 or older on December 31? Are you still working? Are you already contributing to your 401(k) plan or Savings Incentive Match Plan for Employees (SIMPLE) up to the regular annual limit? Then you may want to make “catch-up” contributions by the end of the year. Increasing your retirement plan contributions can be particularly advantageous if your itemized deductions for 2018 will be smaller than in the past because of changes under the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act (TCJA).

Catching up

Catch-up contributions are additional contributions beyond the regular annual limits that can be made to certain retirement accounts. They were designed to help taxpayers who didn’t save much for retirement earlier in their careers to “catch up.” But there’s no rule that limits catch-up contributions to such taxpayers.

So catch-up contributions can be a great option for anyone who is old enough to be eligible, has been maxing out their regular contribution limit and has sufficient earned income to contribute more. The contributions are generally pretax (except in the case of Roth accounts), so they can reduce your taxable income for the year.

More benefits now?

This additional reduction to taxable income might be especially beneficial in 2018 if in the past you had significant itemized deductions that now will be reduced or eliminated by the TCJA. For example, the TCJA eliminates miscellaneous itemized deductions subject to the 2% of adjusted gross income floor — such as unreimbursed employee expenses (including home-off expenses) and certain professional and investment fees.

If, say, in 2018 you have $5,000 of expenses that in the past would have qualified as miscellaneous itemized deductions, an additional $5,000 catch-up contribution can make up for the loss of those deductions. Plus, you benefit from adding to your retirement nest egg and potential tax-deferred growth.

Other deductions that are reduced or eliminated include state and local taxes, mortgage and home equity interest expenses, casualty and theft losses, and moving expenses. If these changes affect you, catch-up contributions can help make up for your reduced deductions.

2018 contribution limits

Under 2018 401(k) limits, if you’re age 50 or older and you have reached the $18,500 maximum limit for all employees, you can contribute an extra $6,000, for a total of $24,500. If your employer offers a SIMPLE instead, your regular contribution maxes out at $12,500 in 2018. If you’re 50 or older, you’re allowed to contribute an additional $3,000 — or $15,500 in total for the year.

But, check with your employer because, while most 401(k) plans and SIMPLEs offer catch-up contributions, not all do. Also keep in mind that additional rules and limits apply.

Additional options

Catch-up contributions are also available for IRAs, but the deadline for 2018 contributions is later: April 15, 2019. And whether your traditional IRA contributions will be deductible depends on your income and whether you or your spouse participates in an employer-sponsored retirement plan. Please contact us at 205-345-9898 for more information about catch-up contributions and other year-end tax planning strategies.

© 2018 Covenant CPA