The IRS announced it is opening the 2020 individual income tax return filing season on February 12. (This is later than in past years because of a new law that was enacted late in December.) Even if you typically don’t file until much closer to the April 15 deadline (or you file for an extension), consider filing earlier this year. Why? You can potentially protect yourself from tax identity theft — and there may be other benefits, too.

How is a person’s tax identity stolen?

In a tax identity theft scheme, 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 real taxpayer discovers the fraud when he or she files a return and is told by the IRS that the return is being 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 legitimate one, tax identity theft can be a hassle 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 potential thief that will be rejected — not yours.

Note: You can get your individual tax return prepared by us before February 12 if you have all the required documents. It’s just that processing of the return will begin after IRS systems open on that date.

When will you receive your W-2s and 1099s?

To file your tax return, you need all of your W-2s and 1099s. January 31 is the deadline for employers to issue 2020 Form W-2 to employees and, generally, for businesses to issue Form 1099s to recipients of any 2020 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.

How else can you benefit by filing early? 

In addition to 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, stolen, returned to the IRS as undeliverable or caught in mail delays.

If you haven’t received an Economic Impact Payment (EIP), or you didn’t receive the full amount due, filing early will help you to receive the amount sooner. EIPs have been paid by the federal government to eligible individuals to help mitigate the financial effects of COVID-19. Amounts due that weren’t sent to eligible taxpayers can be claimed on your 2020 return.

Do you need help?

If you have questions or would like an appointment to prepare your return, please contact us. We can help you ensure you file an accurate return that takes advantage of all of the breaks available to you.

© 2021 Covenant CPA

Portability allows a surviving spouse to apply a deceased spouse’s unused federal gift and estate tax exemption amount toward his or her own transfers during life or at death. For 2020, the exemption amount is $11.58 million, and the IRS just announced that that amount will increase to $11.7 million for 2021.

To secure these benefits, however, the deceased spouse’s executor must have made a portability election on a timely filed estate tax return. The return is due nine months after death, with a six-month extension option. Unfortunately, estates that aren’t otherwise required to file a return (because they don’t meet the filing threshold) often miss the deadline.

Qualifying for an automatic extension

In 2017, the IRS made it easier for estates to obtain an extension of time to file a portability election. For all deaths after 2010, the IRS grants an automatic extension, provided:

  • The deceased was a U.S. citizen or resident,
  • The executor wasn’t otherwise required to file an estate tax return and didn’t file one by the deadline,
  • The executor files a complete and properly prepared estate tax return on Form 706 within two years of the date of death, and
  • The following language appears at the top of the return: “FILED PURSUANT TO REV. PROC. 2017-34 TO ELECT PORTABILITY UNDER §2010(c)(5)(A).”

Other considerations

Bear in mind that portability isn’t always the best option. All relevant factors should be considered, including nontax reasons that might affect the distribution of assets under a will or living trust. For instance, a person may want to divide assets in other ways if matters are complicated by a divorce, a second marriage or unusual circumstances.

Also, absent further legislation, the federal gift and estate tax exemption is slated to revert to pre-2018 levels after 2025. Portability continues, though, for those whose estates will no longer be fully sheltered, so additional planning should be considered.

Don’t miss the deadline

If your spouse predeceases you and you’d benefit from portability, be sure that your spouse’s estate files a portability election by the applicable deadline. Contact us with any questions you have regarding portability.

© 2020 Covenant CPA

IRS audit rates are historically low, according to the latest data, but that’s little consolation if your return is among those selected to be examined. But with proper preparation and planning, you should fare well.

In fiscal year 2019, the IRS audited approximately 0.4% of individuals. Businesses, large corporations and high-income individuals are more likely to be audited but, overall, all types of audits are being conducted less frequently than they were a decade ago.

There’s no 100% guarantee that you won’t be picked for an audit, because some tax returns are chosen randomly. However, the best way to survive an IRS audit is to prepare for one in advance. On an ongoing basis you should systematically maintain documentation — invoices, bills, cancelled checks, receipts, or other proof — for all items to be reported on your tax returns. Keep all your records in one place. And it helps to know what might catch the attention of the IRS. 

Audit hot spots

Certain types of tax-return entries are known to the IRS to involve inaccuracies so they may lead to an audit. Here are a few examples:

  • Significant inconsistencies between tax returns filed in the past and your most current tax return,
  • Gross profit margin or expenses markedly different from those of other businesses in your industry, and
  • Miscalculated or unusually high deductions. 

Certain types of deductions may be questioned by the IRS because there are strict recordkeeping requirements for them — for example, auto and travel expense deductions. In addition, an owner-employee salary that’s inordinately higher or lower than those in similar companies in his or her location can catch the IRS’s eye, especially if the business is structured as a corporation.

Responding to a letter

If you’re selected for an audit, you’ll be notified by letter. Generally, the IRS doesn’t make initial contact by phone. But if there’s no response to the letter, the agency may follow up with a call.

Many audits simply request that you mail in documentation to support certain deductions you’ve taken. Others may ask you to take receipts and other documents to a local IRS office. Only the harshest version, the field audit, requires meeting with one or more IRS auditors. (Note: Ignore unsolicited email messages about an audit. The IRS doesn’t contact people in this manner. These are scams.)

Keep in mind that the tax agency won’t demand an immediate response to a mailed notice. You’ll be informed of the discrepancies in question and given time to prepare. You’ll need to collect and organize all relevant income and expense records. If any records are missing, you’ll have to reconstruct the information as accurately as possible based on other documentation.

If the IRS chooses you for an audit, our firm can help you:

  • Understand what the IRS is disputing (it’s not always clear),
  • Gather the specific documents and information needed, and
  • Respond to the auditor’s inquiries in the most expedient and effective manner.

The IRS normally has three years within which to conduct an audit, and often an audit doesn’t begin until a year or more after you file a return. Don’t panic if you’re contacted by the IRS. Many audits are routine. By taking a meticulous, proactive approach to how you track, document and file your company’s tax-related information, you’ll make an audit much less painful and even decrease the chances that one will happen in the first place.

© 2020 Covenant CPA

If you own or manage a business with employees, you may be at risk for a severe tax penalty. It’s called the “Trust Fund Recovery Penalty” because it applies to the Social Security and income taxes required to be withheld by a business from its employees’ wages.

Because the taxes are considered property of the government, the employer holds them in “trust” on the government’s behalf until they’re paid over. The penalty is also sometimes called the “100% penalty” because the person liable and responsible for the taxes will be penalized 100% of the taxes due. Accordingly, the amounts IRS seeks when the penalty is applied are usually substantial, and IRS is very aggressive in enforcing the penalty.

Far-reaching penalty

The Trust Fund Recovery Penalty is among the more dangerous tax penalties because it applies to a broad range of actions and to a wide range of people involved in a business.

Here are some answers to questions about the penalty so you can safely stay clear of it.

Which actions are penalized? The Trust Fund Recovery Penalty applies to any willful failure to collect, or truthfully account for, and pay over Social Security and income taxes required to be withheld from employees’ wages.

Who is at risk? The penalty can be imposed on anyone “responsible” for collection and payment of the tax. This has been broadly defined to include a corporation’s officers, directors and shareholders under a duty to collect and pay the tax as well as a partnership’s partners, or any employee of the business with such a duty. Even voluntary board members of tax-exempt organizations, who are generally excepted from responsibility, can be subject to this penalty under certain circumstances. In addition, in some cases, responsibility has been extended to family members close to the business, and to attorneys and accountants.

IRS says responsibility is a matter of status, duty and authority. Anyone with the power to see that the taxes are (or aren’t) paid may be responsible. There’s often more than one responsible person in a business, but each is at risk for the entire penalty. Although a taxpayer held liable can sue other responsible people for contribution, this is an action he or she must take entirely on his or her own after he or she pays the penalty. It isn’t part of the IRS collection process.

Here’s how broadly the net can be cast: You may not be directly involved with the payroll tax withholding process in your business. But if you learn of a failure to pay over withheld taxes and have the power to pay them but instead make payments to creditors and others, you become a responsible person.

What’s considered “willful?” For actions to be willful, they don’t have to include an overt intent to evade taxes. Simply bending to business pressures and paying bills or obtaining supplies instead of paying over withheld taxes that are due the government is willful behavior. And just because you delegate responsibilities to someone else doesn’t necessarily mean you’re off the hook. Your failure to take care of the job yourself can be treated as the willful element.

Avoiding the penalty

You should never allow any failure to withhold and any “borrowing” from withheld amounts — regardless of the circumstances. All funds withheld must also be paid over to the government. Contact us for information about the penalty and making tax payments.

© 2020 Covenant CPA

The IRS and the U.S. Treasury had disbursed 160.4 million Economic Impact Payments (EIPs) as of May 31, 2020, according to a new report. These are the payments being sent to eligible individuals in response to the economic threats caused by COVID-19. The U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) reports that $269.3 billion of EIPs have already been sent through a combination of electronic transfers to bank accounts, paper checks and prepaid debit cards.

Eligible individuals receive $1,200 or $2,400 for a married couple filing a joint return. Individuals may also receive up to an additional $500 for each qualifying child. Those with adjusted gross income over a threshold receive a reduced amount.

Deceased individuals

However, the IRS says some payments were sent erroneously and should be returned. For example, the tax agency says an EIP made to someone who died before receipt of the payment should be returned. Instructions for returning the payment can be found here: https://bit.ly/31ioZ8W

The entire EIP should be returned unless it was made to joint filers and one spouse hadn’t died before receipt. In that case, you only need to return the EIP portion made to the decedent. This amount is $1,200 unless your adjusted gross income exceeded $150,000. If you cannot deposit the payment because it was issued to both spouses and one spouse is deceased, return the check as described in the link above. Once the IRS receives and processes your returned payment, an EIP will be reissued.

The GAO report states that almost 1.1 million payments totaling nearly $1.4 billion had been sent to deceased individuals, as of April 30, 2020. However, these figures don’t “reflect returned checks or rejected direct deposits, the amount of which IRS and the Treasury are still determining.”

In addition, the IRS states that EIPs sent to incarcerated individuals should be returned.

Payments that don’t have to be returned

The IRS notes on its website that some people receiving an erroneous payment don’t have to return it. For example, if a child’s parents who aren’t married to each other both get an additional $500 for the same qualifying child, one of them isn’t required to pay it back.

But each parent should keep Notice 1444, which the IRS will mail to them within 15 days after the EIP is made, with their 2020 tax records.

Some individuals still waiting

Be aware that the government is still sending out EIPs. If you believe you’re eligible for one but haven’t received it, you will be able to claim your payment when you file your 2020 tax return.

If you need the payment sooner, you can call the IRS EIP line at 800-919-9835 but the Treasury Department notes that “call volumes are high, so call times may be longer than anticipated.”

© 2020 Covenant CPA

If you operate a small business, or you’re starting a new one, you probably know you need to keep records of your income and expenses. In particular, you should carefully record your expenses in order to claim the full amount of the tax deductions to which you’re entitled. And you want to make sure you can defend the amounts reported on your tax returns if you’re ever audited by the IRS or state tax agencies.

Certain types of expenses, such as automobile, travel, meals and office-at-home expenses, require special attention because they’re subject to special recordkeeping requirements or limitations on deductibility.

It’s interesting to note that there’s not one way to keep business records. In its publication “Starting a Business and Keeping Records,” the IRS states: “Except in a few cases, the law does not require any specific kind of records. You can choose any recordkeeping system suited to your business that clearly shows your income and expenses.”

That being said, many taxpayers don’t make the grade when it comes to recordkeeping. Here are three court cases to illustrate some of the issues.

Case 1: Without records, the IRS can reconstruct your income

If a taxpayer is audited and doesn’t have good records, the IRS can perform a “bank-deposits analysis” to reconstruct income. It assumes that all money deposited in accounts during a given period is taxable income. That’s what happened in the case of the business owner of a coin shop and precious metals business. The owner didn’t agree with the amount of income the IRS attributed to him after it conducted a bank-deposits analysis.

But the U.S. Tax Court noted that if the taxpayer kept adequate records, “he could have avoided the bank-deposits analysis altogether.” Because he didn’t, the court found the bank analysis was appropriate and the owner underreported his business income for the year. (TC Memo 2020-4)

Case 2: Expenses must be business related

In another case, an independent insurance agent’s claims for a variety of business deductions were largely denied. The Tax Court found that he had documentation in the form of cancelled checks and credit card statements that showed expenses were paid. But there was no proof of a business purpose.

For example, he made utility payments for natural gas, electricity, water and sewer, but the records didn’t show whether the services were for his business or his home. (TC Memo 2020-25)

Case number 3: No records could mean no deductions

In this case, married taxpayers were partners in a travel agency and owners of a marketing company. The IRS denied their deductions involving auto expenses, gifts, meals and travel because of insufficient documentation. The couple produced no evidence about the business purpose of gifts they had given. In addition, their credit card statements and other information didn’t detail the time, place, and business relationship for meal expenses or indicate that travel was conducted for business purposes.

“The disallowed deductions in this case are directly attributable to (the taxpayer’s) failure to maintain adequate records,“ the court stated. (TC Memo 2020-7)

We can help

Contact us if you need assistance retaining adequate business records. Taking a meticulous, proactive approach to how you keep records can protect your deductions and help make an audit much less painful.

© 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

As a result of the coronavirus (COVID-19) crisis, your business may be using independent contractors to keep costs low. But you should be careful that these workers are properly classified for federal tax purposes. If the IRS reclassifies them as employees, it can be an expensive mistake.

The question of whether a worker is an independent contractor or an employee for federal income and employment tax purposes is a complex one. If a worker is an employee, your company must withhold federal income and payroll taxes, pay the employer’s share of FICA taxes on the wages, plus FUTA tax. Often, a business must also provide the worker with the fringe benefits that it makes available to other employees. And there may be state tax obligations as well.

These obligations don’t apply if a worker is an independent contractor. In that case, the business simply sends the contractor a Form 1099-MISC for the year showing the amount paid (if the amount is $600 or more).

No uniform definition

Who is an “employee?” Unfortunately, there’s no uniform definition of the term.

The IRS and courts have generally ruled that individuals are employees if the organization they work for has the right to control and direct them in the jobs they’re performing. Otherwise, the individuals are generally independent contractors. But other factors are also taken into account.

Some employers that have misclassified workers as independent contractors may get some relief from employment tax liabilities under Section 530. In general, this protection applies only if an employer:

  • Filed all federal returns consistent with its treatment of a worker as a contractor,
  • Treated all similarly situated workers as contractors, and
  • Had a “reasonable basis” for not treating the worker as an employee. For example, a “reasonable basis” exists if a significant segment of the employer’s industry traditionally treats similar workers as contractors.

Note: Section 530 doesn’t apply to certain types of technical services workers. And some categories of individuals are subject to special rules because of their occupations or identities.

Asking for a determination

Under certain circumstances, you may want to ask the IRS (on Form SS-8) to rule on whether a worker is an independent contractor or employee. However, be aware that the IRS has a history of classifying workers as employees rather than independent contractors.

Businesses should consult with us before filing Form SS-8 because it may alert the IRS that your business has worker classification issues — and inadvertently trigger an employment tax audit.

It may be better to properly treat a worker as an independent contractor so that the relationship complies with the tax rules.

Be aware that workers who want an official determination of their status can also file Form SS-8. Disgruntled independent contractors may do so because they feel entitled to employee benefits and want to eliminate self-employment tax liabilities.

If a worker files Form SS-8, the IRS will send a letter to the business. It identifies the worker and includes a blank Form SS-8. The business is asked to complete and return the form to the IRS, which will render a classification decision.

Contact us if you receive such a letter or if you’d like to discuss how these complex rules apply to your business. We can help ensure that none of your workers are misclassified.

© 2020 Covenant CPA

In the midst of the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic, Americans are focusing on their health and financial well-being. To help with the impact facing many people, the government has provided a range of relief. Here are some new announcements made by the IRS.

More deadlines extended

As you probably know, the IRS postponed the due dates for certain federal income tax payments — but not all of them. New guidance now expands on the filing and payment relief for individuals, estates, corporations and others.

Under IRS Notice 2020-23, nearly all tax payments and filings that would otherwise be due between April 1 and July 15, 2020, are now postponed to July 15, 2020. Most importantly, this would include any fiscal year tax returns due between those dates and any estimated tax payments due between those dates, such as the June 15 estimated tax payment deadline for individual taxpayers.

Economic Impact Payments for nonfilers

You have also likely heard about the cash payments the federal government is making to individuals under certain income thresholds. The Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act will provide an eligible individual with a cash payment equal to the sum of: $1,200 ($2,400 for eligible married couples filing jointly) plus $500 for each qualifying child. Eligibility is based on adjusted gross income (AGI).

On its Twitter account, the IRS announced that it deposited the first Economic Impact Payments into taxpayers’ bank accounts on April 11. “We know many people are anxious to get their payments; we’ll continue issuing them as fast as we can,” the tax agency added.

The IRS has announced additional details about these payments:

  • “Eligible taxpayers who filed tax returns for 2019 or 2018 will receive the payments automatically,” the IRS stated. Automatic payments will also go out to those people receiving Social Security retirement, survivors or disability benefits and Railroad Retirement benefits.
  • There’s a new online tool on the IRS website for people who didn’t file a 2018 or 2019 federal tax return because they didn’t have enough income or otherwise weren’t required to file. These people can provide the IRS with basic information (Social Security number, name, address and dependents) so they can receive their payments. You can access the tool here: https://bit.ly/2JXBOvM

This only describes new details in a couple of the COVID-19 assistance provisions. Members of Congress are discussing another relief package so additional help may be on the way. We’ll keep you updated. Contact us if you have tax or financial questions during this challenging time.

© 2020 Covenant CPA

The IRS has issued guidance providing relief from failure to make employment tax deposits for employers that are entitled to the refundable tax credits provided under two laws passed in response to the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic. The two laws are the Families First Coronavirus Response Act, which was signed on March 18, 2020, and the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act (CARES) Act, which was signed on March 27, 2020.

Employment tax penalty basics

The tax code imposes a penalty for any failure to deposit amounts as required on the date prescribed, unless such failure is due to reasonable cause rather than willful neglect.

An employer’s failure to deposit certain federal employment taxes, including deposits of withheld income taxes and taxes under the Federal Insurance Contributions Act (FICA) is generally subject to a penalty.

COVID-19 relief credits

Employers paying qualified sick leave wages and qualified family leave wages required by the Families First Act, as well as qualified health plan expenses allocable to qualified leave wages, are eligible for refundable tax credits under the Families First Act.

Specifically, provisions of the Families First Act provide a refundable tax credit against an employer’s share of the Social Security portion of FICA tax for each calendar quarter, in an amount equal to 100% of qualified leave wages paid by the employer (plus qualified health plan expenses with respect to that calendar quarter).

Additionally, under the CARES Act, certain employers are also allowed a refundable tax credit under the CARES Act of up to 50% of the qualified wages, including allocable qualified health expenses if they are experiencing:

  • A full or partial business suspension due to orders from governmental authorities due to COVID-19, or
  • A specified decline in business.

This credit is limited to $10,000 per employee over all calendar quarters combined.

An employer paying qualified leave wages or qualified retention wages can seek an advance payment of the related tax credits by filing Form 7200, Advance Payment of Employer Credits Due to COVID-19.

Available relief

The Families First Act and the CARES Act waive the penalty for failure to deposit the employer share of Social Security tax in anticipation of the allowance of the refundable tax credits allowed under the two laws.

IRS Notice 2020-22 provides that an employer won’t be subject to a penalty for failing to deposit employment taxes related to qualified leave wages or qualified retention wages in a calendar quarter if certain requirements are met. Contact us for more information about whether you can take advantage of this relief.

More breaking news

Be aware the IRS also just extended more federal tax deadlines. The extension, detailed in Notice 2020-23, involves a variety of tax form filings and payment obligations due between April 1 and July 15. It includes estimated tax payments due June 15 and the deadline to claim refunds from 2016. The extended deadlines cover individuals, estates, corporations and others. In addition, the guidance suspends associated interest, additions to tax, and penalties for late filing or late payments until July 15, 2020. Previously, the IRS postponed the due dates for certain federal income tax payments. The new guidance expands on the filing and payment relief. Contact us if you have questions.

© 2020 Covenant CPA