During your working days, you pay Social Security tax in the form of withholding from your salary or self-employment tax. And when you start receiving Social Security benefits, you may be surprised to learn that some of the payments may be taxed.

If you’re getting close to retirement age, you may be wondering if your benefits are going to be taxed. And if so, how much will you have to pay? The answer depends on your other income. If you are taxed, between 50% and 85% of your payments will be hit with federal income tax. (There could also be state tax.)

Important: This doesn’t mean you pay 50% to 85% of your benefits back to the government in taxes. It means that you have to include 50% to 85% of them in your income subject to your regular tax rates.

Calculate provisional income

To determine how much of your benefits are taxed, you must calculate your provisional income. It starts with your adjusted gross income on your tax return. Then, you add certain amounts (for example, tax-exempt interest from municipal bonds). Add to that the income of your spouse, if you file jointly. To this, add half of the Social Security benefits you and your spouse received during the year. The figure you come up with is your provisional income. Now apply the following rules:

  • If you file a joint tax return and your provisional income, plus half your benefits, isn’t above $32,000 ($25,000 for single taxpayers), none of your Social Security benefits are taxed.
  • If your provisional income is between $32,001 and $44,000, and you file jointly with your spouse, you must report up to 50% of your Social Security benefits as income. For single taxpayers, if your provisional income is between $25,001 and $34,000, you must report up to 50% of your Social Security benefits as income.
  • If your provisional income is more than $44,000, and you file jointly, you must report up to 85% of your Social Security benefits as income on Form 1040. For single taxpayers, if your provisional income is more than $34,000, the general rule is that you must report up to 85% of your Social Security benefits as income.

Caution: If you aren’t paying tax on your Social Security benefits now because your income is below the floor, or you’re paying tax on only 50% of those benefits, an unplanned increase in your income can have a significant tax cost. You’ll have to pay tax on the additional income, you’ll also have to pay tax on (or on more of) your Social Security benefits, and you may get pushed into a higher tax bracket.

For example, this might happen if you receive a large retirement plan distribution during the year or you receive large capital gains. With careful planning, you might be able to avoid this tax result.

Avoid a large tax bill

If you know your Social Security benefits will be taxed, you may want to voluntarily arrange to have tax withheld from the payments by filing a Form W-4V with the IRS. Otherwise, you may have to make estimated tax payments.

Contact us to help you with the exact calculations on whether your Social Security will be taxed. We can also help you with tax planning to keep your taxes as low as possible during retirement. 205-345-9898 and info@covenantcpa.com.

© 2019 CovenantCPA

Employee stock ownership plans (ESOPs) offer closely held business owners an exit strategy and a tax-efficient technique for sharing equity with employees. But did you know that an ESOP can be a powerful estate planning tool? It can help you address several planning challenges, including lack of liquidity and the need to provide for children outside the business.

An ESOP in action

An ESOP is a qualified retirement plan, similar to a 401(k) plan. But instead of investing in a selection of stocks, bonds and mutual funds, an ESOP invests primarily in the company’s own stock. ESOPs are subject to the same rules and restrictions as qualified plans, including contribution limits and minimum coverage requirements.

Typically, companies make tax-deductible cash contributions to the ESOP, which uses the funds to acquire stock from the current owners. This doesn’t necessarily mean giving up control, though. The owners’ shares are held in a trust, and the trustees vote the shares.

An ESOP’s earnings are tax-deferred: Participants don’t recognize taxable income until they receive benefits — in the form of stock or cash — when they leave the company, die or become disabled.

Retirement and estate planning benefits

If a large portion of your wealth is tied up in a closely held business, lack of liquidity can create challenges as you approach retirement. Short of selling the business, how do you fund your retirement and provide for your family?

An ESOP may provide a solution. By selling some or all of your shares to an ESOP, you convert your shares into liquid assets. Plus, if the ESOP owns 30% or more of the company’s outstanding common stock immediately after the sale, and certain other requirements are met, you can defer or even eliminate capital gains taxes. How? By reinvesting the proceeds in qualified replacement property (QRP) — which includes most securities issued by U.S. public companies — within one year.

QRP provides a source of retirement income and allows you to defer your gain until you sell or otherwise dispose of the QRP. From an estate planning perspective, a simple but effective strategy is to hold the QRP for life. Your heirs receive a stepped-up basis in the assets, eliminating capital gains permanently.

If you want more investment flexibility, you can pay the capital gains tax upfront and invest the proceeds as you see fit. Or you can invest the proceeds in qualifying floating-rate long-term bonds as QRP. You avoid capital gains, but can borrow against the bonds and invest the loan proceeds in other assets.

If estate taxes are a concern, you can remove QRP from your estate, without triggering capital gains, by giving it to your children or other family members. These gifts may be subject to gift and generation-skipping transfer taxes, but you can minimize those taxes using traditional estate planning tools.

Weigh the pros and cons

ESOPs offer significant benefits, but they aren’t without their disadvantages. Contact us to help determine if an ESOP is right for you at 205-345-9898.

© 2019 Covenant CPA

Retirement plan contribution limits are indexed for inflation, and many have gone up for 2019, giving you opportunities to increase your retirement savings:

  • Elective deferrals to 401(k), 403(b), 457(b)(2) and 457(c)(1) plans: $19,000 (up from $18,500)
  • Contributions to defined contribution plans: $56,000 (up from $55,000)
  • Contributions to SIMPLEs: $13,000 (up from $12,500)
  • Contributions to IRAs: $6,000 (up from $5,500)

One exception is catch-up contributions for taxpayers age 50 or older, which remain at the same levels as for 2018:

  • Catch-up contributions to 401(k), 403(b), 457(b)(2) and 457(c)(1) plans: $6,000
  • Catch-up contributions to SIMPLEs: $3,000
  • Catch-up contributions to IRAs: $1,000

Keep in mind that additional factors may affect how much you’re allowed to contribute (or how much your employer can contribute on your behalf). For example, income-based limits may reduce or eliminate your ability to make Roth IRA contributions or to make deductible traditional IRA contributions.

For more on how to make the most of your tax-advantaged retirement-saving opportunities in 2019, please contact us 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

Which criteria tell the real story

If you gave your retirement plan a report card, what would it look like? Does it do the job of preparing your participants for retirement? And how do you benchmark your plan’s performance? Let’s take a closer look.

Defining criteria

First, a quick reality check: What criteria do you already use to benchmark your plan’s performance? Traditional measures such as fund investment performance relative to a peer group, the breadth of fund options, benchmarked fees, and participation rates and average deferral rates (including matching contributions) are critical. But they’re only the beginning of the story.

Add to that list helpful administrative features and functionality, including auto-enrollment and auto-escalation provisions, investment education, retirement planning, and forecasting tools. In general, the more, the better.

A sometimes overlooked plan metric is average account balance size. This matters for two reasons. First, it provides a first-pass look at whether participants are accumulating meaningful sums in their accounts. Naturally, you’ll need to weigh that number in light of the age of your workforce, and how long your plan has been in existence. Second, it affects recordkeeping fees — higher average account values generally translate into lower per-participant fees.

Knowing your plan asset growth rate is also helpful. Unless you have an older workforce and participants are retiring and rolling their fund balances into IRAs, look for a healthy overall asset growth rate, which incorporates both contribution rates and investment returns.

What’s a healthy rate? That’s a subjective assessment and you’ll need to examine it within the context of current financial markets. A plan whose assets shrank during the financial crisis a decade ago could hardly be blamed for that pattern. Overall, however, you might hope to see annual asset growth of at least 15%.

Keeping participants on track

Ultimately, however, the success of a retirement plan isn’t measured by these discrete elements, but by aggregating multiple data points and others to derive an “on track to retire” score. That is, how many of your plan participants have account values whose size and growth rate are sufficient to result in a realistic preretirement income replacement ratio, such as 85% or more?

It might not be possible to determine that number with precision. Such calculations at the participant level, sometimes performed by recordkeepers, involve sophisticated guesswork with respect to participants’ retirement ages and savings outside the retirement plan, as well as their income growth rates and the long-term rates of return on their investment accounts.

Communicating with participants

So, after you analyze how your participants are doing, what can you do with the data? The most important thing is communicating each employee’s “on track” status directly and urgently to him or her.

A study by Empower Retirement, a retirement plan recordkeeping company, found, perhaps not surprisingly, that many retirement savers begin to increase their deferral rates when told their on-track statuses, expressed as an income replacement percentage. This preparedness metric proved to be significantly more motivational than merely being reminded of their account balances and growth rate.

Once you’ve given your participants their individual “on-track” statuses, you can also point them to tools that can generate projections of the impact on their on-track statuses of adjustments to their deferral rates. A sophisticated modeling tool would also project different forecasts based on varying asset allocation mixes.

Now what?

It’s unrealistic to expect a comprehensive on-track analysis to reveal that all your plan participants pass the test with flying colors. What’s important is finding and adjusting the right levers to increase your plan’s performance each year. Also, while doing so, it’s still critical to keep your eye on the ball with respect to the full range of fiduciary duties attendant to sponsoring a retirement plan.

 

Sidebar:Retirement preparedness: A national perspective

A large survey published early this year by Fidelity Investments offers some perspective about participants’ retirement readiness. Here’s a recap of the 2017 “America’s Retirement Score” report based on the survey’s four preparedness groupings:

On target.About one-third (32%) of American households fall into this category. Being on target means being on track to cover more than 95% of projected expenses in retirement.

Good.This group, defined as heading toward a capacity to cover 81% to 95% of their estimated expenses in retirement, comprises 18% of working American households. They’ll likely be able to cover essential expenses, but not discretionary ones such as travel and entertainment.

Fair.Slightly more than one in five (22%) are projected to be able to cover 65% to 80% of their expenses. Unless they improve their statuses, they’ll need to make “modest” lifestyle adjustments in retirement.

Needs attention.At 28% of American households, this group is the second largest, behind the “on target” group. Projected to cover less than 65% of their expenses, these people will need to make “significant” downward lifestyle adjustments to cover their expenses.

By generation, the largest “on target” cohort is Baby Boomers, in part because greater numbers of them are covered by traditional defined benefit pensions. Their average score is an 86. Gen X and Millennials are essentially tied at 77 and 78 ratings, respectively, according to the report.

©2018 Covenant CPA

If most of your money is tied up in your business, retirement can be a challenge. So if you haven’t already set up a tax-advantaged retirement plan, consider doing so this year. There’s still time to set one up and make contributions that will be deductible on your 2018 tax return!

More benefits

Not only are contributions tax deductible, but retirement plan funds can grow tax-deferred. If you might be subject to the 3.8% net investment income tax (NIIT), setting up and contributing to a retirement plan may be particularly beneficial because retirement plan contributions can reduce your modified adjusted gross income and thus help you reduce or avoid the NIIT.

If you have employees, they generally must be allowed to participate in the plan, provided they meet the qualification requirements. But this can help you attract and retain good employees.

And if you have 100 or fewer employees, you may be eligible for a credit for setting up a plan. The credit is for 50% of start-up costs, up to $500. Remember, credits reduce your tax liability dollar-for-dollar, unlike deductions, which only reduce the amount of income subject to tax.

3 options to consider

Many types of retirement plans are available, but here are three of the most attractive to business owners trying to build up their own retirement savings:

1. Profit-sharing plan. This is a defined contribution plan that allows discretionary employer contributions and flexibility in plan design. You can make deductible 2018 contributions as late as the due date of your 2018 tax return, including extensions — provided your plan exists on Dec. 31, 2018. For 2018, the maximum contribution is $55,000, or $61,000 if you are age 50 or older and your plan includes a 401(k) arrangement.

2. Simplified Employee Pension (SEP). This is also a defined contribution plan, and it provides benefits similar to those of a profit-sharing plan. But you can establish a SEP in 2019 and still make deductible 2018 contributions as late as the due date of your 2018 income tax return, including extensions. In addition, a SEP is easy to administer. For 2018, the maximum SEP contribution is $55,000.

3. Defined benefit plan. This plan sets a future pension benefit and then actuarially calculates the contributions needed to attain that benefit. The maximum annual benefit for 2018 is generally $220,000 or 100% of average earned income for the highest three consecutive years, if less. Because it’s actuarially driven, the contribution needed to attain the projected future annual benefit may exceed the maximum contributions allowed by other plans, depending on your age and the desired benefit.

You can make deductible 2018 defined benefit plan contributions until your tax return due date, including extensions, provided your plan exists on Dec. 31, 2018. Be aware that employer contributions generally are required.

Sound good?

If the benefits of setting up a retirement plan sound good, contact us. We can provide more information and help you choose the best retirement plan for your particular situation. Call us at 205-345-9898.

© 2018 Covenant CPA

If you dream of spending your golden years in a tropical paradise, a culture-rich European city or another foreign locale, it’s important to understand the potential tax and estate planning implications. If you don’t, you could be hit with some unpleasant surprises.

Avoiding the pitfalls

If you’re a citizen of the United States, U.S. taxes will apply even after you move to another country. So if your estate is large, you might be subject to gift and estate taxes in your new country and in the United States (possibly including state taxes if you maintain a residence in a U.S. state). You also could be subject to estate taxes abroad even if your estate isn’t large enough to be subject to U.S. estate taxes. In some cases, you can claim a credit against U.S. taxes for taxes you pay to another country, but these credits aren’t always available.

One option for avoiding U.S. taxes is to relinquish your U.S. citizenship. But this strategy raises a host of legal and tax issues of its own, including potential liability for a one-time “expatriation tax.”

If you wish to purchase a home in a foreign country, you may discover that your ability to acquire property is restricted. Some countries, for example, prohibit foreigners from owning real estate that’s within a certain distance from the coast or even throughout the country. It may be possible to bypass these restrictions by using a corporation or trust to hold property, but this can create burdensome tax issues for U.S. citizens.

Finally, if you own real estate or other property in a foreign country, you may run up against unusual inheritance rules. In some countries, for example, your children have priority over your spouse, regardless of the terms of your will.

We’re here to help

If you’re considering a move overseas after you retire, discuss your plans with us before making a move. We can review your estate plan and make recommendations to help avoid tax pitfalls after you relocate. Call us at 205-345-9898 for more information.

© 2018 Covenant CPA