Did you make large gifts to your children, grandchildren or other heirs last year? If so, it’s important to determine whether you’re required to file a 2018 gift tax return — or whether filing one would be beneficial even if it isn’t required.

Filing requirements

Generally, you must file a gift tax return for 2018 if, during the tax year, you made gifts:

  • That exceeded the $15,000-per-recipient gift tax annual exclusion (other than to your U.S. citizen spouse),
  • That you wish to split with your spouse to take advantage of your combined $30,000 annual exclusion,
  • That exceeded the $152,000 annual exclusion for gifts to a noncitizen spouse,
  • To a Section 529 college savings plan and wish to accelerate up to five years’ worth of annual exclusions ($75,000) into 2018,
  • Of future interests — such as remainder interests in a trust — regardless of the amount, or
  • Of jointly held or community property.

Keep in mind that you’ll owe gift tax only to the extent an exclusion doesn’t apply and you’ve used up your lifetime gift and estate tax exemption ($11.18 million for 2018). As you can see, some transfers require a return even if you don’t owe tax.

No return required

No gift tax return is required if your gifts for the year consist solely of gifts that are tax-free because they qualify as:

  • Annual exclusion gifts,
  • Present interest gifts to a U.S. citizen spouse,
  • Educational or medical expenses paid directly to a school or health care provider, or
  • Political or charitable contributions.

But if you transferred hard-to-value property, such as artwork or interests in a family-owned business, consider filing a gift tax return even if you’re not required to. Adequate disclosure of the transfer in a return triggers the statute of limitations, generally preventing the IRS from challenging your valuation more than three years after you file.

Be ready for April 15

The gift tax return deadline is the same as the income tax filing deadline. For 2018 returns, it’s April 15, 2019 — or October 15, 2019, if you file for an extension. But keep in mind that, if you owe gift tax, the payment deadline is April 15, regardless of whether you file for an extension. If you’re not sure whether you must (or should) file a 2018 gift tax return, contact us at 205-345-9898 or info@covenantcpa.com.

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While the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act (TCJA) reduces most income tax rates and expands some tax breaks, it limits or eliminates several itemized deductions that have been valuable to many individual taxpayers. Here are five deductions you may see shrink or disappear when you file your 2018 income tax return:

1. State and local tax deduction. For 2018 through 2025, your total itemized deduction for all state and local taxes combined — including property tax — is limited to $10,000 ($5,000 if you’re married and filing separately). You still must choose between deducting income and sales tax; you can’t deduct both, even if your total state and local tax deduction wouldn’t exceed $10,000.

2. Mortgage interest deduction. You generally can claim an itemized deduction for interest on mortgage debt incurred to purchase, build or improve your principal residence and a second residence. Points paid related to your principal residence also may be deductible. For 2018 through 2025, the TCJA reduces the mortgage debt limit from $1 million to $750,000 for debt incurred after Dec. 15, 2017, with some limited exceptions.

3. Home equity debt interest deduction. Before the TCJA, an itemized deduction could be claimed for interest on up to $100,000 of home equity debt used for any purpose, such as to pay off credit cards (for which interest isn’t deductible). The TCJA effectively limits the home equity interest deduction for 2018 through 2025 to debt that would qualify for the home mortgage interest deduction.

4. Miscellaneous itemized deductions subject to the 2% floor. This deduction for expenses such as certain professional fees, investment expenses and unreimbursed employee business expenses is suspended for 2018 through 2025. If you’re an employee and work from home, this includes the home office deduction. (Business owners and the self-employed may still be able to claim a home office deduction against their business or self-employment income.)

5. Personal casualty and theft loss deduction. For 2018 through 2025, this itemized deduction is suspended except if the loss was due to an event officially declared a disaster by the President.

Be aware that additional rules and limits apply to many of these deductions. Also keep in mind that the TCJA nearly doubles the standard deduction. The combination of a much larger standard deduction and the reduction or elimination of many itemized deductions means that, even if itemizing has typically benefited you in the past, you might be better off taking the standard deduction when you file your 2018 return. Please contact us with any questions you have at 205-345-9898.

© 2019 Covenant CPA

If you run your business from your home or perform certain functions at home that are related to your business, you might be able to claim a home office deduction against your business income on your 2018 income tax return. There are now two methods for claiming this deduction: the actual expenses method and the simplified method.

Basics of the deduction

In general, you’ll qualify for a home office deduction if part of your home is used “regularly and exclusively” as your principal place of business.

If your home isn’t your principal place of business, you may still be able to deduct home office expenses if 1) you physically meet with patients, clients or customers on your premises, or 2) you use a storage area in your home (or a separate free-standing structure, such as a garage) exclusively and regularly for your business.

Actual expenses 

Traditionally, taxpayers have deducted actual expenses when they claim a home office deduction. Deductible home office expenses may include:

  • Direct expenses, such as the cost of painting and carpeting a room used exclusively for business,
  • A proportionate share of indirect expenses, such as mortgage interest, property taxes, utilities, repairs and insurance, and
  • A depreciation allowance.

But keeping track of actual expenses can be time consuming.

The simplified method

Fortunately, there’s a simplified method that’s been available since 2013: You can deduct $5 for each square foot of home office space, up to a maximum total of $1,500.

For example, if you’ve converted a 300-square-foot bedroom to an office you use exclusively and regularly for business, you can write off $1,500 under the simplified method (300 square feet x $5). However, if your business is located in a 600-square-foot finished basement, the deduction will still be only $1,500 because of the cap on the deduction under this method.

As you can see, the cap can make the simplified method less beneficial for larger home office spaces. But even for spaces of 300 square feet or less, taxpayers may qualify for a bigger deduction using the actual expense method. So, tracking your actual expenses can be worth the extra hassle.

Flexibility in filing

When claiming the home office deduction, you’re not locked into a particular method. For instance, you might choose the actual expense method on your 2018 return, use the simplified method when you file your 2019 return next year and then switch back to the actual expense method thereafter. The choice is yours.

Unsure whether you qualify for the home office deduction? Or wondering whether you should deduct actual expenses or use the simplified method? Contact us at 205-345-9898. We can help you determine what’s right for your specific situation.

© 2019 Covenant CPA

Have you made substantial gifts of wealth to family members? Or are you the executor of the estate of a loved one who died recently? If so, you need to know whether you must file a gift or estate tax return.

Filing a gift tax return

Generally, a federal gift tax return (Form 709) is required if you make gifts to or for someone during the year (with certain exceptions, such as gifts to U.S. citizen spouses) that exceed the annual gift tax exclusion ($15,000 for 2018 and 2019); there’s a separate exclusion for gifts to a noncitizen spouse ($152,000 for 2018 and $155,000 for 2019).

Also, if you make gifts of future interests, even if they’re less than the annual exclusion amount, a gift tax return is required. Finally, if you split gifts with your spouse, regardless of amount, you must file a gift tax return.

The return is due by April 15 of the year after you make the gift, so the deadline for 2018 gifts is coming up soon. But the deadline can be extended to October 15.

Being required to file a form doesn’t necessarily mean you owe gift tax. You’ll owe tax only if you’ve already exhausted your lifetime gift and estate tax exemption ($11.18 million for 2018 and $11.40 million for 2019).

Filing an estate tax return

If required, a federal estate tax return (Form 706) is due nine months after the date of death. Executors can seek an extension of the filing deadline, an extension of the time to pay, or both, by filing Form 4768. Keep in mind that the form provides for an automatic six-month extension of the filing deadline, but that extending the time to pay (up to one year at a time) is at the IRS’s discretion. Executors can file additional requests to extend the filing deadline “for cause” or to obtain additional one-year extensions of time to pay.

Generally, Form 706 is required only if the deceased’s gross estate plus adjusted taxable gifts exceeds the exemption. But a return is required even if there’s no estate tax liability after taking all applicable deductions and credits.

Even if an estate tax return isn’t required, executors may need to file one to preserve a surviving spouse’s portability election. Portability allows a surviving spouse to take advantage of a deceased spouse’s unused estate tax exemption amount, but it’s not automatic. To take advantage of portability, the deceased’s executor must make an election on a timely filed estate tax return that computes the unused exemption amount.

Preparing an estate tax return can be a time consuming, costly undertaking, so executors should analyze the relative costs and benefits of a portability election. Generally, filing an estate tax return is advisable only if there’s a reasonable probability that the surviving spouse will exhaust his or her own exemption amount.

Seek professional help

Estate tax rules and regulations can be complicated. If you need help determining whether a gift or estate tax return needs to be filed, contact us at 205-345-9898.

© 2019 Covenant CPA

The IRS opened the 2018 income tax return filing season on January 28. Even if you typically don’t file until much closer to the April 15 deadline, this year consider filing as soon as you can. Why? You can potentially protect yourself from tax identity theft — and reap other benefits, too.

What is tax identity theft?

In a tax identity theft scheme, a thief uses your personal information to file a fraudulent tax return early in the filing season and claim a bogus refund.

You discover the fraud when you file your return and are informed by the IRS that the return has been rejected because one with your Social Security number has already been filed for the same tax year. While you should ultimately be able to prove that your return is the legitimate one, tax identity theft can cause major headaches to straighten out and significantly delay your 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 — not yours.

What if you haven’t received your W-2s and 1099s?

To file your tax return, you must have received all of your W-2s and 1099s. January 31 was the deadline for employers to issue 2018 Form W-2 to employees and, generally, for businesses to issue Form 1099 to recipients of any 2018 interest, dividend or reportable miscellaneous income payments.

If you haven’t received a W-2 or 1099, first contact the entity that should have issued it. If that doesn’t work, you can contact the IRS for help.

What are other benefits of filing early? 

Besides protecting yourself from tax identity theft, the most obvious benefit of filing early is that, if you’re getting a refund, you’ll get that refund sooner. The IRS expects more than nine out of ten refunds to be issued within 21 days.

But even if you owe tax, filing early can be beneficial. You still won’t need to pay your tax bill until April 15, but you’ll know sooner how much you owe and can plan accordingly. Keep in mind that some taxpayers who typically have gotten refunds in the past could find themselves owing tax when they file their 2018 return due to tax law changes under the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act (TCJA) and reduced withholding from 2018 paychecks.

Need help?

If you have questions about tax identity theft or would like help filing your 2018 return early, please contact us. While the new Form 1040 essentially does fit on a postcard, many taxpayers will also have to complete multiple schedules along with the form. And the TCJA has changed many tax breaks. We can help you ensure you file an accurate return that takes advantage of all of the breaks available to you. Call us at 205-345-9898 for more.

© 2019 Covenant CPA

There aren’t too many things businesses can do after a year ends to reduce tax liability for that year. However, you might be able to pay employee bonuses for 2018 in 2019 and still deduct them on your 2018 tax return. In certain circumstances, businesses can deduct bonuses employees have earned during a tax year if the bonuses are paid within 2½ months after the end of that year (by March 15 for a calendar-year company).

Basic requirements

First, only accrual-basis taxpayers can take advantage of the 2½ month rule. Cash-basis taxpayers must deduct bonuses in the year they’re paid, regardless of when they’re earned.

Second, even for accrual-basis taxpayers, the 2½ month rule isn’t automatic. The bonuses can be deducted on the tax return for the year they’re earned only if the business’s bonus liability was fixed by the end of the year.

Passing the test

For accrual-basis taxpayers, a liability (such as a bonus) is deductible when it is incurred. To determine this, the IRS applies the “all-events test.” Under this test, a liability is incurred when:

  • All events have occurred that establish the taxpayer’s liability,
  • The amount of the liability can be determined with reasonable accuracy, and
  • Economic performance has occurred.

Generally, the last requirement isn’t an issue; it’s satisfied when an employee performs the services required to earn a bonus. But the first two requirements can delay your tax deduction until the year of payment, depending on how your bonus plan is designed.

For example, many bonus plans require an employee to still be an employee on the payment date to receive the bonus. Even when the amount of each employee’s bonus is fixed at the end of the tax year, if employees who leave the company before the payment date forfeit their bonuses, the all-events test isn’t satisfied until the payment date. Why? The business’s liability for bonuses isn’t fixed until then.

Diving into a bonus pool

Fortunately, it’s possible to accelerate deductions with a carefully designed bonus pool arrangement. According to the IRS, employers may deduct bonuses in the year they’re earned — even if there’s a risk of forfeiture — as long as any forfeited bonuses are reallocated among the remaining employees in the bonus pool rather than retained by the employer.

Under such a plan, an employer satisfies the all-events test because the aggregate bonus amount is fixed at the end of the year. It doesn’t matter that amounts allocated to specific employees aren’t determined until the payment date.

When you can deduct bonuses

So does your current bonus plan allow you to take 2018 deductions for bonuses paid in early 2019? If you’re not sure, contact us. We can review your situation and determine when you can deduct your bonus payments.

If you’re an accrual taxpayer but don’t qualify to accelerate your bonus deductions this time, we can help you design a bonus plan for 2019 that will allow you to accelerate deductions when you file your 2019 return next year. Call us at 205-345-9898.

© 2019 Covenant CPA