If you’re getting close to retirement, you may wonder: Are my Social Security benefits going to be taxed? And if so, how much will you have to pay?

It depends on your other income. If you’re taxed, between 50% and 85% of your benefits could be taxed. (This doesn’t mean you pay 85% of your benefits back to the government in taxes. It merely that you’d include 85% of them in your income subject to your regular tax rates.)

Crunch the numbers

To determine how much of your benefits are taxed, first determine your other income, including certain items otherwise excluded for tax purposes (for example, tax-exempt interest). Add to that the income of your spouse, if you file joint tax returns. 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 total income plus half of your benefits. Now apply the following rules:

1. If your income plus half your benefits isn’t above $32,000 ($25,000 for single taxpayers), none of your benefits are taxed.

2. If your income plus half your benefits exceeds $32,000 but isn’t more than $44,000, you will be taxed on one half of the excess over $32,000, or one half of the benefits, whichever is lower.

Here’s an example

For example, let’s say you and your spouse have $20,000 in taxable dividends, $2,400 of tax-exempt interest and combined Social Security benefits of $21,000. So, your income plus half your benefits is $32,900 ($20,000 + $2,400 +1/2 of $21,000). You must include $450 of the benefits in gross income (1/2 ($32,900 − $32,000)). (If your combined Social Security benefits were $5,000, and your income plus half your benefits were $40,000, you would include $2,500 of the benefits in income: 1/2 ($40,000 − $32,000) equals $4,000, but 1/2 the $5,000 of benefits ($2,500) is lower, and the lower figure is used.)

Important: 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 triple tax cost. You’ll have to pay tax on the additional income, you’ll have to pay tax on (or on more of ) your Social Security benefits (since the higher your income the more of your Social Security benefits that are taxed), and you may get pushed into a higher marginal tax bracket.

For example, this situation might arise if you receive a large distribution from an IRA during the year or you have large capital gains. Careful planning might be able to avoid this negative tax result. You might be able to spread the additional income over more than one year, or liquidate assets other than an IRA account, such as stock showing only a small gain or stock with gain that can be offset by a capital loss on other shares.

If you know your Social Security benefits will be taxed, you can voluntarily arrange to have the tax withheld from the payments by filing a Form W-4V. Otherwise, you may have to make estimated tax payments. Contact us for assistance or more information.

© 2020 Covenant CPA

Traditionally, spring and summer are popular times for selling a home. Unfortunately, the COVID-19 crisis has resulted in a slowdown in sales. The National Association of Realtors (NAR) reports that existing home sales in April decreased year-over-year, 17.2% from a year ago. One bit of good news is that home prices are up. The median existing-home price in April was $286,800, up 7.4% from April 2019, according to the NAR.

If you’re planning to sell your home this year, it’s a good time to review the tax considerations.

Some gain is excluded

If you’re selling your principal residence, and you meet certain requirements, you can exclude up to $250,000 ($500,000 for joint filers) of gain. Gain that qualifies for the exclusion is also excluded from the 3.8% net investment income tax.

To be eligible for the exclusion, you must meet these tests:

  • The ownership test. You must have owned the property for at least two years during the five-year period ending on the sale date.
  • The use test. You must have used the property as a principal residence for at least two years during the same five-year period. (Periods of ownership and use don’t need to overlap.)

In addition, you can’t use the exclusion more than once every two years.

Larger gains

What if you have more than $250,000/$500,000 of profit when selling your home? Any gain that doesn’t qualify for the exclusion generally will be taxed at your long-term capital gains rate, provided you owned the home for at least a year. If you didn’t, the gain will be considered short term and subject to your ordinary-income rate, which could be more than double your long-term rate.

Here are two other tax considerations when selling a home:

  1. Keep track of your basis. To support an accurate tax basis, be sure to maintain complete records, including information on your original cost and subsequent improvements, reduced by any casualty losses and depreciation claimed based on business use.
  2. Be aware that you can’t deduct a loss. If you sell your principal residence at a loss, it generally isn’t deductible. But if a portion of your home is rented out or used exclusively for your business, the loss attributable to that part may be deductible.

If you’re selling a second home (for example, a beach house), it won’t be eligible for the gain exclusion. But if it qualifies as a rental property, it can be considered a business asset, and you may be able to defer tax on any gains through an installment sale or a Section 1031 like-kind exchange. In addition, you may be able to deduct a loss.

For many people, their homes are their most valuable asset. So before selling yours, make sure you understand the tax implications. We can help you plan ahead to minimize taxes and answer any questions you have about your home sale.

© 2020 Covenant CPA

If you have outstanding loans to your children, grandchildren or other family members, consider forgiving those loans to take advantage of the current, record-high $11.58 million gift and estate tax exemption. Bear in mind that in 2026, the exemption amount will revert to $5 million ($10 million for married couples), indexed for inflation.

Under the right circumstances, an intrafamily loan can be a powerful estate planning tool because it allows you to transfer wealth to your loved ones free of gift taxes — to the extent the loan proceeds achieve a certain level of returns. But an outright gift is a far more effective way to transfer wealth, provided you don’t need the interest income and have enough unused exemption to shield it from transfer taxes.

Do intrafamily loans save taxes?

Generally, to ensure the desired tax outcome, an intrafamily loan must have an interest rate that equals or exceeds the applicable federal rate (AFR) at the time the loan is made. The principal and interest are included in the lender’s estate, so the key to transferring wealth tax-free is for the borrower to invest the loan proceeds in a business, real estate or other opportunity whose returns outperform the AFR.

The excess of these investment returns over the interest expense is essentially a tax-free gift to the borrower. Intrafamily loans work best in a low-interest-rate environment, when it’s easier to outperform the AFR.

Why forgive a loan?

An intrafamily loan is an attractive estate planning tool if you’ve already used up your exemption or if you wish to save it for future transfers. But if you have exemption to spare, forgiving an intrafamily loan allows you to transfer the entire loan principal plus any accrued interest tax-free, not just the excess of the borrower’s returns over the AFR.

It can be a strategy for taking advantage of the increased exemption amount before it disappears at the end of 2025. Of course, if you need the funds for your own living expenses, loan forgiveness may not be an option.

What about income taxes?

Before you forgive an intrafamily loan, consider any potential income tax issues for you and the borrower. In most cases, forgiving a loan to a loved one is considered a gift, which generally has no income tax consequences for either party.

Although forgiveness of a loan sometimes results in cancellation of debt (COD) income to the borrower, the tax code recognizes an exception for debts canceled as a “gift, bequest, devise or inheritance.” There’s also an exception for a borrower who’s insolvent at the time the debt is forgiven. But be careful: If there’s evidence that forgiving a loan isn’t intended as a gift — for example, if the borrower doesn’t have the cash needed to make the loan payments but isn’t technically insolvent — the IRS may argue that the borrower has COD income.

We can assist you in determining whether forgiving loans is a good strategy and, if it is, help implement that strategy without triggering unwanted tax consequences.

© 2020 Covenant CPA

Paying workers “under the table” or with cash can save businesses a bundle in taxes. But the potential consequences are grave. Not only is this practice illegal and could result in severe financial penalties, but it also shortchanges employees.

The novel coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic has made this abundantly clear. As many laid-off workers who were paid under the table have learned, they don’t qualify for unemployment benefits if their state has no record of their employer contributing to the insurance pool. They may have trouble getting other financial assistance as well. You should protect your business and its workers by following the rules.

Paying the piper

In general, compensation is subject to federal income and employment taxes, as well as taxes that may be assessed on state and local levels. Employees are personally responsible for federal income tax on their wages, and both employees and employers are responsible for paying employment taxes.

The main employment tax, mandated by the Federal Insurance Contributions Act (FICA), comprises three elements:

1. A 6.2% OASDI, or Old-Age, Survivors and Disability Insurance (or Social Security tax),

2. A 1.45% Hospital Insurance (HI) tax on all wages (known as the Medicare tax), and

3. An additional 0.9% Medicare surtax on wages exceeding $200,000 for single filers and $250,000 for joint filers.

Employers must also pay unemployment tax under the Federal Unemployment Tax Act (FUTA). That tax is 6% on the first $7,000 of wages, but it may be effectively reduced to as little as 0.6% due to credits for state unemployment programs.

Other responsibilities

Employers’ responsibilities usually extend beyond taxes. You may be required to pay overtime and provide benefits to employees — ranging from qualified retirement plans to family medical leave time — all governed by federal laws. Employees without such benefits who become sick with COVID-19 don’t qualify for paid leave. They may be forced to work anyway to support their families and, thus, spread the infection further.

To support employees in the event they’re laid off, employers often must pay for different types of employee insurance, including Workers’ Compensation, unemployment insurance and, depending on the state, disability insurance. In addition, the Affordable Care Act imposes minimum health insurance coverage requirements on employers with 50 or more full-time employees (and full-time equivalent employees).

Note: These warnings don’t apply to workers who are legitimate independent contractors. Contractors, who work for themselves, are responsible for paying their own taxes and providing their own benefits. But you must properly handle these workers by meeting certain tests in order to have them classified as independent contractors.

Consider the real cost

Paying taxes and providing benefits to employees are necessary costs of doing business. While they take a chunk out of your bottom line, not paying them can cost you, your workers and, ultimately, the general economy, even more. Contact us for help managing expenses and reducing taxes legally.

© 2020 Covenant CPA

If you reside in a high-tax state, you may want to consider using nongrantor trusts to soften the blow of the $10,000 federal limit on state and local tax (SALT) deductions. The limit can significantly reduce itemized deductions if your state income and property taxes are well over $10,000. A potential strategy for avoiding the limit is to transfer interests in real estate to several nongrantor trusts, each of which enjoys its own $10,000 SALT deduction.

Grantor vs. nongrantor trusts

The main difference between a grantor and nongrantor trust is that a grantor trust is treated as your alter ego for tax purposes, while a nongrantor trust is treated as a separate entity. Traditionally, grantor trusts have been the vehicle of choice for estate planning purposes because the trust’s income is passed through to you, as grantor, and reported on your tax return.

That’s an advantage, because it allows the trust assets to grow tax-free, leaving more for your heirs. By paying the tax, you essentially provide an additional, tax-free gift to your loved ones that’s not limited by your gift tax exemption or annual gift tax exclusion. In addition, because the trust is an extension of you for tax purposes, you have the flexibility to sell property to the trust without triggering taxable gain.

Now that fewer families are subject to gift taxes, grantor trusts enjoy less of an advantage over nongrantor trusts. This creates an opportunity to employ nongrantor trusts to boost income tax deductions.

Nongrantor trusts in action

A nongrantor trust is a discrete legal entity, which files its own tax returns and claims its own deductions. The idea behind the strategy is to divide real estate that’s subject to more than $10,000 in property taxes among several trusts, each of which has its own SALT deduction up to $10,000. Each trust must also generate sufficient income against which to offset the deduction.

Before you attempt this strategy, beware of the multiple trust rule of Internal Revenue Code Section 643(f). That section provides that, under regulations prescribed by the U.S. Treasury Department, multiple trusts may be treated as a single trust if they have “substantially the same grantor or grantors and substantially the same primary beneficiary or beneficiaries” and a principal purpose of the arrangement is tax avoidance.

Bear in mind that to preserve the benefits of multiple trusts, it’s important to designate a different beneficiary for each trust.

Pass the SALT

If you’re losing valuable tax deductions because of the SALT limit, consider passing those deductions on to one or more nongrantor trusts. Consult with us before taking action, because these trusts must be structured carefully to ensure that they qualify as nongrantor trusts and don’t run afoul of the multiple trust rule.

© 2020 Covenant CPA

Due to the massive changes in the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act (TCJA), the 2019 filing season resulted in surprises. Some filers who have gotten a refund in past years wound up owing money. The IRS reports that the number of refunds paid this year is down from last year — and the average refund is lower. As of May 10, 2019, the IRS paid out 101,590,000 refunds averaging $2,868. This compares with 102,582,000 refunds paid out in 2018 with an average amount of $2,940.

Of course, receiving a tax refund shouldn’t necessarily be your goal. It essentially means you’re giving the government an interest-free loan.

Law changes and withholding

Last year, the IRS updated the withholding tables that indicate how much employers should hold back from their employees’ paychecks. In general, the amount withheld was reduced. This was done to reflect changes under the TCJA — including the increase in the standard deduction, suspension of personal exemptions and changes in tax rates.

The new tables may have provided the correct amount of tax withholding for some individuals, but they might have caused other taxpayers to not have enough money withheld to pay their ultimate tax liabilities.

Conduct a “paycheck checkup”

The IRS is cautioning taxpayers to review their tax situations for this year and adjust withholding, if appropriate.

The tax agency has a withholding calculator to assist you in conducting a paycheck checkup. The calculator reflects tax law changes in areas such as available itemized deductions, the increased child credit, the new dependent credit and the repeal of dependent exemptions. You can access the IRS calculator at https://bit.ly/2aLxK0A.

Situations where changes are needed

There are a number of situations when you should check your withholding. In addition to tax law changes, the IRS recommends that you perform a checkup if you:

  • Adjusted your withholding in 2018, especially in the middle or later part of the year,
  • Owed additional tax when you filed your 2018 return,
  • Received a refund that was smaller or larger than expected,
  • Got married or divorced, had a child or adopted one,
  • Purchased a home, or
  • Had changes in income.

You can modify your withholding at any time during the year, or even multiple times within a year. To do so, you simply submit a new Form W-4 to your employer. Changes typically go into effect several weeks after a new Form W-4 is submitted. (For estimated tax payments, you can make adjustments each time quarterly estimated payments are due. The next payment is due on Monday, June 17.)

We can help

Contact us to discuss your specific situation and what you can do to remedy any shortfalls to minimize taxes due, as well as any penalties and interest. We can help you sort through whether or not you need to adjust your withholding. 205-345-9898 and info@covenantcpa.com.

© 2019 CovenantCPA

Here are some of the key tax-related deadlines affecting businesses and other employers during the first quarter of 2019. Keep in mind that this list isn’t all-inclusive, so there may be additional deadlines that apply to you. Contact us to ensure you’re meeting all applicable deadlines and to learn more about the filing requirements.

January 31

  • File 2018 Forms W-2, “Wage and Tax Statement,” with the Social Security Administration and provide copies to your employees.
  • Provide copies of 2018 Forms 1099-MISC, “Miscellaneous Income,” to recipients of income from your business where required.
  • File 2018 Forms 1099-MISC reporting nonemployee compensation payments in Box 7 with the IRS.
  • File Form 940, “Employer’s Annual Federal Unemployment (FUTA) Tax Return,” for 2018. If your undeposited tax is $500 or less, you can either pay it with your return or deposit it. If it’s more than $500, you must deposit it. However, if you deposited the tax for the year in full and on time, you have until February 11 to file the return.
  • File Form 941, “Employer’s Quarterly Federal Tax Return,” to report Medicare, Social Security and income taxes withheld in the fourth quarter of 2018. If your tax liability is less than $2,500, you can pay it in full with a timely filed return. If you deposited the tax for the quarter in full and on time, you have until February 11 to file the return. (Employers that have an estimated annual employment tax liability of $1,000 or less may be eligible to file Form 944,“Employer’s Annual Federal Tax Return.”)
  • File Form 945, “Annual Return of Withheld Federal Income Tax,” for 2018 to report income tax withheld on all nonpayroll items, including backup withholding and withholding on accounts such as pensions, annuities and IRAs. If your tax liability is less than $2,500, you can pay it in full with a timely filed return. If you deposited the tax for the year in full and on time, you have until February 11 to file the return.

February 28

  • File 2018 Forms 1099-MISC with the IRS if 1) they’re not required to be filed earlier and 2) you’re filing paper copies. (Otherwise, the filing deadline is April 1.)

March 15

  • If a calendar-year partnership or S corporation, file or extend your 2018 tax return and pay any tax due. If the return isn’t extended, this is also the last day to make 2018 contributions to pension and profit-sharing plans.

Call us for help with your taxes at 205-345-9898.

© 2018 Covenant CPA

Sometimes estates that are large enough for estate taxes to be a concern are asset rich but cash poor, without the liquidity needed to pay those taxes. An intrafamily loan is one option. While a life insurance policy can be used to cover taxes and other estate expenses, a benefit of using an intrafamily loan is that, if it’s properly structured, the estate can deduct the full amount of interest upfront. Doing so reduces the estate’s size and, thus, its estate tax liability.

Deducting the interest

An estate can deduct interest if it’s a permitted expense under local probate law, actually and necessarily incurred in the administration of the estate, ascertainable with reasonable certainty, and will be paid. Under probate law in most jurisdictions, interest is a permitted expense. And, generally, interest on a loan used to avoid a forced sale or liquidation is considered “actually and necessarily incurred.”

To ensure that interest is “ascertainable with reasonable certainty,” the loan terms shouldn’t allow prepayment and should provide that, in the event of default, all interest for the remainder of the loan’s term will be accelerated. Without these provisions, the IRS or a court would likely conclude that future interest isn’t ascertainable with reasonable certainty and would disallow the upfront deduction. Instead, the estate would deduct interest as it’s accrued and recalculate its estate tax liability in future years.

The requirement that interest “will be paid” generally isn’t an issue, unless there’s some reason to believe that the estate won’t be able to generate sufficient income to cover the interest payments.

Ensuring the loan is bona fide

For the interest to be deductible, the loan also must be bona fide. A loan from a bank or other financial institution shouldn’t have any trouble meeting this standard.

But if the loan is from a related party, such as a family-controlled trust or corporation, the IRS may question whether the transaction is bona fide. So the parties should take steps to demonstrate that the transaction is a true loan.

Among other things, they should:

  • Set a reasonable interest rate (based on current IRS rates),
  • Execute a promissory note,
  • Provide for collateral or other security to ensure the loan is repaid,
  • Pay the interest payments in a timely manner, and
  • Otherwise treat the loan as an arm’s-length transaction.

It’s critical that the loan’s terms be reasonable and that the parties be able to demonstrate a “genuine intention to create a debt with a reasonable expectation of repayment.”

If you’re considering making an intrafamily loan, contact us at 205-345-9898. We’d be pleased to answer any questions you may have.

© 2018 Covenant CPA