Archive for Individual Taxes

COVID-19 has changed our lives in many ways, and some of the changes have tax implications. Here is basic information about two common situations.

1. Working from home.

Many employees have been told not to come into their workplaces due to the pandemic. If you’re an employee who “telecommutes” — that is, you work at home, and communicate with your employer mainly by telephone, videoconferencing, email, etc. — you should know about the strict rules that govern whether you can deduct your home office expenses.

Unfortunately, employee home office expenses aren’t currently deductible, even if your employer requires you to work from home. Employee business expense deductions (including the expenses an employee incurs to maintain a home office) are miscellaneous itemized deductions and are disallowed from 2018 through 2025 under the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act.

However, if you’re self-employed and work out of an office in your home, you can be eligible to claim home office deductions for your related expenses if you satisfy the strict rules.

2. Collecting unemployment

Millions of Americans have lost their jobs due to COVID-19 and are collecting unemployment benefits. Some of these people don’t know that these benefits are taxable and must be reported on their federal income tax returns for the tax year they were received. Taxable benefits include the special unemployment compensation authorized under the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act.

In order to avoid a surprise tax bill when filing a 2020 income tax return next year, unemployment recipients can have taxes withheld from their benefits now. Under federal law, recipients can opt to have 10% withheld from their benefits to cover part or all their tax liability. To do this, complete Form W4-V, Voluntary Withholding Request, and give it to the agency paying benefits. (Don’t send it to the IRS.)

We can help

We can assist you with advice about whether you qualify for home office deductions, and how much of these expenses you can deduct. We can also answer any questions you have about the taxation of unemployment benefits as well as any other tax issues that you encounter as a result of COVID-19.

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Homebuyers: Can you deduct seller-paid points?

Despite the COVID-19 pandemic, the National Association of Realtors (NAR) reports that existing home sales and prices are up nationwide, compared with last year. One of the reasons is the pandemic: “With the sizable shift in remote work, current homeowners are looking for larger homes…” according to NAR’s Chief Economist Lawrence Yun.

If you’re buying a home, or you just bought one, you may wonder if you can deduct mortgage points paid on your behalf by the seller. Yes, you can, subject to some important limitations described below.

Points are upfront fees charged by a mortgage lender, expressed as a percentage of the loan principal. Points, which may be deductible if you itemize deductions, are normally the buyer’s obligation. But a seller will sometimes sweeten a deal by agreeing to pay the points on the buyer’s mortgage loan.

In most cases, points a buyer pays are a deductible interest expense. And IRS says that seller-paid points may also be deductible.

Suppose, for example, that you bought a home for $600,000. In connection with a $500,000 mortgage loan, your bank charged two points, or $10,000. The seller agreed to pay the points in order to close the sale.

You can deduct the $10,000 in the year of sale. The only disadvantage is that your tax basis is reduced to $590,000, which will mean more gain if — and when — you sell the home for more than that amount. But that may not happen until many years later, and the gain may not be taxable anyway. You may qualify for an exclusion for up to $250,000 ($500,000 for a married couple filing jointly) of gain on the sale of a principal residence.

Some limitations

There are some important limitations on the rule allowing a deduction for seller-paid points. The rule doesn’t apply:

  • To points that are allocated to the part of a mortgage above $750,000 ($375,000 for marrieds filing separately) for tax years 2018 through 2025 (above $1 million for tax years before 2018 and after 2025);
  • To points on a loan used to improve (rather than buy) a home;
  • To points on a loan used to buy a vacation or second home, investment property or business property; and
  • To points paid on a refinancing, home equity loan or line of credit.

Your situation

We can review with you in more detail whether the points in your home purchase are deductible, as well as discuss other tax aspects of your transaction.

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Back-to-school tax breaks on the books

Despite the COVID-19 pandemic, students are going back to school this fall, either remotely, in-person or under a hybrid schedule. In any event, parents may be eligible for certain tax breaks to help defray the cost of education.

Here is a summary of some of the tax breaks available for education.

1. Higher education tax credits. Generally, you may be able to claim either one of two tax credits for higher education expenses — but not both.

  • With the American Opportunity Tax Credit (AOTC), you can save a maximum of $2,500 from your tax bill for each full-time college or grad school student. This applies to qualified expenses including tuition, room and board, books and computer equipment and other supplies. But the credit is phased out for moderate-to-upper income taxpayers. No credit is allowed if your modified adjusted gross income (MAGI) is over $90,000 ($180,000 for joint filers).
  • The Lifetime Learning Credit (LLC) is similar to the AOTC, but there are a few important distinctions. In this case, the maximum credit is $2,000 instead of $2,500. Furthermore, this is the overall credit allowed to a taxpayer regardless of the number of students in the family. However, the LLC is also phased out under income ranges even lower than the AOTC. You can’t claim the credit if your MAGI is $68,000 or more ($136,000 or more if you file a joint return).

For these reasons, the AOTC is generally preferable to the LLC. But parents have still another option.

2. Tuition-and-fees deduction. As an alternative to either of the credits above, parents may claim an above-the-line deduction for tuition and related fees. This deduction is either $4,000 or $2,000, depending on the taxpayer’s MAGI, before it is phased out. No deduction is allowed for MAGI above $80,000 for single filers and $160,000 for joint filers.

The tuition-and-fees deduction, which has been extended numerous times, is currently scheduled to expire after 2020. However, it’s likely to be revived again by Congress.

In addition to these tax breaks, there are other ways to save and pay for college on a tax advantaged basis. These include using Section 529 plans and Coverdell Education Savings Accounts. There are limits on contributions to these saving vehicles.

Note: Thanks to a provision in the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act, a 529 plan can now be used to pay for up to $10,000 annually for a child’s tuition at a private or religious elementary or secondary school.

Final lesson

Typically, parents are able to take advantage of one or more of these tax breaks, even though some benefits are phased out above certain income levels. Contact us to maximize the tax breaks for your children’s education.

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Will You Have to Pay Tax on Your Social Security Benefits?

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.

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What happens if an individual can’t pay taxes

While you probably don’t have any problems paying your tax bills, you may wonder: What happens in the event you (or someone you know) can’t pay taxes on time? Here’s a look at the options.

Most importantly, don’t let the inability to pay your tax liability in full keep you from filing a tax return properly and on time. In addition, taking certain steps can keep the IRS from instituting punitive collection processes.

Common penalties

The “failure to file” penalty accrues at 5% per month or part of a month (to a maximum of 25%) on the amount of tax your return shows you owe. The “failure to pay” penalty accrues at only 0.5% per month or part of a month (to 25% maximum) on the amount due on the return. (If both apply, the failure to file penalty drops to 4.5% per month (or part) so the combined penalty remains at 5%.) The maximum combined penalty for the first five months is 25%. Thereafter, the failure to pay penalty can continue at 0.5% per month for 45 more months. The combined penalties can reach 47.5% over time in addition to any interest.

Undue hardship extensions

Keep in mind that an extension of time to file your return doesn’t mean an extension of time to pay your tax bill. A payment extension may be available, however, if you can show payment would cause “undue hardship.” You can avoid the failure to pay penalty if an extension is granted, but you’ll be charged interest. If you qualify, you’ll be given an extra six months to pay the tax due on your return. If the IRS determines a “deficiency,” the undue hardship extension can be up to 18 months and in exceptional cases another 12 months can be added.

Borrowing money

If you don’t think you can get an extension of time to pay your taxes, borrowing money to pay them should be considered. You may be able to get a loan from a relative, friend or commercial lender. You can also use credit or debit cards to pay a tax bill, but you’re likely to pay a relatively high interest rate and possibly a fee.

Installment agreement

Another way to defer tax payments is to request an installment payment agreement. This is done by filing a form and the IRS charges a fee for installment agreements. Even if a request is granted, you’ll be charged interest on any tax not paid by its due date. But the late payment penalty is half the usual rate (0.25% instead of 0.5%), if you file by the due date (including extensions).

The IRS may terminate an installment agreement if the information provided in applying is inaccurate or incomplete or the IRS believes the tax collection is in jeopardy. The IRS may also modify or terminate an installment agreement in certain cases, such as if you miss a payment or fail to pay another tax liability when it’s due.

Avoid serious consequences

Tax liabilities don’t go away if left unaddressed. It’s important to file a properly prepared return even if full payment can’t be made. Include as large a partial payment as you can with the return and work with the IRS as soon as possible. The alternative may include escalating penalties and having liens assessed against your assets and income. Down the road, the collection process may also include seizure and sale of your property. In many cases, these nightmares can be avoided by taking advantage of options offered by the IRS.

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In the COVID-19 era, many parents are hiring nannies and babysitters because their daycare centers and summer camps have closed. This may result in federal “nanny tax” obligations.

Keep in mind that the nanny tax may apply to all household workers, including housekeepers, babysitters, gardeners or others who aren’t independent contractors.

If you employ someone who’s subject to the nanny tax, you aren’t required to withhold federal income taxes from the individual’s pay. You only must withhold if the worker asks you to and you agree. (In that case, ask the nanny to fill out a Form W-4.) However, you may have other withholding and payment obligations.

Withholding FICA and FUTA

You must withhold and pay Social Security and Medicare taxes (FICA) if your nanny earns cash wages of $2,200 or more (excluding food and lodging) during 2020. If you reach the threshold, all of the wages (not just the excess) are subject to FICA.

However, if your nanny is under 18 and childcare isn’t his or her principal occupation, you don’t have to withhold FICA taxes. Therefore, if your nanny is really a student/part-time babysitter, there’s no FICA tax liability.

Both employers and household workers have an obligation to pay FICA taxes. Employers are responsible for withholding the worker’s share of FICA and must pay a matching employer amount. FICA tax is divided between Social Security and Medicare. Social Security tax is 6.2% for the both the employer and the worker (12.4% total). Medicare tax is 1.45% each for both the employer and the worker (2.9% total).

If you prefer, you can pay your nanny’s share of Social Security and Medicare taxes, instead of withholding it from pay.

Note: It’s unclear how these taxes will be affected by the executive order that President Trump signed on August 8, which allows payroll taxes to be deferred from September 1 through December 31, 2020.

You also must pay federal unemployment (FUTA) tax if you pay $1,000 or more in cash wages (excluding food and lodging) to your worker in any calendar quarter of this year or last year. FUTA tax applies to the first $7,000 of wages. The maximum FUTA tax rate is 6%, but credits reduce it to 0.6% in most cases. FUTA tax is paid only by the employer.

Reporting and paying

You pay nanny tax by increasing your quarterly estimated tax payments or increasing withholding from your wages — rather than making an annual lump-sum payment.

You don’t have to file any employment tax returns, even if you’re required to withhold or pay tax (unless you own a business, see below). Instead, you report employment taxes on Schedule H of your tax return.

On your return, you include your employer identification number (EIN) when reporting employment taxes. The EIN isn’t the same as your Social Security number. If you need an EIN, you must file Form SS-4.

However, if you own a business as a sole proprietor, you must include the taxes for your nanny on the FICA and FUTA forms (940 and 941) that you file for your business. And you use the EIN from your sole proprietorship to report the taxes. You also must provide your nanny with a Form W-2.

Recordkeeping

Maintain careful tax records for each household employee. Keep them for at least four years from the later of the due date of the return or the date the tax was paid. Records include: employee name, address, Social Security number; employment dates; wages paid; withheld FICA or income taxes; FICA taxes paid by you for your worker; and copies of forms filed.

Contact us for help or with questions about how to comply with these requirements.

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