Archive for Individual Taxes

There are several ways to save for your child’s or grandchild’s education, including with a Coverdell Education Savings Account (ESA). Although for federal tax purposes there’s no upfront deduction for contributions made to an ESA, the earnings on the contributions grow tax-free. In addition, no tax is due when the funds in the account are distributed, to the extent the amounts withdrawn don’t exceed the child’s qualified education expenses.

Qualified expenses include higher education tuition, fees, books and room, as well as elementary and secondary school expenses.

Contribution limits

The annual limit that can be contributed to a child’s ESA is $2,000 per year — from all contributors for all ESAs for the same child. The maximum dollar amount that any individual can contribute is phased out if the contributor’s adjusted gross income (with certain modifications) exceeds $95,000 ($190,000 for married joint filers).

However, this phaseout is easily avoided. A child can contribute to his or her own ESA, so a parent or other person whose contribution may be limited by the phaseout rule can give the money to an ESA as custodian for the child. Under those circumstances, the child is considered to be the contributor and, if the child’s adjusted gross income is below $95,000, the phaseout won’t apply.

Contributions that exceed $2,000 in total for a child for a year are subject to a 6% penalty tax until the excess (plus earnings) are withdrawn.

How long can you make ESA contributions? They can be made until a child reaches age 18 (but this age limit doesn’t apply to a beneficiary with special needs who requires additional time to complete his or her education). A beneficiary doesn’t have to be your own child.

Taking money out

Withdrawals from an ESA during a year that exceed the child’s qualified education expenses for that year are included in the child’s income (to the extent of the earnings portion of the distribution) and are also subject to an additional 10% tax.

Tax-free transfers or rollovers of account balances from an ESA benefiting one beneficiary to another account benefiting another person are allowed, if the new beneficiary hasn’t reached 30, and is a member of the family of the old beneficiary. (The age limit doesn’t apply to a beneficiary with special needs.)

If you’re interested in discussing a Coverdell ESA, or other education planning options, please contact us.

Watch out for tax-related scams

“Thousands of people have lost millions of dollars and their personal information to tax scams,” according to the IRS. Criminals can contact victims through regular mail, telephone calls and email messages. Here are just two of the scams the tax agency has seen in recent months.

  1. Fake property liens. A tax bill is sent from a fictional government agency in the mail. The fake agency may have a legitimate sounding name such as the Bureau of Tax Enforcement. The bill is accompanied by a letter threatening an IRS lien or levy based on bogus overdue taxes. (A levy is a legal seizure of property to satisfy a tax debt. A lien is a legal claim against your property to secure payment of your tax debt.)
  2. Phony calls from the IRS. In this scam, criminals impersonating IRS employees call people and tell them that, if they don’t pay back taxes they owe, they will face arrest. The thieves then demand that the taxpayers pay their tax debts with a gift card, other prepaid cards or a wire transfer.

Important reminders

If you receive a text, letter, email or phone call purporting to be from the IRS, keep in mind that the IRS never calls taxpayers demanding immediate payment using a specific method of payment (such as a wire transfer or prepaid debit card). In general, the IRS sends bills or notices to taxpayers and gives them time to respond with questions or appeals. The tax agency also doesn’t threaten taxpayers with arrest.

In addition, the IRS doesn’t initiate contact by email, text message or social media channels to request information. Most contacts are initiated though regular mail delivered by the U.S. Postal Service. The IRS does use authorized private collection agencies to collect some overdue tax bills but these agencies also follow the same rules.

In some special circumstances, the IRS does call taxpayers or come to their homes or businesses. For example, the IRS may tour a business as part of an audit or during a criminal investigation. But even in those cases, taxpayers will generally receive several mailed IRS notices before the visit. And the IRS never demands that payment be made to any source other than the “United States Treasury.”

What to do if you’re contacted

You can contact us if the IRS gets in touch with you. If the contact involves a phone call, hang up immediately. You can forward an email or other tax-related scam to the IRS at phishing@irs.gov. To report an IRS impersonation scam, visit the Treasury Inspector General for Tax Administration at https://bit.ly/1ClYZbP. Be aware that criminals keep evolving their scams in an effort to steal people’s money and personal information. Remain on alert.

Take advantage of the gift tax exclusion rules

As we head toward the gift-giving season, you may be considering giving gifts of cash or securities to your loved ones. Taxpayers can transfer substantial amounts free of gift taxes to their children and others each year through the use of the annual federal gift tax exclusion. The amount is adjusted for inflation annually. For 2019, the exclusion is $15,000.

The exclusion covers gifts that you make to each person each year. Therefore, if you have three children, you can transfer a total of $45,000 to them this year (and next year) free of federal gift taxes. If the only gifts made during the year are excluded in this way, there’s no need to file a federal gift tax return. If annual gifts exceed $15,000, the exclusion covers the first $15,000 and only the excess is taxable. Further, even taxable gifts may result in no gift tax liability thanks to the unified credit (discussed below).

Note: this discussion isn’t relevant to gifts made from one spouse to the other spouse, because these gifts are gift tax-free under separate marital deduction rules.

Gifts by married taxpayers

If you’re married, gifts to individuals made during a year can be treated as split between you and your spouse, even if the cash or gift property is actually given to an individual by only one of you. By “gift-splitting,” up to $30,000 a year can be transferred to each person by a married couple, because two annual exclusions are available. For example, if you’re married with three children, you and your spouse can transfer a total of $90,000 each year to your children ($30,000 × 3). If your children are married, you can transfer $180,000 to your children and their spouses ($30,000 × 6).

If gift-splitting is involved, both spouses must consent to it. We can assist you with preparing a gift tax return (or returns) to indicate consent.

“Unified” credit for taxable gifts

Even gifts that aren’t covered by the exclusion, and that are therefore taxable, may not result in a tax liability. This is because a tax credit wipes out the federal gift tax liability on the first taxable gifts that you make in your lifetime, up to $11,400,000 (for 2019). However, to the extent you use this credit against a gift tax liability, it reduces (or eliminates) the credit available for use against the federal estate tax at your death.

Giving gifts of appreciated assets

Let’s say you own stocks and other marketable securities (outside of your retirement accounts) that have skyrocketed in value since they were acquired. A 15% or 20% tax rate generally applies to long-term capital gains. But there’s a 0% long-term capital gains rate for those in lower tax brackets. Even if your income is high, your family members in lower tax brackets may be able to benefit from the 0% long-term capital gains rate. Giving them appreciated stock instead of cash might allow you to eliminate federal tax liability on the appreciation, or at least significantly reduce it. The recipients can sell the assets at no or a low federal tax cost. Before acting, make sure the recipients won’t be subject to the “kiddie tax,” and consider any gift and generation-skipping transfer (GST) tax consequences.

Plan ahead

Annual gifts are only one way to transfer wealth to your loved ones. There may be other effective tax and estate planning tools. Contact us before year end to discuss your options.

When is tax due on Series EE savings bonds?

You may have Series EE savings bonds that were bought many years ago. Perhaps you store them in a file cabinet or safe deposit box and rarely think about them. You may wonder how the interest you earn on EE bonds is taxed. And if they reach final maturity, you may need to take action to ensure there’s no loss of interest or unanticipated tax consequences.

Interest deferral

Series EE Bonds dated May 2005 and after earn a fixed rate of interest. Bonds purchased between May 1997 and April 30, 2005, earn a variable market-based rate of return.

Paper Series EE bonds were sold at half their face value. For example, if you own a $50 bond, you paid $25 for it. The bond isn’t worth its face value until it has matured. (The U.S. Treasury Department no longer issues EE bonds in paper form.) Electronic Series EE Bonds are sold at face value and are worth their full value when available for redemption.

The minimum term of ownership is one year, but a penalty is imposed if the bond is redeemed in the first five years. The bonds earn interest for 30 years.

How they’re taxed

Series EE bonds don’t pay interest currently. Instead, the accrued interest is reflected in the redemption value of the bond. The U.S. Treasury issues tables showing the redemption values.

The interest on EE bonds isn’t taxed as it accrues unless the owner elects to have it taxed annually. If an election is made, all previously accrued but untaxed interest is also reported in the election year. In most cases, this election isn’t made so bond holders receive the benefits of tax deferral.

If the election to report the interest annually is made, it will apply to all bonds and for all future years. That is, the election cannot be made on a bond-by-bond or year-by-year basis. However, there’s a procedure under which the election can be canceled.

If the election isn’t made, all of the accrued interest is finally taxed when the bond is redeemed or otherwise disposed of (unless it was exchanged for a Series HH bond). The bond continues to accrue interest even after reaching its face value, but at “final maturity” (after 30 years) interest stops accruing and must be reported.

Note: Interest on EE bonds isn’t subject to state income tax. And using the money for higher education may keep you from paying federal income tax on your interest.

Deferral won’t last forever

One of the principal reasons for buying EE bonds is the fact that interest can build up without having to currently report or pay tax on it. Unfortunately, the law doesn’t allow for this tax-free buildup to continue indefinitely. When the bonds reach final maturity, they stop earning interest.

Series EE bonds issued in January 1989 reached final maturity after 30 years, in January 2019. That means that not only have they stopped earning interest, but all of the accrued and as yet untaxed interest is taxable in 2019.

If you own EE bonds (paper or electronic), check the issue dates on your bonds. If they’re no longer earning interest, you probably want to redeem them and put the money into something more lucrative. Contact us if you have any questions about the taxability of savings bonds, including Series HH and Series I bonds.

We all know the cost of college is expensive. The latest figures from the College Board show that the average annual cost of tuition and fees was $10,230 for in-state students at public four-year universities — and $35,830 for students at private not-for-profit four-year institutions. These amounts don’t include room and board, books, supplies, transportation and other expenses that a student may incur.

Two tax credits

Fortunately, the federal government offers two sizable tax credits for higher education costs that you may be able to claim:

  1. The American Opportunity credit. This tax break generally provides the biggest benefit to most taxpayers. The American Opportunity credit provides a maximum benefit of $2,500. That is, you may qualify for a credit equal to 100% of the first $2,000 of expenses for the year and 25% of the next $2,000 of expenses. It applies only to the first four years of postsecondary education and is available only to students who attend at least half time.

Basically, tuition, course materials and fees qualify for this credit. The credit is per eligible student and is subject to phaseouts based on modified adjusted gross income (MAGI). For 2019, the MAGI phaseout ranges are:

  • Between $80,000 and $90,000 for unmarried individuals, and
  • Between $160,000 and $180,000 for married joint filers.
  1. The Lifetime Learning credit. This credit equals 20% of qualified education expenses for up to $2,000 per tax return. There are fewer restrictions to qualify for this credit than for the American Opportunity credit.

The Lifetime Learning credit can be applied to education beyond the first four years, and qualifying students may attend school less than half time. The student doesn’t even need to be part of a degree program. So, the credit works well for graduate studies and part-time students who take a qualifying course at a local college to improve job skills. It applies to tuition, fees and materials.

It’s also subject to phaseouts based on MAGI, however. For 2019, the MAGI phaseout ranges are:

  • Between $58,000 and $68,000 for unmarried individuals, and
  • Between $116,000 and $136,000 for married joint filers.

Note: You can’t claim either the American Opportunity Credit or the Lifetime Learning Credit for the same student or for the same expense in the same year.

Credit for what you’ve paid

So which higher education tax credit is right for you? A number of factors need to be reviewed before determining the answer to that question. Contact us for more information about how to take advantage of tax-favored ways to save or pay for college.

Stay Protected from Data Breaches

Many of you have probably received that phone call from the Social Security administration stating that your social security number has been compromised.  It has not. Social security departments as well as government officials such as the IRS will not contact you by telephone or email.