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2013 Year-End Tax Planning Guide For Small Businesses

The arrival of year-end presents special opportunities for most small businesses to take steps in lowering their tax liability. The starting point is to run projections to determine the income and tax bracket for this year and what it may be next year.  Once this is known, decisions can be made as to whether any of the following planning tools should be employed to cut taxes before the tax year closes.

It is also important to know that the recent tax act known as ATRA has extended many tax breaks for 2013.  If any of these tax breaks are available, it would be prudent to take advantage of them before they expire.

Also keep in mind that ATRA increased ordinary income tax rates for individuals from 35% to 39.6% starting in 2013 so owners of flow through entities such as partnerships, limited liability companies (LLCs) and S Corporations need to recognize this and other tax changes and plan accordingly.

The following presents some year-end tax strategies that may prove helpful to small businesses and other businesses:

1. Accelerating or deferring income/deductions as part of a year-end tax strategy

A good part of year-end tax planning involves techniques to accelerate or postpone income or deductions, as your tax situation dictates. The idea is to keep income even from year to year. Having spikes in taxable income in any one tax year puts you in a higher average tax bracket than you would be in if you had evened out the amount of taxable income between the current and later year(s).  (Historical note:  For those of you old enough to remember, there was an income averaging rule built into the tax code.  That provision has long been abolished.)

So every year, businesses can take advantage of a traditional planning technique that involves alternatively deferring income and accelerating deductions. For example, business taxpayers such as pass-through entities (limited liability companies, partnerships, S corporations, sole proprietorships) should consider accelerating business income into the current year and deferring deductions until 2014 (and perhaps beyond) if they expect income to rise next year or in the future.

The strategy of accelerating or deferring income and deductions may apply to a number of transactions affecting your business including but not limited to the following:

  • Selling property
  • Leasing
  • Inventory
  • Compensation and bonus practices
  • Depreciation and expense elections.

Cash Basis Small Businesses

Generally, a cash-basis taxpayer recognizes income when received and takes deductions when paid. Here are some more rules for cash basis taxpayers:

  • Income is generally taxable in the year received, by cash or check or direct deposit. You cannot postpone tax on income by refusing payment until the following year once you have the right to that payment in the current year. (This is the so-called the “constructive receipt” rule.)  Therefore, businesses using the cash basis method of accounting recognize and report income when the business actually or constructively receives cash or something equivalent to cash.
  • However, if you make deferred payments a part of the overall transaction, you may legitimately postpone both the income and the tax into the year or years in which payment occurs. Examples include:
    • Installment sales, on which gain is prorated and taxed based upon the years over which installment payments occur
    • Like-kind exchanges through which no gain occurs except to the extent other non-like-kind property (including cash) may change hands
    • Tax-free corporate reorganizations under Section 368 of the Internal Revenue Code.
  • Deductions, however, are generally not allowed until you pay for the item or service for which you want to take the deduction. Merely accepting the liability to pay for a deductible item does not make it deductible. Therefore, a supply bill does not become deductible in the year that the bill is sent for payment. Rather, it is only considered deductible in the year in which you pay the bill.
  • Determining when you pay your bills for tax purposes also has its nuances. A bill may be paid when cash is tendered; when a credit card is charged; or when a check is put in the mail (even if delivered in due course a few days into a new calendar year).

Cash basis businesses that expect to be in a higher tax bracket in 2014 should shift income into 2013 by accelerating cash collections this year, and deferring the payment of deductible expenses until next year, where possible. In this situation, small businesses should try to collect outstanding accounts receivables before the end of 2013.

Accrual Basis Small Businesses

Basically, for accrual-basis taxpayers, generally the right to receive income, rather than actual receipt, determines the year of inclusion of income.  Accrual method businesses that anticipate being in higher rate brackets next year may want to accelerate shipment of products or provision of services into 2013 so that your business’s right to the income arises this year.

Taking the opposite approach:  If you will be in a lower tax bracket next year, an accrual basis taxpayer would delay delivering services or shipping products.

2. Tax Break For Small Business Expense Election Under Section 179

ATRA extended until the end of 2013 the enhanced Code Sec. 179 small business expense. Small businesses that purchase qualifying property can immediately expense up to $500,000 this year.  This amount is reduced dollar for dollar to the extent of the cost of the qualifying property placed in service during the year exceeds $2 million. If you plan to buy property (even computer software qualifies), consider doing so before year-end to take advantage of the immediate tax write-off.

Warning:  Remember that any asset must meet the “placed in service” requirements as well as being purchased before year-end.

Also included as qualified Code Sec. 179 property (only temporarily though) is “qualified” real property, which includes qualified leasehold improvement property, qualified restaurant property, and qualified retail improvement property. However, businesses are limited to an immediate write-off of up to $250,000 of the total cost of these properties.

Note, the Section 179 expense limit goes down to $25,000 and the phaseout threshold kicks in at $200,000 starting in 2014.  Also the qualified leasehold-improvement breaks end at the end of 2013.  If you are planning major asset purchases or property improvements over time, you may want to take advantage of this break before year-end.

Final note:  In addition to new property, Section 179 can be applied to used property.

3. Bonus deprecation

ATRA extended this additional first year depreciation allowance into 2013.  This bonus depreciation allows taxpayers to immediately deduct fifty percent (50%) of the cost of qualifying property purchased and placed in service in 2013. Qualifying property must be purchased and placed into service on or before December 31, 2013.

Qualifying property must be new tangible property (refurbished assets do not qualify) with a recovery period of 20 years or less, such as office furniture, equipment and company vehicles, off the shelf computer software and qualified leasehold improvements.

Note that bonus depreciation is not subject to any asset purchase limit like Section 179 property.

4. Accelerated Depreciation

ATRA has retained through 2013 the tax break that allows a shortened 15 year recovery period for qualified leasehold improvements, restaurant and retail improvement property.  Normally the recovery period for this type of property is 39 years so this is a huge tax break.

5. Increased start-up expense deduction

New businesses can take advantage of the increased deduction for start-up expenditures. This start-up expense deduction limit is $10,000. The phaseout threshold is $60,000. Thus, if you have incurred during 2013 start-up costs to create an active trade or business, or the investigation of the creation or acquisition of an active trade or business, you may benefit from this increased deduction. Entrepreneurs can recover more small business start-up expenses up-front, thereby increasing cash flow and providing other benefits.

6. Repair Regulations

The so-called “repair” regulations include a valuable de minimis rule, which could enable taxpayers to expense otherwise capitalized tangible property. Qualified taxpayers may claim a current deduction for the cost of acquiring items of relatively low-cost property, including materials and supplies, if specific requirements are met.

The IRS with their issuance of final regulations relaxed many of the requirements contained in the earlier temporary regulations.  For example, the final regulations removed the ceiling requirements on deductions and now allows the de minimis rule for businesses that do not generate financial statement (applicable financial statements (AFS)).  This allows many small businesses to take advantage of these tax breaks.

The modified safe harbor allows businesses without an AFS to immediately deduct up to $500 or less (or $5,000 or less for taxpayers with an AFS) for qualified property purchases. For example, a business could deduct hundreds of lap-top computers or scanners costing $500 or less each year.

Bottom Line:  The modified safe harbor may be easier for certain small businesses than the Section 179 deduction and 100% bonus depreciation. Most importantly, the regulations now allow taxpayers that do not prepare financial statements to use de minimis safe harbor.  This provides a great benefit for many small businesses that do not normally generate these statements as part of their regular business operations.

7. Compensation arrangements

Timing of Compensation:

In a regular C corporation, compensation paid to employees reduces the taxable income of such corporation.  Ideally, compensation should be used to eliminate taxable income at the corporate level or at least minimize such income.  It is imperative that the total compensation paid is “reasonable” in light of the services performed and industry norms. For more insights into the reasonable compensation issue please read Reasonable Compensation:A Favorite Issue For IRS Auditors.

Use of Retirement Plans:

Corporate retirement plans such as profit sharing, money purchase pension, and defined benefit plans can generate large tax deductions for the entity.  These plans are quite useful when compensation has already reached the highest level of reasonableness.

Important Points:

  • These corporate retirement plans must be drafted and signed before year-end to get tax deductions for that year.
  • These plans can generate a deduction even though the plan is not funded until after year-end, so long as funded by the due date (or the extended due date) of the corporate or entity return.  This gives the small business owner some after the taxable year-end planning flexibility.
  • For profit sharing, money purchase pension and other defined contribution plans, an employer can contribute up to $51,000 per participant.  For participants age 50 and older this amount can be $56,500 because of the catch-up contribution rules.
  • For defined benefit plans, the plan retirement amount and funding are determined by various actuarial computations.  The maximum future benefit can be $205,000 per year upon retirement.  Depending on the age of a participant this can result in a very large contribution each year and one far in excess of the amounts available under the defined contribution plans discussed immediately above.
  • There are various limits and rules specific to each of these plans and the particular make-up of the employees and their ages bear heavily in the proper choice of plan and the design of any plan chosen.

Additionally, and maybe more importantly, when compensation paid to owners is approaching their own:

additional taxes can be saved by making contributions to such plans instead of paying more compensation to the owner.  This can produce a double benefit:  huge income tax savings  and having money being put into a retirement plan to grow tax-free for the benefit of the small business owner.

Use of 2 ½ Month Bonus Rule:

Particularly relevant to employers at year-end is an annual bonus rule. Bonuses paid within a brief period after the end of the employer’s tax year are deductible in that tax year. Compensation is generally considered paid within a brief period of time if it is paid within two and one-half months of the end of the employer’s tax year.

Compensation and K-1 Distributions

Compensation and shareholder or partner distributions from a business, and drawing the often fine line between the two, can make a significant difference to a business owner’s overall tax liability for the year.  For example, for an S corporation, payment of salaries are subject to social security taxes while K-1 income is not subject to this tax.  The strategy here would be to pay less in salary and have more income reported on the Form K-1.  However, taxpayers can be in trouble here if they get greedy.  The IRS is policing this area to make sure that the salary paid is reasonable.  Therefore,   a reasonable salary must be carefully determined and supportable in a tax audit.

Deferring payments of accrued bonuses

In certain situations, it may be preferable to simply ask that your employer pay your bonus in the following year where you expect that your tax bracket will be lower.

8. Other Tax Planning Strategies and Ideas

Here are a number of other year-end tax planning strategies you may want to consider, depending on your particular tax and business situation:

  • Accelerating installment sale proceeds or electing out of the installment method;
  • Elect slower depreciation methods;
  • Determine if you can write-off any bad debts;
  • Consider changing your accounting method to advance income or defer expenses.  This one needs careful consideration, however, as accounting method changes can have a binding effect on taxpayers for many future years;
  • Determining the difference between ordinary business activities and passive activities before implementing a year-end strategy also makes good sense. Rental income or losses, and other passive activity gains and losses, must be netted separately from business gains and losses. Year-end timing for one does not necessarily help control your bottom-line tax cost on the other;
  • Cost Segregation Study:  For those who have purchased, constructed or rehabilitated a building this year, a cost segregation workup may save taxes.  It identifies property components and related costs that can be depreciated faster than the building itself, generating larger deductions.  For example, breaking out costs for fixtures, security equipment, landscaping and parking lots may generate larger tax deductions.  Be careful to take into account the impact of the alternative minimum tax and to consider states that do not follow the federal tax rules.

Final Thoughts:

The above are not intended as a comprehensive list of year-end tax planning tools for small businesses.  The point here is that each business has its own unique tax and business situation.  A case by case analysis to determine which tax planning tools will minimize taxes is the best course of action for small businesses.

If I have missed something or if there is a strategy you want me to explore or explain more fully, please leave a comment below.  I would be glad to help.

For an analysis of what deferral or acceleration planning at year-end may work best for you and your business, please do not hesitate to contact me.

Disclosure and Disclaimer: As required by United States Treasury Regulations, you should be aware that this communication is not intended by the sender to be used, and it cannot be used, for the purpose of avoiding penalties under United States federal tax laws. This article has been prepared and published for informational purposes only and is not offered, nor should be construed, as legal advice. For more information, please see the firm’s full disclaimer.

 

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Supreme Court Decision on DOMA Impacts Tax Rules for Same Sex Couples

Federal tax rules for same-sex couples have recently been issued in response to the Supreme Court decision in Windsor, No. 12-307 (U.S. 6/26/13). This landmark case invalidated a key provision of the 1996 Defense of Marriage Act (“DOMA”) and resulted in major changes in the tax landscape for many same-sex partners.

These new tax rules were laid out in I.R. 2013-72  on August 29, 2013 and Revenue Ruling 2013-17 on September 16, 2013 and are effective on that date.  (Note that taxpayers who wish to rely on the terms of this Revenue Ruling for earlier periods may choose to do so, as long as the statute of limitations for the earlier period has not expired. More on this below.)

Although there are still some unresolved issues, the following will lay out many of the basic federal income tax rules for same-sex married couples:

  1. State of Celebration Rule:  Same-sex couples that are legally married in jurisdictions that recognize their marriages are treated as married for federal tax purposes.
    • The rule applies even if this couple is currently living in a jurisdiction that does not recognize same-sex marriage.  The IRS states that this is consistent with its long-standing position (Rev. Rul. 58-66) that for federal tax purposes the IRS will recognize marriages based on the law of the state in where consummated and will disregard later changes in domicile.
    • For example, a same-sex couple validly married in New York will still be treated as married when they move to Pennsylvania.
  2. Married:  Being married is any same-sex marriage legally entered into in one of the 50 states, the District of Columbia, a U.S. territory or a foreign country.
  3. Domestic Partnerships:  Registered domestic partnerships, civil unions or similar formal relationships are not considered legal marriages.
  4. Married For All Purposes Under Federal Law:  Under the ruling, legally married same-sex couples are treated as married for all federal tax purposes, including income and gift and estate taxes.
  5. Federal Income Tax Benefits For Married Same-Sex Couples:  Married same-sex couples can now enjoy the tax benefits associated with  being treated as married for all federal tax provisions, including but not limited to:
    • Filing status
    • Claiming personal and dependency exemptions
    • Taking the standard deduction
    • Employee benefits
    • Contributing to an IRA
    • Claiming the earned income tax credit
    • Claiming the child tax credit.
  6. Married Filing Jointly or Married Filing Separately Only Option After September 16, 2013:  After September 16, 2013, legally married same-sex couples generally must file their 2013 federal income tax return using either the married filing jointly or married filing separately filing status.
  7. Two High Income Family:  In some cases, especially where both spouses are high wage earners this may result in greater taxes than under earlier law.
  8. Civil Unions In Certain States May End Up Paying Less Taxes:  Civil unions or domestic partnerships that can still file singly or as head of household may end up in better tax shape in certain situations.
  9. Prior Year Tax Refund Possibility: Individuals who were in same-sex marriages may, but are not required to, file original or amended returns choosing married filing jointly for federal tax purposes for one or more earlier tax years still open under the statute of limitations.
  10. Statute of Limitations For Refunds:  Generally, the statute of limitations for filing a refund claim is three years from the filing date of the return or two years from the date of the tax payment, whichever is later.
    • As a result, refund claims can still be filed for tax years 2010, 2011 and 2012.
    • Special Situations: For example, agreements with the IRS to keep open the statute of limitations for tax years 2009 and earlier will allow taxpayers to file refund claims for such open years .
    • For how to file an amended return please read Amending Tax Returns with the IRS.
  11. Protective Claim: When the right to a refund is contingent and may not be determined until after the time period for amending returns expires, a taxpayer can file a protective claim for refund. The claim is often based on current litigation (constitutionality); expected changes in tax law; and other changes in legislation or regulations. A protective claim preserves the right to claim a refund until resolution of the matter.
    • Example:  Pennsylvania same-sex couples not considered married under current rules may want to file protective claims for any year where the statute of limitations period is ending.
  12. Fringe Benefits: Employees who purchased same-sex spouse health insurance coverage from their employers or other fringe benefits on an after-tax basis may treat the amounts paid for that coverage as pre-tax and excludable from income.
    • The IRS now provides a mechanism to pursue for filing refund claims under Notice 2013-61.  The notice provides two streamlined administrative procedures for making adjustments or claiming refunds.
  13. IRS Further Guidance: The IRS will be issuing further guidance on cafeteria plans and on how qualified retirement plans and other tax-favored arrangements should treat same-sex spouses for periods before September 16, 2013.
  14. State Taxes: State tax return filing status is still controlled by state law.  If same-sex marriages are not legal in their state then they cannot file as married.  This is the case even though the marriage took place in a state where same-sex marriages are recognized.
  15. Estate Planning:  Review estate plans to take advantage of the federal estate and gift tax breaks now given same-sex marriages. For insights into estate planning please read Estate Planning 2013: Now What? A Must Read for Everyone
  16. Estate Tax Refunds: Additionally, claims for refunds of any estate taxes paid on deceased spouses that are still open under the statute of limitations should also be carefully examined.
    • Taxpayers who wish to file a refund claim for gift or estate taxes should file Form 843, Claim for Refund and Request for Abatement.

These are just some of the tax and financial implications in this area.  Same-sex couples affected by these changes should explore estate planning, retirement planning, employee benefits, and social security implications with their estate planning attorney, accountant and financial adviser team.

Stay tuned because this area will continue to evolve and change.

As required by United States Treasury Regulations, you should be aware that this communication is not intended by the sender to be used, and it cannot be used, for the purpose of avoiding penalties under United States federal tax laws.

Disclaimer: This Alert has been prepared and published for informational purposes only and is not offered, nor should be construed, as legal advice. For more information, please see the firm’s full disclaimer.

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Year End Income Tax Planning

Don’t Wait For A Last Minute Miracle:
Get Busy Now on Year End Tax Planning

As the year-end quickly approaches, there is still time to do some year-end tax planning.  This 2013 tax year will be tough on many taxpayers due to recent tax law changes and the uncertain future of tax reform.  Basically, taxpayers will have to deal with the following recent tax law changes:

  • Higher marginal income tax rates.
  • Higher capital gain tax rates.
  • Restoration of the phase out of itemized deductions and exemptions.
  • The new 3.8 percent Medicare tax on unearned income, including interest, dividends and capital gains. etc.  For more details please read 2013 Sneaky New Tax – Not Too Early to Plan for 3.8 % Medicare Tax on Investment Income.
  • The new 0.9 percent tax on earned income in excess of $200,000 for single taxpayers and $250,000 for married taxpayers filing jointly.
  • Same Sex Couples:  The recent Supreme Court decision in Windsor may result in same-sex couples with dual income paying more income taxes filing jointly than if they were still able to file singly.

As always, it is essential to know the customary year-end planning techniques that can cut income taxes.  It all starts with a tax projection of whether you will be in a higher or lower tax bracket next year. Once your tax brackets for this year and next year are known, there are two basic income tax planning considerations:

  • Should income be accelerated or deferred?
  • Should deductions and credits be accelerated or deferred?

However, life is never that simple.  Tax law uncertainty, always makes for some real guesswork.  As discussed below, when it comes to certain deductions that have tax threshold limitations, bunching of deductions to one year may force the timing into a tax year where the tax bracket is lower than the other tax year in question. But this may be the only way to get a tax break for these deductions.

As a further irritant, year-end tax projections must take into account the maddening alternative minimum tax and the new parallel universe of the 3.8% medicare tax.  Yikes.

For discussion purposes, the following strategies assume that the taxpayer’s income will be higher next year.  Where income will be taxed at a higher tax bracket next year, accelerating income to this year results in less taxes being paid.  At the same time deductions and tax credits deferred into next year will become more valuable as they offset income taxed at a higher marginal bracket.

Accelerating income to the current year and deferring deductions must take into account the impact on cash flow and the time value of money when paying taxes on income a year earlier.  However, due to our current low-interest rate environment, time value of money implications are quite minimal and may not be a significant consideration.

If a taxpayer expects income to decrease next year they should use the opposite approach.

So be sure to remember that the following lays out the basic ideas for income acceleration and deduction/credit deferral where income projects to be taxed at a higher level next year.

Income Acceleration: 

For taxpayers who think that they will be in a higher tax bracket next year, here are some targeted forms of income to consider accelerating into this year.

  • Bonuses: Receive bonuses before January 1 of the following year.  If your employer allows you the choice, this may result in some significant income tax savings to you.
  • Accelerate billing and collections.  If you report income on a cash basis method of accounting, immediately sending out bills to increase collections before the end of the year may result in significant tax savings if you know income will be much higher next year.
  • For Salary and Wages and Earned Income: Take Into Account the New 0.9% wage tax:  High income earners will pay an extra 0.9% in social security taxes on earned income above certain thresholds starting in 2013.  Where earned income is low this year and is going up next year, accelerating earned income into the current year may cut this wage tax on earned income entirely.
  • Redeem U.S. Savings Bonds, Certificates of Deposit or Annuities:  Taking these items into income this year may make sense where income projects to be higher next year. (Be sure there are no penalties or surrender charges involved.)  Also where income this year will be below the new 3.8 percent Medicare tax threshold, accelerating this passive income may completely avoid this Medicare tax.  For more on this read 2013 Sneaky New Tax – Not Too Early to Plan for 3.8 % Medicare Tax on Investment Income.
  • Capital Gains: Selling appreciated assets if you expect capital gains at a higher rate next year:  In such situation it may make sense to sell such assets before the end of the year.  For a complete discussion of this issue please see 2012 Year End Tax Planning: Should Taxpayers Sell in 2012 Before Rates Rise?  

Example:  Mr. Appreciation has low basis stock that has appreciated in value. The rate for capital gains can rise as taxable income increases.  So before selling any securities he needs to run the numbers to see if it makes sense to sell this year or next year or spread such sales between the two years. He also needs to consider in the 3.8 percent surcharge on capital gains and how such decision impacts itemized deduction limitations.

Important Planning Point:  For an older taxpayer or one in ill-health, this strategy may not make income tax sense.  When a person dies their assets get a step up in basis to the date of death value.  As a result, when the estate sells such assets there is no capital gain.  So a sale right before death would trigger a needless capital gain tax.

Planning Note:  The wash sale rules do not apply when selling at a gain, so taxpayers can cash out their gains and then repurchase identical securities immediately afterwards.

  • Complete Roth conversions.  Taking into income the monies in IRA accounts in a year before your tax bracket is due to rise may make for some significant tax savings.
  • Accelerate debt forgiveness income with your lender.  In addition to being taxed at a lower tax bracket this year, acceleration also may make sense because of the possibility that tax law reform may end this tax break.  See Expiring Provisions below.
  • Maximize retirement distributions.  Remember the minimum required distributions (MRDs) are the amounts distributed each year to avoid the draconian 50% MRD penalty.  However, taxpayers with IRAs can choose to take larger distributions this year to have such income taxed at a lower income tax rate than the one projected in future years.
  • Electing out or selling outstanding installment contracts.  Disposing of your installment agreement may bring the deferred income into this year at a lower tax rate than anticipated in future years.  It may be helpful to pay tax on the entire gain from an installment sale this year by electing out of installment sale treatment under Section 453(d) of the Internal Revenue Code, rather than deferring tax on the gain to later years.  Conversely, in certain situations installment sale treatment may be a better option since it allows for spreading of income over multiple years.  So it really depends on the specifics of each taxpayer’s tax situation.
  • Take corporate liquidation distributions this year.  Senior or retiring stockholders contemplating the redemption or sale of their shares of stock in their corporation can save considerable taxes by selling their shares this year if their expected tax bracket will be higher in later years.  Warning:  On the other hand consider carefully the step-up in basis implications for older or infirm taxpayers before considering this tax maneuver.

Deductions and Tax Credit Deferrals:

For taxpayers who think that they will be in a higher tax bracket next year, here are some actions to consider in deferring deductions into next year.  Remember, we are assuming that income will be higher next year, so deductions are more valuable next year.  (Obviously, if income is higher this year, it is better to have deductions accelerated into this year).  In any event, taxpayers must watch out for the impact of the alternative minimum tax.

  • Bunch itemized deductions into the year in which they can exceed the applicable threshold.  For certain expenses such as elective surgery, dental work, eye exams, it would be better to have it done in the year that you are already above the applicable AGI threshold.
  • Where income will be greater next year, taking the standard deduction this year and bunching itemized deductions to next year would yield an optimum tax result.
  • For medical expenses, the adjusted gross income (AGI) limitation rises to 10% in 2013 for those under age 65.  Those over age 65 still have an AGI limitation of 7.5%.  Taxpayers at age 64 this year and 65 next year may want to bunch elective medical procedures into next year to get over the lower threshold next year.
  • Postpone paying certain tax-deductible bills until next year to generate a greater tax benefit.
  • Pay fourth quarter state estimated tax installment on January 15 of next year.
  • Postpone “economic performance” for tax-deductible expenses until next year if you are an accrual basis taxpayer.
  • As mentioned above, watch the AMT. Missing the impact of the AMT can make certain year-end strategies counterproductive. For example, aligning certain income and deductions to cut regular tax liability may not work if the deductions reduce regular income but do not cut alternative minimum taxable income.  It is very easy to have your tax planning backfire by missing the difference between the regular tax and AMT tax rules.
    • Example and Important Warning: Do not prepay state and local income taxes or property taxes if subject to the AMT.  It will generate no income tax savings.
  • Watch net investment interest restrictions.
  • Match passive activity income and losses.
  • Harvest tax losses by selling securities or mutual funds.  Selling shares of stock or mutual funds that have gone down in value can offset capital gains and generate a tax loss of up to $3,000 against other income.
    • Warning: If you want to buy back the same security beware of the so-called “wash sale” rules.  These rules are complex but with proper planning losses can be taken while avoiding the wash loss limitation rules.
  • Purchase machinery and equipment before the end of 2013.  Even if you are in a higher tax bracket next year, it may make sense to take advantage of the generous current Section 179 deductions and 50% bonus depreciation.  These tax breaks may not last past 2013.  Or they may be significantly reduced next year.

Other Strategies:

  • Credit Cards To Claim Deductions:  Expenses charged to credit cards before year-end are deductible this year even though paid next year.  Use credit cards to pay:
    • Business Expenses
    • Medical Expenses
    • Property Taxes
    • Other deductions
  • Increase Withholding:  Many taxpayers pay both estimated taxes and withholding taxes. If you have fallen behind on quarterly estimates, it may be a good idea to increase withholding on your remaining wages to avoid underpayment penalties.
    • Key Tax Planning Point: The IRS treats withheld taxes as if spread out evenly throughout the year. This strategy can cut or even eliminate penalties for the failure to pay timely.
  • Do not invest in mutual funds at year-end:  Many mutual funds pay accumulated dividends and capital gains in November and December.  This will result in a needless tax bill and a rude surprise come tax time for the unknowing investor.

Expiring Provisions:

In the past, Congress has extended many, but not all, expiring provisions to future years.  However, there is a lot of uncertainty now as there is talk of major tax reform and still out of control budget deficits.  Prudence may dictate the possible loss of some of the following tax provisions:

  • Sales Tax Deductions:  This deduction has an uncertain future.  So for those in low or no income tax states or who are contemplating a very large purchase, completion before year-end may be warranted.
  • IRA Distributions To Charity:  This provision also faces an unknown future.  Currently, the tax law allows those age 70 1/2 and older to make required distributions directly to charity.  This allows them to avoid income taxation on such distributions.  Note: They do not also get a charitable deduction for such contribution.
  • Discharge of Principal Residence Debt:  Taxpayers who get discharged from debt on their home can avoid being taxed on this form of income.  Those taxpayers involved in a foreclosure should complete this transaction before year-end in the event this law is eliminated next year.
  • Other Expiring Tax Breaks where the taxpayer may want to consider paying before year-end:
    • Residential Energy Property Tax Credit
    • Qualified Tuition Deduction
    • Contribution of Real Estate for Conservation
    • Teachers Classroom Deduction
    • Qualified Tuition Deduction
    • Van-pooling or Mass Transit Benefits
    • Mortgage Insurance Premiums

Final Thoughts and Warnings:

Remember that these are just some of the major year-end income tax strategies and are not all-encompassing.  Taxpayers must take into account possible tax law changes for next year and last-minute tax laws enacted before year-end.

Most importantly remember that income tax strategies depend on the specific income or expenses of each taxpayer and their overall income, gift and estate tax setting.  This discussion offers some, but not all tax strategies.

The one certainty in this uncertain tax environment is to “run the numbers” to find the best approach for each taxpayer’s particular tax and financial situation.

As always, it is quite beneficial to have tax counsel look at the details of your particular income tax situation to carve out specific tax strategies to cut taxes owed.

I hope this article has been of value to my readers. Please feel free to contact me, ask a question or make comments below.

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With less than 30 days left in 2012, there is still time to do some year-end tax planning.  This 2012 tax year is more difficult in that no one knows how the tax laws may change before the end of the year.  With certain tax deductions and credits due to expire at the end of 2012 (sunset provisions) and new higher tax brackets kicking in next year (end of the Bush-era tax cuts), year-end tax planning is harder than ever.

However, income tax planning must go on even in this uncertain tax environment.  As a result, it is essential to know the customary year-end planning techniques that cut income taxes.

It all starts with a tax projection of whether you will be in a higher or lower tax bracket next year. Once your tax brackets for 2012 and 2013 are known, there are two basic income tax considerations:

  • Should income be accelerated or deferred?
  • Should deductions and credits be accelerated or deferred?

Example: For income taxed at a higher tax bracket next year, accelerating such income to 2012 results in less taxes being paid.  At the same time deductions and tax credits deferred into next year will become more valuable as they offset income taxed at a higher bracket.

However, life is never that simple.  Tax law uncertainty, especially this year, makes for some real guesswork.  As discussed below, when it comes to certain deductions that have tax threshold limitations, bunching of deductions to one year may force the timing into a tax year where the tax bracket is lower than the other tax year in question. Year end tax projections must take into account the maddening alternative minimum tax.

In any event, the following lays out the basic ideas for income acceleration and deduction/credit deferral in a rising income tax bracket environment.

Income Acceleration: 

For taxpayers who think that they will be in a higher tax bracket, here are some targeted forms of income to consider accelerating into 2012.

  • Receive bonuses before January 1, 2013.  If your employer allows you the choice, this may create some significant income tax savings.  Also, be aware that certain high income earners will pay an extra 0.9% in social security taxes on earned income above certain thresholds starting in 2013.
  • Sell appreciated assets.  With capital gains being taxed at a higher rate in 2013, it may make sense to sell such assets before the end of the year.  For a complete discussion of this issue please see 2012 Year End Tax Planning: Should Taxpayers Sell in 2012 Before Rates Rise?  Important 

Example:  Mr. Appreciation has low basis stock that has appreciated by $200,000 as of December, 2012.  He thinks he will need to liquidate his positions either this year or next. His $200,000 gain will generate $30,000 in federal taxes in 2012 (15% tax).  If Mr. Appreciation waits until 2013, the tax rate may be 25% (or more due to the 2013 higher capital gain rate and 3.8 percent surcharge and itemized deduction limitations) with a tax of $50,000 in 2013.  As a result,  a sale in 2012 may save $20,000.

Note, however, that for an older taxpayer or one in ill-health, this strategy may not make sense since there would be no capital gains (because of the step up in basis rules) if the assets passed through his or her estate.

Planning Note:  The wash sale rules do not apply when selling at a gain, so taxpayers can cash out their gains and then repurchase the securities immediately afterwards.

  • Redeem U.S. Savings Bonds.  Be aware that starting in 2013, a new 3.8 percent Medicare tax on unearned income, including interest, dividends and capital gains, will take effect.  So cashing in these bonds may make sense in the proper situation. For more on this read 2013 Sneaky New Tax – Not Too Early to Plan for 3.8 % Medicare Tax on Investment Income.
  • Complete Roth conversions.  Taking into income the monies in IRA accounts in a year before your tax bracket is due to rise may make for some significant tax savings.
  • Accelerate debt forgiveness income with your lender.
  • Maximize retirement distributions.  Remember the minimum required distributions (MRDs) are the amounts distributed each year to avoid the draconian 50% MRD penalty.  However, taxpayers with IRAs can choose to take larger distributions this year to have such income taxed at a lower income tax rate than in 2013.
  • Electing out or selling outstanding installment contracts.  Disposing of your installment agreement may bring the deferred income into 2012 at a lower tax rate than anticipated in future years.  It may be helpful to pay tax on the entire gain from an installment sale in 2012 by electing out of installment sale treatment under Section 453(d) of the Internal Revenue Code, rather than deferring tax on the gain to later years.  Conversely, in certain situations installment sale treatment may be a better option since it allows for spreading of income over multiple years which may keep taxpayers below the modified adjusted gross income threshold.
  • Accelerate billing and collections.  If you report income on a cash basis method of accounting, immediately sending out bills to increase collections before the end of the year may result in significant tax savings.
  • Take corporate liquidation distributions in 2012.  Senior or retiring stockholders contemplating the redemption or sale of their shares of stock in their corporation can save considerable taxes by selling their shares in 2012.

Deductions and Tax Credit Deferrals:

  • Bunch itemized deductions into 2013 and take the standard deduction into 2012.  Note, however, the AGI limitation rises to 10% in 2013 from the current 7.5% (except for those over age 65), so this limitation may dictate the opposite strategy in certain taxpayer situations.
  • Postpone paying certain tax-deductible bills until 2013.
  • Pay last state estimated tax installment in 2013.
  • Postpone economic performance until 2013 if you are an accrual basis taxpayer.
  • Watch adjusted gross income (“AGI”)  limitations on deductions/credits.  For certain expenses such as elective surgery, dental work, eye exams, it would be better to have it done in the year that you are already above the applicable  AGI  threshold.  However, it may be better to incur these expenses in 2012 where the applicable AGI limit (7.5%) is lower than the 2013 limit (10 % for those under 65).  It all depends on the particulars of each taxpayer.
  • As mentioned above, watch the AMT. Missing the impact of the AMT can make certain year-end strategies counterproductive. For example, aligning certain income and deductions to cut regular tax liability may in fact increase AMT liability.  It is very easy to have your tax planning backfire by missing the difference between the regular tax and AMT tax rules.

Example: Do not prepay state and local income taxes or property taxes if subject to the AMT.  It will generate no income tax benefit.

  • Watch net investment interest restrictions.
  • Match passive activity income and losses.
  • Purchase machinery and equipment before the end of 2012.  The very generous current Section 179 deductions decline in 2013 to $25,000 and there is no 50% bonus depreciation in 2013.

Final Thoughts and Warnings:

Remember that these are some of the customary year-end income tax strategies and are not all-encompassing.  Taxpayers must take into account slated tax law changes for next year and last-minute tax laws enacted before year-end.  Accelerating tax payments must take into account the impact on cash flow and the present value of money.  This is why it is essential to “run the numbers” to find the best steps to reduce the impact of these new tax laws.

Also keep in mind that recent tax law changes, like the 3.8 medicare tax that applies to 2013, bear heavily on income tax planning.  For more details please read 2013 Sneaky New Tax – Not Too Early to Plan for 3.8 % Medicare Tax on Investment Income.

Most importantly remember that income tax strategies depend on the specific income or expenses of each taxpayer and their overall income, gift and estate tax setting.  This discussion offers some but not all tax strategies.

As always, it is quite beneficial to have tax counsel look at the details of your particular income tax situation to carve out specific tax strategies to cut taxes owed.

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