Clarifying Tax Law Confusion

Last month, President Trump issued an executive order to provide employees relief from withholding taxes. The result is additional take-home pay for the employee. This article focuses on the mechanics and results of this order. I will also opine on the impact of such order to the solvency of the Social Security Benefit Program which, as stated in my previous article, remains marginally funded through 2035.

We all wish to create greater amounts of cash flow for our living expenses but at what price does this wish come true? For example, if you are currently employed, you are contributing to your future through a withholding program titled “Federal Insurance Contributions Act” abbreviated as FICA. Two components make up the FICA portion of your paycheck withholding. The first component is the Social Security Tax, also called the Old-Age, Survivors and Disability Insurance (OASDI) Tax, at a rate of 6.2% of your gross wages to a maximum wage limit of $137,700.

The second component of the FICA is the Medicare Tax at the rate of 1.45%. This tax is applied to all wages paid to an employee. Unlike the Social Security Tax, the Medicare Tax has no annual wage limit. These withheld funds are committed, by the U.S Government, to your future for purposes of assisting with lifestyle expense. 

The president’s order requires employers to discontinue withholding the 6.2% FICA from employees’ paychecks. However, the employer continues to be responsible for the matching funds at a rate of 6.2%. To further complicate the application of the order, employees with bi-weekly income of greater than $4,000 do not qualify for the deferral of the 6.2% Social Security Tax. Based on a weekly payroll of $2,000, employees earning less than $104,000 in annual wages will be eligible for the deferral and will take home more net pay.

As with any tax benefit, the applicable period for the deferral of Social Security Tax for eligible employees is September 1 through December 31, 2020. The desire of the Executive Branch of our government is to develop a law that will allow the deferred balance of Social Security Tax to be eliminated instead of repaid by the employee.

To remedy the confusion on which party, employer or employee, pays the deferred Social Security Tax, the IRS issued on August 28, 2020, Notice 2020-65. The notice directs employers to remit the deferred Social Security Taxes ratably over the period January 1, 2021 through April 30, 2021. Failure to remit the taxes deferred from 2020 will subject the employer to interest and penalties.

One could argue the additional cash flow required to pay both employee and employer shares of the Social Security Tax places a burden on the employer. What will be the tax deduction allowed the employer if both shares of the tax are paid by the employer? Tax policy would dictate the fairness of allowing the employer the deduction since the economic impact is actually borne by the employer. However, tax policy in the United States is not based on equality but rather revenue generation. Who knows what will happen until we receive additional guidance from the Treasury Department?

Until then, keep smiling, enjoy your extra cash and I’ll see you on the golf course! 

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Selling the Farm? Think About This Tax-Saving Election!

You worked your entire life and a significant amount of your family’s wealth is tied to the family farm. This scenario is experienced by many families in the U.S. How do you obtain your value from the land and pay the least amount of income tax? There is a way.

The income tax laws, referred to as the Internal Revenue Code in the United States, provides for families to retire from the farm without paying current income taxes on the transaction. As you can imagine, there are a few caveats and requirements to performing such a transaction. This type of land transfer is known as a “like-kind exchange”. In recent years the regulations governing this type of transaction have been refined to allow property held for productive use or investment (i.e., the farmland) to be exchanged with other investment property to defer the tax on the potential gain in the land.

Think about this approach. Mr. Jones has a farm which consists of 640 acres of pastureland. He purchased the land 40 years ago. His basis in the land is $100 per acre or $64,000 for the total parcel. However, Mr. Jones is ready to retire and decides he wants to sell the property. Today, the land is worth $1,000 per acre or $640,000 for the total parcel. Mr. Jones visits his CPA to discuss his decision to retire and sell his land. The good news is that Mr. Jones is retiring. The bad news is that his federal tax bill on the sale of the could be as much $128,000! 

To defer the tax bill to its latest due date, Mr. Jones’ CPA informs him of a structure that allows Mr. Jones to exchange his farm land for other land that is held for investment. Perhaps Mr. Jones would desire to own rental properties that would generate cash flow to supplement his retirement?

This area of law is very specific but can provide significant benefit to taxpayers. Two important timelines are required to be met to treat the property received in the exchange as “like-kind” property: 1) The property to be received must be identified within 45 days after the taxpayer’s property is relinquished in the exchange; 2) The property transaction shall be closed within 180 days after the relinquished property is transferred to the other party.

Additional parties are involved in this type of transaction. A qualified intermediary is utilized to transfer the deeds, hold the deposits and to execute the transaction on behalf of the two exchange parties.

Before you simply decide to sell your farm, think about other opportunities to mitigate the tax bill. You will be glad you did. 

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How Long to Keep Tax Records?

If you are like most individuals, you have a drawer in your home or a box in the garage that contains all of your tax returns and supporting information from 1987. It is the sacred box of “all things to defend myself from the IRS”. Today, I am providing you some guidance that will help you clean out that drawer or box as well as relieve your mind from future inquires of taxing agencies.

There is no other word that strikes fear in the hearts of citizens worse than “Internal Revenue Service”. You go to mailbox and open it with a smile hoping that Ed McMahon has sent you the winning ticket to a sweepstakes only to find an ominous envelope from the IRS. Before opening the envelope, your mind races through a myriad of circumstances and outcomes. Survival instincts fire in your brain that you should seek a lawyer or CPA, transfer assets to other relatives or some other ridiculous plan to counter the attack by this federal agency.

Would you believe that most correspondence from the IRS is clerical in nature? The complicated system of revenue collection in the United States does not process without mistakes. A few years ago, one of our new clients came to the office, looking white as a sheet, and holding a rather large, white envelope. Her introduction omitted pleasantries and she immediately initiated her case of fearing the IRS and now “I will lose my house!” After speaking with her for a few minutes, providing a nice cold drink of water, and opening the envelope to read its contents, we disclosed some good news to her. She didn’t owe the government any money, she was actually receiving a refund. She looked at me with her eyes as big as silver dollars and exclaimed, “What?” Her previous tax returns, prepared by someone else, had omitted one of her estimated tax payments and she was receiving a refund of almost $21,000. 

The moral of this story is that many citizens do not understand the role, authority and power of the IRS. This agency is one of the most powerful of our government. However, in my 33-year career of interacting with the IRS, I have experienced very few instances where I was treated unfairly or unprofessionally.

Maintaining proper and complete records of your financial transactions reported on your tax returns is critical to good outcomes. The statute of limitations for most individual income tax returns is three years from the date you filed your return or two years from the date you paid the tax owed. This means that any of your individual income tax return forms can be destroyed or scanned to electronic storage. You should keep all records to document income, expenses, gains and losses from the three years’ of returns so that you may properly defend your tax returns should you be selected for audit. Wow! That sounds like a sinister word – audit.

Certain documents should be retained indefinitely such as property deeds, birth certificates, gift tax transactions, stock certificates, bonds, and marriage licenses. Most of these documents can be reclaimed but the process is rather time consuming.

The key to a pleasant and happy life is to understand the role government plays in our lives. Too often myths and speculation rule our minds when the actual facts are much less menacing. If you receive a notice from any taxing agency, contact your CPA or tax preparer to determine the appropriate response. As citizens, you have appeals rights, amendment capabilities and other actions you can take to mitigate or eliminate your tax matter.

If you have a question about filing your individual income tax returns, click this link for information that may be helpful. Until next week, stay safe and well.

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Simplifying Tax Filing Status

Every year taxpayers that experience marital change, during the year, are confused about their proper filing status. The Internal Revenue Code (IRC) provides guidance on the qualifications of each of the individual taxpayer filing statuses.

Confusion arises when there has been a marriage or divorce during the tax year. Dependents are no longer allowed as a personal exemption but are utilized for certain credits of the tax code. Who is a dependent for tax filing purposes? What status do I use if my spouse dies during the tax year? How long can I claim a certain filing status? To say the IRC is complex is to say the Mona Lisa is simply another painting! 

The basic guidelines for filing status for an unmarried individual will be one of the following: Single or Head of Household. You are considered unmarried for the whole year if, on the last day of the tax year, you are either unmarried or legally separated from your spouse under a divorce decree. State law, not the IRS, governs whether you are married or legally separated under a divorce decree.

Some nuances in the IRC, and its regulations, regarding divorced taxpayers create additional challenges to those individuals attempting to avoid taxation through the legal means of divorce. For example, if you obtain a divorce for the sole purpose of filing tax returns as unmarried individuals, and at the time of divorce you intend to remarry and do so in the next tax year, you and your spouse must file as married individuals for both tax years.

If you are considered unmarried on the last day of the year, paid more than half the cost of maintaining a home and a qualified child lived with you more than half of the tax year, you may file as Head of Household. This filing status will allow a greater standard deduction than that available to an unmarried taxpayer.

Life sometimes creates difficulty for us. For example, if you were married for only one day of the tax year and your spouse dies, you may continue to file as a Married Filing Joint taxpayer for the year. Further, if your spouse dies in 2019, you may file as a joint tax filer for 2019 and use qualified widow(er) status for the succeeding two years. To claim qualified widow(er) filing status you must have a dependent, child or stepchild, you can claim during the tax year.

Don’t allow life to cause you confusion and distress. Seek out a Certified Financial Planner™ practitioner and CPA that can help guide you through the maze of laws and regulations. You will be glad you did! 

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Want Less Stress at Tax Time? Do This!

Are you one of those people who lose sleep at night, suffer anxiety and, generally, feel miserable when it is time to file your individual income tax returns? One of the best methods of experiencing a better way of life is to take charge of the activity. Don’t allow yourself to procrastinate on this important task and create stress in your life.

By performing the following three steps, you will find the upcoming filing season to be less of a burden and, dare I say, even enjoyable. First, start collecting your tax reporting information before January 1, 2020. Gather all receipts, bank statements, investment statements, paystubs, etc. that may be required for the complete and accurate filing of your returns. Organize the expense receipts by topic and total the topics to make it easier for you (or your paid preparer) to complete your filings. We recommend performing this same procedure each month. You will find the process takes very little time and saves a tremendous amount of stress when January rolls around.

The second step is to review your investment statements to see if any of your positions should be sold to capture losses and offset your investment gains. This is the process for accounts that are not IRAs known as nonqualified accounts. The act of reviewing your accounts to perform this task is known as tax harvesting. Your goal is to simply sell enough positions with losses to allow you to sell an equal amount of positions with gains and no tax effect. As a side note, this would be a great time of year to review your retirement plans and other holdings with a Certified Financial Planner practitioner to confirm you are on track with your goals.

This third step is very helpful to reduce your taxable income. Review your itemized deductions for 2019 thus far. If you are needing additional deductions, you should consider charitable contributions, payment of your state income tax estimated tax payment, donation of non-cash goods to a qualified charity and other means of accelerating deductions into 2019. With the changes in standard deduction because of the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act of 2017, it may be beneficial to “bunch” deductions every other year to allow yourself a larger deduction on your returns. 

As a bonus, contact your tax preparer and inform them that you are bringing your information to them earlier this tax season. If you want to make them smile, tell them you have burned the paper sack you usually bring and will be dropping off an organized list of income, deductions and other pertinent information.

For additional, free information about preparing for your tax preparation appointment, go to the Compass Capital Management Website. You will find a wealth of information to help you navigate life!

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Time is Running Out

As a calendar-year, cash-basis taxpayer, you will have fewer opportunities to reduce your 2019 income tax burden once the calendar rolls over to 2020. By taking a few simple steps today, you will see a better result when you file your income tax return in April, 2020.

If you participate in a Flexible Spending Health Plan, referred to as a “cafeteria plan”, through your employer, it is critical that you utilize (spend) your elected deferral amount for 2019. The IRS has liberalized the rules regarding the ability to claim qualified medical expenses and you may carry over a small portion of your elected deferral amount to a following year. Discuss your options with your company’s Human Resource Officer for your particular plan.

Consider paying your total advalorem tax assessment in full prior to December 31, 2019. The Tax Cuts and Jobs Act of 2017 increased the amount of standard deductions to such levels that most individuals will not incur sufficient qualified itemized deductions to file a Schedule A – Itemized Deductions Form – with their returns. Analyze your current level of qualified deductions to determine if you exceed your standard deduction of $12,200 for individuals or $24,400 for married filing joint taxpayers. A lowered state tax may be an added incentive to itemize deductions on your federal return. 

What if you could take a deduction on your tax return for something that doesn’t require your current cash? You may receive an increased benefit by donating appreciated stocks to qualified charities. The process requires that a donor (you) physically donate the certificate of the shares to the charity instead of selling the stock and donating the proceeds. You will receive a tax deduction based on the fair market value of the stock on the date of the donation (transfer). Since the charity is generally exempt from federal and state income taxes, the charity will sell the stock and receive the much needed cash it desires to run its programs. For example, you may have basis in the stock of $1,000 and the fair market value has risen to $10,000. Your charitable deduction is $10,000 (your deduction is limited to 30% of your adjusted gross income). You do not realize the $9,000 capital gain that would be taxed if you sold the stock. It is a win-win situation!

Lastly, review any employee benefit elections for 2020 that are required this month. Most employer-provided retirement plans utilize an enrollment period in November or December of the current year to elect the amount of contributions for the next year. One of the most effective and efficient tax deductions is the contribution to your retirement. Maximizing this election will save federal and state income taxes as well as receives growth via the employer matching contribution. We advise clients to defer at least the matching percentage provided by the employer so that you literally “double” your money notwithstanding market conditions.

Be proactive in your finances and retain more discretionary income for your family. If you want additional information on the above tax strategies and other financial planning methods to help your family reach its goals, go to the Compass Capital Management Website. You will find a wealth of information to help you navigate life!

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It’s All Taxable, Unless…

All of your income is taxable! This is the premise of the United States Government. However, provisions are addressed through tax legislation that allows certain types of income to be partially taxable or fully exempt from taxation. How do you know which income is tax-free? Is it unpatriotic to pay the least amount of income taxes you lawfully owe? 

Well, lets get one thought out of your mind. Judge Learned Hand, U.S. Court of Appeals in the early 20th century, is credited with stating “nobody owes any public duty to pay more [taxes] than the law demands.” What is fair in our system? The U.S. tax system is based on the honor of its citizens and their willingness to remit taxes timely for the efficient function of the government.

The Internal Revenue Code of 1986, as amended, provides us guidance in the treatment of assets and monies received during the course of the year. For those of us employed, the compensation received from our employers is taxable. However, what about the gift received from Aunt Sally? Is there a limit to what she can give you? Good news! As a beneficiary, or donee, of a gift, of any size, you owe no federal or state income taxes. That means, you could receive a gift of $10,000,000 and owe no income tax. Wow! If that is true, why do we pay tax on other income that is not “earned” during employment?

Section 61 of the Internal Revenue Code states, “… gross income means all income from whatever source derived…” For an item of income to be exempt from taxation, the item must meet specific criteria within the Internal Revenue Code. How does anyone make sense of all of this legal speak? It is critical to understand your tax situation since this expenditure is one of the largest allocations of most individual’s annual budget.

Does this mean your Social Security Benefits are taxable? The answer is maybe. If your income from sources, other than the Social Security Administration, exceeds $25,000 as a single filer or $32,000 as a joint filer, you may have to pay tax on a portion of your benefits. To illustrate the changes in tax laws, the process used by Congress to create revenue for the federal government, in tax years prior to 1987, individuals were not taxed on their Social Security Benefits. Tax laws change, literally, daily.

The solution to this income tax conundrum is to seek a tax adviser that not only understands the tax laws but specializes in planning. Our role as wealth advisors, for our clients, is to provide guidance on the critical areas of their finances that may impair the clients’ abilities to live a life by design. Don’t simply sign your returns each year and send them off hoping for the best. To gain more confidence in your tax responsibilities, seek out a CPA and Certified Financial Planner practitioner that understands the interaction between your planning for the future and the impact of taxation on your investments and income. You can truly take control of your taxes. In the words of Nike, JUST DO IT!

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Five Last-Minute Tax Savings Ideas for 2018

If you are like many people, you are procrastinating the filing of your 2018 individual income tax returns. Don’t worry, you still have time to reduce your 2018 income tax burden. Below are five ideas to reduce your taxes for last year:

  1. Contribute to an Individual Retirement Account (IRA). If you qualify, you may contribute $5,500 (or $6,500 if age 50 or older) to an IRA prior to April 15, 2019, and claim the deduction on your 2018 individual income tax return. This is a wonderful deduction in which you gain a benefit and continue to control your money.
  2. Contribute to a Health Savings Account (HSA). Many families have increased the amount of their health insurance deductible to offset the increase in policy premiums in recent years. If your policy qualifies as a “High-Deductible Plan”, you may open and contribute up to $3,450 for a single person, or $6,900 for family coverage, to a Health Savings Account. Similar to an IRA, this is an effective method of lowering your tax burden while you continue to control your funds. Remember, these accounts can only be used to pay for qualified medical expenditures. Your contribution must be performed prior to April 15, 2019.
  3. Establish and fund a Simplified Employee Pension (SEP) Plan. One of the most generous tax deductions, a SEP Plan is similar to a 401(k) plan in that it allows larger contributions annually than an IRA. This type of plan is available to individuals, corporations and partnerships with self-employment income. If you qualify, you may contribute a maximum of $55,000 to an SEP Plan prior to the filing of your income tax return and take the deduction in 2018. This is a unique opportunity for those individuals who can’t file their returns by April 15, 2019. You may contribute to this plan up to the extended due date for filing your return. Although a little more complicated than an IRA, the larger contribution limit allows significant tax savings and, more importantly, greater opportunity to grow your retirement savings.
  4. Contribute to the Oklahoma 529 Colleges Savings Plan. If you wish to benefit your children, and yourself, consider contributing to their college needs before April 15, 2019. You may contribute up to $10,000 per year filing as an individual or $20,000 per filing as a married couple. Based on Oklahoma’s current tax rate, this contribution may save you $500 to $1,000 of Oklahoma income tax for 2018. Another positive attribute about these plans is the right to transfer the funds among family members and utilize the growth of the account without taxation as long as the funds are spent on qualified educational expenses.
  5. Immediate Expensing of Qualified Business Assets. For many self-employed individuals, this section of the Internal Revenue Code is utilized to control their income tax liability in a significant way. For example, if you are self-employed and bought tangible personal property (an IRS term that simply means, “not land or buildings”), you may be availed a tremendous deduction against your income. The limit for this deduction for 2018 is $1,000,000. For most small businesses, this is an opportunity to invest in your business and take a tax deduction for doing so. Certain types of property must be purchased and limitations apply.

Don’t take chances with your income taxes. Consult a CPA or Certified Financial Planner practitioner to determine if you qualify for the above deductions. Remember, every dollar you save in taxes can be used by your family for something of your choice.

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