Last Minute Tax “Relief”

Western Snowy Plover

Whew!  I am so relieved to have a full two weeks to do an entire year of tax planning for our clients.  Thank you, Congress.  Nice holiday gift.

2014 Tax Increase Prevention Act

In the recently enacted “Tax Increase Prevention Act of 2014,” Congress has once again extended a package of expired or expiring individual, business, and energy provisions known as “extenders.” The extenders are a varied assortment of more than 50 individual and business tax deductions, tax credits, and other tax-saving laws which have been on the books for years but which technically are temporary because they have a specific end date. Congress has repeatedly temporarily extended the tax breaks for short periods of time (e.g., one or two years), which is why they are referred to as “extenders.” The new legislation generally extends the tax breaks retroactively, most of which expired at the end of 2013, for one year through 2014.

This is an overview of the key tax breaks that were extended by the new law.

Individual extenders

The following provisions which affect individual taxpayers are extended through 2014:

… the $250 above-the-line deduction for teachers and other school professionals for expenses paid or incurred for books, certain supplies, equipment, and supplementary material used by the educator in the classroom;

… the exclusion of up to $2 million ($1 million if married filing separately) of discharged principal residence indebtedness from gross income;

… parity for the exclusions for employer-provided mass transit and parking benefits;

… the deduction for mortgage insurance premiums deductible as qualified residence interest;

… the option to take an itemized deduction for State and local general sales taxes instead of the itemized deduction permitted for State and local income taxes;

… the increased contribution limits and carryforward period for contributions of appreciated real property (including partial interests in real property) for conservation purposes;

… the above-the-line deduction for qualified tuition and related expenses; and

… the provision that permits tax-free distributions to charity from an individual retirement account (IRA) of up to $100,000 per taxpayer per tax year, by taxpayers age 70 and ½ or older.

Business extenders

The following business credits and special rules are generally extended through 2014:

… the research credit;

… the temporary minimum low-income housing tax credit rate for nonfederally subsidized new buildings;

… the military housing allowance exclusion for determining whether a tenant in certain counties is low-income;

… the Indian employment tax credit;

… the new markets tax credit;

… the railroad track maintenance credit;

… the mine rescue team training credit;

… the employer wage credit for activated military reservists;

… the work opportunity tax credit;

… qualified zone academy bond program;

… three-year depreciation for racehorses;

… 15-year straight line cost recovery for qualified leasehold improvements, qualified restaurant buildings and improvements, and qualified retail improvements;

… 7-year recovery period for motorsports entertainment complexes;

… accelerated depreciation for business property on an Indian reservation;

… 50% bonus depreciation (extended before Jan. 1, 2016 for certain longer-lived and transportation assets);

… the election to accelerate alternative minimum tax (AMT) credits in lieu of additional first-year depreciation;

… the enhanced charitable deduction for contributions of food inventory;

… the increase in expensing (up to $500,000 write-off of capital expenditures subject to a gradual reduction once capital expenditures exceed $2,000,000) and an expanded definition of property eligible for expensing;

… the election to expense mine safety equipment;

… special expensing rules for certain film and television productions;

… the deduction allowable with respect to income attributable to domestic production activities in Puerto Rico;

… the exclusion from a tax-exempt organization’s unrelated business taxable income (UBTI) of interest, rent, royalties, and annuities paid to it from a controlled entity;

… the special treatment of certain dividends of regulated investment companies (RICs);

… the definition of RICs as qualified investment entities under the Foreign Investment in Real Property Tax Act;

… exceptions under subpart F for active financing income;

… look-through treatment for payments between related controlled foreign corporations (CFCs) under the foreign personal holding company rules;

… the exclusion of 100% of gain on certain small business stock;

… the basis adjustment to stock of S corporations making charitable contributions of property;

… the reduction in S corporation recognition period for built-in gains tax;

… the empowerment zone tax incentives;

… the American Samoa economic development credit; and

… two provisions dealing with multiemployer defined benefit pension plans (dealing with an automatic extension of amortization periods and shortfall funding method and endangered and critical rules), are extended through 2015.

Energy-related extenders

The following energy provisions are retroactively extended through 2014:

… the credit for nonbusiness energy property;

… the second generation biofuel producer credit (formerly cellulosic biofuels producer tax credit);

… the incentives for biodiesel and renewable diesel;

… the Indian country coal production tax credit;

… the renewable electricity production credit, and the election to claim the energy credit in lieu of the renewable electricity production credit;

… the credit for construction of energy efficient new homes;

… second generation biofuels bonus depreciation;

… the energy efficient commercial buildings deduction;

… the special rule for sale or disposition to implement federal energy regulatory commission (FERC) or State electric restructuring policy for qualified electric utilities;

… the incentives for alternative fuel and alternative fuel mixtures; and

… the alternative fuel vehicle refueling property credit.

Happy Shopping!

IRS Phone Scams and Email Phishing

scam

For many U.S. residents, nothing is more frightening than hearing from the IRS.  We seem to all suffer from an irrational fear that “the government” is going to take our money, our freedom, and maybe even our 1st born child.

Scammers know just how to exploit this fear which is why their scams are so successful.  By playing on your emotions, they can trick even a sophisticated mark.  Here are a few ways to determine if you are being scammed:

  1. You got an email from IRS:  NO YOU DIDN’T!  The IRS DOES NOT EVER use email to communicate with taxpayers.  ANY email purporting to be from IRS is a scam.  The IRS is strictly forbidden from using email to communicate with taxpayers, primarily due to privacy reasons.
  2. You got a phone call from IRS: VERY UNLIKELY!  While the IRS may try to contact you by telephone, this will only occur after you have ignored many, many IRS notices bombarding your mailbox.  ALL initial communications from IRS come via the mail.  Always hang up the call, never respond or give out any information about yourself, and immediately call the Treasury Inspector General to report the call:  1-800-366-4484.
  3. You got a text from IRS: NEVER!  The IRS does not use texting as a form of communication.

If you have been scammed or are worried that the caller has obtained personal information, contact the Federal Trade Commission at FTC.gov and initiate a complaint.  Be sure to save your evidence:  caller id, voice mail messages and email messages so that you can include this in your complaint.  You should also contact law enforcement and notify your CPA firm.

One thing you should always do is open any mail that seems to be from the IRS and respond appropriately.  If you suspect the IRS correspondence is a scam, forward it to your CPA, and if you don’t have a CPA, contact the IRS at 1-800-829-1040.

Here is a link to IRS’ latest phone scam alert:  http://www.irs.gov/uac/Newsroom/IRS-Repeats-Warning-about-Phone-Scams

 

IRS 1099-K Notices: has IRS noticed you?

higas-sos-fly-fishing-fly

Remember those pesky 1099-K forms you received earlier this year?  Well, even though IRS gave up on “matching” the income reported on those forms into your business or personal tax returns, they have undertaken something much worse:  a fishing expedition with your name on the bait.

IRS is now sending out four different types of 1099-K notices called “Letters”:

Letter 5035 – a letter hinting that you “may have” underreported your income with no response required.  A shot across the bow.

Letter 5036 – a letter that does more than hint that you have underreported your income – it provides dollar amounts showing that an unusually high percent of your income came from credit cards and 3rd party payers, and demanding a written response in 30 days explaining why you should not file an amended return and which describes your internal controls and cash receipts procedures and other reasons why a high percentage of total gross receipts comes from credit card transactions.

Letter 5039 – a letter which makes the same assertions as Letter 5036 and requires the taxpayer to complete Form 14420 within 30 days to explain why your income reflects an unusually high percentage of credit card and other 3rd party transactions reported on 1099-K.

Letter 5043 – a letter which alleges that compared to others in your industry, you have underreported your income, citing specific percentages and dollar amounts, and demanding a written response within 30 days explaining why you should not file an amended return and which describes your internal controls and cash receipts procedures and other reasons why a high percentage of total gross receipts comes from credit card transactions.

The response-required letters go to the Tax Examiner section of the IRS, so that should give you a clue that if your response is unsatisfactory it is highly likely that an audit will be initiated.

I have a number of concerns about these notices, but my primary one has to do with the fact that the taxpayer is not being notified of an audit.  These 1099-K Letters are an end run around IRS’ obligations to properly inform taxpayers of their rights and duties during an examination, which includes the right to representation.  Taxpayers may blithely respond, or perhaps even ignore these notices without realizing the implications.

Secondly, IRS makes bald-faced assertions in Letter 5043 which allege specific amounts of unreported income, using statistics which are not cited, and which are supposedly based on the industry code used on the tax return.  As we know, these codes are very broad and somewhat outdated, so that your business may be nothing at all like another business using the same catch-all code.  And, where do their statistics come from?  Are they 10 years old or 1 year old?  Knowing how understaffed IRS is, I am going to guess that the statistics used are not recent.

Finally, the whole idea of 1099-K reporting was to tap the underground economy.  That is a very good goal and one that I fully support.  Unfortunately, these 1099-K letters do no such thing.  Instead of matching 1099-K’s into tax returns, the IRS is going after legitimate businesses whose cash receipts model may not fit their idea of the norm.  This approach will have no impact whatsoever on the multitude of eBay sellers, construction contractors, and others who make up a chunk of the underground economy in the U.S.  We need IRS to go back to the drawing board to re-think the 1099-K matching process and come up with a solution that meets the public policy objective from which this requirement originated.

 

 

Heading Toward Tax Season

xena110708As filing season approaches for the 2012 tax year, I am presenting here a few selected tax tips and updates that are often overlooked by traditional tax sources, hopefully brief enough to not induce boredom but complete enough to give you some valuable information:

The 1099 Matching Nightmare Continues

  • 1099-MISC:  Don’t forget to EXCLUDE payments to vendors made with credit cards from your total 1099-MISC payments.  Those payments will get reported to vendors on Form 1099-K.  If you do get 1099s that are wrong, ask the payer to correct the 1099.  If that is a pain, then report the full amount on your tax return, and then back out the erroneous portion somewhere on your expense lines.  And, make sure you can document why the 1099 you received is wrong.
  • 1099-K:  Even though IRS claims it is not now or ever going to match 1099-K payments into your tax returns, there’s a reason you are getting a 1099-K and that is to tap the underground economy by making sure that all businesses are reporting their gross income.  If you report less gross income than is shown on your Form 1099-K you will be subject to IRS inquiry, for which they have developed new notices related to Form 1099-K.  Be sure to provide all Forms 1099-K to your tax preparer so that they can help you avoid receiving these notices.
  • 1099-B:  If you receive broker 1099s related to your investments, you are by now used to receiving corrected 1099s, often long after you have filed your returns.  Due to new basis matching requirements, you will need to seriously consider whether you are better off extending your tax returns while you wait for all the corrections to come through, rather than having to amend your returns later for the corrections, or having to respond to IRS notices.  IRS plans to match all 1099-B reporting on the new Form 8949, first developed in 2011.  There are now 6 different ways to report capital gains and losses, and there are 21 different codes to use when reporting.  Due to the extra time involved, investors should seriously consider consolidating their brokerage accounts in order to save on accounting fees at tax time.

Charitable Contribution Receipts Must Contain Required Language       

Even if you have a “contemporaneous” receipt (one that you have in hand at the time you file your tax returns), it may be defective and result in the complete disallowance of your charitable deductions.  It MUST contain required language concerning whether or not the donor received any goods or services in exchange for a contribution.  If it doesn’t your contribution deduction will be disallowed in full.

W-2 Reminders to include HSA payments and Health Insurance Premiums

Don’t forget to include ALL H.S.A. payments on the W-2 Form, Box 12, not just payments made by employees through a cafeteria plan.  The purpose of this is to make sure that taxpayers are not contributing beyond the maximum amounts allowed in 2012 to their H.S.A. plans.

For 2012, you don’t have to report the value of health insurance premiums on the W-2s if you issue fewer than 251 W-2s.  If issue more than 250 W-2s, you must report the value of the health insurance premiums on Form W-2.  The reporting is “informational only” and is not subject to income or payroll taxes.

City of Portland Business Tax Rental Property Exemption Is Gone, Gone, Gone

If you own a few rental properties in Portland, but have no other business activities you may be blissfully unaware of the long reach of the City of Portland Business Tax.  Beginning in 2012, the City successfully changed its tax code to include ALL rental activity, not just owners with over 9 rental units within the City.  Don’t panic yet:  there’s a new exemption of $20,000 in gross income with 1 or 2 rentals, but you still have to file a special new Form to receive your exemption.  More info is available at the City’s website.  Remember that the City of Portland has its own special version of taxation without representation:  the gross receipts exemption means gross receipts EVERWHERE, including rentals you own in other states and capital gains on ANYTHING except securities, and includes all activities of your spouse if you file jointly, even if your spouse does not live in the City or have any business interests or activities there.

City of Portland School Arts Tax – You owe the City $35

This was the infamous Measure proposed by Mayor Adams which even arts and education groups such as Stand for Children opposed, mainly because only about ½ of the revenue raised will go to fund arts teachers for our public schools.  It did pass, however, so beginning in 2012 a new form is required of EVERY CITY RESIDENT AGE 18 AND OVER, accompanied by a $35 payment, or an exemption request for those below the poverty level.  The City of Portland is administering the tax, and the filing form has not even been developed yet.  However, the city has designated this link which will go live when the forms are ready:   http://www.artstax.net

Taxes in the Twilight Zone

twilight-zone-spiralI love watching Twilight Zone episodes because it is fun to imagine a world where the usual laws of nature are slightly askew and anything becomes possible.  Fanciful minds can do a lot with that.  Yet, some of those episodes are a bit creepy, even scary and sometimes disturbing.

Congress’ failure to act timely to provide any kind of certainty about tax law both for 2012 and for future years has definitely defied the usual laws which govern rational behavior.  Clearly Republican lawmakers would rather tax the poor and middle class than allow taxes to become progressive again on the top 1%, and it is quite clear that they wish to further the shameful increase in wealth and income inequality in the U.S.

Thanks to this failure, we have wandered across the obscure boundaries of normal reality into twilight zone of taxation.  Here is an overview of our current creepy, scary, and disturbing tax system:

Creepy

  • The zero percent tax rate for millionaires.  How is it possible that millionaires could pay no tax even though they have taxable income?  The zero percent rate was carefully crafted by Bush-era policy makers to permit this by allowing ordinary deductions to first offset ordinary income.  If ordinary deductions, such as charitable contributions, mortgage interest, state income taxes and investment management fees offset an investor’s interest income in full, that investor can be in a position to pay zero percent on all capital gain and dividend income up to the bottom of the 15% bracket.  This is up to $70,700 per year (Married Filing Joint) that is being taxed at zero percent.  The rest of us will pay tax on all of our capital gain and dividend income, because we are working for a living, and can’t possibly manipulate our tax bracket to get below the 15% level.  For investors, this is easy to control, through timing of capital gains, and through investment choices such as the use of municipal bonds or non-dividend paying stocks. And, how many working poor do you know that have an investment portfolio?  Creepier still:  Obama’s tax proposal will not impact this bizarre anomaly – the only hope for this provision to die is for us to fall off the fiscal cliff and keep diving.

Scary

  • The Alternative Minimum Tax affecting some 33 million taxpayers this year, compared to 4 million last year.  Thanks to Congress’ failure to enact the annual “AMT patch” – something it has been doing for decades – means that the AMT exemption amount will revert back to its non-inflation-indexed amount.  This is because the original law failed to index the exemption for inflation.  Rather than fix this permanently, Congress continuously “patches” the exemption amount each year by indexing it to inflation for that year only.  This is because actually fixing the AMT would be far too rational, and remember, we are in the Twilight Zone.  So, millions of taxpayers will see dramatic increases in their tax bills for 2012, and it will especially hit those with incomes between $100,000 and $200,000, with an average increase of about $3,000.  Not only that, failure to patch the AMT has caused IRS to delay being able to finalize its tax forms for 2012.  The latest news from the IRS Commissioner is that one hundred million taxpayers will not be able to file their returns until sometime in March of 2013.

Disturbing

  •  Unfair income matching rules which target low income taxpayers, while failing to tax the bulk of the underground economy.  I have always found it interesting that Congress and the IRS have gone to great lengths to make sure that baby sitters, housekeepers, and child care providers report their income and pay their taxes.  Yet, construction contractors are not subject to 1099 requirements when payments to them are non-business related, such as when they are remodeling your house.  In order to claim a child care credit or compensate your nanny, IRS makes sure that everything gets reported on a W-2 or is otherwise matched to the worker’s tax return.  Also, they are hell-bent on making sure that restaurant servers report their tips.  Why don’t we have these same kinds of requirements for plumbers, builders, and construction contractors.  Ever wonder about how construction workers can be paid “under the table?”  It might be because the contractors themselves are not reporting their income, so paying someone under the table becomes a piece of cake.  Most industry observers are well aware of this kind of outrageous noncompliance, but nothing has been proposed to tax what is probably a huge portion of the underground economy.  I’m not just picking on contractors, though.  A legitimate tax system is one in which all income is taxed, not just the income of the poor and working class.

To Group or Not to Group: That is the Tax Question

IRS recently came out with new rules regarding how taxpayers must elect to group passive and active business and rental activities together.  Grouping a passive activity with an active one can help taxpayers avoid the dreaded “material participation rules” – designed to blur your eyes and make you sleepy and irritable.  Oddly, the passive activity rules upon which this new required grouping election is based were enacted back in 1987 with the infamous Tax Reform Act.  Um…that was 25 years ago. 

 Importantly, for tax years 2011 and forward, the new guidance from IRS makes it necessary for all business owners with more than one “activity” to consider whether and how to apply these rules to their undertakings.  Here is an overview of how the rules work:

  1.  You can group rental or other passive activities with trade or business activities where one is insubstantial to the other and if they constitute an “appropriate economic unit.”  This involves analyzing factors identified in Regulation 1.469-4:  similarities and differences among the business activities, extent of common ownership, geographic location, and interdependence.  (However, you cannot group rental real estate activities with personal property rental activities.)  Example:  a manufacturing S corporation produces waste metals that can be recycled or sold for scrap.  For business reasons, the corporation’s owners form a separate S corporation to handle the recycled material, either selling it or ensuring its proper disposal.  The recycling company’s revenues are miniscule compared to the manufacturing company, and it tends to generate losses.  The owners don’t spend much time managing the recycling company, but if they elect to group the two companies together, they can treat the recycling company as active, never again worrying about the passive activity rules.
  2. You can group a rental activity with a trade or business activity if the rental is to the business, and all the owners have the same ownership percentages in each entity.  Example:  an LLC owns a building, rented out to a printing company, also an LLC.  The owners of the printing company own the rental LLC in the same proportions as their ownership in the printing company.  Each individual owner can decide whether or not to group the two activities together, which results in converting LLC rental losses and income to active status, and avoids suspended rental losses where the owner’s incomes are too high to take advantage of the losses. 
  3. You can’t change or revoke your grouping election unless there is a material change in the underlying facts, or unless the original grouping was clearly erroneous.  You can, however, add to the group.
  4. If you don’t decide which activities to group for 2011 by attaching the required statement, IRS will take the position that nothing has been grouped (but you may carry on with prior groupings and are not required to disclose prior groupings to IRS.)  Grouping elections can be made in future years, but they cannot be retroactive.  Groupings made prior to 2011 will not be disturbed, so long as the taxpayer consistently maintains the grouping.
  5. You must disclose to IRS, by attaching the required statement from Rev. Proc. 2010-13 all:  new groupings for 2011; additions to prior groupings; changes to ANY groupings.  You do not have to disclose grouping elections made prior to 2011.
  6. Grouping elections can be made first at the entity level and then at the individual level, but an owner in an S corporation or partnership cannot un-group an activity that has already been grouped at the entity level.

Generally, there is no good reason to group rental activities together into one passive group.  Doing so would mean that passive activity losses would remain suspended until each property in the group is finally sold.

Unfortunately, there is neither a bright line test, nor a safe harbor, to help taxpayers determine which activities can be grouped.  So, it’s a good idea to carefully review the rules with your CPA firm to evaluate the best course of action.

My Hideous Tax Reform

(With apologies to economist and author Joel Slemrod, author of the paper, My Beautiful Tax Reform)

As an accountant, I get involved in the practical and tedious task of applying tax laws (and related loopholes) to our clients’ fact situations.  Rarely do accountants get the time to contemplate (or fantasize about) tax reform, nor to consider systems used effectively by other countries.  But, before tax season gets truly underway this year, I have been spending some time educating myself about these matters so that I can combine my practical knowledge with the wisdom of economists and policy analysts around the world.

Professor Slemrod has spent many years evaluating our tax system and expresses the view that a business Value Added Tax (VAT), combined with a highly progressive but simplified individual income tax would deliver the best combination of Fairness and Simplicity (my two objectives for tax reform), and would achieve what he calls “elegance”.  He proposes an individual income tax that would exempt most individuals from filing returns, basically by eliminating all deductions and credits, thus broadening the tax base, and then relying on wage withholding to create the proper and equally applied tax to all labor income.  The VAT tax would apply to ALL business income, and at a flat rate.  Shareholders of corporations would be able to get a credit from the portion of their income already taxed at the corporate level, with the goal being to eliminate all double taxes, and to eliminate all preferential treatment now available through special deductions, credits and business entity selection.

Our current system attempts to tax income (roughly defined as increases in consumption power) by dividing it into 3 pots:  labor income, business income, and income from the employment of capital.  However, there is little consistency in how these different categories actually work.  For example, if I am Mitt Romney and earn my income from “carried interest” I get to pay taxes at a flat capital gains rate of 15%.  If I am Warren Buffet’s secretary, I get to pay taxes at much higher rates, depending on my income and deductions, and I also have to pay social security taxes.  Publicly traded corporations are subject to a double tax whenever they pay dividends to their shareholders, whereas when they pay interest to their bondholders, they are not.  If I lose money on a capital transaction, I can’t deduct the loss unless I have made money on other capital transactions.  If I sell my home at a profit, I can exclude the gain up to $500,000 if I am (legally) married.  If I earn all my income from dividends and capital gains, I might not have to pay ANY taxes.  And, if I am a worker earning a good living, I may be subject to the Alternative Minimum Tax and lose the deductions that my neighbor, who earns less, gets to deduct, thus vastly increasing my marginal tax rate.  These are just a few, selected examples of the way our tax system is both complex and unfair.

Fairness in taxation by definition would have to include progressivity as its underpinning.  In fact, Professor Slemrod rejects consumption taxes outright, as they can never be made progressive enough.  By taxing only consumption, such as through a national sales tax, those who would pay the highest effective rate of tax would be the poor and middle classes, who have to consume certain basic amounts in order to survive.  That would be highly unfair, but would admittedly be a simpler tax to administer than our current income tax.

One reason tax reform is so hideous is that anything that affects the federal system will also affect all the states who are connected to the federal system for purposes of defining and determining taxable income.  Any major reforms at the federal level will require these states to seriously evaluate and reform their own systems of taxation.  Another reason is that by trying to achieve simplicity, one may introduce unfairness, and vice versa.  For example, it might be fairer to measure and subtract inflation before taxing capital gains, but now you have introduced a highly complex calculation into the system.  You can eliminate this problem by using a consumption tax instead of an income tax, but as noted previously, a consumption tax is a regressive tax, and thus, unfair.

In order to restore legitimacy and moral authority to our government and its system of taxation, the current system MUST be reformed, and it must become fairer and simpler, yet still provide adequate funds.  Any steps in those directions are to the good, hideous or not.  President Obama’s recent budget proposals include some movements in the right direction:  indexing and making permanent AMT exemptions,  taxation of carried interest as ordinary income (too bad, Mitt), and simplification of the earned income credit.  However, when you read the summary of the President’s budget (spanning 215 pages) you start to feel pretty queasy.  More and more tax expenditures (credits and deductions) are being proposed in a desperate effort to insert more fairness into the system, but the end result is more, and much more, of the same highly complex and unfair system that we currently have.  Can we give up our favorite deductions and tax credits in exchange for lower and more progressive tax rates?   What might be beautiful is restoring the portion of total income taxes once borne by corporations in 1950 (30% of total revenues) from the shockingly low 7% today, something which could be achieved through a VAT tax.