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The Lost Art of Tracking Home Improvements- How a tax law makes us sloppy and creates a tax risk

One of the more popular provisions in the tax code is the $250,000 capital gain exclusion ($500,000 for a married couple) of any profit made when selling your home. As long as you follow the rules, most home sales transactions are not a taxable event.

  • But what if the tax law is changed?
  • What if you rent out your home?
  • What if you cannot prove the cost of your home?

Your best defense to a potentially expensive tax surprise in your future is proper record retention.

The problem

The gain exclusion is so high, that many of us are no longer keeping track of the true cost of our home. This mistake can be costly. Remember, this gain exclusion still requires documentation to support the tax benefit.

The calculation

To calculate your home sale gain, take the sales price received for your home and subtract your basis. This basis is an IRS tax term that equals the original cost of your home including closing costs, adjusted by the cost of any improvements you have made in your home. You might also have a reduction in home value due to prior damage or casualty losses. As long as the home sold is owned by you as your principal residence in at least two of the last five years, you can usually take advantage of the capital gain exclusion on your tax return.

To keep the tax surprise away

Always keep documents that support calculating the true cost of your home. These documents should include:

  • Closing documents from the original home purchase
  • All legal documents
  • Canceled checks and invoices from any home improvements
  • Closing documents supporting the value when the home is sold

There are some cases when you should pay special attention to tracking your home’s value:

  • You have a home office. When a home office is involved, it can impact the calculation of the capital gain exclusion. This is especially true if you depreciated part of your home for business use.
  • You live in your home for a long time. Most homes will rise in value. The longer you stay in your home, the more likely the value of your home will rise over time. For example, a sizable gain can occur when an elderly single parent sells their home after living in it for over 50 years.
  • You live in a major metropolitan area. Certain areas of the country are known to have rapidly increasing property values.
  • You rent your home. Any time part of your home is depreciated, it can impact the calculation for available gain exclusion. Home rental also can impact the residency requirement calculation to receive the home gain tax exclusion.
  • You recently sold another home. The home sale gain exclusion can only be used once every two years. If you recently sold a home at a gain, keeping all documents related to your new home will be critical.

The best way to protect this tax code benefit is to keep all home-related documents that support calculating the cost of your property. Please call if you wish to discuss your situation.

Don’t Run the Risk of a High Tax Bill!- Know when you should ask for professional help.

All too often taxpayers take action that will cost them dearly when they file their tax return. With a little planning, however, the IRS can still receive its fair share but not a dollar more. Here’s what you need to know.

Is a Tax Time Bomb Lurking in Your Paycheck?

Did your paycheck seem a little higher? If so, it could be a tax time bomb.

Tax Shifting Ideas to Reduce Your Bill to Uncle Sam- Is there a taxable income reduction idea you can use?

Many tax experts talk about shifting your tax burden from one year to the next. While in theory it may make sense, how can you make it work for you in practice?

The concept

Since the tax code is complex in its construction, there are often opportunities to reduce your tax burden by controlling the amount of your taxable income. This is because:

  • Income tax rates vary from 0% to 37% depending on your income and filing status.
  • Many tax breaks have income limits.
  • Tax breaks have income phase-out ranges.
  • Incremental taxes like the alternative minimum tax are triggered by income level.

So if you can shift your income and expenses from one year to the next, you could create a net tax obligation for both years that might be lower than if you did nothing. Here are six great ideas to accomplish this.

Six great tax shifting ideas

Idea 1 – Know the rules. Identify whether you are a good candidate for using shifting as a tax planning strategy. For singles, the income tax rate increases 80% or more on earnings over $40,125. For married couples, that increase occurs with adjusted gross income over $80,250. But other tax benefits are lost at different income levels. Common tax breaks subject to income limits are child tax credits, earned income credits, educational credits, premium health care credits and many educational tax benefits.

Idea 2 – Load up your contributions. If you itemize your deductions, consider loading up your cash and non-cash contributions into the year that lowers more highly-taxed income. For example, you could shift next year’s donations to your church into this year. This bunching of itemized deductions into one year makes even more sense with the higher standard deductions introduced in 2018.

Idea 3 – Leverage the cash basis concept. You can take a deduction when you pay for it. A credit card receipt is good on the date you run the transaction and not when you pay your monthly bill to the credit card company. Knowing this, you could pay a property tax statement or a house payment either a little early or a little late to change whether that deduction occurs in this year or next.

Idea 4 – Stop working. There are many cases when this technique is an important tax shifting tool. The most common example applies to those who are under the full retirement age and receiving Social Security benefits. If this applies to you, consider actively managing your part-time work or you could end up paying taxes on some of your Social Security benefits or even losing some of them. Work can also hurt your tax situation when a dependent’s wages put you over the earnings threshold to receive the Health Insurance Premium Tax Credit. It may make sense to stop working or arrange to get your last paycheck delayed into the following year.

Idea 5 – Manage retirement plan distributions. Those over age 59½ can use distributions from pre-tax retirement plans to tightly control their taxable income. Your withdrawal calculation should include evaluating how to maximize the tax efficiency of your income. An analysis may indicate it is better to take out a little more this year to get these retirement earnings taxed at a lower rate than if you waited until next year.

Idea 6 – Manage your stock and investment sales. You have up to $3,000 in investment losses that can offset your higher-taxed ordinary income. Use this to your advantage when deciding whether to take a stock loss this year or next. If done correctly, you can match your stock loss against ordinary income which is taxed at a higher rate.

By shifting your taxable income to the right level, you can often reduce your tax bill. Please call if you wish to have a review of your situation.

A Gift of Stock- Information is key when using this tax planning strategy

You own some stock that has increased in value. To avoid a possible taxable gain by selling the stock, you wish to give it directly to a child or grandchild. This simple idea has some interesting tax consequences to consider.

Value of the gift

When you gift stock there are not one, but two values to consider.

  1. Gift value. This is the market value of the stock at the time of your gift. Since there is a possible gift tax to you if the value of all gifts given by you to a person during the year is $15,000 or over ($30,000 for a married couple) you will need to calculate this value prior to finalizing your decision to provide the gift.
  2. Value (basis) of the stock. You will need to determine the cost to you when you originally purchased the shares. This includes any brokerage or other fees. Provide the date(s) you purchased the stock and these costs to the person who will be receiving the gift.

Provide important information

Basis is key. Those receiving your direct gift of stock are not required to sell it. But when they do, they will need to know:

  • The original cost of the stock and when it was purchased.
  • The date and fair market value of the stock when it was given.
  • If the giver paid any gift tax.

Timing is important. If the recipient of your gift sells the stock right away, the tax rate applied will depend on the length of time the stocks were owned by you. A gain on a stock held one year or less is considered ordinary income. More than one year is a long-term capital gain. The time-frame of this calculation usually goes all the way back to your purchase records.

The benefits

No taxes. Gifts of stock allow you to avoid paying capital gains tax on the ownership transfer. As long as annual gift amounts to one person are less than $15,000 ($30,000 for a married couple) there is no tax consequence.

Lower taxes. In addition, the future sale of the stock could result in lower taxes. This is because long-term capital gains tax rates can be as low as 0% or as high 20%. Short-term capital gains tax rates can be as high as 37%*. Assuming your child or grandchild has lower income than you, the resulting sale creates a potential tax savings. Care must be taken if the gain is high as Kiddie Tax rules could create a tax bite at the parents’ tax rate.

Kiddie Tax benefit. If the gift stock pays dividends, future dividend income can potentially be taxed at your recipient’s lower tax rate. This technique can be used to provide dividend income without a child having to pay any taxes up to the Kiddie Tax annual limit of $1,100 of unearned income.

Gift to anyone. Your gift can be provided to anyone you wish, not just a relative. These gift rules also apply to other investments like mutual funds, land and other property.

Some wrinkles

If your stock has a loss it is usually a better idea to sell the stock and take the tax benefit of the loss. If the stock you gift has a fair market value less than your cost, providing the information noted here to the recipient of your gift is even more important.

Please ask for help if you are considering a gift of stock or property. If handled incorrectly, your gift could create unforeseen tax consequences. But used in conjunction with other contribution techniques it can be a powerful tax planning tool.

* An additional 3.8% Medicare Tax or Net Investment Income Tax may also apply.

State Taxing Authorities Are Coming After Your Money- States are creating laws that snag taxpayers everywhere

New state tax laws are making more and more taxpayers tax cheats without them realizing it is happening. Think it can’t happen to you? Here are some examples.

  • Your small business registers for sales tax in Texas and you receive a letter from some obscure Texas town that says you need to send them a registration fee. Where did this come from?
  • A Florida widower with income marries a retired woman who lived in Utah for nine months. The woman has no income. He has never been to Utah, even to visit. Per Utah tax law he must now pay income tax to Utah on his Florida income if he files a joint federal tax return.
  • A Delaware resident owes Minnesota income tax for consulting work even though she never steps foot in Minnesota. This is because the company who the Delaware resident did work for has a physical presence in Minnesota. The same situation is true in California and other states.
  • You decide to retire in Nevada to enjoy the sunshine. You then receive an audit letter from New York that says you need to pay them income tax, even though you no longer live there. They demand credit card statements, your driver’s license and more. You provide the information, yet their demands do not go away.
  • California routinely sends out notices to small businesses throughout the country demanding detailed sales transactions for multiple years for any of their California businesses. If you do not reply, you could be in for an audit from this state.
  • States are creating business fees to capture taxes from out-of-state small businesses. This is to get around national laws that protect interstate commerce. This new category of tax is in addition to income taxes and sales/use taxes.

Until national leadership provides unified interstate guidance, states will continue to get more aggressive with the creation of new tax laws. This is more prevalent as states struggle with lost revenue due to this year’s pandemic. There are even situations where two states can claim tax on the same income and you are stuck in the middle facing double taxation and tax penalties.

This ever-changing landscape requires annual review. This is especially true if you plan to move in the near future. Please call if you need help.

How to Protect Your Social Security Number From Theft

With the dramatic increase in identity theft, what can be done to protect your Social Security number (SSN) from these would-be thieves? Here are some ideas.

Do not carry your Social Security card with you. Your parents were encouraged to do this, but times have changed. You will need to provide it to a new employer, but that is about it.

Know who NEEDS your Social Security number. The list of people or organizations who need to have your number is limited. It includes:

  • Your employer. To issue wages and pay your taxes.
  • The IRS. To process your taxes.
  • Your state’s revenue department. To process your state taxes.
  • The Social Security Administration. To record your work history and track future benefits.
  • Your retirement account provider. To enable annual reporting to the IRS.
  • Banks. To enable reporting to the IRS.
  • A few others. Those who need to report your activity to the government (investment companies, for example).

Do not use any part of your Social Security number for passwords or account access. Many retirement plans use your Social Security number to enable you to access their online tool. When this happens, reset the login and password as soon as possible.

Do not put your Social Security number on any form. Unless a business has a legal need for your number, do not provide it. Common requestors of this number are insurance companies and health care providers. Simply write, “Not available due to theft risk” in the field that requests your number. If the supplier says they need it, ask them why.

Do not note your full Social Security number on any form. If you are required to give out your number, try marking out the first five numbers (i.e. xxx-xx-1234).

Do not put your Social Security number on your checks. If requested by the government to place your number on a check to apply a payment, simply put the last four digits on the check.

Never give your number out over the phone or in an e-mail.

Remember to periodically check your credit score with the major agencies to ensure your data has not been stolen. Once stolen, it is often difficult to get a new SSN issued.

Tax-Free Roth IRA Withdrawal Options- What every Roth IRA account holder should know

Withdrawing funds from your retirement accounts must be done carefully to avoid a potential 10% early withdrawal penalty. Unfortunately, each retirement account type has different rules. Here are some tips for Roth IRAs.

Roth IRA basics

Roth IRA accounts differ from other IRAs in that your contributions are made in after-tax dollars. If you follow the Roth IRA rules, your withdrawals of any earnings in the account can be tax-free. Generally, to take advantage of the tax-free distribution from a Roth IRA:

  • You must be age 59½ or older.
  • You must have had funds in the Roth IRA account for more than 5 years.
  • You must understand what is being distributed (contributions, converted funds or account earnings).
  • You must know your possible tax-free distribution options.

If you do not comply with these rules you could be subject to income tax and a 10% early withdrawal (distribution) penalty. But wait! There are ways to avoid getting taxed and the early withdrawal penalty.

Roth IRA distribution tips

  • Plan around the 10% early withdrawal penalty. Prior to withdrawing funds, ask for help to ensure you know whether you will be subject to the early withdrawal penalty.
  • Remember that contributions have been taxed. What many forget is that your initial contributions have already been taxed. The portion of your early distribution from a Roth IRA account subject to income tax is only the untaxed earnings on your contributions.
  • Qualified early withdrawals. If you use the distributions for a qualified reason, you can avoid the early distribution penalty. Some of the more common qualified early withdrawals from a Roth IRA are used for:
    • College. If you withdraw Roth IRA earnings to pay for college expenses, you will pay tax on the earnings withdrawn, but you will not be subject to the 10% early withdrawal penalty.
    • First-time home buyer. Even if you’ve had your Roth IRA for less than five years, you can withdraw up to $10,000 in Roth IRA earnings tax-free and penalty-free if it is used to buy a first home.
    • Account holder disability or death.
    • Unreimbursed medical expenses that exceed your itemized deduction threshold.
    • Substantially equal periodic payments. These must be made over the defined life-expectancy of the IRA holder using specific rules to avoid the early withdrawal penalty.
  • No minimum withdrawal requirements. The Roth IRA rules do not require you to take money out when you reach a certain age. This means you can have an estate-planning strategy to never withdraw the funds in your Roth IRA. While the funds would be considered part of your estate, your heirs could withdraw the funds tax and penalty-free.
  • Keep separate accounts. The taxability of a withdrawal can be complicated. Are you withdrawing contributions, converted funds or earnings? How long have the funds been in the Roth IRA? Because Roth IRA distribution rules can be complex, if you convert funds from another retirement account into a Roth IRA, do so in a separate account. It will then be easier to understand the impact of a withdrawal from the account.

If you have questions regarding your situation, speak to an advisor prior to taking any withdrawals from a Roth IRA or other tax-advantaged retirement plan.

Taxable or Not Taxable?- Some of these items may surprise you.

There are a number of areas in the tax code that cause confusion as to the taxability of money received. Here are some of the most common areas of confusion.

Unemployment compensation. Unemployment compensation is typically required to be reported as taxable income. Because of the pandemic, millions of taxpayers could now be facing a tax surprise with their unemployment income. There are historic cases where federal and state taxing authorities are authorized to exempt unemployment income from taxation, so this is an area worth watching for possible future legislation.

Free services. Receiving free services is almost always taxable as ordinary income under IRS barter regulations. You should report the fair market value of services received as income on your tax return. If you exchange services, you can deduct allowable business expenses against the value of the services provided. So if you are trading goods or services, now is the time to be tracking this information.

Illegal activities. Even income received from illegal activities is taxable income and must be reported. The IRS even states that stolen items should be reported at the fair market value on the date the thief stole the item.

Jury duty pay. This is taxable as ordinary income. Yes, even doing your civic duty can be a taxable event.

Legal settlements. A general rule of thumb with legal settlements is to consider what the settlement replaces. If the settlement replaces a taxable item, like lost wages, the settlement often creates taxable income. This area is complex and often requires a detailed review.

Life insurance proceeds. Life insurance proceeds paid to you because of the death of an insured are generally not taxable. There are, however, a number of exceptions to this general rule. For example, you could have taxable income if you receive benefits in installments above the value of the life insurance policy at time of death or if you receive a cash payout of a policy.

Prizes. Most prizes received should be reported as ordinary income using the fair market value of the item received. This area has been a major surprise to contestants on game shows, along with celebrities who have received large gifts at events like the Academy Awards.

Alimony. Alimony is taxable to the person who receives it and deductible to the person who pays it for divorce decrees prior to 2019. For all divorces finalized after 2018, alimony is neither deductible by the person who paid it nor deemed additional income by the person receiving it. So be aware of these new rules if you are considering a change to old divorce decrees. Make sure you have proper documentation as part of a divorce decree to support your tax position.

Child support. Child support is not taxable to the person who receives it on behalf of the dependent. It is also not deductible for the person who pays it.

Some of these areas can be complicated, so please call to discuss if any of these situations apply to you.

Understanding Tax Terms: Wash Sales- Surprise! Your stock loss is not deductible.

You may be considering booking stock losses due to recent market drops in order to save on your bill from Uncle Sam. Selling losers can be a great strategy when these losses can offset stock gains and up to $3,000 in excess stock losses can offset your ordinary income. However, there is a little known rule called the wash sale rule that could surprise the unwary taxpayer.

Wash sales

If the wash sale rule applies, you cannot report a loss you take when you sell a security. Per the IRS,

A wash sale occurs when you sell or trade stock or securities at a loss and within 30 days before or after the sale you:

  1. Buy substantially identical stock or securities,
  2. Acquire substantially identical stock or securities in a fully taxable trade,
  3. Acquire a contract or option to buy substantially identical stock or securities, or
  4. Acquire substantially identical stock for your individual retirement account (IRA) or Roth IRA.

Why the rule?

Many investors were selling stock they liked simply to book the loss for tax reasons. They then turned around and immediately re-purchased shares of the same company or mutual fund. If done repeatedly, shareholders could constantly be booking short-term losses on a desired company while still owning the shares in a chosen company’s stock indefinitely. Clever shareholders would even purchase the replacement shares prior to selling other shares in the same company to book the loss.

Some ideas

How does one take action to ensure the wash sales rule works to your advantage?

  1. Check the dates. If you decide to sell a stock to book a loss this year, make sure you haven’t inadvertently acquired the same company’s shares 30 days prior to or after the sale date.
  2. Dividend reinvestment. If you automatically re-invest dividends, you will want to make sure this doesn’t inadvertently trigger the Wash Sale rule.
  3. It is only losses. Remember the wash sale only applies to investments sold at a loss. If you are selling stock to capture gains, the rule does not apply.
  4. Consider similar transactions. The wash sale rule applies to buying and selling ownership in the same company or mutual fund. With the exception of some common versus preferred stocks in the same company, buying and selling similar (but not identical) shares does not apply to the wash sale rule.

If your loss is ever disallowed because of the wash sale rule you can add the disallowed loss on to the cost of the new security. When the security is eventually sold in the future, the previously-forfeited loss will be part of the calculation of future gain or loss. This also includes the original stock’s holding period to help define the transaction as a short-term or long-term sale.