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Tax Law: An Art or a Science? May 29, 2019

Posted by bradstreetblogger in : Business consulting, General, tax changes, Tax Planning Tips, Tax Tip, Taxes , add a comment

Is preparing tax returns an art or a science? My answer may depend upon the day you ask me. But, more often than not, I would say that tax preparation is a blend of an art AND a science.

Too often when people are presented with a tax problem of sorts – what do they do? Well, of course, they pull out their smartphone and GOOGLE their question. In all honesty I am guilty of this quick fix as well. Naturally, we are all looking for the answer that we wish to hear. That being anything that will save us taxes. Most GOOGLE responses, especially the ones near the top of the search page are click bait. They have the answers you want to see. You are doing yourself a disservice if you stop with that “fast and loose” answer. You have to look for the “odd” stuff, the twists and turns that accompany the exceptions to every tax rule. Some of these may help you while others will cost you money. Even once you have found the exceptions then one must continue to look for how your question fits in with or conflicts with other sections of the Internal Revenue Code. And, what about that tax law change or court case that was handed down yesterday. What about that new tax law on the horizon? Did you notice that the website where you fell in love with the answer is six (6) years old?

The “art” part comes from trying to hit a moving target. A target that is not always visible but at the end of the day you have to take the shot. Or, at least spin it in a fashion so that you have not crossed the often-fuzzy line and stayed in the gray.

                                        –    Mark Bradstreet

An Internal Revenue Service official once introduced me to the rule of PUNG. When writing about taxes, he said, make frequent use of the words “probably, usually, normally and generally.”

That’s generally good advice—not only for tax columnists struggling to explain tricky tax laws but also for tens of millions of taxpayers racing to file their returns on time. “The law is chock-full of exceptions and counterintuitive twists that are easy to overlook and can often have an important impact on your tax bill”, says Claudia Hill, owner of TaxMam Inc., a tax services firm in Cupertino, Calif.

With the tax-filing deadline fast approaching for most of us, here are a few reminders from tax pros on how the fine print can sometimes be your friend.

Filing deadline: For most taxpayers, the filing deadline is April 15. But it’s April 17 for taxpayers who live in Maine or Massachusetts because of the Patriots’ Day holiday there on April 15 and the Emancipation Day holiday in the District of Columbia on April 16. It can be even later for other taxpayers, such as those in places designated as federal disaster areas.

If you need more time to file, as millions of people do each year, don’t panic: The IRS gives automatic six-month extensions until Oct. 15. But its website notes that an “extension of time to file your return doesn’t grant you any extension of time to pay your taxes.” The IRS estimates it will receive more than 14.6 million extension requests; a spokesman says.

Casualty losses: Fires, floods, mudslides, tornadoes, hurricanes and many other natural disasters made 2018 a year many of us are eager to forget, and this year already is shaping up as another grim reminder of Mother Nature’s awesome power.

At first glance, the wide-ranging tax law enacted in late 2017 might seem like yet another disaster for the many people who suffered major casualty losses. That law generally eliminated personal casualty and theft-loss deductions for most taxpayers, starting last year. But there is an important exception, says Jackie Perlman, principal tax research analyst at The Tax Institute at H&R Block Inc. in Kansas City, Mo. Victims still are eligible to deduct net personal casualty losses “to the extent they’re attributable to a federally declared disaster,” the IRS says.

Warning: There are important loss limitations and other tricky calculations to consider. For details, see IRS Publication 547.

Here is a holdover from the old law that may surprise some people because it sounds counterintuitive: Victims in federal disaster areas can choose to claim their losses for the year in which the disaster actually struck or for the prior year. For example, taxpayers with net personal casualty losses this year could claim their losses on their return for 2018—or they could wait until next year and claim it on their return for 2019, says Ms. Jackie Perlman of H&R Block. Taxpayers who suffered losses in 2018 could claim those losses on their return for that year—or on their return for 2017 (typically by filing an amended return).

14-day rule: As a general rule, the net rental income you get from renting out your home is subject to tax. But “there’s a special rule if you use a dwelling unit as a residence and rent it for fewer than 15 days,” the IRS says on its website. “In this case, don’t report any of the rental income and don’t deduct any expenses as rental expenses.”

Those 14 days don’t have to be consecutive, says Ms. Claudia Hill, who is also an enrolled agent (enrolled agents are tax specialists authorized to represent taxpayers at all levels of the IRS). But if you rent your home for 15 days or more, include all of that rental income in your income, says Ms. Jackie Perlman.

Refund claims: Don’t assume that you have forever to file your federal income-tax return as long as you are entitled to a refund. About 1.2 million taxpayers could lose almost $1.4 billion in unclaimed refunds because they still haven’t filed a 2015 Form 1040 return, the IRS warned in a recent press release.

“In cases where a federal income tax return was not filed, the law provides most taxpayers with a three-year window of opportunity to claim a tax refund,” the IRS says. If they miss that deadline, “the money becomes the property of the U.S. Treasury. For 2015 tax returns, the window closes April 15, 2019, for most taxpayers.”

Here are other reasons to pay attention: The IRS reminded taxpayers seeking a 2015 tax refund “that their checks may be held if they have not filed tax returns for 2016 and 2017. In addition, the refund will be applied to any amounts still owed to the IRS or a state tax agency and may be used to offset unpaid child support or past due federal debts, such as student loans.”

Credit for excess Social Security tax: Most people probably assume it’s a waste of time to check and see how much their employers withheld from their paychecks for Social Security. But consider doing it anyway, especially if you’re a high-income taxpayer who worked for two or more employers last year. The maximum amount that should have been withheld for 2018 was $7,960.80 (6.2% of $128,400, which was the maximum amount of wages subject to the tax.) If more than that was withheld, claim a credit for the excess amount. However, if any single employer withheld too much, ask the employer to adjust the tax for you, the IRS says. “If the employer doesn’t adjust the overcollection you can file a claim for refund using Form 843.”

Interesting exception: Interest income you receive on U.S. Treasury bills, notes and bonds is taxable at the federal level. But don’t forget that such interest is tax-free at the state and local level. That can be especially important for taxpayers in New York City, California or other high-tax areas.

Additional standard deduction: Thanks to the 2017 law, tax professionals predict many more people will claim the standard deduction for 2018, rather than itemizing. That law included a sharp increase in the basic standard deduction and generally limited state and local tax deductions to $10,000 per household. The basic standard deduction for 2018 is $24,000 for married couples filing jointly, or $12,000 for most singles and those who are married but filing separately.

But there is an extra amount for older taxpayers, those who qualify as blind, or both. For example, if you’re married filing jointly and you and your spouse each are 65 or older, the total standard deduction for 2018 would be $26,600. See IRS Publication 17 for more details.

IRA deadline: It might seem logical to assume there is nothing you can do now to affect your return for 2018. But for some people, it isn’t too late: The IRS says contributions to a traditional IRA can be made for a year “at any time during the year or by the due date for filing your return for that year, not including extensions. For most people, this means that contributions for 2018 must be made by April 15, 2019 (April 17, 2019, if you live in Maine or Massachusetts).”

Educator Expenses: Teachers and other educators who pay for educational supplies and other expenses out of their own pockets should be aware that those costs may be deductible up to $250 a year. This special deduction applies to teachers from kindergarten through grade 12, instructors, counselors, principals or aides in school for at least 900 hours during a school year. Qualified expenses include “ordinary and necessary expenses paid in connection with books, supplies, equipment (including computer equipment, software, and services), and other materials used in the classroom,” the IRS says. But you can’t deduct expenses for home schooling or for “nonathletic supplies for courses in health or physical education.”

If you and your spouse file jointly and both are eligible, “the maximum deduction is $500,” the IRS says. “However, neither spouse can deduct more than $250 of his or her qualified expenses.” This deduction goes on Schedule 1 of Form 1040, line 23.

Credit given to: Tom Herman. This article was written for the WSJ on Monday, March 25, 2019. Mr. Herman is a writer in New York City. He was formerly The Wall Street Journal’s Tax Report columnist. Send comments and tax questions to taxquestions@wsj.com.

Thank you for all of your questions, comments and suggestions for future topics. As always, they are much appreciated. We also welcome and appreciate anyone who wishes to write a Tax Tip of the Week for our consideration. We may be reached in our Dayton office at 937-436-3133 or in our Xenia office at 937-372-3504. Or, visit our website.

This Week’s Author – Mark Bradstreet, CPA

–until next week.

Tax Tip of the Week | New Tax Laws Benefit Retirees May 22, 2019

Posted by bradstreetblogger in : General, tax changes, Tax Planning Tips, Tax Preparation, Tax Tip, Taxes, Uncategorized , add a comment

The tax year of 2018 was the first full year for some tax savings that may benefit retired taxpayers more than some other groups. Some of these possible benefits follow:

1.    Higher standard deduction – for those retirees that have paid off their home mortgage may now have difficulty in itemizing their deductions. But, no matter – the new higher standard deduction which has practically doubled from 2017 to 2018 is more likely worth more in tax savings than being able to itemize as before.  
2.    Taxpayers aged 70 ½ and older may transfer up to $100,000 to charities from their IRAs even if unable to itemize. These contributions may count toward their RMD – BUT, the withdrawal doesn’t count as taxable income. An added benefit is that making donations in this fashion holds down your adjusted gross income which can help save on taxes on Medicare premiums, investment income and social security benefits. 
3.    Higher gift tax exemptions are available. The annual gift exclusion for 2019 is $15,000. So, any annual gifts made less than $15,000 do not require a gift tax return. Above that amount, a gift tax return is required, but typically, no gift tax is paid, unless working with a high net worth individual that is making lifetime gifts exceeding $11.4 million. A sunset provision exists where in 2026 – gift and estate tax provisions revert back from the $11.4 million to the pre-2018 levels of $5.49 million per person.  

The article that follows, Tax Overhaul Gives Retirees Some Relief further discusses the above in greater depth and includes some additional benefits. It was authored by Anne Tergensen and published by the WSJ on April 12, 2019.  
                                        –    Mark Bradstreet

Taxpayers are now filing their first returns based on the tax law Congress enacted in 2017. For retirees, the largest overhaul of the U.S. tax code in three decades has created new opportunities to cut taxes, along with some potential headaches.

Here are important changes retirees should be aware of and steps they can take to reduce their future tax bills.

1.    Higher standard deduction:

Many retirees, especially those who have paid off mortgages, take the standard deduction. For them, one positive change is the near-doubling of this deduction, or the amount taxpayers can subtract from their adjusted gross income if they don’t itemize deductible expenses including state taxes and charitable donations.

For individuals, the standard deduction is $12,000 for 2018 and $12,200 for 2019, up from $6,350 in 2017. For married couples, it is $24,000, rising to $24,400 for 2019, up from $12,700 in 2017. People 65 and older can also take an additional standard deduction of $1,600 (rising to $1,650 in 2019) or $2,600 for married couples. The expanded standard deduction expires at the end of 2025.

2.    A tax break for charitable contributions:

Retirees who take the standard deduction can still claim a tax benefit for donating to charity.

Taxpayers age 70½ or older can transfer up to $100,000 a year from their individual retirement accounts to charities. These donations can count toward the minimum required distributions the Internal Revenue Service requires those taxpayers to take from these accounts. But the donor doesn’t have to report the IRA withdrawal as taxable income. This can help the taxpayer keep his or her reported adjusted gross income below thresholds at which higher Medicare premiums and higher taxes on investment income and Social Security benefits kick in. People over 70½ who itemize their deductions can also benefit from such charitable transfers, said Ed Slott, an IRA specialist in Rockville Centre, N.Y.

3.    More options for 529 donors:

The new law allows taxpayers to withdraw up to $10,000 a year from a tax-advantaged 529 college savings account to pay a child’s private-school tuition bills from kindergarten to 12th grade.

For parents and grandparents who write tuition checks, saving in a 529 has advantages. The accounts, which are offered by states, allow savers to make after-tax contributions that qualify for state income tax breaks in many states and grow free of federal and state taxes. Withdrawals are also tax-free if used to pay eligible education expenses.

As in prior years, donors who want to give a child more than the $15,000 permitted under the gift-tax exemption can contribute up to five times that amount, or $75,000, to a 529. (They would then have to refrain from contributing for that child for the next four years.)

About a dozen states don’t allow tax-free withdrawals from 529s for private K-12 school tuition, so check with your plan first, said Mark Kantrowitz, publisher of Savingforcollege.com.

4.    Higher gift-tax exemption:

The tax overhaul includes a sweet deal for ultrawealthy families. For the next seven years, the gift-tax exemption for individuals is an inflation-adjusted $11.4 million, up from $11.18 million in 2018 and $5.49 million in 2017. For couples, it is $22.8 million, up from $22.36 million in 2018 and $10.98 million in 2017.

Congress also raised the estate-tax exemption to $11.4 million per person today from $5.49 million in 2017. As a result, taxpayers can give away a total of $11.4 million tax-free, either while alive or at death, without paying a 40% gift or estate tax.

Because in 2026 gift- and estate-tax exemptions are set to revert to pre-2018 levels of $5.49 million per person adjusted for inflation, individuals with assets above about $6 million—and couples with more than $12 million—should consider making gifts, said Paul McCawley, an estate planning attorney at Greenberg Traurig LLP.

The sooner you give assets away, the more appreciation your heirs can pocket free of gift or estate tax, Mr. McCawley said.

The Treasury Department and the IRS recently issued proposed regulations that would grandfather gifts made at the higher exemption amount between 2018 and 2025 after the exemption reverts to pre-2018 levels.

5.    Less generous medical-expense deduction:

For 2018, taxpayers can deduct eligible medical expenses that exceed 7.5% of adjusted gross income. That means for someone with a $100,000 income and $50,000 of medical or nursing-home bills, $7,500 is not deductible.

In 2019, the threshold for the medical deduction is slated to rise to 10% of adjusted gross income. That would leave the person above unable to deduct $10,000 of medical bills. One way to reduce the pain is to take advantage of the tax break available to people 70½ or older who make charitable transfers from IRAs, said Mr. Slott. Because the donor doesn’t have to report charitable IRA transfers as taxable income, a $5,000 gift would reduce a $100,000 income to $95,000. That, in turn, would mean $9,500 of medical expenses are ineligible for the deduction in 2019, rather than $10,000.

6.    Goodbye to Roth re-characterizations:

The legislation ended the ability of savers to “undo” Roth IRA conversions, which had been used to nullify certain IRA-related tax bills.

With a traditional IRA, savers typically get a tax deduction for contributions and owe ordinary income tax on withdrawals. With a Roth IRA, there is no upfront tax deduction, but withdrawals in retirement are usually tax-free. Tax-free withdrawals are attractive since they don’t push the saver into a higher tax bracket or trigger higher Medicare premiums.

Savers can convert all or part of a traditional IRA to a Roth IRA, but they owe income tax on the taxable amount they convert in the year they convert. Until the overhaul, savers could undo a Roth conversion—and cancel the tax bill—within a specific time frame. But under the new tax law, Roth conversions can no longer be undone.

That doesn’t mean converting is no longer worthwhile, Mr. Slott said. But people should be careful to convert only an amount they know they can afford to pay taxes on.

Credit Given to:  Anne Tergesen. You can write to Anne Tergesen at anne.tergesen@wsj.com.

Thank you for all of your questions, comments and suggestions for future topics. As always, they are much appreciated. We also welcome and appreciate anyone who wishes to write a Tax Tip of the Week for our consideration. We may be reached in our Dayton office at 937-436-3133 or in our Xenia office at 937-372-3504. Or, visit our website.

This Week’s Author – Mark Bradstreet, CPA

–until next week.

Tax Tip of the Week | Hmmm…When Should I Get Married? May 15, 2019

Posted by bradstreetblogger in : Deductions, General, tax changes, Tax Planning Tips, Tax Tip, Taxes, Uncategorized , add a comment

As long as I can remember, the IRS has penalized couples for being married with higher income taxes (as opposed to being single). However, the latest tax laws have significantly reduced; and, even in many cases, eliminated the so-called “marriage penalty.” Now, for many couples, the “marriage penalty” does not exist until their combined taxable income hits the top marginal income tax bracket of 37%. If these high-income couples are considering a wedding late in the year – they may wish to consider waiting to marry early the next year instead.  

On the other hand, the “marriage penalty” does still exist when considering some of the tax deductions. For example, only one $10,000 state and local tax ceiling on itemized deductions is available for a married couple. If single, each would have the same $10,000 available for their state and local tax deductions. Other scenarios might include when one spouse has significant unreimbursed medical expenses or circumstances surrounding the 20% Qualified Business Income Deduction. 

The tax filing status of married filing separately is still an option but not as beneficial as it once was. But, regardless, the numbers still need run to optimize the best filing status.  

An article written by Ms. Winokur Munk published in the WSJ on Monday, March 18, 2019 follows. It delves further into the tax ramifications of being married.

– Mark Bradstreet

Among many things, the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act of 2017 affected the so-called marriage penalty, which occurs when a couple’s total tax bill rises as a result of getting married and filing their taxes jointly.

Under the old tax code, the marriage penalty hit medium- to high-income earners particularly hard. That had to do with differences in the income-tax brackets for married couples vs. individuals. Now, however, those brackets have been adjusted to eliminate those discrepancies—except for taxpayers who are subject to the top 37% marginal rate.

The 37% marginal tax rate kicks in at taxable income above $500,000 for single individuals, or over $600,000 for married couples filing jointly—so two people with income well below $500,000 each can be pushed into the highest bracket if they’re married and filing together.

Meanwhile, a marriage penalty remains in place for some other federal taxes, and a new one has been created by new limitations on deductions.

What impact will the tax-law changes have on married couples, and what do couples planning to tie the knot need to know about how their planned nuptials could affect their taxes?

The Wall Street Journal invited three experts to discuss these issues: Mitchell Drossman, national director of wealth-planning strategies at U.S. Trust; Mela Garber, a tax principal at accounting firm Anchin, Block & Anchin; and Robert Westley, a vice president and wealth adviser at Northern Trust and member of the American Institute of Certified Public Accountants’ Personal Financial Specialist Credential Committee.

Here are edited excerpts of the discussion.

Savings and penalties

WSJ: Can you provide an example or two of how the marriage penalty might affect couples under the new law?

MS. GARBER: Under the old law, two single taxpayers who earned $95,000 and $125,000 would have had a combined tax bill of $41,965 after the standard deduction and personal exemptions, whereas filing jointly as a married couple they would have had to pay $42,661—a marriage penalty of $696. Under the new rules, however, the couple would pay a total of $35,619 in taxes, $7 less than the single filers.

MR. DROSSMAN: Even for taxpayers who are high wage earners, the marriage penalty generally isn’t as significant as it once was. If two single people are each earning $350,000, their individual tax liability would be $94,000 each—$188,000 in total. However, by getting married and filing a joint return, their tax liability becomes $189,500. Under those circumstances, the marriage penalty is $1,500, whereas under the previous tax laws the marriage penalty would have been in the neighborhood of $24,000—a significant difference.

WSJ: So, the new tax law reduces the marriage penalty in those cases. Where does it increase the marriage penalty?

MR. WESTLEY: A marriage penalty can also occur on the deduction side. For example, the new tax act limits the deduction for state and local taxes to $10,000. That means two single taxpayers can each deduct their own state and local taxes up to $10,000. However, as a married couple, they are limited to the same $10,000 deduction cap, since it’s not doubled for married couples filing joint tax returns. Filing separately does not avoid the disparate treatment, since married taxpayers filing separately are limited to a $5,000 deduction.

MS. GARBER: The $10,000 state income- and property-tax deduction cap will hit especially hard for taxpayers who live in states that have high income and property taxes, such as New York, New Jersey, Connecticut and California.

MR. DROSSMAN: In addition, under the new law couples still have to contend with the Medicare surtax and the surtax on net investment income. Both surtaxes apply to individuals with earnings above $200,000 or married couples with income over $250,000.

Easing the pain

WSJ: What can couples do to mitigate the effects of a marriage penalty?

MR. WESTLEY: For high-wage-earning couples, it might make sense for one person to scale back on work so as not to reach the income threshold where the penalty kicks in. Given added hassles and expenses that can come with working, it’s a conversation that’s at least worth having.

MR. DROSSMAN: Even with the new tax rules, high-earning couples thinking about a late-year wedding may be better off deferring it until the following year if they can save some taxes.

WSJ: Are there publicly available tools to help couples decide whether it pays to file as individuals or jointly?

MR. WESTLEY: Yes, the Tax Policy Center has a great calculator that can help taxpayers understand how their tax liability will change as a result of getting married. Another excellent resource for taxpayers is the Marginal Tax Rate Calculator from the AICPA’s 360 Degrees of Financial Literacy website. This calculator allows you to estimate your income-tax liability and choose between different filing statuses to see how the results differ. Still, there are many possible tax situations and nuances, so I think most taxpayers would benefit from working closely with a trusted professional.

Marriage prep

WSJ: What tax-related advice do you have for couples getting married?

MR. WESTLEY: I think many couples assume that filing separately when they are married is the same as filing as a single taxpayer. But once you’re married, you no longer have the option to file as a single taxpayer. While you can file separately as a married couple, in most cases filing separately is likely to raise their overall household tax bill.

There can be, however, a few situations where it may make economic sense to file separately. If, for example, one spouse has significant unreimbursed medical expenses and both spouses are income earners, filing separately will lower their adjusted gross income and allow the spouse with high unreimbursed medical expenses to achieve a greater deduction amount.

However, couples need to remember that when filing separately both spouses must either itemize or use the standard deduction. Therefore, if only one spouse has enough itemized deductions to exceed the current standard deduction, filing separately may not save tax for the household in the aggregate.

The creation of the 20% qualified business income deduction under the new act is a new area that may induce some couples to file separately. When one spouse qualifies for the 20% QBI deduction but the other spouse’s income pushes the couple over the phaseout threshold, filing separately may be advantageous.

Again, there are many quirks with the married-filing-separately tax status, so it’s imperative to go through the actual calculations with a qualified professional. Married-filing-separately is generally unfavorable, since it limits or disqualifies the use of many tax breaks that couples filing jointly can otherwise take.

MS. GARBER: It may benefit a couple getting married to do tax planning and prepare a projected tax return. This exercise may save them money when the time comes to file their first joint tax return. For example, if they are charitable and intend to give donations, given that the standard deduction increased substantially under the new tax law, they may want to consider bunching and combining two or more years’ worth of donations into one year to get the benefit of their deduction. Otherwise, the risk is that neither year’s contributions will be eligible for the deduction.

The projected return should also show whether the couple’s investments are aligned with their income-tax bracket. For instance, if two individuals have investments in taxable bonds, which worked well when they were filing as singles, it may no longer be beneficial to hold these types of bonds. Perhaps they should switch to municipal bonds, because combining their income together will push them up into higher tax brackets. Preparation of their projected tax return will show which investments will generate higher net-of-tax returns.

Credit Given to:  Cheryl Winokur Munk.  Ms. Winokur Munk is a writer in West Orange, N.J. Email her at reports@wsj.com. Appeared in the March 18, 2019, print edition as ‘Does It Pay (Taxwise) To Get Married?’

Thank you for all of your questions, comments and suggestions for future topics. As always, they are much appreciated. We also welcome and appreciate anyone who wishes to write a Tax Tip of the Week for our consideration.

We may be reached in our Dayton office at 937-436-3133 or in our Xenia office at 937-372-3504. Or, visit our website.  

This Week’s Author – Mark Bradstreet, CPA

–until next week.

Tax Tip of the Week | Was Your Tax Refund What You Wanted? May 8, 2019

Posted by bradstreetblogger in : Deductions, General, tax changes, Tax Planning Tips, Tax Preparation, Tax Tip, Taxes, Uncategorized , add a comment

Many taxpayers were surprised this year by the amount of their tax refund or their tax balance due. Most refunds were less than the prior year and those who typically owe money, owed more. There were also those people who normally received a refund who were now dismayed to discover a balance due. Even tax preparers were surprised to the extent of these tax refund reductions or additional amounts due. Yes, multiple warnings were issued by the “Chicken Littles” during the year. Well, these “Chicken Littles” turned out to be correct. The new 2018 withholding tables not only gave you an early refund from the new tax law BUT some “extra.” This “extra” is what reduced your withholdings which lead to the nasty tax return surprises. Adding insult to injury, your 2019 refunds (or balances due) may be even worse since the new 2018 withholding tables were not for a full year. They may have started as late as February 15, 2018 (and I am sure some employers began later than that.) So, if you want your bottom line on your tax return to look like times of old – better increase your withholding now.

The below WSJ article published April 13-14, 2019 by Laura Saunders further explains this situation along with some possible remedies.  

                                                          –    Mark Bradstreet

Congratulations American taxpayers, you made it through the first filing season after the largest tax overhaul in a generation. Now do yourself a favor and check your withholding.

For weeks, news articles, message boards, and family dinners have been filled with unhappy taxpayers lamenting tax-refund shortfalls or surprise bills. For many, that’s because they didn’t watch their withholding.

Among them is Alaric DeArment, a 36-year-old biotechnology journalist in New York City.

He got a tax cut from the overhaul, as did two-thirds of American households. For 2018, his federal bill is $2,400 lower than in 2017. But his tax cut didn’t feel like one, he says, because he didn’t know that last year the Treasury Department lowered paycheck withholding for millions of workers in order to speed up delivery of the tax cuts.

So, his customary tax refund of between $1,000 and $3,000 became a surprise tax bill of $785 this year. As a result, Mr. DeArment can’t use a refund to help pay for a trip to Eastern Europe or a new laptop, as he planned. Instead, he’s paying his tax due in installments.

“It’s horrible, a bummer,” he says. He says he’ll change his withholding soon.

So far, about 1.2 million fewer filers are getting refunds compared with last year, according to the latest data from the Internal Revenue Service. Total refunds are down by about $5.8 billion, or 2.6%. The average refund is $2,833, down $31 from this time last year.

This data doesn’t measure the number of filers who have gotten unwelcome surprises this year, such as a lower refund or higher payment due, because of the withholding changes.

Tax preparers say there are many. Don Rosenberg, an enrolled agent in Yorktown Heights, N.Y., says that despite the overall tax cuts, 75% of his clients are unhappy with their tax results this year, many of them because of withholding changes.

“Anybody who says refund size doesn’t matter should sit in my office for a week,” he says.

The emotional response to tax refunds or bills has a logic of its own. People often use tax refunds to help with big purchases, although it means they’ve made an interest-free loan to Uncle Sam by letting the government have more of their money during the year.

The bottom line: If you’re upset by this year’s refund or tax bill, consider changing your withholding to prevent a rerun next year.

Tax specialists at H&R Block, which prepares 20 million returns a year, warn that many filers with smaller refunds this year are set for even lower ones for 2019, because Treasury’s withholding changes will be in effect for the full year. The average refund for this group will be $200 lower next year without adjustments to withholding, based on analysis of their clients.

In addition, the IRS approved broad waivers of penalties on 2018 underpayments. These likely won’t be extended for 2019, and most filers need to pay 90% of what they owe during the year to avoid penalties. Here’s more information about changing your withholding.

Know the options. You can consult a tax preparer, but there are ways to do it yourself. The simplest is to take the additional total amount you want withheld, based on this year’s outcome, and divide it by remaining paychecks. Then put that on the IRS’s Form W-4 and give it to your employer.

You can also recalculate your withholding using the W-4 form, but this can be confusing. The IRS hasn’t finished a redesign following the overhaul, and a proposal released last year proved controversial because it asked workers to share private information with employers. An update is due soon.

You can also use an IRS calculator to figure what you’ll owe for 2019. It allows inputs for more than one earner, investment income and more. Users need their most recent tax return plus recent pay stubs and perhaps other information.

Make good use of paycheck withholding. Do you have nonwage income, as from outside gigs or investments? To avoid penalties, you may need to pay quarterly taxes on this income. If so, it often makes sense to increase paycheck withholding instead, as it’s not subject to the same timing requirements as quarterly payments. 

For example, taxes on nonwage earnings from the first quarter are due April 15 in order to avoid penalties. But if the same taxes are paid through increased withholding in November, there are often no penalties.

Pay attention to pensions. Withholding was lowered for pension payments as well as for paychecks. If you want to raise it, use Form W-4P.

Beware of bonuses. The tax overhaul cut the withholding on bonuses from 25% to 22%, so that can contribute to lower refunds or higher tax bills. Employers will withhold more if requested.

Credit given to Laura Saunders. Write to Laura Saunders at laura.saunders@wsj.com.

Thank you for all of your questions, comments and suggestions for future topics. As always, they are much appreciated. We also welcome and appreciate anyone who wishes to write a Tax Tip of the Week for our consideration.  

We may be reached in our Dayton office at 937-436-3133 or in our Xenia office at 937-372-3504. Or, visit our website.  

This Week’s Author – Mark Bradstreet, CPA

–until next week.

Tax Tip of the Week | Nanny Taxes May 1, 2019

Posted by bradstreetblogger in : Deductions, General, Tax Planning Tips, Tax Tip, Taxes, Uncategorized , add a comment

With the last day of school fast approaching, it is time to consider child care during the summer months.

Instead of sending children to day care or summer day camp, many parents consider hiring a nanny or frequent baby sitter to watch their children. As if balancing work and childrearing is not challenging enough, if parents get outside help to care for their children at home, they will also need to understand the tax implications. Unless they are tax experts, they probably have a few questions about how to do things correctly.

If parents have a nanny or frequent babysitter watching their children at home, that person is considered a household employee if she is in charge of what work is done and how it is done (which is usually the case). It does not matter whether the person works full time or part time, or that the person was hired through an agency or from a list provided by an agency or association. It also does not matter whether the person is paid for the job on an hourly, daily or weekly basis.

On the flipside, someone providing childcare services in his or her own home is not a household employee of the parents. Likewise if an agency provides the worker and the agency is in charge of what work is done and how it is done, the worker is not a household employee of the parents.

As a household employee, a nanny or frequent baby sitter is going to cost parents more than the rate they pay for watching their children. In addition to paying the employee’s wages, they may be required to pay household employment taxes, popularly referred to as the “nanny tax.”

The nanny tax involves two separate employment taxes. Whether the parents are responsible for either depends on the amount they pay.

First is FICA, which consists of Social Security and Medicare taxes. FICA is a 15.3 percent tax on cash wages that is generally split equally between the employer and employee. Parents and their household employee each pay 7.65 percent—which is 6.2 percent Social Security tax plus 1.45 percent Medicare tax.

In 2015, the IRS required anyone with a household employee to withhold and pay FICA for any employee with annual cash wages of $1,900 or more.

Second is FUTA (federal unemployment tax). The FUTA tax is 6.0% of your employee’s FUTA wages. However, you may be able to take a credit of up to 5.4% against the FUTA tax, resulting in a net tax rate of 0.6%. Your credit for 2019 is limited unless you pay all the required contributions for 2019 to your state unemployment fund by April 15, 2020. The credit you can take for any contributions for 2019 that you pay after April 15, 2020, is limited to 90% of the credit that would have been allowable if the contributions were paid on or before that day.

Note:  Don’t withhold the FUTA tax from your employee’s wages. You must pay it from your own funds.

The rules and reporting of “nanny wages” and “nanny taxes” get pretty complicated real quick.

The important thing to remember is that if you pay someone more than $1,900 this summer, you need to give us a call.

Thank you for all of your questions, comments and suggestions for future topics. As always, they are much appreciated. We also welcome and appreciate anyone who wishes to write a Tax Tip of the Week for our consideration. We may be reached in our Dayton office at 937-436-3133 or in our Xenia office at 937-372-3504. Or, visit our website.  

–until next week.