jump to navigation

Tax Tip of the Week | What May Be The Best Investment Ever? July 17, 2019

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

Longer ago than I care to admit, a client gave me some sage advice that I have never been able to improve upon. His father had told him that the best investment you can ever make is in yourself. One reason being is that there is no other investment that you will have ever more control over. I have found this advice to be very profound and useful.

Ted Jenkin, co-CEO and founder of oXYGen Financial offers further thoughts on this topic as published in the WSJ on June 17, 2019.  

                                -Mark Bradstreet

Invest 2% of your income in you

When we think about investments, we often direct our attention to categories such as stocks, bonds and real estate. What we often don’t think about is our most valuable asset: our ability to earn an income and to make that income grow faster.

Almost 20 years ago, I met a successful business owner who gave me a simple lesson: Invest 2% of everything you earn annually back into your ability to grow your income.

What does this mean exactly? Investing in you is like diversifying your portfolio of investments. You might take a chance and invest in that side hustle you think could be a business. Take a training course or advanced education that could further your current career. Invest in a personal coach who could improve your business performance. It could mean investing in an exercise or nutrition program that could give you more stamina every day to accomplish more.

It’s the best advice I’ve ever received—and I do it every single year.

Credit given to:  Ted Jenkin, co-CEO and founder of oXYGen Financial

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 | Are You Considering Early Retirement? Maybe You Should Reconsider… July 10, 2019

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

Effects of Early Retirement

While many people look forward to retirement, after years of hard work and dedication, most people do not think about the potential physical, emotional and cognitive issues arising from the cessation of their life filled with the routine of working every day. Research suggests that early retirement may even kill you. You may think: How can that be? How can working longer be better for your health?

Early retirement offers many positive benefits. People have more time to pursue other passions and interests that they may have been longing to try. This gives them time to step away from stressful work and the high demand of work. 

Early retirees do not consider their potential unhealthy behaviors. These include being uninvolved with others, being too sedentary, over eating, and consuming too much alcohol. These factors arise because the retirees no longer have the purpose to fulfill work duties. Life as they have known it is suddenly gone.  This can lead to depression, lack of engagement, or even death. According to Richard W. Johnson, work and the work environment creates intellectual stimulation, while retirement can accelerate cognitive decline. He explains that it is important to keep the brain stimulated. 

Another risk to retirement is the possibility of becoming socially isolated. Many people do not realize the impact that a work environment can have on a person. Colleagues are there to engage and support each other, which adds significant social fulfillment to one’s life. Research suggests that avoiding social isolation by working even part time or volunteering may give retirees a longer life. Social isolation can reduce life satisfaction and affect your physical and mental health. Johnson discovered that only one-third of Americans age 55 and older will actually participate in community groups or unpaid activities. Being involved in activities or even having a part time job can provide stimulation and social interaction similar to that experienced by those who are engaged in full-employment.

Retiring early also has a significant financial impact. Some believe that this is the biggest danger to retirement. Being financially secure is something that people worry about each day while in paid employment. How much time do people think about it when they are in actual retirement? At age 62, you are eligible to receive Social Security, however, it will only cover about 40% of your paycheck. Johnson suggests that workers who remain in their careers can save some of their additional earnings for retirement and will accumulate more Social Security in the long run. 

When you turn 62…

At age 62 everyone thinks about the possibility of retiring. It is like a light bulb that goes off to indicate that you should consider taking the long break you have earned. A study by Maria Fitzpatrick at Cornell University and Timothy Moore at the University of Melbourne shows that there is a correlation between an increase in mortality rates and retirement. It states the risk factors include smoking and lack of physical activity, which are downfalls to early retirement. Many people believe they should retire by a certain age or they feel the pressure to retire early, which is a psychological effect. Johnson explains that as a society we should be encouraging older workers to stay on the job. This can boost long term health, longevity and the emotional and physical strength of the brain. Older workers are protected from age discrimination by Federal law. By allowing older workers to work longer the companies can not only benefit from the skilled workers but will enable the workers to live a longer healthier life. 

Credit given to:  Johnson, R. W. (2019, April 22). The Case Against Early Retirement. 

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 – Brianna Anello

–until next week.

Tax Tip of the Week | Retirees July 3, 2019

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

Everywhere you turn whether it is your doctor’s office or the WSJ or wherever, we see thought-provoking, often mind-numbing articles on the pros and the cons of retiring. Well, the article that follows is one from the WSJ written by Cheryl Winokur Munk. She delves into some of the more commonly made errors made by retirees. We have noticed many of these errors made by our friends and neighbors but of course we would never commit any of them ourselves.

                               -Mark Bradstreet

There are almost as many paths to retirement as there are retirees. But when it comes to financial mistakes that can derail their retirement, familiar patterns often emerge. Many retirees tend to invest too conservatively, spend too much too soon, pay too much in taxes or fall for too-good-to-be-true investments.

Retirees could ensure their nest egg lasts longer by avoiding these common mistakes:

Mistake No. 1: Investing too conservatively

A number of retirees try to eliminate risk by stashing their savings in cash, certificates of deposit or municipal bonds of very short duration. Though taking a more conservative approach in retirement can be prudent, playing it too safe can severely limit retirees’ earning potential, increasing the chances they’ll run out of money.

“It’s important to build a portfolio that incorporates an appropriate mix of fixed income and equities based on their other assets—including Social Security and rental income—their spending requirements and their life expectancy,” says David Savir, chief executive of Element Pointe Advisors, a registered investment adviser in Miami. The average American man will live to age 76, and the average American woman to age 81, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Mr. Savir recommends retirees build a portfolio to match their spending habits and estimated life expectancy—taking into account the national averages as well as their own health and family history—and test it using forward-looking simulations. Those simulations should take into account bear-market scenarios and the chance that returns may be lower—and volatility higher—than historical norms. “This will help a client determine whether they need to spend less, invest slightly more aggressively, or both,” he says.

Mistake No. 2: Spending mishaps

Some retirees shell out significant sums of money early in their retirement, often to pay off debt or enjoy leisure activities they couldn’t do while working. The problem with spending so much in the beginning is that it can be detrimental to a retiree’s long-term financial security, says Tim Sullivan, chief executive of Strategic Wealth Advisors Group, a registered investment adviser in Shelby Township, Mich.

While eliminating debt can be a good thing, large cash outlays can harm retirees’ long-term financial security. It may make even less sense when a retiree’s investments are earning far more than the rate of interest on the debt, Mr. Sullivan says. And while it’s understandable to want to buy a second house, take a pricey European vacation or remodel a home, retirees need to map out the potential lasting effects such hefty spending can have on their finances, Mr. Sullivan says.

He tells of a client in his late 50s who enjoyed a $25,000 African safari so much that upon his return he immediately booked another $20,000 trip. These purchases put such a dent in his nest egg that he risked running out of money six years earlier than expected and had to follow a strict budget to try to minimize the damage, Mr. Sullivan says.

Of course, retirees have to find the right balance, because being too strict with their spending early in retirement can lead to significant regrets later on. Beyond that, there’s a risk for some retirees that by being so frugal they’ll leave so much behind when they die that they will be over the federal or state estate-tax exemption limit, says Alison Hutchinson, senior vice president of private wealth management at Brown Brothers Harriman. They could also end up leaving more to their heirs than they are comfortable with, she says.

Mistake No. 3: Underestimating expenses

Advisers say it’s typical for retirees to underestimate their expenses in retirement, particularly health-care and other periodic, rather than regular, expenses. These incremental expenses—if not built into the budget—can derail a retiree’s financial security, advisers say.

Leslie Thompson, managing principal at Spectrum Management Group, a registered investment adviser in Indianapolis, recommends that people approaching retirement keep track of their expenses for at least a year, ideally two or three, before they leave the workforce, so they have a baseline to work with. They should then make the necessary tweaks to account for expenses they will no longer have and new expenses they may incur during retirement. “A well-thought-out plan should be based upon actual spending needs and future desires, with contingencies for nonrecurring items such as car purchases, major home repairs and remodels, and rising health-care costs,” she says.

Financial support for adult children and grandchildren is another expense that many retirees will want to build into their budget. Many retirees are happy to assist on an as-needed basis, but, to their detriment, they don’t consider the aggregate annual cost, says Alicia Waltenberger, director of wealth planning strategies at TIAA. “A lot of times when they see that collective number, it is eye-opening,” she says.

Mistake No. 4: Creating unnecessary tax expenses

When retirees have both tax-sheltered and taxable accounts, they commonly withdraw exclusively from their taxable account at first. The danger is that growth within the tax-sheltered account could bump the retiree to a higher tax bracket once required minimum distributions kick in, says Paul Lightfoot, president of Optima Asset Management, a registered investment adviser in Dallas. This could also affect the retiree’s Medicare premiums, he says.

Mr. Lightfoot recommends retirees perform yearly assessments using different tax scenarios to determine how best to optimize their accounts. One option may be to take some withdrawals from their tax-deferred account before they turn 70½, provided this doesn’t push them to a higher tax bracket. They might also consider converting some of their taxable-account savings to a Roth IRA because of anticipated tax rates in the future. While there are taxable consequences in the year of conversion, there may be longer-term tax benefits in a conversion, he says.

Mistake No. 5: Falling for investment pitches that are too good to be true

Many retirees are easily swayed by the prospect of finding high-returning investments that have little to no risk, but chasing yield can easily derail the savings they’ve worked hard to build, advisers say. Some advisers are particularly skeptical of products like indexed annuities for retirees, because many people don’t understand the products and think they are getting something they are not.

Dennis Stearns, founder of Stearns Financial Group, a registered investment adviser in Greensboro, N.C., also cautions retirees to pay attention to the fees they pay for investment management. Generally, clients with $500,000 to $5 million in assets should pay in the range of 0.5% to 1% in adviser fees, and keep other custodial fees and ETF and mutual-fund fees low, he says. If they’re paying more for investment management, it might be advisable to rethink the relationship. “The fees can really eat into your retirement savings,” he says.

Credit Given to: Cheryl Winokur Munk. Ms. Winokur Munk is a writer in West Orange, N.J. She can be reached at reports@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 | When The Questions Are The Answers June 26, 2019

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

Let’s take a break from tax topics this week. Yes, even I sometimes get tired of talking about income taxes. So, the topic this week is about leadership. All of us lead someone. Of course, the most important person to lead is yourself. And, as the old saying goes, if you can’t lead yourself then how can you lead someone else?

True leaders don’t give out answers. Often, they don’t know the answers. But the good leader knows their staff has inside them the answers that they seek. Good questions from a good leader help reveal these answers.  

This is further explained along with some examples in the following WSJ article, To Be a Better Leader, Ask Better Questions written by Hal Gregersen. It was published on Tuesday, May 14, 2019.  

                               -Mark Bradstreet

It is often said that the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over, and expecting a different outcome.

Well, the same can be said of questions: Keep asking the same kind of question, and it is insane to think you are going to get a different kind of answer.

If you want a dramatically better answer, the key is to ask a better question.

In that one simple statement I have found a career’s worth of research, teaching and advisory work. No one raises an objection when they hear it—who could argue with the value of brilliant reframing? But at the same time, that statement alone is rarely enough. Most people want to be handed the five paradigm-smashing questions to ask.

Unfortunately, that isn’t possible. But what is possible is creating the conditions where the right questions are more likely to bubble up. To that end, here are some clear, concrete, measurable steps that any boss—or anyone, for that matter—can take to come up with those paradigm-smashing questions we all seek.

1. Understand what kinds of questions spark creative thinking.

There are lots of questions you can ask. But only the best really knocks down barriers to creative thinking and channel energy down new, more productive pathways. A question that does has five traits. It reframes the problem. It intrigues the imagination. It invites others’ thinking. It opens up space for different answers. And it’s nonaggressive—not posed to embarrass, humiliate or assert power over the other party.

One CEO I know is aware that his position can get in the way of getting honest information that will challenge his view of things. Instead of coming at his managers with something like, “Competitor X beat us to the punch with that move—how did we let that happen?” he gets more useful input with questions like, “What are you wrestling with and how can I help?” He asks customers and supply-chain partners: “If you were in my shoes, what would you be doing differently than what you see us doing today?”

Think about how these questions change the whole equation. People don’t start off defensive. The problem isn’t already tightly framed. The questions are open-ended, and the answers can be imaginative—rather than telling the boss what he wants to hear.

If you want to turn this first point into a trackable activity, how about this: Start noting in a daily diary how many questions you’ve asked that meet the five criteria.

2. Create the habit of asking questions.

Many bosses simply aren’t used to asking questions; they’re used to giving answers. So, in the early stages of building your questioning capacity, it’s helpful to start by copying other people’s questions. It’s the equivalent of practicing your scales. Once you’ve got the scales down, you can start to improvise.

You could do worse than to follow the questions asked by management thinker Peter Drucker, who liked to jump-start strategic thinking by asking: “What changes have recently happened that don’t fit ‘what everyone knows’”?

Another example: A leader in a consumer packaged-goods company constantly asks: “What more can we do to delight the customer at the point of purchase? And what more to delight them at the point of consumption?”

Again, think about what that does. Sure, the CEO could constantly repeat that the company wants to satisfy consumers. But by asking this question, it builds the habit of thinking in questions. And that, in turn, leads to daily inquiry about matters large and small, and an organization that keeps pushing its competitive advantages forward.

3. Fuel that habit by making yourself generate new questions.

Don’t stop with that generic question set, no matter how well you think it covers the bases. It will become just another activity rut reinforcing today’s assumptions if you and others become too familiar with it. Your goal is to generate new and better questions, not to cap your questioning career at the level of playing flawless scales.

New Perspectives, New Solutions

If you or your team are stuck on a problem, stop and spend four minutes generating nothing but questions about it. As in brainstorming, go for high volume and do no editing in progress. This will often yield a new way to look at the challenge and at least one new idea to solve it. Here’s an example of a question burst:

Instead, every day, note something in your environment that is intriguing and possibly a signal of change in the air. Then, restrain yourself from issuing a comment on it—or if it’s your habit, a tweet—and instead take a moment to articulate the questions it raises.

Then share the most compelling of those questions with someone else. Engage with it for a minute. To some extent, this is doing “reps,” exercising your questioning muscles so they’ll be strong enough when the occasion demands. But it’s also more than that, because chances are it will actually be one of these many, seemingly small, questions that yields your next big breakthrough.

Let me offer a well-known example. Blake Mycoskie was in Argentina when by his account he noticed a lot of children running around barefoot. He didn’t need to ask why they didn’t have shoes—obviously they were poor—but here’s the question it brought him to: Is there a sustainable way to provide children with shoes without having to rely on donations? And thus, he launched the social enterprise Toms, with its famous “one-for-one” business model.

4. Respond with the power of the pause.

When someone comes to you with a problem, don’t immediately respond with an answer. This is harder than it sounds, because you have probably internalized a sense long ago that you’re the boss because you’re decisive and have good judgment—in other words, you have the best answers.

Instead, make it your habit to respond with a question—ideally one that reframes the problem, but at least one that draws out more of your colleague’s thoughts on the matter. I’m not talking about the cop-out rejoinder of, “Well, what do YOU think we should do?” Help the person think through how the decision should be made, with questions like: “What are we optimizing for?” “What’s the most important thing we have to achieve with whatever direction we take?” Or: “What makes this decision so hard? What problem felt like this in the past?”

The payoff here comes in two forms. You’re teaching the colleague the value of pausing to get the question right before rushing to the answer. And nine times out of 10, you’re going to wind up with a better answer than the one you would have blurted out with less deliberation.

5. Brainstorm for questions.

This is an idea that is so simple, and involves an exercise so fast, that it constantly surprises me how effective it is. Whenever you or your team is at an impasse, or there is a sense that some insight is eluding you regarding a problem or opportunity, just stop and spend four minutes generating nothing but questions about it. Don’t spend a second answering the questions, or explaining why you posed a certain one. As in brainstorming, go for high volume and do no editing in progress. See if you can generate at least 15-20.

Eighty percent of the time, I find, the exercise yields some new angle of attack on the problem, and it virtually always re-energizes people to go at it with renewed gusto.

Here’s an example from an innovation team in a consumer-goods company. Struggling to come up with a new concept to test, we tried one of those question bursts. It started with, “What if we launched a response to [a competitor’s product] and did it better?” But soon enough it arrived at, “Are we stuck on assuming a certain price range? What if a customer was willing to give us 10 times that—what could we deliver that would be that valuable to them?” Bingo—the team zeroed in on that question as having real juice in it, and started generating more exciting ideas.

6. Reward your questioners.

Finally, keep track of how you respond when someone in the room asks a question that challenges how you’ve been approaching a problem or feels like it threatens to derail a solution train already leaving the station.

I remember hearing from executives at one company that the boss always surprised his top team by being willing to hear out even the craziest ideas. When others in the room were shaking their heads and hastening to move along, he would be the one to say, “Wait, say more…” to find the part of that flight of fantasy that could work.

If there’s one constant theme here, it’s the idea that bosses should reconceive what their primary job is. They aren’t there to come up with today’s best answers, or even just to get their teams to come up with them. Their job is to build their organization’s capacity for constant innovation.

Their enterprise’s future—and their own career trajectory—depends on their resolve to ask better questions.

Credit given to By Hal Gregersen. Dr. Gregersen is executive director of the MIT Leadership Center, a senior lecturer at the MIT Sloan School of Management and author of “Questions Are the Answer.” He can be reached at reports@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 | IRS Audits June 19, 2019

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

No one in their right mind would welcome an IRS audit. However, sometime during your life, you may expect to have an IRS audit of some sort, even if only a correspondence audit. Other types of IRS audits include what they call a field audit which occurs at your place of business and an office audit which occurs at the IRS office. From time to time, clients will mention to me that they don’t fear an audit because they have done nothing wrong and have all of the necessary substantiation. Even, in the best of cases, audits are no fun – they are ALWAYS a huge time suck for you and for your professional and, thusly, can be quite expensive.

A further note about correspondence audits – at least half of the tax notices you receive from the IRS are incorrect. Yet, too many taxpayers upon receiving a notice with a balance due simply send the IRS a check. Yes, the IRS loves people like that! Upon receipt of any IRS correspondence, please immediately relay it to your CPA for an appropriate review and response.

It is rare, but not entirely unheard of, for an IRS agent to appear at your home or place of business. If that were to happen and regardless of how friendly they appear your best response is typically very simple. Be polite and inform the agent your CPA will be handling the questions on your behalf. Then, give the agent the name and contact information of your CPA. Ask the agent nicely to call your CPA with any questions that they may have. The same is also true for the receipt of an IRS letter notifying you that your income tax returns are under audit. Get that letter to your accounting firm so they can handle the audit on your behalf. It is not in your best interest to speak to the IRS agent before, during or after the audit. That is the job of your professional.  

The below article written by Jane Hodges – HOW MUCH DO YOU KNOW ABOUT IRS AUDITS? was published in the WSJ on March 25, 2019. It provides further information on the IRS process.

                                          –    Mark Bradstreet

The Internal Revenue Service audits tax returns every year—striking fear in the hearts of many whose accidental or deliberate errors may have led them to underpay the U.S. Treasury.

While the prospect can be terrifying, very few returns are actually audited and many audits are resolved through correspondence. The volume of IRS audits has declined in recent years to 933,785 in 2017 from 1.56 million in 2011, according to IRS data. Some audits even result in a refund. Many, of course, result in tax liabilities.

Still, it never hurts to prepare taxes with care, save records and understand changing tax laws (or work with professionals who do) so your returns will be less likely to raise flags.

What follows is a quiz to help readers hone their smarts about IRS audits.

1. What does the IRS call an audit?

A) Audit
B) Examination
C) Tax year review
D) Tax interview

Answer: B. Audits are referred to as examinations, and a taxpayer being audited corresponds with or meets an “examiner” assigned to his or her case.

2. What percentage of returns were audited during 2017?

A) 0.5%
B) 1.5%
C) 3.8%
D) 6.2%

Answer: A. During fiscal 2017, the IRS audited 0.5% of the 196 million returns it received during the calendar year 2016. That was down from 0.7% the previous year.

3. How does the IRS choose which tax returns to audit?

A) It hires private investigators
B) It looks at tax returns associated with filers undergoing existing audits
C) Computer screening
D) It reviews those whose income has more than doubled in a 10-year period

Answer: B and C. The IRS looks at the company that audit subjects keep. “We may select your returns when they involve issues or transactions with other taxpayers, such as business partners or investors, whose returns were selected for audit,” it says in an FAQ about audits on an IRS website. It also uses random computer screening in which algorithms track “norms” for deductions and expenses relative to the filer’s income and other factors.

4. How does the IRS notify a person or business of an audit?

A) By letter
B) By phone
C) Through email
D) Via process server

Answer: A. The IRS typically notifies taxpayers of audits in letters citing what years are under examination and which deductions or aspects of the returns need verification, substantiation or discussion. Once the audit is under way, a representative may call, but the IRS doesn’t initiate audits over the telephone. If you get a call from someone claiming to represent the IRS and notifying you of an audit, it is likely a scam.

5. Where are audits conducted?

A) In an IRS office
B) At the taxpayer’s home or place of business
C) Via correspondence
D) At the office of an authorized representative (tax attorney, CPA, enrolled agent)

Answer: Any of the above, depending on the degree of the inquiry or where the taxpayer stores records or conducts business and other factors. The IRS generally makes the final determination.

6. What percentage of tax audits are conducted by correspondence?

A) 12.6%
B) 32.5%
C) 50.9%
D) 70.8%

Answer: D. During fiscal 2017, when the IRS examined tax returns for the prior year and before, some 70.8% of audits were conducted by correspondence.

7. How long does the IRS expect taxpayers to keep tax records?

A) Forever
B) Five years following the date a return is filed
C) Three years following the date a return is filed or two years from the date a tax is paid
D) Six years, or seven years if the taxpayer is writing off bad debt or worthless securities

Answer: C, and sometimes D. Generally, the IRS suggests taxpayers keep tax records for three years after filing a return or two years from the date they paid tax. In some circumstances, say, if you failed to report income, didn’t file a return, or were flagged for filing a fraudulent return, it’s advisable to keep records longer.

8. Which household income level experiences a 12.5% incidence of audits?

A) $125,000 or more
B) $200,000 or more
C) $250,000 or more
D) $1 million or more

Answer: D. According to Intuit, 1% of taxpayers earning $200,000 or less are audited. Beyond that, the more a taxpayer earns, the more likely an audit is. Some 4% of those earning more than $200,000 are audited, and 12.5% of those earning $1 million or more are audited.

9. When filing taxes, what form of filing is most error-prone, according to the IRS?

A) Electronic filing
B) Returns filed by mail
C) Returns filed from abroad
D) Returns that are filed after an extension request

Answer: B. According to IRS information provided to TurboTax, those who file a return by mail show a 21% incidence of errors, while those who file electronically show only a 0.5% incidence of errors. TurboTax does not cite a reason why online filers have less errors, but presumably online filing software runs math or does automatic calculations which could reduce math-related errors.

10. How far back does the IRS go when choosing returns to audit?

A) 2 years
B) 3 years
C) 6 years
D) 10 years

Answer: B and C. The IRS generally goes back no more than three years in choosing returns to audit, but if it finds a “substantial error,” the agency says it may go back as far as six years.

Credit Given to: By Jane Hodges. Ms. Hodges is a freelance writer in Seattle and has been audited. She can be reached at reports@wsj.com. This appeared in the March 25, 2019, print edition as ‘How Much Do You Know About IRS Audits?’

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 | Whistle Blowers June 12, 2019

Posted by bradstreetblogger in : General, tax changes, Tax Tip, Taxes , add a comment

Aside from what I read in the newspapers; I know little about the world of the tax snitches. On the surface, it seems as though if you are in the right spot at the right time snitching can make you an easy buck. However, the article below explains some of the harsher realities of being a “whistle blower.”

THE PROFITABLE PROSPECTS OF SNITCHING FOR THE IRS was written by Laura Saunders. This article was published in the WSJ in their weekend edition, April 27-28, 2019.  

                                     –    Mark Bradstreet

These are boom times for snitches who turn in tax cheats to Uncle Sam.

The Internal Revenue Service awarded more than $312 million to tipsters last year, according to a little-noticed report released in February. This total far outstrips the previous record of $125 million awarded in 2012. The 2018 rewards, paid in the fiscal year ended Sept. 30, were for additional collected revenue of $1.4 billion, compared with $191 million in fiscal 2017.

And the agency has already paid $115 million to whistle blowers for 2019, according to lawyers Dean Zerbe, Jeffrey Neiman and Gregory Lynam. They expect more to come.

Some recent payouts have been huge.

Last year, one tipster was awarded about $100 million, nearly one-third of the total, for turning in a multinational corporation. The person, a client of Mr. Zerbe, wishes to remain anonymous—as nearly all whistleblowers do.

To date, the largest known IRS whistle blower award of $104 million went to Bradley Birkenfeld, a former private banker for UBS AG who did go public. His 2012 payment was for turning in the Swiss banking giant, which admitted it encouraged U.S. taxpayers to hide assets abroad.

The surge of recent awards shows that a key expansion of the IRS’s whistle blower program is finally taking hold. The change was enacted by Congress in 2006 and pays up to 30% of the revenue collected to tipsters in large cases, those involving more than $2 million of tax. For smaller cases, the payout has typically been a much smaller percentage.

“The large-awards whistle blower program is now hitting on all cylinders,” says Mr. Zerbe, a former aide to Sen. Charles Grassley (R., Iowa), who sponsored the change.

Despite the surge in awards, people who dream of being rewarded for turning in a neighbor with a new Mercedes but no job should consider the many hurdles they face.

For starters, the IRS rejects about three-quarters of whistle blower claims right away. Of the rest, about one in seven gets paid, says Mr. Lynam. The IRS had 29,000 whistle blower claims open in 2018, but many of them are likely to be rejected.

Last year, the IRS says it paid out 186 small-program awards totaling about $12 million. The explosive growth stems from awards in large cases, which rose to 31 last year from 19 in 2015 and totaled $300 million.

This surge is in part due to a favorable 2018 clarification of the law that raised payments in offshore-cheating cases. The IRS then paid out awards that had been in limbo.

Nearly all successful whistle blowers seeking large awards, and many seeking smaller ones, use specialized tax attorneys to prepare their submissions. Their fee is typically 25% to 40% of an award. The attorneys say the package for the IRS needs to include items such as account statements, internal memorandums, emails and perhaps even voice recordings.

Yes, voice recordings. One whistle blower had to wear a wire to get incriminating information—twice, because the device malfunctioned once. She and another person collected an award of nearly $18 million for submitting evidence that led a Swiss bank to plead guilty to encouraging U.S. tax evasion and pay $74 million.

“The key to getting an award is to give the IRS the case on a silver platter,” says Mr. Neiman.

IRS whistle blowers don’t have to be above reproach. The law doesn’t prohibit those convicted of wrongdoing from receiving awards unless they were architects of the cheating. Mr. Birkenfeld, for example, was convicted of conspiring to help a billionaire hide money in UBS accounts and served nearly 30 months in prison. He still got an award because he helped the Treasury recover billions of dollars. Award seekers with accepted cases must be patient. Getting an award often takes at least seven years, according to the 2018 report, and a payout in five years is considered “fast.”

Whistle blowers can receive large awards for reporting corporate cheating, fraudulent gift-and-estate transfers, or cheating by high-net worth individuals. But a big growth area involves reporting offshore cheating, such as by a foreign bank that has assured U.S. officials it has turned over information on all American clients when it hasn’t.

In such cases, says Mr. Neiman, a bank employee or other person can turn in the bank or the customers, collect an IRS whistle blower award, and still remain anonymous. IRS interest in these tipsters, especially from Asia, is on the rise even as its other offshore-enforcement programs have waned.

Whistle blowers who do get awards also owe tax, except for overseas tipsters from some countries. The tax is assessed on awards minus the attorney’s fee, at ordinary income rates—and it is usually withheld. 

Credit Given to: Laura Saunders

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 | 529 Plans June 5, 2019

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

529 PLANS are confusing! And, that is an understatement…especially since on the surface they seem sooooooooo straightforward. But once you look behind the curtain one can start to see their turns and twists along the way with some far-reaching complications that are rarely considered. Personally, I think their tax savings feature is overrated in many cases…BUT having said that, I am not sure of many better ways to save for someone’s education including that of your grandchildren. American families currently have $329 billion in 529 Plans. Hopefully, these 529 Plans will reduce the need for students’ loans. That would be a blessing!  

Chana R. Schoenberger wrote the following article (The 6 Biggest Questions about ‘529’ Plans) for the WSJ as published on Monday, March 4, 2019.  

                                      –    Mark Bradstreet

Four years ago, we started answering readers’ questions on saving and paying for higher education, especially about how best to use tax-advantaged “529” accounts.

In all, we have answered more than 200 questions, with the help of experts. But readers’ questions continue to pour in, in part because the rules about 529s are so confusing—and keep changing. For instance, families are now allowed to use 529 money to pay for private K-12 schooling, not just college. And the Fafsa financial-aid process now looks back two years, not one, at student income when determining aid.

To mark this column’s fourth anniversary, we revisited six recurring 529 questions that we receive in readers’ emails. We asked two experts to help answer these greatest-hits questions: Michael Frerichs, the state treasurer of Illinois and vice chairman of the College Savings Plans Network, an association of state 529 plan administrators; and Mark Kantrowitz, the publisher and vice president of research at Miami-based Savingforcollege.com.

What is the advantage of 529s over other ways of saving for college?

Experts say that 529 accounts are still one of the best ways to save for college, mainly because of the tax benefits.

When you deposit money in a 529 account, it is considered a gift to the beneficiary. It grows tax-free in the account until you withdraw it for the beneficiary’s qualified educational expenses, which can include tuition, room and board, a computer and certain expenses. If you follow these rules, you don’t incur any tax, state or federal, on withdrawals. Some states also offer tax deductions or credits for investing money in a 529, Mr. Frerichs says. (In some cases, residents must invest in their own state’s plan; other states confer these benefits on any resident contributing to any plan.)

There are other benefits. Anyone can contribute, putting in up to $15,000 annually before paying taxes. You can also pre-fund an account, putting in up to $75,000 ($150,000 for married couples filing jointly) at one time and choosing to use up to five years’ worth of your annual pretax limit, Mr. Frerichs says.

What’s more, “most plans have very low minimum-contribution limits, and most accounts are protected from creditors’ claims in bankruptcy, making them attractive to families regardless of income level,” says Mr. Frerichs.

If my child ends up not using all the money in the 529 for educational purposes, how can we withdraw it or use it?

This is one of the most advantageous features of a 529 account: “There is no time limit on when the money in a 529 plan must be used, so you could just keep the money in the 529 plan account, earning tax-free returns,” Mr. Kantrowitz says.

Your child may wish to go to graduate school later on. You also have the option to switch the beneficiary of the account to any of the original beneficiary’s direct relatives, including siblings, cousins or even yourself.

“You don’t need to be pursuing a degree or certificate, so you can use 529 plan money to pay for continuing education,” Mr. Kantrowitz says.

If you leave the money in the account, your grandchildren could one day use it—even if they aren’t yet born today.

“A 529 plan is a great way of leaving a legacy for future generations,” he says.

If you choose to take the money out of the account without using it for qualified educational purposes, you will incur a 10% federal penalty on the gains portion of any withdrawals, plus federal and state income tax on gains, says Mr. Frerichs. Some plans may also charge extra fees or penalties if you withdraw money in this manner, he says.

You won’t have to pay the penalties if you withdraw the money because your child has received a scholarship or because you’re using the American Opportunity Tax Credit for higher education, Mr. Kantrowitz says. But you may have to repay any state-tax benefits you’ve received if you make a nonqualified withdrawal.

What is the best way to have a 529 account for financial-aid purposes: owned by the grandparents or owned by the parents?

“From a financial-aid perspective, it is generally better to have a 529 plan be owned by the student’s parents than the grandparents,” Mr. Kantrowitz says. You can work around this, but it is complex.

The key here is understanding the way that financial aid is computed. Most colleges use the federal government’s standardized Fafsa (Free Application for Federal Student Aid) online application to decide how much money a family can afford to pay for college—the Expected Family Contribution, or EFC—and how much they will need in scholarships or loans. (Some colleges use a different form, the CSS Profile.)

$329 billion?

The amount that American families have in ‘529’ plans, or an average $24,153 an account.

—College Savings Plans Network

“The smaller the percent value included in the EFC, the greater the potential financial aid,” Mr. Frerichs says.

Colleges make this decision by scrutinizing a family’s income and assets as well as their obligations, such as the number of other children they have in college. When they look at 529s, they note the ownership of the account. If a parent owns the account, or if it is a custodial 529 with the parent as custodian, the account is considered at 5.64% of its value. That is much lower than an account the student owns outright, such as an UGMA or UTMA savings or brokerage account, which would be considered at 20%, Mr. Frerichs says.

If anyone else owns the 529 account, whether it is a grandparent or any other person, that account doesn’t show up on the FAFSA as an asset at all. But when the student begins withdrawing money from the account to pay for school, the money is considered untaxed income on the following year’s FAFSA. That will cut financial-aid eligibility by as much as half of the withdrawal, Mr. Kantrowitz says.

For instance, he says, $10,000 in a parent-owned 529 plan might reduce aid eligibility by as much as $564, which is a lot less than the $5,000 reduction in financial aid for $10,000 in a grandparent-owned 529 plan when the student begins making withdrawals.

If you have a grandparent-owned account and want to get around this problem, there are some fixes. You can switch the account owner to the parent, although some plans don’t allow this unless the original owner has died.

You can wait until you’ve filed the FAFSA, then roll over a year’s worth of distributions from your grandparent-owned 529 into a parent-owned one in the same state’s plan (otherwise, you risk sparking state-tax consequences).

“If you wait until after the FAFSA is filed and use the money before the next FAFSA, it will have no impact on aid eligibility,” Mr. Kantrowitz says.

You can also withdraw money for a qualified expense after Jan. 1 of the student’s sophomore year (if the student plans to finish in four years; otherwise, do this two years before the student intends to graduate). The FAFSA looks back two years, so this will mean that the grandparent-owned plan won’t affect financial aid for college at all. However, this strategy won’t work if the student plans to apply for financial aid for graduate school right after finishing college, he warns.

You always have the option to take the money out of a grandparent’s 529 after college is finished and use it to pay off student loans, but that is an unqualified expense, so expect to pay the penalties and taxes on the earnings portion, he says.

How can we maximize our child’s eligibility for financial aid while still saving as much as we are able to pay for college?

Your best bet here is to use a 529 with the parent as the owner and the student as the beneficiary. “In particular, the money is reported as a parent asset on the FAFSA, so you’re no worse off from a financial-aid perspective than if you had saved in a taxable account in the parent’s name, though you do have significant tax savings,” Mr. Kantrowitz says.

One way to save for college without any impact on financial aid is to open a Roth IRA or qualified annuity in the student’s name. These are treated like grandparent-owned 529s: They’re not counted as assets on the FAFSA, but once you withdraw money to pay for college, it is considered untaxed income to the student, and counted at up to 50%, even if your withdrawal is a tax-free return of Roth IRA contributions, Mr. Kantrowitz says.

The benefit of a Roth IRA for this purpose is it hedges against the possibility that your student won’t go to college; this way, at least you’ll have started saving for the student’s eventual retirement in a tax-advantaged manner.

If your student comes into a large amount of money suddenly, and you’d like to get it out of the FAFSA’s view, annuities are the easiest way. Qualified annuities are ignored as assets on the Fafsa.

“Or invest the money in a small business that is owned and controlled by the family, taking advantage of the small-business exclusion on the Fafsa,” Mr. Kantrowitz says.

Note that these considerations don’t mean that you are better off not saving for college, on the hope that the college will give your student a scholarship. Scholarships are unusual, and full scholarships extremely rare. If you want to avoid student loans, to the extent possible, you should save as much as you can, even if it means your EFC is a bit higher than it would otherwise be.

“It is important to note that saving for college is highly beneficial and will have very limited impact on any potential financial aid,” Mr. Frerichs says.

Is it advisable to use 529 money for K-12 schooling, or should we save it for college?

It is certainly your option, under the new tax law, to use the money for private kindergarten-to-12 tuition and some expenses (though some states aren’t yet conforming to that federal change, as far as state taxes). But this negates the main benefit of 529s.

“529 plans are most attractive to parents because they can save for a longer period of time and prepare for the rising costs of higher-education expenses,” Mr. Frerichs says.

Some people think that sending their children to private school will help their chances of winning a college scholarship. But that is only partially true, Mr. Kantrowitz says. Private-high-school graduates win on average about $1,000 more in scholarships to college, but they’re also more likely to enroll at private colleges, which are more expensive than public colleges. This means that spending family 529 money to pay for private school won’t necessarily mean that the student will face smaller tuition bills for college.

Because your earnings will compound over time, you should start by saving for college first so your money will have time to grow, he says. You would also want a different mix of investments for K-12 school and for college, since you might wish to downshift the riskiness of your investments as tuition bills get closer. If you choose to use 529 money for a K-12 school, you might consider opening two separate 529 accounts for your student, so you can change the investment mix, Mr. Kantrowitz says.

The Savingforcollege.com site has a calculator you can use to explore the trade-offs.

What are the consequences if I change the owner of a 529 account?

Most plans permit the owner to name a successor in case of death, and some also allow a joint account owner.

If your plan permits you to change ownership, note that such a change might affect your student’s eligibility for financial aid (see question above). The owner is the person who holds full control over the beneficiary’s money in the account, so be careful to choose an owner you trust if it isn’t yourself, Mr. Kantrowitz says.

For plans that don’t allow ownership changes, you could roll over the balance of your 529 into a different 529 for the benefit of the same student or a member of the beneficiary’s family. It is also possible to do this manually, by taking a distribution from the original account and contributing it to another account within 60 days, Mr. Kantrowitz says. You may need to locate both accounts in the same state for tax purposes.

Be careful that the new account represents the rollover money correctly, with the new statement showing what money you contributed and what was gains, he says.

Credit Given to:  Chana R. Schoenberger. Ms. Schoenberger is a writer in New York. She can be reached at reports@wsj.com. This appeared in the March 4, 2019, print edition as ‘What You Need to Know About the New Tax Law and The 6 Biggest Questions About ‘529’ Plans.’

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 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.