For unmarried couples, estate planning is indispensable

When married couples neglect to prepare an estate plan, state intestacy laws step in to help provide financial security for the surviving spouse. It may not be the plan they would have designed, but at least it offers some measure of financial security. Unmarried couples, however, have no such backup plan. Unless they carefully spell out how they wish to distribute their wealth, a surviving life partner may end up with nothing.

Marriage has its advantages

Because intestacy laws offer no protection to an unmarried person who wishes to provide for his or her partner, it’s essential for unmarried couples at minimum to employ a will or living trust. But marriage offers several additional estate planning advantages that unmarried couples must plan around, such as:

The marital deduction. Estate planning for wealthy married couples often centers around taxes and the marital deduction, which allows one spouse to make unlimited gifts to the other spouse free of gift or estate taxes. Unmarried couples don’t enjoy this advantage. Thus, lifetime gift planning is critical so they can make the most of the lifetime gift tax exemption and the $15,000 per recipient annual gift tax exclusion.

Tenancy by the entirety. Married and unmarried couples alike often hold real estate or other assets as joint tenants with rights of survivorship. When one owner dies, title automatically passes to the survivor. In many states, a special form of joint ownership — tenancy by the entirety — is available only to married couples.

Will contests. Married or not, anyone’s will is subject to challenge as improperly executed, or on grounds of lack of testamentary capacity, undue influence or fraud. For some unmarried couples, however, family members may be more likely to challenge a will simply because they disapprove of the relationship.

Here are steps unmarried couples should consider to reduce the risk of such challenges:

  • Be sure that a will is carefully worded and properly executed.
  • Use separate attorneys, which can help refute charges of undue influence or fraud.
  • Include a “no contest” clause, which disinherits anyone who challenges the will and loses.

Health care decisions. A married person generally can make health care decisions on behalf of a spouse who becomes incapacitated by illness or injury. Unmarried partners cannot do so without written authorization, such as a medical directive or health care power of attorney. A durable power of attorney for property may also be desirable, allowing a partner to manage the other’s assets during a period of incapacity.

Careful planning required

If you’re unmarried and wish to provide for a life partner, contact us to discuss potential strategies. You can achieve many of the same estate planning objectives as married couples, but only with careful planning and thorough documentation.

© 2018

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2 ways to transfer a family business

For many people, a family-owned business is their primary source of wealth, so it’s critical to plan carefully for the transition of ownership from one generation to the next.

The best approach depends on your particular circumstances. If your net worth is well within the estate tax exemption ($11.18 million for 2018), for example, you might focus on reducing income taxes. But if you expect your estate to be significantly larger than the exemption amount, estate tax reduction may be a bigger concern.

Here are two techniques to transfer a family business — one if gift and estate taxes are a concern, and one if they aren’t:

1. IDGT. An intentionally defective grantor trust (IDGT) is an income defective trust. As such, it can be a highly effective tool for transferring business interests to the younger generation at a minimal gift and estate tax cost if your estate exceeds the gift and estate tax exemption.

An IDGT is designed so that contributions are completed gifts, removing the trust assets and all future appreciation in their value from your taxable estate. At the same time, it’s “defective” for income tax purposes; that is, it’s treated as a “grantor trust” whose income is taxable to you. This allows trust assets to grow without being eroded by income taxes, thus leaving a greater amount of wealth for your children or other beneficiaries.

The downside of an IDGT is that, when your beneficiaries inherit the business, they’ll also inherit your tax basis, which may trigger a substantial capital gains tax liability if they sell the business. This result may be acceptable if the estate tax savings outweigh the income tax cost.

2. Estate defective trust. If the value of your business and other assets is less than the current estate tax exemption amount, so that estate taxes aren’t an issue, you might consider an estate defective trust. Essentially the opposite of an IDGT, an estate defective trust is designed so that beneficiaries are the owners for income tax purposes, while the assets remain in the estate for estate tax purposes.

This technique provides two significant income tax benefits. First, assuming your beneficiaries are in a lower tax bracket, this strategy will result in lower “familywide” taxes. Second, because the trust assets remain in your estate, the beneficiaries’ basis in the assets is “stepped up” to fair market value at your death, reducing or eliminating their potential capital gains tax liability.

Determining the right strategy to implement when transferring ownership of the business to heirs depends on the value of your business and other assets and the relative impact of estate and income taxes. Also keep in mind that the gift and estate tax exemption is scheduled to drop to an inflation-adjusted $5 million in 2026. Contact us with any questions.

© 2018

Tax-free fringe benefits help small businesses and their employees

In today’s tightening job market, to attract and retain the best employees, small businesses need to offer not only competitive pay, but also appealing fringe benefits. Benefits that are tax-free are especially attractive to employees. Let’s take a quick look at some popular options.

Insurance

Businesses can provide their employees with various types of insurance on a tax-free basis. Here are some of the most common:

Health insurance. If you maintain a health care plan for employees, coverage under the plan isn’t taxable to them. Employee contributions are excluded from income if pretax coverage is elected under a cafeteria plan. Otherwise, such amounts are included in their wages, but may be deductible on a limited basis as an itemized deduction.

Disability insurance. Your premium payments aren’t included in employees’ income, nor are your contributions to a trust providing disability benefits. Employees’ premium payments (or other contributions to the plan) generally aren’t deductible by them or excludable from their income. However, they can make pretax contributions to a cafeteria plan for disability benefits, which are excludable from their income.

Long-term care insurance. Your premium payments aren’t taxable to employees. However, long-term care insurance can’t be provided through a cafeteria plan.

Life insurance. Your employees generally can exclude from gross income premiums you pay on up to $50,000 of qualified group term life insurance coverage. Premiums you pay for qualified coverage exceeding $50,000 are taxable to the extent they exceed the employee’s coverage contributions.

Other types of tax-advantaged benefits

Insurance isn’t the only type of tax-free benefit you can provide ¬― but the tax treatment of certain benefits has changed under the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act:

Dependent care assistance. You can provide employees with tax-free dependent care assistance up to $5,000 for 2018 though a dependent care Flexible Spending Account (FSA), also known as a Dependent Care Assistance Program (DCAP).

Adoption assistance. For employees who’re adopting children, you can offer an employee adoption assistance program. Employees can exclude from their taxable income up to $13,810 of adoption benefits in 2018.

Educational assistance. You can help employees on a tax-free basis through educational assistance plans (up to $5,250 per year), job-related educational assistance and qualified scholarships.

Moving expense reimbursement. Before the TCJA, if you reimbursed employees for qualifying job-related moving expenses, the reimbursement could be excluded from the employee’s income. The TCJA suspends this break for 2018 through 2025. However, such reimbursements may still be deductible by your business.

Transportation benefits. Qualified employee transportation fringe benefits, such as parking allowances, mass transit passes and van pooling, are tax-free to recipient employees. However, the TCJA suspends through 2025 the business deduction for providing such benefits. It also suspends the tax-free benefit of up to $20 a month for bicycle commuting.

Varying tax treatment

As you can see, the tax treatment of fringe benefits varies. Contact us for more information.

© 2018

Now’s the time to review your business expenses

As we approach the end of the year, it’s a good idea to review your business’s expenses for deductibility. At the same time, consider whether your business would benefit from accelerating certain expenses into this year.

Be sure to evaluate the impact of the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act (TCJA), which reduces or eliminates many deductions. In some cases, it may be necessary or desirable to change your expense and reimbursement policies.

What’s deductible, anyway?

There’s no master list of deductible business expenses in the Internal Revenue Code (IRC). Although some deductions are expressly authorized or excluded, most are governed by the general rule of IRC Sec. 162, which permits businesses to deduct their “ordinary and necessary” expenses.

An ordinary expense is one that is common and accepted in your industry. A necessary expense is one that is helpful and appropriate for your business. (It need not be indispensable.) Even if an expense is ordinary and necessary, it may not be deductible if the IRS considers it lavish or extravagant.

What did the TCJA change?

The TCJA contains many provisions that affect the deductibility of business expenses. Significant changes include these deductions:

Meals and entertainment. The act eliminates most deductions for entertainment expenses, but retains the 50% deduction for business meals. What about business meals provided in connection with nondeductible entertainment? In a recent notice, the IRS clarified that such meals continue to be 50% deductible, provided they’re purchased separately from the entertainment or their cost is separately stated on invoices or receipts.

Transportation. The act eliminates most deductions for qualified transportation fringe benefits, such as parking, vanpooling and transit passes. This change may lead some employers to discontinue these benefits, although others will continue to provide them because 1) they’re a valuable employee benefit (they’re still tax-free to employees) or 2) they’re required by local law.

Employee expenses. The act suspends employee deductions for unreimbursed job expenses — previously treated as miscellaneous itemized deductions — through 2025. Some businesses may want to implement a reimbursement plan for these expenses. So long as the plan meets IRS requirements, reimbursements are deductible by the business and tax-free to employees.

Need help?

The deductibility of certain expenses, such as employee wages or office supplies, is obvious. In other cases, it may be necessary to consult IRS rulings or court cases for guidance. For assistance, please contact us.

© 2018

Consider all the tax consequences before making gifts to loved ones

Many people choose to pass assets to the next generation during life, whether to reduce the size of their taxable estate, to help out family members or simply to see their loved ones enjoy the gifts. If you’re considering lifetime gifts, be aware that which assets you give can produce substantially different tax consequences.  

Multiple types of taxes

Federal gift and estate taxes generally apply at a rate of 40% to transfers in excess of your available gift and estate tax exemption. Under the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act, the exemption has approximately doubled through 2025. For 2018, it’s $11.18 million (twice that for married couples with proper estate planning strategies in place).

Even if your estate isn’t large enough for gift and estate taxes to currently be a concern, there are income tax consequences to consider. Plus, the gift and estate tax exemption is scheduled to drop back to an inflation-adjusted $5 million in 2026.

Minimizing estate tax

If your estate is large enough that estate tax is a concern, consider gifting property with the greatest future appreciation potential. You’ll remove that future appreciation from your taxable estate.

If estate tax isn’t a concern, your family may be better off tax-wise if you hold on to the property and let it appreciate in your hands. At your death, the property’s value for income tax purposes will be “stepped up” to fair market value. This means that, if your heirs sell the property, they won’t have to pay any income tax on the appreciation that occurred during your life.

Even if estate tax is a concern, you should compare the potential estate tax savings from gifting the property now to the potential income tax savings for your heirs if you hold on to the property.

Minimizing your beneficiary’s income tax

You can save income tax for your heirs by gifting property that hasn’t appreciated significantly while you’ve owned it. The beneficiary can sell the property at a minimal income tax cost.

On the other hand, hold on to property that has already appreciated significantly so that your heirs can enjoy the step-up in basis at your death. If they sell the property shortly after your death, before it’s had time to appreciate much more, they’ll owe no or minimal income tax on the sale.

Minimizing your own income tax

Don’t gift property that’s declined in value. A better option is generally to sell the property so you can take the tax loss. You can then gift the sale proceeds.

Capital losses can offset capital gains, and up to $3,000 of losses can offset other types of income, such as from salary, bonuses or retirement plan distributions. Excess losses can be carried forward until death.

Choose gifts wisely

No matter your current net worth, it’s important to choose gifts wisely. Please contact us to discuss the gift, estate and income tax consequences of any gifts you’d like to make.

© 2018

Charitable IRA rollovers may be especially beneficial in 2018

If you’re age 70½ or older, you can make direct contributions — up to $100,000 annually — from your IRA to qualified charitable organizations without owing any income tax on the distributions. This break may be especially beneficial now because of Tax Cuts and Jobs Act (TCJA) changes that affect who can benefit from the itemized deduction for charitable donations.

Counts toward your RMD

A charitable IRA rollover can be used to satisfy required minimum distributions (RMDs). You must begin to take annual RMDs from your traditional IRAs in the year you reach age 70½. If you don’t comply, you can owe a penalty equal to 50% of the amount you should have withdrawn but didn’t. (Deferral is allowed for the initial year, but you’ll have to take two RMDs the next year.)

So if you don’t need the RMD for your living expenses, a charitable IRA rollover can be a great way to comply with the RMD requirement without triggering the tax liability that would occur if the RMD were paid to you.  

Doesn’t require itemizing

You might be able to achieve a similar tax result from taking the RMD and then contributing that amount to charity. But it’s more complex because you must report the RMD as income and then take an itemized deduction for the donation.

And, with the TCJA’s near doubling of the standard deduction, fewer taxpayers will benefit from itemizing. Itemizing saves tax only when itemized deductions exceed the standard deduction. For 2018, the standard deduction is $12,000 for singles, $18,000 for heads of households, and $24,000 for married couples filing jointly.

Doesn’t have other deduction downsides

Even if you have enough other itemized deductions to exceed your standard deduction, taking your RMD and contributing that amount to charity has two more possible downsides.

First, the reported RMD income might increase your income to the point that you’re pushed into a higher tax bracket, certain additional taxes are triggered and/or the benefits of certain tax breaks are reduced or eliminated. It could even cause Social Security payments to become taxable or increase income-based Medicare premiums and prescription drug charges.

Second, if your donation would equal a large portion of your income for the year, your deduction might be reduced due to the percentage-of-income limit. You generally can’t deduct cash donations that exceed 60% of your adjusted gross income for the year.  (The TCJA raised this limit from 50%, but if the cash donation is to a private nonoperating foundation, the limit is only 30%.) You can carry forward the excess up to five years, but if you make large donations every year, that won’t help you.

A charitable IRA rollover avoids these potential negative tax consequences.

Have questions?

The considerations involved in deciding whether to make a direct IRA rollover have changed in light of the TCJA. So contact us to go over your particular situation and determine what’s right for you.

© 2018

Could a cost segregation study help you accelerate depreciation deductions?

Businesses that acquire, construct or substantially improve a building — or did so in previous years — should consider a cost segregation study. It may allow you to accelerate depreciation deductions, thus reducing taxes and boosting cash flow. And the potential benefits are now even greater due to enhancements to certain depreciation-related breaks under the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act (TCJA).

Real property vs. tangible personal property

IRS rules generally allow you to depreciate commercial buildings over 39 years (27½ years for residential properties). Most times, you’ll depreciate a building’s structural components — such as walls, windows, HVAC systems, elevators, plumbing and wiring — along with the building. Personal property — such as equipment, machinery, furniture and fixtures — is eligible for accelerated depreciation, usually over five or seven years. And land improvements — fences, outdoor lighting and parking lots, for example — are depreciable over 15 years.

Too often, businesses allocate all or most of a building’s acquisition or construction costs to real property, overlooking opportunities to allocate costs to shorter-lived personal property or land improvements. In some cases — computers or furniture, for instance — the distinction between real and personal property is obvious. But often the line between the two is less clear. Items that appear to be part of a building may in fact be personal property, like removable wall and floor coverings, removable partitions, awnings and canopies, window treatments, signs and decorative lighting.

In addition, certain items that otherwise would be treated as real property may qualify as personal property if they serve more of a business function than a structural purpose. This includes reinforced flooring to support heavy manufacturing equipment, electrical or plumbing installations required to operate specialized equipment, or dedicated cooling systems for data processing rooms.

A cost segregation study combines accounting and engineering techniques to identify building costs that are properly allocable to tangible personal property rather than real property. Although the relative costs and benefits of a cost segregation study depend on your particular facts and circumstances, it can be a valuable investment.

Depreciation break enhancements

Last year’s TCJA enhances certain depreciation-related tax breaks, which may also enhance the benefits of a cost segregation study. Among other things, the act permanently increased limits on Section 179 expensing. Sec. 179 allows you to immediately deduct the entire cost of qualifying equipment or other fixed assets up to specified thresholds.

The TCJA also expanded 15-year-property treatment to apply to qualified improvement property. Previously this break was limited to qualified leasehold-improvement, retail-improvement and restaurant property. And it temporarily increased first-year bonus depreciation to 100% (from 50%).

Assess the potential savings

Cost segregation studies may yield substantial benefits, but they’re not right for every business. To find out whether a study would be worthwhile for yours, contact us for help assessing the potential tax savings.

© 2018

Be sure your employee travel expense reimbursements will pass muster with the IRS

Does your business reimburse employees’ work-related travel expenses? If you do, you know that it can help you attract and retain employees. If you don’t, you might want to start, because changes under the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act (TCJA) make such reimbursements even more attractive to employees. Travel reimbursements also come with tax benefits, but only if you follow a method that passes muster with the IRS.

The TCJA’s impact

Before the TCJA, unreimbursed work-related travel expenses generally were deductible on an employee’s individual tax return (subject to a 50% limit for meals and entertainment) as a miscellaneous itemized deduction. However, many employees weren’t able to benefit from the deduction because either they didn’t itemize deductions or they didn’t have enough miscellaneous itemized expenses to exceed the 2% of adjusted gross income (AGI) floor that applied.

For 2018 through 2025, the TCJA suspends miscellaneous itemized deductions subject to the 2% of AGI floor. That means even employees who itemize deductions and have enough expenses that they would exceed the floor won’t be able to enjoy a tax deduction for business travel. Therefore, business travel expense reimbursements are now more important to employees.

The potential tax benefits

Your business can deduct qualifying reimbursements, and they’re excluded from the employee’s taxable income. The deduction is subject to a 50% limit for meals. But, under the TCJA, entertainment expenses are no longer deductible.

To be deductible and excludable, travel expenses must be legitimate business expenses and the reimbursements must comply with IRS rules. You can use either an accountable plan or the per diem method to ensure compliance.

Reimbursing actual expenses

An accountable plan is a formal arrangement to advance, reimburse or provide allowances for business expenses. To qualify as “accountable,” your plan must meet the following criteria:

  • Payments must be for “ordinary and necessary” business expenses.
  • Employees must substantiate these expenses — including amounts, times and places — ideally at least monthly.
  • Employees must return any advances or allowances they can’t substantiate within a reasonable time, typically 120 days.

The IRS will treat plans that fail to meet these conditions as nonaccountable, transforming all reimbursements into wages taxable to the employee, subject to income taxes (employee) and employment taxes (employer and employee).

Keeping it simple

With the per diem method, instead of tracking actual expenses, you use IRS tables to determine reimbursements for lodging, meals and incidental expenses, or just for meals and incidental expenses, based on location. (If you don’t go with the per diem method for lodging, you’ll need receipts to substantiate those expenses.)

Be sure you don’t pay employees more than the appropriate per diem amount. The IRS imposes heavy penalties on businesses that routinely overpay per diems.

What’s right for your business?

To learn more about business travel expense deductions and reimbursements post-TCJA, contact us. We can help you determine whether you should reimburse such expenses and which reimbursement option is better for you.

©2018

Tax planning for investments gets more complicated

For investors, fall is a good time to review year-to-date gains and losses. Not only can it help you assess your financial health, but it also can help you determine whether to buy or sell investments before year end to save taxes. This year, you also need to keep in mind the impact of the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act (TCJA). While the TCJA didn’t change long-term capital gains rates, it did change the tax brackets for long-term capital gains and qualified dividends.

For 2018 through 2025, these brackets are no longer linked to the ordinary-income tax brackets for individuals. So, for example, you could be subject to the top long-term capital gains rate even if you aren’t subject to the top ordinary-income tax rate.

Old rules

For the last several years, individual taxpayers faced three federal income tax rates on long-term capital gains and qualified dividends: 0%, 15% and 20%. The rate brackets were tied to the ordinary-income rate brackets.

Specifically, if the long-term capital gains and/or dividends fell within the 10% or 15% ordinary-income brackets, no federal income tax was owed. If they fell within the 25%, 28%, 33% or 35% ordinary-income brackets, they were taxed at 15%. And, if they fell within the maximum 39.6% ordinary-income bracket, they were taxed at the maximum 20% rate.

In addition, higher-income individuals with long-term capital gains and dividends were also hit with the 3.8% net investment income tax (NIIT). It kicked in when modified adjusted gross income exceeded $200,000 for singles and heads of households and $250,000 for married couples filing jointly. So, many people actually paid 18.8% (15% + 3.8%) or 23.8% (20% + 3.8%) on their long-term capital gains and qualified dividends.

New rules

The TCJA retains the 0%, 15% and 20% rates on long-term capital gains and qualified dividends for individual taxpayers. However, for 2018 through 2025, these rates have their own brackets. Here are the 2018 brackets:

Singles:

  • 0%: $0 – $38,600
  • 15%: $38,601 – $425,800
  • 20%: $425,801 and up

Heads of households:

  • 0%: $0 – $51,700
  • 15%: $51,701 – $452,400
  • 20%: $452,401 and up

Married couples filing jointly:

  • 0%: $0 – $77,200
  • 15%: $77,201 – $479,000
  • 20%: $479,001 and up

For 2018, the top ordinary-income rate of 37%, which also applies to short-term capital gains and nonqualified dividends, doesn’t go into effect until income exceeds $500,000 for singles and heads of households or $600,000 for joint filers. (Both the long-term capital gains brackets and the ordinary-income brackets will be indexed for inflation for 2019 through 2025.) The new tax law also retains the 3.8% NIIT and its $200,000 and $250,000 thresholds.

More thresholds, more complexity

With more tax rate thresholds to keep in mind, year-end tax planning for investments is especially complicated in 2018. If you have questions, please contact us.

© 2018

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