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What the self-employed need to know about employment taxes

In addition to income tax, you must pay Social Security and Medicare taxes on earned income, such as salary and self-employment income. The 12.4% Social Security tax applies only up to the Social Security wage base of $118,500 for 2016. All earned income is subject to the 2.9% Medicare tax.

The taxes are split equally between the employee and the employer. But if you’re self-employed, you pay both the employee and employer portions of these taxes on your self-employment income.

Additional 0.9% Medicare tax

Another employment tax that higher-income taxpayers must be aware of is the additional 0.9% Medicare tax. It applies to FICA wages and net self-employment income exceeding $200,000 per year ($250,000 for married filing jointly and $125,000 for married filing separately).

If your wages or self-employment income varies significantly from year to year or you’re close to the threshold for triggering the additional Medicare tax, income timing strategies may help you avoid or minimize it. For example, as a self-employed taxpayer, you may have flexibility on when you purchase new equipment or invoice customers. If your self-employment income is from a part-time activity and you’re also an employee elsewhere, perhaps you can time with your employer when you receive a bonus.

Something else to consider in this situation is the withholding rules. Employers must withhold the additional Medicare tax beginning in the pay period when wages exceed $200,000 for the calendar year — without regard to an employee’s filing status or income from other sources. So your employer might not withhold the tax even though you are liable for it due to your self-employment income.

If you do owe the tax but your employer isn’t withholding it, consider filing a W-4 form to request additional income tax withholding, which can be used to cover the shortfall and avoid interest and penalties. Or you can make estimated tax payments.

Deductions for the self-employed

For the self-employed, the employer portion of employment taxes (6.2% for Social Security tax and 1.45% for Medicare tax) is deductible above the line. (No portion of the additional Medicare tax is deductible, because there’s no employer portion of that tax.)

As a self-employed taxpayer, you may benefit from other above-the-line deductions as well. You can deduct 100% of health insurance costs for yourself, your spouse and your dependents, up to your net self-employment income. You also can deduct contributions to a retirement plan and, if you’re eligible, an HSA for yourself. Above-the-line deductions are particularly valuable because they reduce your adjusted gross income (AGI) and modified AGI (MAGI), which are the triggers for certain additional taxes and the phaseouts of many tax breaks.

For more information on the ins and outs of employment taxes and tax breaks for the self-employed, please contact us.

© 2016

Tax impact of investor vs. trader status

If you invest, whether you’re considered an investor or a trader can have a significant impact on your tax bill. Do you know the difference?

Investors

Most people who trade stocks are classified as investors for tax purposes. This means any net gains are treated as capital gains rather than ordinary income.

That’s good if your net gains are long-term (that is, you’ve held the investment more than a year) because you can enjoy the lower long-term capital gains rate. However, any investment-related expenses (such as margin interest, stock tracking software, etc.) are deductible only if you itemize and, in some cases, only if the total of the expenses exceeds 2% of your adjusted gross income.

Traders

Traders have it better in some situations. Their expenses reduce gross income even if they can’t itemize deductions and not just for regular tax purposes, but also for alternative minimum tax purposes.

Plus, in certain circumstances, if traders have a net loss for the year, they can claim it as an ordinary loss (so it can offset other ordinary income) rather than a capital loss. Capital losses are limited to a $3,000 ($1,500 if married filing separately) per year deduction once any capital gains have been offset.

Passing the trader test

What does it take to successfully meet the test for trader status? The answer is twofold:

1. The trading must be “substantial.” While there’s no bright line test, the courts have tended to view more than a thousand trades a year, spread over most of the available trading days, as substantial.

2. The trading must be designed to try to catch the swings in the daily market movements. In other words, you must be attempting to profit from these short-term changes rather than from the long-term holding of investments. So the average duration for holding any one position needs to be very short, generally only a day or two.

If you satisfy these conditions, the chances are good that you’d ultimately be able to prove trader vs. investor status. Of course, even if you don’t satisfy one of the tests, you might still prevail, but the odds against you are higher. If you have questions, please contact us.

© 2016


Prepaid tuition vs. college savings: Which type of 529 plan is better?

Section 529 plans provide a tax-advantaged way to help pay for college expenses. Here are just a few of the benefits:

  • Although contributions aren’t deductible for federal purposes, plan assets can grow tax-deferred.
  • Some states offer tax incentives for contributing in the form of deductions or credits.
  • The plans usually offer high contribution limits, and there are no income limits for contributing.

Prepaid tuition plans

With this type of 529 plan, if your contract is for four years of tuition, tuition is guaranteed regardless of its cost at the time the beneficiary actually attends the school. This can provide substantial savings if you invest when the child is still very young.

One downside is that there’s uncertainty in how benefits will be applied if the beneficiary attends a different school. Another is that the plan doesn’t cover costs other than tuition, such as room and board.

Savings plan

This type of 529 plan can be used to pay a student’s expenses at most postsecondary educational institutions. Distributions used to pay qualified expenses (such as tuition, mandatory fees, books, supplies, computer equipment, software, Internet service and, generally, room and board) are income-tax-free for federal purposes and typically for state purposes as well, thus making the tax deferral a permanent savings.

The biggest downside may be that you don’t have direct control over investment decisions; you’re limited to the options the plan offers. Additionally, for funds already in the plan, you can make changes to your investment options only twice during the year or when you change beneficiaries.

But each time you make a new contribution to a 529 savings plan, you can select a different option for that contribution, regardless of how many times you contribute throughout the year. And every 12 months you can make a tax-free rollover to a different 529 plan for the same child.

As you can see, each 529 plan type has its pluses and minuses. Whether a prepaid tuition plan or a savings plan is better depends on your situation and goals. If you’d like help choosing, please contact us.

© 2016


Tax-smart options for your old retirement plan when you change jobs

There’s a lot to think about when you change jobs, and it’s easy for a 401(k) or other employer-sponsored retirement plan to get lost in the shuffle. But to keep building tax-deferred savings, it’s important to make an informed decision about your old plan. First and foremost, don’t take a lump-sum distribution from your old employer’s retirement plan. It generally will be taxable and, if you’re under age 59½, subject to a 10% early-withdrawal penalty. Here are three tax-smart alternatives:

1. Stay put. You may be able to leave your money in your old plan. But if you’ll be participating in your new employer’s plan or you already have an IRA, keeping track of multiple plans can make managing your retirement assets more difficult. Also consider how well the old plan’s investment options meet your needs.

2. Roll over to your new employer’s plan. This may be beneficial if it leaves you with only one retirement plan to keep track of. But evaluate the new plan’s investment options.

3. Roll over to an IRA. If you participate in your new employer’s plan, this will require keeping track of two plans. But it may be the best alternative because IRAs offer nearly unlimited investment choices.

If you choose a rollover, request a direct rollover from your old plan to your new plan or IRA. If instead the funds are sent to you by check, you’ll need to make an indirect rollover (that is, deposit the funds into an IRA) within 60 days to avoid tax and potential penalties.

Also, be aware that the check you receive from your old plan will, unless an exception applies, be net of 20% federal income tax withholding. If you don’t roll over the gross amount (making up for the withheld amount with other funds), you’ll be subject to income tax — and potentially the 10% penalty — on the difference.

There are additional issues to consider when deciding what to do with your old retirement plan. We can help you make an informed decision — and avoid potential tax traps.

© 2016


Beware of income-based limits on itemized deductions and personal exemptions

Many tax breaks are reduced or eliminated for higher-income taxpayers. Two of particular note are the itemized deduction reduction and the personal exemption phaseout.

Income thresholds

If your adjusted gross income (AGI) exceeds the applicable threshold, most of your itemized deductions will be reduced by 3% of the AGI amount that exceeds the threshold (not to exceed 80% of otherwise allowable deductions). For 2016, the thresholds are $259,400 (single), $285,350 (head of household), $311,300 (married filing jointly) and $155,650 (married filing separately). The limitation doesn’t apply to deductions for medical expenses, investment interest, or casualty, theft or wagering losses.

Exceeding the applicable AGI threshold also could cause your personal exemptions to be reduced or even eliminated. The personal exemption phaseout reduces exemptions by 2% for each $2,500 (or portion thereof) by which a taxpayer’s AGI exceeds the applicable threshold (2% for each $1,250 for married taxpayers filing separately).

The limits in action

These AGI-based limits can be very costly to high-income taxpayers. Consider this example:
Steve and Mary are married and have four dependent children. In 2016, they expect to have an AGI of $1 million and will be in the top tax bracket (39.6%). Without the AGI-based exemption phaseout, their $24,300 of personal exemptions ($4,050 × 6) would save them $9,623 in taxes ($24,300 × 39.6%). But because their personal exemptions are completely phased out, they’ll lose that tax benefit.

The AGI-based itemized deduction reduction can also be expensive. Steve and Mary could lose the benefit of as much as $20,661 [3% × ($1 million − $311,300)] of their itemized deductions that are subject to the reduction — at a tax cost as high as $8,182 ($20,661 × 39.6%).

These two AGI-based provisions combined could increase the couple’s tax by $17,805!

Year-end tips

If your AGI is close to the applicable threshold, AGI-reduction strategies — such as contributing to a retirement plan or Health Savings Account — may allow you to stay under it. If that’s not possible, consider the reduced tax benefit of the affected deductions before implementing strategies to accelerate deductible expenses into 2016. If you expect to be under the threshold in 2017, you may be better off deferring certain deductible expenses to next year.

For more details on these and other income-based limits, help assessing whether you’re likely to be affected by them or more tips for reducing their impact, please contact us.

© 2016

Are you coordinating your income tax planning with your estate plan?

Until recently, estate planning strategies typically focused on minimizing federal gift and estate taxes, such as by giving away assets during life to reduce the taxable estate. Today, however, the focus has moved toward income taxes, making the coordination of income tax planning and estate planning more important.

Why the change?

Since 2001, the federal exemption has grown from $675,000 to $5.45 million, meaning that fewer people have to worry about gift and estate tax liability. In addition, the top gift and estate tax rate has decreased from 55% to 40%, while the top individual income tax rate has increased to 39.6% — nearly as high as the top gift and estate tax rate.

The heightened importance of income taxes means that holding assets until death may be advantageous. If you give away an appreciated asset, the recipient takes over your tax basis in the asset, triggering capital gains tax should he or she turn around and sell it.

When an appreciated asset is inherited, on the other hand, the recipient’s basis is “stepped up” to the asset’s fair market value on the date of death, erasing the built-in capital gain. So retaining appreciating assets until death can save significant income tax.

Year end strategy

It is, however, possible to transfer appreciated assets now without your family taking a capital gains tax hit. Such a strategy can be beneficial if you have appreciated assets you’ve held more than one year that you’d like to sell, but you’re concerned about the impact on your 2016 tax bill.

You just need to have family members who are in the 10% or 15% regular income tax bracket and thus eligible for the 0% long-term capital gains rate. Then you can transfer the appreciated assets to them and they can sell the assets tax-free (to the extent the gains don’t push them into a higher bracket).

The transfer won’t create gift tax liability, either, as long as you can apply your $14,000 per year per recipient gift tax annual exclusion or a portion of your lifetime exemption. But before transferring the assets, make sure the recipient won’t be subject to the “kiddie” tax.

Of course, depending on the outcome of the November elections, gift and estate taxes could again surpass income taxes in estate planning importance for some families. If you have questions about coordinating your income tax planning with your estate plan, please contact us.

© 2016


Accelerating your property tax deduction to reduce your 2016 tax bill

Smart timing of deductible expenses can reduce your tax liability, and poor timing can unnecessarily increase it. When you don’t expect to be subject to the alternative minimum tax (AMT) in the current year, accelerating deductible expenses into the current year typically is a good idea. Why? Because it will defer tax, which usually is beneficial. One deductible expense you may be able to control is your property tax payment.

You can prepay (by December 31) property taxes that relate to 2016 but that are due in 2017, and deduct the payment on your return for this year. But you generally can’t prepay property taxes that relate to 2017 and deduct the payment on this year’s return.

Should you or shouldn’t you?

As noted earlier, accelerating deductible expenses like property tax payments generally is beneficial. Prepaying your property tax may be especially beneficial if tax rates go down for 2017, which could happen based on the outcome of the November election. Deductions save more tax when tax rates are higher.

However, under the President-elect’s proposed tax plan, some taxpayers (such as certain single and head of household filers) might be subject to higher tax rates. These taxpayers may save more tax from the property tax deduction by holding off on paying their property tax until it’s due next year.

Likewise, taxpayers who expect to see a big jump in their income next year that would push them into a higher tax bracket also may benefit by not prepaying their property tax bill.

More considerations

Property tax isn’t deductible for AMT purposes. If you’re subject to the AMT this year, a prepayment may hurt you because you’ll lose the benefit of the deduction. So before prepaying your property tax, make sure you aren’t at AMT risk for 2016.

Also, don’t forget the income-based itemized deduction reduction. If your income is high enough that the reduction applies to you, the tax benefit of a prepayment will be reduced.

Not sure whether you should prepay your property tax bill or what other deductions you might be able to accelerate into 2016 (or should consider deferring to 2017)? Contact us. We can help you determine the best year-end tax planning strategies for your specific situation.

© 2016

Few changes to retirement plan contribution limits for 2017

Retirement plan contribution limits are indexed for inflation, but with inflation remaining low, most of the limits remain unchanged for 2017. The only limit that has increased from the 2016 level is for contributions to defined contribution plans, which has gone up by $1,000.

Nevertheless, if you’re not already maxing out your contributions, you still have an opportunity to save more in 2017. And if you turn age 50 in 2017, you can begin to take advantage of catch-up contributions.

However, keep in mind that additional factors may affect how much you’re allowed to contribute (or how much your employer can contribute on your behalf). For example, income-based limits may reduce or eliminate your ability to make Roth IRA contributions or to make deductible traditional IRA contributions. If you have questions about how much you can contribute to tax-advantaged retirement plans in 2017, check with us.

© 2016

A brief overview of the President-elect’s tax plan for individuals

 

Now that Donald Trump has been elected President of the United States and Republicans have retained control of both chambers of Congress, an overhaul of the U.S. tax code next year is likely. President-elect Trump’s tax reform plan, released earlier this year, includes the following changes that would affect individuals:

• Reducing the number of income tax brackets from seven to three, with rates on ordinary income of 12%, 25% and 33% (reducing rates for many taxpayers but resulting in a tax hike for certain single filers),
• Aligning the 0%, 15% and 20% long-term capital gains and qualified dividends rates with the new brackets,
• Eliminating the head of household filing status (which could cause rates to go up for some of these filers, who would have to file as singles),
• Abolishing the net investment income tax,
• Eliminating the personal exemption (but expanding child-related breaks),
• More than doubling the standard deduction, to $15,000 for singles and $30,000 for married couples filing jointly,
• Capping itemized deductions at $100,000 for single filers and $200,000 for joint filers,
• Abolishing the alternative minimum tax, and
• Abolishing the federal gift and estate tax, but disallowing the step-up in basis for estates worth more than $10 million.

The House Republicans’ plan is somewhat different. And because Republicans didn’t reach the 60 Senate members necessary to become filibuster-proof, they may need to compromise on some issues in order to get their legislation through the Senate. The bottom line is that exactly which proposals will make it into legislation and signed into law is uncertain, but major changes are just about a sure thing.

If it looks like you could be eligible for lower income tax rates next year, it may make sense to accelerate deductible expenses into 2016 (when they may be more valuable) and defer income to 2017 (when it might be subject to a lower tax rate). But if it looks like your rates could be higher next year, the opposite approach may be beneficial.

In either situation, there is some risk to these strategies, given the uncertainty as to exactly what tax law changes will be enacted. We can help you create the best year-end tax strategy based on how potential changes may affect your specific situation.

© 2016

Kansas City CPA | Gladstone CPA | Parkville CPA

Why you should have a CPA

Come tax time you may find yourself asking should I hire a Certified Professional Accountant (CPA) to prepare my income taxes this year?  The simple answer is YES, but let us explain why. Every year taxpayers fail to file their taxes and they make simple mistakes that can cost thousands of dollars.  A CPA can help reduce the number of errors and remind you of tax filing deadlines.  To sit for the CPA exam, a candidate must possess a certain education level geared towards accounting.  In addition to education, there are work experience requirements.  To maintain a license, a CPA is required to complete Continuing Professional Education Courses each year.  Under the AICPA a CPA has a code of ethics the must be adhered to and followed.

Choosing a Local CPA

Now that you have decided to use a professional let’s take a look at choosing the right CPA.  First, you will want to make sure the CPA license holder is, in fact, licensed.  Most states provide a means to check the credentials, but each state can be different.  For instance, in Missouri, a database is kept for each licensed individual, such as Shawn Williams, CPA.  You can also check on the status of the CPA Firm in the State of Missouri.  When you begin your search using terms such as Find a CPA or CPA near me you will be given a list of results, but how do you sort through this list?  There are some questions you should ask.  What is the policy in regards to satisfaction, i.e. if I am not satisfied with your services what are my remedies?  You will also want to check that the CPA and/or firm maintains Professional Insurance, this insurance is in addition to general liability.  Professional Insurance can be used when the CPA firm makes a mistake.  Another important question to ask about is billing procedure for general inquiries.  Some companies charge for every phone call or email.  The practice of this firm is not to charge for general inquiries and issues lasting less than 15 minutes.

Some other advantages of choosing a CPA for Income Tax Preparation:

  • Provide timely tax savings advice.
  • Provide family tax planning for issues such as children education, divorce, trust, and estates.
  • Act as a liaison between yourself and the Internal Revenue Service or State Government.
  • Guidance as it relates to deductible and non deductible retirement contributions.
  • Calculate future tax amounts including quarterly estimates and employer withholding.
  • Explain general income tax related questions.
  • Tax Notice response and Tax Audit support.