Tax law uncertainty requires an estate plan that can roll with the changes

future tax lawEvents of the last decade have taught us that taxes are anything but certain. Case in point: Congress is mulling abolishing gift and estate taxes as part of tax reform. So how can people who hope to still have long lifespans ahead of them plan their estates when the tax landscape may look dramatically different 20, 30 or 40 years from now? The answer is by taking a flexible approach that allows you to hedge your bets.

Conflicting strategies

Many traditional estate planning techniques evolved during a time when the gift and estate tax exemption was relatively low and the top estate tax rate was substantially higher than the top income tax rate. Under those circumstances, it usually made sense to remove assets from the estate early to shield future asset appreciation from estate taxes.

Today, the exemption has climbed to $5.49 million and the top gift and estate tax rate (40%) is roughly the same as the top income tax rate (39.6%). If your estate’s worth is within the exemption amount, estate tax isn’t a concern and there’s no gift and estate tax benefit to making lifetime gifts.

But under current law there’s a big income tax advantage to keeping assets in your estate: The basis of assets transferred at your death is stepped up to their current fair market value, so beneficiaries can turn around and sell them without generating capital gains tax liability. Assets you transfer by gift, however, retain your basis, so beneficiaries who sell appreciated assets face a significant tax bill.

Flexibility is key

A carefully designed trust can make it possible to remove assets from your estate now, while giving the trustee the authority to force the assets back into your estate if that turns out to be the better strategy. This allows you to shield decades of appreciation from estate tax while retaining the option to include the assets in your estate should income tax savings become a priority (assuming the step-up in basis remains, which is also uncertain).

For the technique to work, the trust must be irrevocable, the grantor (you) must retain no control over the trust assets (including the ability to remove and replace the trustee) and the trustee should have absolute discretion over distributions. In the event that estate inclusion becomes desirable, the trustee should have the authority to cause such inclusion by, for example, naming you as successor trustee or giving you a general power of appointment over the trust assets.

In determining whether to exercise this option, the trustee should consider several factors, including potential estate tax liability, if any, the beneficiaries’ potential liability for federal and state capital gains taxes, and whether the beneficiaries plan to sell or hold onto the assets.

Consider the risk

This trust type offers welcome flexibility, but it’s not risk-free. Contact us for additional information.

About the author

Brady is a shareholder in Ramsay & Associates. He specializes in financial statement preparation and personal, fiduciary and corporate tax accounting.

His professional experience includes four years tax season experience for a national CPA firm and three years full time at a local firm in Phoenix before joining us in 2006.

He has a Bachelor of Accounting degree from the University of Minnesota Duluth. He is a Certified Public Accountant, a member of the Minnesota Society of CPA’s, an Eagle Scout, as well as an active Rotarian.

Timing strategies could become more powerful in 2017, depending on what happens with tax reform

2017 year-end tax planning

Projecting your business income and expenses for this year and next can allow you to time when you recognize income and incur deductible expenses to your tax advantage. Typically, it’s better to defer tax. This might end up being especially true this year, if tax reform legislation is signed into law.

Timing strategies for businesses

Here are two timing strategies that can help businesses defer taxes:

1. Defer income to next year. If your business uses the cash method of accounting, you can defer billing for your products or services. Or, if you use the accrual method, you can delay shipping products or delivering services.

2. Accelerate deductible expenses into the current year. If you’re a cash-basis taxpayer, you may make a state estimated tax payment before December 31, so you can deduct it this year rather than next. Both cash- and accrual-basis taxpayers can charge expenses on a credit card and deduct them in the year charged, regardless of when the credit card bill is paid.

Potential impact of tax reform

These deferral strategies could be particularly powerful if tax legislation is signed into law this year that reflects the nine-page “Unified Framework for Fixing Our Broken Tax Code” that President Trump and congressional Republicans released on September 27.

Among other things, the framework calls for reduced tax rates for corporations and flow-through entities as well as the elimination of many business deductions. If such changes were to go into effect in 2018, there could be a significant incentive for businesses to defer income to 2018 and accelerate deductible expenses into 2017.

But if you think you’ll be in a higher tax bracket next year (such as if your business is having a bad year in 2017 but the outlook is much brighter for 2018 and you don’t expect that tax rates will go down), consider taking the opposite approach instead — accelerating income and deferring deductible expenses. This will increase your tax bill this year but might save you tax over the two-year period.

Be prepared

Because of tax law uncertainty, in 2017 you may want to wait until closer to the end of the year to implement some of your year-end tax planning strategies. But you need to be ready to act quickly if tax legislation is signed into law. So keep an eye on developments in Washington and contact us to discuss the best strategies for you this year based on your particular situation.

About the author

Brady is a shareholder in Ramsay & Associates. He specializes in financial statement preparation and personal, fiduciary and corporate tax accounting.

His professional experience includes four years tax season experience for a national CPA firm and three years full time at a local firm in Phoenix before joining us in 2006.

He has a Bachelor of Accounting degree from the University of Minnesota Duluth. He is a Certified Public Accountant, a member of the Minnesota Society of CPA’s, an Eagle Scout, as well as an active Rotarian.

Save more for college through the tax advantages of a 529 savings plan

Sec. 529 Plans

With kids back in school, it’s a good time for parents (and grandparents) to think about college funding. One option, which can be especially beneficial if the children in question still have many years until they’ll be starting their higher education, is a Section 529 plan.

Tax-deferred compounding

529 plans are generally state-sponsored, and the savings-plan option offers the opportunity to potentially build up a significant college nest egg because of tax-deferred compounding. So these plans can be particularly powerful if contributions begin when the child is quite young. Although contributions aren’t deductible for federal purposes, plan assets can grow tax-deferred. In addition, some states offer tax incentives for contributing.

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.

More pluses

529 plans offer other benefits as well:

  • They usually have high contribution limits.
  • There are no income-based phaseouts further limiting contributions.
  • There’s generally no beneficiary age limit for contributions or distributions.
  • You can control the account, even after the child is a legal adult.
  • You can make tax-free rollovers to another qualifying family member.

Finally, 529 plans provide estate planning benefits: A special break for 529 plans allows you to front-load five years’ worth of annual gift tax exclusions, which means you can make up to a $70,000 contribution (or $140,000 if you split the gift with your spouse) in 2017. In the case of grandparents, this also can avoid generation-skipping transfer taxes.

Minimal minuses

One negative of a 529 plan is that your investment options are limited. Another is that you can make changes to your options only twice a year or if you change the beneficiary.
But whenever you make a new contribution, you can choose a different option for that contribution, no matter how many times you contribute during the year. Also, you can make a tax-free rollover to another 529 plan for the same child every 12 months.

We’ve focused on 529 savings plans here; a prepaid tuition version of 529 plans is also available. If you’d like to learn more about either type of 529 plan, please contact us. We can also tell you about other tax-smart strategies for funding education expenses.

About the author

Brady is a shareholder in Ramsay & Associates. He specializes in financial statement preparation and personal, fiduciary and corporate tax accounting.

His professional experience includes four years tax season experience for a national CPA firm and three years full time at a local firm in Phoenix before joining us in 2006.

He has a Bachelor of Accounting degree from the University of Minnesota Duluth. He is a Certified Public Accountant, a member of the Minnesota Society of CPA’s, an Eagle Scout, as well as an active Rotarian.

Estate tax relief for family businesses is available … in the form of a deferral

Estate Tax

If a substantial portion of your wealth is tied up in a family or closely held business, you may be concerned that your estate will lack sufficient liquid assets to pay federal estate taxes. If that’s the case, your heirs may be forced to borrow funds or, in a worst-case scenario, sell the business in order to pay the tax.

For many eligible business owners, Internal Revenue Code Section 6166 provides welcome relief. It permits qualifying estates to defer a portion of their estate tax liability for up to 14 years from the date the tax is due (not the date of death). During the first four years of the deferment period, the estate pays interest only, set at only 2%, followed by 10 annual installments of principal and interest.

A deferral isn’t available for the total estate tax liability, unless a qualifying closely held business interest is the only asset in your estate. The benefit is limited to the portion of estate taxes that’s attributable to a closely held business.

Eligibility requirements

Estate tax deferral is available if the value of an “interest in a closely-held business” exceeds 35% of your adjusted gross estate. To determine whether you meet the 35% test, you may only include assets actually used in conducting a trade or business — passive investments don’t count.

Active vs. passive ownership

To qualify for an estate tax deferral, a closely held business must conduct an active trade or business, rather than merely manage investment assets. Unfortunately, it’s not always easy to distinguish between the two, particularly when real estate is involved.

The IRS provided welcome guidance on this subject in a 2006 Revenue Ruling. The ruling confirms that a “passive” owner may qualify for an estate tax deferral, so long as the entity conducts an active trade or business. The ruling also clarifies that using property management companies or other independent contractors to conduct real estate activities doesn’t disqualify a business from “active” status, so long as its activities go beyond merely holding investment assets.

In determining whether a real estate entity is conducting an active trade or business, the IRS considers such factors as the amount of time owners, employees or agents devote to the business, whether the business maintains an office with regular business hours, and the extent to which owners, employees or agents are actively involved in finding tenants and negotiating leases.

Weigh your options

As you plan your estate, consider whether your family will be eligible to defer estate taxes. If you own an interest in a real estate business, you may have an opportunity to qualify it for an estate tax deferral simply by adjusting your level of activity or increasing your ownership in an entity that manages the property. Contact us for additional details.

About the author

Brady is a shareholder in Ramsay & Associates. He specializes in financial statement preparation and personal, fiduciary and corporate tax accounting.

His professional experience includes four years tax season experience for a national CPA firm and three years full time at a local firm in Phoenix before joining us in 2006.

He has a Bachelor of Accounting degree from the University of Minnesota Duluth. He is a Certified Public Accountant, a member of the Minnesota Society of CPA’s, an Eagle Scout, as well as an active Rotarian.

Three Midyear Tax Planning Strategies for Individuals

Tax Saving Strategies

In the quest to reduce your tax bill, year end planning can only go so far. Tax-saving strategies take time to implement, so review your options now. Here are three strategies that can be more effective if you begin executing them midyear:

1. Consider your bracket

The top income tax rate is 39.6% for taxpayers with taxable income over $418,400 (singles), $444,550 (heads of households) and $470,700 (married filing jointly; half that amount for married filing separately). If you expect this year’s income to be near the threshold, consider strategies for reducing your taxable income and staying out of the top bracket. For example, you could take steps to defer income and accelerate deductible expenses. (This strategy can save tax even if you’re not at risk for the 39.6% bracket or you can’t avoid the bracket.)

You could also shift income to family members in lower tax brackets by giving them income-producing assets. This strategy won’t work, however, if the recipient is subject to the “kiddie tax.” Generally, this tax applies the parents’ marginal rate to unearned income (including investment income) received by a dependent child under the age of 19 (24 for full-time students) in excess of a specified threshold ($2,100 for 2017).

2. Look at investment income

This year, the capital gains rate for taxpayers in the top bracket is 20%. If you’ve realized, or expect to realize, significant capital gains, consider selling some depreciated investments to generate losses you can use to offset those gains. It may be possible to repurchase those investments, so long as you wait at least 31 days to avoid the “wash sale” rule.

Depending on what happens with health care and tax reform legislation, you also may need to plan for the 3.8% net investment income tax (NIIT). Under the Affordable Care Act, this tax can affect taxpayers with modified adjusted gross income (MAGI) over $200,000 ($250,000 for joint filers). The NIIT applies to net investment income for the year or the excess of MAGI over the threshold, whichever is less. So, if the NIIT remains in effect (check back with us for the latest information), you may be able to lower your tax liability by reducing your MAGI, reducing net investment income or both.

3. Plan for medical expenses

The threshold for deducting medical expenses is 10% of AGI. You can deduct only expenses that exceed that floor. (The threshold could be affected by health care legislation. Again, check back with us for the latest information.)

Deductible expenses may include health insurance premiums (if not deducted from your wages pretax); long-term care insurance premiums (age-based limits apply); medical and dental services and prescription drugs (if not reimbursable by insurance or paid through a tax-advantaged account); and mileage driven for health care purposes (17 cents per mile driven in 2017). You may be able to control the timing of some of these expenses so you can bunch them into every other year and exceed the applicable floor.

These are just a few ideas for slashing your 2017 tax bill. To benefit from midyear tax planning, consult us now. If you wait until the end of the year, it may be too late to execute the strategies that would save you the most tax.

About the author

Brady is a shareholder in Ramsay & Associates. He specializes in financial statement preparation and personal, fiduciary and corporate tax accounting.

His professional experience includes four years tax season experience for a national CPA firm and three years full time at a local firm in Phoenix before joining us in 2006.

He has a Bachelor of Accounting degree from the University of Minnesota Duluth. He is a Certified Public Accountant, a member of the Minnesota Society of CPA’s, an Eagle Scout, as well as an active Rotarian.

Six Ways to Control Your Unemployment Tax Costs

Unemployment Tax

Unemployment tax rates for employers vary from state to state. Your unemployment tax bill may be influenced by the number of former employees who’ve filed unemployment claims with the state, your current number of employees and your business’s age. Typically, the more claims made against a business, the higher the unemployment tax bill.

Here are six ways to control your unemployment tax costs:

  1. Buy down your unemployment tax rate if your state permits it. Some states allow employers to annually buy down their rate. If you’re eligible, this could save you substantial dollars in unemployment taxes.
  2. Hire new staff conservatively. Remember, your unemployment payments are based partly on the number of employees who file unemployment claims. You don’t want to hire employees to fill a need now, only to have to lay them off if business slows. A temporary staffing agency can help you meet short-term needs without permanently adding staff, so you can avoid layoffs. This is also a good way to try out a candidate.
  3. Assess candidates before hiring them. Often it’s worth a small financial investment to have job candidates undergo prehiring assessments to see if they’re the right match for your business and the position available. Hiring carefully will increase the likelihood that new employees will work out.
  4. Train for success. Many unemployment insurance claimants are awarded benefits despite employer assertions that the employee failed to perform adequately. Often this is because the hearing officer concluded the employer hadn’t provided the employee with enough training to succeed in the position.
  5. Handle terminations thoughtfully. If you must terminate an employee, consider giving him or her severance as well as offering outplacement benefits. Severance pay may reduce or delay the start of unemployment insurance benefits. Effective outplacement services may hasten the end of unemployment insurance benefits, because the claimant has found a new job.
  6. Leverage an acquisition. If you’ve recently acquired another company, it may have a lower established tax rate that you can use instead of the tax rate that’s been set for your existing business. You also may be able to request the transfer of the previous company’s unemployment reserve fund balance.

If you have questions about unemployment taxes and how you can reduce them, contact our firm. We’d be pleased to help.

About the author

Brady is a shareholder in Ramsay & Associates. He specializes in financial statement preparation and personal, fiduciary and corporate tax accounting.

His professional experience includes four years tax season experience for a national CPA firm and three years full time at a local firm in Phoenix before joining us in 2006.

He has a Bachelor of Accounting degree from the University of Minnesota Duluth. He is a Certified Public Accountant, a member of the Minnesota Society of CPA’s, an Eagle Scout, as well as an active Rotarian.

Happy Labor Day Weekend!

Labor Day 2017

Happy Labor Day Weekend! Our offices will be closed Monday, September 4th. Enjoy the weekend!

About the author

Brady is a shareholder in Ramsay & Associates. He specializes in financial statement preparation and personal, fiduciary and corporate tax accounting.

His professional experience includes four years tax season experience for a national CPA firm and three years full time at a local firm in Phoenix before joining us in 2006.

He has a Bachelor of Accounting degree from the University of Minnesota Duluth. He is a Certified Public Accountant, a member of the Minnesota Society of CPA’s, an Eagle Scout, as well as an active Rotarian.

Nonqualified stock options demand tax planning attention

stock-based compensationYour compensation may take several forms, including salary, fringe benefits and bonuses. If you work for a corporation, you might also receive stock-based compensation, such as stock options. These come in two varieties: nonqualified (NQSOs) and incentive (ISOs). With both NQSOs and ISOs, if the stock appreciates beyond your exercise price, you can buy shares at a price below what they’re trading for.

The tax consequences of these types of compensation can be complex. So smart tax planning is critical. Let’s take a closer look at the tax treatment of NQSOs, and how it differs from that of the perhaps better known ISOs.

Compensation income

NQSOs create compensation income — taxed at ordinary-income rates — on the “bargain element” (the difference between the stock’s fair market value and the exercise price) when exercised. This is regardless of whether the stock is held or sold immediately.

ISOs, on the other hand, generally don’t create compensation income taxed at ordinary rates unless you sell the stock from the exercise without holding it for more than a year, in a “disqualified disposition.” If the stock from an ISO exercise is held more than one year, then generally your lower long-term capital gains tax rate applies when you sell the stock.

Also, NQSO exercises don’t create an alternative minimum tax (AMT) preference item that can trigger AMT liability. ISO exercises can trigger AMT unless the stock is sold in a disqualified disposition (though it’s possible the AMT could be repealed under tax reform legislation).

More tax consequences to consider

When you exercise NQSOs, you may need to make estimated tax payments or increase withholding to fully cover the tax. Otherwise you might face underpayment penalties.

Also keep in mind that an exercise could trigger or increase exposure to top tax rates, the additional 0.9% Medicare tax and the 3.8% net investment income tax (NIIT). These two taxes might be repealed or reduced as part of Affordable Care Act repeal and replace legislation or tax reform legislation, possibly retroactive to January 1 of this year. But that’s still uncertain.

Have tax questions about NQSOs or other stock-based compensation? Let us know — we’d be happy to answer them.

About the author

Brady is a shareholder in Ramsay & Associates. He specializes in financial statement preparation and personal, fiduciary and corporate tax accounting.

His professional experience includes four years tax season experience for a national CPA firm and three years full time at a local firm in Phoenix before joining us in 2006.

He has a Bachelor of Accounting degree from the University of Minnesota Duluth. He is a Certified Public Accountant, a member of the Minnesota Society of CPA’s, an Eagle Scout, as well as an active Rotarian.

Material participation key to deducting LLC and LLP losses

Material participation

If your business is a limited liability company (LLC) or a limited liability partnership (LLP), you know that these structures offer liability protection and flexibility as well as tax advantages. But they once also had a significant tax disadvantage: The IRS used to treat all LLC and LLP owners as limited partners for purposes of the passive activity loss (PAL) rules, which can result in negative tax consequences. Fortunately, these days LLC and LLP owners can be treated as general partners, which means they can meet any one of seven “material participation” tests to avoid passive treatment.

The PAL rules

The PAL rules prohibit taxpayers from offsetting losses from passive business activities (such as limited partnerships or rental properties) against nonpassive income (such as wages, interest, dividends and capital gains). Disallowed losses may be carried forward to future years and deducted from passive income or recovered when the passive business interest is sold.

There are two types of passive activities: 1) trade or business activities in which you don’t materially participate during the year, and 2) rental activities, even if you do materially participate (unless you qualify as a “real estate professional” for federal tax purposes).

The 7 tests

Material participation in this context means participation on a “regular, continuous and substantial” basis. Unless you’re a limited partner, you’re deemed to materially participate in a business activity if you meet just one of seven tests:

  1. You participate in the activity at least 500 hours during the year.
  2. Your participation constitutes substantially all of the participation for the year by anyone, including nonowners.
  3. You participate more than 100 hours and as much or more than any other person.
  4. The activity is a “significant participation activity” — that is, you participate more than 100 hours — but you participate less than one or more other people yet your participation in all of your significant participation activities for the year totals more than 500 hours.
  5. You materially participated in the activity for any five of the preceding 10 tax years.
  6. The activity is a personal service activity in which you materially participated in any three previous tax years.
  7. Regardless of the number of hours, based on all the facts and circumstances, you participate in the activity on a regular, continuous and substantial basis.

The rules are more restrictive for limited partners, who can establish material participation only by satisfying tests 1, 5 or 6.In many cases, meeting one of the material participation tests will require diligently tracking every hour spent on your activities associated with that business. Questions about the material participation tests? Contact us.

About the author

Brady is a shareholder in Ramsay & Associates. He specializes in financial statement preparation and personal, fiduciary and corporate tax accounting.

His professional experience includes four years tax season experience for a national CPA firm and three years full time at a local firm in Phoenix before joining us in 2006.

He has a Bachelor of Accounting degree from the University of Minnesota Duluth. He is a Certified Public Accountant, a member of the Minnesota Society of CPA’s, an Eagle Scout, as well as an active Rotarian.