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How Series EE savings bonds are taxed

How Series EE savings bonds are taxed

Many people have Series EE savings bonds that were purchased many years ago. Perhaps they were given to your children as gifts or maybe you bought them yourself and put them away in a file cabinet or safe deposit box. You may wonder: How is the interest you earn on EE bonds taxed? And if they reach final maturity, what action do you need to take to ensure there’s no loss of interest or unanticipated tax consequences?

Fixed or variable interest

Series EE Bonds dated May 2005, and after, earn a fixed rate of interest. Bonds purchased between May 1997 and April 30, 2005, earn a variable market-based rate of return.

Paper Series EE bonds were sold at half their face value. For example, if you own a $50 bond, you paid $25 for it. The bond isn’t worth its face value until it matures. (The U.S. Treasury Department no longer issues EE bonds in paper form.) Electronic Series EE Bonds are sold at face value and are worth their full value when available for redemption.

The minimum term of ownership is one year, but a penalty is imposed if the bond is redeemed in the first five years. The bonds earn interest for 30 years.

Interest generally accrues until redemption

Series EE bonds don’t pay interest currently. Instead, the accrued interest is reflected in the redemption value of the bond. The U.S. Treasury issues tables showing the redemption values.

The interest on EE bonds isn’t taxed as it accrues unless the owner elects to have it taxed annually. If an election is made, all previously accrued but untaxed interest is also reported in the election year. In most cases, this election isn’t made so bond holders receive the benefits of tax deferral.

If the election to report the interest annually is made, it will apply to all bonds and for all future years. That is, the election cannot be made on a bond-by-bond or year-by-year basis. However, there’s a procedure under which the election can be canceled.

If the election isn’t made, all of the accrued interest is finally taxed when the bond is redeemed or otherwise disposed of (unless it was exchanged for a Series HH bond). The bond continues to accrue interest even after reaching its face value, but at “final maturity” (after 30 years) interest stops accruing and must be reported.

Note: Interest on EE bonds isn’t subject to state income tax. And using the money for higher education may keep you from paying federal income tax on your interest.

Reaching final maturity

One of the main reasons for buying EE bonds is the fact that interest can build up without having to currently report or pay tax on it. Unfortunately, the law doesn’t allow for this tax-free buildup to continue indefinitely. When the bonds reach final maturity, they stop earning interest.

Series EE bonds issued in January 1990 reached final maturity after 30 years, in January 2020. That means that not only have they stopped earning interest, but all of the accrued and as yet untaxed interest is taxable in 2020.

If you own EE bonds (paper or electronic), check the issue dates on your bonds. If they’re no longer earning interest, you probably want to redeem them and put the money into something more profitable. Contact us if you have any questions about savings bond taxation, including Series HH and Series I bonds.

Vlad Alyokhin, CPA, Professional Corporation © 2020

Disability income: How is it taxed in the US?

Disability income: How is it taxed in the US?

Many Americans receive disability income. You may wonder if — and how — it’s taxed. As is often the case with tax questions, the answer is … it depends.

The key factor is who paid for the benefit. If the income is paid directly to you by your employer, it’s taxable to you as ordinary salary would be. (Taxable benefits are also subject to federal income tax withholding, although depending on the employer’s disability plan, in some cases aren’t subject to the Social Security tax.)

Frequently, the payments aren’t made by the employer but by an insurance company under a policy providing disability coverage or, under an arrangement having the effect of accident or health insurance. If this is the case, the tax treatment depends on who paid for the coverage. If your employer paid for it, then the income is taxed to you just as if paid directly to you by the employer. On the other hand, if it’s a policy you paid for, the payments you receive under it aren’t taxable.

Even if your employer arranges for the coverage, (in other words, it’s a policy made available to you at work), the benefits aren’t taxed to you if you pay the premiums. For these purposes, if the premiums are paid by the employer but the amount paid is included as part of your taxable income from work, the premiums are treated as paid by you.

A couple of examples

Let’s say your salary is $1,000 a week ($52,000 a year). Additionally, under a disability insurance arrangement made available to you by your employer, $10 a week ($520 for the year) is paid on your behalf by your employer to an insurance company. You include $52,520 in income as your wages for the year: the $52,000 paid to you plus the $520 in disability insurance premiums. In this case, the insurance is treated as paid for by you. If you become disabled and receive benefits, they aren’t taxable income to you.

Now, let’s look at an example with the same facts as above. Except in this case, you include only $52,000 in income as your wages for the year because the amount paid for the insurance coverage qualifies as excludable under the rules for employer-provided health and accident plans. In this case, the insurance is treated as paid for by your employer. If you become disabled and receive benefits, they are taxable income to you.

Note: There are special rules in the case of a permanent loss (or loss of the use) of a part or function of the body, or a permanent disfigurement.

Social Security benefits

This discussion doesn’t cover the tax treatment of Social Security disability benefits. These benefits may be taxed to you under different rules.

How much coverage is needed?

In deciding how much disability coverage you need to protect yourself and your family, take the tax treatment into consideration. If you’re buying the policy yourself, you only have to replace your after tax, “take-home” income because your benefits won’t be taxed. On the other hand, if your employer pays for the benefit, you’ll lose a percentage to taxes. If your current coverage is insufficient, you may wish to supplement an employer benefit with a policy you take out.

Contact us if you’d like to discuss this in more detail.

Vlad Alyokhin, CPA, Professional Corporation © 2020

Divorcing couples should understand these 4 US tax issues.

Divorcing couples should understand these 4 US tax issues.

When a couple is going through a divorce, taxes are probably not foremost in their minds. But without proper planning and advice, some people find divorce to be an even more taxing experience. Several tax concerns need to be addressed to ensure that taxes are kept to a minimum and that important tax-related decisions are properly made. Here are four issues to understand if you’re in the midst of a divorce.

Issue 1: Alimony or support payments. For alimony under divorce or separation agreements that are executed after 2018, there’s no deduction for alimony and separation support payments for the spouse making them. And the alimony payments aren’t included in the gross income of the spouse receiving them. (The rules are different for divorce or separation agreements executed before 2019.)

Issue 2: Child support. No matter when a divorce or separation instrument is executed, child support payments aren’t deductible by the paying spouse (or taxable to the recipient).

Issue 3: Your residence. Generally, if a married couple sells their home in connection with a divorce or legal separation, they should be able to avoid tax on up to $500,000 of gain (as long as they’ve owned and used the residence as their principal residence for two of the previous five years). If one spouse continues to live in the home and the other moves out (but they both remain owners of the home), they may still be able to avoid gain on the future sale of the home (up to $250,000 each), but special language may have to be included in the divorce decree or separation agreement to protect the exclusion for the spouse who moves out.

If the couple doesn’t meet the two-year ownership and use tests, any gain from the sale may qualify for a reduced exclusion due to unforeseen circumstances.

Issue 4: Pension benefits. A spouse’s pension benefits are often part of a divorce property settlement. In these cases, the commonly preferred method to handle the benefits is to get a “qualified domestic relations order” (QDRO). This gives one spouse the right to share in the pension benefits of the other and taxes the spouse who receives the benefits. Without a QDRO the spouse who earned the benefits will still be taxed on them even though they’re paid out to the other spouse.

More to consider

These are just some of the issues you may have to deal with if you’re getting a divorce. In addition, you must decide how to file your tax return (single, married filing jointly, married filing separately or head of household). You may need to adjust your income tax withholding and you should notify the IRS of any new address or name change. If you own a business, you may have to pay your spouse a share. There are also estate planning considerations. Contact us to help you work through the financial issues involved in divorce.

Vlad Alyokhin, CPA, Professional Corporation © 2020

Buying and selling mutual fund shares: Avoid these tax pitfalls

Buying and selling mutual fund shares: Avoid these tax pitfalls

If you invest in mutual funds, be aware of some potential pitfalls involved in buying and selling shares.

Surprise sales

You may already have made taxable “sales” of part of your mutual fund investment without knowing it.

One way this can happen is if your mutual fund allows you to write checks against your fund investment. Every time you write a check against your mutual fund account, you’ve made a partial sale of your interest in the fund. Thus, except for funds such as money market funds, for which share value remains constant, you may have taxable gain (or a deductible loss) when you write a check. And each such sale is a separate transaction that must be reported on your tax return.

Here’s another way you may unexpectedly make a taxable sale. If your mutual fund sponsor allows you to make changes in the way your money is invested — for instance, lets you switch from one fund to another fund — making that switch is treated as a taxable sale of your shares in the first fund.

Recordkeeping

Carefully save all the statements that the fund sends you — not only official tax statements, such as Forms 1099-DIV, but the confirmations the fund sends you when you buy or sell shares or when dividends are reinvested in new shares. Unless you keep these records, it may be difficult to prove how much you paid for the shares, and thus, you won’t be able to establish the amount of gain that’s subject to tax (or the amount of loss you can deduct) when you sell.

You also need to keep these records to prove how long you’ve held your shares if you want to take advantage of favorable long-term capital gain tax rates. (If you get a year-end statement that lists all your transactions for the year, you can just keep that and discard quarterly or other interim statements. But save anything that specifically says it contains tax information.)

Recordkeeping is simplified by rules that require funds to report the customer’s basis in shares sold and whether any gain or loss is short-term or long-term. This is mandatory for mutual fund shares acquired after 2011, and some funds will provide this to shareholders for shares they acquired earlier, if the fund has the information.

Timing purchases and sales

If you’re planning to invest in a mutual fund, there are some important tax consequences to take into account in timing the investment. For instance, an investment shortly before payment of a dividend is something you should generally try to avoid. Your receipt of the dividend (even if reinvested in additional shares) will be treated as income and increase your tax liability. If you’re planning a sale of any of your mutual fund shares near year-end, you should weigh the tax and the non-tax consequences in the current year versus a sale in the next year.

Identify shares you sell

If you sell fewer than all of the shares that you hold in the same mutual fund, there are complicated rules for identifying which shares you’ve sold. The proper application of these rules can reduce the amount of your taxable gain or qualify the gain for favorable long-term capital gain treatment.

Contact us if you’d like to find out more about tax planning for buying and selling mutual fund shares.

Vlad Alyokhin, CPA, Professional Corporation © 2020

What tax records can you throw away?

What tax records can you throw away?

October 15 is the deadline for individual taxpayers who extended their 2019 tax returns. (The original April 15 filing deadline was extended this year to July 15 due to the COVID-19 pandemic.) If you’re finally done filing last year’s return, you might wonder: Which tax records can you toss once you’re done? Now is a good time to go through old tax records and see what you can discard.

The general rules

At minimum, you should keep tax records for as long as the IRS has the ability to audit your tax return or assess additional taxes, which generally is three years after you file your return. This means you potentially can get rid of most records related to tax returns for 2016 and earlier years.

However, the statute of limitations extends to six years for taxpayers who understate their adjusted gross income (AGI) by more than 25%. What constitutes an understatement may go beyond simply not reporting items of income. So a general rule of thumb is to save tax records for six years from filing, just to be safe.

Keep some records longer

You need to hang on to some tax-related records beyond the statute of limitations. For example:

  • Keep the tax returns themselves indefinitely, so you can prove to the IRS that you actually filed a legitimate return. (There’s no statute of limitations for an audit if you didn’t file a return or if you filed a fraudulent one.)
  • Retain W-2 forms until you begin receiving Social Security benefits. Questions might arise regarding your work record or earnings for a particular year, and your W-2 helps provide the documentation needed.
  • Keep records related to real estate or investments for as long as you own the assets, plus at least three years after you sell them and report the sales on your tax return (or six years if you want extra protection).
  • Keep records associated with retirement accounts until you’ve depleted the accounts and reported the last withdrawal on your tax return, plus three (or six) years.

Other reasons to retain records

Keep in mind that these are the federal tax record retention guidelines. Your state and local tax record requirements may differ. In addition, lenders, co-op boards and other private parties may require you to produce copies of your tax returns as a condition to lending money, approving a purchase or otherwise doing business with you.

Contact us if you have questions or concerns about recordkeeping.

Vlad Alyokhin, CPA, Professional Corporation © 2020

There may be relief from tax liability for “innocent spouses”

There may be relief from tax liability for “innocent spouses”

If you file a joint tax return with your spouse, you should be aware of your individual liability. And if you’re getting divorced, you should know that there may be relief available if the IRS comes after you for certain past-due taxes.

What’s “joint and several” liability?

When a married couple files a joint tax return, each spouse is “jointly and severally” liable for the full tax amount on the couple’s combined income. That means the IRS can come after either spouse to collect the entire tax — not just the part that’s attributed to one spouse or the other. Liability includes any tax deficiency that the IRS assesses after an audit, as well as penalties and interest. (However, the civil fraud penalty can be imposed only on spouses who’ve actually committed fraud.)

When are spouses “innocent?”

In some cases, spouses are eligible for “innocent spouse relief.” This generally involves individuals who didn’t know about a tax understatement that was attributable to the other spouse.

To be eligible, you must show that you were unaware of the understatement and there was nothing that should have made you suspicious. In addition, the circumstances must make it inequitable to hold you liable for the tax. This relief may be available even if you’re still married and living with your spouse.

In addition, spouses may be able to limit liability for a tax deficiency on a joint return if they’re widowed, divorced, legally separated or have lived apart for at least one year.

How can liability be limited?

In some cases, a spouse can elect to limit liability for a deficiency on a joint return to just his or her allocable portion of the deficiency. If you make this election, the tax items that gave rise to the deficiency will be allocated between you and your spouse as if you’d filed separate returns.

The election won’t provide relief from your spouse’s tax items if the IRS proves that you knew about the items when you signed the tax return — unless you can show that you signed it under duress. Also, liability will be increased by the value of any assets that your spouse transferred to you in order to avoid the tax.

What is an “injured” spouse?

In addition to innocent spouse relief, there’s also relief for “injured” spouses. What’s the difference? An injured spouse claim asks the IRS to allocate part of a joint tax refund to one spouse. In these cases, one spouse has all or part of a refund from a joint return applied against certain past-due taxes, child or spousal support, or federal nontax debts (such as student loans) owed by the other spouse. If you’re an injured spouse, you may be entitled to recoup your refund share.

Whether, and to what extent, you can take advantage of the above relief depends on your situation. If you’re interested in trying to obtain relief, there’s paperwork that must be filed and deadlines that must be met. We can assist you with the details.

Also, keep “joint and several liability” in mind when filing future tax returns. Even if a joint return results in less tax, you may want to file a separate return if you want to be responsible only for your own tax.

Vlad Alyokhin, CPA, Professional Corporation © 2020

Conduct a “paycheck checkup” to make sure your withholding is adequate

Conduct a “paycheck checkup” to make sure your withholding is adequate.

Did you recently file your federal tax return and were surprised to find you owed money? You might want to change your withholding so that this doesn’t happen next year. You might even want to do that if you got a big refund. Receiving a tax refund essentially means you’re giving the government an interest-free loan.

Withholding changes

In 2018, the IRS updated the withholding tables that indicate how much employers should hold back from their employees’ paychecks. In general, the amount withheld was reduced. This was done to reflect changes under the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act — including an increase in the standard deduction, suspension of personal exemptions and changes in tax rates.

The tables may have provided the correct amount of tax withholding for some individuals, but they might have caused other taxpayers to not have enough money withheld to pay their ultimate tax liabilities.

Review and possibly adjust

The IRS is advising taxpayers to review their tax situations for this year and adjust withholding, if appropriate.

The tax agency has a withholding calculator to assist you in conducting a paycheck checkup. The calculator reflects tax law changes in areas such as available itemized deductions, the increased child credit, the new dependent credit and the repeal of dependent exemptions. You can access the IRS calculator here.

Changes may be needed if…

There are some situations when you should check your withholding. In addition to tax law changes, the IRS recommends that you perform a checkup if you:

  • Adjusted your withholding in 2019, especially in the middle or later part of the year,
  • Owed additional tax when you filed your 2019 return,
  • Received a refund that was smaller or larger than expected,
  • Got married or divorced, had a child or adopted one,
  • Purchased a home, or
  • Had changes in income.

You can modify your withholding at any time during the year, or even multiple times within a year. To do so, you simply submit a new Form W-4 to your employer. Changes typically go into effect several weeks after a new Form W-4 is submitted. (For estimated tax payments, you can make adjustments each time quarterly estimated payments are due. The next payments are due on July 15 and September 15.)

Good time to plan ahead

There’s still time to remedy any shortfalls to minimize taxes due for 2020, as well as any penalties and interest. Contact us if you have any questions or need assistance. We can help you determine if you need to adjust your withholding.

Vlad Alyokhin, CPA, Professional Corporation © 2020

 

Why it’s important to plan for income taxes as part of your estate plan

Why it’s important to plan for income taxes as part of your estate plan

As a result of the current estate tax exemption amount ($11.58 million in 2020), many estates no longer need to be concerned with federal estate tax. Before 2011, a much smaller amount resulted in estate plans attempting to avoid it. Now, because many estates won’t be subject to estate tax, more planning can be devoted to saving income taxes for your heirs.

While saving both income and transfer taxes has always been a goal of estate planning, it was more difficult to succeed at both when the estate and gift tax exemption level was much lower. Here are some strategies to consider.

Plan gifts that use the annual gift tax exclusion. One of the benefits of using the gift tax annual exclusion to make transfers during life is to save estate tax. This is because both the transferred assets and any post-transfer appreciation generated by those assets are removed from the donor’s estate.

As mentioned, estate tax savings may not be an issue because of the large estate exemption amount. Further, making an annual exclusion transfer of appreciated property carries a potential income tax cost because the recipient receives the donor’s basis upon transfer. Thus, the recipient could face income tax, in the form of capital gains tax, on the sale of the gifted property in the future. If there’s no concern that an estate will be subject to estate tax, even if the gifted property grows in value, then the decision to make a gift should be based on other factors.

For example, gifts may be made to help a relative buy a home or start a business. But a donor shouldn’t gift appreciated property because of the capital gain that could be realized on a future sale by the recipient. If the appreciated property is held until the donor’s death, under current law, the heir will get a step-up in basis that will wipe out the capital gain tax on any pre-death appreciation in the property’s value.

Take spouses’ estates into account. In the past, spouses often undertook complicated strategies to equalize their estates so that each could take advantage of the estate tax exemption amount. Generally, a two-trust plan was established to minimize estate tax. “Portability,” or the ability to apply the decedent’s unused exclusion amount to the surviving spouse’s transfers during life and at death, became effective for estates of decedents dying after 2010. As long as the election is made, portability allows the surviving spouse to apply the unused portion of a decedent’s applicable exclusion amount (the deceased spousal unused exclusion amount) as calculated in the year of the decedent’s death. The portability election gives married couples more flexibility in deciding how to use their exclusion amounts.

Be aware that some estate exclusion or valuation discount strategies to avoid inclusion of property in an estate may no longer be worth pursuing. It may be better to have the property included in the estate or not qualify for valuation discounts so that the property receives a step-up in basis. For example, the special use valuation — the valuation of qualified real property used for farming or in a business on the basis of the property’s actual use, rather than on its highest and best use — may not save enough, or any, estate tax to justify giving up the step-up in basis that would otherwise occur for the property.

Contact us if you want to discuss these strategies and how they relate to your estate plan.

Vlad Alyokhin, CPA, Professional Corporation © 2020

What qualifies as a “coronavirus-related distribution” from a retirement plan?

What qualifies as a “coronavirus-related distribution” from a retirement plan?

As you may have heard, the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act allows “qualified” people to take certain “coronavirus-related distributions” from their retirement plans without paying tax.

So how do you qualify? In other words, what’s a coronavirus-related distribution?

Early distribution basics

In general, if you withdraw money from an IRA or eligible retirement plan before you reach age 59½, you must pay a 10% early withdrawal tax. This is in addition to any tax you may owe on the income from the withdrawal. There are several exceptions to the general rule. For example, you don’t owe the additional 10% tax if you become totally and permanently disabled or if you use the money to pay qualified higher education costs or medical expenses

New exception

Under the CARES Act, you can take up to $100,000 in coronavirus-related distributions made from an eligible retirement plan between January 1 and December 30, 2020. These coronavirus-related distributions aren’t subject to the 10% additional tax that otherwise generally applies to distributions made before you reach age 59½.

What’s more, a coronavirus-related distribution can be included in income in installments over a three-year period, and you have three years to repay it to an IRA or plan. If you recontribute the distribution back into your IRA or plan within three years of the withdrawal date, you can treat the withdrawal and later recontribution as a totally tax-free rollover.

In new guidance (Notice 2020-50) the IRS explains who qualifies to take a coronavirus-related distribution. A qualified individual is someone who:

  • Is diagnosed (or whose spouse or dependent is diagnosed) with COVID-19 after taking a test approved by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (including a test authorized under the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act); or
  • Experiences adverse financial consequences as a result of certain events. To qualify under this test, the individual (or his or her spouse or member of his or her household sharing his or her principal residence) must:
    • Be quarantined, be furloughed or laid off, or have work hours reduced due to COVID-19;
    • Be unable to work due to a lack of childcare because of COVID-19;
    • Experience a business that he or she owns or operates due to COVID-19 close or have reduced hours;
    • Have pay or self-employment income reduced because of COVID-19; or
    • Have a job offer rescinded or start date for a job delayed due to COVID-19.

Favorable rules

As you can see, the rules allow many people — but not everyone — to take retirement plan distributions under the new exception. If you decide to take advantage of it, be sure to keep good records to show that you qualify. Be careful: You’ll be taxed on the coronavirus-related distribution amount that you don’t recontribute within the three-year window. But you won’t have to worry about owing the 10% early withdrawal penalty if you’re under 59½. Other rules and restrictions apply. Contact us if you have questions or need assistance.

Vlad Alyokhin, CPA, Professional Corporation © 2020

Can investors who manage their own portfolios deduct related expenses?

Can investors who manage their own portfolios deduct related expenses?

In some cases, investors have significant related expenses, such as the cost of subscriptions to financial periodicals and clerical expenses. Are they tax deductible? Under the Tax Cut and Jobs Act, these expenses aren’t deductible through 2025 if they’re considered expenses for the production of income. But they are deductible if they’re considered trade or business expenses. (For tax years before 2018, production-of-income expenses were deductible, but were included in miscellaneous itemized deductions, which were subject to a 2%-of-adjusted-gross-income floor.)

In order to deduct investment-related expenses as business expenses, you must figure out if you’re an investor or a trader — and be aware that it’s more advantageous (and difficult) to qualify for trader status.

To qualify, you must be engaged in a trade or business. The U.S. Supreme Court held many years ago that an individual taxpayer isn’t engaged in a trade or business merely because the individual manages his or her own securities investments, regardless of the amount of the investments or the extent of the work required.

However, if you can show that your investment activities rise to the level of carrying on a trade or business, you may be considered a trader engaged in a trade or business, rather than an investor. As a trader, you’re entitled to deduct your investment-related expenses as business expenses. A trader is also entitled to deduct home-office expenses if the home office is used exclusively on a regular basis as the trader’s principal place of business. An investor, on the other hand, isn’t entitled to home-office deductions since the investment activities aren’t a trade or business.

Since the Supreme Court’s decision, there has been extensive litigation on the issue of whether a taxpayer is a trader or investor. The U.S. Tax Court has developed a two-part test that must be satisfied in order for a taxpayer to be a trader. Under this two-part test, a taxpayer’s investment activities are considered a trade or business only if both of the following are true:

  • The taxpayer’s trading is substantial (in other words, sporadic trading isn’t a trade or business), and
  • The taxpayer seeks to profit from short-term market swings, rather than from long-term holding of investments.

So, the fact that a taxpayer’s investment activities are regular, extensive and continuous isn’t in itself sufficient for determining that a taxpayer is a trader. In order to be considered a trader, you must show that you buy and sell securities with reasonable frequency in an effort to profit on a short-term basis. In one case, even a taxpayer who made more than 1,000 trades a year with trading activities averaging about $16 million annually was held to be an investor because the holding periods for stocks sold averaged about one year.

Contact us if you have questions about whether your investment-related expenses are deductible. We can also help explain how to help keep capital gains taxes low when you sell investments.

Vlad Alyokhin, CPA, Professional Corporation © 2020

About the firm

Vlad Alyokhin, CPA, Professional Corporation
140 Yonge Street, Suite 320
Toronto, Ontario
M5C 1X6

T: 647-598-8777
E: vlad@alyokhincpa.com