October 28, 2020
If you recently launched a business, you may want to set up a tax-favored retirement plan for yourself and your employees. There are several types of qualified plans that are eligible for these tax advantages:
- A current deduction from income to the employer for contributions to the plan,
- Tax-free buildup of the value of plan investments, and
- The deferral of income (augmented by investment earnings) to employees until funds are distributed.
There are two basic types of plans.
Defined benefit pension plans
A defined benefit plan provides for a fixed benefit in retirement, based generally upon years of service and compensation. While defined benefit plans generally pay benefits in the form of an annuity (for example, over the life of the participant, or joint lives of the participant and his or her spouse), some defined benefit plans provide for a lump sum payment of benefits. In certain “cash balance plans,” the benefit is typically paid and expressed as a cash lump sum.
Adoption of a defined benefit plan requires a commitment to fund it. These plans often provide the greatest current deduction from income and the greatest retirement benefit, if the business owners are nearing retirement. However, the administrative expenses associated with defined benefit plans (for example, actuarial costs) can make them less attractive than the second type of plan.
Defined contribution plans
A defined contribution plan provides for an individual account for each participant. Benefits are based solely on the amount contributed to the participant’s account and any investment income, expenses, gains, losses and forfeitures (usually from departing employees) that may be allocated to a participant’s account. Profit-sharing plans and 401(k)s are defined contribution plans.
A 401(k) plan provides for employer contributions made at the direction of an employee under a salary reduction agreement. Specifically, the employee elects to have a certain amount of pay deferred and contributed by the employer on his or her behalf to the plan. Employee contributions can be made either:
- On a pre-tax basis, saving employees current income tax on the amount contributed, or
- On an after-tax basis. This includes Roth 401(k) contributions (if permitted), which will allow distributions (including earnings) to be made to the employee tax-free in retirement, if conditions are satisfied.
Automatic-deferral provisions, if adopted, require employees to opt out of participation.
An employer may, or may not, provide matching contributions on behalf of employees who make elective deferrals to the plan. Matching contributions may be subject to a vesting schedule. While 401(k) plans are subject to testing requirements, so that “highly compensated” employees don’t contribute too much more than non-highly-compensated employees, these tests can be avoided if you adopt a “safe harbor” 401(k) plan. A highly compensated employee in 2020 is defined as one who earned more than $130,000 in the preceding year.
There are other types of tax-favored retirement plans within these general categories, including employee stock ownership plans (ESOPs).
Small businesses can also adopt a Simplified Employee Pension (SEP), and receive similar tax advantages to “qualified” plans by making contributions on behalf of employees. And a business with 100 or fewer employees can establish a Savings Incentive Match Plan for Employees (SIMPLE). Under a SIMPLE, generally an IRA is established for each employee and the employer makes matching contributions based on contributions elected by employees.
There may be other options. Contact us to discuss the types of retirement plans available to you.
October 28, 2020
Typically, an estate plan includes accommodations for your spouse, children, grandchildren and even future generations. But you may overlook some older family members, such as your parents or in-laws. They may also need your financial assistance and help with their estate planning.
How can you best handle the financial affairs of parents in the later stages of life? Incorporate their needs into your own estate plan while tweaking, when necessary, the arrangements they’ve already made. Here are five critical steps:
Identify key contacts. Just like you’ve done for yourself, compile the names and addresses of professionals important to your parents’ finances and medical conditions.
List and value their assets. If you’re going to be able to manage the financial affairs of your parents, having knowledge of their assets is vital. It would be wise to keep a list of their investment holdings; IRA and retirement plan accounts; and life insurance policies, including current balances and account numbers.
Open the lines of communication. Before going any further, have a frank and honest discussion with your elderly relatives, as well as other family members who may be involved, such as your siblings. Make sure you understand your parents’ wishes and explain the objectives you hope to accomplish.
Execute documents. Assuming you can agree on how to move forward, develop a plan incorporating several legal documents. If your parents have already created one or more of these documents, they may need to be revised or coordinated with new ones. Some elements commonly included in an estate plan are:
- Wills. Your parents’ wills control the disposition of their assets, such as cars and jewelry, and tie up other loose ends. (Of course, jointly owned property with rights of survivorship automatically passes to the survivor.) Notably, a will also establishes the executor of your parents’ estates. If you’re the one lending financial assistance, you may be the optimal choice.
- Living trusts. A living trust can supplement a will by providing for the disposition of selected assets. Unlike a will, a living trust doesn’t have to go through probate, so this might save time and money, while avoiding public disclosure.
- Powers of attorney. This document authorizes someone to legally act on behalf of another person. With a durable power of attorney, the most common version, the authorization continues after the person is disabled. This enables you to better handle your parents’ affairs.
- Living wills or advance medical directives. These documents provide guidance for end-of-life decisions. Make sure that your parents’ physicians have copies so they can act according to their wishes.
- Beneficiary designations. Undoubtedly, your parents have filled out beneficiary designations for retirement plans, IRAs and life insurance policies. These designations supersede references in a will, so it’s important to keep them up-to-date.
Estate planning for elderly parents, which is complex in its own right, is often intertwined with your own finances. Contact us for help developing a comprehensive plan that addresses all of your family’s needs.
October 21, 2020
If your small business is planning for payroll next year, be aware that the “Social Security wage base” is increasing.
The Social Security Administration recently announced that the maximum earnings subject to Social Security tax will increase from $137,700 in 2020 to $142,800 in 2021.
For 2021, the FICA tax rate for both employers and employees is 7.65% (6.2% for Social Security and 1.45% for Medicare).
For 2021, the Social Security tax rate is 6.2% each for the employer and employee (12.4% total) on the first $142,800 of employee wages. The tax rate for Medicare is 1.45% each for the employee and employer (2.9% total). There’s no wage base limit for Medicare tax so all covered wages are subject to Medicare tax.
In addition to withholding Medicare tax at 1.45%, an employer must withhold a 0.9% additional Medicare tax from wages paid to an employee in excess of $200,000 in a calendar year.
Employees working more than one job
You may have employees who work for your business and who also have a second job. They may ask if you can stop withholding Social Security taxes at a certain point in the year because they’ve already reached the Social Security wage base amount. Unfortunately, you generally can’t stop the withholding, but the employees will get a credit on their tax returns for any excess withheld.
If your business has older employees, they may have to deal with the “retirement earnings test.” It remains in effect for individuals below normal retirement age (age 65 to 67 depending on the year of birth) who continue to work while collecting Social Security benefits. For affected individuals, $1 in benefits will be withheld for every $2 in earnings above $18,960 in 2021 (up from $18,240 in 2020).
For working individuals collecting benefits who reach normal retirement age in 2021, $1 in benefits will be withheld for every $3 in earnings above $46,920 (up from $48,600 in 2020), until the month that the individual reaches normal retirement age. After that month, there’s no limit on earnings.
Contact us if you have questions. We can assist you with the details of payroll taxes and keep you in compliance with payroll laws and regulations.
October 21, 2020
You may view your will as the centerpiece of your estate plan. But other documents can complement it. For example, if you haven’t already done so, consider writing a letter of instruction.
Elements of the letter
A letter of instruction is an informal document providing your loved ones with vital information about personal and financial matters to be addressed after your death. Bear in mind that the letter, unlike a valid will, isn’t legally binding. But its informal nature allows you to easily revise it whenever you see fit.
What should be included in the letter? It will vary, depending on your personal circumstances, but here are some common elements:
Documents and financial assets. Start by stating the location of your will. Then list the location of other important documents, such as powers of attorney, trusts, living wills and health care directives. Also, provide information on birth certificates, Social Security benefits, marriage licenses and, if any, divorce documents.
Next, create an inventory of all your assets, their location, account numbers and relevant contact information. This may include, but isn’t necessarily limited to, items such as bank accounts; investment accounts; retirement plans and IRAs; health insurance plans; business insurance; life and disability income insurance; and records of Social Security and veterans’ benefits.
And don’t forget about liabilities as well. Provide information on mortgages, debts and other obligations your family should be aware of.
Funeral and burial arrangements. A letter of instruction typically includes details regarding your funeral and burial arrangements. If you prefer to be cremated rather than buried, make that clear. In addition, details can include whom you’d like to preside over the service, the setting and even music selections.
List the people you want to be notified when you pass away and include their contact information. Finally, write down your wishes for specific charities where loved ones and others can make donations in your memory.
Digital information. As many of your accounts likely have been transitioned to digital formats, including bank accounts, securities and retirement plans, it’s important that you recognize this change in your letter of instruction or update a previously written letter.
Personal items. It’s not unusual for family members to quarrel over personal effects that you don’t specifically designate in your will. Your letter can spell out who will receive items that may have little or no monetary value, but plenty of sentimental value.
A letter of instruction can offer peace of mind to your family members during a time of emotional turmoil. It can be difficult to think about writing such a letter — no one likes to contemplate his or her own death. But once you get started, you may find that most of the letter “writes itself.”
October 8, 2020
There are two trust types that don’t require one or more human beneficiaries: charitable trusts and noncharitable purpose (NCP) trusts. A charitable trust is the more common of the two, but an NCP trust could also be a formidable tool to help achieve your estate planning goals.
Defining an NCP trust
Historically, trusts were required to have human beneficiaries. Why? Because, for a trust to be valid, there must be someone to enforce it. Charitable trusts were the exception: The attorney general of the relevant jurisdiction was authorized to enforce the trust in the public interest.
Over the years, however, many U.S. states and a number of foreign jurisdictions have enacted legislation (including provisions of the Uniform Probate Code and the Uniform Trust Code) that authorizes NCP trusts.
These trusts may be used to achieve a variety of purposes, such as caring for a pet or other animal (including its offspring); maintaining a gravesite; providing for future graveside religious ceremonies (often referred to as “honorary” trusts); maintaining art collections, antiques, automobiles, jewelry or other personal property; and funding or otherwise sustaining a family business.
A trust may be an NCP trust even if the grantor’s children or other heirs will ultimately receive trust property as “remaindermen.” Suppose, for example, that you create an NCP trust to maintain and exhibit your art collection. After a specified time period — let’s say 20 years — the trust terminates and the collection is distributed to your children. The fact that your children will receive the art once the trust has fulfilled its purpose doesn’t change its character as an NCP trust. Nor does it render the trust valid or enforceable absent an applicable NCP trust statute.
To be valid, an NCP trust must meet certain requirements. Most important, it must 1) have a purpose that’s certain, reasonable and attainable, 2) not violate public policy, and 3) be capable of enforcement. Typically, an NCP trust is enforced by a designated “enforcer” — someone whose job it is to ensure that the trust’s purpose is fulfilled and who has the authority to bring a court action — and/or a “trust protector,” who’s empowered to modify the trust when its purpose has been achieved or is no longer relevant.
Choosing the right jurisdiction
The permitted uses of NCP trusts, as well as their duration, vary significantly from state to state, as do the powers of a trust protector or enforcer. Some states, for example, allow only pet trusts, honorary trusts or both. Other states authorize NCP trusts for most purposes, so long as they don’t violate public policy. Most states limit an NCP trust’s duration to a term of 21 years, although some permit longer terms or even “dynasty” NCP trusts of unlimited duration. Contact us for additional information.
October 5, 2020
IRS audit rates are historically low, according to the latest data, but that’s little consolation if your return is among those selected to be examined. But with proper preparation and planning, you should fare well.
In fiscal year 2019, the IRS audited approximately 0.4% of individuals. Businesses, large corporations and high-income individuals are more likely to be audited but, overall, all types of audits are being conducted less frequently than they were a decade ago.
There’s no 100% guarantee that you won’t be picked for an audit, because some tax returns are chosen randomly. However, the best way to survive an IRS audit is to prepare for one in advance. On an ongoing basis you should systematically maintain documentation — invoices, bills, cancelled checks, receipts, or other proof — for all items to be reported on your tax returns. Keep all your records in one place. And it helps to know what might catch the attention of the IRS.
Audit hot spots
Certain types of tax-return entries are known to the IRS to involve inaccuracies so they may lead to an audit. Here are a few examples:
- Significant inconsistencies between tax returns filed in the past and your most current tax return,
- Gross profit margin or expenses markedly different from those of other businesses in your industry, and
- Miscalculated or unusually high deductions.
Certain types of deductions may be questioned by the IRS because there are strict recordkeeping requirements for them — for example, auto and travel expense deductions. In addition, an owner-employee salary that’s inordinately higher or lower than those in similar companies in his or her location can catch the IRS’s eye, especially if the business is structured as a corporation.
Responding to a letter
If you’re selected for an audit, you’ll be notified by letter. Generally, the IRS doesn’t make initial contact by phone. But if there’s no response to the letter, the agency may follow up with a call.
Many audits simply request that you mail in documentation to support certain deductions you’ve taken. Others may ask you to take receipts and other documents to a local IRS office. Only the harshest version, the field audit, requires meeting with one or more IRS auditors. (Note: Ignore unsolicited email messages about an audit. The IRS doesn’t contact people in this manner. These are scams.)
Keep in mind that the tax agency won’t demand an immediate response to a mailed notice. You’ll be informed of the discrepancies in question and given time to prepare. You’ll need to collect and organize all relevant income and expense records. If any records are missing, you’ll have to reconstruct the information as accurately as possible based on other documentation.
If the IRS chooses you for an audit, our firm can help you:
- Understand what the IRS is disputing (it’s not always clear),
- Gather the specific documents and information needed, and
- Respond to the auditor’s inquiries in the most expedient and effective manner.
The IRS normally has three years within which to conduct an audit, and often an audit doesn’t begin until a year or more after you file a return. Don’t panic if you’re contacted by the IRS. Many audits are routine. By taking a meticulous, proactive approach to how you track, document and file your company’s tax-related information, you’ll make an audit much less painful and even decrease the chances that one will happen in the first place.
October 5, 2020
The COVID-19 pandemic has resulted in many people borrowing from their companies’ qualified retirement plans, and the CARES Act provides some temporary rule changes to this loan type. However, given the risks and costs of borrowing from a retirement plan, it should generally be viewed as a last resort. From an estate planning angle, subtracting funds from your retirement plan will leave less for your heirs if you were to unexpectedly die before you can repay the loan.
Temporary plan loan rules
Not all qualified plans permit loans, but, if your plan allows them, you can normally borrow up to $50,000 or 50% of your vested account balance, whichever is less. Generally, the loan must be repaid in five years. Often, interest rates are lower than those of comparable bank loans.
The CARES Act temporarily liberalizes the plan loan rules in two ways. First, loan payments that would otherwise be due between March 27, 2020, and December 31, 2020, can be suspended for up to one year. Payments due after the suspension period will be adjusted to reflect interest that accrued during the suspension period.
Second, for individuals who took a plan loan between March 27, 2020, and Sept. 22, 2020, the maximum loan amount increased to the lesser of: 1) $100,000 minus any existing plan loan balances, or 2) 100% of the participant’s vested account balance or benefit.
Not a “free” loan
Many people view borrowing from a retirement plan as “free.” After all, you’re paying the interest to yourself. But there are costs involved. For one thing, you’ll lose the benefits of tax-deferred growth on the amount you borrow. Unless the interest rate you pay on the loan equals or exceeds the growth rate of the plan assets, your account’s value will end up lower than it would have been without the loan.
Another potential cost is the loss of contributions to the plan (plus earnings on those amounts), either because you can’t afford them while you’re repaying the loan or because your plan prohibits contributions until the loan is repaid. If that’s the case, you’ll also lose any matching contributions your employer offers.
Accelerated loan payments
Costs aside, the strongest argument against borrowing from a retirement plan is the risk that the loan will be accelerated if you lose your job. Many employers require you to repay the outstanding balance in the event your employment terminates. If you can’t, the balance will be treated as a distribution and subject to taxes and, if applicable, penalties.
September 28, 2020
Generally, the proceeds of your life insurance policy are included in your taxable estate. You can remove them by transferring ownership of the policy, but there’s a catch: If you wait too long, your intentions may be defeated. Essentially, if ownership of the policy is transferred within three years of your death, the proceeds revert to your taxable estate.
Eliminating “incidents of ownership”
The proceeds of a life insurance policy are subject to federal estate tax if you retain any “incidents of ownership” in the policy. For example, you’re treated as having incidents of ownership if you have the right to:
- Designate or change the policy’s beneficiary,
- Borrow against the policy or pledge any cash reserve,
- Surrender, convert or cancel the policy, or
- Select a payment option for the beneficiary.
You can eliminate these incidents of ownership by transferring your policy. But first you need to determine who the new owner should be. To choose the best owner, consider why you want the insurance, such as to replace income, to provide liquidity or to transfer wealth to your heirs.
Understanding the ILIT option
An irrevocable life insurance trust (ILIT) can be one of the best ownership alternatives. Typically, if you transfer complete ownership of, and responsibility for, the policy to an ILIT, the policy will ― subject to the three years mentioned above ― be excluded from your estate. You’ll need to designate a trustee to handle the administrative duties. It might be a family member, a friend or a professional. Should you need any additional life insurance protection, it would work best if it were acquired by the ILIT from the outset.
An ILIT can also help you accomplish other estate planning objectives. It might be used to keep assets out of the clutches of creditors or to protect against spending sprees of your relatives. Also keep in mind that, as long as the policy has a named beneficiary, which in the case of an ILIT would be the ILIT itself, the proceeds of the life insurance policy won’t have to pass through probate.
The sooner, the better
If transferring ownership of your life insurance policy is right for you, the sooner you make the transfer, the better. Contact us with any questions regarding life insurance in your estate plan or ILITs.
September 23, 2020
The business use of websites is widespread. But surprisingly, the IRS hasn’t yet issued formal guidance on when Internet website costs can be deducted.
Fortunately, established rules that generally apply to the deductibility of business costs, and IRS guidance that applies to software costs, provide business taxpayers launching a website with some guidance as to the proper treatment of the costs.
Hardware or software?
Let’s start with the hardware you may need to operate a website. The costs involved fall under the standard rules for depreciable equipment. Specifically, once these assets are up and running, you can deduct 100% of the cost in the first year they’re placed in service (before 2023). This favorable treatment is allowed under the 100% first-year bonus depreciation break.
In later years, you can probably deduct 100% of these costs in the year the assets are placed in service under the Section 179 first-year depreciation deduction privilege. However, Sec. 179 deductions are subject to several limitations.
For tax years beginning in 2020, the maximum Sec. 179 deduction is $1.04 million, subject to a phaseout rule. Under the rule, the deduction is phased out if more than a specified amount of qualified property is placed in service during the year. The threshold amount for 2020 is $2.59 million.
There’s also a taxable income limit. Under it, your Sec. 179 deduction can’t exceed your business taxable income. In other words, Sec. 179 deductions can’t create or increase an overall tax loss. However, any Sec. 179 deduction amount that you can’t immediately deduct is carried forward and can be deducted in later years (to the extent permitted by the applicable limits).
Similar rules apply to purchased off-the-shelf software. However, software license fees are treated differently from purchased software costs for tax purposes. Payments for leased or licensed software used for your website are currently deductible as ordinary and necessary business expenses.
Was the software developed internally?
An alternative position is that your software development costs represent currently deductible research and development costs under the tax code. To qualify for this treatment, the costs must be paid or incurred by December 31, 2022.
A more conservative approach would be to capitalize the costs of internally developed software. Then you would depreciate them over 36 months.
If your website is primarily for advertising, you can also currently deduct internal website software development costs as ordinary and necessary business expenses.
Are you paying a third party?
Some companies hire third parties to set up and run their websites. In general, payments to third parties are currently deductible as ordinary and necessary business expenses.
What about before business begins?
Start-up expenses can include website development costs. Up to $5,000 of otherwise deductible expenses that are incurred before your business commences can generally be deducted in the year business commences. However, if your start-up expenses exceed $50,000, the $5,000 current deduction limit starts to be chipped away. Above this amount, you must capitalize some, or all, of your start-up expenses and amortize them over 60 months, starting with the month that business commences.
We can determine the appropriate treatment of website costs for federal income tax purposes. Contact us if you have questions or want more information.