February 10, 2020
Despite what you might think, estate planning isn’t limited to only the rich and famous. In fact, your family is likely to benefit from a comprehensive plan that divides your wealth, protects your well-being and provides a compass for your family’s future.
Dividing your wealth
Estate planning is often associated with the division of your assets, and this is certainly a key component. It’s typically accomplished, for the most part, by drafting a will, which is the foundation of an estate plan.
With a valid will, you determine who gets what. It can cover everything from the securities in your portfolio to personal property, such as cars, artwork or other family heirlooms.
In contrast, if you die without a will — referred to as dying “intestate” — state law will control the disposition of your assets. This may result in unintended consequences. For example, children from a prior marriage may be excluded if state law dictates that all assets are to go to a surviving spouse.
In addition, you’ll need to name the executor of your estate. He or she will be responsible for carrying out your wishes according to your will. Your executor may be a professional, a family member or a friend. Also, designate a successor in case your first choice is unable to handle the duties.
If your estate plan includes only a will, your estate will most likely have to go through probate. Probate is a court-supervised process to protect the rights of creditors and beneficiaries and to ensure the orderly and timely transfer of assets. The complexity and duration of probate depends on the size of your estate and state law.
If you transfer assets to a living trust, those assets are exempt from the probate process. Thus, a living trust may supplement a will, giving heirs fast access to funds.
Protecting your well-being
An estate plan can help ensure that your long-term health care is handled in the way that you wish. Notably, you can create a health care power of attorney. It grants another person — for example, a family member or a friend — the right to act on your behalf in the event you’re incapacitated. A power of attorney may be coordinated with a living will specifying your wishes in end-of-life situations, along with other health care directives.
Providing a compass
Finally, an estate plan can accomplish a variety of other objectives, depending on your preferences and circumstances. If you have minor children, you can name a guardian in your will in the event of your premature death. Without such a provision, the courts will appoint a guardian, regardless of your intent.
Your estate plan can also protect against creditors, primarily through trusts designed for these purposes. Accordingly, while trusts were often seen mainly as tax-saving devices in the past, they can fulfill a multitude of other roles.
Let the planning begin
Now that the need for an estate plan is clear, don’t delay any longer. Contact us to begin the process or if you have any questions.
February 10, 2020
Let’s say you’re charitably inclined but have concerns about maintaining a sufficient amount of income to meet your current needs. The good news is that there’s a trust for that: a charitable remainder trust (CRT). This type of trust allows you to support your favorite charity while potentially boosting cash flow, shrinking the size of your taxable estate, and reducing or deferring income taxes.
A CRT in action
You contribute stock or other assets to an irrevocable trust that provides you — and, if you desire, your spouse — with an income stream for life or for a term of up to 20 years. (You can name a noncharitable beneficiary other than yourself or your spouse, but there may be gift tax implications.) At the end of the trust term, the remaining trust assets are distributed to one or more charities you’ve selected.
When you fund the trust, you can claim a charitable income tax deduction equal to the present value of the remainder interest (subject to applicable limits on charitable deductions). Your annual payouts from the trust can be based on a fixed percentage of the trust’s initial value — known as a charitable remainder annuity trust (CRAT). Or they can be based on a fixed percentage of the trust’s value recalculated annually — known as a charitable remainder unitrust (CRUT).
CRUTs vs. CRATs
Generally, CRUTs are preferable for two reasons. First, the annual revaluation of the trust assets allows payouts to increase if the trust assets grow, which can allow your income stream to keep up with inflation. Second, you can make additional contributions to CRUTs, but not to CRATs.
The fixed percentage — called the unitrust amount — can range from 5% to 50%. A higher rate increases the income stream, but it also reduces the value of the remainder interest and, therefore, the charitable deduction. Also, to pass muster with the IRS, the present value of the remainder interest must be at least 10% of the initial value of the trust assets.
The determination of whether the remainder interest meets the 10% requirement is made at the time the assets are transferred — it’s an actuarial calculation based on the trust’s terms. If the ultimate distribution to charity is less than 10% of the amount transferred, there’s no adverse tax impact related to the contribution.
Seek advice before acting
CRTs require careful planning and solid investment guidance to ensure that they meet your needs. Before taking action, discuss your options with us.
February 10, 2020
Many business owners ask: How can I avoid an IRS audit? The good news is that the odds against being audited are in your favor. In fiscal year 2018, the IRS audited approximately 0.6% of individuals. Businesses, large corporations and high-income individuals are more likely to be audited but, overall, audit rates are historically low.
There’s no 100% guarantee that you won’t be picked for an audit, because some tax returns are chosen randomly. However, completing your returns in a timely and accurate fashion with our firm certainly works in your favor. And it helps to know what might catch the attention of the IRS.
Audit red flags
A variety of tax-return entries may raise red flags with the IRS and may lead to an audit. Here are a few examples:
- Significant inconsistencies between previous years’ filings and your most current filing,
- 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.
How to respond
If you’re selected for an audit, you’ll be notified by letter. Generally, the IRS won’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 crystal clear),
- Gather the specific documents and information needed, and
- •Respond to the auditor’s inquiries in the most expedient and effective manner.
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.
February 10, 2020
Fewer people currently are subject to transfer taxes than ever before. But gift, estate and generation-skipping transfer (GST) taxes continue to place a burden on families with significant amounts of wealth tied up in illiquid closely held businesses, including farms.
Fortunately, Internal Revenue Code Section 6166 provides some relief, allowing the estates of family business owners to defer estate taxes and pay them in installments if certain requirements are met.
Sec. 6166 benefits
For families with substantial closely held business interests, an election to defer estate taxes under Sec. 6166 can help them avoid having to sell business assets to pay estate taxes. It allows an estate to pay interest only (at modest rates) for four years and then to stretch out estate tax payments over 10 years in equal annual installments. The goal is to enable the estate to pay the taxes out of business earnings or otherwise to buy enough time to raise the necessary funds without disrupting business operations.
Be aware that deferral isn’t available for the entire estate tax liability. Rather, it’s limited to the amount of tax attributable to qualifying closely held business interests.
Sec. 6166 requirements
Estate tax deferral is available if 1) the deceased was a U.S. citizen or resident who owned a closely held business at the time of his or her death, 2) the value of the deceased’s interest in the business exceeds 35% of his or her adjusted gross estate, and 3) the estate’s executor or other personal representative makes a Sec. 6166 election on a timely filed estate tax return.
To qualify as a “closely held business,” an entity must conduct an active trade or business at the time of the deceased’s death (and only assets used to conduct that trade or business count for purposes of the 35% threshold). Merely managing investment assets isn’t enough.
In addition, a closely held business must be structured as:
- A sole proprietorship,
- A partnership (including certain limited liability companies taxed as partnerships), provided either 1) 20% or more of the entity’s total capital interest is included in the deceased’s estate, or 2) the entity has a maximum of 45 partners, or
- A corporation, provided either 1) 20% or more of the corporation’s voting stock is included in the deceased’s estate, or 2) the corporation has a maximum of 45 shareholders.
Several special rules make it easier to satisfy Sec. 6166’s requirements. For example, if an estate holds interests in multiple closely held businesses, and owns at least 20% of each business, it may combine them and treat them as a single closely held business for purposes of the 35% threshold. In addition, the section treats stock and partnership interests held by certain family members as owned by the deceased.
On the other hand, the interests owned by corporations, partnerships, estates and trusts are attributed to the underlying shareholders, partners or beneficiaries. This can make it harder to stay under the 45-partner/shareholder limit.
Contact us with questions.
February 10, 2020
These days, most businesses need a website to remain competitive. It’s an easy decision to set one up and maintain it. But determining the proper tax treatment for the costs involved in developing a website isn’t so easy.
That’s because the IRS hasn’t released any official guidance on these costs yet. Consequently, you must apply existing guidance on other costs to the issue of website development costs.
Hardware and software
First, let’s look at 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 2019, the maximum Sec. 179 deduction is $1.02 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 2019 is $2.55 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.
Software developed internally
If your website is primarily for advertising, you can also currently deduct internal website software development costs as ordinary and necessary business expenses.
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.
Third party payments
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.
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 help
We can determine the appropriate treatment for these costs for federal income tax purposes. Contact us if you have questions or want more information.
February 10, 2020
Traditionally, trusts used in estate planning contain “Crummey” withdrawal powers to ensure that contributions qualify for the annual gift tax exclusion. Today, the exclusion allows you to give up to $15,000 per year ($30,000 for married couples) to any number of recipients.
Now that the gift and estate tax exemption has reached an inflation-adjusted $11.4 million, fewer people have to worry about gift and estate taxes. But, for many affluent people, the annual exclusion continues to be an important estate planning strategy. Thus, Crummey powers continue to be relevant.
Reasons to make annual exclusion gifts
Despite the record-high exemption, there are two important reasons to make annual exclusion gifts. First, if your wealth exceeds the exemption amount, an annual gifting program can reduce or even eliminate your liability for gift and estate taxes.
Second, even if your wealth is well within the exemption, annual gifting guarantees that the amounts you give are permanently removed from your taxable estate. If you rely on the exemption, keep in mind that there’s no guarantee that Congress won’t reduce the amount in the future, exposing your estate to tax liability.
Crummey powers explained
The annual exclusion is available only for gifts of “present interests.” But a contribution to a trust is, by definition, a gift of a future interest. To get around this obstacle, trusts typically provide beneficiaries with Crummey withdrawal powers. By giving them the right to withdraw trust contributions for a limited period of time (usually 30 to 60 days), it’s possible to convert a future interest into a present interest, even if the withdrawal rights are never exercised.
For Crummey powers to work, the trust must give beneficiaries real withdrawal rights. Generally, that means you can’t have an agreement with your beneficiaries — expressed or implied — that they won’t exercise their withdrawal rights (although it’s permissible to discuss with them the advantages of keeping assets in the trust).
It also means that the trust should contain sufficient liquid assets so that beneficiaries can exercise their withdrawal rights if they choose to.
Notifying beneficiaries of withdrawal rights is critical
The IRS has long taken the position that a trust contribution isn’t a present-interest gift — and, therefore, is ineligible for the annual exclusion — unless beneficiaries receive actual notice of their withdrawal rights and a “reasonable opportunity” to exercise those rights. To avoid an IRS challenge, it’s prudent to provide beneficiaries with written notice of their withdrawal rights, preferably via certified mail.
There’s no specific requirement regarding the amount of time that constitutes a “reasonable opportunity.” The IRS has indicated in private rulings, however, that 30 days is sufficient, while three days isn’t. Common practice is to give beneficiaries between 30 and 60 days to exercise their withdrawal rights.
If you wish to make annual exclusion gifts to a trust, be sure the trust provides the beneficiaries with Crummey withdrawal powers. Contact us with questions.
February 10, 2020
Do you want to withdraw cash from your closely held corporation at a low tax cost? The easiest way is to distribute cash as a dividend. However, a dividend distribution isn’t tax-efficient, since it’s taxable to you to the extent of your corporation’s “earnings and profits.” But it’s not deductible by the corporation.
Fortunately, there are several alternative methods that may allow you to withdraw cash from a corporation while avoiding dividend treatment. Here are five ideas:
1. Capital repayments. To the extent that you’ve capitalized the corporation with debt, including amounts that you’ve advanced to the business, the corporation can repay the debt without the repayment being treated as a dividend. Additionally, interest paid on the debt can be deducted by the corporation. This assumes that the debt has been properly documented with terms that characterize debt and that the corporation doesn’t have an excessively high debt-to-equity ratio. If not, the “debt” repayment may be taxed as a dividend. If you make cash contributions to the corporation in the future, consider structuring them as debt to facilitate later withdrawals on a tax-advantaged basis.
2. Salary. Reasonable compensation that you, or family members, receive for services rendered to the corporation is deductible by the business. However, it’s also taxable to the recipient. The same rule applies to any compensation (in the form of rent) that you receive from the corporation for the use of property. In either case, the amount of compensation must be reasonable in relation to the services rendered or the value of the property provided. If it’s excessive, the excess will be nondeductible and treated as a corporate distribution.
3. Loans. You may withdraw cash from the corporation tax-free by borrowing money from it. However, to avoid having the loan characterized as a corporate distribution, it should be properly documented in a loan agreement or a note and be made on terms that are comparable to those on which an unrelated third party would lend money to you. This should include a provision for interest and principal. All interest and principal payments should be made when required under the loan terms. Also, consider the effect of the corporation’s receipt of interest income.
4. Fringe benefits. Consider obtaining the equivalent of a cash withdrawal in fringe benefits that are deductible by the corporation and not taxable to you. Examples are life insurance, certain medical benefits, disability insurance and dependent care. Most of these benefits are tax-free only if provided on a nondiscriminatory basis to other employees of the corporation. You can also establish a salary reduction plan that allows you (and other employees) to take a portion of your compensation as nontaxable benefits, rather than as taxable compensation.
5. Property sales. You can withdraw cash from the corporation by selling property to it. However, certain sales should be avoided. For example, you shouldn’t sell property to a more than 50% owned corporation at a loss, since the loss will be disallowed. And you shouldn’t sell depreciable property to a more than 50% owned corporation at a gain, since the gain will be treated as ordinary income, rather than capital gain. A sale should be on terms that are comparable to those on which an unrelated third party would purchase the property. You may need to obtain an independent appraisal to establish the property’s value.
If you’re interested in discussing any of these ideas, contact us. We can help you get the maximum out of your corporation at the minimum tax cost.
February 7, 2020
If you’re in line to inherit property from a parent or other loved one, it’s critical to understand the basis consistency rules. Current tax law, passed in 2015, provides that the income tax basis of property received from a deceased person can’t exceed the property’s fair market value (FMV) as finally determined for estate tax purposes.
Before the 2015 tax law change, estates and their beneficiaries had conflicting incentives when it came to the valuation of a deceased person’s property. Executors had an incentive to value property as low as possible to minimize estate taxes, while beneficiaries had an incentive to value property as high as possible to minimize capital gains, if they decided to sell the property.
The 2015 law requires consistency between a property’s basis reflected on an estate tax return and the basis used to calculate gain when it’s sold by the person who inherits it. It provides that the basis of property in the hands of a beneficiary may not exceed its value as finally determined for estate tax purposes.
Generally, a property’s value is finally determined when:
- Its value is reported on a federal estate tax return and the IRS doesn’t challenge it before the limitations period expires,
- The IRS determines its value and the executor doesn’t challenge it before the limitations period expires, or
- Its value is determined according to a court order or agreement.
But the basis consistency rule isn’t a factor in all situations. The rule doesn’t apply to property unless its inclusion in the deceased’s estate increased the liability for estate taxes. So, for example, the rule doesn’t apply if the value of the deceased’s estate is less than his or her unused exemption amount.
Beware of failure-to-file penalties
Current law also requires estates to furnish information about the value of inherited property to the IRS and the person who inherits it. Estates that fail to comply with these reporting requirements are subject to failure-to-file penalties.
An accurate valuation is key
The basis consistency rules can be complex. The bottom line is that if you inherit property from a person whose estate is liable for estate tax, it’s important that the property’s value be accurately reported on the deceased’s estate tax return. Contact us with any questions.
February 7, 2020
Traditional estate planning strategies generally are based on the assumption that all family members involved are U.S. citizens. However, if you or your spouse is a noncitizen, special rules apply that may require additional planning.
Defining “residency” and “domicile”
If you’re a U.S. resident, but not a citizen, you’re treated similarly to a U.S. citizen by the Internal Revenue Code. You’re subject to federal gift and estate taxes on your worldwide assets, but you also enjoy the benefits of the $11.58 million (for 2020) gift and estate tax exemption and the $15,000 annual gift tax exclusion. And you can double the annual exclusion to $30,000 through gift-splitting with your spouse, so long as your spouse is a U.S. citizen or resident. (Special rules apply to the marital deduction, however, as will be discussed below.)
Residency is a complicated subject. IRS regulations define a U.S. resident for federal estate tax purposes as someone who had his or her domicile in the United States at the time of death. One acquires a domicile in a place by living there, even briefly, with a present intention of making that place a permanent home.
Whether you have your domicile in the United States depends on an analysis of several factors, including the relative time you spend in the United States and abroad, the locations and relative values of your residences and business interests, visa status, community ties, and the location of family members.
What if you’re a “nonresident alien”?
If you’re a nonresident alien — that is, if you’re neither a U.S. citizen nor a U.S. resident — there’s good news and bad news regarding federal estate tax law. The good news is that you’re subject to U.S. gift and estate taxes only on property that’s “situated” in the United States. Also, you can take advantage of the $15,000 annual exclusion (although you can’t split gifts with your spouse).
The bad news is that your estate tax exemption drops from $11.58 million to a miniscule $60,000, so substantial U.S. property holdings can result in a big estate tax bill. Taxable property includes U.S. real estate as well as tangible personal property — such as cars, boats and artwork — located in the United States.
Options for making tax-free transfers
The unlimited marital deduction isn’t available for gifts or bequests to noncitizens. However, there are certain options for making tax-free transfers to a noncitizen spouse. For example, you can use the transferor’s $11.58 million exemption (provided the transferor is a U.S. citizen or resident). You can also make annual exclusion gifts. (For 2020, the limit for gifts to a noncitizen spouse is $157,000.) And last, you can bequeath assets to a qualified domestic trust, which contains provisions designed to ensure that the assets are ultimately taxed as part of the recipient’s estate.
Consider your rights
Understanding federal estate tax laws can be complicated — even more so if you, your spouse or both are noncitizens. We can help you assess your planning options.
February 7, 2020
As you’ve probably heard, a new law was recently passed with a wide range of retirement plan changes for employers and individuals. One of the provisions of the SECURE Act involves a new requirement for employers that sponsor tax-favored defined contribution retirement plans that are subject to ERISA.
Specifically, the law will require that the benefit statements sent to plan participants include a lifetime income disclosure at least once during any 12-month period. The disclosure will need to illustrate the monthly payments that an employee would receive if the total account balance were used to provide lifetime income streams, including a single life annuity and a qualified joint and survivor annuity for the participant and the participant’s surviving spouse.
Under ERISA, a defined contribution plan administrator is required to provide benefit statements to participants. Depending on the situation, these statements must be provided quarterly, annually or upon written request. In 2013, the U.S. Department of Labor (DOL) issued an advance notice of proposed rulemaking providing rules that would have required benefit statements provided to defined contribution plan participants to include an estimated lifetime income stream of payments based on the participant’s account balance.
Some employers began providing this information in these statements — even though it wasn’t required.
But in the near future, employers will have to begin providing information to their employees about lifetime income streams.
Fortunately, the effective date of the requirement has been delayed until after the DOL issues guidance. It won’t go into effect until 12 months after the DOL issues a final rule. The law also directs the DOL to develop a model disclosure.
Plan fiduciaries, plan sponsors, or others won’t have liability under ERISA solely because they provided the lifetime income stream equivalents, so long as the equivalents are derived in accordance with the assumptions and guidance and that they include the explanations contained in the model disclosure.
Critics of the new rules argue the required disclosures will lead to confusion among participants and they question how employers will arrive at the income projections. For now, employers have to wait for the DOL to act. We’ll update you when that happens. Contact us if you have questions about this requirement or other provisions in the SECURE Act.