Thursday, December 31, 2015

IRS to Accept Income Tax Returns Starting January 19, 2016

Following a review of the tax extenders legislation signed into law this week, the Internal Revenue Service says that tax season will begin as scheduled on Tuesday, Jan. 19, 2016.
The IRS will begin accepting individual electronic returns that day. The IRS expects to receive more than 150 million individual returns in 2016, with more than four out of five being prepared using tax return preparation software and e-filed. The IRS will begin processing paper tax returns at the same time. There is no advantage to people filing tax returns on paper in early January instead of waiting for e-file to begin.
“We look forward to opening the 2016 tax season on time,” IRS Commissioner John Koskinen said. “Our employees have been working hard throughout this year to make this happen. We also appreciate the help from the nation’s tax professionals and the software community, who are critical to helping taxpayers during the filing season.”
As part of the Security Summit initiative, the IRS has been working closely with the tax industry and state revenue departments to provide stronger protections against identity theft for taxpayers during the coming filing season.
The filing deadline to submit 2015 tax returns is Monday, April 18, 2016, rather than the traditional April 15 date. Washington, D.C., will celebrate Emancipation Day on that Friday, which pushes the deadline to the following Monday for most of the nation. (Due to Patriots Day, the deadline will be Tuesday, April 19, in Maine and Massachusetts.)
Koskinen noted the new legislation makes permanent many provisions and extends many others for several years. "This provides certainty for planning purposes, which will help taxpayers and the tax community as well as the IRS," he said.
The IRS urges all taxpayers to make sure they have all their year-end statements in hand before filing, including Forms W-2 from employers, Forms 1099 from banks and other payers, and Form 1095-A from the Marketplace for those claiming the premium tax credit.
“We encourage taxpayers to take full advantage of the expanding array of tools and information on to make their tax preparation easier,” Koskinen said.
Although the IRS begins accepting returns on Jan. 19, many tax software companies will begin accepting tax returns earlier in January and submitting them to the IRS when processing systems open.
Choosing e-file and direct deposit for refunds remains the fastest and safest way to file an accurate income tax return and receive a refund. The IRS anticipates issuing more than nine out of 10 refunds in less than 21 days. Find free options to get tax help, and to prepare and file your return on or in your community if you qualify. Go to and click on the Filing tab to see your options.
  • Seventy percent of the nation’s taxpayers are eligible for IRS Free File. Commercial partners of the IRS offer free brand-name software to about 100 million individuals and families with incomes of $62,000 or less;
  • Online fillable forms provides electronic versions of IRS paper forms to all taxpayers regardless of income that can be prepared and filed by people comfortable with completing their own returns.
  • The Volunteer Income Tax Assistance (VITA) and Tax Counseling for the Elderly (TCE) offer free tax help to people who qualify. Go to and enter “free tax prep” in the search box to learn more and find a VITA or TCE site near you, or download the IRS2Go app on your smart phone and find a free tax prep provider. 

Wednesday, December 30, 2015

Employers Need 2015 Year-End Planning to Meet Employee Reporting and Withholding Requirements


To avoid tax reporting and withholding penalties as 2015 draws to a close, employers need to properly plan and check their reporting for employees under non-qualified deferred compensation, fringe benefits, health benefits or other remuneration. Year-end planning for employers is important, because employee information reporting, including both Form W-2 and the new Affordable Care Act (ACA) Forms, is now subject to significantly increased penalties.
Employers are obligated to withhold Federal Income and Federal Insurance Contributions Act (FICA) taxes on wages, and may satisfy this obligation by actually withholding from the wage payments, withholding from other wages paid to the employee, or accepting a check from the employee for the withholding obligation. Failure to withhold can result in the employer becoming liable for the non-withheld taxes. Beginning in 2015, the penalties for errors or omissions for information returns have dramatically increased and can be as high as $500 per copy of return. 

FICA Tax Withholding on Non-Qualified Deferred Compensation

Prior to January 1, 2016, employers should withhold on any amounts earned by an employee under a non-qualified deferred compensation plan (NQDC), which becomes vested and ascertainable in 2015. In the case of a NQDC arrangements, the FICA tax, comprised of Social Security and Medicare taxes, can apply when NQDC plan amounts are no longer subject to a substantial risk of forfeiture and are ascertainable, meaning that the amount can be calculated accurately. This special FICA timing rule for NQDC results in imposing a FICA tax before plan benefits are paid.
Because FICA tax is generally withheld when wages are paid, employers must pay careful attention to the special timing rule that applies for FICA tax withholding on NQDC amounts. A painful reminder of the rule is this year’s decision in Davidson v. Henkel Corp. In Henkel, a class of retiree participants in a NQDC plan claimed that the payout of vested benefits were reduced because Henkel Corp. had not withheld NQDC amounts in accordance with the special timing rule which would have reduced the total amount of FICA tax liability. The court agreed, finding that the failure to withhold FICA taxes under the special timing rule was both a violation of the implied terms of an NQDC plan, as well as a violation of the Employee Retirement Income Security Act of 1974 (ERISA).
Henkel Corp. makes clear that failures related to the special FICA timing rule for NQDC amounts can result in serious consequences. Unless employers withhold prior to year-end for any NQDC amounts that became subject to FICA tax in 2015, they could be penalized in both the form of additional amounts of FICA tax, owed by both the employer and employee, as well as liability under ERISA.
Employers are advised to check accruals under their NQDC plans and withhold from any NQDC which has become vested and ascertainable at any time in 2015. Note that the employer would first look to withholding from either the deferred compensation balance or other wages paid this year. The employer may need to seek a check from the employee if the amount withheld is not sufficient to satisfy FICA tax liability.

Impute Income and Withholding from Taxable Fringe Benefits

December 31, 2015, marks the deadline for determining the proper value of any taxable fringe benefits enjoyed during 2015. The Internal Revenue Service (IRS) requires the value of fringe benefits to be imputed in income when not specifically excluded under a provision of the Internal Revenue Code (Code). Taxable fringe benefits include, but are not limited to, the fair market value of the personal use of a company-provided automobile; taxable meals; season tickets to sporting events; personal travel on company aircraft; taxable spousal travel; prizes; and awards.
The IRS allows an employer to impute income for taxable fringe benefits on a periodic basis, as infrequently as once per year, rather than when the taxable fringe benefit is actually provided. In addition, employers can adopt a cut-off date as early as November 1 for gathering information to report the value of imputed income for taxable fringe benefits in 2015 for benefits provided in the last 12 months. See Announcement 85-113.

Cafeteria Plan “Use It or Lose It” Deadline

Unless an employer adopts a grace period provision, the “use it or lose it” deadline for “Cafeteria Plans” is December 31. Section 125 of the Code “Cafeteria Plans” allow employees to direct wages on a tax-free basis for the payment of medical bills and other health benefits. These contributions save both income tax for the employee and FICA for the employee and employer. The catch is the notorious "use it or lose it" rule. Employees must decide at the beginning of the year how much to contribute to the plan. Generally if the amount contributed is not used by December 31, the excess is forfeited.
A popular exception to the December 31 deadline is the availability of a “grace period” provision. This provision extends the deadline until as late as March 15, 2016. This allows expenditures up through March 15, 2016, to be used against amounts contributed in 2015.
If employers do not adopt the grace period provision to accommodate employees, employees will need to do the traditional last-minute trip to the drug store, dentist or optometrist to use up the funds in their accounts for medical benefits. Employers may wish to remind their employees of this deadline so as to avoid the any unexpected forfeitures of employee contributions or alternatively may wish to adopt a grace period to accommodate delays.

New Form W-4 to Increase Withholding

Employers withhold federal income tax in accordance with the Form W-4 provided by each employee. Withholding from wages pursuant to the Form W-4 is considered to have been paid ratably throughout the year. In contrast, estimated tax payments made with respect to non-wage income is credited only when paid and may result in penalties for each quarter’s underpayment. Employees are permitted to file a new Form W-4 at any time during the year to increase or decrease the amounts withheld from periodic wages and bonuses. An employee, including a highly paid executive, may wish to increase withholdings on the last remuneration paid in 2015 in order to avoid interest and penalties related to underpayment penalties from income outside of employment or with respect to under-withheld additional Medicare tax.
As a complication for some executives who wish to avoid understatement penalties by increasing withholding on wages, there are special rules regarding supplemental payments (e.g. bonuses) of more than $1,000,000, which require withholding at exactly 39.6 percent. This means that any shortfalls in withholding cannot be “made up” by withholding from such supplemental payments so that the withholding is more than 39.6 percent. In such cases, any increased withholding may only be made from regular wages and can be made generally up to 100 percent of the regular wages.

Additional Medicare Tax

All wages that are subject to the regular Medicare tax rate of 1.45 percent are also subject to additional Medicare tax withholding if paid on wages in excess of $200,000. Under the Affordable Care Act (ACA), effective January 1, 2013, employers must withhold 0.9 percent as additional Medicare tax for every employee whose earnings reach $200,000 in the calendar year. Employers are required to begin withholding additional Medicare tax in the pay period in which employee wages reach $200,000 and continue to withhold it each pay period until the end of the calendar year. Additional Medicare tax is only imposed on the employee; there is no employer share of additional Medicare tax. The requirement to withhold on amounts above $200,000 may not be altered due to the marital status of the individual, which may result in more or less ultimate liability for the tax by the employee when the individual’s tax return is filed. Employees who anticipate having too little additional Medicare tax withheld may wish to complete a new Form W-4 and submit it to their employers before the company’s final pay period to have additional regular wages withheld. For more information about the additional Medicare tax withholding obligations by employers, see the IRS’ website.

Same-Sex Marriage Equality

In the second of two landmark decisions on same-sex marriage, the Supreme Court of the United States ruled on June 26, 2015, that the Fourteenth Amendment requires all states to license marriage between two people of the same sex, and recognize same-sex marriages lawfully licensed and performed in another state. (Obergefell v. US, No. 14–556, June 26, 2015.)
Employers, especially those in states where same-sex marriage was not previously legal, should review their payroll procedures with respect to taxation of same-sex partner benefits to ensure the proper federal and state tax treatment of benefits extended to same-sex spouses and consider how to communicate these changes to employees.
One significant change affecting many employees, and that may be retroactive, is the state and local taxability of same-sex spousal benefits. Employers will no longer need to apply special taxation rules to same-sex spouses based on the myriad of state tax laws, for example, those employers who were previously offering tax gross-ups in the form of increased compensation to provide equal treatment to employees who were taxed under state or federal law on the value of employer-provided coverage for a same-sex spouse or partner.
Now, all same-sex spouses will receive favorable state tax treatment. This only applies to married same-sex couples. Therefore, it should be noted that federal law, even post-Obergefell, will not apply the same favorable tax treatment to coverage provided for a non-dependent partner in a same sex domestic partnership or civil union.

Transit Benefits

In Rev. Proc. 2014-61, the IRS provides that employers’ transit benefit programs may allow employees to receive a maximum allowed pre-tax parking benefit for 2015 of $250 per month and a maximum allowed pre-tax mass transit benefit for 2015 of $130 per month.
Employers should be mindful of the potential for a year-end retroactive increase in the amount of allowable monthly limits for mass transit benefits. Congress has done this before. In 2013, the American Taxpayer Relief Act retroactively increased the 2012 monthly transit benefit exclusion from $125 per month to $240 per month. This gave transit benefit parity with the parking benefit for 2012, which was $240. For many employers, this retroactive increase resulted in both decreased FICA and federal income tax liability.
If U.S. Congress passes retroactive parity measures, employers should be poised to react and amend Form W-2 accordingly. 

Affordable Care Act Reporting

Employers of all sizes will be subject to the imposition of annual reporting requirements under the ACA. The IRS will use the information reported by employers and insurers under the reporting requirements of the ACA to both determine individual eligibility for premium tax credits as well as to determine individual compliance with the individual shared responsibility requirements. The first report is due in 2016 for 2015 coverage.
There are two types of reporting requirements: (1) reporting of minimum essential coverage and (2) applicable large employer (ALE) reporting on health insurance coverage offered under employer sponsored plans.
Annual reports of minimum essential coverage must be filed on IRS Form 1095-B and transmitted on Form 1094-B. Insurers; employers that sponsor self-insured group health plans; and those who provide minimum essential health insurance coverage are all required to file these reports. Employers that sponsor self-insured group health plans must report information about employees (and their spouses and dependents) if the employees enroll in the coverage. This is the case even if the employer is not an ALE subject to the employer shared responsibility provisions of the ACA. The 1095-B solicits information about the entity as well as specific information for each individual for whom minimum essential coverage is required.
ALE reporting must be filed on IRS Form 1095-C and transmitted on Form 1094-C. An ALE, generally defined as an employer with 50 (100 for 2015) or more full-time employees, is subject to the employer-shared responsibility provisions of the ACA. An ALE must describe the kind of health care coverage—whether health insurance or self-insured health care coverage—that it provides to its employees; provide a list of full-time employees; and detail both the coverage offered to each employee and the months to which the coverage applied. An ALE is also required to give each full-time employee a copy of the Form 1095-C that is filed with the IRS. By February 1, 2015, statements must be furnished to employees on paper by mail or hand-delivery, unless the recipient affirmatively consents to receive the statement in an electronic format.  

Tuesday, December 29, 2015

Tax preparation is an oxymoron

Tax preparation is an oxymoron
An oxymoron is a figure of speech that uses seeming contradictions. "Civil war" or "jumbo shrimp" are popular examples of an oxymoron. At the beginning of each year, we typically see ads on TV, online and via email for “tax preparation.”
At that point, the tax year is over and now the deadline to memorialize the tax activity of the prior year is April 18 for 2016 (but can be extended until Oct, 15.) It is in this first quarter of the year when people of all ages begin to gather their tax documents to prepare their tax return.
But the contradiction is “tax preparation” should be completed before the year ended, not after. If you are new to filing taxes or have been filing your own taxes and taking the standard deduction, you may not realize the advantages that might be gained with a little knowledge and year-end planning. Here is a tax preparation“to-do listthat needs to get done by Dec. 31:
  • Fatten your employer-sponsored retirement plan  Tax-deferred investing is a smart choice because it allows your money to grow tax-free until you withdraw it. Maximize your 401(k), 403(b), 457, and TSP contributions, which are $18,000 or $24,000 if you will be age 50 or older in both 2015 and 2016.
  • Consider Roth IRA conversions  If you have a long time until retirement, chances are good that taxes will be higher then than now, and a Roth conversion can help you potentially save a lot in taxes in your future retirement. If you are considering converting part or all of your traditional IRAs to a Roth IRA, keep in mind the immediate tax consequences and additional rules and potential penalties. You will owe income taxes for 2015 on any amounts converted by December 31.
  • Contribute to your health savings account  If you are covered by an eligible high-deductible health insurance plan, using a health savings account to save for your future medical expenses can help you trim your taxes both today and in the future. Money that you contribute is tax-deductible, earnings accumulate tax-free, and withdrawals are tax-free if used to pay qualified medical expenses. You have until April 18, 2016, to contribute and claim a deduction for 2015. The maximum contribution for 2015 is $3,350 for self-only coverage or $6,650 for family coverage.
  • Clean out your closets and snag a tax deduction  Clothing and household goods that you donate to charity by the end of the year may add up to a tidy tax deduction for you if you itemize deductions. Be sure to keep your receipts and use services like to identify value for your goods.
  • Take required minimum distributions  RMD is not just required for people over 70.5. No matter what age you are, you might have inherited an IRA or a Roth IRA from deceased parents, grandparents or any non-spouse that require a minimum annual distribution. It is important to note that even though inherited Roth IRA’s are tax-free when distributed, both traditional IRA and Roth RMD minimums must be taken out by Dec. 31. The Internal Revenue Service penalty for not taking a required distribution is steep: 50 percent of the required amount. Be sure to discuss with a financial professional experienced in IRA tax laws to understand your requirements and options.
When first starting out, most people have a tendency to do their own taxes. This is fine if you educate yourself, but, as you can see from the above, there could be many tax strategies and deductions on which you are missing out. For more proactive tips and tax-saving strategies, talk to a tax adviser before Jan. 1.

Monday, December 28, 2015

Consider These Tax-Saving Moves Before Dec. 31

Between the holiday music, decorations and crowds of last minute shoppers, December feels like anything but tax season.
Technically, it's not — but it is a great time to make some last minute moves to pare your 2015 tax bill.
"Time is running short, but there are always things you can do right up until December 31," said Mark Steber, chief tax officer for Jackson Hewitt.
Luckily for taxpayers, the spending bill signed into law by President Barack Obama on Friday locks in a number of key tax breaks that were set to diminish or expire. The Joint Committee on Taxation projected a $622 billion budget effect over 10 years, and "those are dollar-for-dollar tax savings for individuals," Steber said.
But there are dozens of provisions in the new legislation, so taxpayers need to get their records in order so they can claim what applies to them.
Take the deduction for sales taxes, for example. Temporary regulations were allowing taxpayers to deduct the sales taxes they have paid or their state and local taxes, whichever is higher, but it was only being authorized year to year. The new spending bill makes that option permanent, and it stands to benefit people living in states with sales taxes but no income taxes, including Alaska, Florida, Nevada, South Dakota, Texas, Washington and Wyoming.
Then there is the qualified charitable distribution. People over age 70½ are required to take a minimum distribution from their IRA, but in the past they were allowed to simply give up to $100,000 of it to a charity and avoid having it count as income. That provision had repeatedly expired and been renewed, but the new legislation made it permanent.
"A lot of people have been waiting to see if they can take advantage of that," said Alison Flores, a principal at The Tax Institute at H&R Block.
Teachers can also benefit from the spending bill. They used to watch every year to see if a provision allowing them to deduct up to $250 for classroom supplies would be extended, and it has now been made permanent. It will also be indexed to inflation starting in 2016.
"You have probably already paid those expenses if you are a teacher," Flores said. "Start going through your records."
Key provisions may also help parents. For example, the child tax credit, which has long been calculated at 15 percent of earned income above $3,000, was on track to be calculated on earned income above $10,000 as of 2017. The $3,000 threshold was made permanent in the spending bill.
The bill also made permanent the American Opportunity Tax Credit, which gives people with incomes below a set threshold ($160,000 to $180,000 for joint filers and $80,000 to $90,000 for single filers) a tax credit up to $2,500 for qualified educational expenses. Another provision, the tuition tax deduction, has been extended for two years.
But taxpayers need to pay attention to more than the new legislation, Steber said. This is a great year to follow tried-and-true tax advice, like paying education and business expenses early and making charitable donations. Don't forget to consider noncash donations, he added, like gifts to charities of clothing or appreciated securities.
This is also a good time to review your portfolio and consider harvesting some of your losses so you can offset realized gains.
Steber also advised making sure as soon as possible that your health insurance for 2016 is squared away.
"You have to have insurance by January 1 or run the risk of these new ACA penalties," he said, referring to the Affordable Care Act. For 2016, people forgoing insurance will owe $695 per adult in penalties and half that for each child or 2.5 percent of their income, whichever is higher. If they were not enrolled for 2015, they will owe the higher of $325 per adult or 2 percent of their income. It can take insurance companies several days to get new enrollees set up, so if you are not insured, now is the time to assess your situation, he said.
This is a challenging time of year to find time to step back and review your financial situation but it can really pay off, Steber said.
Think of end-of-year tax planning as a way to bring money in, he said. Some 75 percent of taxpayers receive a refund every year, and "I find that a big refund is a much better, more appealing idea than coordination of next year's plan."

Sunday, December 27, 2015

Six tax tips for the holidays

As you enjoy the holiday season and your traditions, don’t forget to set aside time for a little tax planning before New Year’s Eve. While tax planning might make you feel more like the scrooge, it can save you money in the long run by minimizing your overall tax liability.  Some tax moves will take some planning, others however, are easy to accomplish. But all are worth checking out to see if they can reduce your tax bill. 
Tip No. 1:Defer income
Be aware of your tax bracket. The general rule is to defer income to next year when possible as long as your tax rate for 2015 is the same or higher than what it is projected to be in 2016. The rates are graduated with the top tax rate as high as 43 percent. If your remaining income will push you into a higher tax bracket, postpone receiving money wherever you can. For example, ask your boss to pay your bonus in January; put more money into your tax-deferred retirement plan; or hold off on selling assets that will produce a capital gain. If you're self-employed, send invoices for year-end jobs in January 2016.
Tip No. 2: Add to your retirement
Put as much money as you can into your 401(k) or similar workplace retirement savings plan.  Traditionally, plan contributions are made on a pre-tax basis, so you'll have less taxable income on which you will pay income taxes. The maximum amount employees can put into a 401(k) plan this year is $18,000, but any amount you contribute will help. If you are age 50 or older as of Dec. 31, you can contribute an extra $6,000.  If you aren’t contributing the maximum to your retirement plan, you should see if you are able to increase your 401(k) contributions for 2016.  The end of the year is a great time to make adjustments for the next year. If you aren’t contributing enough to receive the full company match you are leaving money on the table.
Tip No. 3: Review flexible spending accounts
If you contribute to a medical flexible spending account (FSA) through your employer, be sure you don’t waste it. As part of the Affordable Care Act the maximum contribution amount was set at $2,500 with annual adjustments for inflation. Like 401(k) plans, money goes into an FSA on a pre-tax basis, reducing your tax liability. But any money you leave in your FSA at the end of the year is forfeited by you.  Some companies allow a grace period into the next year to use the remaining FSA funds, but are not required to provide this option.  Make sure you check with your employer to ensure you don’t lose any FSA funds.
Tip No. 4: Use capital losses to offset capital gains
If you have investment assets that have lost value, use these losses to reduce your overall income. Capital losses can be used to offset any capital gains. This is a good time to review your portfolio, and if you have more capital gains than losses, recognize capital losses to offset the excess gains.  You can also use up to $3,000 of capital losses in excess of gains to reduce your ordinary income that is taxed. Capital losses in excess of $3,000 can be carried forward indefinitely to future tax years.
Tip No. 5: Take advantage of owning a home
Home ownership provides a variety of tax breaks, some of which you can utilize by year-end to reduce your current year's tax bill. For example, you can make your January mortgage payment by Dec. 31 and deduct the mortgage interest on your 2015 return. You may also benefit by paying your property tax payment due in early 2016 in December.
Tip No. 6: Pay college costs early
The American Opportunity credit is a wonderful way to let Uncle Sam help subsidize college costs if you qualify. The maximum annual credit is $2,500, with up to 40 percent of this credit refundable. That means you could get as much as $1,000 back as a tax refund even if you don't owe any taxes.  If the spring semester bill isn't due until January, it might be beneficial to pay it before the end of the year. Doing so may allow you to maximize the American Opportunity Tax Credit on this year's tax return.

Wednesday, December 23, 2015

How the New Federal Budget and Tax Bill Could Lower Your College Costs

More money for low- and middle-income students and relaxed rules on spending your 529 funds.

Congress passed a $1.1 trillion spending bill and $700 billion in tax breaks on Friday that may directly affect how you pay, save for, and deduct college expenses. Included in the bill, which covers fiscal year 2016 (starting back in October 2015), is more money for some student aid programs and tuition tax credits. President Obama signed it into law later that day.

Here’s a rundown of what it could mean for your college budget:

1. 529 savings plans can be used for more expenses

Before the new law, you could use the money in a 529 college savings plan only to pay for tuition, room and board, and supplies such as books. Now the list of qualified expenses includes computers, software, and Internet costs. Need guidance on why and how to open a 529? Read here and here.

2. The American Opportunity Tax Credit is sticking around

Also known as the AOTC, this credit reimburses families up to $2,500 for tuition, fees, and other educational expenses when they file their taxes. The credit was set to expire in 2017, but the tax bill passed Friday makes it permanent. Want to get an early start on preparing for tax season? Brush up on how to make the most of college tax breaks here.

3. Pell Grant awards grow 2%

Federal Pell Grants are awarded to low- and middle-income students and don’t have to be repaid. At a total of $31.4 billion in fiscal year 2015, Pell Grants represent the government’s single largest education program. The spending bill for fiscal year 2016 increases the maximum individual Pell Grant award by $140, to $5,915. Other programs aimed at helping needy students go to and succeed in college (such as TRIO and GEAR UP) also saw budget increases, though that money won’t go directly to students.

4. Perkins loans are back from the dead

Congress had let its oldest student loan program expire earlier this fall, but with last week’s budget deal, lawmakers extended the program’s lifespan by two years. Perkins Loans are reserved for needy students. They have a set 5% interest rate, and interest doesn’t start accruing until the repayment period begins nine months after the borrower graduates. Congress hasn’t doled out new money for the program in many years, but instead, colleges have paid for it through a revolving fund, where repayments from previous borrowers finance new loans. If Congress hadn’t restored the program, colleges might have had to repay the initial loan money to the federal government, and no new loans would have been issued. Now the program is back, but with some limitations. For one, new loans are only available to undergraduate students. And colleges will be required to make sure students have used all other available federal direct loans before issuing Perkins Loans. Undergraduate students can receive as much as $5,500 in Perkins funds per year, up to a total of $27,500.

5. Customer service for borrowers might improve

We’ve written about how student loan servicers, the middlemen who process your loan payments, don’t always act in borrowers’ best interest or provide satisfactory customer service, sometimes resulting in higher interest payments and longer overall repayment periods. Language in the budget deal could improve the loan servicing industry, as the Washington Post explains. That’s because the Department of Education would be required to award servicing contracts based on which companies do the best job of keeping borrowers from falling behind on their loan payments.

Monday, December 21, 2015

Making the Most of Your Year-End Charitable Donations


Your primary motivation for making a charitable donation is your generous spirit, but it is also important to know that your charitable giving may create tax benefits that make philanthropy even more appealing. Of course, there are tax rules and procedures that must be followed to maximize the tax savings of your charitable donations. Here are some general guidelines to consider: 
• You will receive an income tax deduction in the year you make a gift to a qualified charitable organization, but you must itemize your deductions in order to claim a charitable deduction. 
• Only gifts to qualified charitable organizations are deductible. Churches, synagogues and other religious organizations are considered de facto charitable organizations and are eligible to receive tax deductible donations. 
• Donating appreciated securities is among the more tax-effective ways to make a charitable gift. If you have held the appreciated security for more than one-year, you can deduct the fair market value of the donated asset and avoid the capital gain on the appreciation. Charities pay no capital gain on the sale of appreciated securities. 
• You can only deduct as much as 50 percent of your adjusted gross income (AGI) for cash donations, or as much as 30 percent of AGI for donations of appreciated securities to charity. Any donations above these limits may be carried forward for up to five years. 
• Individuals who are 70½ or older may have the option of making a direct transfer of up to $100,000 from a traditional IRA to a qualified charitable organization, tax free. The amount transferred to charity will not be considered a taxable IRA distribution and will satisfy required minimum distributions. Most observers expect Congress to extend this popular rule for 2015 before the end of the calendar year. 
• IRA owners may also name a qualified charity as designated beneficiary of some or all of a traditional IRA account, thus completely avoiding taxes on distributions from the tax-deferred account. 
• Owners of life insurance (term, whole life, universal, etc.) may name a charity as beneficiary of a life insurance policy. 
• Finally, all gifts made to charity are permanently removed from the donor’s estate and may reduce estate taxes. 

So, as the year-end approaches and we reflect on the gifts we have received in our own lives, making a charitable donation to your favorite charity may be a great way to give back to the greater good, while also lowering your tax bill. 

Sunday, December 20, 2015

Cleaning Out Your Financial Trunk – Year-End Tips

While investors were recently fretting over post-Fed rate hike volatility, I recently opened my car trunk, and it wasn’t a pretty picture. I discovered towels, jumper cables, soccer ball, beach chair, research reports, and even a box of Kleenex. The hodge-podge of items had been accumulating for months, but the path of least resistance to solving this problem was procrastination. It didn’t take much effort, but eventually I transformed my portable dumpster into a clean, useful space of organizational Zen.

Many investors have a similar problem with their scattered finances…an IRA here, 401(k) there, trust account, savings account, bank CD, insurance policy, and not to mention a slew of other spouse accounts. Is there any cohesive strategy behind these accounts? Generally, the answer is a resounding “no”. Like a messy car trunk, a sloppy controlled investment portfolio with no objective, time horizon, or defined risk tolerance could drive your retirement off-road into a ditch.

With the year coming to a close, and a finish to this season’s holiday parties and gift opening, often times there is a brief calm before the New Year’s storm. This is a perfect time to clean out your cluttered financial trunk to make sure you are on track to meet your retirement goals.

The first step in de-cluttering your financial mess is determining what is your targeted retirement number (see Getting to Your Number). Doing so requires you to calculate the following:

Your annual budget
Annual income
Planned retirement date
Life expectancy

Combining this data with your risk tolerance and expected return should help you ascertain whether your retirement goals are realistic or overly optimistic.

After you find a reasonable dollar figure target for retirement you can give yourself a pat on the back, but the financial organizing game is not over yet. You still need to incorporate various important facets of financial planning when arranging your fiscal affairs. Here are some financial planning priorities on which to focus:

Estate Planning: Rich or poor, it doesn’t matter…you still need to have an estate plan in place. A suitable estate plan includes important documents, like a living trust, will, financial power of attorney, and advanced healthcare directive. Without these critical documents, heirs could be left spending thousands of dollars, and fighting years with courts and family members over rightful transfers of assets.

Tax Planning: When optimizing your finances, one cannot forget about the IRS. One does not need to be Al Capone to lower your tax bill – there are plenty of ways to legally lower your tax liability. Contributing to your 401(k)/IRA accounts and recognizing various deductions (e.g., charitable contributions, business write-offs) are some low hanging fruit strategies to keeping more of your money. Consult a tax professional for more specific guidance.

Insurance: Building your nest egg requires a lot of effort, so protecting it should be a key priority. Medical bills are the number one cause of personal bankruptcies, so mitigating these risks is paramount. Life insurance products mixed with investments generally are over-priced and overly complex. Term life insurance is often a much more cost effective and simplified approach.

Home Management: Given the home is the single largest personal asset for most families, home insurance is an essential, and researching an umbrella policy that protects your nest egg against unexpected potential litigation is not a bad idea either. With interest rates near generational lows, it behooves you to explore mortgage refinance possibilities as well.

Financial market volatility may continue through year-end into next year, but sitting on your hands and doing nothing will not advance you towards financial prosperity. Cleaning up your messy financial trunk with comprehensive investment and financial planning (not procrastination) is the correct path to reaching your Zen-like retirement goals.

Saturday, December 19, 2015

Year-end tax planning tips for businesses

Before the year comes to a close, business owners should be looking for ways to minimize their 2015 tax bills while keeping an eye toward planning opportunities and obligations that will present themselves soon with little time to react.
Here are five things businesses should add to their to-do lists, and in some cases, be prepared to act upon before the New Year begins.
1.    Assemble team, compile information to comply with ACA reporting requirements
Large employers will, for the first time, be required to report information in 2016 as mandated by the Affordable Care Act. That information will be reflective of 2015, and the IRS will use it to determine whether individuals are entitled to premium assistance and, if necessary, enforce a penalty.
These reporting requirements are not applicable to all employers, however. Generally, those who have employed at least 50 full-time employees or equivalents are required to file two new forms in 2016 for the 2015 calendar year (find out how employees are classified under the ACA by clicking here).
Those forms are:
Before completing those forms, businesses should determine whether they fall under the ACA’s applicable large employer designation, including whether they are part of a controlled group,  and whether their health care coverage provides minimum essential, minimum value, and is affordable.
Additionally, the information needed to complete those forms will likely come from different personnel or departments within a company, in addition to the controller. Therefore, businesses will need to thoroughly research where the information originates -- health plan administrators, human resources departments, payroll processors, etc. -- before deciding which employee(s) will be chiefly responsible for completing these forms.
Because of the sheer amount of time and effort required to comply with these new reporting requirements, it is recommended that business owners start as soon as possible. Forms 1094 and 1095 must be filed with IRS no later than February 28 of each year (March 31 if filed electronically). Due date for 2015 forms are Feb. 29, 2016 (or March 31, 2016, if filing electronically). Employers issuing at least 250 Form W-2s must file electronically. There is an automatic 30 day extension of time to file the B or C series of forms, available by completing Form 8809. Employers must furnish Form 1095 to individuals listed in relevant Forms 1094 and 1095 by Jan. 31 of each year (or, by next business day if Jan. 31 falls on Saturday or Sunday). Electronic distribution is permitted as long as the IRS rules are followed, including obtaining the individual’s consent to receive Form 1095 electronically.
2.    Upgrade assets
If your business has been contemplating purchasing a new piece of equipment or machine, there is an incentive to do so before January.
Businesses looking to realize additional depreciation deductions or deduct the entire asset using the expensing election can do so by upgrading their assets in December. However, the asset must not only have been purchased this year, but it also needs to be placed into service before Jan. 1 in order to capture depreciation or write-offs for 2015.
3.    Pay executive bonus accruals
As discussed in a recent blog post, businesses that want to pay year-end bonuses before March 15 but deduct the accrued bonuses in the previous year need to take additional steps to protect the deduction of bonus payments made between Jan. 1 and March 15.
Businesses that want to deduct bonuses earned in 2015 that are paid out in early 2016, should take heed of these four tips to maximize accrued bonuses deductions to capture the maximum deduction and avoid any issues.
4.    Act immediately if extenders package is passed
Last year, Congress waited until December 16 to pass a tax extenders package, and we believe the 2015 extenders package will also be passed at the eleventh hour.
Because an extenders package, if passed, will likely have some benefits for small businesses, it’s imperative that business owners be prepared to act once news of a deal is announced. Otherwise, they could lose out on some important tax reduction opportunities.
Some of the tax provisions that expired in 2014 that could be making a short-lived comeback in December include: research and experimentation (R&D) credit; $500,000 equipment expensing election; the work opportunity tax credit; bonus depreciation and special rules for qualified small business stock.
5. Prepare for 2018
Though we’re about to enter 2016, there are several impending changes that will go into effect in 2018 that require a business owner’s attention now.
First, the new partnership audit rules, part of the Bipartisan Budget Act of 2015, replace TEFRA and Electing Large Partnership rules. The new rules are intended to streamline partnership audits. Partnerships with 100 or fewer qualifying partners would be permitted to opt out of the new rules, electing instead to be subject to audits on the level of each individual partner.
Businesses that have 101 or more qualifying partners should prepare now by reviewing their partnership or operating agreements to make sure that the individuals with decision making authority are going to act in the best interest of the former and current partners. Refer to our special alert on the partnership audit rule changes here for more information.
The second change that will come about in 2018 concerns the Cadillac Tax, which is associated with the ACA. It is a nondeductible 40 percent excise tax levied on health plans whose cost exceeds certain limits. It generally includes all health coverage but not excepted benefits. 
Regarding the Cadillac Tax, there are a lot of things that could change between now and 2018. Your preparation, at this point, should simply consist of educating yourself about the changes that could come about. Check out this article I wrote with fellow CBIZ blogger Zack Pace that answers some common questions about Cadillac Tax-related concerns.
In between wrapping gifts, enjoying holiday treats and hanging lights outside, be sure to follow the tips above before the end of the year to ensure your business starts 2016 off on the right foot!

Friday, December 18, 2015

What does it mean to offset gains with losses for my taxes?

Once again we find ourselves at year-end with yet another opportunity to make some last-minute tax planning moves in an effort to lower the bite next April.

One such tactic is to take a look at opportunities to offset possible capital losses against capital gains already realized in your investment portfolio.

This is sometimes referred to as “tax loss harvesting.”

 IRS regulations allow taxpayers to offset capital losses dollar-for-dollar against capital gains.

“Many say that the tax tail should not wag the investment dog, however, if you are already thinking about selling securities with loss positions, doing so when you have already realized capital gains for the year is going to save you some tax dollars at the same time,”. “In addition, capital losses can be used to offset up to $3,000 of ordinary income ($1,500 for marrieds filing separately) once fully exhausted against realized capital gains.”

Be careful not to fall under the wash sale rules, though, .

Wash sales are triggered when a security is sold at a loss, and within 30 days before or after the sale, a substantially identical security is purchased.

In such cases the loss will be disallowed.

Thursday, December 17, 2015

Year-end tax planning: Have you made your list and checked it twice?

With the holiday season here, it's easy to put tax planning at the bottom of your "to do" list.
Who wants to plan for taxes when you can enjoy family, friends and food? But if you ignore it, there's not much you can do to improve your 2015 tax situation after Dec. 31. Here is a short checklist of what to look at before the year ends:
1. Take your 2015 Required Minimum Distribution. If you're older than 70½ with just about any qualified retirement plan except a Roth IRA, IRS rules require you to take out a minimum distribution in 2015 that's income-taxable to you. Failure to withdraw the required amount may result in a 50 percent penalty on the amount not withdrawn by Dec. 31. If you've inherited an IRA from someone besides your spouse, you must take required minimum distributions (even from a Roth IRA) no matter what age you are. Generally speaking, these distributions must begin by Dec. 31 of the year after the year of death of the original owner.
2. Contribute the maximum to qualified plans. If you haven't yet contributed the annual maximum ($18,000 if younger than 50 and $24,000 if over) to your employer's 401(k) or 403(b) plan and can afford to, increase your contribu
tion before Dec. 31. If you can't afford to catch up to the maximum, at least contribute up to any employer match.
3. Set up a new qualified retirement plan. If you're self-employed and want to establish a qualified retirement plan, it must be done by Dec. 31. The exception is a SEP IRA: This deadline is the due date for your tax return, including extensions. The deadline for 2015 traditional IRA contributions is still April 15, 2016, but if you're contributing to another qualified plan, consult your tax adviser to determine if a traditional IRA contribution is even deductible.
4. Consider tax-loss harvesting. Investors who sell assets for less than cost generally recognize capital losses that can be used to offset capital gains. If capital losses exceed gains, up to $3,000 of capital losses are deductible against ordinary income. Consider selling "under water" investments for tax reasons, especially if you have capital gains to offset.
5. Remember your favorite charities. If you are charitably minded and you itemize deductions, complete your donations before Dec. 31. You may contribute and deduct up to 50 percent of your adjusted gross income, but sometimes 20 percent and 30 percent of AGI limits apply. Remember: Donations by check are considered delivered on the day mailed.
6. Donate highly appreciated assets to charity. The best candidates for donation are assets owned more than a year and appreciated substantially above their cost. Why? You may deduct the full fair market value of the asset(s) donated (subject to the limits noted) even though you paid much less. Can't decide which charity to benefit? No problem! Consider establishing a donor-advised fund. It's like a charitable savings account: The donor gets the tax deduction when they contribute. Donors can then make grants out of the fund when they decide who to benefit later on.
7. Defer income and accelerate deductions. If you are a cash-basis taxpayer, any income you can delay receiving until 2016 delays taxes on that income for another year. If you need new equipment next year, buy it in 2015. You can deduct 100 percent of the cost up to $200,000 (via the Section 179 depreciation deduction) this year.
8. Look at conversion to a Roth IRA. Anyone can convert a traditional IRA to a Roth IRA these days. You must, however, pay the income tax on the amount converted. Why convert? Withdrawals from your own Roth IRA (after age 59 1/2) aren't income taxable or subject to RMD rules. If you've had a drop in income this year, consider converting some/all of your traditional IRA to a Roth IRA when your taxes might be lower now than later. Conversion might also make sense if you've made non-deductible traditional IRA contributions. Talk to your tax adviser before taking this step. The deadline for Roth conversions is Dec. 31.
There are many strategies available to help you save taxes in 2015. Talk to your tax adviser now to determine what fits best for you. That way, you may ring in the New Year with more money in your pocket!
Withdrawals from the ROTH account may be tax free, as long as they are considered qualified. Limitations and restrictions may apply. Withdrawals prior to age 59 ½ or prior to the account being opened for five years, whichever is later, may result in a 10 percent IRS penalty tax. Future tax laws can change at any time and may impact the benefits of Roth IRAs.
This information is not intended to be a substitute for specific individualized tax advice. We suggest that you discuss your specific issues with a qualified tax adviser.

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