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The chances of IRS audit are down but you should still be prepared

The IRS just released its audit statistics for the 2018 fiscal year, and fewer taxpayers had their returns examined as compared with prior years. However, even though a small percentage of tax returns are being chosen for audit these days, that will be little consolation if yours is one of them.

Latest statistics

Overall, just 0.59% of individual tax returns were audited in 2018, as compared with 0.62% in 2017. This was the lowest percentage of audits conducted since 2002.

However, as in the past, those with very high incomes face greater odds. For example, in 2018, 2.21% of taxpayers with adjusted gross incomes (AGIs) of between $1 million and $5 million were audited (down from 3.52% in 2017).

The richest taxpayers, those with AGIs of $10 million and more, experienced a steep decline in audits. In 2018, 6.66% of their returns were audited, compared with 14.52% in 2017.

Surviving an audit

Even though fewer audits are being performed, the IRS will still examine thousands of returns this year. With proper planning, you should fare well even if you’re one of the unlucky ones.

The easiest way to survive an IRS examination is to prepare in advance. On an ongoing basis, you should systematically maintain documentation — invoices, bills, canceled checks, receipts, or other proof — for all items reported on your tax returns.

Just because a return is selected for audit doesn’t mean that an error was made. Some returns are randomly selected based on statistical formulas. For example, IRS computers compare income and deductions on returns with what other taxpayers report. If an individual deducts a charitable contribution that’s significantly higher than what others with similar incomes report, the IRS may want to know why.

Returns can also be selected when they involve issues or transactions with other taxpayers who were previously selected for audit, such as business partners or investors.

The government generally has three years within which to conduct an audit, and often the exam won’t begin until a year or more after you file your return.

More audit details

The scope of an audit depends on the tax return’s complexity. A return reflecting business or real estate income and expenses is likely to take longer to examine than a return with only salary income.

An audit can be conducted by mail or through an in-person interview and review of records. The interview may be conducted at an IRS office or may be a “field audit” at the taxpayer’s home, business, or accountant’s office.

Important: Even if your return is audited, an IRS examination may be nothing to lose sleep over. In many cases, the IRS asks for proof of certain items and routinely “closes” the audit after the documentation is presented.

Representation

It’s advisable to have a tax professional represent you at an audit. A tax pro knows what issues the IRS is likely to scrutinize and can prepare accordingly. In addition, a professional knows that in many instances IRS auditors will take a position (for example, to disallow deduction of a certain expense) even though courts and other guidance have expressed a contrary opinion on the issue. Because pros can point to the proper authority, the IRS may be forced to throw in the towel.

If you receive an IRS audit letter or simply want to improve your record keeping, we’re here to assist you. Contact us to discuss this or any other aspect of your taxes.

Now is a good time to check your withholding and make changes

Due to the massive changes in the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act (TCJA), the 2019 filing season resulted in surprises. Some filers who have gotten a refund in past years wound up owing money. The IRS reports that the number of refunds paid this year is down from last year — and the average refund is lower. As of May 10, 2019, the IRS paid out 101,590,000 refunds averaging $2,868. This compares with 102,582,000 refunds paid out in 2018 with an average amount of $2,940.

Of course, receiving a tax refund shouldn’t necessarily be your goal. It essentially means you’re giving the government an interest-free loan.

Law changes and withholding

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

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

Conduct a “paycheck checkup”

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

The tax agency has a withholding calculator to assist you in conducting a paycheck checkup. The calculator reflects tax law changes in areas such as available itemized deductions, the increased child credit, the new dependent credit and the repeal of dependent exemptions. You can access the IRS calculator at https://bit.ly/2aLxK0A.

Situations where changes are needed

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

  • Adjusted your withholding in 2018, especially in the middle or later part of the year,
  • Owed additional tax when you filed your 2018 return,
  • Received a refund that was smaller or larger than expected,
  • Got married or divorced, had a child or adopted one,
  • Purchased a home, or
  • Had changes in income.

You can modify your withholding at any time during the year, or even multiple times within a year. To do so, you simply submit a new Form W-4 to your employer. Changes typically go into effect several weeks after a new Form W-4 is submitted. (For estimated tax payments, you can make adjustments each time quarterly estimated payments are due. The next payment is due on Monday, June 17.)

We can help

Contact us to discuss your specific situation and what you can do to remedy any shortfalls to minimize taxes due, as well as any penalties and interest. We can help you sort through whether or not you need to adjust your withholding.

Selling your home? Consider these tax implications

Spring and summer are the optimum seasons for selling a home. And interest rates are currently attractive, so buyers may be out in full force in your area. Freddie Mac reports that the average 30-year fixed mortgage rate was 4.14% during the week of May 2, 2019, while the 15-year mortgage rate was 3.6%. This is down 0.41 and 0.43%, respectively, from a year earlier.

But before you contact a realtor to sell your home, you should review the tax considerations.

Sellers can exclude some gain

If you’re selling your principal residence, and you meet certain requirements, you can exclude up to $250,000 ($500,000 for joint filers) of gain. Gain that qualifies for the exclusion is also excluded from the 3.8% net investment income tax.

To qualify for the exclusion, you must meet these tests:

  1. The ownership test. You must have owned the property for at least two years during the five-year period ending on the sale date.
  2. The use test. You must have used the property as a principal residence for at least two years during the same five-year period. (Periods of ownership and use don’t need to overlap.)

In addition, you can’t use the exclusion more than once every two years.

Handling bigger gains

What if you’re fortunate enough to have more than $250,000/$500,000 of profit when selling your home? Any gain that doesn’t qualify for the exclusion generally will be taxed at your long-term capital gains rate, provided you owned the home for at least a year. If you didn’t, the gain will be considered short term and subject to your ordinary-income rate, which could be more than double your long-term rate.

Other tax issues

Here are some additional tax considerations when selling a home:

Keep track of your basis. To support an accurate tax basis, be sure to maintain thorough records, including information on your original cost and subsequent improvements, reduced by any casualty losses and depreciation claimed based on business use.

Be aware that you can’t deduct a loss. If you sell your principal residence at a loss, it generally isn’t deductible. But if part of your home is rented out or used exclusively for your business, the loss attributable to that portion may be deductible.

If you’re selling a second home (for example, a vacation home), be aware that it won’t be eligible for the gain exclusion. But if it qualifies as a rental property, it can be considered a business asset, and you may be able to defer tax on any gains through an installment sale or a Section 1031 exchange. Or you may be able to deduct a loss.

Your home is probably your largest investment. So before selling it, make sure you understand the tax implications. We can help you plan ahead to minimize taxes and answer any questions you have about your situation.  Please do not hesitate to contact us.

Check on your refund — and find out why the IRS might not send it

It’s that time of year when many people who filed their tax returns in April are checking their mail or bank accounts to see if their refunds have landed. According to the IRS, most refunds are issued in less than 21 calendar days. However, it may take longer — and in rare cases, refunds might not come at all.

Your refund status

If you’re curious about when your refund will arrive, you can use the IRS “Where’s My Refund?” tool. Go to https://bit.ly/2cl5MZo and click “Check My Refund Status.” You’ll need your Social Security number, your filing status (single, married joint filer, etc.) and your exact refund amount.

In some cases, taxpayers who are expecting a refund may be notified that all or part of their refunds aren’t going to be paid. A number of situations can cause this to happen.

Refunds settle debts

The Treasury Offset Program can use all, or part, of a refund to settle certain debts, including:

  • Past-due federal tax debts,
  • State income tax obligations,
  • Past-due child and spousal support,
  • Federal agency debts such as a delinquent student loan, and
  • Certain unemployment compensation owed to a state.

If the federal government is going to “offset” a refund to pay past-due debts, a letter is sent to the taxpayer listing the original refund, the offset amount and the agency that received the payment. If the taxpayer wants to dispute the offset, he or she should contact the relevant federal agency.

Spousal relief

If you file a joint tax return and your tax refund is applied to the past-due debts of your spouse, you may be able to get back your share of the joint refund. For example, let’s say a husband has back child support debt from before he was married. After he and his new spouse file a joint tax return, their joint refund is applied to his child support. His wife can apply for injured spouse relief to get her portion of the refund. This is done by filing Form 8379, “Injured Spouse Allocation.”

No passports in significant cases

Beyond having a refund taken by the government, owing a significant amount of back federal taxes can now also cause a taxpayer to have passport problems. Last year, the IRS began enforcing a tax law provision that gives the IRS the authority to notify the State Department about individuals who have “seriously delinquent tax debts.” The State Department is then tasked with denying the individuals new passports or revoking existing passports.

For these purposes, a seriously delinquent tax debt is defined as an inflation-adjusted $50,000 or more. For 2019, the threshold is $52,000.

Refund questions?

In most cases, refunds are routinely sent to taxpayers within a few weeks. However, there may be some delays, or, in worst-case scenarios, refunds may be applied to debts owed to the federal or state governments. If you have questions about your refund, contact us.

Plug in tax savings for electric vehicles

While the number of plug-in electric vehicles (EVs) is still small compared with other cars on the road, it’s growing — especially in certain parts of the country. If you’re interested in purchasing an electric or hybrid vehicle, you may be eligible for a federal income tax credit of up to $7,500. (Depending on where you live, there may also be state tax breaks and other incentives.)

However, the federal tax credit is subject to a complex phaseout rule that may reduce or eliminate the tax break based on how many sales are made by a given manufacturer. The vehicles of two manufacturers have already begun to be phased out, which means they now qualify for only a partial tax credit.

Tax credit basics

You can claim the federal tax credit for buying a qualifying new (not used) plug-in EV. The credit can be worth up to $7,500. There are no income restrictions, so even wealthy people can qualify.

A qualifying vehicle can be either fully electric or a plug-in electric-gasoline hybrid. In addition, the vehicle must be purchased rather than leased, because the credit for a leased vehicle belongs to the manufacturer.

The credit equals $2,500 for a vehicle powered by a four-kilowatt-hour battery, with an additional $417 for each kilowatt hour of battery capacity beyond four hours. The maximum credit is $7,500. Buyers of qualifying vehicles can rely on the manufacturer’s or distributor’s certification of the allowable credit amount.

How the phaseout rule works

The credit begins phasing out for a manufacturer over four calendar quarters once it sells more than 200,000 qualifying vehicles for use in the United States. The IRS recently announced that GM had sold more than 200,000 qualifying vehicles through the fourth quarter of 2018. So, the phaseout rule has been triggered for GM vehicles, as of April 1, 2019. The credit for GM vehicles purchased between April 1, 2019, and September 30, 2019, is reduced to 50% of the otherwise allowable amount. For GM vehicles purchased between October 1, 2019, and March 31, 2020, the credit is reduced to 25% of the otherwise allowable amount. No credit will be allowed for GM vehicles purchased after March 31, 2020.

The IRS previously announced that Tesla had sold more than 200,000 qualifying vehicles through the third quarter of 2018. So, the phaseout rule was triggered for Tesla vehicles, effective as of January 1, 2019. The credit for Tesla vehicles purchased between January 1, 2019, and June 30, 2019, is reduced to 50% of the otherwise allowable amount. For Tesla vehicles purchased between July 1, 2019, and December 31, 2019, the credit is reduced to 25% of the otherwise allowable amount. No credit will be allowed for Tesla vehicles purchased after December 31, 2019.

Powering forward

Despite the phaseout kicking in for GM and Tesla vehicles, there are still many other EVs on the market if you’re interested in purchasing one. For an index of manufacturers and credit amounts, visit this IRS Web page. Contact us if you want more information about the tax breaks that may be available for these vehicles.

Casualty loss deductions: The Inside Scoop

Unforeseen disasters happen all the time and they may cause damage to your home or personal property. Before the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act, eligible casualty loss victims could claim a deduction on their tax returns. But there are new restrictions that make these deductions much more difficult to take.

What’s considered a casualty for tax purposes? It’s a sudden, unexpected or unusual event, such as a hurricane, tornado, flood, earthquake, or fire; an accident or act of vandalism; or even a terrorist attack.

Unfavorable change

For losses incurred in 2018 through 2025, the TCJA generally eliminates deductions for personal casualty losses, except for losses due to federally declared disasters. For example, during 2019, there were presidential declarations of major disasters in parts of Iowa and Nebraska after severe storms and flooding. So victims there would be eligible for casualty loss deductions.

Note: There’s an exception to the general rule of allowing casualty loss deductions only in federally declared disaster areas. If you have personal casualty gains because your insurance proceeds exceed the tax basis of the damaged or destroyed property, you can deduct personal casualty losses that aren’t due to a federally declared disaster up to the amount of your personal casualty gains.

Special timing election

If your casualty loss is due to a federally declared disaster, a special election allows you to deduct the loss on your tax return for the precedingyear. If you’ve already filed your return for the preceding year, you can file an amended return to make the election and claim the deduction in the earlier year. This can help you get extra cash when you need it.

This election must be made by no later than six months after the due date (without considering extensions) for filing your tax return for the year in which the disaster occurs. However, the election itself must be made on an original or amended return for the preceding year.

Calculating personal losses

To calculate the casualty loss deduction for personal-use property in an area declared a federal disaster, you must take the following three steps:

  1. Subtract any insurance proceeds.
  2. Subtract $100 per casualty event.
  3. Combine the results from the first two steps and then subtract 10% of your adjusted gross income (AGI) for the year you claim the loss deduction.

Important: Another factor that now makes it harder to claim a casualty loss is that you must itemize deductions to claim one. For 2018 through 2025, fewer people will itemize, because the TCJA significantly increased the standard deduction amounts. For 2019, they are $12,200 for single filers, $18,350 for heads of households, and $24,400 for married joint-filing couples.
So even if you qualify for a casualty deduction, you might not get any tax benefit, because you don’t have enough itemized deductions.

We can help

These are the rules for personal property. Keep in mind that the rules for business or income-producing property are different. If you have disaster-related losses, we can help you navigate the complex rules.

Three questions you may have after you file your return

Once your 2018 tax return has been successfully filed with the IRS, you may still have some questions. Here are brief answers to three questions that we’re frequently asked at this time of year.

Question #1: What tax records can I throw away now?

At a minimum, keep tax records related to your return for as long as the IRS can audit your return or assess additional taxes. In general, the statute of limitations is three years after you file your return. So you can generally get rid of most records related to tax returns for 2015 and earlier years. (If you filed an extension for your 2015 return, hold on to your records until at least three years from when you filed the extended return.)

However, the statute of limitations extends to six years for taxpayers who understate their gross income by more than 25%.

You’ll need to hang on to certain tax-related records longer. For example, keep the actual tax returns indefinitely, so you can prove to the IRS that you filed a legitimate return. (There’s no statute of limitations for an audit if you didn’t file a return or you filed a fraudulent one.)

When it comes to retirement accounts, keep records associated with them until you’ve depleted the account and reported the last withdrawal on your tax return, plus three (or six) years. And retain records related to real estate or investments for as long as you own the asset, plus at least three years after you sell it and report the sale on your tax return. (You can keep these records for six years if you want to be extra safe.)

Question #2: Where’s my refund?

The IRS has an online tool that can tell you the status of your refund. Go to irs.gov and click on “Refund Status” to find out about yours. You’ll need your Social Security number, filing status and the exact refund amount.

Question #3: Can I still collect a refund if I forgot to report something?

In general, you can file an amended tax return and claim a refund within three years after the date you filed your original return or within two years of the date you paid the tax, whichever is later. So for a 2018 tax return that you filed on April 15 of 2019, you can generally file an amended return until April 15, 2022.

However, there are a few opportunities when you have longer to file an amended return. For example, the statute of limitations for bad debts is longer than the usual three-year time limit for most items on your tax return. In general, you can amend your tax return to claim a bad debt for seven years from the due date of the tax return for the year that the debt became worthless.

We can help

Contact us if you have questions about tax record retention, your refund or filing an amended return. We’re available all year long — not just at tax filing time!

Medicare premiums could lower your tax bill

Americans who are 65 and older qualify for basic Medicare insurance, and they may need to pay additional premiums to get the level of coverage they desire. The premiums can be expensive, especially if you’re married and both you and your spouse are paying them. But one aspect of paying premiums might be positive: If you qualify, they may help lower your tax bill.

Medicare premium tax deductions

Premiums for Medicare health insurance can be combined with other qualifying health care expenses for purposes of claiming an itemized deduction for medical expenses on your individual tax return. This includes amounts for “Medigap” insurance and Medicare Advantage plans. Some people buy Medigap policies because Medicare Parts A and B don’t cover all their health care expenses. Coverage gaps include co-payments, co-insurance, deductibles and other costs. Medigap is private supplemental insurance that’s intended to cover some or all gaps.

Fewer people now itemize

Qualifying for a medical expense deduction can be difficult for a couple of reasons. For 2019, you can deduct medical expenses only if you itemize deductions and only to the extent that total qualifying expenses exceeded 10% of AGI. (This threshold was 7.5% for the 2018 tax year.)

The Tax Cuts and Jobs Act nearly doubled the standard deduction amounts for 2018 through 2025. For 2019, the standard deduction amounts are $12,200 for single filers, $24,400 for married joint-filing couples and $18,350 for heads of households. So, fewer individuals are claiming itemized deductions.

However, if you have significant medical expenses (including Medicare health insurance premiums), you may itemize and collect some tax savings.

Important note: Self-employed people and shareholder-employees of S corporations can generally claim an above-the-line deduction for their health insurance premiums, including Medicare premiums. So, they don’t need to itemize to get the tax savings from their premiums.

Other deductible medical expenses

In addition to Medicare premiums, you can deduct a variety of medical expenses, including those for ambulance services, dental treatment, dentures, eyeglasses and contacts, hospital services, lab tests, qualified long-term care services, prescription medicines and others.

Keep in mind that many items that Medicare doesn’t cover can be written off for tax purposes, if you qualify. You can also deduct transportation expenses to get to medical appointments. If you go by car, you can deduct a flat 20-cents-per-mile rate for 2019, or you can keep track of your actual out-of-pocket expenses for gas, oil and repairs.

Need more information?

Contact us if you have additional questions about Medicare coverage options or claiming medical expense deductions on your personal tax return. Your advisor can help determine the optimal overall tax-planning strategy based on your personal circumstances.

Still working after 70? You may not have to begin 401(k) withdrawals

If you participate in a qualified retirement plan, such as a 401(k), you must generally begin taking required withdrawals from the plan no later than April 1 of the year after which you turn age 70½. However, there’s an exception that applies to certain plan participants who are still working for the entire year in which they turn 70½.

The basics of RMDs

Required minimum distributions (RMDs) are the amounts you’re legally required to withdraw from your qualified retirement plans and traditional IRAs after reaching age 70½. Essentially, the tax law requires you to tap into your retirement assets — and begin paying taxes on them — whether you want to or not.

Under the tax code, RMDs must begin to be taken from qualified pension, profit sharing and stock bonus plans by a certain date. That date is April 1 of the year following the later of the calendar year in which an employee:

  • Reaches age 70½, or
  • Retires from employment with the employer maintaining the plan under the “still working” exception.

Once they begin, RMDs must generally continue each year. The tax penalty for withdrawing less than the RMD amount is 50% of the portion that should have been withdrawn but wasn’t.

However, there’s an important exception to the still-working exception. If owner-employees own at least 5% of the company, they must begin taking RMDs from their 401(k)s beginning at 70½, regardless of their work status.

The still-working rule doesn’t apply to distributions from IRAs (including SEPs or SIMPLE IRAs). RMDs from these accounts must begin no later than April 1 of the year following the calendar year such individuals turn age 70½, even if they’re not retired.

The law and regulations don’t state how many hours an employee needs to work in order to postpone 401(k) RMDs. There’s no requirement that he or she work 40 hours a week for the exception to apply. However, the employee must be doing legitimate work and receiving W-2 wages.

For a customized plan

The RMD rules for qualified retirement plans (and IRAs) are complex. With careful planning, you can minimize your taxes and preserve more assets for your heirs. If you’re still working after age 70½, it may be beneficial to delay taking RMDs but there could also be disadvantages. Contact us to customize the optimal plan based on your individual retirement and estate planning goals.

The dependent tax credit can help stretch a college student’s budget

If you’re the parent of a child who is age 17 to 23, and you pay all (or most) of his or her expenses, you may be surprised to learn you’re noteligible for the child tax credit. But there’s a dependent tax credit that may be available to you. It’s not as valuable as the child tax credit, but when you’re saving for college or paying tuition, every dollar counts!

Background of the credits

The Tax Cuts and Jobs Act (TCJA) increased the child credit to $2,000 per qualifying child under the age of 17. The law also substantially increased the phaseout income thresholds for the credit so more people qualify for it. Unfortunately, the TCJA eliminated dependency exemptions for older children for 2018 through 2025. But the TCJA established a new $500 tax credit for dependents who aren’t under-age-17 children who qualify for the child tax credit. However, these individuals must pass certain tests to be classified as dependents.

A qualifying dependent for purposes of the $500 credit includes:

1.    A dependent child who lives with you for over half the year and is over age 16 and up to               age 23 if he or she is a student, and
2.    Other nonchild dependent relatives (such as a grandchild, sibling, father, mother,                             grandfather, grandmother and other relatives).

To be eligible for the $500 credit, you must provide over half of the person’s support for the year and he or she must be a U.S. citizen, U.S. national or U.S. resident.

Both the child tax credit and the dependent credit begin to phase out at $200,000 of modified adjusted gross income ($400,000 for married joint filers).

The child’s income

After the TCJA passed, it was unclear if your child would qualify you for the $500 credit if he or she had any gross income for the year. Fortunately, IRS Notice 2018-70 favorably resolved the income question. According to the guidance, a dependent will pass the income test for the 2018 tax year if he or she has gross income of $4,150 or less. (The $4,150 amount will be adjusted for inflation in future years.)

More spending money

Although $500 per child doesn’t cover much for today’s college student, it can help with books, clothing, software and other needs. Contact us with questions about whether you qualify for either the child or the dependent tax credits.