Throwing Snowballs at Your Mountain of Debt

Many people start the year intending to get out of debt, yet end the year owing just as much, if not more. One approach that might yield success is called “throwing snowballs.”

Under this method, you organize your debts from the lowest balance to the highest balance and begin paying off the debt on top of the list. The idea is to throw as many “snowballs” as you can gather or earn at that first creditor until the debt is gone.

While you hurl these snowballs, pay the minimum amount to your other creditors. Avoid trying to send an extra $20 or so a month to each one. If you want to contribute extra money, throw it at your primary target.

Once the first debt is paid off, you should have even more money to send to the next one. Over time you can start heaving bigger and bigger snowballs at the remaining targets because, as you pay off each debt, you’ll have more money to pay toward remaining debts.

The objective is to start an avalanche of payoffs until your debts disappear. Under this method, the best predictor of success isn’t the number of dollars you pay off but rather the number of accounts that you close.

Please note: There’s some debate on the practicality of throwing snowballs. Opponents argue that you should first pay off debts with the highest interest rates. We can help you choose a debt-reduction strategy that’s right for you.

You’ve Got Time: Small Businesses Can Still Set Up a 2018 SEP Plan

Are you a high-income small-business owner who doesn’t currently have a tax-advantaged retirement plan set up for yourself? A Simplified Employee Pension (SEP) plan may be just what you need, and now may be a great time to establish one.

A SEP plan has high contribution limits and is simple to set up. Best of all, there’s still time to establish one for 2018 and make contributions to it that you can deduct on your 2018 income tax return.

2019 Deadlines for 2018

A SEP plan can be set up as late as the due date (including extensions) of your income tax return for the tax year for which the plan is to first apply. That means you can establish a plan for 2018 in 2019 if you do it before your 2018 return filing deadline. You have until the same deadline to make 2018 contributions and still claim a potentially hefty deduction on your 2018 return.

Generally, other types of retirement plans would have to have been established by December 31, 2018, for 2018 contributions to be made (though many of these plans do allow 2018 contributions to be made in 2019).

High Contribution Limits

Contributions to SEP plans are discretionary. You can decide how much to contribute each year. But be aware that, if your business has employees other than you, 1) contributions must be made for all eligible employees using the same percentage of compensation as for you, and 2) employee accounts are immediately 100% vested. The contributions go into SEP-IRAs established for each eligible employee.

For 2018, the maximum contribution that can be made to a SEP-IRA is 25% of compensation (or 20% of self-employed income net of the self-employment tax deduction) of up to $275,000, subject to a contribution cap of $55,000. (The 2019 limits are $280,000 and $56,000, respectively.)

Simple to Set Up

A SEP plan is established by completing and signing the very simple Form 5305-SEP (“Simplified Employee Pension — Individual Retirement Accounts Contribution Agreement”). Form 5305-SEP isn’t filed with the IRS, but it should be maintained as part of the business’s permanent tax records. A copy of the form must be given to each employee covered by the plan, along with a disclosure statement.

Because of their simplicity and the great flexibility you have in making contributions, SEP plans are good “starter” retirement plans for small businesses. They’re also well suited for cash-flow dependent businesses such as construction companies, restaurants and seasonal businesses that may not always have dollars at the ready to contribute.

Less Onerous

Additional rules and limits do apply to these plans, but they’re generally much less onerous than those for other retirement plans. Contact us to learn more about SEP plans and how they might reduce your tax bill for 2018 and beyond.

Multistate Resident? Watch Out For Double Taxation

Contrary to popular belief, there’s nothing in the U.S. Constitution or federal law that prohibits multiple states from collecting tax on the same income. Although many states provide tax credits to prevent double taxation, those credits are sometimes unavailable. If you maintain residences in more than one state, here are some points to keep in mind.


Domicile vs. Residence

Generally, if you’re “domiciled” in a state, you’re subject to that state’s income tax on your worldwide income. Your domicile isn’t necessarily where you spend most of your time. Rather, it’s the location of your “true, fixed, permanent home” or the place “to which you intend to return whenever absent.” Your domicile doesn’t change — even if you spend little or no time there — until you establish domicile elsewhere.

Residence, on the other hand, is based on the amount of time you spend in a state. You’re a resident if you have a “permanent place of abode” in a state and spend a minimum amount of time there — for example, at least 183 days per year. Many states impose their income taxes on residents’ worldwide income even if they’re domiciled in another state.

Potential Solution

Suppose you live in State A and work in State B. Given the length of your commute, you keep an apartment in State B near your office and return to your home in State A only on weekends. State A taxes you as a domiciliary, while State B taxes you as a resident. Neither state offers a credit for taxes paid to another state, so your income is taxed twice.

One possible solution to such double taxation is to avoid maintaining a permanent place of abode in State B. However, State B may still have the power to tax your income from the job in State B because it’s derived from a source within the state. Yet State B wouldn’t be able to tax your income from other sources, such as investments you made in State A.

Minimize Unnecessary Taxes

This example illustrates just one way double taxation can arise when you divide your time between two or more states. We can research applicable state law and identify ways to minimize exposure to unnecessary taxes.

 

Sidebar: How to Establish Domicile

Under the law of each state, tax credits are available only with respect to income taxes that are “properly due” to another state. But, when two states each claim you as a domiciliary, neither believes that taxes are properly due to the other. To avoid double taxation in this situation, you’ll need to demonstrate your intent to abandon your domicile in one state and establish it in the other.

There are various ways to do so. For example, you might obtain a driver’s license and register your car in the new state. You could also open bank accounts in the new state and use your new address for important financially related documents (such as insurance policies, tax returns, passports and wills). Other effective measures may include registering to vote in the new jurisdiction, subscribing to local newspapers and seeing local health care providers. Bear in mind, of course, that laws regarding domicile vary from state to state.

Fewer Taxpayers to Qualify for Home Office Deduction

Working from home has become commonplace for people in many jobs. But just because you have a home office space doesn’t mean you can deduct expenses associated with it. Beginning with the 2018 tax year, fewer taxpayers will qualify for the home office deduction. Here’s why.


Changes Under the TCJA

For employees, home office expenses used to be a miscellaneous itemized deduction. Way back in 2017, this meant one could enjoy a tax benefit only if these expenses plus other miscellaneous itemized expenses (such as unreimbursed work-related travel, certain professional fees and investment expenses) exceeded 2% of adjusted gross income.

Starting in 2018 and continuing through 2025, however, employees can’t deduct any home office expenses. Why? The Tax Cuts and Jobs Act (TCJA) suspends miscellaneous itemized deductions subject to the 2% floor for this period.

Note: If you’re self-employed, you can still deduct eligible home office expenses against your self-employment income during the 2018 through 2025 period.

Other Eligibility Requirements

If you’re self-employed, generally your home office must be your principal place of business, though there are exceptions.

Whether you’re an employee or self-employed, the space must be used regularly (not just occasionally) and exclusively for business purposes. If, for example, your home office is also a guest bedroom or your children do their homework there, you can’t deduct the expenses associated with that space.

Deduction Options

If eligible, you have two options for claiming the home office deduction. First, you can deduct a portion of your mortgage interest, property taxes, insurance, utilities and certain other expenses, as well as the depreciation allocable to the office space. This requires calculating, allocating and substantiating actual expenses.

A second approach is to take the “safe harbor” deduction. Here, only one simple calculation is necessary: $5 multiplied by the number of square feet of the office space. The safe harbor deduction is capped at $1,500 per year, based on a maximum of 300 square feet.

More Rules and Limits

Be aware that we’ve covered only a few of the rules and limits here. If you think you may qualify for the home office deduction on your 2018 return or would like to know if there’s anything additional you need to do to become eligible, contact us.

Seven Ways to Prevent Elder Financial Abuse

As tax season ramps up, so do the efforts of scam artists looking to steal people’s financial data and money. Such fraudulent activities often target older adults. Whether you’re in this age bracket or worry about senior parents and other relatives, here are seven ways to prevent elder financial abuse:
  1. Keep both paper and online financial documents in a secure place. Monitor accounts and retain statements.
  2. Exercise caution when making financial decisions. If someone exerts pressure or promises unreasonably high or guaranteed returns, walk away.
  3. Write checks only to legitimate financial institutions, rather than to a person.
  4. Be alert for phony phone calls. The IRS doesn’t collect money this way. Another scam involves someone pretending to be a grandchild who’s in trouble and needs money. Don’t provide confidential information or send money until you can verify the caller’s identity.
  5. Beware of emails requesting personal data — even if they appear to be from a real financial institution. After all, shouldn’t your banker or financial professional already know these things? Ignore contact information provided in the email. Instead, contact the financial institution through a known telephone number.
  6. As much as possible, maintain a social network. Criminals target isolated people because often they’re less aware of scams and lack trusted confidants.
  7. Work only with qualified professionals, including accountants, bankers and attorneys.

How to Trim Fat From Your Inventory

Inventory is expensive, so it needs to be as lean as possible. Here are some ways to trim the fat from your inventory without compromising revenue and customer service.


Objective Inventory Counts

Effective inventory management starts with a physical inventory count. Accuracy is essential to knowing your cost of goods sold — and to identifying and remedying discrepancies between your physical count and perpetual inventory records. A CPA can introduce an element of objectivity to the counting process and help minimize errors.

The next step is to compare your inventory costs to those of other companies in your industry. Trade associations often publish benchmarks for:

  • Gross margin ([revenue – cost of sales] / revenue),
  • Net profit margin (net income / revenue), and
  • Days in inventory (annual revenue / average inventory × 365 days).

Your company should strive to meet — or beat — industry standards. For a retailer or wholesaler, inventory is simply purchased from the manufacturer. But the inventory account is more complicated for manufacturers and construction firms. It’s a function of raw materials, labor and overhead costs.

The composition of your company’s cost of goods will guide you on where to cut. In a tight labor market, it’s hard to reduce labor costs. But it may be possible to renegotiate prices with suppliers.

And don’t forget the carrying costs of inventory, such as storage, insurance, obsolescence and pilferage. You can also improve margins by negotiating a net lease for your warehouse, installing antitheft devices or opting for less expensive insurance coverage.

Product Mix

To cut your days-in-inventory ratio, compute product-by-product margins. Stock more products with high margins and high demand — and less of everything else. Whenever possible, return excessive supplies of slow-moving materials or products to your suppliers.

Product mix should be sufficiently broad and in tune with consumer needs. Before cutting back on inventory, you might need to negotiate speedier delivery from suppliers or give suppliers access to your perpetual inventory system. These precautionary measures can help prevent lost sales due to lean inventory.

Reality Check

Often management is so focused on sales, HR issues and product innovation that they lose control over inventory. Contact us for a reality check.

Installment Sales: A Viable Option for Transferring Assets

Are you considering transferring real estate, a family business or other assets you expect to appreciate dramatically in the future? If so, an installment sale may be a viable option. Its benefits include the ability to freeze asset values for estate tax purposes and remove future appreciation from your taxable estate.


Giving Away vs. Selling

From an estate planning perspective, if you have a taxable estate it’s usually more advantageous to give property to your children than to sell it to them. By gifting the asset you’ll be depleting your estate and thereby reducing potential estate tax liability, whereas in a sale the proceeds generally will be included in your taxable estate.

But an installment sale may be desirable if you’ve already used up your $11.18 million (for 2018) lifetime gift tax exemption or if your cash flow needs preclude you from giving the property away outright. When you sell property at fair market value to your children or other loved ones rather than gifting it, you avoid gift taxes on the transfer and freeze the property’s value for estate tax purposes as of the sale date. All future appreciation benefits the buyer and won’t be included in your taxable estate.

Because the transaction is structured as a sale rather than a gift, your buyer must have the financial resources to buy the property. But by using an installment note, the buyer can make the payments over time. Ideally, the purchased property will generate enough income to fund these payments.

Advantages and Disadvantages

An advantage of an installment sale is that it gives you the flexibility to design a payment schedule that corresponds with the property’s cash flow, as well as with your and your buyer’s financial needs. You can arrange for the payments to increase or decrease over time, or even provide for interest-only payments with an end-of-term balloon payment of the principal.

One disadvantage of an installment sale over strategies that involve gifted property is that you’ll be subject to tax on any capital gains you recognize from the sale. Fortunately, you can spread this tax liability over the term of the installment note. As of this writing, the long-term capital gains rates are 0%, 15% or 20%, depending on the amount of your net long-term capital gains plus your ordinary income.

Also, you’ll have to charge interest on the note and pay ordinary income tax on the interest payments. IRS guidelines provide for a minimum rate of interest that must be paid on the note. On the bright side, any capital gains and ordinary income tax you pay further reduces the size of your taxable estate.

Simple Technique, Big Benefits

An installment sale is an approach worth exploring for business owners, real estate investors and others who have gathered high-value assets. It can help keep a family-owned business in the family or otherwise play an important role in your estate plan.

Bear in mind, however, that this simple technique isn’t right for everyone. We can review your situation and help you determine whether an installment sale is a wise move for you.

First Quarter 2019 Tax Deadlines

January 15

  • Individual taxpayers’ final 2018 estimated tax payment is due.

January 31

  • File 2018 Forms W-2 (“Wage and Tax Statement”) with the Social Security Administration and provide copies to your employees.
  • File 2018 Forms 1099-MISC (“Miscellaneous Income”) reporting nonemployee compensation payments in box 7 with the IRS and provide copies to recipients.
  • Most employers must file Form 941 (“Employer’s Quarterly Federal Tax Return”) to report Medicare, Social Security, and income taxes withheld in the fourth quarter of 2018. If your tax liability is less than $2,500, you can pay it in full with a timely filed return. If you deposited the tax for the quarter in full and on time, you have until February 11 to file the return. Employers who have an estimated annual employment tax liability of $1,000 or less may be eligible to file Form 944 (“Employer’s Annual Federal Tax Return”).
  • File Form 940 (“Employer’s Annual Federal Unemployment [FUTA] Tax Return”) for 2018. If your undeposited tax is $500 or less, you can either pay it with your return or deposit it. If it is more than $500, you must deposit it. However, if you deposited the tax for the year in full and on time, you have until February 11 to file the return.
  • File Form 943 (“Employer’s Annual Federal Tax Return for Agricultural Employees”) to report Social Security, Medicare and withheld income taxes for 2018. If your tax liability is less than $2,500, you can pay it in full with a timely filed return. If you deposited the tax for the year in full and on time, you have until February 11 to file the return.
  • File Form 945 (“Annual Return of Withheld Federal Income Tax”) for 2018 to report income tax withheld on all nonpayroll items, including backup withholding and withholding on pensions, annuities, IRAs, etc. If your tax liability is less than $2,500, you can pay it in full with a timely filed return. If you deposited the tax for the year in full and on time, you have until February 11 to file the return.

February 28

  • File 2018 Forms 1099-MISC with the IRS.

March 15

  • 2018 tax returns must be filed or extended for calendar-year partnerships and S corporations. If the return isn’t extended, this is also the last day for those types of entities to make 2018 contributions to pension and profit-sharing plans.

Laying the Groundwork for Your 2018 Tax Return

The Tax Cuts and Jobs Act (TCJA) made many changes to tax breaks for individuals. Let’s look at some specific areas to review as you lay the groundwork for filing your 2018 return.


Personal Exemptions

For 2018 through 2025, the TCJA suspends personal exemptions. This will substantially increase taxable income for large families. However, enhancements to the standard deduction and child credit, combined with lower tax rates, might mitigate this increase.

Standard Deduction

Taxpayers can choose to itemize certain deductions on Schedule A or take the standard deduction based on their filing status instead. Itemizing deductions when the total will be larger than the standard deduction saves tax, but it makes filing more complicated.

The TCJA nearly doubles the standard deduction for 2018 to $12,000 for singles and separate filers, $18,000 for heads of households, and $24,000 for joint filers. (These amounts will be adjusted for inflation for 2019 through 2025.)

For some taxpayers, the increased standard deduction could compensate for the elimination of the exemptions, and perhaps even provide some additional tax savings. But for those with many dependents or who itemize deductions, these changes might result in a higher tax bill — depending in part on the extent to which they can benefit from enhancements to the child credit.

Child Credit

Credits can be more powerful than exemptions and deductions because they reduce taxes dollar-for-dollar, rather than just reducing the amount of income subject to tax. For 2018 through 2025, the TCJA doubles the child credit to $2,000 per child under age 17.

The new law also makes the child credit available to more families than in the past. For 2018 through 2025, the credit doesn’t begin to phase out until adjusted gross income exceeds $400,000 for joint filers or $200,000 for all other filers, compared with the 2017 phaseout thresholds of $110,000 for joint filers, $75,000 for singles and heads of households, and $55,000 for marrieds filing separately. The TCJA also includes, for 2018 through 2025, a $500 tax credit for qualifying dependents other than qualifying children.

Assessing the Impact

Many factors will influence the impact of the TCJA on your tax liability for 2018 and beyond. For help assessing the impact on your situation, contact us.

Social Security Administration Scam Calls

Our offices have received a few client calls this holiday season concerned about phone calls they recently received from someone claiming to be from the Social Security Administration (SSA). The “SSA” said they were calling to verify our client’s social security number and other personal information. Obtaining your social security number is a surefire way for scammers to create a world of problems for you. Your social security number is a key piece of information used to steal your identity. If you get a phone call from someone claiming to be from the SSA needing to verify your information, don’t give it out!

The SSA published this blog post about this malicious activity earlier this year, and it has some great advice on what to do if you receive one of these scam calls.