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19 August 2018
In most aspects Virginia laws conform to federal income tax laws. This is somewhat evident when you notice the first line on your Virginia tax return is your federal adjusted gross income. In essence, Virginia is just saying, “We accept all the federal definitions of income and adjustments as our opening argument.”
That said, there are distinct differences between the Virginia tax system and the federal tax system. These are sometimes confusing and I find myself frequently answering questions with the phrase, “That’s true on your federal tax return, but not on your virginia tax return.”
Here are twelve examples of the differences between Virginia tax law and federal tax law:
A Virginia income tax return is more like the federal return than it is different from it. The differences, however, can make a real impact on your bottom line. Hopefully this article shed some light on those differences. If you still have questions, don't hesitate to contact me!
09 July 2018
The word basis can have many different meanings in tax and finance. When it comes to your IRA it refers to the portion of your IRA on which you will NOT have to pay tax. That makes it a really good thing to know (unless you enjoy paying taxes!). Unfortunately, IRA basis is one of the rare areas of the tax code where nobody else is keeping track of it for you. The IRS doesn’t. Your bank or brokerage can’t. You have to do it for yourself - and if you aren’t then you could end out paying more taxes than you need to.
The Basics on IRA Basis
There are two types of IRAs. There’s the Traditional IRA, and there’s the Roth IRA. The primary difference between the two is the timing of when the money gets taxed. The concept of the Traditional IRA is that you don’t pay taxes on the money you contribute to the account, but you pay regular tax rates on the money when it comes out. The concept of the Roth IRA is that you pay tax on the money when it is contributed to the account, but then you don’t pay any taxes on the money coming out.
If those concepts were the only rules, then I wouldn’t be writing this article. If those were the only rules, the tax basis of a traditional IRA would be 0% of the account (none of it would be excluded from taxes) and the tax basis of the Roth IRA would be 100% of the account (all of it would be excluded from taxes). But, alas, nothing can ever be that simple in tax law. There are exceptions, and it’s those exceptions this article addresses.
Basis in Your Roth IRA
The IRS uses the term qualified when referencing IRA distributions (a.k.a. withdrawals). Qualified means the distribution/withdrawal meets all the rules to keep the tax benefits of the IRA. One of the things that makes a Roth IRA distribution qualified is the age of the account holder. If you are more than 59 ½ years old when you withdraw from the Roth IRA, then the distribution is deemed qualified (tax free).
Life happens to us all, though. For a variety of reasons people often need to tap into their retirement savings before the age of 59 ½. This can lead to non-qualified distributions from their Roth IRAs, and that means the distribution does not keep its tax-free characteristics. If you tap into your Roth IRA before the age of 59 ½ you’ll have to pay tax on the distribution. Maybe…
Because you received no tax benefits when you contributed money to your Roth IRA, you don’t have to pay tax on the contributed money when it comes out. This is similar to a bank account. I don’t get a tax break when I put money into my bank account, and I don’t pay taxes when I withdraw it from my bank account. It’s just my money. It is the same with the money you put into your Roth IRA.
The catch is this tax-free status is limited to the money you contribute to the account (which I am referring to as your tax basis). Any money that is in your Roth IRA due to growth (dividends, capital gains, interest, etc.) would be subject to taxes if withdrawn early. HOWEVER - when you make a withdrawal from your Roth IRA, the contributed money comes out first. So, you can take money out of your Roth IRA account up to the amount you contributed without a tax consequence. This can provide you with a valuable source of tax-free money if you need it in an emergency. Let’s look at an example.
Jimmy is 30 years old. Jimmy opens a Roth IRA and contributes $3,000 per year for 5 years. At the end of 5 years the Roth account has a value of $18,000. Jimmy contributed $15,000 and there is also $3,000 of growth in the account. Jimmy’s car was destroyed in a hurricane, and his insurance won’t pay for the loss. Jimmy needs a car, so he looks to his Roth IRA for money. Jimmy can take up to $15,000 out of his Roth IRA (the amount he contributed) and not have to pay any taxes on that withdrawal. If he takes more than $15,000 he will have to pay the taxes on the amount over $15,000, because that is from the growth of the investments in the account.
Knowing the amount of his basis in his Roth IRA was important to Jimmy. If he didn’t know how much he contributed he might have taken too large a distribution and given himself a tax problem for later. Or he may have been overly cautious and not withdrawn enough to buy reliable transportation, using a high-interest rate loan instead.
Jimmy’s basis was an easy number to know in my scenario. In real life it doesn’t normally work that way. In real life people are not quite as systematic. They put money in the Roth IRA when they can and don’t contribute when money is tight. After several years they aren’t really sure how much money they have contributed to their account. Which means they don’t know how much they can take out before they trigger a tax issue.
With a Roth IRA your bank or broker (whoever is holding your Roth IRA) may be able to help you determine your basis. If you’ve kept the account at the same bank or brokerage the entire time they may be able to provide you with a history of your contributions, as well as any previous withdrawals. If you’ve moved accounts, they may not have your full contribution history. It’s worth asking them, though.
I don’t advocate using your Roth IRA like a piggy bank. Just because you can take your contributed money out tax free does not mean you should. That account is designed to fund your retirement, and should not be used for anything else unless the need is great. But when the need is great, knowing your Roth IRA basis can be extremely useful knowledge.
Basis in Your Traditional IRA
The concept behind the Traditional IRA is you receive a tax benefit for contributing to the account, but you pay taxes on the money when it is withdrawn. This tax benefit is meant to encourage Americans to save for their retirement. Our government has decided, however, that not everyone needs to be provided with such an incentive. There are income limitations to claiming the tax benefits of contributing to a Traditional IRA. Those limitations change depending on whether your employer provides you with a retirement plan at work. If you have an employer-sponsored retirement plan (TSP, 401K, 403B, VRS, military pension, etc,) then you lose your right to claim the Traditional IRA tax benefit at a lower income level. If you do not have an employer-sponsored plan you are allowed to claim the Traditional IRA tax benefits until your income hits a higher level.
Note, these limitations are only on the tax break for contributing to the Traditional IRA. Regardless of your income level, you can always make contributions to your Traditional IRA, you just can’t always get the tax break for making the contribution. That’s how you start to form tax basis in your Traditional IRA - by making contributions that do not qualify for the tax break.
Just like the Roth IRA, any money you contribute to your Traditional IRA without getting a tax break for making the contribution can come out tax free. But - BIG DIFFERENCE ALERT - unlike the Roth IRA, your contributed money does not come out of your Traditional IRA first. Money distributed from your Traditional IRA comes out as a mix of qualified contributions, non-qualified contributions, and growth. You have to know the composition of that mix so you know how much of your withdrawal is taxable and how much is not taxable. Let’s look at another example.
Jane starts a Traditional IRA when she is 50 years old. She contributes $3,000 each year for 5 years, getting a tax break each year for those first 5 years. At age 55 Jane gets a promotion and a big pay raise at work. She increases her contributions to her Traditional IRA to $5,000 each year, but she is now unable to take the tax deduction for her contributions because her income is too high.
Jane is now 60 years old. Her Traditional IRA value is $60,000. Jane decides to take $10,000 from her Traditional IRA and go see New Zealand. How much of her withdrawal is taxable?
We know Jane’s taxable basis in her Traditional IRA is going to be the $25,000 (5 years times $5,000 per year) of contributions she made without getting a tax benefit. The $15,000 of qualified contributions and the $20,000 of growth in the account are all taxable. So, $25k/$60K (41.67%) is not taxable. $35,000/$60,000 (58.33%) of her $10,000 distribution (or $5,833) is taxable.
Again, my example is simple to make it easier to demonstrate the concept. Real life is rarely this clear. In real life people who have made contributions to their Traditional IRAs without receiving a tax break usually do not know what their tax basis is in their account.
What shocks many people is that their bank or brokerage can’t help them figure it out! Here’s why: whether or not you received a tax break for your Traditional IRA contribution is a function of whether your employer offers a retirement plan and your adjusted gross income - and your bank/brokerage doesn’t have that information! They don’t know which years your contributions received a tax benefit and which years they did not. When you take a distribution from a Traditional IRA the bank/brokerage will issue a form 1099-R, and they will check the box that says “Taxable Amount Not Determined”. It’s on you to determine the taxable amount and report it to the IRS when you file your tax return.
Figuring Your Traditional IRA Basis
Ideally, you’d be like Jane and track your Traditional IRA basis. But, what do you do if you’re like the 99.99% of Americans who have a basis in their Traditional IRA, but don’t know how much it is? If you’ve been filing your taxes correctly you can go back through your old tax returns and review your form 8606 submissions. You should have been reporting your non-deductible Traditional IRA contributions on this form each year.
If you don’t have all your old tax returns you can request tax return transcripts from the IRS. The transcripts are free, and you can use them to piece together the information you need to determine your Traditional IRA basis in that way.
If you want help determining your basis in your IRA come see me. I have a nifty tool that can pull all your IRS transcripts going back to 1990. We can pull all your transcripts at once and cull them for the information we need.
24 June 2018
With the thriving military bases in the region, Hampton Roads is blessed with many military retirees. (I find it ironic we are called ‘retirees’, since many of us work just as hard (or harder) after leaving the service as we did when we were on active duty!) Some interesting tax issues often arise in the year a member leaves military service. I lived a few of these issues, and see even more as a tax professional. Hopefully this article will help some of my newly retired (or about to retire) brothers and sisters in making transition to civilian life a little smoother.
That First State Tax Return Can Be a Doozy! Many of us took advantage of the Servicemembers Civil Relief Act (SCRA) to avoid paying state income taxes while we were on active duty. I sure did. At the beginning of my first duty station in Florida I marched down to the Duval County Courthouse and registered my domicile in Florida. Took that paper to my personnel office, and skipped out on paying state income taxes for the next 20 years.
Spouses weren’t covered by the SCRA back then, so my lovely wife Tade has been filing in Virginia since we moved here in 2001. I didn’t have to start filing here until I retired from the Navy in 2010. Even though many military spouses are now exempt from state taxes by the Military Spouse Residency Relief Act (MSRRA), I still see many couples in the situation Tade and I were in; one spouse is a Virginia resident, and the other is not.
In my opinion, Virginia handles this situation very sanely. Even if the married couple files their federal return jointly, Virginia allows them to file separately if one is a resident and the other is not. Not all states allow you to have a different filing status on your state return than you have on your federal return. Virginia makes it the only correct way to file if one of you is not a Virginia resident. I find that simple to comprehend. Unfortunately, most do-it-yourself tax software has a lot of trouble when you try to change filing status between your federal and state returns. I've had a few clients successfully figure out how to do this, but not many.
The more difficult situation arises in the year of retirement. We can continue to use my situation as an example. Tade was a Virginia resident all of 2010. Paul became a Virginia resident on December 1, 2010. How did we file our 2010 Virginia taxes?
Tade filed the same way she always did - her status was married filing separately, and she was a full-year resident (form 760). Paul also filed in Virginia as married filing separately, but on a Virginia part-year resident return (form 760PY). We had to use two different forms to file in Virginia! Good luck getting your do-it-yourself tax software to help you get to that conclusion.
Worse still are the state returns for folks whose transition meant they were part year a resident of one state, and part year a resident of another state. It can be quite challenging to get the interplay between the state returns to be right in these situations. I pay $1,200 annually for my tax software, and I’ve been known to throw my hands up (mutter some sailor-like words about the parents of the people who designed my software), download blank forms from a state website, and fill them out by hand to get the correct tax result.
The bottom line on this issue is that your state tax return(s) in the year of your transition out of the military can be more challenging to prepare than usual. Don't expect your off-the-shelf software solution to walk you to the right answer. They don't deal with this problem very often. (Fortunately, you don't either!)
Increased Income Means Increased Taxes. Many military retirees experience increased income when they leave the military. They get a job for as much as (or more than) they were making while on active duty. They also begin receiving their military retired pay. The increased stability of not having a military move looming in the future means spouses may also see a bump in pay as well. It is not uncommon for me to see a family’s income double within a year of a military retirement.
As I have previously written, there is an income zone (that I call ‘the crease’) where your income taxes will increase significantly faster than your income.* This zone sits just above the income level of many military families. When their income increases right after a military retirement, they can shoot into (or through) that zone, and the tax impact can be dramatic. One couple saw a 70% increase in income, but their tax bill more than tripled!
Higher incomes can (and probably should) lead to higher taxes, but there are ways to be proactive about managing the situation to keep your tax bill from exploding. The solutions are unique to the individual situation, but nearly all require advanced planning. Very little can be done to mitigate taxes after the tax year is over. You need to plan and act ahead. Please contact me if you want assistance developing your tax strategy.
(* The revision of the federal tax laws that went into effect in 2018 (also known as the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act) made some changes that should help flatten out 'the crease' as described in my linked article from 2016. Notably, starting in 2018 the child tax credit does not begin phasing out for families until their adjusted gross income is more than $400,000.)
Your Military Pension is Taxable in Virginia. The Commonwealth offers some generous tax breaks to military personnel, but not much after you retire. Virginia will tax your military retired pay as regular income. The DoD will follow your instructions and/or the withholding tables provided to them by Virginia to determine how much to withhold for Virginia taxes. IT’S ALMOST NEVER ENOUGH.
Here’s how this scenario frequently plays out: You leave the military after 20+ years of service, having not paid state income taxes for decades. You get a civilian job. The pay is good, but there’s that new line on your pay stub/earnings statement for “Virginia Tax Withheld”. It isn’t much, but it’s a bit annoying since you never paid it before. You also start getting retirement pay (Woo hoo! Free money!) There’s that annoying line on your retiree statement for Virginia taxes, too. Then you file your first Virginia income tax return and find out you owe them thousands of dollars because neither your employer nor the DoD were withholding enough to cover your Virginia tax bill. It happened to me, and I’m pretty knowledgeable about taxes!
Setting up your tax withholding is another area that requires a little prior planning. It can be tricky. See me if you want some assistance with that. I learned my lessons on that one the hard way, but I learned them well!
If you bothered reading this article it’s probably because you are recently retired from the military, or you are about to retire. It’s an exciting time. I remember feeling a bit anxious about the future during the year of my transition. (Not about taxes, but life in general.) If I could do it over again I would relax a little bit and dream bigger from the start. I learned more in my decades of service than I knew. You probably did, too. Congratulations on getting to this next stage, and thank you for your service!
13 May 2018
I frequently encounter new landlords who are confused and/or frustrated by their tax situation. They decided to turn their house or condo into a rental business, but they didn't fully understand the tax implications of doing so. Now they are paying both financially and emotionally.
In an effort to save at least a few people from this fate, I am providing you with this quick “Top 5” list of tax issues you should consider before you decide to become a landlord.
1. Your Mortgage is Not Deductible. If life (or being a landlord) were simple, the mortgage on your rental property would be deductible. This would give you a simple formula to figure your rental income.
You take in $1200/month in rent;
You pay the bank $1,000/month for your mortgage
You make$200/month or $2,400 for the year
Boom - you’d be done!
In reality it’s not even close to being that simple!
A mortgage is typically paying 4 different things in one payment: (1) principal on the loan, (2) interest on the loan, (3) real estate taxes, and (4) insurance. You have to break out each of those expenses separately on your tax return. Interest, insurance, and real estate taxes are all deductible expenses as paid. The principal, however, is deducted through a cost recovery system that we typically refer to simply as ‘depreciation’. More on that later. For now just be aware you cannot directly deduct your mortgage payments on your tax return. It's not that simple.
2. You Must Track Everything. By renting your property you have opened a business. The IRS considers you to be operating a business. So does the Commonwealth of Virginia. If you aren’t treating it like a business, then you risk learning some expensive lessons down the road. Businesses need records, so get a record keeping system in place. (Hint: a box of receipts is NOT a record keeping system.) A spreadsheet will do if you just have 1 or 2 properties. More than that and you’re probably going to want some sort of accounting software.
Track all the expenses for the property. Once you’ve turned it into a business, everything you spend on the property is a business expense. Make sure it gets recorded in your spreadsheet (or bookkeeping system you adopt).
Get a separate bank account for your landlording activities. It’s a business, it deserves its own bank account. Don’t run personal expenses through the landlord account. Don’t run business expenses through your personal account. Keep them separate. It keeps the bookkeeping cleaner if you do, which makes it look like you’re treating your rental activities like a business.
3. You Can Be Creative with Expenses. Within reason, of course. You can’t take your kids to a Taylor Swift concert and then write it off as a business expense. There are, however, some reasonable ways to save on taxes and meet multiple goals. Here is one of my favorite examples.
The grass needs to be cut at the rental property. You have a 14-year-old son. Pay him $50/week to mow the grass. That’s what you’d pay a professional service to do it. Over the course of the mowing season your kid makes $1,200. You have to issue him a W-2. However, his income is below the threshold for paying federal or state income tax. Because he is your child and under the age of 18, he does not have to pay Social Security or Medicare taxes, either. (So you don't have to bother with withholding these taxes.) He now has $1,200 of earned income tax free. You have a $1,200 deductible expense against your rental property business.
Open a Roth IRA for him and put the $1,200 in it. He can contribute the entire amount of his earned income up to $1,200. When he is ready to go to college he can pull that $1,200 out and spend it on college with no tax consequences. Long story short - you just got a $1,200 tax deduction for saving money for your kid’s college.
If you think you have a creative idea on how to get the most out of the tax benefits of being a real estate investor, it’s probably best to get a professional opinion on them first. Creative is good, until it crosses the line into illegal. Nobody wants that.
4. If You Earn Over $150K, Your Losses are Suspended. Our beloved government has classified rental activity as passive activity. (Which I find ironic, because most landlords I know are working their tails off!) When you lose money at a passive activity it is known as passive activity losses (PAL). PAL are only deductible against passive incomes....UNLESS the PAL is from residential real estate and your modified adjusted gross income is less than $100,000. If that is the case, then you are able to deduct up to $25,000 of PAL against other income (like your wages from a job). If your income is above $100,000 then the amount of PAL you can deduct is reduced. At $150,000 of modified adjusted gross income you can not deduct any PAL against other (non-passive) sources of income. However...
The PAL isn’t lost if you can’t deduct it. It is suspended. Suspended passive losses are carried over to future years. You can use the suspended passive losses against future passive income, or you can use them when you sell the property. I’ve written about this extensively elsewhere, but for now just be aware that your passive losses are suspended if your modified adjusted gross income is greater than $150,000 and that you still need to track those losses so that you can use them in the future.
5. Depreciation & Recapture. This is a very complicated topic, so I am just going to give you the two highest points in this article.
A. You must depreciate your rental property. I know you don’t want the value of your property to actually decrease, but that isn’t what depreciation means in this context. Depreciation is used to represent a method of recovery for the cost of your property. Instead of deducting the principal part of your mortgage, you deduct the cost of your property by taking a depreciation expense for it. Four things to remember about taking the depreciation expense:
(1) Only the building depreciates. The land does not depreciate. The land value must be removed from the overall value of the property when figuring your depreciation expense.
(2) If your building is residential rental property it depreciates in a straight line over 27.5 years. (Why 27.5 years? Because Congress says so.)
(3) If you make capital improvements to the building before it is placed in service as a rental property, the cost of those improvements is added to the basis of the building and depreciated over 27.5 years with the rest of the building.
(4) If you make capital improvements to the building after it is placed in service as a rental property, those costs are capitalized and depreciated separately over 27.5 years.
B. You must REPAY the depreciation expenses when you sell the property. Unless the property actually depreciated (which is rare). There are two things you should know about this:
(1) You can escape repaying the ‘depreciation recapture’ only if you die owning the property, or you do a 1031 exchange for another property.
(2) Even though repaying the depreciation is unpleasant in the year it is repaid, it is rare that taxpayers are net losers at the depreciation game. If you take the long view, even though you pay it back, you got an interest free loan from the IRS. How cool is that?
Despite number 5 having multiple parts to it, I am still going to call this my “Top 5” list. Being a landlord can be profitable. A big chunk of those profits is tied to the tax breaks you get for investing in real estate. Know what those tax breaks (and pitfalls) are before you blindly leap into landlording. If you have any questions or want some assistance in developing a real estate investing tax strategy, please contact me.
23 April 2018
Another tax season has officially come and gone. While I still have a couple dozen clients on extension to complete, I wanted to start blogging again. I like doing taxes, but only doing taxes for 12 hours a day, every day for weeks and weeks was starting to make me a little batty. I'm glad to mix it up a bit again.
I thought I’d kick things off with my annual tax season post mortem on the 5 biggest mistakes I saw taxpayers making during the tax season. These were either mistakes that were repeated often or mistakes that were so costly I want to ensure they remain very rare. Without further ado, let’s dig in!
1. Misunderstanding The Military Spouse Residency Relief Act
The military spouse residency relief act can be confusing, but I’m going to break down how Virginia implements it as simply as I can. If you are living in Virginia because your spouse is here on military orders, you have two options:
Several times this year I had clients tell me the military member (stationed in Virginia) was from (pick any state) Montana, but the spouse was a resident of (pick any other state) Ohio.
No. That isn’t how it works.
In this example, the non-military spouse can be from Montana or Virginia. To be from Montana the non-military spouse must have lived in Montana with the spouse and established residency in Montana before moving to Virginia.
There are dozens of details and permutations I have left out of this explanation, but that should cover 90% of the military families I see. Bottom line - as the spouse of a military member you don't have to pay taxes in Virginia if you are from the same state as the military member. Otherwise, you are paying taxes in Virginia.
2. Virginia Returns with the Non-Resident Military Member on Them
Nearly all married couples file their federal returns jointly. They will often get the most advantageous tax result by doing so. The do-it-yourselfers know this, so they prepare a joint federal return. Then it comes time to file their state taxes. He’s active duty and from Florida, and she is not. They know she has to pay taxes in Virginia, but he doesn’t. Let the battle with the software begin!
The states have a variety of ways to handle this situation. Virginia’s solution is that if one spouse is a VA resident and the other is not, then the resident spouse files separately in Virginia - even if they file jointly on their federal return. Most tax software hates that. It will try to steer you toward filing jointly in Virginia. Then his income shows up on the Virginia return and it doesn’t belong there. That’s when people come up with inventive ways to remove the non-Virginian's income from the Virginia return.
The fine folks in Richmond have no idea what your state of residency is. They only know that if you put somebody on the Virginia tax return and then invent some creative way to remove that person’s income, it’s wrong. They add it back on and send you a bill.
You have to remove the non-Virginian from the Virginia tax return. You can play with your software until you figure it out - a few people have cracked the code on that. (Don't ask me how they did it, though, I don't use that software.) Alternatively, you can paper-file your Virginia return. You can get downloadable forms for free from the Virginia Department of Revenue site.
3. Not Coordinating Withholding among Several Income Streams
Here is how this one normally goes: Martha earned $20,000 from her primary job during the year. She also started working a second job on nights and weekends, earning $20,000 from that. In addition, she receives $20,000 in pension benefits during the year. Altogether she has $60,000 of income. However, the HR folks at job 1, job 2. and the pension administrators don’t know about each other. As far as they know Martha is only earning the $20,000 per year they are paying her. They are withholding taxes as if her total tax bill is going to be based on $20,000 of income.
When Martha comes to see me and I figure her taxes based on the $60,000 she actually brought in, I am likely to find that she did not have enough taxes withheld and she is going to have to write checks to the IRS and VIrginia.
Getting your tax withholding right across multiple income streams can be tricky. The IRS online withholding calculator is pretty good at helping you figure it out. Just make sure you have pay stubs from all your income sources and your most recent tax return when you start. It will ask for a lot of data you won’t have at the ready in your memory banks.
4. Virginia Residents not Using VA529
I only saw this twice, but I hate to see any tax deductions go wasted, so I wanted to address it. Contributions to the Virginia 529 college savings plan are deductible from your Virginia income taxes. Despite this I noted 2 incidents where clients were paying taxes in Virginia and putting money into the 529 plan in another state.
There is no tax deduction for contributions to another state’s 529 plan. Virginia’s 529 plan has good choices, low fees, and can be used in other states, so I can’t think of a compelling reason not to use it if you are paying Virginia taxes. Unless, of course, you don’t like money. (Which would be a strange condition for somebody reading a tax blog!)
5. Charity Receipts
Those flimsy, blank receipts you get for donating items to Goodwill, The Salvation Army, Samaritan House, CHKD, DAV, etc. I have a real love-hate relationship with those things. I am glad the government is encouraging re-use of items, that people can get a tax break for donating their items to charity, and that poor people have access to a lot of used items at good prices to help them make ends meet. On the other hand many taxpayers are quite confused as to how to properly claim this deduction. They hand me their blank receipt, but when I ask what they had donated they look downright bewildered. They look at me as if to say, I gave stuff to charity and they gave me this blank receipt. Do something with it!
I can see how some confusion might happen. I can’t think of any other place where they hand you a blank receipt and expect you to know what to do. The thrift shop never explains it, either. The guy who takes in your stuff isn’t giving tax advice any time soon. He just hands you the receipt and you’re on your own. (The Thrift Shop isn't allowed to fill it out for you, btw. That's your job!)
You should take a few minutes and fill that out as soon as it is handed to you. The store isn’t going to fill it out for you. You aren’t going to remember what you donated 6 or 8 months later when it’s time to do your taxes. Take a little time to manage your taxes throughout the year. It is worth it!
That's my top 5 for this year. I hope you enjoyed it and there were some useful knowledge nuggets in there for you to use. If you have any questions don't hesitate to contact me.
08 January 2018
My plan is to write a new article for this tax blog at least once a week. It doesn’t always work out that way. Some interruptions to this plan are predictable. For example, I anticipate my blogging schedule will get interrupted during tax filing season (mid-January to mid-April). But this year the interruptions came earlier than expected. One thing that happened is that all my children came home for Christmas – that was a happy interruption.
There were a few others, too, but the biggest interruption (disruption?) I encountered is that just before Christmas something happened I was not anticipating – our federal government accomplished something. Both houses of Congress passed tax reform bills, they worked out the differences in a joint conference, and put a bill in front of the President – who signed it! (It was almost as if there was no dysfunction in Washington for a few days.)
Time will tell if this something our government accomplished with the new tax laws was a good thing or a bad thing. There were quite a lot of changes in the tax law, and I suspect we will ultimately judge some to be good and some to be bad. But since these changes are in effect NOW, people (like me) who plan tax strategies aren’t too keen on waiting to see how things work out in the long run. We need answers now to be able to plan and make strategies.
I have been reading (and reading and reading…) about this new tax law. I have a reasonably good understanding of it now, but there are some things that are just not yet knowable. The IRS has not yet had time to develop rules, forms, and instructions for the implementation of the new laws Congress handed them. The manner in which the IRS implements the changes will have a significant impact on future strategy.
Knowing that more is yet to be revealed, I still want to get some practical information about the new changes in this blog. I have received enough phone calls in the past few weeks to know there is an appetite for it. Instead of trying to eat the entire elephant I am going to stick to the issues I think will be of most interest to my clients and readers. These are the topics with which my clients have dealt with, or may need to deal with in the future. So, without further ado, here is my take on the provisions in the new tax law that will likely have the greatest impact on my clients. Remember, these are new rules for 2018. These changes will not impact the tax return you are about to file for 2017.
That’s where I am going to stop. It’s already a lot to process, and I am just scratching the surface of the tax law changes. The actual document is 1097 pages long, so it will take a lot of smart people a long time to fully digest it.
Fortunately, we have a year to ease into the changes. If new strategies arise during the year you can expect to hear from me. If you have questions, please contact me or ask during your tax prep appointment. I look forward to seeing you this year!
04 August 2015
Readers should be aware the tax law signed by the President on 22 December 2017 made many of these provisions obsolete.
Check out my oversimplified diagram of the federal income tax process. It shows the general flow of IRS Form 1040 so you can visualize where each of the tax terms I use fits into the actual process. I color-coded it to make it easier to follow (hopefully). In the blue we have various terms for income. In the green we have all things I call tax benefits (adjustments, deductions, exemptions, credits). In the red are the taxes.
When we are talking about adjustments or adjustments to income we are essentially talking about tax benefits that can reduce adjusted gross income (AGI). Most tax benefits (deductions, exemptions, and credits) are limited by AGI (or modified AGI (MAGI)). In other words, if your AGI is above a certain level you are disqualified from using that tax benefit. Adjustments can reduce your AGI, making you eligible for additional tax benefits. I am a big fan of adjustments.
You will sometimes hear adjustments referred to as above the line deductions. "The Line" being the point before AGI is calculated. It's an accurate term. Adjustments are essentially bonus deductions that can be taken in addition to the standard deduction or the Schedule A itemized deductions. But given their ability to reduce AGI I prefer to call them adjustments (to income).
Let's look at some of these adjustments in detail.
Educator Expenses. If you're a teacher and you spend money on supplies for your classroom you can claim an adjustment of up to $250. Married teachers filing jointly can claim up to $500. You can't have been reimbursed by the school to claim the adjustment. Expenses for home schooling do not qualify.
Certain Business Expenses of Reservists, Performing Artists, and Fee-Basis Government Officials. Virginia Beach reservists take note: if you travel more than 100 miles from home to perform your duties you can claim an adjustment for your expenses.
Health Savings Account Deduction. If you (not your employer) contributed to your HSA this year, you can claim an adjustment for it.
Moving Expenses. Did you move to Virginia Beach for a new job? If you had unreimbursed moving expenses you can take an adjustment for expenses you incurred. (If your employer paid for the move you don't qualify.)
Self Employed Adjustments - If you have your own business you can take adjustments for part of your self-employment tax, your retirement plan, and your health insurance premiums.
Penalty on Early Withdrawal of Savings. Needed to get your money out of a CD for an unforeseen expense? If the bank levied a fee for the early withdrawal you can write it off your taxes as an adjustment.
IRA Deduction. If you made qualified contributions to a traditional IRA you can take it off your taxes as an adjustment. You must have earned income to contribute to an IRA. Military members can count untaxed combat pay as earned income for taking this adjustment.
Student Loan Interest Deduction. With so much student loan debt this is a big one. You can deduct up to $2,500 for student loan interest you paid. This adjustment goes away when MAGI goes above $80K for individuals, $160K for joint filers. Married filing separately do not qualify for this adjustment. You must be legally responsible for the loan. In other words, paying off your grandchild's loan does not qualify you for this adjustment unless your name was on the loan documents.
Tuition and Fees Deduction. This one is rarely used because the American Opportunity Credit and Lifetime Learning Credits are usually more valuable. However, there is a narrow niche where it makes sense to take this adjustment. Most tax software will automatically compare the benefits between this adjustment and the tax credits for education and give you the best one, but check to make sure you are getting the best tax benefit.
Line 36 (Miscellaneous). This is a potpourri of various rarely used adjustments for things such as forfeited jury duty pay, reforestation expenses, and attorney fees for unlawful discrimination lawsuits. If you have a strange situation, ask your tax preparer, you might qualify for a miscellaneous adjustment.
The ability to reduce your AGI with adjustments can have a snowballing effect in reducing your total tax bill. Not only does it lower your taxable income, but it can also qualify you for additional deductions and credits on your tax return. Make sure you're claiming all of the adjustments for which you are eligible.
08 April 2016
Readers should be aware the tax law signed by the President on 22 December 2017 dramatically changed the applicability of this article. Most of these rules have changed or are obsolete. I have decided to leave it here for consistency and posterity.
Moving expenses, under certain circumstances, can be taken as an adjustment to income. Adjustments are my favorite variety of deductions, because you can use them even when you don't have enough other deductions to itemize - AND - adjustments lower your adjusted gross income, which may make you eligible for additional tax breaks.
The IRS refers to the adjustment for moving expenses as a deduction, so in order to keep things simple I will also refer to it as a deduction. Just be aware that this is an above-the-line deduction, so it does not go on Schedule A. It goes right on form 1040 in the adjustments section of the tax return.
You can deduct the unreimbursed costs of a move if it was work-related and you were not paid additional money by your employer to cover your costs for moving. By work-related the IRS means you moved in order to take a new full-time job in another location. It is not necessary to have the job before you move. It is just necessary that you start working once you get to the new location. In order to meet the IRS requirements to qualify for the moving expense deduction there are two tests, one for distance and one for time.
The Distance Test is simple, although when you first read the definition you can get lost in the words. The IRS writes, “Your move will meet the distance test if your new main job location is at least 50 miles farther from your former home than your old main job location was from your former home.” In other words, if staying in your home when you take a new job adds 50 miles to your commute, you can move and write off the unreimbursed expenses for the move.
Moves are often much farther than 50 miles, but it is not uncommon here in Hampton Roads for someone to be living on the peninsula, take a job in Virginia Beach or Chesapeake, and decide to relocate to avoid dealing with the bridge-tunnels every day. That’s when we have to break out the IRS rules and get very specific on the distances to see if your move qualifies. If you moved from Florida or Texas to Virginia, it’s a slam dunk.
The second part of the test is the Time Test. The time test is different depending on whether you are an employee or self-employed. Employees must work full time for at least 39 weeks of the first year after the move. If you move and start your own business (self-employment) you must work full time at least 78 weeks of the first two years, including 39 weeks in the first year. If you are married and file jointly only one of the spouses must meet the time test.
What if you moved in December? You have to file your tax return by April. Can you still deduct the moving expenses even though you have not yet met the 39-week time test? The IRS actually allows this. You can project that you will eventually meet the time test and take the deduction for moving expenses. However, if you subsequently fail to meet the time test you have to pay the IRS back by either amending your prior return or including the previous deduction as income on your next tax return. (The IRS makes exceptions to the time test in certain situations. See if you qualify for an exception before you pay back the moving deduction.)
Everyone is different, and unusual situations result. For example, a parent might relocate to take another job, and leave his or her spouse and children at their old house for several months to finish school before they also move. The IRS says that as long as the move happens within a year of the start of the new job it is deductible. Similar to the pirate’s code, though, this is more of a guideline than a rule. If you have extenuating circumstances as to why the move could not happen within a year of the start of the new job, then you can apply to the IRS to allow your moving expenses even if they happen more than a year after the new job starts.
You can deduct the cost of shipping your household goods and the costs of travel.
Household goods shipments include your personal property and effects, including pets. You can have a moving company transport your goods or you can rent a truck and move them yourself. You can also deduct the cost of storing and insuring your household goods for up to 30 consecutive days during the move.
Deductible travel expenses include lodging and transportation. Meals are not deductible as a moving expense. Lodging is typically hotels and motels, and can include nights spent in a hotel near your previous home because your household goods were in transit.
Transportation can be tricky. If you take your own vehicle, which is common, you can deduct the actual expenses for gas and oil OR you can take a deduction based on mileage. The 2015 rate is 23 cents per mile. If you have more than one car you can deduct the cost of driving each one as long as it was driven by someone who is a member of your household. Just be careful that you are only deducting the expenses for each member of the household one time. A person might make multiple trips from the old home to the new home, but you only get to deduct one of those trips from your taxes as a move.
Whether you use the mileage deduction or the actual gas and oil expenses you can also deduct any fees for parking or tolls that you paid along the route. You may not deduct expenses for repairs, insurance, or depreciation.
Some things the IRS specifically points out as NOT deductible include improvements to your home, car tags, house hunting expenses, return trips to the former residence, losses on your former residence, fees for breaking your lease, and security deposits.
Moving can be an exciting, but hectic time. There are always hundreds of things to do when you move. Just don’t forget to keep track your moving expenses. You’ll wish you had at tax time! If you have any questions about deducting moving expenses from your tax, please contact me.
08 October 2016
Readers shouldbe aware the tax law signed by the President on 22 December 2017 dramatically changed the applicability of this article. Most of these rules have changed or are obsolete. I have decided to leave it here for consistency and posterity.
One remarkable side effect from being a tax preparer is that it has enhanced my opinion of my fellow citizens. I used to feel like I was one of the few people left in America who wasn't lying on his tax return. Preparing taxes for other people has shown me that my previous suspicions about the rest of you weren't true. In my experience the great majority of taxpayers are honest. They are not trying to cheat on their taxes. They want to take all of the deductions to which they are entitled, and they don’t want to try to get away with claiming deductions for things they are not qualified to claim.
That observation leads me to believe the rules for deducting work-related clothing are misunderstood. Or, perhaps, do-it-yourself software doesn’t do a very good job of helping people through the process of claiming that particular deduction. Perhaps it is a combination of those two things. Either way, I review several tax returns every year that get this deduction wrong. The taxpayer didn’t claim the clothing deduction when they were qualified to do so. Or, the taxpayer deducted clothing expenses that don’t meet the IRS standard for being work-related. I will try to clarify.
The tax code allows self-employed taxpayers to deduct expenses related to their business. Similarly, taxpayers who are employees can deduct the business-related expenses of being an employee. Therefore, work-related clothing can be deducted by taxpayers regardless of whether they are self-employed or employees.
The IRS has a standard definition for work-related clothing. In order for an article of clothing to be work-related it must meet two tests:
1. It must be required by your employer.
2. It must not be suitable for use outside your place of work.
BOTH of these must be true in order for the clothing to be deductible. Let's look at each in greater detail.
This is an easy test to meet if you are self-employed. You are your employer and you wear what you require. If you are an employee it can be a little less straight forward, but is usually easy to determine. Perhaps you work in a restaurant and your manager requires khaki pants and a blue polo shirt. Perhaps you work as a mechanic and the manager requires you to wear a blue shirt with your name patch sewn on it. Perhaps you are in the military and you have uniforms to wear. These are all situations in which your employer required you to purchase and wear particular clothes for work.
I think this is the part that is misunderstood. If the clothing is suitable for use outside of work it is NOT work-related clothing - even if your employer required you to have it. Khaki pants and a blue polo shirt are suitable for wear outside of work. It doesn’t matter if you don’t wear them outside of work. It doesn’t matter if you would not be caught dead out in public in khaki pants and a blue polo shirt. They are considered suitable for use outside of work, and therefore NOT deductible as work-related clothing.
Many military uniforms are also considered suitable for use outside of work. If you can wear it off base it is not deductible as work-related clothing.
Of my previous examples, that leaves the mechanic with the blue shirt and name patch. This clothing is not suitable for use outside the place of work. People don’t typically walk around in public sporting their name and the company logo on their clothing. If the mechanic paid for these items himself, the shirt, the name patch, and the tailoring to attach the name patch to the shirt would all be deductible as work-related expenses by this employee.
I will often see people take a large deduction for clothing when they start a business or a new job. “I needed a new wardrobe,” they will tell me, “I am in sales. I see clients, it is essential to my job that I look professional.” "I only bought these clothes because of the new job."
I believe them, and I understand. I see clients. I try to look presentable. I spend money on suits, shirts, sport coats, and ties that I only wear at work. This does not make them deductible. It is clothing that is suitable to be worn outside of my work, and is therefore not deductible as work-related clothing on my tax return. Your new clothes, even though you bought them because of your job, are not work-related if they can be worn outside work.
When I was a young sailor we had uniforms that could not be worn off base.* There seem to be fewer of those today, but they still exist. Those uniforms would be deductible as work-related employee expenses, but only to the extent that you paid for them out of pocket IN EXCESS OF your annual uniform allowance.
Additionally, there are certain ceremonial items required by some military personnel that are not regular uniform items. Things like an officer’s sword or a flag-aide’s epaulets. These items are also deductible if they exceed your annual uniform allowance.
If you have qualifying work-related clothing you should be deducting it from your taxes. Just make sure that it meets the IRS definition of work-related. If it doesn’t your deduction will not hold up in an audit, and you’ll owe penalties and interest on top of the additional taxes. If you have questions or concerns about work-related deductions, please contact me.
*A short sea story: When I was a junior sailor we still wore the dungaree working uniform. It was not to be worn off base. The rule was you could drive to and from work wearing your dungarees as long as you did not get out of your car between home and work. I observed this rule stridently... except once. I lived about 40 miles from the base and stopped at a gas station near my home. I was low on gas and figured I could just pump the gas quickly, jump back in my car, and not have to go back out later. Standing there pumping the gas a car pulled up on the other side of the pumps. I could see that two-starred fouled anchor on his combination cover from a mile away. The Master Chief stepped out, gave me the stank eye, and asked which command I worked for. I told him, of course, then got in my car and drove off. I never heard anything else about it, but I also never stopped anywhere in that uniform ever again!
Paul D. Allen is a founding member of the Military Financial Advisors Association, as well as a member of the National Association of Enrolled Agents, the National Association of Tax Professionals, the Financial Planning Association of Hampton Roads, the National Association of Personal Financial Advisors (NAPFA), and the XY Planning Network. Paul is the Director of the CFP Board-Registered Program at The Regent University School of Law where he also teaches the Capstone Course in Financial Planning. You can read more about Paul's background here.
Bought some software and then started having second thoughts? Stuck on a particular issue? Give me a call and ask about a consultation. I might be able to get you back on the path to finishing your own return.