By Kristina Drzal-Houghton, CPA MST
Tax planning can be a guessing game, especially in a year when new leadership in Washington could make significant changes to the tax code. But there are a number of basic strategies that businesses and individuals may put in play as year end approaches.
Tax planning for 2016 is significantly different than in recent years.
In late 2015, many tax provisions were made permanent, thus appearing to remove the many uncertainties that made tax planning much more of a guessing game in the past. This tax-planning article generally is oriented toward the time-honored approach of deferring income and accelerating deductions to minimize 2016 taxes.
Given that this is an election year, consideration should be given to the possibility of the new administration making changes to the tax code. Contrary to traditional thinking, in specific situations, you may decide it is most beneficial to pay more taxes now.
For individuals, deferring income also may help minimize or avoid AGI-based phaseouts of various tax breaks. Businesses, like individuals, should decide when and how to shift income and deductions between 2016 and 2017. Although C corporations will generally benefit from the deferral of income and the acceleration of deductions in the same way as individuals and pass-though entities, there are a number of special rules that should be taken into account.
Year-end tax planning for 2016 must take account of the many temporary ‘extender’ tax provisions still in the code. Extender provisions are business tax deductions, tax credits, and other tax-saving laws which have been on the books for years but which technically are temporary because they have a specific end date.
The majority of these extenders are in effect through 2016, presenting an opportunity to take advantage of them before year’s end when their continued renewal may be uncertain. However, some of these extender provisions are in effect through 2019. And, in a radical change from prior years, many of what were traditionally the most important extender provisions have been made permanent, allowing the opportunity for long-term planning in many cases. Most importantly, there are a number of these extender and other provisions that have been modified in various ways by late 2015 legislation that the taxpayer should be alert to.
Corporate rate planning. A C corporation is subject to the 39% ‘bubble.’ Corporate taxable income between $100,000 and $335,000 is taxed at the rate of 39% to phase out the benefits of the 15% and 25% brackets that apply to a corporation’s first $75,000 of taxable income.
Taxable income between $75,000 and $100,000, and between $335,000 and $10 million, is taxed at 34%. Taxable income over $10 million is taxed at 35%, except that there is also a 38% bubble that applies to corporate taxable income between $15 million and $18,333,333 to eliminate the benefit of the 34% rate.
Many small C-corporation businesses utilize year-end bonus planning to maximize the benefit of the lower tax brackets. This can be a real balancing act with many items to consider, including the additional cost of Social Security and Medicare taxes, timing of the bonus payment to owners, and IRS rules on excessive compensation. When doing this planning, you must be careful to not run afoul of any bank-loan covenants.
Qualifying for the small-corporation AMT exception. The tentative minimum tax of a corporation is zero for any tax year that it qualifies as a small corporation meeting a ‘gross receipts test.’ A corporation will qualify if:
• The corporation’s average annual gross receipts for all three-tax-year periods beginning after Dec. 31, 1993 and ending before the tax year do not exceed $7.5 million; and
• The corporation’s average gross receipts do not exceed $5 million for the corporation’s first three-tax-year period taken into account above.
Thus, a corporation should consider deferring income to 2017 if necessary to keep average annual gross receipts for the three-tax-year period 2014 through 2016 at $7.5 million or less. This will preserve the AMT exemption for 2017.
Expensing deductions. Businesses that want to accelerate year-end deductions by buying machinery and equipment have a formidable array of tax tools to work with this year: generous expensing under Code Sec. 179, an expensing safe harbor under the capitalization regulations that has been liberalized for smaller businesses, and 50% bonus first-year depreciation for those eligible new assets that can’t be expensed under Code Sec. 179 or the regs’ safe harbor.
For qualified property placed in service in tax years beginning in 2016, the maximum amount that may be expensed under the Code Sec. 179 dollar limitation is $500,000, and the beginning-of-phaseout amount is $2,010,000. Besides taking advantage of the Code Sec. 179 rules, some businesses may be able to buy much-needed machinery and equipment at year-end and currently deduct the cost under a ‘de minimis’ safe-harbor election in the capitalization regs.
First-year depreciation deduction. Most new machinery and equipment bought and placed in service in 2016 qualifies for the 50% bonus first-year depreciation deduction. Bonus first-year depreciation has been extended through 2019 with a number of modifications, including a gradual reduction over that time (50% for qualified property placed in service in 2015 through 2017, 40% for 2018, and 30% for 2019).
Deduction for qualified production activities income. Taxpayers can claim a deduction, subject to limits, for 9% of the lesser of (1) the taxpayer’s ‘qualified production activities income’ for the tax year (i.e., net income from U.S. manufacturing, production or extraction activities, U.S. film production, U.S. construction activities, and U.S. engineering and architectural services), or (2) the taxpayer’s taxable income for that tax year (before taking this deduction into account). This deduction generally has the effect of a reduction in the taxpayer’s marginal rate and, thus, should be taken into account when making decisions regarding income-shifting strategies.
Net operating losses and debt-cancellation income. A business with a loss this year may be able to use that loss to generate cash in the form of a quick net-operating-loss-carryback refund. This type of refund may be of particular value to a financially troubled business that needs a fast cash transfusion to keep going. Also, a debtor who anticipates having the debt cancelled or reduced should consider steps to defer the resulting taxable income until 2017.
Accelerating or deferring income can save estimated tax requirements. Corporations (other than certain ‘large’ corporations, see below) can avoid being penalized for underpaying estimated taxes if they pay installments based on 100% of the tax shown on the return for the preceding year. Otherwise, they must pay estimated taxes based on 100% of the current year’s tax.
However, this 100%-of-last-year’s-tax safe harbor isn’t available unless the corporation filed a return for the preceding year that showed a liability for tax. A return showing a zero tax liability doesn’t satisfy this requirement; only a return that shows a positive tax liability for the preceding year makes the safe harbor available.
A corporation (other than a large corporation) that anticipates a small net operating loss (NOL) for 2016 and substantial net income in 2017 may find it worthwhile to accelerate just enough of its 2017 income (or to defer just enough of its 2016 deductions) to create a small amount of net income, and thus a small positive tax liability, for 2016. This will permit the corporation to base its 2017 estimated tax installments on the relatively small amount of tax shown on its 2016 return, rather than having to pay estimated taxes based on 100% of its much larger 2017 taxable income.
Also, by accelerating a small amount of income from 2017 to 2016, the corporation might be able to pay tax on that income at a lower rate — e.g., 15% instead of 25% or 34% — if doing so converts its 2016 NOL to a small amount of taxable income. However, where a 2016 NOL would result in a carryback that would eliminate tax in an earlier year, this income-acceleration strategy should be employed only if the value of the carryback is less than the value of having to pay only a small amount of estimated tax for 2017.
Individuals who own pass-though entities such as S corporations, partnerships, or trusts should consider many of the above planning ideas in conjunction with provisions specifically applicable to the individual taxpayer.
Effective year-end tax planning also must take into account each taxpayer’s particular situation and planning goals, with the aim of minimizing taxes. For example, higher-income individuals must consider the effect of the 39.6% top tax bracket, the 20% tax rate on long-term capital gains and qualified dividends for taxpayers taxed at a rate of 39.6% on ordinary income, the phaseout of itemized deductions and personal exemptions when income is over specified thresholds, and the 3.8% surtax (Medicare contribution tax) on net investment income for taxpayers whose income exceeds specified thresholds.
While many taxpayers will come out ahead by following the traditional approach (deferring income and accelerating deductions), others, including those with special circumstances, should consider accelerating income and deferring deductions. Most traditional techniques for deferring income and accelerating expenses can be reversed to achieve the opposite effect.
For instance, a cash-method professional who wants to accelerate income can do so by speeding up his business’ billing and collection process instead of deferring income by slowing that process down. Or, a cash-method taxpayer who sells property in 2016 on the installment basis may realize a large long-term capital gain can accelerate income by electing out of the installment method.
Inflation adjustments to rate brackets, exemption amounts, etc. For both 2016 and 2017, some individuals will benefit from inflation adjustments in the thresholds for applying the income-tax rates, higher standard deduction amounts, and higher personal-exemption amounts.
Capital gains. Long-term capital gains are taxed at a rate of (a) 20% if they would be taxed at a rate of 39.6% if they were treated as ordinary income; (b) 15% if they would be taxed at above 15% but below 39.6% if they were treated as ordinary income; or (c) 0% if they would be taxed at a rate of 10% or 15% if they were treated as ordinary income. And the 3.8% surtax on net investment income may apply.
Strategies for matching capital gains and capital losses to make the most of these rules should be considered.
Low-taxed dividend income. Qualified dividend income is taxed at the same favorable tax rates that apply to long-term capital gains. Converting investment income taxable at regular rates into qualified dividend income can achieve tax savings and result in higher after-tax income. However, the 3.8% surtax on net investment income may apply.
Traditional IRA and Roth IRA year-end moves. One can convert traditional IRAs to Roth IRAs. And one can then ‘recharacterize’ (i.e., elect to treat a contribution made to one type of IRA as made to a different type of IRA) that conversion and can even, possibly, reconvert the recharacterized transaction.
Changes in an individual’s tax status may call for acceleration of income. Expected 2017 changes in an individual’s tax status, due, say, to divorce, marriage, or loss of head of household status, must be considered.
Alternative minimum tax (AMT). Watch out for the AMT, which applies to both individuals and many corporations. A decision to accelerate an expense or to defer an item of income to reduce taxable income for regular tax purposes may not save taxes if the taxpayer is subject to the AMT.
Time value of money. Any decision to save taxes by accelerating income must take into account the fact that this means paying taxes early and losing the use of money that could have been otherwise invested.
Obstacles to deferring taxable income. The code contains a number of rules that hinder the shifting of income and expenses. These include the passive activity loss rules, requirements that certain taxpayers use the accrual method, and limitations on the deduction of investment interest.
Charitable contributions. The timing of charitable contributions can have an important impact on year-end tax planning. Individual taxpayers who are at least 70½ years old can contribute to charities directly from their IRAs without having the amount of their contribution included in their gross income. By making this move, some taxpayers reduce their tax liability even more than they would have if they had received the distribution from their IRA and then contributed the amount distributed to charity. Some taxpayers, who could take advantage of this tax break for this year, should consider deferring until the end of the year their required minimum distributions (RMDs) for 2016.
Energy tax incentives. There are two different credits available for taxpayers who make qualifying energy-saving improvements to their homes. Tax credits are available for non-business energy property placed in service in 2016 (but not in 2017) and for residential, energy-efficient solar property placed in service before 2022 (but a gradual phaseout applies).
Since tax planning can be vastly different from entity to entity or individual to individual, there is no standard checklist or formula that can be followed. Sometimes the benefits enjoyed today may not outweigh their effect on the future. This is why careful consideration — in conjunction with your tax adviser — should be given to customizing your strategy.
Kristina Drzal-Houghton, CPA MST is the partner in charge of Taxation at Holyoke-based Meyers Brothers Kalicka, P.C.; (413) 536-8510.