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Careful Tax Planning Can Yield Dividends Down the Road

It’s That Time of Year

By Kristina Drzal-Houghton, CPA, MST

Year-end planning for 2018 takes place against the backdrop of a new tax law — the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act — that makes major changes in the tax rules for individuals and businesses.

Kristina Drzal Houghton

Kristina Drzal Houghton

For individuals, there are new, lower-income tax rates, a substantially increased standard deduction, severely limited itemized deductions and no personal exemptions, an increased child-tax credit, and a watered-down alternative minimum tax (AMT), among many other changes. For businesses, the corporate tax rate is cut to 21%, the corporate AMT is gone, there are new limits on business interest deductions, and significantly liberalized expensing and depreciation rules. And there’s a new deduction for non-corporate taxpayers with qualified business income from pass-through entities. The following is a brief synopsis of these and other changes.

Businesses and Business Owners

• For tax years beginning after 2017, taxpayers other than corporations may be entitled to a deduction of up to 20% of their qualified business income. For 2018, if taxable income exceeds $315,000 for a married couple filing jointly, or $157,500 for all other taxpayers, the deduction may be limited based on whether the taxpayer is engaged in a service-type trade or business (such as healthcare), the amount of W-2 wages paid by the trade or business, and/or the unadjusted basis of qualified property (such as machinery and equipment) held by the trade or business.

The limitations are phased in for joint filers with taxable income between $315,000 and $415,000 and for all other taxpayers with taxable income between $157,500 and $207,500.

• Deferring income to the next taxable year is a time-honored year-end planning tool. If you expect your taxable income to be higher in 2018 than in 2019, or if you operate as anything except a C corporation and you anticipate being in the same or a higher tax bracket in 2018 than in 2019, you may benefit by deferring income into 2019. With the passage of tax reform largely going into effect in 2018, new considerations may need to be made for the end of 2018. Of course, if an individual is subject to the alternative minimum tax, standard tax planning may not be warranted. The rules are quite complex, so don’t make a move in this area without consulting your tax adviser.

• Businesses should consider making expenditures that qualify for the liberalized business property expensing option. For tax years beginning in 2018, the expensing limit is $1,000,000, and the investment ceiling limit is $2,500,000. Expensing is generally available for most depreciable property (other than buildings), and off-the-shelf computer software.

For property placed in service in tax years beginning after Dec. 31, 2017, expensing also is available for qualified improvement property (generally, any interior improvement to a building’s interior, but not for enlargement of a building, elevators or escalators, or the internal structural framework), for roofs, and for HVAC, fire protection, alarm, and security systems. The generous dollar ceilings that apply this year mean that many small and medium-sized businesses that make timely purchases will be able to currently deduct most if not all their outlays for machinery and equipment.

What’s more, the expensing deduction is not prorated for the time that the asset is in service during the year. The fact that the expensing deduction may be claimed in full (if you are otherwise eligible to take it) regardless of how long the property is held during the year can be a potent tool for year-end tax planning. Thus, property acquired and placed in service in the last days of 2018, rather than at the beginning of 2019, can result in a full expensing deduction for 2018.

• Businesses can also claim a 100% bonus first-year depreciation deduction for machinery and equipment bought used (with some exceptions) or new, if purchased and placed in service this year. The 100% write-off is permitted without any proration based on the length of time that an asset is in service during the tax year. As a result, the 100% bonus first-year write-off is available even if qualifying assets are in service for only a few days in 2018.

• A charitable-donation deduction is available to businesses, but the actual deductibility depends on the business form. A corporation is allowed a deduction of up to 10% of its taxable income, whereas a pass-through entity is subject to an individual’s limitations. Specific types of assets may also have limited deductibility or may need to meet certain requirements. In addition, the substantiation and reporting regulations for charitable donations were recently updated. While most of the changes were relatively minor, qualified appraisals and qualified appraisers must now meet particular requirements. You should contact your tax advisor before making charitable donations, particularly inventory items, to ensure you meet the deduction requirements.

• Beginning in 2018 and until 2025, taxpayers other than C corporations are limited in their ability to deduct business loss. The excess business loss that is disallowed is instead carried forward as part of the taxpayer’s net operating loss in succeeding years.

Individuals

• As a general reminder, there are several ways in which you can file an income-tax return: married filing jointly, head of household, single, and married filing separately. A married couple, which includes same-sex marriages, may elect to file one return reporting their combined income, computing the tax liability using the tax tables or rate schedules for ‘Married Persons Filing Jointly.’

If a married couple files separate returns, in certain situations they can amend and file jointly, but they cannot amend a jointly filed return to file separately once the due date has passed. A joint return may be filed even though one spouse has neither gross income nor deductions. If one spouse dies during the year, the surviving spouse may file a joint return for the year in which his or her spouse died.

Certain married persons who do not elect to file a joint return may be entitled to use the lower head-of-household tax rates. Generally, in order to qualify as a head of household, you must not be a resident alien, you must satisfy certain marital status requirements, and you must maintain a household for a qualifying child or any other person who is your dependent.

• Higher-income earners must be wary of the 3.8% surtax on certain unearned income. The surtax is 3.8% of the lesser of net investment income (NII) or the excess of modified adjusted gross income (MAGI) over a threshold amount. As year-end nears, a taxpayer’s approach to minimizing or eliminating the 3.8% surtax will depend on his estimated MAGI and NII for the year. Some taxpayers should consider ways to minimize (e.g., through deferral) additional NII for the balance of the year, others should try to see if they can reduce MAGI other than NII, and still other individuals will need to consider ways to minimize both NII and other types of MAGI.

• The 0.9% additional Medicare tax also may require higher-income earners to take year-end actions. It applies to individuals for whom the sum of their wages received with respect to employment and whose self-employment income is in excess of an unindexed threshold amount ($250,000 for joint filers, $125,000 for married couples filing separately, and $200,000 in any other case). Employers must withhold the additional Medicare tax from wages in excess of $200,000 regardless of filing status or other income. Self-employed persons must take it into account in figuring estimated tax.

• Long-term capital gain from sales of assets held for over one year is taxed at 0%, 15%, or 20%, depending on the taxpayer’s taxable income. The 0% rate generally applies to the excess of long-term capital gain over any short-term capital loss to the extent that it, when added to regular taxable income, is not more than the ‘maximum zero-rate amount’ (e.g., $77,200 for a married couple). If the 0% rate applies to long-term capital gains you took earlier this year — for example, you are a joint filer who made a profit of $5,000 on the sale of stock bought in 2009, and other taxable income for 2018 is $70,000 — then before year-end, try not to sell assets yielding a capital loss because the first $5,000 of such losses won’t yield a benefit this year. And if you hold long-term appreciated-in-value assets, consider selling enough of them to generate long-term capital gains sheltered by the 0% rate.

• Postpone income until 2019 and accelerate deductions into 2018 if doing so will enable you to claim larger deductions, credits, and other tax breaks for 2018 that are phased out over varying levels of adjusted gross income. These include deductible IRA contributions, child tax credits, higher-education tax credits, and deductions for student-loan interest.

Postponing income is also desirable for those taxpayers who anticipate being in a lower tax bracket next year due to changed financial circumstances. Note, however, that in some cases, it may pay to actually accelerate income into 2018. For example, that may be the case where a person will have a more favorable filing status this year than next (e.g., head of household versus individual filing status), or expects to be in a higher tax bracket next year.

• Beginning in 2018, many taxpayers who claimed itemized deductions year after year will no longer be able to do so. That’s because the basic standard deduction has been increased (to $24,000 for joint filers, $12,000 for singles, $18,000 for heads of household, and $12,000 for marrieds filing separately), and many itemized deductions have been cut back or abolished. No more than $10,000 of state and local taxes may be deducted, miscellaneous itemized deductions (e.g., tax-preparation fees, moving expenses, and investment expenses) and unreimbursed employee expenses are no longer deductible, and personal casualty and theft losses are deductible only if they’re attributable to a federally declared disaster.

You can still itemize medical expenses to the extent they exceed 7.5% of your adjusted gross income, state and local taxes up to $10,000, your charitable contributions, plus interest deductions on a restricted amount of qualifying residence debt, but payments of those items won’t save taxes if they don’t cumulatively exceed the new, higher standard deduction.

• Some taxpayers may be able to work around the new reality by applying a ‘bunching strategy’ to pull or push discretionary medical expenses and charitable contributions into the year where they will do some tax good. For example, if a taxpayer knows he or she will be able to itemize deductions this year but not next year, the taxpayer may be able to make two years’ worth of charitable contributions this year, instead of spreading out donations over 2018 and 2019.

• If you’re age 70½ or older by the end of 2018, have traditional IRAs, and particularly if you can’t itemize your deductions, consider making 2018 charitable donations via qualified charitable distributions from your IRAs. Such distributions are made directly to charities from your IRAs, and the amount of the contribution is neither included in your gross income nor deductible on Schedule A, Form 1040. But the amount of the qualified charitable distribution reduces the amount of your required minimum distribution, resulting in tax savings.

• Make gifts sheltered by the annual gift-tax exclusion before the end of the year and thereby save gift and estate taxes. The exclusion applies to gifts of up to $15,000 made in 2018 to each of an unlimited number of individuals. You can’t carry over unused exclusions from one year to the next. Such transfers may save family income taxes where income-earning property is given to family members in lower income-tax brackets who are not subject to the kiddie tax.

• For tax years beginning after Dec. 31, 2017, the unearned income of a child is subject to ordinary and capital-gains rates applicable to trusts and estates. The earned income of a child is taxed according to an unmarried taxpayer’s brackets and rates. The kiddie tax is not affected by the tax situation of the child’s parents or unearned income of any siblings. The kiddie tax applies to: (1) children under 18 who do not file a joint return; (2) 18-year-old children who have unearned income in excess of the threshold amount, do not file a joint return, and who have earned income, if any, that does not exceed one-half of the amount of the child’s support; and (3) children between the ages of 19 and 23 if, in addition to the above rules, they are full-time students. Investment earnings in excess of $2,100 will be taxed at the rates that apply to trusts and estates.

These are just some of the year-end steps that can be taken to save taxes. Again, by contacting your tax advisor, he or she can tailor a particular plan that will work best for you.

Kristina Drzal-Houghton, CPA, MST is the partner in charge of Taxation at Holyoke-based Meyers Brothers Kalicka, P.C.; (413) 536-8510.

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