Monthly Archives: March 2017

Beware the costly, complicated AMT, or alternative minimum tax

Westchester NY accountant Paul Herman of Herman & Company CPA’s is here for all your financial needs. Please contact us if you have questions, and to receive your free personal finance consultation!

By Bankrate

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The alternative minimum tax, or AMT, is widely unpopular and has been a perennial punching bag whenever tax reform is discussed. President Donald Trump has vowed to kill the AMT, which cost him $31 million on his 2005 tax return.

This parallel tax calculation method has been around since 1969 to ensure that wealthy taxpayers didn’t use loopholes to escape paying their fair share of taxes. The original target was 155 filers with the then-exorbitant income of $200,000 who avoided paying any federal taxes.

For many decades the AMT wasn’t indexed for inflation, so more and more middle-income taxpayers were subject to the tax. A 2013 law fixed that, so the AMT is now adjusted each year to reflect inflation.

What exactly is the alternative minimum tax?

The alternative minimum tax, commonly referred to as the AMT, has its own set of rates (26 percent and 28 percent) and requires a separate computation that could substantially boost your tax bill.

Basically, it’s the difference between your regular tax bill, figured using ordinary income tax rates, and your AMT bill, figured by filling out more IRS paperwork. When there’s a difference, you must pay that amount, the AMT, in addition to your regular tax.

Common tax breaks disallowed

The AMT rejects or reduces many common tax breaks used every year by individual taxpayers to lower their IRS bills.

For example, under the AMT:

  • You cannot deduct state and local taxes.
  • If you are 65 or older, have lots of itemized medical deductions and fall into the AMT, you’ll lose some of those write-offs.
  • Miscellaneous itemized deductions, which must exceed 2 percent of your adjusted gross income under the regular tax system, are disallowed under the AMT.
  • Personal exemptions may be disqualified.
  • While mortgage interest on your main and second home is still AMT-deductible, home equity loan interest is restricted. It can’t be deducted unless the money is used solely to pay for home improvements.
  • Real estate property taxes also are disallowed as deductions under the AMT.
  • Some tax credits that reduce your regular tax liability do not reduce what you owe under the AMT. Once you add back these disallowed credits and run the numbers, you might be subject to a bigger IRS bill if your taxable income exceeds the annual AMT exemption amount for your filing status.

herman blog

Many of the tax breaks not allowed under the AMT system do affect predominantly wealthy individuals or businesses with complicated tax circumstances. These include:

  • Incentive stock options.
  • Intangible drilling costs.
  • Tax-exempt interest from certain private activity bonds.
  • Depletion and accelerated depreciation on certain leased personal or real property.

Considering making a real estate investment?

Do more to pay more

To help sort through the AMT mess, some taxpayers turn to computer software packages, most of which include AMT computation, or hire professional help.

For the past couple of years, the IRS has provided some free AMT calculation assistance. AMT Assistant is an online tool that helps taxpayers determine whether they owe the tax. You just answer a few questions about entries on your draft 1040 and the system does the rest. Based on your entries, the calculator will tell you that either you do not owe the AMT or that you must go further by filling out Form 6251 to find out how much you owe.

But the IRS plans to retire the tool after the close of this filing season. Fewer people need it since it’s easy to figure out whether you owe the tax by using tax preparation software, including through the IRS’ Free File, which automatically calculates any tax owed.

If you find you must pay the AMT, the extra money you owe is never welcome. But dealing with it now is better than the alternative: letting the IRS discover that you should have paid it. Then you’ll owe interest and penalties, too.

Paul S. Herman CPA, a tax expert for individuals and businesses, is the founder of Herman & Company, CPA’s PC in White Plains, New York.  He provides guidance and strategies to improve clients’ financial well-being.

Tax lesson for teachers: Educator expenses can be written off

Westchester NY accountant Paul Herman of Herman & Company CPA’s is here for all your financial needs. Please contact us if you have questions, and to receive your free personal finance consultation!

By Bankrate

tax deductions for teachers

Teachers on average spend $530 of their own money during the school year to pay for supplies, snacks for students and other classroom items.

Teachers and other educators can get a tax deduction of up to $250 for some of those costs as well as continuing education expenses.

Even better, they don’t have to itemize to get the tax break. Educator expenses are one of the so-called above-the-line deductions claimed directly on a Form 1040 or via tax software.

Educator expenses deduction enhanced

Congress made the tax break for educators a permanent part of the tax code in 2015.

Lawmakers also indexed the $250 maximum deduction amount for inflation. It didn’t change for the 2016 tax year, because of low inflation, but it could increase in future years.

What items are deductible?

Besides teachers, counselors, principals and aides can take the deduction if, for the tax year, they were employed at a state-approved public or private school system from kindergarten through grade 12, and worked at least 900 hours during the school year.

Educators can write off unreimbursed costs for:

  • Books
  • Supplies
  • Computer and other equipment (including software and services)
  • Supplementary materials used in the classroom
  • Professional development programs

The IRS also applies its “ordinary and necessary” rule here. An item purchased for your classroom must be considered ordinary:  something that is common and accepted in the education profession.

It also must be necessary: defined as helpful and appropriate, though maybe not required.

So buying a recording of “Death of a Salesman” to help drive home Arthur Miller’s points to your students would likely meet tax muster. But purchasing a new HD television, instead of watching on your school’s working-but-old set, may raise some IRS eyebrows.

Couples who share education careers could get a double break if they file jointly. However, each spouse is limited to $250 of qualified expenses.

What about home schooling? Sorry, but the tax law specifically states that costs for this type of instruction don’t count toward the educator expenses deduction.

Circumstances could limit expenses

In addition to the eligibility requirements on expenses, the IRS has set some other restrictions on what’s deductible.

The tax agency says when an educator uses any tax-favored funds to pay for his or her own schooling, those amounts must be subtracted from the total the teacher claims under the educator expenses deduction.

Take for example Joe Jones, a high school English teacher who is working toward his master’s degree in literature during school breaks. He cashed in savings bonds to pay his tuition and excluded the bonds’ $150 interest from tax. He also spent $200 for books on Shakespeare to distribute to his 11th-grade students. He must subtract the $150 in tax-free interest from the $200 for the books, leaving him only $50 to claim under the educator expenses deduction.

The same rule applies to nontaxable earnings a teacher gets from qualified state tuition programs or tax-free withdrawals from a Coverdell education savings account.

Paul S. Herman CPA, a tax expert for individuals and businesses, is the founder of Herman & Company, CPA’s PC in White Plains, New York.  He provides guidance and strategies to improve clients’ financial well-being.

A Dozen Deductions For Your Small Business

Westchester NY accountant Paul Herman of Herman & Company CPA’s is here for all your financial needs. Please contact us if you have questions, and to receive your free personal finance consultation!

By Bankrate

small business tax deductions

A small business offers plenty of opportunities for tax deductions. Just be sure to follow IRS rules.

Here are 12 that even savvy small-business owners and entrepreneurs sometimes forget.

the deductible dozen

1. Home office

To claim your home office on your taxes, the IRS says it must be a space devoted to your business and absolutely nothing else.

The deduction isn’t limited to a full room. Your home office can be part of a room. Measure your work area and divide by the square footage of your home.

That percentage is the fraction of your home-related business expenses — rent, mortgage, insurance, electricity, etc. — that you can claim.

There’s also a simpler way to claim a home office deduction. Consider both the regular and simplified methods of writing off your home office.

“I don’t agree that chances of getting audited are greater with a home office deduction,” says Zobel, a San Francisco Bay-area tax expert who specializes in serving the self-employed. The key is that you use the term “home office” the same way the IRS does. The tax agency says it must be a space devoted to your business and absolutely nothing else. Deducting the den that houses the family computer and serves as a guest bedroom won’t fly with Uncle Sam.

“If you only have one computer and you have a child over 4, the IRS is going to be pretty certain that the child is using the computer,” says Zobel. “And the burden of proof is on you.”

The deduction, however, isn’t limited to a full room. Your home office can be part of a room. Just how much of the space is deductible? Measure your work area and divide by the square footage of your home. That percentage is the fraction of your home-related business expenses — rent, mortgage, insurance, electricity, etc. — that you can claim.

There’s also a newer way to claim a home office deduction. Read “Use newer, simplified home office deduction” for details.

2. Office supplies

Even if you don’t take the home office deduction, you can deduct the business supplies you buy. Hang on to those receipts, because these expenditures will offset your taxable business income.

3. Furniture

Office-furniture acquisitions provide two choices:

  1. Deduct 100 percent of the cost in the year of the purchase.
  2. Deduct a portion of the expense over seven years, also known as depreciation.

To take the whole cost in one tax year, use the Section 179 deduction. There deduction cap for 2016 taxes is $500,000, but may be adjusted for inflation in future years.

If you choose instead to depreciate the desks and filing cabinets, you can’t simply split the cost into equal portions over the depreciation period. Instead, you must use an IRS chart to make separate calculations each year.

Which is better for you? Anticipate the times that your business will need these deductions the most. Both options are reported on IRS Form 4562.

4. Other equipment

Items such as computers, copiers, fax machines and scanners are tax-deductible. As with furniture, you can take 100 percent upfront or depreciate (this time over five years).

Does your business need a new copier? Put it on a business credit card.

5. Software and subscriptions

Section 179 provides another tax break. New computer software a business buys can be fully expensed in the year purchased.

For business and industry-related magazine subscriptions you can deduct the total costs as a full deduction in the year spent.

6. Mileage

If you drive for business, the IRS wants to give you some of your money back. You’ll need documentation, so keep a notebook in your vehicle to record the date, mileage, tolls, parking costs and the purpose of your trip.

At the end of the year, you have two choices:

  1. Total the mileage and add in the tolls and parking to calculate your deduction. Once you have your mileage total, multiply it by 54 cents for your 2016 deduction. For 2017 business tax purposes, the rate drops to 53.5 cents a mile.
  2. Measure your business usage against your personal driving and deduct that portion of your auto-related expenses. Remember to include gas, repairs and insurance.

If you are leasing, include those payments.

If you are buying the car, factor in the interest on your loan and depreciation on your vehicle.

If your company’s office is at your house, you can deduct the entire business-related mileage, from the minute you pull out of the driveway until you return home.

If your business is not home-based, your mileage meter starts at your first business-related destination and ends at your last. You can’t include the drive to and from home. In this case, try to schedule several business appointments on the same day to allow you to take the mileage between stops as a tax write-off.

7. Travel, meals, entertainment and gifts

Good news, small-business travelers. You might as well stay in a nice hotel, because the entire cost is tax-deductible. Likewise, the cost of travel — air, rail or auto — is 100 percent deductible, as are costs associated with life on the road (dry cleaning, rental cars and tipping the bellboy).

The only exception is dining out. You can deduct only 50 percent of your meals while traveling. So stay at the Ritz and eat at Wendy’s.

Once you get home, your on-the-job meals aren’t deductible — unless you bring along a client to talk business. In this case, you might consider splurging on a fancier meal because then you can write off half such work-related dining costs.

The 50 percent deduction limit applies to most other client entertainment expenses, too. But a direct gift to a client or employee is 100 percent deductible, up to $25 per person per year.

8. Insurance premiums

Self-employed and paying your own health insurance premiums? These costs are 100 percent deductible.

This break primarily benefits proprietorships, but there are limits. The deduction can’t be more than your business’ net profit. And it’s not allowed if you were eligible for other health care coverage, including that offered by your employed spouse’s medical plan.

Did your spouse work for you last year? You can get the full medical premiums deduction on your return. As an employee, your spouse’s premiums are 100 percent deductible; if you and the children were on his or her policy as dependents, so are those costs.

Two caveats:

  1. Your spouse’s employment must be real, not in name only, and you must offer coverage equally to any other employees.
  2. Failure to meet these requirements could result in a lawsuit, an audit or both.

You also can include some of the premiums you pay for long-term care insurance for yourself, your spouse or dependents.

9. Retirement contributions

Are you self-employed and saving for your own retirement with a SEP IRA or Keogh? Don’t forget to deduct your contribution on your personal income tax return.

10. Social Security

The bad news: If you’re self-employed or starting a small business, you have to pay double the Social Security contributions you would as an employee. That’s because federal law requires the employer pay half and the employee pay half. Self-employed workers are both, meaning the total will equal 15.3 percent of your net profits.

The good news: You can deduct half of the contribution on your 1040.

11. Telephone charges

You can deduct the cost of the business calls you make for business from home. When your bill comes in, circle the business-related calls, total them up and keep a copy. At the end of the year, tally your 12 bills and deduct 100 percent.

Regular fees and charges on your phone line don’t count toward your deduction. But if you have a second line installed and use it only for business, all of these charges are deductible.

If you use your cellphone for your business, you can claim those calls as a tax deduction. If 30 percent of your time on the phone is spent on business, you could deduct 30 percent of your phone bill.

12. Child labor

If you hire your children as employees at your business, you may be able to deduct their salaries from your business income if they meet certain requirements.

Also, there is no Social Security tax when you hire your child who is 17 or younger and you can deduct the salary as a business expense.

This break is available, however, only if you operate as a sole proprietor or as a partnership in which you and your spouse are the only partners. If your business runs as a corporation, then it, not you, is considered the employer and the corporation is not relieved of the tax liabilities.

Paul S. Herman CPA, a tax expert for individuals and businesses, is the founder of Herman & Company, CPA’s PC in White Plains, New York.  He provides guidance and strategies to improve clients’ financial well-being.

 

Any U.S. tax advice contained in the body of this website is not intended or written to be used, and cannot be used, by the recipient for the purpose of avoiding penalties that may be imposed under the Internal Revenue Code or applicable state or local tax law provisions.