All fringe benefits aren’t created equal for tax purposes

According to IRS Publication 5137, Fringe Benefit Guide, a fringe benefit is “a form of pay (including property, services, cash or cash equivalent), in addition to stated pay, for the performance of services.” But the tax treatment of a fringe benefit can vary dramatically based on the type of benefit.

Generally, the IRS takes one of four tax approaches to fringe benefits:

1. Taxable/includable. The value of benefits in this category are taxable because they must be included in employees’ gross income as wages and reported on Form W-2. They’re usually also subject to federal income tax withholding, Social Security tax (unless the employee has already reached the current year Social Security wage base limit) and Medicare tax. Typical examples include cash bonuses and the personal use of a company vehicle.

2. Nontaxable/excludable. Benefits in this category are considered nontaxable because you may exclude them from employees’ wages under a specific section of the Internal Revenue Code. Examples include:

Working-condition fringe benefits, which are expenses that, if employees had paid for the item themselves, could have been deducted on their personal tax returns (such as subscriptions to business periodicals or websites and some types of on-the-job training),

  • De minimis fringe benefits, which include any employer-provided property or service that has a value so small that accounting for it is “unreasonable or administratively impracticable” (such as occasional coffee, doughnuts or soft drinks and permission to make occasional local telephone calls),
  • Properly documented work-related travel expenses (such as transportation and lodging),
  • Up to $50,000 in group term-life insurance, as long as the policy meets certain IRS requirements, and
  • Employer-paid health care premiums under a qualifying plan.

3. Partially taxable. In some cases, the value of a fringe benefit will be excluded under an IRC section up to a certain dollar limit with the remainder taxable. A public transportation subsidy under Section 132 is one example.

4. Tax-deferred. This designation applies to fringe benefits that aren’t taxable when received but that will be subject to tax later. A common example is employer contributions to a defined contribution plan, such as a 401(k) plan.

Are you applying the proper tax treatment to each fringe benefit you provide? If not, you could face unexpected tax liabilities or other undesirable consequences. Please contact us with any questions you have about the proper tax treatment of a particular benefit you currently offer or are considering offering.

© 2017

Claiming a federal tax deduction for moving costs

Summer is a popular time to move, whether it’s so the kids don’t have to change schools mid-school-year, to avoid having to move in bad weather or simply because it can be an easier time to sell a home. Unfortunately, moving can be expensive. The good news is that you might be eligible for a federal tax deduction for your moving costs.

Pass the tests

The first requirement is that the move be work-related. You don’t have to be an employee; the self-employed can also be eligible for the moving expense deduction.

The second is a distance test. The new main job location must be at least 50 miles farther from your former home than your former main job location was from that home. So a work-related move from city to suburb or from town to neighboring town probably won’t qualify, even if not moving would increase your commute significantly.

Finally, there’s a time test. You must work full time at the new job location for at least 39 weeks during the first year. If you’re self-employed, you must meet that test plus work full time for at least 78 weeks during the first 24 months at the new job location. (Certain limited exceptions apply.)

What’s deductible

So which expenses can be written off? Generally, you can deduct transportation and lodging expenses for yourself and household members while moving.

In addition, you can likely deduct the cost of packing and transporting your household goods and other personal property. And you may be able to deduct the expense of storing and insuring these items while in transit. Costs related to connecting or disconnecting utilities are usually deductible, too.

But don’t expect to write off everything. Meal costs during move-related travel aren’t deductible. Nor is any part of the purchase price of a new home or expenses incurred selling your old one. And, if your employer later reimburses you for any of the moving costs you’ve deducted, you may have to include the reimbursement as income on your tax return.

Questions about whether your moving expenses are deductible? Or what you can deduct? Contact us.

© 2017

3 breaks for business charitable donations you may not know about

Donating to charity is more than good business citizenship; it can also save tax. Here are three lesser-known federal income tax breaks for charitable donations by businesses.

1. Food donations

Charitable write-offs for donated food (such as by restaurants and grocery stores) are normally limited to the lower of the taxpayer’s basis in the food (generally cost) or fair market value (FMV), but an enhanced deduction equals the lesser of:

  • The food’s basis plus one-half the FMV in excess of basis, or
  • Two times the basis.

To qualify, the food must be apparently wholesome at the time it’s donated. Your total charitable write-off for food donations under the enhanced deduction provision can’t exceed:

  • 15% of your net income for the year (before considering the enhanced deduction) from all sole proprietorships, S corporations and partnership businesses (including limited liability companies treated as partnerships for tax purposes) from which food donations were made, or
  • For a C corporation taxpayer, 15% of taxable income for the year (before considering the enhanced deduction).

2. Qualified conservation contributions

Qualified conservation contributions are charitable donations of real property interests, including remainder interests and easements that restrict the use of real property. For qualified C corporation farming and ranching operations, the maximum write-off for qualified conservation contributions is increased from the normal 10% of adjusted taxable income to 100% of adjusted taxable income.

Qualified conservation contributions in excess of what can be written off in the year of the donation can be carried forward for 15 years.

3. S corporation stock donations

A favorable tax basis rule is available to shareholders of S corporations that make charitable donations of appreciated property. For such donations, each shareholder’s basis in the S corporation stock is reduced by only the shareholder’s pro-rata percentage of the company’s tax basis in the donated asset.

Without this provision, a shareholder’s basis reduction would equal the passed-through write-off for the donation (a larger amount than the shareholder’s pro-rata percentage of the company’s basis in the donated asset). This provision is generally beneficial to shareholders, because it leaves them with higher tax basis in their S corporation shares.

If you believe you may be eligible to claim one or more of these tax breaks, contact us. We can help you determine eligibility, prepare the required documentation and plan for charitable donations in future years.

© 2017

Cover-dell ESAs: The tax-advantaged way to fund elementary and secondary school costs

With school letting out you might be focused on summer plans for your children (or grandchildren). But the end of the school year is also a good time to think about Coverdell Education Savings Accounts (ESAs) — especially if the children are in grade school or younger.

One major advantage of ESAs over another popular education saving tool, the Section 529 plan, is that tax-free ESA distributions aren’t limited to college expenses; they also can fund elementary and secondary school costs. That means you can use ESA funds to pay for such qualified expenses as tutoring and private school tuition.

Other benefits

Here are some other key ESA benefits:

  • Although contributions aren’t deductible, plan assets can grow tax-deferred.
  • You remain in control of the account — even after the child is of legal age.
  • You can make rollovers to another qualifying family member.

A sibling or first cousin is a typical example of a qualifying family member, if he or she is eligible to be an ESA beneficiary (that is, under age 18 or has special needs).

Limitations

The ESA annual contribution limit is $2,000 per beneficiary. The total contributions for a particular ESA beneficiary cannot be more than $2,000 in any year, no matter how many accounts have been established or how many people are contributing.

However, the ability to contribute is phased out based on income. The phaseout range is modified adjusted gross income (MAGI) of $190,000–$220,000 for married couples filing jointly and $95,000–$110,000 for other filers. You can make a partial contribution if your MAGI falls within the applicable range, and no contribution if it exceeds the top of the range.

If there is a balance in the ESA when the beneficiary reaches age 30 (unless the beneficiary is a special needs individual), it must generally be distributed within 30 days. The portion representing earnings on the account will be taxable and subject to a 10% penalty. But these taxes can be avoided by rolling over the full balance to another ESA for a qualifying family member.

Would you like more information about ESAs or other tax-advantaged ways to fund your child’s — or grandchild’s — education expenses? Contact us!

© 2017

Choosing the best way to reimburse employee travel expenses

If your employees incur work-related travel expenses, you can better attract and retain the best talent by reimbursing these expenses. But to secure tax-advantaged treatment for your business and your employees, it’s critical to comply with IRS rules.

Reasons to reimburse

While unreimbursed work-related travel expenses generally are deductible on a taxpayer’s individual tax return (subject to a 50% limit for meals and entertainment) as a miscellaneous itemized deduction, many employees won’t be able to benefit from the deduction. Why?

It’s likely that some of your employees don’t itemize. Even those who do may not have enough miscellaneous itemized expenses to exceed the 2% of adjusted gross income floor. And only expenses in excess of the floor can actually be deducted.

On the other hand, reimbursements can provide tax benefits to both your business and the employee. Your business can deduct the reimbursements (also subject to a 50% limit for meals and entertainment), and they’re excluded from the employee’s taxable income — provided that the expenses are legitimate business expenses and the reimbursements comply with IRS rules. Compliance can be accomplished by using either the per diem method or an accountable plan.

Per diem method

The per diem method is simple: Instead of tracking each individual’s actual expenses, you use IRS tables to determine reimbursements for lodging, meals and incidental expenses, or just for meals and incidental expenses. (If you don’t go with the per diem method for lodging, you’ll need receipts to substantiate those expenses.)

The IRS per diem tables list localities here and abroad. They reflect seasonal cost variations as well as the varying costs of the locales themselves — so London’s rates will be higher than Little Rock’s. An even simpler option is to apply the “high-low” per diem method within the continental United States to reimburse employees up to $282 a day for high-cost localities and $189 for other localities.

You must be extremely careful to pay employees no more than the appropriate per diem amount. The IRS imposes heavy penalties on businesses that routinely fail to do so.

Accountable plan

An accountable plan is a formal arrangement to advance, reimburse or provide allowances for business expenses. To qualify as “accountable,” your plan must meet the following criteria:

  • It must pay expenses that would otherwise be deductible by the employee.
  • Payments must be for “ordinary and necessary” business expenses.
  • Employees must substantiate these expenses — including amounts, times and places — ideally at least monthly.
  • Employees must return any advances or allowances they can’t substantiate within a reasonable time, typically 120 days.

If you fail to meet these conditions, the IRS will treat your plan as nonaccountable, transforming all reimbursements into wages taxable to the employee, subject to income taxes (employee) and employment taxes (employer and employee).

Whether you have questions about which reimbursement option is right for your business or the additional rules and limits that apply to each, contact us. We’d be pleased to help.

©2017

Consider the tax consequences before making an employee a partner

In today’s competitive environment, offering employees an equity interest in your business can be a powerful tool for attracting, retaining and motivating quality talent. If your business is organized as a partnership, however, there are some tax traps you should watch out for. Once an employee becomes a partner, you generally can no longer treat him or her as an employee for tax and benefits purposes, which has significant tax implications.

Employment taxes

Employees pay half of the Social Security and Medicare taxes on their wages, through withholdings from their paychecks. The employer pays the other half. Partners, on the other hand, are treated as being self-employed — they pay the full amount of “self-employment” taxes through quarterly estimates.

Often, when employees receive partnership interests, the partnership continues to treat them as employees for tax purposes, withholding employment taxes from their wages and paying the employer’s share. The problem with this practice is that, because a partner is responsible for the full amount of employment taxes, the partnership’s payment of a portion of those taxes will likely be treated as a guaranteed payment to the partner.

That payment would then be included in income and trigger additional employment taxes. Any employment taxes not paid by the partnership on a partner’s behalf are the partner’s responsibility.

Treating a partner as an employee can also result in overpayment of employment taxes. Suppose your partnership pays half of a partner’s employment taxes and the partner also has other self-employment activities — for example, interests in other partnerships or sole proprietorships. If those activities generate losses, the losses will offset the partner’s earnings from your partnership, reducing or even eliminating self-employment taxes.

Employee benefits

Partners and employees are treated differently for purposes of many benefit plans. For example, employees are entitled to exclude the value of certain employer-provided health, welfare and fringe benefits from income, while partners must include the value in their income (although they may be entitled to a self-employed health insurance deduction). And partners are prohibited from participating in a cafeteria plan.

Continuing to treat a partner as an employee for benefits purposes may trigger unwanted tax consequences. And it could disqualify a cafeteria plan.

Partnership alternatives

There are techniques that allow you to continue treating newly minted partners as employees for tax and benefits purposes. For example, you might create a tiered partnership structure and offer employees of a lower-tier partnership interests in an upper-tier partnership. Because these employees aren’t partners in the partnership that employs them, many of the problems discussed above will be avoided.

If your business is contemplating offering partnership interests to key employees, contact us for more information about the potential tax consequences and how to avoid any pitfalls.

© 2017

A “back door” Roth IRA can benefit higher-income taxpayers

A potential downside of tax-deferred saving through a traditional retirement plan is that you’ll have to pay taxes when you make withdrawals at retirement. Roth plans, on the other hand, allow tax-free distributions; the trade off is that contributions to these plans don’t reduce your current-year taxable income.

Unfortunately, your employer might not offer a Roth 401(k) or another Roth option, and modified adjusted gross income (MAGI)-based phaseouts may reduce or eliminate your ability to contribute to a Roth IRA. Fortunately, there is a solution: the “back door” Roth IRA.

Are you phased out?

The 2017 contribution limit for all IRAs combined is $5,500 (plus an additional $1,000 catch-up contribution if you’ll be age 50 or older by December 31). You can make a partial contribution if your MAGI falls within the applicable phaseout range, but no contribution if it exceeds the top of the range:

  • For married taxpayers filing jointly: $186,000–$196,000.
  • For single and head-of-household taxpayers: $118,000–$133,000.

(Note: Married taxpayers filing separately are subject to much lower phaseout ranges.)

Using the back door

If the income-based phaseout prevents you from making Roth IRA contributions and you don’t already have a traditional IRA, a “back door” IRA might be right for you.

How does it work? You set up a traditional account and make a nondeductible contribution to it. You then wait until the transaction clears and convert the traditional account to a Roth account. The only tax due will be on any growth in the account between the time you made the contribution and the date of conversion, which should be little, if any, assuming you’re able to make the conversion quickly.

More limited tax benefit in some cases

If you do already have a traditional IRA, the back-door Roth IRA strategy is still available but there will be more tax liability on the conversion. A portion of the amount you convert to a Roth IRA will be considered attributable to deductible contributions and thus be taxable. It doesn’t matter if you set up a new traditional IRA for the nondeductible contributions; all of your traditional IRAs will be treated as one for tax purposes.

Roth IRAs have other benefits and downsides you need to factor into your decision, and additional rules apply to IRA conversions. Please contact us for assistance in determining whether a backdoor Roth IRA is right for you.

© 2017