An “innocent spouse” may be able to escape tax liability

When a married couple files a joint tax return, each spouse is “jointly and severally” liable for the full amount of tax on the couple’s combined income. However, in some cases, a married couple files a joint tax return and one spouse is unaware of all the income or delinquent tax liabilities of the other spouse. The spouse who is in the dark still must generally pay the tax bill even if the couple divorces or the spouse passes away. But there may be “innocent spouse” relief.

More often than not, we have worked on such cases and received great outcomes. The innocent spouses were left with unexpected tax liabilities after life-changing events such as divorce or spouse’s sudden passing. We received their sincere thank you for restoring their shattered lives and alleviating their financial burdens.  

Innocent spouse relief

To qualify, you must show not only that you didn’t know about the understatement, but that there was nothing that should have made you suspicious. In addition, the circumstances must make it inequitable to hold you liable for the tax. This relief is available even if you’re still married and living with your spouse.

In addition, spouses may be able to limit liability for any tax deficiency on a joint return if they’re widowed, divorced, legally separated or have lived apart for at least one year.

Election to limit liability

If you make this election, the tax items that gave rise to the deficiency will be allocated between you and your spouse as if you’d filed separate returns. For example, you’d generally be liable for the tax on any unreported wage income only to the extent that you earned the wages.

The election won’t provide relief from your spouse’s tax items if the IRS proves that you knew about the items when you signed the return — unless you can show that you signed the return under duress. Also, the limitation on your liability is increased by the value of any assets that your spouse transferred to you in order to avoid the tax.

An “injured” spouse

In addition to innocent spouse relief, there’s also relief for “injured” spouses. What’s the difference? An injured spouse claim asks the IRS to allocate part of a joint refund to one spouse. In these cases, an injured spouse has all or part of a refund from a joint return applied against past-due federal tax, state tax, child or spousal support, or a federal nontax debt (such as a student loan) owed by the other spouse. If you’re an injured spouse, you may be entitled to recoup your share of the refund.

Whether, and to what extent, you can take advantage of the above relief depends on the facts of your situation. If you’re interested in trying to obtain relief, there’s paperwork that must be filed and deadlines that must be met. We can assist you with the details.

Also, keep “joint and several liability” in mind when filing future tax returns. Even if a joint return results in less tax, you may choose to file a separate return if you want to be certain of being responsible only for your own tax.

Contact us with any questions or concerns.

Don’t forget income taxes when planning your estate

As a result of the current estate tax exemption amount ($12.06 million in 2022), many estates no longer need to be concerned with federal estate tax. Before 2011, a much smaller amount resulted in estate plans attempting to avoid it. But now, because many estates won’t be subject to estate tax, more planning can be devoted to saving income taxes for your heirs.

While saving both income and transfer taxes has always been a goal of estate planning, it was more difficult to succeed at both when the estate and gift tax exemption level was much lower. Here are three considerations.

Plan gifts that use the annual gift tax exclusion. One of the benefits of using the gift tax annual exclusion to make transfers during life is to save estate tax. This is because both the transferred assets and any post-transfer appreciation generated by those assets are removed from the donor’s estate.

As mentioned, estate tax savings may not be an issue because of the large estate exemption amount. Further, making an annual exclusion transfer of appreciated property carries a potential income tax cost because the recipient receives the donor’s basis upon transfer. Thus, the recipient could face income tax, in the form of capital gains tax, on the sale of the gifted property in the future. If there’s no concern that an estate will be subject to estate tax, even if the gifted property grows in value, then the decision to make a gift should be based on other factors.

For example, gifts may be made to help a relative buy a home or start a business. But a donor shouldn’t gift appreciated property because of the capital gain that could be realized on a future sale by the recipient. If the appreciated property is held until the donor’s death, under current law, the heir will get a step-up in basis that will wipe out the capital gain tax on any pre-death appreciation in the property’s value.

Take spouses’ estates into account. In the past, spouses often undertook complicated strategies to equalize their estates so that each could take advantage of the estate tax exemption amount. Generally, a two-trust plan was established to minimize estate tax. “Portability,” or the ability to apply the decedent’s unused exclusion amount to the surviving spouse’s transfers during life and at death, became effective for estates of decedents dying after 2010. As long as the election is made, portability allows the surviving spouse to apply the unused portion of a decedent’s applicable exclusion amount (the deceased spousal unused exclusion amount) as calculated in the year of the decedent’s death. The portability election gives married couples more flexibility in deciding how to use their exclusion amounts.

Be aware that some estate exclusion or valuation discount strategies to avoid inclusion of property in an estate may no longer be worth pursuing. It may be better to have the property included in the estate or not qualify for valuation discounts so that the property receives a step-up in basis. For example, the special use valuation — the valuation of qualified real property used for farming or in a business on the basis of the property’s actual use, rather than on its highest and best use — may not save enough, or any, estate tax to justify giving up the step-up in basis that would otherwise occur for the property.

If you’d like to discuss these strategies and how they relate to your estate plan, contact us.

2022 Q3 Estimated payment due by 9/15

As you are all very well aware of, individuals must pay 25% of a “required annual payment” by April 15, June 15, September 15, and January 15 of the following year, to avoid an underpayment penalty.

So the third quarter estimated tax payments for 2022 is due on Wednesday, September 15.

The required annual payment for most individuals is the lower of 90% of the tax shown on the current year’s return or 100% of the tax shown on the return for the previous year. However, if the adjusted gross income on your previous year’s return was more than $150,000 ($75,000 if you’re married filing separately), you must pay the lower of 90% of the tax shown on the current year’s return or 110% of the tax shown on the return for the previous year.

Due to the current financial, market fluctuation and many other factors, you may not rely on the safe harbor method (based on 2021 tax liabilities) estimates. It is a critical time to find out where you stand with your 2022 tax liabilities and revisit your tax strategies for the year.

Moreover, now that the Inflation Reduction Act has been passed, we should understand its various tax implications and consider the timing of tax planning.

If you need a taxable income projection for your Q3 payment and the rest of the year, please contact us immediately.

The kiddie tax: Does it affect your family?

Many people wonder how they can save taxes by transferring assets into their children’s names. This tax strategy is called income shifting. It seeks to take income out of your higher tax bracket and place it in the lower tax brackets of your children.

While some tax savings are available through this approach, the “kiddie tax” rules impose substantial limitations if:

  1. The child hasn’t reached age 18 before the close of the tax year, or
  2. The child’s earned income doesn’t exceed half of his or her support and the child is age 18 or is a full-time student age 19 to 23.

The kiddie tax rules apply to your children who are under the cutoff age(s) described above, and who have more than a certain amount of unearned (investment) income for the tax year — $2,300 for 2022. While some tax savings on up to this amount can still be achieved by shifting income to children under the cutoff age, the savings aren’t substantial.

If the kiddie tax rules apply to your children and they have over the prescribed amount of unearned income for the tax year ($2,300 for 2022), they’ll be taxed on that excess amount at your (the parents’) tax rates if your rates are higher than the children’s tax rates. This kiddie tax is calculated by computing the “allocable parental tax” and special allocation rules apply if the parents have more than one child subject to the kiddie tax.

Note: Different rules applied for the 2018 and 2019 tax years, when the kiddie tax was computed based on the estates’ and trusts’ ordinary and capital gain rates, instead of the parents’ tax rates.

Be aware that, to transfer income to a child, you must transfer ownership of the asset producing the income. You can’t merely transfer the income itself. Property can be transferred to minor children using custodial accounts under state law.

Possible saving vehicles

The portion of investment income of a child that’s taxed under the kiddie tax rules may be reduced or eliminated if the child invests in vehicles that produce little or no current taxable income. These include:

  • Securities and mutual funds oriented toward capital growth;
  • Vacant land expected to appreciate in value;
  • Stock in a closely held family business, expected to become more valuable as the business expands, but pays little or no cash dividends;
  • Tax-exempt municipal bonds and bond funds;
  • U.S. Series EE bonds, for which recognition of income can be deferred until the bonds mature, the bonds are cashed in or an election to recognize income annually is made.

Investments that produce no taxable income — and which therefore aren’t subject to the kiddie tax — also include tax-advantaged savings vehicles such as:

  • Traditional and Roth IRAs, which can be established or contributed to if the child has earned income;
  • Qualified tuition programs (also known as “529 plans”); and
  • Coverdell education savings accounts.

A child’s earned income (as opposed to investment income) is taxed at the child’s regular tax rates, regardless of the amount. Therefore, to save taxes within the family, consider employing the child at your own business and paying reasonable compensation.

If the kiddie tax applies, it’s computed and reported on Form 8615, which is attached to the child’s tax return.

Two reporting options

Parents can elect to include the child’s income on their own return if certain requirements are satisfied. This is done on Form 8814 and avoids the need for a separate return for the child. Contact us if you have questions about the kiddie tax.

Interested in an EV? How to qualify for a powerful tax credit

Sales and registrations of electric vehicles (EVs) have increased dramatically in the U.S. in 2022, according to several sources. However, while they’re still a small percentage of the cars on the road today, they’re increasing in popularity all the time.

If you buy one, you may be eligible for a federal tax break. The tax code provides a credit to purchasers of qualifying plug-in electric drive motor vehicles including passenger vehicles and light trucks. The credit is equal to $2,500 plus an additional amount, based on battery capacity, that can’t exceed $5,000. Therefore, the maximum credit allowed for a qualifying EV is $7,500.

Be aware that not all EVs are eligible for the tax break, as we’ll describe below.

The EV definition

For purposes of the tax credit, a qualifying vehicle is defined as one with four wheels that’s propelled to a significant extent by an electric motor, which draws electricity from a battery. The battery must have a capacity of not less than four kilowatt hours and be capable of being recharged from an external source of electricity.

The credit may not be available because of a per-manufacturer cumulative sales limitation. Specifically, it phases out over six quarters beginning when a manufacturer has sold at least 200,000 qualifying vehicles for use in the United States (determined on a cumulative basis for sales after December 31, 2009). For example, Tesla and General Motors vehicles are no longer eligible for the tax credit. And Toyota is the latest auto manufacturer to sell enough plug-in EVs to trigger a gradual phase out of federal tax incentives for certain models sold in the U.S.

Several automakers are telling Congress to eliminate the limit. In a letter, GM, Ford, Chrysler and Toyota asked Congressional leaders to give all electric car and light truck buyers a tax credit of up to $7,500. The group says that lifting the limit would give buyers more choices, encourage greater EV adoption and provide stability to autoworkers.

The IRS provides a list of qualifying vehicles on its website and it recently added some eligible models. You can access the list here: https://www.irs.gov/businesses/irc-30d-new-qualified-plug-in-electric-drive-motor-vehicle-credit.

Here are some additional points about the plug-in electric vehicle tax credit:

  • It’s allowed in the year you place the vehicle in service.
  • The vehicle must be new.
  • An eligible vehicle must be used predominantly in the U.S. and have a gross weight of less than 14,000 pounds.

These are only the basic rules. There may be additional incentives provided by your state. If you want more information about the federal plug-in electric vehicle tax break, contact us.

5 Tax implications of divorce

Are you in the early stages of divorce? In addition to the tough personal issues that you’re dealing with, several tax concerns need to be addressed to ensure that taxes are kept to a minimum and that important tax-related decisions are properly made. Here are five issues to consider if you’re in the process of getting a divorce.

  1. Alimony or support payments. For alimony under divorce or separation agreements that are executed after 2018, there’s no deduction for alimony and separation support payments for the spouse making them. And the alimony payments aren’t included in the gross income of the spouse receiving them. (The rules are different for divorce or separation agreements executed before 2019.)
  2. Child support. No matter when the divorce or separation instrument is executed, child support payments aren’t deductible by the paying spouse (or taxable to the recipient).
  3. Personal residence. In general, if a married couple sells their home in connection with a divorce or legal separation, they should be able to avoid tax on up to $500,000 of gain (as long as they’ve owned and used the residence as their principal residence for two of the previous five years). If one spouse continues to live in the home and the other moves out (but they both remain owners of the home), they may still be able to avoid gain on the future sale of the home (up to $250,000 each), but special language may have to be included in the divorce decree or separation agreement to protect this tax exclusion for the spouse who moves out.
    If the couple doesn’t meet the two-year ownership and use tests, any gain from the sale may qualify for a reduced exclusion due to unforeseen circumstances.
  4. Pension benefits. A spouse’s pension benefits are often part of a divorce property settlement. In these cases, the commonly preferred method to handle the benefits is to get a “qualified domestic relations order” (QDRO). This gives one spouse the right to share in the pension benefits of the other and taxes the spouse who receives the benefits. Without a QDRO the spouse who earned the benefits will still be taxed on them even though they’re paid out to the other spouse.
  5. Business interests. If certain types of business interests are transferred in connection with divorce, care should be taken to make sure “tax attributes” aren’t forfeited. For example, interests in S corporations may result in “suspended” losses (losses that are carried into future years instead of being deducted in the year they’re incurred). When these interests change hands in a divorce, the suspended losses may be forfeited. If a partnership interest is transferred, a variety of more complex issues may arise involving partners’ shares of partnership debt, capital accounts, built-in gains on contributed property, and other complex issues.

A variety of other issues

These are just some of the issues you may have to deal with if you’re getting a divorce. In addition, you must decide how to file your tax return (single, married filing jointly, married filing separately or head of household). You may need to adjust your income tax withholding and you should notify the IRS of any new address or name change. There are also estate planning considerations. We can help you work through all of the financial issues involved in divorce.

Thinking about converting your home into a rental property?

In some cases, homeowners decide to move to new residences, but keep their present homes and rent them out. If you’re thinking of doing this, you’re probably aware of the financial risks and rewards. However, you also should know that renting out your home carries potential tax benefits and pitfalls.

You’re generally treated as a regular real estate landlord once you begin renting your home. That means you must report rental income on your tax return, but also are entitled to offsetting landlord deductions for the money you spend on utilities, operating expenses, incidental repairs and maintenance (for example, fixing a leak in the roof). Additionally, you can claim depreciation deductions for the home. You can fully offset rental income with otherwise allowable landlord deductions.

Passive activity rules

However, under the passive activity loss (PAL) rules, you may not be able to currently claim the rent-related deductions that exceed your rental income unless an exception applies. Under the most widely applicable exception, the PAL rules won’t affect your converted property for a tax year in which your adjusted gross income doesn’t exceed $100,000, you actively participate in running the home-rental business, and your losses from all rental real estate activities in which you actively participate don’t exceed $25,000.

You should also be aware that potential tax pitfalls may arise from renting your residence. Unless your rentals are strictly temporary and are made necessary by adverse market conditions, you could forfeit an important tax break for home sellers if you finally sell the home at a profit. In general, you can escape tax on up to $250,000 ($500,000 for married couples filing jointly) of gain on the sale of your principal home. However, this tax-free treatment is conditioned on your having used the residence as your principal residence for at least two of the five years preceding the sale. So renting your home out for an extended time could jeopardize a big tax break.

Even if you don’t rent out your home so long as to jeopardize your principal residence exclusion, the tax break you would have gotten on the sale (the $250,000/$500,000 exclusion) won’t apply to the extent of any depreciation allowable with respect to the rental or business use of the home for periods after May 6, 1997, or to any gain allocable to a period of nonqualified use (any period during which the property isn’t used as the principal residence of the taxpayer or the taxpayer’s spouse or former spouse) after December 31, 2008. A maximum tax rate of 25% will apply to this gain (attributable to depreciation deductions).

Selling at a loss

Some homeowners who bought at the height of a market may ultimately sell at a loss someday. In such situations, the loss is available for tax purposes only if the owner can establish that the home was in fact converted permanently into income-producing property. Here, a longer lease period helps an owner. However, if you’re in this situation, be aware that you may not wind up with much of a loss for tax purposes. That’s because basis (the cost for tax purposes) is equal to the lesser of actual cost or the property’s fair market value when it’s converted to rental property. So if a home was bought for $300,000, converted to a rental when it’s worth $250,000, and ultimately sold for $225,000, the loss would be only $25,000. The question of whether to turn a principal residence into rental property isn’t easy. Contact us to review your situation and help you make a decision.

Married couples filing separate tax returns: Why would they do it?

If you’re married, you may wonder whether you should file joint or separate tax returns. The answer depends on your individual tax situation.

In general, it depends on which filing status results in the lowest tax. But keep in mind that, if you and your spouse file a joint return, each of you is “jointly and severally” liable for the tax on your combined income. And you’re both equally liable for any additional tax the IRS assesses, plus interest and most penalties. That means that the IRS can come after either of you to collect the full amount.

Although there are “innocent spouse” provisions in the law that may offer relief, they have limitations. Therefore, even if a joint return results in less tax, you may want to file separately if you want to only be responsible for your own tax.

In most cases, filing jointly offers the most tax savings, especially when the spouses have different income levels. Combining two incomes can bring some of it out of a higher tax bracket. For example, if one spouse has $75,000 of taxable income and the other has just $15,000, filing jointly instead of separately can save $2,499 on their 2021 taxes, when they file this year.

Filing separately doesn’t mean you go back to using the “single” rates that applied before you were married. Instead, each spouse must use “married filing separately” rates. They’re less favorable than the single rates.

However, there are cases when people save tax by filing separately. For example:

One spouse has significant medical expenses. Medical expenses are deductible only to the extent they exceed 7.5% of adjusted gross income (AGI). If a medical expense deduction is claimed on a spouse’s separate return, that spouse’s lower separate AGI, as compared to the higher joint AGI, can result in larger total deductions.

Some tax breaks are only available on a joint return. The child and dependent care credit, adoption expense credit, American Opportunity tax credit and Lifetime Learning credit are only available to married couples on joint returns. And you can’t take the credit for the elderly or the disabled if you file separately unless you and your spouse lived apart for the entire year. You also may not be able to deduct IRA contributions if you or your spouse were covered by an employer retirement plan and you file separate returns. And you can’t exclude adoption assistance payments or interest income from series EE or Series I savings bonds used for higher education expenses.

Social Security benefits may be taxed more. Benefits are tax-free if your “provisional income” (AGI with certain modifications plus half of your Social Security benefits) doesn’t exceed a “base amount.” The base amount is $32,000 on a joint return, but zero on separate returns (or $25,000 if the spouses didn’t live together for the whole year).

Circumstances matter

The decision you make on filing your federal tax return may affect your state or local income tax bill, so the total tax impact should be compared. There’s often no simple answer to whether a couple should file separate returns. A number of factors must be examined. We can look at your tax bill jointly and separately. Contact us to prepare your return or if you have any questions.

Smooth sailing: Tips to speed processing and avoid hassles this tax season

The IRS began accepting 2021 individual tax returns on January 24. If you haven’t prepared yet for tax season, here are three quick tips to help speed processing and avoid hassles.

Tip 1. Contact us soon for an appointment to prepare your tax return.

Tip 2. Gather all documents needed to prepare an accurate return. This includes W-2 and 1099 forms. In addition, you may have received statements or letters in connection with Economic Impact Payments (EIPs) or advance Child Tax Credit (CTC) payments.

Letter 6419, 2021 Total Advance Child Tax Credit Payments, tells taxpayers who received CTC payments how much they received. Since the advance payments represented about one-half of the total credit, taxpayers who received CTC payments need to file a return to collect the rest of the credit. Letter 6475, Your Third Economic Impact Payment, tells taxpayers who received an EIP in 2021 the amount of that payment. Taxpayers need to know the amount to determine if they can claim an additional amount on their tax returns.

Taxpayers who received an EIP or CTC payments must include that information on their returns. Failure to include this information, according to the IRS, means a return is incomplete and will require additional processing, which may delay any refund owed to the taxpayer.

Tip 3. Check certain information on your prepared return. Each Social Security number on your tax return should appear exactly as printed on the Social Security card(s). Likewise, make sure that names aren’t misspelled. If you’re receiving your refund by direct deposit, check the bank account number.

Failure to file or pay on time

What if you don’t file on time or can’t pay your tax bill? Separate penalties apply for failing to pay and failing to file. The penalties imposed are a percentage of the taxes you didn’t pay or didn’t pay on time. If you obtain an extension for the filing due date (until October 17), you aren’t filing late unless you miss the extended due date. However, a filing extension doesn’t apply to your responsibility for payment. If you obtain an extension, you’re required to pay an estimate of any owed taxes by the regular deadline to avoid possible penalties.

The penalties for failing to file and failing to pay can be quite severe. (They may be excused by the IRS if your lateness is due to “reasonable cause,” such as illness or a death in the family.) Contact us for questions or concerns about how to proceed in your situation.

Stock market investors: Year-end tax strategies to consider

Year-end is a good time to plan to save taxes by carefully structuring your capital gains and losses.

Consider some possibilities if you have losses on certain investments to date. For example, suppose you lost money this year on some stock and have other stock that has appreciated. Consider selling appreciated assets before December 31 (if you think their value has peaked) and offsetting gains with losses.

Long-term capital losses offset long-term capital gains before they offset short-term capital gains. Similarly, short-term capital losses offset short-term capital gains before they offset long-term capital gains. You may use up to $3,000 ($1,500 for married filing separately) of total capital losses in excess of total capital gains as a deduction against ordinary income in computing your adjusted gross income (AGI).

Individuals are subject to federal tax at a rate as high as 37% on short-term capital gains and ordinary income. But long-term capital gains on most investments receive favorable treatment. They’re taxed at rates ranging from zero to 20% depending on your taxable income (inclusive of the gains). High-income taxpayers pay an additional 3.8% net investment income tax on their net gain and certain other investment income.

This means you should try to avoid having long-term capital losses offset long-term capital gains since those losses will be more valuable if they’re used to offset short-term capital gains or up to $3,000 per year of ordinary income. This requires making sure that the long-term capital losses aren’t taken in the same year as the long-term capital gains.

However, this isn’t just a tax issue. Investment factors must also be considered. You don’t want to defer recognizing gain until next year if there’s too much risk that the investment’s value will decline before it can be sold. Similarly, you wouldn’t want to risk increasing a loss on investments you expect to decline in value by deferring a sale until the following year.

To the extent that taking long-term capital losses in a different year than long-term capital gains is consistent with good investment planning, take steps to prevent those losses from offsetting those gains.

If you’ve yet to realize net capital losses for 2021 but expect to realize net capital losses next year well in excess of the $3,000 ceiling, consider accelerating some excess losses into this year. The losses can offset current gains and up to $3,000 of any excess loss will become deductible against ordinary income this year.

For the reasons outlined above, paper losses or gains on stocks may be worth recognizing this year. But suppose the stock is also an investment worth holding for the long term. You can’t sell stock to establish a tax loss and buy it back the next day. The “wash sale” rule precludes recognition of a loss where substantially identical securities are bought and sold within a 61-day period (30 days before or 30 days after the date of sale).

However, you may be able to realize a tax loss by:

  • Selling the original holding and then buying the same securities at least 31 days later. The risk is interim upward price movement.
  • Buying more of the same stock, then selling the original holding at least 31 days later. The risk is interim downward price movement.
  • Selling the original holding and buying similar securities in different companies in the same line of business. This trades on the prospects of the industry, rather than the particular stock.
  • Selling an original holding of mutual fund shares and buying shares in another fund with a similar investment strategy.

Careful handling of capital gains and losses can save tax. Contact us if you have questions about these strategies.