Taxpayers with simple returns have several new ways to file without having to pay for help.
The average cost for having an accountant prepare a Form 1040 with a Schedule A and a state tax return was $233 in 2011, up 1.7% from 2009, according to the National Society of Accountants. But the options for free tax help are growing. The Internal Revenue Service, for instance, offers Free File, a program that offers free tax-preparation software and other tools for taxpayers with low and moderate-income. Through the IRS site, taxpayers who make $57,000 or less can answer a few questions about their income, location and whether they qualify for certain credits to pull up a list of companies that offers free tax preparation software, including TaxSlayer, H&R Block and 1040.com. The IRS also offers Fillable Forms, electronic versions of IRS tax forms, for people who are comfortable calculating their own taxes.
The perks of municipal bond investing are on the chopping block — again.
President Obama has proposed limiting the amount of interest from municipal bonds that high earners can excludefrom their taxable income, a move that could make the bonds much less appealing for their biggest buyers.
The August 6 Tax Report on the controversial “carried interest” issue attracted many comments. Some readers defended the provision’s current generous tax treatment and said changing it could damage the U.S.’s ability to create jobs and compete internationally.
“Does America really want to drive away the private equity industry when international competitiveness and international demand for U.S. products is more threatened than ever?” said Bernard Peperstraete of NGN Capital in New York.
Mark Heesen, president of the National Venture Capital Association, agreed. In a statement to the Wall Street Journal, he said, “Continuing to apply a capital gains tax rate to carried interest earned by venture capitalists who invest long-term to build new companies and create jobs is not only appropriate by definition, but from a public policy perspective it is paramount to U.S. economic recovery as we desperately need to encourage - not discourage – this high growth activity.”
Others disagreed. An investment manager from Hilton Head, S.C. said, “The carried-interest rules benefit me personally as a manager of investment partnerships. But even I can’t argue that they are sound tax policy.”
A few readers had technical questions. “Do you think REITs and Master Limited Partnerships would be included in changes on carried interest?” asked one adviser.
Independent tax analyst Robert Willens said no, because the dividends from most REITs and MLPs are already taxed at ordinary income rates. “They aren’t part of the discussion on carried interest,” he said. Neither has there been talk of changing the capital gains tax rates for timber REITs.
While some believe all carried interest should be taxed as ordinary income, others suggested a less radical approach. It is to tax the original award of carried interest at ordinary income rates but then allow further appreciation to be taxed as a capital gain.
Here’s an example: Say that Ted, Joe and Jane form a partnership. Ted and Joe each put in cash in return for an 80% of the profits, while Jane contributes her expertise in return for a 20% share. Jane would be taxed at ordinary income rates on her 20% profit share when she receives it. After that, her future appreciation would be taxed as capital gain.
Recently, the Internal Revenue Service announced an increase in standard mileage rates taxpayers can claim for the final six months of 2011. Beginning July 1, the rate for business miles increases to 55.5 cents from 51 cents and to 23.5 cents from 19 cents per mile for medical and moving expenses. The per-mile deduction for charitable expenses remains unchanged, at 14 cents.
“This year’s increased gas prices are having a major impact on individual Americans,” said IRS Commissioner Douglas Shulman, so “the IRS is adjusting the standard mileage rates to better reflect [them].”
The business standard mileage rate is used by many taxpayers to compute deductible costs of a using a car in a business in lieu of tracking actual costs. The rate is also used as a benchmark by the federal government and many businesses to reimburse employees for mileage.
In a recent MarketWatch article, I made the remark that rentals are a business. A reader disagreed. “Rental property is considered ‘investment income,’ and is filed on a Schedule E, not a Schedule C. But I understand your confusion on this matter because many people don’t understand the truth of the matter any more than you do. I know, I’m a real estate investor for 20 years now,” she wrote.
Despite investing her money in real estate, theoretically, to make a profit, this woman passionately believes that rentals are not a business. She’s not alone. Many people are confused because they’ve forgotten that the definition of a business is something that occupies your time, with the intention of making a profit. They’ve also forgotten the history of these taxes.
Shades of 1984
When Congress signed the Tax Reform Act of 1986 (TRA 86) the real estate investment climate was very different – people were chasing lucrative tax benefits, rather than profits. TRA 1986 introduced the concepts of “passive income” and “active participation,” “passive loss limitations,” “material participation” and “real estate professional” and “at-risk rules”.
The IRS urged Congress to include limitations on rental income because, at the time, rental limited partnerships were often designed to be tax shelters for the limited partners. They were sold purely for the tax benefits, not for the potential increase in property value. Not only did these limited partnerships become an abuse of the tax system, they created worthless investments. Those properties were never operated with a profit motive. They often sold the property for less than the purchase price, once the tax benefits were stripped.
Consider a typical California investment of the time. The partnership would buy a property for $2 million with 10% down. Back then, we had ACRS depreciation over 15 years – 19 years for real estate, with accelerated rates of 8% – 10% in the first three years. Mortgage interest rates were around 10% and so were management fees, usually paid to the general partners. A 10% investor would buy in for about $25,000 to cover the down payment and purchase costs.
The properties were bought for about eight times gross rents, so rental income would be $250,000. Deducting the cost of interest would be about $180,000 (10% of $1.8 million), management fees of $25,000 (10% of $250,000 rental income), and property taxes of $25,000. Operating expenses, like maintenance and utilities, would inevitably eat up the rest of the cash flow. However, depreciation would be around $90,000 ($1 million building value times 9%).
Wouldn’t it be nice to write off that flight to Hawaii? Or what about the champagne-and-caviar-adorned soirée at Carnegie Hall? Maybe you can, says Doug Stives, a CPA from Red Bank, N.J., who re-engineered his life in 2006 to become the Most Tax-Efficient Man in America, as Tax Report columnist Laura Saunders writes. Stives shared a couple of practical, tax-saving suggestions with SmartMoney.com.
Get on someone’s payroll. Stives had been a partner at an accounting group for nearly four decades when he decided to take on a role as a tax and accounting professor at Monmouth University in central New Jersey. He also started his own consulting business on the side. While his paycheck is now 25% lower than it had been, his take home is nearly 90% as much, says Saunders. Stives estimates that the fringe benefits from working at the university – health insurance, disability insurance, life insurance, pension-plan coverage, unemployment coverage and workmen’s compensation coverage, among others – add up to about $40,000 a year.
Mix business and pleasure. Usually it’s a No. 1 professional no-no. But combining your work life with your personal life can slim the price tag of otherwise expensive vacations. As a part-time consultant and full-time teacher, Stives travels a considerable amount for seminars and teaching gigs, often to alluring vacation spots like Hawaii and Lake Tahoe. To deduct airfare, you need to spend more than half your working days on business, says Stives. Weekends don’t count, nor do travel days. If Stives leaves for Hawaii on a Friday, works three days mid-week and returns home the following Monday, he’s squeezed a mostly tax deductible 11-day trip out of three working days. (Hotels, meals, and rental cars are only partly deductible.) But make sure you don’t get carried away, he says. It’s a good idea to pay in full for at least some trips you take to show the IRS you don’t deduct everything.
As part of his broader effort to bring down the deficit and win support from both parties for his budget proposal, President Barack Obama pledged not only to work to rein in entitlements like Medicare and Medicaid, but also, according to The Wall Street Journal, “overhaul the tax code to root out “spending embedded” in it—a reference to tax breaks.”
Meanwhile, Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner “reiterated an administration call for corporate-tax changes that eliminates loopholes and reduces the overall rate companies pay.”
It’s partly a shot at the corporate tax rate–which on the surface seems to be quite high, but in reality is so full of loopholes that many corporations ultimately pay very little in taxes. US News & World Report blogger Susan Milligan–echoing Tax Guy Bill Bischoff–says lowering the corporate tax rate isn’t really the answer. It’s true that many U.S. companies pay significantly lower effective rates than the official top rate, but many tax experts say it’s still high enough to be a drag on domestic investment.
Still, Closing the loopholes is far more critical, argues Milligan who says, ” Lowering the corporate tax rate would cost jobs. Mind you, the job loss would not be among those sad grunts now pictured in newspapers, signing up for unemployment benefits. No, the new unemployed would be the well-paid tax attorneys who scour the tax code for loopholes. They would be followed in the unemployment line by the lobbyists who bustle around Capitol Hill fighting to keep those loopholes.”
Good news, moms. Finally that little bundle of joy will help you save, not spend. The IRS said today that breast pumps and other nursing supplies now qualify as tax-deductible medical expenses. The equipment can even be reimbursed under flexible-spending accounts or health-savings accounts.
The move reverses last year’s ruling that excluded breast pumps and other similar breastfeeding aids from favorable tax treatment.
Here’s what WSJ’s Juggle blog has to say:
“Until now … nursing mothers couldn’t use flexible-spending accounts to pay for breast pumps and other nursing supplies because the IRS said that breastfeeding didn’t have enough health benefits to qualify as medical or preventative care.
Now, though, the IRS says that like obstetric care, nursing supplies are ‘for the purpose of affecting a structure or function of the body of the lactating woman.’ … The new ruling means that families can use pretax funds from their flexible spending accounts and health savings accounts for pumps and other supplies. Medical expenses, meanwhile, are not deductible until they exceed 7.5% of adjusted gross income. Breast pumps typically cost more than $200 and, along with supplies, can run as high as $1,000 in the first year of a baby’s life, Reuters reports.”
The trial of filmmaker Wendy Weiner Runge has all the flair of a Hollywood drama: a tax scandal in the millions of dollars, the silver screen, the toppling of a pyramid of insiders. But the venue—Des Moines, Iowa—is about as far from Tinseltown a film can get.
Runge, charged with first-degree theft among other counts, faces the music this week as her trial unfolds and with it, the details of a scandal that prompted the state to suspend its film-incentive program until 2013. The filmmaker could be on the hook for $1.85 million in transferable tax credits applied to, what the prosecution argues to be, sham production expenses for science-fiction film “The Scientist.” The 45-year-old mother of four faces a maximum penalty of 25 years behind bars.
A number of states have paid billions of dollars in tax incentives to lure an industry formerly locked down by California studios. Governors of states like Michigan, Ohio and Texas—among many others—lobbied hard to encourage film production on their turf. Forty-four states offered movie-production incentives and 28 offered film tax credits in 2009, according to a Tax Foundation report. Last year saw the first dip in state participants over the past decade when four states suspended or terminated their programs completely.
In the most recent Tax Report column on the new $5 million gift-tax exemption, there wasn’t space to discuss a different, but related break that’s among the most useful in entire U.S. tax code: the annual $13,000 gift exclusion.
Here’s how it works:
Unlike the $5 million exemption, which applies to total gifts made during a person’s life, every taxpayer can take advantage of the $13,000 exclusion, every year. A taxpayer may make as many gifts as he or she desires as long as no one person gets more than $13,000 of value in any one year.
Married couples may therefore give $26,000 to each recipient; if they make a special election, the entire $26,000 can come from one partner’s property. The annual exclusion doesn’t count against the $5 million lifetime exemption, and there is no deduction for a gift. Although many states have estate or inheritance taxes, only two have gift taxes: Connecticut and Tennessee.
The recipient may be anyone—not just a relative—and the gift may be either cash or a non-cash item such stock or other property. It may even be possible to give a $13,000 “interest” in a piece of real estate or an item that can’t be divided, such as a painting. Such moves are complex and require expert help, however, says estate attorney Ronald Aucutt of McGuireWoods. Gifts don’t have to be made outright to a recipient either; they may be made to a trust instead.
Gifts must also be “completed.”
The Tax Blog brings together a team of award-winning tax journalists from the Dow Jones network and around the web to examine the tax issues, changes and legislation that affect families, investors and small business owners. Our contributors include Tax Report columnist Laura Saunders (WSJ), Tax Guy columnist Bill Bischoff and senior reporter Jilian Mincer (SmartMoney.com), retirement-focused reporter Anne Tergesen (WSJ), wealth management writer Arden Dale (Dow Jones Newswires), TaxWatch columnist Eva Rosenberg and personal finance reporter Andrea Coombes (MarketWatch), and reporter Alyssa Abkowitz (SmartMoney). They’ll provide the latest news and insight, mine the tax code for tips and loopholes, and answer your questions about tricky tax situations. Contact the The Tax Blog with ideas, suggestions or tax questions at email@example.com.