Weekend Investor’s recent feature, “Write Off Your Job Hunt!” offers a tax guide for the unemployed. It has drawn much reader interest and a few questions.
For answers we turned to Douglas Stives, a professor at Monmouth University in West Long Branch, N.J. Stives was a full-time CPA for 36 years and still practices part-time in addition to teaching at Monmouth’s business school. He prides himself on making optimum use of tax deductions allowed by Uncle Sam, and last spring he was featured in a WSJ article dubbing him “The Most Tax-Efficient Man.”
Stives agrees with experts cited in the story that often a job hunter’s best hope for maximizing deductions is to set up a Schedule C sole proprietorship and look for part-time as well as full-time work, so that the same deductions work for both.
Like them, he also stresses that taxpayers must have some income to offset the deductions. “The good news is, you don’t have to have income in the first year, just in three out of five years,” says Stives. “It also helps if you can show that some of the future income was generated by your earlier expenses.”
Thanks to countless deductions and credits, the federal income tax brackets are ruined.
Few people pay 10%, 15%, 25%, 28%, 33% or 35% of even their “marginal” dollar in income taxes. So, Monday’s proposal from President Barack Obama is really about average tax rates.
The plan picks up on one of Warren Buffett’s frequently cited notions — that the richest Americans pay a lower percent of their income in taxes than those earning far less. A progressive tax system, such as the one purportedly used in the United States, is designed to do the opposite.
The most recent Tax Report summarized tax breaks both new and old for cars used in a business, especially new depreciation rules passed by Congress in 2010 that expire at the end of this year.
The bottom line: There’s a big incentive for business owners to buy a behemoth gas guzzler like a Cadillac Escalade or Ford Expedition this year. They can deduct 100% of the purchase price right away (minus a disallowance for any personal use, of course).
Lawmakers were far less generous with depreciation deductions for purchases of cars weighing less than 6,000 lbs. For these lighter vehicles they also favored more expensive cars (like a Lexus) over less expensive ones (like a Hyundai ).
CPA Douglas Stives of Monmouth University teased this overall result out of highly complex guidance issued earlier this year by the Internal Revenue Service (See Rev. Proc. 2011-21 and 2011-26).
Here is a longer explanation of how Mr. Stives arrived at his conclusion about larger and smaller cars weighing less than 6,000 lbs.
*The IRS defines a “luxury car” as –believe it or not—one costing more than $15,300. Such cars are subject to depreciation limits unless they weigh more than 6,000 lbs. and the special 100% deduction applies.
*The maximum first-year depreciation for these “luxury cars” is $11,060. This consists of annual regular depreciation of $3,060 for the first year plus “bonus” depreciation of up to $8,000. The write-off in Year Two is normally $4,900, then $2,950 in Year Three, and $1,775 in Years Four and beyond.
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.
Some people who owe more than $1 million on their homes are coming under the microscope at the Internal Revenue Service over how much of their mortgage interest they can deduct on their tax returns.
The number of taxpayers involved could be in the tens of thousands because in some parts of the country, many homes sell for more than $1 million and even a buyer who puts down 20% or 30% may need to borrow. The amount of interest at stake is substantial, in some cases as much as $50,000 to $60,000 on a $1.1 million mortgage.
The IRS didn’t comment, but the scrutiny follows a period of confusion by taxpayers, advisers and even some IRS agents about how much interest can be deducted, based on what kind of debt the homeowner holds. Tax rules distinguish between two kinds of home debt. There is home acquisition debt, which is a loan used to acquire, construct or substantially improve a qualified home, and is secured by the home. Then there is home equity debt, which is any other kind of loan that is also secured by the home.
Some tax advisers were telling clients it was acceptable to deduct all interest on a single mortgage of up to $1.1 million. Others contended that the limit for mortgages was $1 million, but they could also deduct interest on another $100,000 in a home equity loan, according to Melissa Labant, tax technical manager at the American Institute of Certified Public Accountants.
IRS guidance last June helped set the rules straight. The agency said acquisition loans over $1 million may also qualify as home equity indebtedness. Now, says Labant, it is clear the taxpayer can deduct interest on the full $1.1 million, even if he has only one loan. The development, she adds, is “good news for taxpayers.”
The rules can get “particularly complex for a mere mortal” when various refinancings get thrown into the mix, and the taxpayer owns several homes, say a house in upstate New York and a condominium in New York, according to David A. Lifson, a certified public accountant at Crowe Horwath LLP in New York, who has clients caught up in these mini-audits. In past six months, he says, the Internal Revenue Service has notified many people that it is looking at their mortgage interest write-offs.
A bad economy could have some folks looking to Lady Luck for a ladder out. While most gamblers end up empty-handed, a select few win big. And when the amount of money in your pocket grows or shrinks, you know the IRS isn’t far behind. The agency has different rules for amateurs and professionals, as Tax Guy Bill Bischoff previously reported. What’s more, the IRS updated some of its recordkeeping guidelines to make them simpler and more realistic. Check out the Tax Guy’s most recent tips about how to keep your books and stay out of trouble.
Form W-2G Helps Keep Winners Honest
For most types of gambling at a legitimate gaming facility, that facility will issue you a Form W-2G (Certain Gambling Winnings) if you win $600 or more. Of course, the IRS gets a copy too, so you better make sure the gross gambling winnings reported on page 1 of your Form 1040 (or on Schedule C if you are a professional gambler) at least equal the amounts reported on the Forms W-2G.
Technically speaking, an amateur gambler must report the full amount of each and every win on the miscellaneous income line on page 1 of Form 1040. So in a profitable year, you cannot simply subtract losses from winnings and report the net amount of winnings on page 1 of Form 1040. But let’s face it: Even folks who attempt to keep good records will probably only record their daily net winnings and daily net losses. Reporting an amount of gross income equal to the sum total of the net winnings from all days you had net winnings on page 1 of Form 1040 will probably keep you out of trouble with the IRS (assuming the amount reported as income equals or exceeds the sum total of any amounts reported as income on Forms W-2G).
Whether you are an amateur or a professional gambler, you must adequately document the amount of your losses in order to claim your rightful gambling-loss deductions. According to the IRS, taxpayers must compile the following information in a log or similar record.
That sunny face chirping on your local news each morning doesn’t come without a cost. There are the elocution sessions, maybe a film-production course, perhaps even a master’s degree in journalism. And then you’ve got to consider all those on-the-job expenses. You know – sports jerseys, evening dresses, bikini and thong underwear. These are some of the business expenses that a Columbus, Ohio-area television news anchor tried to deduct. Not surprisingly, the U.S. Tax Court didn’t buy it.
From 2005 to 2008, Anietra Hamper claimed deductions for unreimbursed employee business expenses of around $20,000 each year. Some of the more outrageous items Hamper tried to deduct include the cost of bedding, self-defense classes and Internet expenses, according to the Tax Court’s opinion.
“You should never get a deduction for anything that’s personal,” says Brookes Billman, a tax-law professor at NYU School of Law. “The problem is trying to negotiate the business/personal line.”
To help taxpayers navigate this gray area, the Tax Court has established fairly high standards for clothing deductions, says Billman. 1) The clothing must be specifically required as a condition of employment; 2) the clothing is not adaptable to general usage; and 3) the clothing is not so worn. What passes the test? Think lab coat, construction hard hat, bulletproof vest. What doesn’t? Many of Hamper’s deductions.
To abide by her employer’s “Women’s Wardrobe Guidelines,” which requires anchors to maintain a “professional and conservative appearance,” Hamper incurred “considerable” expenses for clothing and grooming, according to the opinion. However, she followed her own set of rules. She’d ask herself, “‘[W]ould I be buying this if I didn’t have to wear this’ to work? ‘and if the answer is no, then I know that I’m buying it specifically’ for work, and therefore, it is a deductible business expense,” according to the opinion. The Court disagreed, but hasn’t yet decided how much she’ll owe.
Your income: It doesn’t seem like the figure should be terribly complicated to calculate. Yet as April approaches we realize that, thanks to our tax system, a number of deductions can manipulate the amount of your taxable income. Depending on your write-offs, for instance, your taxable income could be anywhere from half to almost all of your gross income, says Tax Guy Bill Bischoff.
The biggest and most common deductions–home mortgage interest, charitable donations, and so on—leap to mind as soon as you get your hands on that Form 1040. But there are several others, and some will catch you by surprise. Here are a few more that may have slipped below your radar.
1. Protective Clothing Required at Work. Need to buy your own lab coat? Apron? If you’re required to wear it at work, and the item isn’t provided by your employer, then it’s deductible, says Greg Rosica, tax partner at Ernst & Young and contributing author of the “Ernst & Young Tax Guide.” This deduction even applies to cosmetics and related application tools for makeup artists and beauticians. But don’t get too carried away. Just because your employer requires you wear a suit to work, doesn’t mean the IRS will let you deduct the cost of that Hugo Boss hanging in your closet. If you’d otherwise wear the item in your everyday life–say to dinner, to church, to visit your mother-in-law–then it doesn’t pass the test, says Rosica.
2. State and Local Sales Tax. This primarily targets residents of states like Texas, Washington and Florida that don’t have state income taxes. The IRS provides estimated sales-tax tables based on income — but if you bought any big ticket items (say, a car or a boat), you may want to keep track of the items yourself. Lawmakers extended this deduction for 2010 and 2011.
Sole proprietors, partners, limited liability company (LLC) members, and S corporation shareholders can deduct qualified health insurance premiums paid to cover themselves and family members. This is the so-called self-employed health insurance deduction.
For 2010, you claim it on Line 29 on Page 1 of Form 1040. Because it’s an above-the-line deduction (meaning a deduction claimed on Page 1), you don’t have to itemize to benefit.
Medicare Part B Premiums Suddenly Count as Qualified Expenses
For years, the IRS had taken the position that Medicare Part B premiums did not count as qualified health insurance premiums. This was bad news if you are an older small business owner because your Medicare Part B premiums for 2010 could range from about $1,300 to over $4,200, depending on your income. If you are married, your spouse’s premiums could be in the same range. So we can be talking about major bucks.
Now for the good news: with no fanfare, the IRS suddenly reversed course on the Medicare Part B premium issue. We know this because the 2010 instructions for Line 29 of Form 1040 explicitly allow you to include Medicare Part B premiums in your health insurance costs for purposes of the self-employed health insurance deduction.
Make sure you (or your tax preparer) take the new taxpayer-friendly IRS attitude into account when putting together your 2010 return. The additional Line 29 write-off could lower your federal income tax bill by hundreds of dollars or more.
If you want to claim itemized deductions for noncash charitable donations on your 2010 Form 1040, gird your loins. Thanks to herds of unscrupulous taxpayers who once made a habit of claiming bogus and inflated charitable write-offs, the Feds have tightened the screws over the years (justifiably so).
Unfortunately, innocent folks (like you) get squeezed as a result. Here’s a quick summary of the seven rules that apply to the most-common types of noncash charitable donations.
For a donation of a noncash item worth less than $250, you need a receipt from the charity–like the familiar slip you get for noncash donations to Goodwill or the Salvation Army. You need to have the receipt in hand by the time you file your return. Keep it with your tax records, but don’t file it with your return.
For a noncash item worth $250-$5,000, you need a written acknowledgment from the charity (more detailed than a receipt) that meets IRS guidelines. Once again, you need to have this in hand when you file your return. Charities know about this rule, and you should have no problem collecting a suitable acknowledgment. Keep it with your tax records, but don’t file it with your return.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.