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.
Lower real estate prices and higher gift tax limits are making this the perfect time for some wealthy individuals to gift vacation homes. An individual can give up to $5 million during his or her lifetime without paying a gift tax, and for couples that threshold is $10 million. Before, the limit was $3.5 million per person.
The higher limit only applies until 2013, and clients aren’t waiting, says Jay D. Waxenberg, chairman of the personal planning department at law firm Proskauer in New York. “We don’t know what’s going to happen,” he says.
Another consideration is the low price of real estate. When a cottage on the coast of Maine or a cabin on a lake in northern Wisconsin is worth less, the potential tax impact is smaller.
But some things need to be weighed carefully before making a gift of a vacation place, tax advisers say. Once ownership is transferred, parents or grandparents lose the legal right to decide who gets to use the place and when, whether it can be rented out and who is in charge of upkeep.
To retain some control or for tax purposes, owners typically use a trust. One health-care executive, for example, plans to pass a $4 million Jersey shore house in two trusts to his children, who are in their 20s. One trust will be in the man’s name, the other in his wife’s.
When most people imagine a painful tax audit, it’s the Internal Revenue Service that comes to mind, but it’s now just as likely to be a state auditor at the door.
Hungry for revenue, some states are going after more current and former residents for omissions and errors, intentional or otherwise, on their tax filings. They also are conducting more audits of estate tax returns, even as the government does fewer because of an increase in the estate tax exemption.
Tax advisers say audits have increased in California, New York, New Jersey and Iowa. The Illinois Department of Revenue recently added 50 auditors, in part to help a group of 136 others work on individual and corporate income tax audits.
Connecticut increased its income tax and estate tax audits by 10% for fiscal year 2011 over the previous year, says Sarah Kaufman, a spokesperson for the Connecticut Department of Revenue Services. She attributed the rise to updated computer programs and better use of information sharing between federal and state agencies that let Connecticut target questionable returns more efficiently.
State audits tend to begin with red flags including a change of residence, out-of-state property holdings, real estate in general, and trusts or partnerships that hold different kinds of assets. Stock options also now get a lot of attention, according to AmyLynn Flood, partner, global human resource services at
Consumers pay an average of $434 a year to compensate for the estimated $100 billion lost overseas to tax havens, according to a new report by the U.S. Public Interest Research Group. “That’s enough money to feed a family of four for three weeks,” says the report.
While taxpayers from every state are picking up the tab, those living in Delaware and New Jersey shouldered the biggest state-wide averages of $920- and $752-a-year. “Abuse of tax havens inflicts a price on other American taxpayers, who must pay higher taxes now or in the future to cover the government’s revenue shortfall, or must deal with cuts in government services,” the report says.
How did PIRG come up with the $434? It divided $100 billion by the number of tax returns filed in 2010. Simple. And the big-bang smack-wallop figure of $100 billion? This comes from a 2008 U.S. report, Tax Haven Banks and U.S. Tax Compliance, which itself states, “This $100 billion estimate is derived from studies conducted by a variety of tax experts.”
The market downturn of 2008 is still sending shock waves to investors who had counted on insurance policies to cover estate taxes.
Many are receiving unwelcome surprises. Some of these variable life insurance policies are now failing. They began to unravel during the recession because they invest in baskets of mutual funds known as separate accounts. The damage is only now starting to surface for policy holders and the outcome can be startling - and expensive.
Volatile markets can undermine a variable life insurance policy and did just that to many of them after 2008, according to John Resnick, whose Harrisburg, Pa., firm provides life insurance to high-net worth clients.
Many policy holders are only feeling the effects now because the plans’ design can create a delayed reaction. A drop in cash value, together with rising mortality fees and expenses, will drain funds designed to sustain the death benefit.
Once the cash value goes to zero, “the policy will implode without value unless a much higher premium is paid,” says Resnick. Problems get worse as the insured gets older because mortality charges go up annually.
Someone who paid, say, $2 million into a policy may suddenly learn he has lost the cash value and won’t get a death benefit. The insurance company may send a notice requiring more money, and fast – within just 30 or 60 days – to keep the policy alive. Tax attorneys and insurance consultants say this has been happening for a while, but they are now seeing more failures.
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.
Tick tock. There’s a deadline creeping up on some of you. And it’s not April 18. If you turned 70½ in 2010 you have until April 1, 2011 to take your first required minimum distributions (RMDs) from all tax-deferred accounts such as individual retirement accounts (excluding Roths) and 401(k)s.
The IRS requires you to take a minimum amount of money from your tax-deferred retirement accounts each year beginning the calendar year after you turn 70½. Typically, you need to do this before December 31. However, you get a three-month extension into the following year for your first distribution. Be aware that if you waited until April to take that first withdrawal, you must take two in a single calendar year. That could end up boosting you into a higher tax bracket.
If you don’t take your distribution on time, you’ll likely get hit with a penalty of up to 50% of the amount not taken.
Figuring out the amount of your first and future RMDs isn’t complicated. Take the year-end balance on your account and divide by a so-called life-expectancy factor, which you’ll find on the Uniform Lifetime Table provided by the IRS. (The IRS provides two different tables depending on your marital status, the age of your spouse and the beneficiary of your account.) “Once people get into a rhythm, things tend to go more smoothly,” says Stuart Ritter, a vice president and certified financial planner at T. Rowe Price.
A MarketWatch column reader recently commented about how difficult it is to figure out the basis of securities held for a very long term. His solution – donate all the stocks to a favorite charity.
Is that a good idea?
Actually, yes. According to the IRS, as long as you elect to limit your contribution deduction to 30% of your adjusted gross income, you can avoid all the ‘basis’ headaches. You end up getting a contribution deduction for the fair market value of the stocks, and you don’t have to figure out how much the stocks cost you, your parents, or aunt Martha
More of us are going to tackle the basis challenge. For example, a client of mine recently sold some stock that she had inherited about 15 years. We don’t have the records any longer – they were destroyed about 10 years ago. What to do?
No doubt, given the date of her mother’s death, we could find the value of those stocks. (Note: Inheritance basis is determined at date of death.) MarketWatch has a nifty historical tool, which allows you to look up the fair market value of a stock on any given date – from 1971 forward. Yahoo’s database seems to start in 1962.
Pretty easy. But she has held the shares for 16 years, reinvesting the dividends. Some of those stocks have probably split – and spun off other subsidiaries – or re-absorbed them. Who knows?
I could invest a couple of hours trying to reconstruct the data, contacting the corporations, the transfer agents, or even my own broker, to find the years worth of data. How much would that cost a client to have their tax professional do this? Several hundred dollars. Remember, tax pros tend to charge hourly rates of between $200 and $500 an hour, perhaps more. Even staff time bills out at about $100 per hour.
What’s the alternative? That NetBasis software that I wrote about in the MarketWatch.com article certainly looks tempting, and is something I plan to try. The cost starts at $19.50 to look up one stock’s history and declines, per stock, as you add more stocks.
Looking to the future
Effective this year, our financial institutions need to start providing the basis data in our brokerage accounts. During 1099 season in 2012, they will have to provide 1099s that show the basis of any stocks we sell.
Where will they get the information about the basis of stocks that were transferred to their accounts? We – you and I – will have to provide that information for our own accounts. Fortunately, we have nine more months to start digging up the historical information on the variety of shares we have transferred to our accounts. Otherwise those 1099s will show no basis on some of the sales – or nonsense amounts.
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.
Would you like to leave money to descendants as distant from you as you are from the Pilgrims who landed at Plymouth Rock? It’s possible, if you set up a “Dynasty Trust.” The Obama administration, however, proposed restrictions on such trusts in its recently released 2012 budget.
But experts agree that this proposal is unlikely to pass this year, and perhaps ever. Dynasty trusts can be used by the wealthy to put $5 million or more in assets beyond the reach of the estate tax for hundreds of years. They are especially attractive to many now that the estate tax is the most generous it has been in decades, with a $5 million per individual exemption and a 35% top rate – terms that will expire at the end of 2012. Dynasty trusts became popular after the 1986 tax reform passed a new version of the “generation-skipping tax” Back then only three states (Wisconsin, South Dakota and Idaho) allowed them, according to a 2010 paper prepared for the by University of Michigan Law Professor Larry Waggoner for the American Law Institute (ALI). Since 1986, another 22 states plus the District of Columbia have given dynasty trusts the green light.
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.