Our Top 6 Year-End Tax Planning Tips

This has been a year of economic and tax uncertainty with the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, potential stimulus bills and the presidential election. As a result, tax planning may be more important than usual this year. To help guide you, we will cover six year-end tax planning strategies – three for individuals and three for businesses.

Individual Year-End Tax Planning Tips and Strategies

1. Take advantage of above-the-line charitable deductions.

Unlike previous years, where taxpayers needed to itemize their deductions in order to see any tax benefit from charitable deductions, everyone can benefit on their 2020 tax return. The CARES Act created an above-the-line charitable deduction for taxpayers who don’t itemize. In order to benefit from the $300 cash contributions deduction, make sure to donate before the end of the year if you haven’t already.

2. Stimulus Check Impact

The CARES Act also created the stimulus payments of up to $1,200 per taxpayer and $500 per qualified dependent child. While the initial round of stimulus checks was based on 2018 or 2019 tax return filing information, these stimulus payments are technically pre-paid 2020 tax credits. As a result, your 2020 tax return will calculate the credit due based on your income level, and there’s nothing but good news here. If your 2020 return shows you should receive an additional credit, you can claim it on your return. But if your return shows a credit less than a stimulus check you’ve already received, there is no claw back.

3. Investment With Opportunity Zones

Congress created powerful incentives for investing in very specific geographic regions by creating special tax treatment for “opportunity zones.” Investments in opportunity zones offer taxpayers the potential to defer tax on gains until as late as 2026. Moreover, there is the potential to recognize only 90 percent of gains on investments held for at least five years; and no tax on those held for 10 years (there are other rules, but they are out of the scope of this article). As a result, investments in opportunity zones can provide tax-free potential and protect against future tax law changes.

Business Year-End Tax Planning Tips and Strategies

1. Accelerate AMT Refunds

The Tax Cuts and Jobs Act repealed the corporate Alternative Minimum Tax (AMT) and let companies claim all of their unused AMT credits in any taxable year beginning after 2017 but before 2022. The CARES Act accelerated the refund timeline, letting companies claim all their unused credits in either 2018 or 2019. For many, the most effective way to take advantage of this is to file a tentative refund claim on Form 1139, which must be done by Dec. 31, 2020.

2. Use Current Losses for Quick Refunds

The CARES Act brought back a tax provision that allows businesses to take current losses and offset them against income from prior years and receive refunds now. Net operating losses (NOLs) that are the result of 2018, 2019 and 2020 business activity can be carried five years back to claim refunds against taxes paid.

Careful consideration should be given to the strategy for claiming these NOL carry-backs because, depending on the type of business entity, your tax rate may have been higher in some of the five available years versus others. Make sure to leverage any tax rate arbitrage to maximize your benefit.

3. Payroll Tax Deduction Timing

Another provision of the CARES Act gives employers the option to postpone payment of their portion of Social Security taxes until the end of 2020. The deferred amounts are due half by the end of 2021 and 2022. This may be great from a liquidity perspective; however, depending on your businesses accounting, this could also mean a deferral of the deductibility of this expense as well. You should weigh the liquidity benefits of the deferral versus the value of a current year deduction – especially considering the accelerated NOL provisions discussed above.

Conclusion

These are just a few of the potential year-end tax planning strategies you can employ before the end of 2020. Make sure to consider these and speak with your tax advisor to see what makes the most sense for your situation.

What’s Next for a Stimulus Bill?

The Senate Republicans’ slimmed-down stimulus bill recently failed to materialize after receiving less than the 60 votes needed to move forward. The “skinny” stimulus bill, with a price tag of only $650 billion, was intended to be a way to quickly inject stimulus into the economy and bypass both the multi-trillion-dollar Republican HEALS Act and the Democratic HEROES Act.

The current stimulus limbo leaves millions of Americans in a position of uncertainty. Four main areas that the Senate bill intended to address but are now up in the air include a second round of stimulus checks and the impact on struggling tenants and homeowners, as well as the long-term unemployed.

Next Round of Stimulus Checks

The first stimulus bill, the CARES Act, sent more than $300 billion in stimulus checks to Americans back in March to help mitigate the effects of COVID-19 slowdowns. While this helped millions, many people’s jobs or businesses remain impaired due to the economic impact of the pandemic, and they are hoping for a second stimulus check to help them get by.

With the failure of the Senate bill and the stalemate in the House, the chances of a second round of checks continues to diminish. On the bright side, the U.S. Treasury noted it is ready to print and mail the checks as soon as something is authorized.

Troubled Tenants and Homeowners

The economic fallout from the pandemic placed many tenants and homeowners in the position of being evicted or foreclosed. The CARES Act from March placed a temporary moratorium on evictions and foreclosures, sparing millions. Following this measure, President Trump issued an executive order in August granting the CDC authority to cease evictions as a measure to prevent the spread of COVID-19. The CDC took this order and announced a stop to all evictions until the end of 2020.

For homeowners with federally backed mortgages, the CARES Act moratoriums on single-family foreclosures were also extended until the end of 2020. Moreover, many states passed laws protecting those without federally backed loans from foreclosure.

For both renters and homeowners, these protections will disappear once we enter 2021 unless the government steps in with new legislation or regulations. Keep in mind that for both renters and mortgage holders, payments are being deferred and not canceled – so ultimately, they will still need to make the payments.

Long-Term Unemployment

Millions remain unemployed due to the pandemic; without federal help, their unemployment benefits will expire soon. The CARES Act gave an additional 13 weeks of benefits on top of the initial 26 weeks of unemployment insurance benefits; however, for those impacted on the front-end of the pandemic, these extended benefits will expire at the end of November.

The Senate bill included $300 per week of benefits through the last week of 2020; however, with this failing and without additional aid to state funds, the long-term unemployed won’t have anything to rely on if Congress does nothing.

Conclusion

Democrats responded with a smaller version of their original second-round stimulus bill, coming in a price tag of $2.2 trillion, down from the original $3.4 trillion. This is likely too high a price tag still to garner Republican support. If nothing happens before the mid-October recess, then we will all be waiting until after the Nov. 3 election.

3 State Level Tax Hikes That Might Be Coming Due to COVID-19

No surprise, but Americans are consuming and spending less since the coronavirus kicked in.  Retail sales dropped to 8.7 percent in March, the largest month-over-month decline since the Census Bureau started tracking this data. Previously, the sharpest decline was less than half this – at 3.9 percent from October 2008 to November 2008, during the previous economic crisis. The reduction in consumer spending is due in part to lockdowns, spending more time at home for fear of the virus, and the economic impact – whether it’s losing a job, reduced hours, or in anticipation of tougher times ahead.

While consumer spending is down at a net level, there appear to be some winners and some losers in the post-COVID world of staying in and working from home. Restaurants and apparel are the hardest hit, whereas online retailers, home, garden, grocery, and alcohol sales are all up.

The decline and shift in consumer spending are having a strong negative impact on state sales tax revenues. Nationwide, sales taxes account for approximately 20 percent of all state revenue, so the decline in consumer spending will have a material impact on state budgets. As a result, states are looking at new ways to generate or increase revenue to offset the trend. Below we’ll look at three ways states are looking to raise taxes to make up for holes in their budgets.

Grocery Staples 

Eating out less and working from home mean Americans are spending more at the grocery store; approximately 13 percent more year-over-year, per Census data. The issue for states is that groceries are generally not taxed or low-taxed, although there are a few items that apply the full tax rate.

Kansas, for example, applies the full sales tax rate to groceries. The consequence of this is that grocery sales make up about 15 percent of Kansas’ total sales tax revenue. The consequence of this policy is that the state’s sales tax revenue has barely taken a hit year-to-date.

States are taking notice and may move to the trend of taxing groceries as a way to recover part of their declining sales tax revenues.

Digital Taxes

Another trend is the increase in streaming services and one-time rentals/purchases of digital goods for entertainment and working at home. Currently, 22 states tax streaming services, and 30 states tax digital goods. Other states will look to start taxing these services as well, and digital taxes will start to expand into cloud storage and other services as more people work remotely.

Sin Taxes

Sin taxes are taxes on goods and services that are “bad” for us; think alcohol, tobacco, gambling, and marijuana (where it’s legal). Increases in sin taxes are generally easier to pass as they don’t apply to the overall general population and politicians can play the moral angle.

During the last recession, for example, lawmakers in more than 12 states increased tobacco and liquor taxes. Newer sin taxes are being instituted, such as those on vaping equipment and supplies.

Conclusion

The exact form and structure will vary, but one thing is certain: States will institute or increase taxes in areas where the money is being spent to ensure their sales tax revenue remains stable. 

R&D Tax Credits May be Part of the Next Tax Relief Bill

R&D Tax Credits, Next Tax Relief BillAs the economic impact of COVID-19 lingers and an impending second wave is on everyone’s mind, Congress is already thinking of new legislation to stimulate the economy. One of the ideas on the top of the list is an expansion of the Research and Development (R&D) tax credit as part of the next COVID-19 relief bill.

Proposals for the R&D Tax Credit

There are numerous proposals for changing the R&D tax credits. It is seen as an investment in the U.S. economy, with some believing the credit is an effective tool to combat offshoring. Some of the main proposals for changes to the R&D tax credit include:

  • Doubling the current credit
  • Giving businesses the ability to immediately use the credit instead of having carryforward credits
  • Expanding the credit for domestic manufacturing
  • Increasing the refundable amount for startups

Will My Business Qualify?

The best candidates for R&D tax credit are companies that operate in the following spaces: manufacturing, architecture, engineering, construction, software, life sciences and medical devices. The key determinate is whether your company makes or improves something; this will give you the best chance to qualify.

Contractors

There is a misconception that if your business is hired or contracted to perform work for other organizations that you cannot qualify for the R&D tax credit. This is not necessarily true; contractors (especially government contractors) can qualify if they have both economic risk and retain substantial rights as contractors.

Startups

The R&D tax credit is refundable in part (against employer payroll tax) for startups. The idea is to expand the refundability so that the credit can be offset against more than just payroll taxes and even perhaps to make it refundable (to some degree) in general. The idea here is that startups won’t be forced to carryforward credits for years and can then reinvest the cashflow to accelerate growth and jobs creation.

Internal Use Software

Internal use software is software that companies develop themselves. It can be stand-alone software or modifications to existing systems through substantial improvements, the development of add-ons or modules – the idea is to expand the space of what qualifies for the credit for internal use software. This would allow companies that traditionally wouldn’t have qualified (such as finance institutions, banks and retail stores) to now potentially be eligible.

Conclusion

This next relief package is likely to be considered prior to the summer congressional recess. Many analysts believe the bill will focus on provisions that help businesses hire back laid-off workers, retain current employees and grow over the long-term. It’s likely the R&D tax credit will play a key role in the latter objective.

HEROES ACT Can Combat Economic Downtown

The HEROES Act, otherwise known as the Health and Economic Recovery Omnibus Emergency Solutions Act, can greatly improve the benefits for the earned income tax credit (EITC) for eligible workers who don’t have children. This legislation would also help wage earners in the business-to-consumer and leisure sectors of the economy impacted severely by the coronavirus pandemic.

Looking at the HEROES Act legislation and how it would help childless wage earners, we need to examine the rules surrounding the EITC and how many additional filers may qualify. While childless students pursuing formal education are still required to be 25 for EITC eligibility, filers as young as 19 (down from 25 years old), as well as filers aged up to 67 (up from 64), are now able to apply for the childless EITC. This legislation would also increase the credit’s ceiling to $1,487, from $538.

Looking at these proposed amendments to the tax code, this would act as a one-time stimulus to the economy when the credit is disbursed to eligible filers, specifically focused on low-income wage earners. Based on a review by the Tax Policy Center, 75 percent of the benefits created by the HEROES Act legislation for the EITC would be directed toward the lowest fifth of U.S. earners. Sectors of the economy that will benefit from this effect include health care, manufacturing, construction, and professional services.

However, there is one consideration that must be taken into account, especially in periods of low economic growth. If eligible wage earners see their earnings fall, then the EITC also will become smaller. There is a possibility that the U.S. House and Senate may work together to modify this legislation to speed up or get rid of the phasing-in process, thereby correcting this flaw.   

Another piece of the HEROES Act changes how people can claim the EITC when they file their 2020 taxes. The legislation will allow filers to claim their EITC according to their 2019 or 2020 income, permitting filers to choose the tax year that gives them a more favorable credit. This takes inspiration from other tax years when victims of natural disasters were able to obtain more favorable tax credits. The HEROES Act will give this choice of tax years to all filers eligible for the EITC, not exclusively for childless workers.

Regardless of the process, this could aid in stabilizing economic conditions now or in the future, regardless of why the economy suffers. This is because this legislation would ensure a falling EITC doesn’t increase a wage earner’s overall losses.

Making this type of change to how the EITC is awarded to childless workers would give greater certainty for more predictable financial help and streamline things for legislators and government officials to distribute monies during the next economic downturn.

No matter what form this legislation ultimately takes, if and when it’s signed into law, there are other pieces of legislation containing similar amendments to the EITC found within the HEROES Act. Elements proposed for improving the EITC for eligible filers are contained within the Working Families Tax Relief Act, the Middle-Class Act, and the Cost-of-Living Refund.

IRS Questions and Answers on COVID-19 IRA and 401(k) Loans & Distributions

The CARES Act stimulus package substantially relaxed the rules around certain retirement account loan and distribution requirements, but with much confusion. As a result, the IRS recently put out a FAQ document to address the COVID-19 rule relaxation around IRA and 401(k) loans and distributions. This important information should come as welcome news for the nearly one percent of all retirement plan holders who have already taken a distribution under the new rules, according to Fidelity Investments.

Who’s eligible?

If you, a spouse or dependent tested positive for COVID-19, you automatically qualify. You also may qualify under less direct circumstances, such as experiencing economic hardship due to being quarantined, laid off, receiving a reduction in work hours, or missing work because you don’t have childcare. Business owners who are forced to close or reduce operating hours also qualify.

How Much Can I Take Out?

COVID-19 impacted individuals can take up to $100k in distributions without paying the 10 percent penalty imposed on early withdrawals by people under 59 1/2 years old. The $100,000 limit is the total for all the plans you have. For example, if you take $70k out of your 401(k), you can take only up to $30k out of your IRA under these rules. You will still owe taxes on the distributions as ordinary income; however, you are able to pay the taxes owed over a three-year period.

Can I Pay Myself Back?

The law also allows you to pay yourself back. Taxpayers can replace their distributions if they do so within a three-year timeframe. This means that if you take out a distribution in 2020, start to pay the taxes owed over the three-year rule and then pay back the distribution in 2022, you’ll be able to amend your 2020 and 2021 returns to get a refund, as well as not pay the tax you would have owed in 2022.

How Do Loans Work?

The maximum amount you can borrow increases from $50,000 to $100,000. You also can borrow the entire amount of your plan balance up to this limit (net of any outstanding loans). Moreover, for any loans you already have within the plan, the due date for payments due through the end of 2020 can be postponed for up to one year.

Is There Anything Else I Should Know?

Yes. First, there is more guidance coming from the IRS. Second, if you are eager to know what this formal guidance will look like, you can turn to the Hurricane Katrina relief rules from 2005 as this is what is expected will apply for the COVID-19 measures as well. Lastly, the IRS will generate a new form 8915E where taxpayers will report the repayment of COVID-19 covered distributions.

Taxes and Tariffs: The U.S. Response to France’s Digital Tax

How it All Started

Back in July of 2019, France passed what was dubbed a “digital tax” targeting the largest tech companies. Impacting approximately 30 big companies such as Amazon, Google, Facebook and Apple, the tax applies to revenues earned from digital services of companies that earn more than $830 million in total and at least $27.86 million in France. The tax levy is a 3 percent charge on revenue from digital services.

The United States soon responded with threatening 100 percent tariffs on certain classes of French luxury goods, such as wine, champagne, cheese and makeup. These tariffs were estimated to cover more than $2.4 billion in French goods per year.

Responses on Both Sides

French President Emmanuel Macron came out to comment that the digital tax is not intended to be an anti-American move, and that big tech companies of all stripes could be covered by the tax. The criteria that determines who is subject to the digital tax, however, means that essentially only American companies are the ones being taxed.

Some in the United States claim it’s as simple as jealously over our strong technology sector, while others say that the main motivation for the French tax is a need to mitigate burgeoning budget deficits.

President Trump’s Reaction

Rarely one to back down on international trade issues, President Donald Trump criticized the digital tax for unfairly targeting American tech companies, going so far as to call out the European Union as behaving worse than China in its trading relationship with the United States. He reiterated his stance that he’s willing to fight tariffs with tariffs.

Negotiations with the EU

U.S. and European Union officials are negotiating an agreement over taxing big tech, but that didn’t stop the current treasury secretary from threatening more retaliatory tariffs. Steven Mnuchin, the treasury secretary, recently said that the United States will impose new tariffs on French automobile imports if the issue isn’t resolved to America’s satisfaction. He claimed the digital tax is purely arbitrary, hence his random call for taxing automobiles in response. Moreover, Mnuchin called the tax “discriminatory in nature” at the World Economic Forum in Davos Switzerland.

Taxes and Tariffs on Hold

For now, France is delaying the implementation of its digital tax through the end of 2020 in response to U.S. pressure on threatened luxury goods and automobile tariffs. They aim to come to a resolution before year-end with the Trump administration. French Finance Minister Bruno Le Maire is optimistic an agreement can be worked out and believes entering a trade war with the United States would be foolish.

The Future

Currently, other European countries, including Britain and Italy, are acting against big tech companies they believe don’t pay their fair share of taxes to their countries. Treasury Secretary Mnuchin said that the United States is willing to go to bat and protect its companies with retaliatory tariffs in these cases as well. For now, not much is settled – but we should see a clearer direction before the year is out.