Back to Basics – Part VIII – Schedule D

Originally published in the Cedar Street Times

January 23, 2015

Imagine yourself on Antiques Roadshow and they tell you that an old porcelain mug you found in your attic last summer is worth $8,000-$10,000 dollars!  You are of course elated, and decide to sell the mug.  Fast forward to February, and your accountant starts asking you questions about this sale, such as your adjusted cost basis and your holding period.  You really have no idea how you even got it.  You know it was in the family for a long time, and you think that maybe it was in a box of things your mom left for you when she moved to Palm Springs where she now resides.  What do you do?  I don’t know exactly, but I know this much – it will go on your Schedule D in some form.

In this issue, we are discussing Schedule D – Capital Gains and Losses.  Prior articles are republished on my website at www.tlongcpa.com/blog if you would like to catch up on our Back to Basics series on personal tax returns.

Schedule D is used to report gains or losses from the sale or exchange of capital assets.  Capital assets consist of a variety of things.  The personal use items you own – such as your home, your vehicles, household items etc. are capital assets.  Gains from the sale of personal items are taxed.  Losses, however, are generally disallowed. Your personal investments such as stocks, bonds, or real property held as an investment are also capital assets.  Gains and losses are allowed on personal investments.

The same types of items used in your trade or business, however, would be reported on a Form 4797 and would be taxed differently as well.

Assets that have a mix of personal use and business use can have elements reported on both forms.

To determine your gain or loss on a capital asset, you must know your cost basis in it.  If it is something you bought, your cost basis is generally the amount you paid for it; if it is something you inherited, your cost basis is often the fair market value at the date of death; or if it was something given to you, your cost basis is generally the same as that of the prior owner.

There can also be adjustments to this basis, such as when you make improvements to your home – the money you spend would be an adjustment upwards.  Once you know your adjusted cost basis, you simply subtract it from the sales price to determine your gain or loss.  If you scrapped it, your sales price is zero.  Sometimes it can be quite challenging to determine the cost basis, especially if records no longer exist.  Technically, if you cannot prove your basis, the IRS can take the position that your basis is zero.  This could be very unfavorable, especially if you just sold a $10,000 mug with unknown origins!

It is also important to know the length of your “holding period.”  The date you purchase the property is generally the beginning of your holding period and the date you dispose of the property is the end of your holding period.  For property received as a gift, you include the holding period of the person who gave it to you.

If your holding period is over a year, it is subject to favorable long-term capital gains rates – basically a 15 percent federal rate for most people.  (Although it could be as low as zero percent or as high as 20 percent depending on your tax bracket and the amount of capital gains you have.  Also, collectible items you sell such as old coins or antique vehicles are taxed at a 28 percent rate.)  If your holding period for the asset is a year or less, it is considered a short-term holding and is taxed like ordinary income (a higher rate for most people).  Inherited property is always considered to have a long-term holding period.  California does not have a special rate for long-term holdings and treats all capital gains as ordinary income on its tax return.

As mentioned before, there is no deduction for losses on your personal use items.  You can, however, take a loss on your personal investments.  They would reduce any other capital gains, first, and then if there are still losses remaining, you can use $3,000 to offset any other type of income you have on your tax returns.  The rest would get carried over to future years.

The Schedule D itself is essentially a summary of capital gain and loss activity that are mostly determined by other forms that feed into the Schedule D.  Part I summarizes short-term gains and losses, and Part II summarizes long-term gains and losses.  Form 8949 is the main supporting form used in both of these sections.  It was added a few years ago after changes to broker cost basis reporting requirements occurred.  The Form 8949 sorts out long-term and short-term transactions for which cost basis is reported to the IRS and not reported to the IRS, and handles the actual transactional reporting.

Parts I and II also have areas were short-term and long-term gains can be reported from other forms such as installment agreements, business casualty and theft losses, like-kind exchanges, as well as pass through entities such as partnerships, S-corporations, estates, and trusts.  Long-term capital gains distributions from mutual funds on a 1099-DIV are reported in Part II.  (Short-term capital gains distributions from mutual funds are actually included as ordinary dividends on the 1099-DIV, and are reported on Schedule B instead.)  In addition, short-term and long-term loss carryovers from prior years are added into their respective parts on Schedule D.

Part III nets the short-term gains or losses against the long-term gains or losses.  It then helps you determine the gain or loss to enter on the 1040.  It also walks you through several worksheets to determine the amount of tax and tax rates you will pay on any gains.

So what would you do about the mug?  Hopefully mom would have some recollection of the history.  Maybe there was a somewhat recent time when it was passed by inheritance and would have received a step-up in basis.  Of course, you should have figured that out before you sold it, and then had an appraisal done to support it!  Otherwise, if it had just been gifted from one person to the next, the mug probably had very little if any cost basis, and you might be stuck with a big taxable gain.

In two weeks we will discuss Schedule E – Supplemental Income and Loss.

Travis H. Long, CPA is located at 706-B Forest Avenue, PG, 93950 and focuses on trust, estate, individual, and business taxation. He can be reached at 831-333-1041.

Back To Basics Part VII – Schedule C

Originally published in the Cedar Street Times

January 9, 2015

In this issue, we are discussing Schedule C -Profit or Loss from Business.  Prior articles are republished on my website at www.tlongcpa.com/blog if you would like to catch up on our Back to Basics series on personal tax returns.

Schedule C is generally used to report income and expenses for your self-employment activities for which no partnership exists or no entity has been established (such as a C or S-Corporation or LLC) – in other words, it is used for a sole proprietorship.  Of course there are exceptions and wrinkles to the rules.  Here are a few common ones.  In most states, a husband and wife which own and operate a business together would file a partnership return instead of a Schedule C.  However, since California is a community property state, a husband and wife should generally file two Schedule Cs and split the income and deductions based on their distributive shares, even if filing a joint return.

One important reason for doing this is that two Schedule SEs would also be filed reporting the Social Security and Medicare taxes separately for each spouse.  They would each be subject to the full taxable wage base for Social Security, but they would also each receive credit for their earnings which would figure into their Social Security checks in retirement.

An LLC with only one member that is operating a business would also report the business activity on a Schedule C instead of a 1065 Partnership return.  Since you can’t have a partnership between you and yourself, the formal entity structure is disregarded for federal tax purposes and reported like a sole proprietorship.  In community property states such as California, a husband and wife that both own and operate the business are actually considered one member for LLC purposes.  If they were the only two owners, the entity would be disregarded, but they would then report on two Schedule Cs as discussed above.

Now that we have discussed who uses the form, let’s move to the form itself.  The initial section of Schedule C asks for identifying information – the name of the business, the type of business, address, etc.  If you have an employer identification number you can enter that as well.  This would be required if you have employees on payroll.  You can also obtain one if you simply do not want to hand out your Social Security number whenever a formal taxpayer identification number is needed – such as for filing 1099-Misc forms for independent contractors.

There are also some other direct questions regarding your basis of accounting, level of participation, and filing compliance.  Most small businesses under $10 million in annual revenues operate by the cash method of accounting as it has many advantages.  Material participation is a tightly defined standard  by the IRS which can affect your ability to take losses in a down year.  The questions on 1099 filings are loaded questions designed to help the IRS easily identify businesses that are not filing required 1099s for payments to independent contractors, for interest received, etc.

In Part I Income, you list your gross receipts, subtract sales returns and allowances, subtract cost of goods sold (which are detailed in Part III) and then add other income such as interest income or certain credits.  Part III Cost of Goods Sold is mainly geared towards retailers, wholesalers, and manufacturers.  It provides a place to detail beginning and ending inventory and any associated labor and material costs associated with production of the goods.  Even taxpayers on a cash basis are generally required to track inventory.  Cash basis typically means you get the deduction when you spend the cash, and you record the income when you get the cash.  But with inventory, you do not get the deduction until the inventory is sold or disposed.

In Part II you detail all your expenses.  The instructions to Schedule C do a pretty good job of explaining what types of expenses they want on each line.  Some of the lines are supported by additional forms such Form 4562 Depreciation and Amortization feeding into Schedule C line 13 for Depreciation.  Line 24b for Meals and Entertainment is unique as most qualified meals and entertainment are allowed only a 50 percent deduction.  Another unique aspect is that preset per diem rate deductions are allowed for self-employed individuals (and employees) for meals, entertainment, and incidental expenses in lieu of tracking actual receipts.  Some of these per diems are quite generous depending on the location of travel, and taxpayers can sometimes get a much larger deduction than the amount they actually spend.

Line 30 for expenses for business use of your home is another example where an entirely separate form (Form 8829) is used to calculate the deduction.  There is also an alternative simplified method introduced with the 2013 returns that gives you $5 square foot for business space (up to $1,500) without having to track actual expenses on Form 8829.

Line 32 contains a few questions about whether your investment in the business is “at-risk” or not.  Basically they are asking if you are financially liable if things go south, and could you lose the money you have injected into the business in the past.  This affects your ability to take losses in down years.

Part IV details your vehicle deduction for standard mileage rate users.  For 2014, this amount is 56 cents a mile.  If you track actual expenses instead, you would not fill out this part.

Part V is for any additional expenses not discussed in Part II.

In two weeks we will continue our Back to Basics series with Schedule D – Capital Gains and Losses

Travis H. Long, CPA is located at 706-B Forest Avenue, PG, 93950 and focuses on trust, estate, individual, and business taxation. He can be reached at 831-333-1041.

Back To Basics Part VI – Schedule B

Originally published in the Cedar Street Times

December 26, 2014

In this issue, we are discussing Schedule B – Interest and Ordinary Dividends.  Prior articles are republished on my website at www.tlongcpa.com/blog if you would like to catch up on our Back to Basics series on personal tax returns.

Interest you earn from the use of your money by others is reported in detail  in Part I of Schedule B and then summarized on Line 8a of Form 1040.  Interest is taxed as ordinary income depending on your tax bracket.  The most common form is interest earned from your banks or investment companies.  You will generally receive a Form 1099-INT telling you the amount you paid if the amount is over $10.  If it is under $10, there is no requirement for the payor to go through the hassle to report it to you and the IRS; technically that does not alleviate your responsibility to report it on your tax returns, however.  This holds true for all IRS reportings.  Some people think if no tax document is received, they are somehow relieved from the responsibility to report.  This is an incorrect notion.

Other forms of interest to report on Schedule B could be interest earned from personal loans made to friends or family, or loans made to a business.  In practice, you often will not receive a 1099-INT from individuals you loan money to, but they actually have the same requirements as a bank to file a 1099-INT for interest they pay to you, and they could be penalized for not doing so.

Another form of interest you need to report on Schedule B is interest earned from a seller-financed mortgage.  If you sold your home and carried back a note on the house from the buyer, the interest they pay you is reportable interest on Schedule B.  You are required to track the interest and report it properly.  You and the buyer are both required to provide your names, Social Security numbers, and addresses to each other for proper tax reporting and matching.  You list the buyer’s information in Part I of Schedule B next to the amount they paid you.  A buyer will do the same for reporting the mortgage interest on Schedule A.  A Form W-9 is the best document to request and provide Social Security Numbers.  Buyers and sellers could each be penalized if they fail to provide their Social Security numbers for this purpose or if they simply get it verbally, and it is incorrect.  A W-9 signed by the other party is a protection to you.

Be careful to not include any tax-exempt interest such as from U.S. Treasury Bonds or tax-free municipal bonds on Schedule B.  These would be reported on Line 8b of Form 1040 and are generally not taxable unless there are other adjustments such as those made for Alternative Minimum Tax on Form 6251.  Another source of interest to avoid reporting on your Schedule B is interest earned from investments in your retirement plan (I have see people make this mistake!).

There are other forms of interest or adjustments such as original issue discounts, private activity bond interest, amortizable bond premiums, and nominee distributions which are beyond the scope of this article.

Dividends are reported in detail in Part II of Schedule B and summarized on Line 9a of Form 1040.  Dividends are essentially a return of part of the profits of the business to the owners.  When you own shares of stock in a company, for instance, they may pay out a certain amount per share if the company is doing well.  You can reinvest the dividends and buy more shares or take the cash.  Either way, the dividends get reported on Schedule B.

Dividends are taxed at your ordinary income tax bracket rate unless they qualify for special capital gains rate treatment.  Then they are called qualified dividends.  To qualify for special treatment the dividends must be from U.S. corporations, corporations set up in U.S. Possessions, or in foreign countries with certain tax treaty benefits, or if readily tradable on U.S. stock exchanges.  If you have held the stock for less than a year, there are also some specific holding period requirements that could still allow the stock to qualify.

The portion of ordinary dividends that are considered qualified are reported on Line 9b of Form 1040, and don’t actually show up on the Schedule B.  This is a large advantage as people in the 10 percent or 15 percent income tax bracket pay no tax on capital gains and qualified dividends!  People in the top 39.6 percent bracket pay a 20 percent rate on qualified dividends and everyone in between pays 15 percent.

Part III of Schedule B consists of questions about any foreign accounts or trusts you own or have signature authority over.  These questions are EXTREMELY important to answer correctly.  If you have a foreign account you will also need to file FinCen Form 114 with the Treasury Department.  There are potentially massive penalties for failure to properly report on FinCen Form 114, even if unintentional, and possible jail time if you willfully do not report.  You may also need to file a Form 8938, a 3520 or other forms related to foreign assets.  If you have foreign assets, you should seek professional support that has experience in this area.  Getting caught is much worse than coming forward.

In two weeks we will continue our Back to Basics series with Schedule C – Profit or Loss from Business

Travis H. Long, CPA is located at 706-B Forest Avenue, PG, 93950 and focuses on trust, estate, individual, and business taxation. He can be reached at 831-333-1041.

Back to Basics Part V – Schedule A Wrap-Up

Originally published in the Cedar Street Times

December 12, 2014

In this issue, we are finishing our discussion on Schedule A – Itemized Deductions.  Prior articles are republished on my website at www.tlongcpa.com/blog if you would like to catch up on our Back to Basics series on personal tax returns.

The fifth section of Schedule A is for personal casualty and theft losses.  This is designed to help people with major losses.  The deduction on schedule A is calculated by taking the amount of the loss, subtracting $100, then subtracting 10 percent of your adjusted gross income.  Any amount left over will be an itemized deduction (if any).  There are several ways to calculate the amount of the loss but it is generally limited to the lesser of your adjusted cost basis or the decrease in the fair market value.  Sometimes appraisals are necessary to establish the decrease, but in all cases, the amount of any insurance proceeds received would reduce the loss.  Another salient point is that the loss generally has to be sudden, unexpected, and permanent in nature; it is not the result of degrading over time.  For instance, a car accident or theft would qualify; termite damage would not qualify.  Losing something does not qualify either.  Business casualty losses are not reported on Schedule A.

The next section deals with miscellaneous itemized deductions subject to two percent.  This means you take all the deductions in this section, subtract two percent of your adjusted gross income, and the left over amount is your itemized deduction for this section (if any).  Some of the deductions here include unreimbursed employee business expenses, union dues, investment expenses, income tax consultations and preparation, legal expenses related to your job or to the extent they deal with tax issues or the protection of future taxable income, job search or education expenses (if they relate to your current field), etc.

Unreimbursed employee business expenses are those which are ordinary and necessary and the employer expects the employee to pay for the expenses.  If the employer has a reimbursement plan, but the employee simply fails to request reimbursement, the expense will not qualify.  It is best if the employer has a written policy, or as part of the employment agreement, spells out what things the employee is expected to cover.  Sales people can often have high deductions in this area through business miles on their vehicles and meals and entertainment for clients.  If a company provides no office space for an employee and the person has an office in his or her home, deductions can be taken for that as well.

Investment expenses paid to financial advisors or even IRA fees can be deductible.  Financial advisor fees must be prorated if you have taxable investment income and tax free investment income such as municipal bond interest.  Only the portion allocated to taxable income is deductible.  For IRA fees to be deductible, they must be paid with funds outside the retirement plan.  This is preferred anyway so as not to deplete your retirement account by using IRA funds to pay the fees.

The last section of deductions on Schedule A is called “Other Miscellaneous Deductions.”  These are NOT subject to the two percent of adjusted gross income floor, and the full amount become itemized deductions.  These are less frequently encountered and include things like Federal estate tax on income in respect of decedent, gambling losses up to the amount of winnings, losses from Ponzi schemes, casualty and theft losses on income-producing assets, amortizable bond premiums, unrecovered investments in annuities and other items.

The final part of Schedule A is one more “gotcha.”  If your income is over $305,050 for Married Filing Joint or $254,200 Single, part of your deductions begin to phase out.  Medical expenses, investment interest, casualty, theft, and gambling losses are not subject to the phase out.  The rest of the deductions can be reduced by as much as 80 percent!  The amount is determined by taking your adjusted gross income, subtracting the above figure based on your filing status, and multiplying the result by three percent.  That is your adjustment capped at the 80 percent maximum.

In two weeks we will continue our Back to Basics series with Schedule B – Interest and Ordinary Dividends.

Travis H. Long, CPA is located at 706-B Forest Avenue, PG, 93950 and focuses on trust, estate, individual, and business taxation. He can be reached at 831-333-1041.

Back to Basics Part IV – Even More Sch. A

Originally published in the Cedar Street Times

November  28, 2014

In this issue, we are continuing our discussion on Schedule A – Itemized Deductions.  Prior articles are republished on my website at www.tlongcpa.com/blog if you would like to catch up on our Back to Basics series on personal tax returns.

The third section on Schedule A covers deductible interest you have paid.  For most people the big item here is the mortgage interest on their principal residence.  You can also deduct mortgage interest on one other personal residence as well.  A lot of people assume that if the interest shows up on a Form 1098 that it is deductible.  Contrary to popular belief, that does not determine deductibility.  People with rental and personal properties, for instance, that refinance and pull money out of one property and put it into another are especially at risk of having made a major mistake.

The home mortgage interest deduction requires the debt to be secured by a qualified home and have been used to acquire, construct, or improve the home up to $1,000,000 of debt and up to $100,000 of additional debt for any purpose.  Assume someone refinances a rental property and pulls $200,000 out of it to buy a personal residence.  The interest on the $200,000 is not a rental property deduction on Schedule E because the funds did not go into the rental property activity.  It is also not deductible on Schedule A as home mortgage interest because the debt is not secured by a qualified personal residence – it is secured by the rental property!  Oops – nondeductible personal interest!  There are some work-arounds to this, but they are not always easily accomplished, and the problem is more likely to be found in an audit when it is too late.

Another common problem crops up for people on personal residences who take out a second loan, open a line of credit, or do a cash-out refinance and do not use the cash to improve the home.  This portion is called home equity debt.  You can only deduct the interest on up to $100,000 of total home equity debt.  Anything beyond that becomes non-deductible personal interest, and would need to be tracked properly.  If you later refinance your primary loan and the home equity loan into one loan, the character of the debt remains the same.  This means you have to keep track of the portion of the debt that is home equity debt versus acquisition debt that comprises the one loan.

Other deductible interest would include points paid during a purchase or refinance.  Often these are not included on the 1098 and you must look to the escrow closing statement to pick them up.  New purchases allow 100% deduction of the points in the year purchased.  Refinances, require amortizing and taking a portion of the deduction each year over the life of the loan term.  Private Mortgage Insurance (PMI) used to be deductible as interest, subject to limitations, but is not currently slated for a deduction in 2014.  Investment interest is another item that falls into this section of Schedule A.  A simple example would be borrowing money to invest in the stock market – like a margin loan.  However, investment interest expense is only deductible to the extent that you have investment income (Form 4952).  So, if you paid $1,000 of interest, you better have made a $1,000 of investment income, otherwise the excess gets suspended and carried forward for the future.

The fourth section on Schedule A deals with gifts to charity.  Volumes have been written on this topic!  Gifts to charity must be made to qualifying organizations for U.S. tax purposes.  There is a 50 percent of your adjusted gross income limit each year regarding regular donations to charities.  There are also 30 percent and 20 percent limitations for donations to certain types of organizations and types of property donated.  So if you gave a very large gift, it could get suspended and carried over to the future.  There is generally a five-year carryover limit, at which point any remaining deductions would be lost.

All donations must have substantiation, no matter how small.  Cash donations under $250 must be substantiated with a properly worded letter from the organization, a cancelled check, a bank statement, or a credit card statement.  Cash donations over $250 require a letter from the organization.  Noncash donations have a lot of rules.  Every noncash donation requires a receipt from the organization.  Noncash donations over $500 require the filing of an 8283.  Noncash donations over $5,000 require a qualified appraisal as well.  It would be in your best interest to ensure you have properly planned when making (or anticipating to make) a donation over $5,000.  The $5,000 threshold is cumulative throughout the year for similar items.  This means that many trips throughout the year of donating to the local charitable thrift store of household goods would retroactively require an appraisal to claim over $5,000.  And it is hard to appraise items you no longer have!  As you can see there can be much to consider.

You can deduct out-of-pocket charitable volunteer expenses such as uniforms or gear necessary for the volunteer work.  If you travel on your own dime overnight, and you have substantial duties and very little personal activities, you may be able to deduct airline tickets, meals, lodging, etc.  Volunteer excursions that are not away from home overnight do not qualify for meal deductions.  If you use your vehicle for charitable purposes you can deduct the mileage at 14 cents per mile, or track gas and oil expenses.

A few things that are definitely not deductible but are commonly misunderstood by individuals as well as by small charitable organizations: 1) gifts to needy or worthy individuals –  even if you give to a qualified organization be sure you do not earmark your donation for a particular person or family, or your deduction is not legitimate ,  2) gifts of your time or services – like the artist trying to deduct a self-created painting at “fair market value” – you can only deduct hard costs such as the canvas and paint costs.  Since you never included in income and paid tax on your services, you cannot take a deduction for them,  3) charity raffles, bingo, lotteries  4) charitable auctions or other donations to the extent of the value you received in return – such as paying $75 in a charity silent auction, but you get a $100 gift certificate – no deduction allowed.  Or the local public radio station sends you a set of CDs they value at $100 in return for your $125 donation – you only get to deduct $25.

In two weeks we will continue our discussion regarding Schedule A.

Travis H. Long, CPA is located at 706-B Forest Avenue, PG, 93950 and focuses on trust, estate, individual, and business taxation. He can be reached at 831-333-1041.

Back to Basics Part III – More Sch. A

Originally published in the Cedar Street Times

November  14, 2014

Two weeks ago we discussed the purpose of schedules and forms in a tax return and then began a discussion on Schedule A – Itemized Deductions.  We discussed that itemizing deductions is an option if you have more than what the IRS allots as a standard deduction to everyone for things like medical expenses, taxes, charitable donations, and other miscellaneous deductions.  This week we are going to look more closely at the different types of deductions that you can itemize on Schedule A and how these deductions can get a shave and a haircut and look like less than when you started.

The first section on Schedule A covers out-of-pocket medical expenses (not reimbursed by insurance).  Things like doctors, dentists, chiropractors, Christian Science practitioners, hospital bills, prescription drugs (not over the counter), eyeglasses, contacts, copays, etc. all fit into this category.  Health insurance is also deductible here unless it is for self-employed people, in which case it can get potentially better treatment as an adjustment to income on page one of the 1040 instead.  Health insurance would include your Medicare payments which most people see deducted from their Social Security checks.

Sometimes people are surprised to learn that substantial expenditures on your home can be deductible if done to improve accessibility – such as widening doors and bathrooms, installing ramps, hand rails, etc. (there are a number of rules to be aware of, however).  You can also deduct medical related miles at 23.5 cents per mile and even deduct overnight travel expenses if you must drive to a hospital that is not local, for instance. The problem with medical expense deductions is that for the vast majority of people, none of the expenses even make it towards counting as an itemized deduction. 

You have to have in excess of 10 percent of your adjusted gross income (the bottom number on page one of your 1040) in medical expenses before a single dollar counts.  So, if your adjusted gross income is $100,000, and you have $10,500 of out-of-pocket medical expenses, only $500 counts towards your itemized deductions.  If you or your spouse are over 65 you have a 7.5 percent threshold through 2016, and then you will jump to ten percent as well.  A really nice planning opportunity around this dilemma is having a health savings account in connection with a high deductible plan.  It has the ability to effectively convert some or all of your nondeductible medical expenses to deductible expenses.  Ask your tax preparer or insurance agent about this.

The second section on Schedule A covers deductible taxes you have paid. This includes state income taxes you paid during the year, SDI withholdings from your CA paycheck, real estate taxes on your personal residence(s), personal property taxes assessed on value such as annual vehicle taxes (license fee on your CA DMV renewal), boat, aircraft, etc.  Remember, as a cash basis taxpayer, these (as with generally all income and expenses on your tax returns) count in the year you actually pay them (or charge them in the case of a credit card), so it doesn’t matter what year they are supposed to cover – just look at when they were paid.  There has been an option in past years to deduct sales taxes you paid during the year if they were greater than the state income taxes you paid, but that is currently not an option for 2014, unless Congress takes action.

In two weeks we will continue our discussion regarding Schedule A.

Prior articles are republished on my website at www.tlongcpa.com/blog.

Travis H. Long, CPA is located at 706-B Forest Avenue, PG, 93950 and focuses on trust, estate, individual, and business taxation. He can be reached at 831-333-1041.

Back to Basics Part II – Schedule A

Originally published in the Cedar Street Times

October 31, 2014

Two weeks ago we discussed a general overview of the Form 1040 – a personal income tax return.  The 1040 can be thought of as a two-page summary of your taxes in a nutshell.  (I should mention also there are two other shorter forms that could be filed instead: a 1040A and a 1040EZ.  These are for simpler returns and have income limits and other restrictions.  In practice, however, anyone using tax software does not really have to decide which form to use and the software will generally optimize as appropriate.  For our discussion we will focus on the 1040.)

The details for many of the items on the Form 1040 are actually determined on subsequent Schedules and Forms.   Schedules are labeled with letters of the alphabet and additional forms are generally four digit numbers.  Schedules are generally more major topical areas.  For instance, Schedule C – Profit or Loss from Business, which is a summary of all the activity of a sole proprietorship.  It may in turn have subsequent forms that support it.  Forms are often more narrowly focused and would generally support other schedules or forms.  For instance Form 4572 Depreciation, could support the calculation of depreciation expense for a business on Schedule C, a rental property on Schedule E, a farm on Schedule F, etc.  I have not counted them all, but I have read the IRS has over 800 forms and schedules.  The reality is that most people are covered by 30 or 40 of those 800!

Let’s start at the beginning of the alphabet – Schedule A.  (I am sure this saddens you, but we will not be going through all 800 in this series of articles, but we will hit on a number of the most common ones!)  Schedule A is for itemized deductions.  You probably hear lots of people justify expenses by tossing around the phrase, “it’s deductible.”  However, just because something may be deductible, does not mean it will benefit you. This is easily seen with Schedule A.  Schedule A covers a host of “expenses” that most people have that our tax code has graced as good behavior and therefore allows a deduction for it.  Medical expenses, state and local taxes, real estate taxes, mortgage interest, charitable deductions, unreimbursed employee business expenses, my favorite – tax preparation fees, investment expenses, etc.

Since Congress realized that everyone had some of this, and it would be a pain for people to track it, they decided to allow as an option a “standard deduction” for everyone in lieu of tracking and itemizing all those deductions.  The standard deduction was created to generally cover what many people would have on the average anyway.  For 2014 this standard deduction is $6,200 if you file as Single or Married Filing Separate, $12,400 if you file Married Filing Jointly or Qualifying Widow(er), and $9,100 if you are filing Head of Household status.  If you believe you would have more than this, then you would itemize the deductions using Schedule A.

Mortgage interest and real estate taxes are the two areas that push most Californians into the itemizing zone.  In other words, if you do not own a home, there is a good chance you won’t be itemizing.  This is not always true: sometimes people don’t own a home, but make a lot of money and pay a lot of deductible state income taxes which would push them over the standard deduction, or maybe they work in sales jobs where they have lots of unreimbursed employee business expenses, or have major unreimbursed medical expenditures, or are perhaps like you dear reader, and have a heart of gold giving away buckets of money to charitable organizations each year!  Or it could be a combination of things – paid some income taxes, have a stingy boss that won’t reimburse, and maybe you have a heart of bronze.

Next week we will discuss more specifically the deductions on Schedule A and how they can come out looking a little thin after running the Schedule A gauntlet.

Prior articles are republished on my website at www.tlongcpa.com/blog.

Travis H. Long, CPA is located at 706-B Forest Avenue, PG, 93950 and focuses on trust, estate, individual, and business taxation. He can be reached at 831-333-1041.

Do I Need to Set up an LLC or Incorporate?

Originally published in the Cedar Street Times

October 3, 2014

Two weeks ago I discussed some of the pitfalls of using an online service to help you set up an entity such as an LLC, C-Corporation, or S-Corporation for your business.  In a nutshell, you really need tailored advice from an accountant and an attorney to address your circumstances and you should use an attorney to properly set everything up.  I have found that people that utilize these services generally do not have a good understanding of what they did and why, and they don’t know much about their ongoing responsibilities, the importance of carrying them out, or the consequences of failing to do so.

Now I am going to turn the tables and ask you why you think you need a formal entity at all?  When I say this I am thinking about small businesses getting started.  If your accounting and legal advice is from family or friends, hopefully they actually are accountants and business attorneys and reviewing your WHOLE situation.  Or maybe you read something online – maybe even an article like this!  Be careful what you read!

My personal feeling is that there are a lot of small businesses out there that have set up entities prematurely, and have entangled themselves in a lot of extra cost, record keeping, and administrative hassle for very little benefit.

The vast majority of people setting up entities for small businesses do it because of perceived liability protection for their personal assets.  Some do it for certain circumstances that can lead to tax benefits, and others do it in rare circumstances where a major customer requires it.

It is important to understand there is no bullet proof solution when it comes to shielding yourself from liability.  There is almost always a way to spoil a good plan.  Legions of lawyers make their living at this.  Layers of protection are often implemented to mitigate the risk of chinks in your armor.  For instance have an entity and also having insurance would be a good example.

It is also important to understand that entities do not protect you from all forms of claims.  For instance, professionals cannot be shielded by an entity for acts of malpractice.  Malpractice insurance, however, could cover you.

If you do not respect the entity by following all the rules of corporations, s-corporations, or LLCs promulgated by various government authorities, then if there is a lawsuit, the courts could say, “You didn’t respect the entity, so why should we?”  They could look right through your entity and allow a creditor to go after your personal assets.

Small businesses are at a much higher risk for this since they generally don’t have a legal department trying to keep up with all the details!  I have seen small businesses that have gone through the hassle and expense of setting up corporations, filing tax returns and paying the California Franchise Tax each year and yet they have never held a corporate meeting or elected officers, never recorded any corporate minutes (and even if it is just you wearing all hats, you can’t ignore these things!), and treated the bank accounts of the company like an extension of their personal checking account.  And all the while they were thinking they had solid liability protection because they were a corporation…uhh no.  The devil is in the details as it is said!

Besides the initial cost of setting up an entity properly which could run two or three thousand dollars or more, you then have to file separate business tax returns, file an informational filing with the Secretary of State, possibly have an attorney draft a document or two each year, have better accounting for the tax returns (true double-entry accounting which includes an accurate balance sheet in addition to the profit and loss statement), and then you get the privilege of paying California at least $800 a year whether you make a dime or not.  So you have at least another couple thousand dollars each year of ongoing costs (more if you need to hire a bookkeeper when you find out that QuickBooks actually requires a fairly good amount of accounting knowledge to operate it properly.)

If the inherent risk of the business is relatively small or moderate, and especially if you are starting very small and do not even know if the business is going to be successful, then I think you need to carefully way the benefits and costs.  Could you just carry really good insurance and mitigate your risk to an acceptable level?  Do you need the additional layer of protection?  You can always incorporate or set up an LLC later.  Do you have employees, and what amount of risk do they expose you to?  Are they driving vehicles a lot for your business?  Or do you have rental property with lots of tenants?  Maybe you are a free-lance graphic artist designing business cards remotely from your home – not much risk there!  What are you trying to protect anyway – maybe the bulk of your personal assets you have would be considered exempt assets from creditors already? Although attorneys are generally risk-averse because they see all the things that can go wrong, and therefore would prefer to set up an entity, I think these types of discussions can be had with them and really question if it is right to set up an entity for your business for liability reasons.

Taxwise, there can be benefits to setting up an entity, depending on your circumstances, but it is rarely a driving force in and of itself for most small businesses.  The most common one people ask about deals with reducing self-employment taxes for the owner of an S-corporation.  There are ways this can be successful, but it is an issue that is in jeopardy of being eliminated.  It also has the drawback of possibly reducing your future Social Security benefits – although our government will probably beat you to the punch on that one anyway.

If you read this article and think, gee, I am not sure I really need the entity I have – do not just ignore the entity and pretend it doesn’t exist anymore!  Besides getting the proper tailored advice for you, you generally must properly dissolve it, or you will be plagued with continuing mandates for tax returns as well as Franchise Tax fees to California.  (There are limited circumstances where you can just walk away.)

In summary, get competent advice from an accountant and an attorney in light of YOUR facts and circumstances before jumping into an entity.  And question its necessity if you are small or if your business has low or moderate inherent risk and you have access to insurance that could protect you sufficiently.

Prior articles are republished on my website at www.tlongcpa.com/blog.

Travis H. Long, CPA is located at 706-B Forest Avenue, PG, 93950 and focuses on trust, estate, individual, and business taxation. He can be reached at 831-333-1041.

Forming a Business Entity

Originally published in the Cedar Street Times

September 19, 2014

Over the years, I have had many appointments with new and existing clients that are starting a small business for the first time.  We usually spend about an hour or so going through the basics of what to expect and be aware of: we cover things like self-employment taxes, tax estimates, business property tax statements, employees, insurance, sales tax, fictitious business name registration, business bank accounts, EINs, business licenses, etc.  One of the first things we talk about, however, is entity selection.  In other words, are you going to operate as a sole proprietorship, or will you form an LLC, S-corporation, C-corporation, partnership, etc.

Unfortunately, there are many people out there who pull the trigger early on entity selection based on something they hear from friends or find on the internet prior to getting tailored professional advice.  My feeling is that you really want to have a discussion about your particular situation with your accountant to provide input on the tax and accounting related issues and a business attorney to weigh in on liability, and other legal related issues before you get started.  The attorney should form the entity if you choose to operate other than as a sole proprietorship.

There are too many pitfalls, and I know there are many people out there that have made the wrong choice or, even worse, are operating with a presumption of liability protection when they have none because they did not properly form or respect the formalities of the entity.  Opposing counsel could have a victory on their hands if you failed to prepare annual corporate minutes, for instance. “Piercing the corporate veil” could suddenly enter your lexicon.

Online companies attempt to make it cheap and quick to form an entity for you, but I can tell you from my experience that many of the entities formed this way are later corrected or scrapped and redone by an attorney if one is hired to review it.  One of the problems, is that you have to be an attorney to render legal advice, and since it is rare for online companies to have attorneys for you to discuss your situation with, you may not choose the best entity or get all the language in your formation documents that you need.

Online companies also have difficulty conveying in an effective manner the important things to keep up with and staying in touch regarding these issues.  Many of the people who have used online services show up in my office with a fat binder that was shipped to them in the mail of which they have very little understanding; often has blanks that were never filled out; and has been collecting dust on the shelf.

I also hear from a fair number of these people that get notices from California requesting tax returns and a bunch of money for entities the taxpayer stopped operating years ago or maybe never even started aside from setting up the entity.  Unfortunately no one was there to advise them on how to properly close the entity.  The taxpayer often thinks that if they stop operating or decide not to go ahead with the business that they are done.  It doesn’t work this way.  I have even had people that formed an entity online and were shocked that they would have an $800 minimum fee to California each year.

There is a general push from many directions for people to establish entities for their small businesses these days.  In two weeks we will discuss the merits (or not) of this presumption.

Prior articles are republished on my website at www.tlongcpa.com/blog.

Travis H. Long, CPA is located at 706-B Forest Avenue, PG, 93950 and focuses on trust, estate, individual, and business taxation. He can be reached at 831-333-1041.

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 104 other followers