News from the IRS on deducting PPE in the Pandemic:
Face masks and other personal protective equipment to prevent the spread of COVID-19 are tax deductible
WASHINGTON — The Internal Revenue Service issued Announcement 2021-7 today clarifying that the purchase of personal protective equipment, such as masks, hand sanitizer and sanitizing wipes, for the primary purpose of preventing the spread of coronavirus are deductible medical expenses.
The amounts paid for personal protective equipment are also eligible to be paid or reimbursed under health flexible spending arrangements (health FSAs), Archer medical savings accounts (Archer MSAs), health reimbursement arrangements (HRAs), or health savings accounts (HSAs).
Here is a good news release from the IRS site worth reviewing
Important reminders before filing 2020 tax returns
WASHINGTON — Following an unpredictable year with many changes and challenges, the Internal Revenue Service today shared important reminders for taxpayers who are about to file their 2020 federal tax returns.
Choose direct deposit The safest, most accurate and fastest way to get a refund is to electronically file and choose direct deposit. Direct deposit means any tax refund is electronically deposited for free into a taxpayer’s financial account.
Eight out of 10 taxpayers get their refunds by using direct deposit. It is simple, safe and secure. This is the same electronic transfer system used to deposit nearly 98% of all Social Security and Veterans Affairs benefits into millions of accounts.
Earned Income Tax Credit The Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) can give qualifying workers with low-to-moderate income a substantial financial boost. EITC not only reduces the amount of tax someone owes but may give them a refund even if they don’t owe any taxes or aren’t required to file a return.
People must meet certain requirements and file a federal tax return in order to receive this credit. The EITC assistant on IRS.gov can help people determine if they qualify.
The IRS reminds taxpayers that they may elect to use their 2019 earned income to figure the EITC if their 2019 earned income is more than their 2020 earned income. For details, see Publication 596, Earned Income Credit. Taxpayers also have the option of using their 2019 income to figure the Additional Child Tax Credit for 2020.
Taxable unemployment compensation Millions of Americans received unemployment compensation in 2020, many of them for the first time. This compensation is taxable and must be included as gross income on their tax return.
Taxpayers can elect to have federal taxes withheld from their unemployment benefits or make estimated tax payments, but many do not take these options. In that case, taxes on those benefits will be paid when the 2020 tax return is filed. Taxes can be paid throughout the year. For safe and secure ways to pay taxes electronically go to IRS.gov/payments.
Taxpayers can find more details on taxable unemployment compensation in Tax Topic 418, Unemployment Compensation, or in Publication 525, Taxable and Nontaxable Income, on IRS.gov.
Interest is taxable income Many individual taxpayers who received a refund on their 2019 tax returns also received interest from the IRS. The interest payments were largely the result of the postponed filing deadline of July 15 due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
The 2019 refund interest payments are taxable, and taxpayers must report the interest on their 2020 federal income tax return.
The IRS will send a Form 1099-INT to anyone who receives interest totaling at least $10. The average refund interest amount is $18, but the amount for each taxpayer varies based on the tax refund that the taxpayer received. Form 1099-INT will be issued no later than Feb. 1, 2021.
Home office deduction The home office deduction is available to qualifying self-employed taxpayers, independent contractors and those working in the gig economy.
However, the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act suspended the business-use-of-home deduction from 2018 through 2025 for employees. Employees who receive a paycheck or a W-2 exclusively from an employer are not eligible for the deduction, even if they are currently working from home. IRS Publication 587, Business Use of Your Home, provides more on the home office deduction.
Workers moving into the gig economy Many people found different employment in 2020, including jobs in the gig economy. Taxpayers must report income earned in the gig economy on their tax return. However, gig-economy workers generally do not have taxes withheld from their pay as salaried workers normally do. The IRS encourages people earning income in the gig economy to consider making quarterly estimated tax payments to stay current with their federal tax obligations.
Charitable donation deduction for people who don’t itemize Individuals who take the standard deduction generally cannot claim a deduction for their charitable contributions. However, the CARES Act permits these individuals to claim a limited deduction on their 2020 federal income tax returns for cash contributions made to certain qualifying charitable organizations and still claim the standard deduction. Nearly nine in 10 taxpayers now take the standard deduction and could potentially qualify.
Under this change, individuals can claim a deduction of up to $300 for cash contributions made to qualifying charities during 2020. This deduction does not apply to donated property. The maximum deduction is $150 for married individuals filing separate returns. More information is available in Publication 526, Charitable Contributions, on IRS.gov.
Disasters such as wildfires, flooding or hurricanes Special tax law provisions may help taxpayers and businesses recover financially from the impact of a disaster, especially when the federal government declares their location to be a major disaster area. Some 2020 tax deadlines in certain counties have been extended into 2021 due to recent wildfires, hurricanes or flooding.
We face a challenging time for planning: The election resulted in a new President while the rate of Covid-19 infections (and deaths) continues to rise. This has affected the economy, resulted in some tax law changes and may yield more stimulus to restore the economy. Also, there may be more changes in 2021. This post is intended to help you make the best tax-efficient moves before 2021 begins.
2020 year-end tax planning – update on using the tax laws to save you money
In 2018, we provided a three-part series explaining the impact of the new tax law. In our first part, we discussed the impact of the new law on personal taxes and in our second part, we discussed planning for small businesses. This update replaces the third part from December 2018, as updated December in 2019 – it is our guide for year-end moves to reduce total taxes between 2020 and 2021. But, before getting to the planning steps, we address the uncertainty caused by possible tax changes in 2021 and review some recent changes from earlier this year.
Possible Tax Law Changes under Biden
President-Elect Biden campaigned on raising taxes for corporations and for individuals making over $400,000 of income. However, even if the Senate seats in Georgia go to Democrats in January, the lack of a “Blue Wave,” a sweeping Democratic mandate, means that the tax hikes are unlikely to pass. Furthermore, the President-Elect has made clear that controlling Covid-19 and economic recovery are the top priorities of his new administration.
What did President-Elect Biden propose? He would restore the 39.6% bracket for couples making $622,050 or more ($518,400 for singles), add a 12.4% social security tax for income over $400,000, place a 28% limit on itemized deductions for high income taxpayers, restore the 20% long-term capital gains rate for high income returns (and even apply ordinary rates on gains of taxpayers over $1 million), and limit the Qualified Business Income Deduction and opportunity zone credits. For estate taxes, he would reduce the current $11.58 million exemption to a lower amount, perhaps $5 million or even $3.5 million, and eliminate the step-up in basis at death.
While none of these changes are likely, there may be narrow tax hikes to fund infrastructure building and small tax breaks for lower earners (child/dependent care and elderly long-term care credits). There may also be more stimulus action, such as more Paycheck Protection Program loans and business tax breaks for worker safety measures, as well as retirement savings incentives, tax extenders for items expiring this year, and tax breaks to encourage US manufacturing. We will monitor activity on these matters for comment in future posts.
Changes from the SECURE and CARES Acts for 2020
We wrote about the CARES act earlier this year, which waived the 10% penalty for coronavirus-related distributions from qualified plans of up to $100,000, with three years to pay the taxes due or redeposit as a roll-over, and suspension of required minimum distributions (“RMDs”). The act also allows larger plan loans.
The Secure Act delayed RMDs to age 72 and allowed individuals to contribute to IRAs after age 70 ½ if still working. But the Act also limited the distribution of IRAs to a 10-year maximum for beneficiaries other than spouses and certain others, thus eliminating the “stretch IRA.”
The Families First Act created credits for people unable to work due to Covid-19 illness and due to caring for others. If you are affected, check to see if you are eligible for any of these tax credits.
A reminder on the mortgage interest deductions
As you may recall, mortgage interest on new home purchases is deductible only for loans of up to $750,000 used to purchase your primary and secondary residences. Interest on home equity loans is not deductible, except when the home equity indebtedness is used to purchase or improve your primary or secondary residence.
Check taxes already paid
Make sure your total paid to the IRS and state via withholdings and estimates meets the safe harbor rules. If not, you could owe interest for under-withholding.
Now to the planning: Can you act at all?
Each year, we advise that you be practical, focusing on where you can actually make moves. For many, the $24,800 standard deduction for married couples (more for over 65 taxpayers, and $12,400 for single taxpayers) means you will not itemize (i.e., your total for itemized deductions is less than the standard amount so you take the higher standard deduction). And, if you are not itemizing, you have fewer ways in which to affect change in the taxes due in either year (but you can also stop collecting receipts for those deductions).
There is one exception from the CARES Act, which provides a $300 above the line charitable deduction for cash contributions. You get this regardless of itemizing.
Some possible deduction strategies
One technique for getting around the limit on deductions is to bunch certain deductions from two or more years into one year. However, the only deduction that you can easily move is for charitable donations, because your state, local and real estate taxes are limited to a $10,000 maximum and you cannot accelerate, or delay, significant amounts of mortgage interest.
If you do not want any one charity to receive the full amount in one year, you can still use this bunching strategy to donate to a donor advised fund, from which you may be able to designate donations to particular charities in future years.
The tax planning steps
What can you move? If you are able to itemize, determine what income and deductions you can move from 2020 to 2021 or vice versa. You want to minimize total taxes for both years. Make sure your planning includes the 3.8% Medicare tax on high income and a review Roth conversion. Roth distributions are not taxed, so converting a traditional or roll-over IRA to a Roth could be beneficial, as long as the tax cost now is not too great – see more at Roth or not to Roth? With the waiver of the 10% penalty for early withdrawals, a Roth conversion may be more attractive. Business owners will want to review our post on planning under 199A for QBID.
What is the effect of moving? Next, review the impact of moving income and expense to see what happens if you shift any of these amounts from one year to the other year.
The AMT – Finally, watch for the Alternative Minimum Tax (“AMT”). The AMT affects fewer people, but it is still wise to review so you avoid it.
If you have not maxed-out your 401(k) plan, IRA, Health Savings Account or flex plan account, consider doing so before the end of the year. The contributions reduce your tax able income while adding to savings. But check out our post on paying debts vs. investing.
If you are 70½ or older, you have the option of distributing up to $100,000 from your IRA or other qualified plan to an IRS-approved charity and having none of the distribution taxed. The provision was great when you had an RMD to satisfy, but that was suspended for 2020. That should not stop you if you still have the charitable intent.
The deduction of unreimbursed business expenses was terminated by the new tax law. That hurts many who are working from home this year, as they cannot deduct associated costs.
We wrote about forming an LLC or S Corp. to report business expenses or taking expenses on Schedule C in our 2018 Part III post, but that applies to expenses for that business and we stressed that you will need a valid business purpose to form the LLC or S Corp. or use Schedule C for self-employment and take expenses. Be sure to consult with an attorney before trying any of these ideas.
Review your unrealized losses to see if you can “harvest” those losses to offset or “shelter” realized gains, reducing your total taxable income. If you have more losses than gains, you can take up to $3,000 of capital losses against other income.
If you sell an asset that you would prefer to retain, in order to shelter gains in 2020, make sure you do not run afoul of the wash-sale rule (any loss on an asset that you repurchase in 30 days will be disallowed, so you have to either wait 30 days or purchase a similar asset that fits your portfolio while not counting against the wash sale rule). N.B. – when buying mutual funds late in the year, check for distribution dates so you do not purchase just before dividend and capital gains distributions, as you will owe taxes on those distributions.
If you have significant unrealized gains, consider using appreciated stock for charitable donations – that way you avoid the tax on the gain while still getting the full fair market value for your charitable donation. That is very effective tax leverage!
Estate plan review
While you review your taxes, review your estate plan as well. The federal exemption is over $11 million in 2020, so fewer people will owe any federal estate tax. However, that may change in 2021; also, many states still impose estate taxes on smaller estates.
The individual gift and estate tax exemption is due to return to $5 million, adjusted for inflation, in 2026 and could be lowered sooner, as noted above. That tax rate could also go up.
If you have “excess wealth” and want to reduce your taxable estate by gifting assets to children or others, you can give $15,000 per person, per year now. If your spouse joins you, that is $30,000 per person. This includes funding a 529 plan for education cost – expanded to provide for more than just college – or an ABLE account for disabled dependents. Note, however, that holding appreciated assets for the step up in basis at death may be better than gifting, but this could be eliminated as noted above.
If you do review your estate plan documents, also review beneficiary designations to make sure everything is current. And review your medical directive and durable power of attorney.
Carefully review any income and deductions that you can still shift to see if moving will lessen the total taxes you pay for 2020 and 2021.
Good luck and best wishes for happy and healthy holidays!
Investing has changed as times have changed … financial planning rules need to change too
In the past, when asked by a client about adding principal payments to reduce mortgage debt, so that the mortgage would be paid off sooner, I advised them to invest that payment instead.
That advice was based on the financial planning rule that you do not pay off debt when the after-tax cost of the debt is less than the after-tax return on the investments. Instead, you use cash flow to add to the investment because this is how you increase your net worth – the total of all investments less all debt – over time.
Also, by not paying down your mortgage quickly, you had the added benefit of not tying up working capital in your home. You cannot sell a bedroom when you need funds for a child going to college.
But that was then … things are different now ….
All components of the financial planning rule need to be reevaluated: Interest rates and inflation are at or near historic lows. The tax law on deduction of mortgage and other interest on debts has changed. The disruption to the economy from the Pandemic has hurt businesses and that will affect future investment returns.
Interest rates – With interest rates so low, the investment return on cash is near zero and the return on bonds is very low. Rates are almost certain to rise, which will make bonds today worth less in the future (when low interest bonds compete against newer bonds that offer higher interest rates, they are re-priced to match the new rate and that decreases what anyone will pay for the old bonds).
Tax deductions – The Tax Cut and Jobs Act made the standard deduction the option for more than two-thirds of taxpayers. With the standard deduction, there is no benefit because the mortgage interest is not actually deducted to lower your net taxes due. That means that the after-tax cost of mortgage debt is no better than the before-tax cost.
Investment returns – to get a better sense of the likely investment returns for that side of the rule, I spoke to Hal Hallstein IV of the Sankala Group, LLC out of Boulder, CO. He referred me to their post on Money Supply & Discount Rates, in which they discuss the impact of stimulus checks and PPP loans in an economy where recipients are likely to invest those funds or make financial purchases because simple consumption, travel and entertainment, has been shut down. They also discuss the threshold return required for making an investment decision, viz. the discount rate. In the post, he states:
But simultaneously, we also know buying bonds with zero yields won’t work for people’s retirements, which realistically require 3% yields. Where does this leave us?
He then presents a rationale for owning gold, an asset he has always avoided, as have I. But now it serves as a protection against a downturn when you have a portfolio that invests primarily in the stock market.
In our conversation, we compared the weighted cost of capital, the blended rate on all your debt, against the expected return from investing, which he pegs at 3.5 to 4.25% over the next decade, due to high equity valuations in the US and low interest rates.*
One note of caution: to get those returns will require tolerating substantial volatility.
All of this leads to the following: if your mortgage is at 3.5%, and you get no deduction value, and your potential return is 3.5% before taxes, on which you will have some tax hit, now or later, then paying off the debt is a better choice financially than adding to your investments.
New planning ideas
When you apply the debt to investment rule above, more people may find it best to pay down debt.
For a mortgage, added to your monthly payment will have a substantial impact over time, cutting the total interest paid. If you have a Roth IRA, it may even make sense to distribute funds to pay a student loan or car loan, depending on the loan interest rate.
There are still some reasons not to switch from retirement investing to debt reduction, such as when your employer offers a match for contributions. For a good set of considerations to review before acting, see the Betterment 5-Step Action Plan.
While the planning rule used to lead to the conclusion that you are best off adding to investments rather than accelerating paying off long-term debt like a mortgage or car loan, the conclusion from applying that rule has flipped. Many will increase their net worth by paying down debt sooner.
I hope you and your loved ones are all managing this as well as you can during the Pandemic.
Thank you, and be well
* Sankala Group LLC’s communications should not be considered by any client or prospective client as a solicitation or recommendation to affect any transactions in securities. Any direct communication by Sankala Group LLC with a client or prospective client will be carried out by a representative that is either registered with or qualifies for an exemption or exclusion from registration in the state where the prospective client resides. Sankala Group LLC does not make any representations or warranties as to the accuracy, timeliness, suitability, completeness, or relevance of any information presented in this communication, or by any unaffiliated third party. All such information is provided solely for illustrative purposes.
Steven A. Branson, retirement, investing, Financial Strategies, debt, discount rate, decision making, newsletter, cost of capital