Uncle Sam may provide relief from college costs on your tax return
We all know the cost of college is expensive. The latest figures from the College Board show that the average annual cost of tuition and fees was $10,230 for in-state students at public four-year universities — and $35,830 for students at private not-for-profit four-year institutions. These amounts don’t include room and board, books, supplies, transportation and other expenses that a student may incur.
Two tax credits
Fortunately, the federal government offers two sizable tax credits for higher education costs that you may be able to claim:
1. The American Opportunity credit. This tax break generally provides the biggest benefit to most taxpayers. The American Opportunity credit provides a maximum benefit of $2,500. That is, you may qualify for a credit equal to 100% of the first $2,000 of expenses for the year and 25% of the next $2,000 of expenses. It applies only to the first four years of postsecondary education and is available only to students who attend at least half time.
Basically, tuition, course materials and fees qualify for this credit. The credit is per eligible student and is subject to phaseouts based on modified adjusted gross income (MAGI). For 2019, the MAGI phaseout ranges are:
- Between $80,000 and $90,000 for unmarried individuals, and
- Between $160,000 and $180,000 for married joint filers.
2. The Lifetime Learning credit. This credit equals 20% of qualified education expenses for up to $2,000 per tax return. There are fewer restrictions to qualify for this credit than for the American Opportunity credit.
The Lifetime Learning credit can be applied to education beyond the first four years, and qualifying students may attend school less than half time. The student doesn’t even need to be part of a degree program. So, the credit works well for graduate studies and part-time students who take a qualifying course at a local college to improve job skills. It applies to tuition, fees and materials.
It’s also subject to phaseouts based on MAGI, however. For 2019, the MAGI phaseout ranges are:
- Between $58,000 and $68,000 for unmarried individuals, and
- Between $116,000 and $136,000 for married joint filers.
Note: You can’t claim either the American Opportunity Credit or the Lifetime Learning Credit for the same student or for the same expense in the same year.
Credit for what you’ve paid
So which higher education tax credit is right for you? A number of factors need to be reviewed before determining the answer to that question. Contact us for more information about how to take advantage of tax-favored ways to save or pay for college.
The key to retirement security is picking the right plan for your business
If you’re a small business owner or you’re involved in a start-up, you may want to set up a tax-favored retirement plan for yourself and any employees. Several types of plans are eligible for tax advantages.
One of the best-known retirement plan options is the 401(k) plan. It provides for employer contributions made at the direction of employees. Specifically, the employee elects to have a certain amount of pay deferred and contributed by the employer on his or her behalf to an individual account. Employee contributions can be made on a pretax basis, saving employees current income tax on the amount contributed.
Employers may, or may not, provide matching contributions on behalf of employees who make elective deferrals to 401(k) plans. Establishing and operating a 401(k) plan means some up-front paperwork and ongoing administrative effort. Matching contributions may be subject to a vesting schedule. 401(k) plans are subject to testing requirements, so that highly compensated employees don’t contribute too much more than non-highly compensated employees. However, these tests can be avoided if you adopt a “safe harbor” 401(k) plan.
Within limits, participants can borrow from a 401(k) account (assuming the plan document permits it).
For 2019, the maximum amount you can contribute to a 401(k) is $19,000, plus a $6,000 “catch-up” amount for those age 50 or older as of December 31, 2019.
Other tax-favored plans
Of course, a 401(k) isn’t your only option. Here’s a quick rundown of two other alternatives that are simpler to set up and administer:
1. A Simplified Employee Pension (SEP) IRA. For 2019, the maximum amount of deductible contributions that you can make to an employee’s SEP plan, and that he or she can exclude from income, is the lesser of 25% of compensation or $56,000. Your employees control their individual IRAs and IRA investments.
2. A SIMPLE IRA. SIMPLE stands for “savings incentive match plan for employees.” A business with 100 or fewer employees can establish a SIMPLE. Under one, an IRA is established for each employee, and the employer makes matching contributions based on contributions elected by participating employees under a qualified salary reduction arrangement. The maximum amount you can contribute to a SIMPLE in 2019 is $13,000, plus a $3,000 “catch-up” amount if you’re age 50 or older as of December 31, 2019.
Annual contributions to a SEP plan and a SIMPLE are controlled by special rules and aren’t tied to the normal IRA contribution limits. Neither type of plan requires annual filings or discrimination testing. You can’t borrow from a SEP plan or a SIMPLE.
These are only some of the retirement savings options that may be available to your business. We can discuss the alternatives and help find the best option for your situation.
Taking distributions from your traditional IRA
If you’re like many people, you’ve worked hard to accumulate a large nest egg in your traditional IRA (including a SEP-IRA). It’s even more critical to carefully plan for withdrawals from these retirement-savings vehicles.
Knowing the fine points of the IRA distribution rules can make a significant difference in how much you and your family will get to keep after taxes. Here are three IRA areas to understand:
- Taking early distributions. If you need to take money out of your traditional IRA before age 59½, any distribution to you will be generally taxable (unless nondeductible contributions were made, in which case part of each payout will be tax-free). In addition, distributions before age 59½ may be subject to a 10% penalty tax.
However, there are several ways that the penalty tax (but not the regular income tax) can be avoided. These exceptions include paying for unreimbursed medical expenses, paying for qualified educational expenses and buying a first home (up to $10,000).
- Naming your beneficiary (or beneficiaries). This decision affects the minimum amounts you must withdraw from the IRA when you reach age 70½; who will get what remains in the account at your death; and how that IRA balance can be paid out. What’s more, a periodic review of the individuals you’ve named as IRA beneficiaries is critical to assure that your overall estate planning objectives will be achieved. Review them when circumstances change in your personal life, finances and family.
- Taking required distributions. Once you reach age 70½, distributions from your traditional IRAs must begin. It doesn’t matter if you haven’t retired. If you don’t withdraw the minimum amount each year, you may have to pay a 50% penalty tax on what should have been taken — but wasn’t. In planning for required minimum distributions, your income needs must be weighed against the desirable goal of keeping the tax shelter of the IRA going for as long as possible for both yourself and your beneficiaries.
Keep more of your money
Prudently planning how to take money out of your traditional IRA can mean more money for you and your heirs. Keep in mind that Roth IRAs operate under a different set of rules than traditional IRAs. Contact us to review your traditional and Roth IRAs, and to analyze other aspects of your retirement planning.
Some business owners can’t participate in their own companies’ HRAs
Many companies now offer Health Reimbursement Arrangements (HRAs) in conjunction with high-deductible health plans (HDHPs). HRAs offer some advantages over the perhaps better-known HDHP companion account, the Health Savings Account (HSA). If you’re considering adding an HRA, you might assume that, as a business owner, you can participate in the HRA. But this may not be the case.
Following the rules
Whether an owner can participate in his or her company’s HRA depends on several factors, including how the company is organized and the amount of the business owned by each working owner. Tax-free benefits under an HRA can be provided only to:
- Current and former employees (including retirees), and their spouses,
- Covered tax dependents, and
- Children who haven’t attained age 27 by the end of the tax year.
Owners who are “self-employed individuals” within the meaning of Internal Revenue Code Section (IRC) 401(c) aren’t considered employees for this purpose and aren’t allowed to participate in an HRA on a tax-favored basis.
Defining the self-employed
Generally, a self-employed individual is someone who has net earnings from self-employment as defined in IRC Sec. 1402(a), accounting for only earnings from a trade or business in which the “personal services of the taxpayer are a material income-producing factor.” Ineligible owners include partners, sole proprietors and more-than-2% shareholders in an S corporation. Stock ownership by employees of a C corporation doesn’t preclude their tax-favored HRA participation.
The ownership attribution rules in IRC Sec. 318 apply when determining who’s a more-than-2% shareholder of an S corporation, so any employee who’s the spouse, child, parent or grandparent of a more-than-2% shareholder of an S corporation would also be unable to participate in the S corporation’s HRA on a tax-favored basis. A disqualified individual (whether because of direct or attributed ownership) could, however, be the beneficiary of a qualifying participant’s HRA coverage if he or she is the qualifying participant’s spouse, tax dependent or child under age 27.
Comparing HRAs to HSAs
Although self-employed individuals can’t receive tax-free HSA contributions through a cafeteria plan, at least they can have HSAs. This relative advantage has led some employers to favor HSA programs over HRAs.
But HRAs have other advantages for employers, including more control over how amounts are spent and typically lower costs relative to the nominal amount of benefits provided. (While the full HSA contribution must be funded with cash, HRAs typically are notional accounts that need only be funded when participants incur expenses, and not all participants will incur expenses up to the limit established by the employer.) Thus, the decision can seldom be made based on the participation rules alone.
Going in smart
Controlling costs remains a challenge for most businesses that offer health care benefits. An HRA may be a feasible solution, but make sure you know all the rules going in. Our firm can help you choose health care benefits that suit you and your employees.
The tax implications of a company car
The use of a company vehicle is a valuable fringe benefit for owners and employees of small businesses. This benefit results in tax deductions for the employer as well as tax breaks for the owners and employees using the cars. (And of course, they get the nontax benefits of driving the cars!) Even better, recent tax law changes and IRS rules make the perk more valuable than before.
Here’s an example
Let’s say you’re the owner-employee of a corporation that’s going to provide you with a company car. You need the car to visit customers, meet with vendors and check on suppliers. You expect to drive the car 8,500 miles a year for business. You also expect to use the car for about 7,000 miles of personal driving, including commuting, running errands and weekend trips with your family. Therefore, your usage of the vehicle will be approximately 55% for business and 45% for personal purposes. You want a nice car to reflect positively on your business, so the corporation buys a new luxury $50,000 sedan.
Your cost for personal use of the vehicle will be equal to the tax you pay on the fringe benefit value of your 45% personal mileage. By contrast, if you bought the car yourself to be able to drive the personal miles, you’d be out-of-pocket for the entire purchase cost of the car.
Your personal use will be treated as fringe benefit income. For tax purposes, your corporation will treat the car much the same way it would any other business asset, subject to depreciation deduction restrictions if the auto is purchased. Out-of-pocket expenses related to the car (including insurance, gas, oil and maintenance) are deductible, including the portion that relates to your personal use. If the corporation finances the car, the interest it pays on the loan would be deductible as a business expense (unless the business is subject to business-interest limitation under the tax code).
In contrast, if you bought the auto yourself, you wouldn’t be entitled to any deductions. Your outlays for the business-related portion of your driving would be unreimbursed employee business expenses that are nondeductible from 2018 to 2025 due to the suspension of miscellaneous itemized deductions under the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act. And if you financed the car yourself, the interest payments would be nondeductible.
And finally, the purchase of the car by your corporation will have no effect on your credit rating.
Providing an auto for an owner’s or key employee’s business and personal use comes with complications and paperwork. Personal use will have to be tracked and valued under the fringe benefit tax rules and treated as income. This article only explains the basics.
Despite the necessary valuation and paperwork, a company-provided car is still a valuable fringe benefit for business owners and key employees. It can provide them with the use of a vehicle at a low tax cost while generating tax deductions for their businesses. We can help you stay in compliance with the rules and explain more about this prized perk.