Married? Thinking about NOT filing a joint return with your spouse? Most likely, you will utilize the ‘married filing separate’, or MFS, filing status. With this, you must be aware that there are special tax codes involved that married individuals CANNOT benefit by filing as MFS. Dagley & Co. describes some of the most frequent issues we’ve encountered when making the choice of the MFS filing status. (Please note, all dollar amounts are those for 2017)
Joint & Several Liability – When married taxpayers file joint returns, both spouses are responsible for the tax on that return. What this means is that one spouse may be held liable for all the tax due on a return, even if the other spouse earned all the income on that return. In some marriages, this becomes an issue and causes the spouses to decide to file separately. In other cases, especially second marriages, the couple may want to keep their finances separate. Unless all the income, exemptions, credits and deductions are divided equally, which usually happens in community property states, this generally causes the incomes to be distorted and could easily push one of the spouses into a higher tax bracket and create a greater combined tax than filing jointly. Being in a separate property state, where each spouse claims their own earnings, can also create an uneven allocation of income and a higher tax bracket for one of the spouses.
Exemptions – Taxpayers are allowed a $4,050 tax exemption for each of their dependents. However, the $4,050 allowance cannot be divided between the MFS filers, so only one of the filers can claim a dependent’s exemption, and where there are multiple dependents, the spouses would need to allocate the exemptions between them.
Itemizing Deductions – To prevent taxpayers from filing MFS and one spouse taking advantage of itemized deductions and the other utilizing the standard deduction, the tax regulations require both to itemize if one of them does.
Social Security Income – When filing a joint return, Social Security (SS) income is not taxable until the modified AGI (MAGI) – which is regular AGI (without Social Security income) plus 50% of the couple’s Social Security income plus tax-exempt interest income and plus certain other infrequently encountered additions – exceeds a taxable threshold of $32,000. However, for married taxpayers who have lived together at any time during the year and are filing married separate, the threshold is zero, generally making more of the Social Security income taxable.
Section 179 Deduction – Businesses can elect to expense, instead of depreciate, up to $510,000 of business purchases, generally including equipment, certain qualified leasehold property and off-the-shelf computer software. The $510,000 cap is reduced by $1 for every $1 that the qualifying purchases exceed $2,030,000 for the year. Married taxpayers are treated as one taxpayer for purposes of the Section 179 expense limit. Thus, they generally must split the limit equally unless they can agree upon and elect an unequal split.
Special Passive Loss Allowance – Passive losses are generally losses from business and rental activities in which a taxpayer does not materially participate. Those losses are not allowed except to offset income from other passive activities. Rental property is an example of a passive activity, and for lower-income taxpayers, a special allowance permits taxpayers who are actively involved in the rental activity to currently deduct a loss of up to $25,000 if their AGI does not exceed $100,000. That $25,000 special loss allowance phases out by 50 cents for each $1 of AGI over $100,000 and is completely eliminated when the AGI reaches $150,000. When filing separately, this special allowance is not allowed unless the spouses live apart the entire year, and then the allowance is reduced to $12,500 each.
Traditional IRA Deduction Phase-Out – If a married taxpayer filing jointly is participating in a qualified employer pension plan, the deductibility of a traditional IRA contribution is phased out ratably for an AGI between $99,000 and $119,000. If the taxpayers file married separate, the phase-out begins at $0 if the taxpayer participates in their employer’s plan, and when the AGI reaches $10,000, no traditional IRA deduction is allowed. So little, if any, IRA deduction will be available to such an MFS filer.
Roth IRA Contribution Phase-Out – Taxpayers may choose to contribute to a non-deductible Roth IRA. However, Roth IRA contributions are ratably phased out for higher-income married filing jointly taxpayers with an AGI between $186,000 and $196,000. For a married taxpayer filing MFS status, that AGI phase-out range drops to $0 through $9,999, virtually eliminating the possibility of a Roth contribution.
Coverdell Education Accounts – Taxpayers are allowed to contribute up to $2,000 per beneficiary to a Coverdell education savings account annually. However for joint filers, the amount that can be contributed ratably phases out for AGIs between $190,000 and $220,000. For married filing separate taxpayers, the phase-out is half that amount, from $95,000 to $110,000.
Education Tax Credits – Taxpayers are allowed a tax credit, called the American Opportunity Tax Credit, of up to $2,500 per family member enrolled at least half-time in college for the cost of tuition and qualified expenses. This credit phases out ratably for higher-income married taxpayers filing jointly with an AGI between $160,000 and $180,000.
There is a second higher-education credit called the Lifetime Learning Credit, which provides a credit of up to $2,000 per family. This credit also phases out ratably for higher-income married taxpayers filing jointly with an AGI between $112,000 and $132,000.
However, neither credit is allowed for married filing separate taxpayers.
Higher Education Interest – Taxpayers can take a deduction of up to $2,500 for student loan interest paid on higher-education loans. Like other benefits, it is phased out for higher-income married taxpayers filing jointly, in this instance when the AGI is between $135,000 and $165,000. It is not allowed at all for taxpayers filing as married separate.
Education Exclusion For U.S. Savings Bond Interest – Although not frequently encountered, interest from certain U.S. Savings Bonds can be excluded if used to pay higher-education expenses for the taxpayers and their dependents. The exclusion phases out for married taxpayers with an AGI between $117,250 and $147,250. This deduction is not allowed at all when filing married separate.
Premium Tax Credit – For married taxpayers who qualify for the PTC (health insurance subsidy) under Obamacare, if they file married separate, they may be required to repay the subsidy.
Earned Income Tax Credit – This is a refundable tax credit that rewards lower-income taxpayers for working and can be as much $6,318 for families with three or more qualifying children. Taxpayers filing as married separate are not qualified for this credit.
Child Care Credit – If both spouses work and incur child care expenses, they qualify for the child care credit. However, for those married filing separate, the credit is not allowed.
Halved Deductions & Credits – Many of the deductions and credits allowed to a married couple filing jointly are cut in half for the married filing separate filing status. They include:
- Standard Deduction
- Standard Deduction Phase-Out
- Alternative Minimum Tax Exemptions
- Alternative Minimum Tax Exemptions Phase-Outs
- Child Tax Credit Phase-Out
Head of Household Filing Status – Where a married couple is not filing jointly, one or both spouses may qualify for the more beneficial Head of Household (HH) filing status rather than having to file using the MFS status. A married individual may use the HH status if they lived apart from their spouse for at least the last six months of the year and paid more than one-half of the cost of maintaining his or her home as a principal place of abode for more than one-half the year of a child, stepchild or eligible foster child for whom the taxpayer may claim a dependency exemption. (A non-dependent child only qualifies if the custodial parent gave written consent to allow the dependency to the non-custodial parent or if the non-custodial parent has the right to claim the dependency under a pre-’85 divorce agreement.)
As you can see, there are a significant number of issues that need to be considered when making the decision to use the married filing separate status. And these are not all of them, but only the more significant ones. The filing status decision should not be made nonchalantly, as it can have significant impact on your taxes. Please contact Dagley & Co. for assistance in making that crucial decision.
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When two married people are jointly involved in the operation of an unincorporated business, it is very common, yet incorrect, for all of that business’s income to be reported as just one spouse’s income, even when/if they both work in the business.
In such cases, the spouse not taking credit for his or her portion of the earned income loses out on the chance to accumulate his or her own eligibility for Social Security benefits. In addition, to claim a child care credit, both spouses on a joint return must have earned income (or imputed income if one of the spouses is a full-time student or is disabled), so unless the spouse not including a portion of the income from the joint business has another source of earned income, the couple will not be allowed a child care credit.
There are ways to remedy this situation, however. One option is to file a partnership return for the activity, in which case each spouse will receive a K-1 that reports his or her share of the net profit. An approach that avoids the necessity of filing a partnership return, and that is probably less complicated, is a qualified joint-venture election, in which each spouse elects to file a separate Schedule C for his or her respective share of the business. This gives them both self-employed income for the purposes of the self-employment tax and for claiming the child care credit.
A qualified joint venture refers to any joint venture involving the conduct of a trade or business if:
(1) The only members of the joint venture are husband and wife,
(2) Both spouses materially participate in the trade or business, and
(3) Both spouses elect to apply this rule.
Generally, to meet the material participation requirement, each spouse will have to participate in the activity for 500 hours or more during the tax year.
If the net income from the business exceeds the annual cap on income subject to the Social Security tax, the combined self-employment tax for the spouses with split Schedule Cs will exceed what a single spouse would have paid if he or she had filed a single Schedule C.
An additional benefit when filing split Schedule Cs is the opportunity for both spouses to participate in IRAs and self-employed retirement plans.
If you have questions about how splitting the business income between spouses might apply to your specific situation, please contact Dagley & Co. today.
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There is a tax break working parents should know about with the summer hitting. Many working parents must arrange for care of their children under 13 years of age (or any age if handicapped) during the school vacation period. A popular solution — with a tax benefit — is a day camp program. The cost of day camp can count as an expense toward the child and dependent care credit. But be careful; expenses for overnight camps do not qualify.
For an expense to qualify for the credit, it must be an “employment-related” expense; i.e., it must enable you and your spouse, if married, to work, and it must be for the care of your child, stepchild, foster child, brother, sister or stepsibling (or a descendant of any of these) who is under 13, lives in your home for more than half the year and does not provide more than half of his or her own support for the year. Married couples must file jointly, and both spouses must work (or one spouse must be a full-time student or disabled) to claim the credit.
The qualifying expenses are limited to the income you or your spouse, if married, earn from work, using the figure for whoever earns less. However, under certain conditions, when one spouse has no actual earned income and that spouse is a full-time student or disabled, that spouse is considered to have a monthly income of $250 (if the couple has one qualifying child) or $500 (two or more qualifying children). This means the income limitation is essentially removed for a spouse who is a student or disabled.
The qualifying expenses can’t exceed $3,000 per year if you have one qualifying child, while the limit is $6,000 per year for two or more qualifying persons. This limit does not need to be divided equally. For example, if you paid and incurred $2,500 of qualified expenses for the care of one child and $3,500 for the care of another child, you can use the total, $6,000, to figure the credit. The credit is computed as a percentage of your qualifying expenses; in most cases, 20%. (If your joint adjusted gross income [AGI] is $43,000 or less, the percentage will be higher, but it will not exceed 35%.)
Example: Al and Janice both work, each with earned income in excess of $40,000 per year. Janice has a part-time job, and her work hours coincide with the school hours of their 11-year-old daughter, Susan. However, during the summer vacation period, they place Susan in a day camp program that costs $4,000. Since the expense limitation for one child is $3,000, their child credit would be $600 (20% of $3,000).
The credit reduces a taxpayer’s tax bill dollar for dollar. Thus, in the above example, Al and Janice pay $600 less in taxes by virtue of the credit. However, the credit can only offset income tax and alternative minimum tax liability, and any excess is not refundable. The credit cannot be used to reduce self-employment tax or the taxes imposed by the Affordable Care Act.
If you have questions about how the childcare credit applies to your particular tax situation, please give Dagley & Co. a call.
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If you don’t think about your taxes and haven’t filed them, then you’re probably leaving money on the table – and that’s why you haven’t heard from the IRS.
The Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) is a tax benefit for working people who have low to moderate income. It provides a tax credit that is treated like tax withholding: it goes to pay an individual’s tax liability, and any excess is paid to the individual in the form of a tax refund. We can help you collect this refund!
Qualifications for the credit are based upon the amount of the filer’s earned income, the spouse’s earned income if the filer is married, and the number of qualified children on the tax return. Any child must either be under the age of 19 or be a full-time student under the age of 24 at the end of the year. Low-income earners between the ages of 25 and 64 who don’t have a qualifying child may also qualify.
Earned income generally means income from working, such as W-2 wages and self-employment income.
The credit increases as the taxpayer’s earned income or adjusted gross income (AGI) increases until it reaches a plateau, where it remains constant (at the maximum amount) until it reaches the AGI phase-out threshold. Once the threshold amount is exceeded, the credit is reduced by a set percentage; if income exceeds the top of the phase-out range, no credit is allowed.
Computing the credit, like all things tax, is complicated, and the credit is actually determined using IRS tables that reflect the dollar amounts at which phaseout begins and ends. However, the chart below can help approximate the credit for 2015.
Example: A married couple with two children has earned income of $20,000 and a modified AGI of $21,000. If we multiply their earned income by their credit percentage ($20,000 x .40), we come up with $8,000. However, that exceeds the maximum credit of $5,548 for a married couple with two children, so their credit before any phaseout is $5,548. Since their modified AGI is less than the phaseout threshold, then their EITC is $5,548. Had their earned income been $10,000, then their credit would have been $4,000 ($10,000 x .40). If either their earned income or their modified AGI had exceeded $49,974, their EITC would have been totally phased out and they would not have gotten any credit.
There is also a limit on investment income a taxpayer can have and qualify for the EITC. For 2015, that limit is $3,400. Thus if a taxpayer qualifies for EITC but has investment income in excess of $3,400, the taxpayer will not receive any EITC.
Individuals that claim either the foreign earned income or foreign housing exclusion also will not qualify for the earned income credit.
Members of the military can elect to treat all or none of their nontaxable combat pay as earned income for the purposes of computing the EITC. The calculation providing the larger EITC benefit can be used.
Because the potential payout of this credit is so generous, it is the constant target of scammers, and in 2014 the government paid out nearly $18 billion in improper EITC payments. Besides scammers, the qualification for EITC is frequently contested between divorced parents who are both attempting to claim the same child in an effort to qualify for the EITC.
The IRS is authorized to ban taxpayers from claiming the EITC for two years if it determines during an audit that they claimed the credit improperly due to reckless or intentional disregard of the rules. Last year, there were more than 67,000 two-year bans in effect. The ban lasts 10 years if credit was claimed in an earlier year due to fraud.
The government wants those who are entitled to the credit to claim it, and so the IRS widely promotes the credit. However, the rules are quite complex and best addressed by a tax professional.
If you have questions about how the EITC might apply to you, please get in touch with us for additional information. Please understand that a taxpayer who might not normally be required to file a return might still benefit from filing to claim the EITC.
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