Tax implications of working from home and collecting unemployment

COVID-19 has changed our lives in many ways, and some of the changes have tax implications. Here is basic information about two common situations.

1. Working from home.

Many employees have been told not to come into their workplaces due to the pandemic. If you’re an employee who “telecommutes” — that is, you work at home, and communicate with your employer mainly by telephone, videoconferencing, email, etc. — you should know about the strict rules that govern whether you can deduct your home office expenses.

Unfortunately, employee home office expenses aren’t currently deductible, even if your employer requires you to work from home. Employee business expense deductions (including the expenses an employee incurs to maintain a home office) are miscellaneous itemized deductions and are disallowed from 2018 through 2025 under the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act.

However, if you’re self-employed and work out of an office in your home, you can be eligible to claim home office deductions for your related expenses if you satisfy the strict rules.

2. Collecting unemployment

Millions of Americans have lost their jobs due to COVID-19 and are collecting unemployment benefits. Some of these people don’t know that these benefits are taxable and must be reported on their federal income tax returns for the tax year they were received. Taxable benefits include the special unemployment compensation authorized under the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act.

In order to avoid a surprise tax bill when filing a 2020 income tax return next year, unemployment recipients can have taxes withheld from their benefits now. Under federal law, recipients can opt to have 10% withheld from their benefits to cover part or all their tax liability. To do this, complete Form W4-V, Voluntary Withholding Request, and give it to the agency paying benefits. (Don’t send it to the IRS.)

We can help

We can assist you with advice about whether you qualify for home office deductions, and how much of these expenses you can deduct. We can also answer any questions you have about the taxation of unemployment benefits as well as any other tax issues that you encounter as a result of COVID-19.

© 2020

Employers should approach payroll tax deferral cautiously

As you’re probably aware, President Trump signed an executive memorandum on August 8 creating a payroll tax deferral. The development has brought with it much uncertainty regarding administrative compliance and the long-term impact of this pandemic-related relief.

Deferral details

Under the memorandum, an employer may choose to postpone withholding, deposit and payment of the employee’s share of Social Security tax (6.2%) on wages paid from September 1, 2020, through December 31, 2020. The wages in question must be less than $4,000 on a biweekly pay period basis or an equivalent amount in other pay periods. The threshold is determined on a pay-period-by-pay-period basis.

The IRS recently released Notice 2020-65, which postpones the withholding and remittance of the employee’s share of Social Security tax ratably between January 1, 2021, and April 30, 2021. Penalties, interest and additions to tax will begin to accrue on May 1, 2021, for any unpaid taxes. The Notice states that, if necessary, an employer may arrange to collect the total applicable taxes from the employee.

Your decision

The postponement of the withholding and remittance of the employee’s share of Social Security tax is optional. You may seek input from employees about their desire to participate but doing so isn’t required. Whether to permit employees to opt in or opt out of the postponement is also at your discretion and not addressed in recent guidance.

An IRS spokesperson has explained that Form 941 is being revised for the third quarter of 2020 to report postponed taxes for employers who elect to participate in the deferral. The final Form 941 will be released in late September for filing in October.

The Notice permits employers who have elected the postponement to begin withholding the employee’s share on January 1, 2021, but such withholding may have unforeseen and detrimental consequences. Specifically, unless Congress passes a law to forgive the deferred taxes, employees will end up receiving less in take-home pay in the first four months of 2021.

Further developments

With so many questions remaining, employers should proceed carefully when deciding whether to opt for the postponement. The IRS has stated that, regardless of whether the amounts are recovered from an employee, the employer will remain liable for the employee’s share and must remit the postponed withholding of the employee’s share of Social Security tax by April 30, 2021.

However, if you choose to elect the postponement, it’s a good idea to provide a notice to employees that clearly states that the employee’s share of Social Security is postponed until December 31, 2020, and withholding for these amounts will occur ratably between Jan. 1, 2021, and April 30, 2021. That extra withholding will be in addition to employment tax withholding otherwise required on wages for January through April 2021. 

© 2020

Employers have questions and concerns about deferring employees’ Social Security taxes

The IRS has provided guidance to employers regarding the recent presidential action to allow employers to defer the withholding, deposit and payment of certain payroll tax obligations.

The three-page guidance in Notice 2020-65 was issued to implement President Trump’s executive memorandum signed on August 8.

Private employers still have questions and concerns about whether, and how, to implement the optional deferral. The President’s action only defers the employee’s share of Social Security taxes; it doesn’t forgive them, meaning employees will still have to pay the taxes later unless Congress acts to eliminate the liability. (The payroll services provider for federal employers announced that federal employees will have their taxes deferred.) 

Deferral basics

President Trump issued the memorandum in light of the COVID-19 crisis. He directed the U.S. Secretary of the Treasury to use his authority under the tax code to defer the withholding, deposit and payment of certain payroll tax obligations.

For purposes of the Notice, “applicable wages” means wages or compensation paid to an employee on a pay date beginning September 1, 2020, and ending December 31, 2020, but only if the amount paid for a biweekly pay period is less than $4,000, or the equivalent amount with respect to other pay periods.

The guidance postpones the withholding and remittance of the employee share of Social Security tax until the period beginning on January 1, 2021, and ending on April 30, 2021. Penalties, interest and additions to tax will begin to accrue on May 1, 2021, for any unpaid taxes.

“If necessary,” the guidance states, an employer “may make arrangements to collect the total applicable taxes” from an employee. But it doesn’t specify how.

Many employers opting out

Several business groups have stated that their members won’t participate in the deferral. For example, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and more than 30 trade associations sent a letter to members of Congress and the U.S. Department of the Treasury calling the deferral “unworkable.”

The Chamber is concerned that employees will get a temporary increase in their paychecks this year, followed by a decrease in take-home pay in early 2021. “Many of our members consider it unfair to employees to make a decision that would force a big tax bill on them next year… Therefore, many of our members will likely decline to implement deferral, choosing instead to continue to withhold and remit to the government the payroll taxes required by law,” the group explained.

Businesses are also worried about having to collect the taxes from employees who may quit or be terminated before April 30, 2021. And since some employees are asking questions about the deferral, many employers are also putting together communications to inform their staff members about whether they’re going to participate. If so, they’re informing employees what it will mean for next year’s paychecks.

 

© 2020

Will You Have to Pay Tax on Your Social Security Benefits?

If you’re getting close to retirement, you may wonder: Are my Social Security benefits going to be taxed? And if so, how much will you have to pay?

It depends on your other income. If you’re taxed, between 50% and 85% of your benefits could be taxed. (This doesn’t mean you pay 85% of your benefits back to the government in taxes. It merely that you’d include 85% of them in your income subject to your regular tax rates.)

Crunch the numbers

To determine how much of your benefits are taxed, first determine your other income, including certain items otherwise excluded for tax purposes (for example, tax-exempt interest). Add to that the income of your spouse, if you file joint tax returns. To this, add half of the Social Security benefits you and your spouse received during the year. The figure you come up with is your total income plus half of your benefits. Now apply the following rules:

1. If your income plus half your benefits isn’t above $32,000 ($25,000 for single taxpayers), none of your benefits are taxed.

2. If your income plus half your benefits exceeds $32,000 but isn’t more than $44,000, you will be taxed on one half of the excess over $32,000, or one half of the benefits, whichever is lower.

Here’s an example

For example, let’s say you and your spouse have $20,000 in taxable dividends, $2,400 of tax-exempt interest and combined Social Security benefits of $21,000. So, your income plus half your benefits is $32,900 ($20,000 + $2,400 +1/2 of $21,000). You must include $450 of the benefits in gross income (1/2 ($32,900 − $32,000)). (If your combined Social Security benefits were $5,000, and your income plus half your benefits were $40,000, you would include $2,500 of the benefits in income: 1/2 ($40,000 − $32,000) equals $4,000, but 1/2 the $5,000 of benefits ($2,500) is lower, and the lower figure is used.)

Important: If you aren’t paying tax on your Social Security benefits now because your income is below the floor, or you’re paying tax on only 50% of those benefits, an unplanned increase in your income can have a triple tax cost. You’ll have to pay tax on the additional income, you’ll have to pay tax on (or on more of ) your Social Security benefits (since the higher your income the more of your Social Security benefits that are taxed), and you may get pushed into a higher marginal tax bracket.

For example, this situation might arise if you receive a large distribution from an IRA during the year or you have large capital gains. Careful planning might be able to avoid this negative tax result. You might be able to spread the additional income over more than one year, or liquidate assets other than an IRA account, such as stock showing only a small gain or stock with gain that can be offset by a capital loss on other shares.

If you know your Social Security benefits will be taxed, you can voluntarily arrange to have the tax withheld from the payments by filing a Form W-4V. Otherwise, you may have to make estimated tax payments. Contact us for assistance or more information.

© 2020

What happens if an individual can’t pay taxes

While you probably don’t have any problems paying your tax bills, you may wonder: What happens in the event you (or someone you know) can’t pay taxes on time? Here’s a look at the options.

Most importantly, don’t let the inability to pay your tax liability in full keep you from filing a tax return properly and on time. In addition, taking certain steps can keep the IRS from instituting punitive collection processes.

Common penalties

The “failure to file” penalty accrues at 5% per month or part of a month (to a maximum of 25%) on the amount of tax your return shows you owe. The “failure to pay” penalty accrues at only 0.5% per month or part of a month (to 25% maximum) on the amount due on the return. (If both apply, the failure to file penalty drops to 4.5% per month (or part) so the combined penalty remains at 5%.) The maximum combined penalty for the first five months is 25%. Thereafter, the failure to pay penalty can continue at 0.5% per month for 45 more months. The combined penalties can reach 47.5% over time in addition to any interest.

Undue hardship extensions

Keep in mind that an extension of time to file your return doesn’t mean an extension of time to pay your tax bill. A payment extension may be available, however, if you can show payment would cause “undue hardship.” You can avoid the failure to pay penalty if an extension is granted, but you’ll be charged interest. If you qualify, you’ll be given an extra six months to pay the tax due on your return. If the IRS determines a “deficiency,” the undue hardship extension can be up to 18 months and in exceptional cases another 12 months can be added.

Borrowing money

If you don’t think you can get an extension of time to pay your taxes, borrowing money to pay them could be considered. You may be able to get a loan from a relative, friend or commercial lender. You can also use credit or debit cards to pay a tax bill, but you’re likely to pay a relatively high interest rate and possibly a fee.

Installment agreement

Another way to defer tax payments is to request an installment payment agreement. This is done by filing a form and the IRS charges a fee for installment agreements. Even if a request is granted, you’ll be charged interest on any tax not paid by its due date. But the late payment penalty is half the usual rate (0.25% instead of 0.5%), if you file by the due date (including extensions).

The IRS may terminate an installment agreement if the information provided in applying is inaccurate or incomplete or the IRS believes the tax collection is in jeopardy. The IRS may also modify or terminate an installment agreement in certain cases, such as if you miss a payment or fail to pay another tax liability when it’s due.

Avoid serious consequences

Tax liabilities don’t go away if left unaddressed. It’s important to file a properly prepared return even if full payment can’t be made. Include as large a partial payment as you can with the return and work with the IRS as soon as possible. The alternative may include escalating penalties and having liens assessed against your assets and income. Down the road, the collection process may also include seizure and sale of your property. In many cases, these nightmares can be avoided by taking advantage of options offered by the IRS.

© 2020