Check deductibility before making year-end charitable gifts

As the holidays approach and the year draws to a close, many taxpayers make charitable gifts — both in the spirit of the season and as a year-end tax planning strategy. But with the tax law changes that go into effect in 2018 and the many rules that apply to the charitable deduction, it’s a good idea to check deductibility before making any year-end donations.

Confirm you can still benefit from itemizing

Last year’s Tax Cuts and Jobs Act (TCJA) didn’t put new limits on or suspend the charitable deduction, like it did to many other itemized deductions. Nevertheless, it will reduce or eliminate the tax benefits of charitable giving for many taxpayers this year.

Itemizing saves tax only if itemized deductions exceed the standard deduction. For 2018 through 2025, the TCJA significantly increases the standard deduction, to $24,000 for married couples filing jointly, $18,000 for heads of households, and $12,000 for singles and married couples filing separately.

The nearly doubled standard deduction combined with the new limits or suspensions of some common itemized deductions means you may no longer have enough itemized deductions to exceed the standard deduction. And if that’s the case, your donations won’t save you tax.

So before you make any year-end charitable gifts, total up your potential itemized deductions for the year, including the donations you’re considering. If the total is less than your standard deduction, your year-end donations won’t provide a tax benefit.

You might, however, be able to preserve your charitable deduction by “bunching” donations into alternating years. This can allow you to exceed the standard deduction and claim a charitable deduction (and other itemized deductions) every other year.

Meet the delivery deadline

To be deductible on your 2018 return, a charitable gift must be made by Dec. 31, 2018. According to the IRS, a donation generally is “made” at the time of its “unconditional delivery.” The delivery date depends in part on what you donate and how you donate it. Here are a few examples for common donations:

Check. The date you mail it.

Credit card. The date you make the charge.

Stock certificate. The date you mail the properly endorsed stock certificate to the charity.

Make sure the organization is “qualified”

To be deductible, a donation also must be made to a “qualified charity” — one that’s eligible to receive tax-deductible contributions.

The IRS’s online search tool, Tax Exempt Organization Search, can help you easily find out whether an organization is eligible to receive tax-deductible charitable contributions. You can access this tool at http://bit.ly/2gFacut  Information about organizations eligible to receive deductible contributions is updated monthly. Remember that political donations aren’t deductible.

Consider other rules

We’ve discussed only some of the rules for the charitable deduction; many others apply. We can answer any questions you have about the deductibility of donations or changes to the standard deduction and itemized deductions.

© 2018

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Does prepaying property taxes make sense anymore?

Prepaying property taxes related to the current year but due the following year has long been one of the most popular and effective year-end tax-planning strategies. But does it still make sense in 2018?

The answer, for some people, is yes — accelerating this expense will increase their itemized deductions, reducing their tax bills. But for many, particularly those in high-tax states, changes made by the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act (TCJA) eliminate the benefits.

What’s changed?

The TCJA made two changes that affect the viability of this strategy. First, it nearly doubled the standard deduction to $24,000 for married couples filing jointly, $18,000 for heads of household, and $12,000 for singles and married couples filing separately, so fewer taxpayers will itemize. Second, it placed a $10,000 cap on state and local tax (SALT) deductions, including property taxes plus income or sales taxes.

For property tax prepayment to make sense, two things must happen:

1. You must itemize (that is, your itemized deductions must exceed the standard deduction), and

2. Your other SALT expenses for the year must be less than $10,000.

If you don’t itemize, or you’ve already used up your $10,000 limit (on income or sales taxes or on previous property tax installments), accelerating your next property tax installment will provide no benefit.

Example

Joe and Mary, a married couple filing jointly, have incurred $5,000 in state income taxes, $5,000 in property taxes, $18,000 in qualified mortgage interest, and $4,000 in charitable donations, for itemized deductions totaling $32,000. Their next installment of 2018 property taxes, $5,000, is due in the spring of 2019. They’ve already reached the $10,000 SALT limit, so prepaying property taxes won’t reduce their tax bill.

Now suppose they live in a state with no income tax. In that case, prepayment would potentially make sense because it would be within the SALT limit and would increase their 2018 itemized deductions.

Look before you leap

Before you prepay property taxes, review your situation carefully to be sure it will provide a tax benefit. And keep in mind that, just because prepayment will increase your 2018 itemized deductions, it doesn’t necessarily mean that’s the best strategy. For example, if you expect to be in a higher tax bracket in 2019, paying property taxes when due will likely produce a greater benefit over the two-year period.

For help determining whether prepaying property taxes makes sense for you this year, contact us. We can also suggest other year-end tips for reducing your taxes.

© 2018

Catch-up retirement plan contributions can be particularly advantageous post-TCJA

Will you be age 50 or older on December 31? Are you still working? Are you already contributing to your 401(k) plan or Savings Incentive Match Plan for Employees (SIMPLE) up to the regular annual limit? Then you may want to make “catch-up” contributions by the end of the year. Increasing your retirement plan contributions can be particularly advantageous if your itemized deductions for 2018 will be smaller than in the past because of changes under the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act (TCJA).

Catching up

Catch-up contributions are additional contributions beyond the regular annual limits that can be made to certain retirement accounts. They were designed to help taxpayers who didn’t save much for retirement earlier in their careers to “catch up.” But there’s no rule that limits catch-up contributions to such taxpayers.

So catch-up contributions can be a great option for anyone who is old enough to be eligible, has been maxing out their regular contribution limit and has sufficient earned income to contribute more. The contributions are generally pretax (except in the case of Roth accounts), so they can reduce your taxable income for the year.

More benefits now?

This additional reduction to taxable income might be especially beneficial in 2018 if in the past you had significant itemized deductions that now will be reduced or eliminated by the TCJA. For example, the TCJA eliminates miscellaneous itemized deductions subject to the 2% of adjusted gross income floor — such as unreimbursed employee expenses (including home-off expenses) and certain professional and investment fees.

If, say, in 2018 you have $5,000 of expenses that in the past would have qualified as miscellaneous itemized deductions, an additional $5,000 catch-up contribution can make up for the loss of those deductions. Plus, you benefit from adding to your retirement nest egg and potential tax-deferred growth.

Other deductions that are reduced or eliminated include state and local taxes, mortgage and home equity interest expenses, casualty and theft losses, and moving expenses. If these changes affect you, catch-up contributions can help make up for your reduced deductions.

2018 contribution limits

Under 2018 401(k) limits, if you’re age 50 or older and you have reached the $18,500 maximum limit for all employees, you can contribute an extra $6,000, for a total of $24,500. If your employer offers a SIMPLE instead, your regular contribution maxes out at $12,500 in 2018. If you’re 50 or older, you’re allowed to contribute an additional $3,000 — or $15,500 in total for the year.
But, check with your employer because, while most 401(k) plans and SIMPLEs offer catch-up contributions, not all do. Also keep in mind that additional rules and limits apply.

Additional options

Catch-up contributions are also available for IRAs, but the deadline for 2018 contributions is later: April 15, 2019. And whether your traditional IRA contributions will be deductible depends on your income and whether you or your spouse participates in an employer-sponsored retirement plan. Please contact us for more information about catch-up contributions and other year-end tax planning strategies.

© 2018

Yuma’s Best 2018

Voting is open for the 2018 Yuma’s Best Yuma Sun Readers Choice awards. Every year, the Yuma community has a chance to vote for the best of the best in many different categories including entertainment, professional services, food & restaurants, shopping, and more.

This is a great opportunity to pick your favorite businesses and let them know you think they’re the best. What a great way to Think Yuma First and give a little recognition to some local businesses! If you haven’t voted yet, make sure you do before the window closes on December 31st.

You can find Shippen, Pope & Associates under Accounting Firms in the Professional Services category: http://bit.ly/2rpzyUC

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Steering clear of abusive tax shelters

As the year comes to a close, many businesses look for ways to save on taxes. Purveyors of abusive tax shelters know this and are ready to take advantage of unwitting owners.

Abusive tax shelters are complex transactions that have no legitimate business purpose and are used solely to reduce or eliminate tax liability. However tempting the tax savings may seem, you should avoid such tax shelters or you may face serious financial consequences.

Witting and unwitting victims

Unfortunately, abusive tax shelters aren’t always easy to identify. Even reputable companies may unwittingly market tax shelters the IRS deems abusive.

Some appear less innocent, though. For example, one company marketed products that functioned as loss generators, allowing buyers to offset paper losses against other income, sheltering that income from taxes. In such cases, not only is the seller of the products liable for penalties, but the taxpayers who use them generally are required to pay back taxes, interest and penalties.

As part of a comprehensive strategy to combat abusive tax shelters, the IRS requires that certain tax shelters be registered and that lists of investors be maintained by those who organize them. Individuals who participate in a “listed transaction” also must disclose their participation on their tax return. The list of transactions is available at irs.gov.

Avoid messy entanglements

How can you avoid becoming entangled in an abusive tax shelter? First apply the age-old rule that, if it seems too good to be true, it probably is. These products usually are unsolicited. So if someone approaches you with a proposal to make money through tax write-offs, it’s probably not a legitimate business investment.

Second, understand that legitimate tax advantages aren’t available as one-size-fits-all products. Tax liabilities vary according to a business’s financial situation, and no tax shelter is appropriate for every company.

Finally, look carefully at shelters that involve third parties such as foreign corporations, tax-exempt entities or entities with significant tax losses. If there’s no legitimate business purpose for entering into a transaction, there’s no legitimate tax shelter.

Shun the unknown

In short, if you receive an unsolicited offer to help you reduce your tax burden, look long and hard at the proposal, purveyor and participants. Contact us. We can help investigate any offer and steer you toward reliable and responsible tax-minimizing strategies.

© 2018

How nonprofits can prevent fraud during the busy holiday season

Charities typically receive most of their donations during the holidays and at year end. It’s critical for these organizations to be on the lookout for fraud throughout the year, but even more so during the busy season. Here are some fraud schemes nonprofits should watch out for and how they can use internal controls to protect against financial losses.

Culture of trust

Charities generally are staffed by people who believe strongly in their missions, which contributes to a culture of trust. Unfortunately, such trust makes nonprofits vulnerable to certain types of fraud. For example, if managers don’t supervise staffers who accept cash donations, it provides an opportunity for them to skim cash. Skimming is even more likely to occur if a nonprofit doesn’t perform background checks on employees and volunteers who’ll be handling money.

However, skimming isn’t the most common type of fraud scheme in the nonprofit sector. According to the Association of Certified Fraud Examiners, religious, charitable and social services organizations are most likely to fall prey to billing schemes. Falsified expense reports and credit card abuse are also common in nonprofits.

Internal controls matter

Even small nonprofits that consider their employees and volunteers “family” need to establish and enforce internal controls. Such procedures must be followed regardless of how busy staffers are processing donations and completing year-end duties.

Possibly the most important control to prevent occupational fraud is segregation of duties. To reduce opportunities for any one person to steal, multiple employees should be involved in processing payables and receivables. For example, every incoming invoice should be reviewed by the staffer who instigated it to confirm the amount and that the goods or services were received. A different employee should be responsible for writing the check.

And don’t forget to protect electronic records that include data on donors, vendors and employees. Staff members should be given access only to the information and programs required for their job. And all sensitive information should be password-protected.

Caution with special events

Many nonprofits depend on money raised from a big annual gala or other special event at year end. During crowded, chaotic fundraisers, you’ll want to discourage supporters from making cash payments. Instead, presell or preregister event participants to limit access to cash on the day of the event. If you decide to accept cash at the door, try to assign cash-related duties to paid employees or board members, rather than unsupervised volunteers.

For more tips on preventing fraud in your nonprofit, contact us. We can help you reinforce internal controls, as well as investigate suspected theft.

© 2018

When holiday gifts and parties are deductible or taxable

The holiday season is a great time for businesses to show their appreciation for employees and customers by giving them gifts or hosting holiday parties. Before you begin shopping or sending out invitations, though, it’s a good idea to find out whether the expense is tax deductible and whether it’s taxable to the recipient. Here’s a brief review of the rules.

Gifts to customers

When you make gifts to customers, the gifts are deductible up to $25 per recipient per year. For purposes of the $25 limit, you need not include “incidental” costs that don’t substantially add to the gift’s value, such as engraving, gift-wrapping, packaging or shipping. Also excluded from the $25 limit is branded marketing collateral — such as pens or stress balls imprinted with your company’s name and logo — provided they’re widely distributed and cost less than $4.

The $25 limit is for gifts to individuals. There’s no set limit on gifts to a company (a gift basket for all to share, for example) as long as they’re “reasonable.”

Gifts to employees

Generally anything of value that you transfer to an employee is included in the employee’s taxable income (and, therefore, subject to income and payroll taxes) and deductible by you. But there’s an exception for noncash gifts that constitute “de minimis fringe benefits.”

These are items so small in value and given so infrequently that it would be administratively impracticable to account for them. Common examples include holiday turkeys or hams, gift baskets, occasional sports or theater tickets (but not season tickets), and other low-cost merchandise.

De minimis fringe benefits are not included in an employee’s taxable income yet are still deductible by you. Unlike gifts to customers, there’s no specific dollar threshold for de minimis gifts. However, many businesses use an informal cutoff of $75.

Keep in mind that cash gifts — as well as cash equivalents, such as gift cards — are included in an employee’s income and subject to payroll tax withholding regardless of how small and infrequent.

Holiday parties

The Tax Cuts and Jobs Act reduced certain deductions for business-related meals and eliminated the deduction for business entertainment altogether. There’s an exception, however, for certain recreational activities, including holiday parties.

Holiday parties are fully deductible (and excludible from recipients’ income) provided they’re primarily for the benefit of non-highly-compensated employees and their families. If customers also attend, holiday parties may be partially deductible.

Gifts that give back

If you’re thinking about giving holiday gifts to employees or customers or throwing a holiday party, contact us. With a little tax planning, you may receive a gift of your own from Uncle Sam.

© 2018