Understanding the passive activity loss rules

Are you wondering if the passive activity loss rules affect business ventures you’re engaged in — or might engage in?

If the ventures are passive activities, the passive activity loss rules prevent you from deducting expenses that are generated by them in excess of their income. You can’t deduct the excess expenses (losses) against earned income or against other nonpassive income. Nonpassive income for this purpose includes interest, dividends, annuities, royalties, gains and losses from most property dispositions, and income from certain oil and gas property interests. So you can’t deduct passive losses against those income items either.

Any losses that you can’t use aren’t lost. Instead, they’re carried forward, indefinitely, to tax years in which your passive activities generate enough income to absorb the losses. To the extent your passive losses from an activity aren’t used up in this way, you’ll be allowed to use them in the tax year in which you dispose of your interest in the activity in a fully taxable transaction, or in the tax year you die.

Passive vs. material

Passive activities are trades, businesses or income-producing activities in which you don’t “materially participate.” The passive activity loss rules also apply to any items passed through to you by partnerships in which you’re a partner, or by S corporations in which you’re a shareholder. This means that any losses passed through to you by partnerships or S corporations will be treated as passive, unless the activities aren’t passive for you.

For example, let’s say that in addition to your regular professional job, you’re a limited partner in a partnership that cleans offices. Or perhaps you’re a shareholder in an S corp that operates a manufacturing business (but you don’t participate in the operations).

If you don’t materially participate in the partnership or S corporation, those activities are passive. On the other hand, if you “materially participate,” the activities aren’t passive (except for rental activities, discussed below), and the passive activity rules won’t apply to the losses. To materially participate, you must be involved in the operations on a regular, continuous and substantial basis.

The IRS uses several tests to establish material participation. Under the most frequently used test, you’re treated as materially participating in an activity if you participate in it for more than 500 hours in the tax year. While other tests require fewer hours, all the tests require you to establish how you participated and the amount of time spent. You can establish this by any reasonable means such as contemporaneous appointment books, calendars, time reports or logs.

Rental activities

Rental activities are automatically treated as passive, regardless of your participation. This means that, even if you materially participate in them, you can’t deduct the losses against your earned income, interest, dividends, etc. There are two important exceptions:

  • You can deduct up to $25,000 of losses from rental real estate activities (even though they’re passive) against earned income, interest, dividends, etc., if you “actively participate” in the activities (requiring less participation than “material participation”) and if your adjusted gross income doesn’t exceed specified levels.
  • If you qualify as a “real estate professional” (which requires performing substantial services in real property trades or businesses), your rental real estate activities aren’t automatically treated as passive. So losses from those activities can be deducted against earned income, interest, dividends, etc., if you materially participate.

Contact us if you’d like to discuss how these rules apply to your business.

© 2020

What tax records can you throw away?

October 15 is the deadline for individual taxpayers who extended their 2019 tax returns. (The original April 15 filing deadline was extended this year to July 15 due to the COVID-19 pandemic.) If you’re finally done filing last year’s return, you might wonder: Which tax records can you toss once you’re done? Now is a good time to go through old tax records and see what you can discard.

The general rules

At minimum, you should keep tax records for as long as the IRS has the ability to audit your tax return or assess additional taxes, which generally is three years after you file your return. This means you potentially can get rid of most records related to tax returns for 2016 and earlier years.

However, the statute of limitations extends to six years for taxpayers who understate their adjusted gross income (AGI) by more than 25%. What constitutes an understatement may go beyond simply not reporting items of income. So a general rule of thumb is to save tax records for six years from filing, just to be safe.

Keep some records longer

You need to hang on to some tax-related records beyond the statute of limitations. For example:

  • Keep the tax returns themselves indefinitely, so you can prove to the IRS that you actually filed a legitimate return. (There’s no statute of limitations for an audit if you didn’t file a return or if you filed a fraudulent one.)
  • Retain W-2 forms until you begin receiving Social Security benefits. Questions might arise regarding your work record or earnings for a particular year, and your W-2 helps provide the documentation needed.
  • Keep records related to real estate or investments for as long as you own the assets, plus at least three years after you sell them and report the sales on your tax return (or six years if you want extra protection).
  • Keep records associated with retirement accounts until you’ve depleted the accounts and reported the last withdrawal on your tax return, plus three (or six) years.

Other reasons to retain records

Keep in mind that these are the federal tax record retention guidelines. Your state and local tax record requirements may differ. In addition, lenders, co-op boards and other private parties may require you to produce copies of your tax returns as a condition to lending money, approving a purchase or otherwise doing business with you.

Contact us if you have questions or concerns about recordkeeping.

© 2020

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