Thursday, February 28, 2013

When to start drawing social security is an important decision

Over the coming years, millions of baby boomers will reach age 62, the minimum threshold for receiving social security retirement benefits. If recent history is any indication, most of these people (over 70% by some estimates) will take their benefits as early as possible.

But whether you should take social security retirement benefits at the earliest possible age, or defer them until reaching normal retirement age (or even age 70), depends on several factors. Among these are your overall health and life expectancy, your plans to earn income before reaching normal retirement age, anticipated returns on other investments, even your guesses about the future of social security. Like most retirement planning choices, this decision isn't one-size-fits-all.

For some people, deferring social security benefits isn't an option. If your savings won't cover ongoing expenses, you may need to rely on social security income to make ends meet.

But if your circumstances offer more financial flexibility, you may want to consider deferring social security benefits. For each year you delay taking benefits, the payouts increase, up to age 70. Also, if you plan to earn significant income between age 62 and your normal retirement age (age 65 to age 67, depending on the year you were born), putting off your social security benefits may make sense. That's because any benefits in excess of specified limits ($15,120 in 2013) will be reduced. You'll lose $1 of benefits for every $2 in earnings above the limits. Fortunately, you won't lose any social security benefits (regardless of earnings) once you reach full retirement age.

On the other hand, let's say you've accumulated $500,000 in your 401(k) account and expect that account to generate an 8% annual return. Under such a scenario, you might be better off leaving your retirement savings alone and taking your social security benefits early to cover living expenses. Or perhaps your family has a history of health problems and you don't realistically expect to live into your 80s. Again, taking social security benefits at age 62 might be a good choice.

When it comes to retirement planning, there are no guarantees. When deciding whether to defer social security benefits, take a realistic look at your situation, run the numbers, and give it your best shot. For help with this important decision, give us a call.

Sales Tax for the Online Retailers

I want to give thanks to Sheryl Nance-Nash, a reporter with, that we spoke with in regard to the proposed federal legislation to require online retailers to start collecting sales tax on online sales. Currently only brick and mortar stores are collecting sales tax from their customers where online retailers have been able to get away with not collecting the tax giving a distinct advantage to online retailers. This is a big win for the states to start collecting more tax from online retailers and for brick and mortar stores as they no longer at a disadvantage. States, like our home state of Texas, States have become very aggressive in the collection of sales tax. The Texas Comptroller reached a well-publicized deal with Amazon last year after the state contended that Amazon owed it $259 million in uncollected sales taxes for the prior 4 years. This has led to the federal legislation to be introduced. As we point out in the Nance-Nash’s article this will pose quite a compliance headache for smaller retailers that will have to abide by the same rules of the big boys (being the Amazons of the world) who will have to comply with sales tax in each jurisdiction they sell:

Who is likely to be most impacted by the change in the law?
"This is going to create quite a compliance headache for smaller online retailers. The rules regarding states and sales tax differ greatly from one state to the other. Therefore, the online retailer will have to become well versed in each state's tax rules, which can be overwhelming to a small retailer. Retailers will be required to file sales tax returns in each state (depending on the volume of sales, as frequently as every month in some cases) and remit that tax, creating a compliance headache," says Vince Porter, CPA, at Porter & Company, CPAs.

Furthermore online retailers should get solid accounting software to track the sales tax in each jurisdiction they sell in:

Get solid accounting software. You want to be sure you have the best software to record all of your customers' sales accurately. "It's imperative that online retailers have a reliable piece of accounting software to record sales and sales taxes and jurisdictions of customers. QuickBooks is a great piece of software (at an affordable price) that can track all of this information, including the rates of each state and the collection agent of the state," says Porter.

After posting the article to Twitter a company by the name of TaxCloud came to our attention (  @TaxCloud) . This appears to be a very useful software for retailers to plug into their shopping carts as it will automatically update shopping carts to charge sales tax based on the jurisdiction of the customer. The online retailers will still need to take care of the compliance piece (filing and paying of the sales tax returns ) but it appears that TaxCloud can make sure the correct tax is charged to the customer on the transaction end of the equation.  

Monday, February 25, 2013

Don't let "sunk costs" lead to poor decisions

Emotions add zest to life. They propel us to our feet when our favorite running back scores a touchdown. They warm us at an inspirational concert or movie. But in the realm of business, emotions sometimes hinder good choices. In fact, business owners and managers often let emotions dominate the decision-making process.

This is especially true when choices are based on "sunk costs." Broadly defined, sunk costs are past expenses that are irrelevant to current decisions. For example, many firms hire consultants who sell and install software. In some cases, a company is still waiting --three or four years into the contract term -- for a functional and error-free system. Meanwhile, costs continue to escalate. But are those costs relevant? Managers, especially those who initially procured the software and contractor, may reason that pulling the plug on a failed contract would be "wasting all that money we've spent."

Not true. That money is "sunk"; it's beside the point. Deciding to continue with a non-performing contract instead of staunching the flow of cash and changing course is irrational. It may be difficult to admit that a mistake was made. It may bruise the ego of the decision maker. But abandoning a failed contract is often the wisest decision. The only relevant costs are those that influence the company's current and future operations.

Let's say your firm hires a new salesman. You spend thousands of dollars sending him to training seminars. You assign mentors who take time from their busy schedules to provide on-the-job coaching and oversight. But despite your best efforts, the new hire isn't working out. He doesn't fit your firm's culture; he doesn't grasp the company's goals and procedures; he doesn't generate adequate revenues for the business.

As a manager, what should you do? At some point, you may need to terminate that employee and start over with someone else. But what about all that time and money you spent training and mentoring the new salesman? Those costs are irrelevant; they're "sunk." You can't get them back. So the best decision -- as of today -- may involve cutting your losses and starting anew.

Other examples of sunk costs may be found in the areas of product research, advertising, inventory, equipment, investments, and other types of business expenses. In each of these areas, companies spend money that can't be recovered, dollars that become irrelevant for current decision making. Throwing good money after bad won't salvage a poor business investment -- or a poor business decision.

Friday, February 22, 2013

Dependents: What are the tax rules?

Most taxpayers believe that a "dependent" is a minor child that lives with them. While that is essentially correct, dependents can include parents, other relatives and nonrelatives, and even children who don't live with you. There is really much more to the dependent deduction than you might at first imagine.

* Exemptions and your taxable income. For 2012, each dependent deduction is worth $3,800, reducing your taxable income by this amount. In 2013, the deduction increases to $3,900 and is phased out for high-income taxpayers.

* Dependents defined. It's impossible to present all of the rules relative to dependents here, since they are so complicated. Generally speaking, if somebody lives with you and you provide more than half of that individual's support for the entire year, there is a good chance that person is a dependent. There are many exceptions. For example, parents don't have to live with you if they otherwise qualify, but some other relatives do. A child of divorced parents doesn't necessarily have to live with the noncustodial spouse for the dependent deduction to apply.

* People who can't be claimed. Generally, you may not claim a married person as a dependent if that person files a joint return with a spouse. Also, a dependent must be a U.S. citizen, resident alien, national, or a resident of Canada or Mexico for part of the year.

* One dependent deduction per individual. If you claim yourself as your own dependent, anybody else who can truly meet the tests and claim you as a dependent will lose out. This is common for college students who file their own tax returns for their part-time jobs, while mom and dad really meet all of the qualifications to claim the dependent exemption.

While the dependent deduction might seem relatively minor, it can lead to other deductions on the tax return. In order to claim the child tax credit, the education credits, the dependent care credit, for example, you must claim the dependent deduction for the child that qualifies for the deduction or credit.

Finally dependent deductions can be negotiated, which is especially important for divorced taxpayers. In the past, the IRS would accept the language of the divorce decree to allow the noncustodial parent the dependent deduction. However, under the current rules, the IRS will no longer accept a divorce decree in lieu of IRS Form 8332 (Release of Exemption).

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

New Medicare taxes take effect in 2013

The 2010 health care reform legislation included several provisions that go into effect this year. Among them is the increase in Medicare taxes for taxpayers with incomes above certain levels. Here is an overview of these two new taxes.

FIRST, the payroll Medicare tax will increase from 1.45% of wages to 2.35% on amounts above $200,000 earned by individuals and above $250,000 earned by married couples filing joint returns. The tax increase will also apply to self-employment income exceeding the threshold amounts.

Employers are required to withhold the additional tax from wages exceeding $200,000, regardless of the individual's filing status. They are not required to inform the employee when they begin the additional withholding, nor are they required to match the additional withholding.

SECOND, there is a new 3.8% Medicare tax on unearned income for single taxpayers with adjusted gross income over $200,000 and married couples with income over $250,000. The tax will apply to the lesser of (a) net investment income, or (b) the amount by which modified adjusted gross income exceeds the $200,000 / $250,000 thresholds. The tax may require adjustments to the estimated taxes paid by an individual, but it does not have to be withheld from wages.

Examples of unearned income include interest, dividends, capital gains, royalties, and rental income. Social security benefits, alimony, tax-exempt interest, and distributions from most retirement plans are examples of unearned income not subject to this new tax.

Monday, February 18, 2013

Pay attention to restored deductions for 2012

A number of tax breaks that had expired at the end of 2011 or were to expire at the end of 2012 were extended by the recently passed law, the "American Taxpayer Relief Act of 2012." Keep these deductions and credits in mind as you gather the paperwork for filing your 2012 tax return. Those that apply to you or your business could cut your 2012 tax bill.

FOR INDIVIDUALS. The law restored for 2012 through 2013 the following tax breaks:

* The optional deduction for state and local sales taxes instead of deducting state and local income taxes.

* The above-the-line deduction for up to $4,000 for qualified tuition and related expenses.

* The deduction for mortgage insurance premiums.

 * The above-the-line deduction for up to $250 for classroom supplies purchased by teachers.

* The exclusion from income for cancellation of mortgage debt of up to $2 million on a principal residence.

FOR BUSINESSES. Included in the law's provisions were the following items that could affect your business:

* The Section 179 first-year expensing option was increased retroactively for 2012 and extended through 2013 at $500,000 for the purchase of new and used equipment. The investment limit is set at $2,000,000.

* 50% bonus depreciation, which applies only to new equipment purchases, was extended through 2013.

* Both the research tax credit and the Work Opportunity Tax Credit were extended through 2013.

For assistance in identifying and utilizing all the tax deductions, both new and old, to which you are entitled, please give us a call.

Friday, February 15, 2013

"Chained CPI": What's it all about?

As the politicians in Washington start once again to tackle the same old problems, you're likely to hear more about a new way of measuring inflation called the "chained CPI."

The standard way to measure inflation has been with the consumer price index (CPI). The CPI has been used to calculate annual adjustments to social security benefits, federal pensions, military and veterans' benefits, and tax brackets, exemptions, deductions, and credits. According to some experts, the consumer price index currently used overstates increases in the cost of living.

So how is the "chained CPI" different? It makes different assumptions about how people spend. An oversimplified example: If a severe freeze drives up the cost of oranges and orange juice by 20%, people are likely to switch to a cheaper alternative, say, apples and apple juice instead of continuing to pay the higher price for oranges. This keeps spending more level than the regular consumer price index would indicate.

A switch to the chained CPI would mean that those government payments linked to inflation would rise more slowly. Applied to the tax code, the chained CPI would mean smaller inflation adjustments to tax brackets and other tax numbers, resulting in higher taxes than by using the regular CPI.

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Home office recordkeeping simplified

The IRS is reducing the recordkeeping required for the home-office deduction, effective for 2013. Taxpayers who qualify may use a new optional deduction calculated at $5 a square foot for up to 300 square feet of an area in a home that is used regularly and exclusively for business. The deduction is capped at $1,500 a year.

Taxpayers opting for the simplified deduction cannot depreciate a portion of the home as they can under the other method. However, business expenses not related to the home, such as advertising, supplies, and employee wages, are still fully deductible.

This simplified option is available starting with the 2013 tax return which will be filed in 2014.

Monday, February 11, 2013

IRS extends deadline for farmers and fishermen

The IRS had to delay the start of this year's tax filing season until it completed programming changes made necessary by the late passage of the "American Taxpayer Relief Act of 2012" (signed into law on January 2, 2013).

Normally, farmers and fishermen are not required to make quarterly estimated tax payments if they file their tax return and pay taxes due by March 1 of the following year. The filing delay created by the new law meant that several tax forms needed by these taxpayers would not be ready on time.

As a result, the IRS has announced an extension of the March 1 filing deadline for farmers and fishermen to April 15.

The filing extension will apply to all farmers and fishermen, not just to those who use late-released IRS forms.

To qualify as a farmer or fisherman for 2012, at least two-thirds of the taxpayer's gross income for 2011 or 2012 must have come from farming or fishing.

Friday, February 8, 2013

New law causes filing season delay

The delayed passage of the "American Taxpayer Relief Act of 2012" has put the IRS behind schedule. Due to several provisions of the law affecting 2012 tax returns, the IRS could not open the Form 1040 filing season for the majority of taxpayers until late January.

Those taxpayers filing Form 5695 (Energy Credit), Form 4562 (Depreciation), and Form 3800 (General Business Credit) will not be able to file until late February or possibly not until March. Apparently a large percentage of taxpayers in this group typically file later in the season because they have more complex returns.

The IRS must complete the updating of forms and computer programming and testing before it is ready to accept any filings either on paper or electronically. The IRS said that taxpayers will receive refunds faster by e-filing and using direct deposit.

If we can be of assistance to you in preparing any of your 2012 tax filings, please contact us.