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4 tax matters that matter for the self-employed

The millions of taxpayers who hold wage-paying jobs where income taxes are withheld from their checks obviously will benefit from the Internal Revenue Service new tax withholding estimator.

But what if you don’t have a job where there’s withholding? That’s the case for millions of individuals who are self-employed

See Also: 5 things to consider if you’re thinking 
about becoming an independent contractor

The work freedom of being your own boss comes with some new tax responsibilities.

U.S. taxes are on a pay-as-you-earn system regardless of whether you get your income from an employer or as an independent worker. So when you work for yourself, you are responsible for the myriad tax implications.

Here are four tax matters that require the attention of self-employed workers, particularly those who get all their income from entrepreneurial enterprises.

1. Pay your estimated taxes.
Income tax payments obviously are top of the list if you earn enough to meet the federal income tax filing threshold.

Be sure to budget for your quarterly estimated tax payments.

See Also: The scoop on paying estimated taxes

Estimated taxes must be paid if you think you’ll owe $1,000 in taxes or more, or if your tax liability was greater than $0 in the prior year. Fail to do so, or don’t make the payments on time, and you’ll end up owing penalties and interest.

There are four estimated tax due dates, but the IRS’ quarters don’t strictly follow the calendar. Estimated taxes are due April, June, September and the following January, usually on the 15th unless that day falls on a weekend or holiday.

2. Account for your SE taxes.
Those estimated taxes also must take into account your associated self-employment (SE) taxes — both the employee and employer portions — that you now much pick up yourself.

SE taxes are the independent worker’s counterpart of the Federal Insurance Contributions Act (FICA) taxes that salaried workers see withheld on their paychecks for Social Security and Medicare.

See Also: Estimated tax payment due: 
Don’t forget to figure SE taxes

These tax rates are 12.4 percent for the retirement fund component and 2.9 percent for the federal health care insurance for older Americans.

When you work for someone else, you and your boss split payment of the percentages equally. But when you work for yourself, you must pay both employer and employee portions.

The employer half, however, can be deducted by folks who report their SE income on their annual personal income tax return as an above-the-line deduction.

3. Understand what business structure means.
When you’re self-employed, you can choose the type of business entity for your enterprise. Your selection will affect how you pay your taxes and sometimes the amounts you owe.

The easiest option is to file as a sole proprietor. It’s easy, requires little paperwork and you file your business income on Schedule C or C-EZ as part of your annual individual tax return.

If you have a trusted colleague, a partnership also is a possibility.

See Also: Business structures and 
other small business tax considerations

There’s also the incorporation option. Incorporating your business provides liability protection. An S corp, for example, can provide more tax flexibility, such as paying yourself a reasonable salary and take some profits out of your company in the form of distributions, upon which you don’t pay FICA tax.

Of course, the various business tax structures can quickly get complicated. Before you make any changes, for tax or other reasons, it’s a good idea to consult a tax and accounting professional.

4. Consider combination earning implications.
If you’re self-employment income is not your full-time job, but simply a way to pick up a bit of pocket money, you’re not necessarily off the self-employment tax hook.

Even if you don’t hit the earnings amount requiring your file a tax return on your self-employment income, you still could owe Social Security and Medicare taxes. These taxes must be paid if you make $400 or more through self-employment enterprises.

See Also: 5 tax tips for freelancers, 
gig economy workers

In these cases of combined wage and SE earnings, the IRS’ new withholding estimator can help. The new online tax calculator does take into account SE income that you have in addition to a wage-paying job where taxes are withheld.

If you’re one of these workers with a side hustle, you can include that gig money in the withholding estimator to get an idea of how to adjust your payroll withholding to take it into account, too.

Regardless of what route your self-employment journey takes, be sure to take these issues into account to make for smoother tax traveling.

‘Justin’ Bieber and other collectible baseball cards face a special capital gains tax rate

Did your mom throw out your baseball card collection when you went off to college?

If so, you can start anew today, National Baseball Card Day, by picking up some brand spanking new cards.

The Topps Company, the official trading card partner of Major League Baseball, is celebrating today by giving out free specially-made cards at MLB stadiums across the country, local hobby shops and a couple of major retailers.

The new packs feature MLB stars and up-and-coming rookies. Lucky fans also will find randomly inserted autographed cards in the new packs.

Bieber boo-boo: One card that won’t be Topps packs today is Cleveland Indians’ pitcher Shane Bieber.

As the photo at the top of this post shows, the company erroneously referred to the righthander as Justin on the back of the card.

Bieber, the major league ball player, took it in stride and with good humor.

He posted the mistaken identity card on Twitter, simply noting “Nice Topps” with an added smiley face emoji. That got a quick, contrite “Is it too late to say sorry?” response from the card company.

Shane’s good humor probably comes from the fact that such confusion and jokes have been around for a while. During last year’s MLB Players’ Weekend when players replace the names on their jerseys with their nicknames, Shane’s read Not Justin.

But even better, baby, baby, baby, was that Justin Bieber chimed in on the Topps confusion, too, telling Shane that he felt like they now have a special connection.

Justin Bieber@justinbieber

I feel like we have a special connection …Shane Bieber@ShaneBieber19Nice @Topps75.9K8:18 AM – Aug 5, 2019Twitter Ads info and privacy10.2K people are talking about this

Shane will be wearing the Not Justin nameplate again this coming (Aug. 23-25) Player’s Weekend, but maybe for future events he’ll be known as Justin’s Pal.

Valuable collectibles: Anyone who has one of the reported 25 Shane/Justin Bieber cards could cash in on Topps’ mistake. Several eBay sellers are asking several hundred dollars for the erroneous card.

While that’s still a way to go from some of the most valuable baseball cards, like Mickey Mantle’s 1952 Topps that sold last year for nearly $3 million, it’s still impressive.

So if you do have one, make sure your mom or spouse knows that it’s not to be tossed.

Also note that you’ll face some special tax considerations on profits made from the sale of a collectible.

If you hold the item long enough, it qualifies for the generally lower capital gains tax treatment.

Special tax treatment of collectibles: The applicable capital gains tax rate, however, is not one of the commonly referenced rates we pay for traditional assets.

Those are the 0 percent, 15 percent and 20 percent rates that were left intact by the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act (TCJA).

These rates still apply to any profit you make on assets you sell after owning them for more than a year, although the law did change the income brackets (which are adjusted annually) to which each of these now apply.

The TCJA also left in the tax code the special 25 percent tax rate on unrecaptured section 1250 gain from selling section 1250 real property and the 28 percent tax rate for profits from the sale of section 1202 qualified small business stock and, for this post’s purpose, collectibles.

Capital gain tax differences: Why the special, higher rate for collectibles? The public policy argument for a different, and less advantageous, tax rate for profit on collectibles is that such sales don’t have any broader economic impact.

True, culturally society benefits from preservation of works of art, antiques and other collectibles.

But, goes the tax argument, there isn’t a larger-scale economic gain on investment in collectibles like we often see from investments that produce innovative techniques, new products and higher productivity.

So Uncle Sam rewards those more economically focused long-term investments that benefit the country’s gross domestic product with lower capital gains tax rates.

Defining a collectible: So what exactly is a collectible? The short, and some might say smart-ass, answer is simply that it’s an item worth collecting.

The IRS, however, has some guidelines. Here are some things that for tax purposes (and noted in IRS Publication 17) are typically considered collectibles:

Precious metals (such as gold, silver, and platinum bullion)
Fine wines or other alcoholic beverages

No, baseball cards are not specifically listed in IRS documents. Neither is that Babe Ruth autograph that’s been handed down through your family for decades.

But those and other sports memorabilia generally are considered collectibles when they have an additional value based on their rarity and market demand. Essentially, the opinion of other collectors and experts, based on what they are willing to pay for your collection, determines its value and collectability and tax rate.

For example, a typical one-ounce gold coin is worth about $1,500 today based upon the value of the metal. It’s not considered a collectible by the IRS. However, a rare 19th century gold coin could be worth many times more to a collector, even though it is made of exactly the same amount of gold as the common coin.

The same approach applies to sports-related items. Your autographed MLB card of Al Bumbryis valuable to you on a sentimental basis because you saw him when he played on the Baltimore Orioles 1983 World Series championship team. But it won’t net you much on the sports memorabilia market.

If, however, you ever get your hands on one of the only 75 Honus Wagner cards issued in 1909 by the American Tobacco Company, you are set for life. One of those cards was privately sold earlier this year for $1.2 million

Figuring your tax: As with all investments, you’re taxed on the profit. That’s what you sell it for minus its basis.

Basis begins with your acquisition cost, which for collectibles generally include auction and/or broker’s fees along with what you paid for the item. 

If you inherited the collectible, your basis is the item’s fair market value at the time of bequeathing owner’s death.

Note, too, that if your collectible item requires special care, for example, added costs to maintain the piece or restore it, those expenses also are part of your basis in the collectible.

What you get when you sell the item, less the accumulated basis, is the amount upon which you’ll owe taxes at 28 percent.

That rate, of course, is if you sell it more than a year after buying or inheriting it. As with all capital gains calculations, if you sell a collectible you’ve owned for a year or less, your profit is taxed at your ordinary income rate.

Also note that you might not owe the 28 percent rate.

If you figure your tax using the maximum capital gain rate and the regular ordinary tax rate for your income level and find that the ordinary tax is lower, then that’s what you pay.

Why you collect: Finally, the approach you take to your collecting also could affect any potential taxes.

Collectors of valuable items do so because they are (1) dealers in the goods, (2) see the items good investments or (3) simply enjoy collecting as a hobby.

The tax treatment for each circumstance is different  and discussed in the CPA Journal’s article Planning and Tax Considerations for Collectibles, which earns it this weekend’s Saturday Shout Out.

2 ways stock losses could help cut your taxes

Is the recent stock market drop freaking you out? How about the roller coaster ride back up, at least for a while, today?

Yeah, it’s worse than many stomach-churning amusement park rides and I’m right there, holding a barf bag, with you.

But don’t take the next step. No, I’m not talking about the emergency nausea bag.

Don’t panic.

Remember, if you’ve still got many years before you need the money, you probably should hang in there.

Even if there’s a recession — and yes, that’s looking more likely right now — sticking to our long-term investment plan probably will protect you.

Patience could pay off: Individual investors who hung in there when stocks tanked starting in 2008 (the markets hit the bear bottom on March 9, 2009) saw their holdings recover nicely.

In fact, sample portfolios of $100,000 that owners held actually produced triple digit cumulative total returns.

Of course, as the investment advisers say, past performance is no guarantee of future results. But it does indicate, to paraphrase an old proverb, that acting haste can indeed mean you repent in poorer leisure.

Note, too, that your losses, regardless of how large they are, aren’t really real until you act. A stock sitting in your portfolio with a dramatically deflated price certainly is a cause for distress, but until you actually dump it, it’s only a paper loss.

Losses reduce taxable gains: OK, you’ve decided that it is the time to get out of the market and turn that paper loss into an actual one.

The move, in addition to easing your mind as to how much lower markets could go, also could present a bit of possible good tax news.

The Tax Cuts and Jobs Act (TCJA) didn’t change the tax value of capital losses.

You still can sell assets that have lost value, known as tax loss harvesting, and use that amount to offset any gains.

This means that if you’ve already taken some capital gains this year during the market run up, you can reduce the taxable amount by any losses you take now when you file your return next year.

The losses also can offset other gains you might have this year, such as capital gains distributions that usually show up in stock funds at the end of the year even if the overall value of the fund drops.

And if your capital losses are larger than your gains, you can use up to $3,000 of that amount to reduce your ordinary income.

Take NIIT notice: Tax loss harvesting also can help if you face the added net investment income tax (NIIT).

While the TCJA reduced many taxes for wealthier individuals, it left in place the NIIT. This surtax took effect in 2013 and imposes an additional 3.8 percent tax one of two ways.


It’s collected on a filer’s net investment income, which includes interest, dividends and capital gains, as well as rental income from real estate, royalty income from energy assets or even intellectual property rights and passive business income.

Or the NIIT applies to the amount by which a taxpayer’s modified adjusted gross income (MAGI) exceeds a certain threshold amount. The NIIT kick-in levels, which are not indexed for inflation, are:

  Filing Status  Threshold Amount
  Married filing jointly  $250,000
  Married filing separately  $125,000
  Single  $200,000
  Head of household (with qualifying person)  $200,000
  Qualifying widow(er) with dependent child  $250,000

A quick note here. The NIIT does not apply to home-sale profits, which already are exempt from taxation when they are $250,000 or less for single home sellers, twice that amount for married joint filers.

Roth conversion opportunity: When the market goes down, it’s also a good time to consider converting a traditional IRA to a Roth retirement account.

A Roth IRA is a great option for many. Its biggest tax appeal is that you pay taxes on the money you put into the Roth, but when you start taking distributions in retirement, those amounts are tax free.

If you do convert, you will have to pay tax on an amount you move from a traditional IRA, where the money has been sitting and growing tax-deferred, to a Roth IRA.

But since the TCJA has lowered the ordinary tax rates for everyone, you could take advantage of today’s lower tax rates, which will go back up in 2026 unless Congress extends them.

A down market also is a tax bonus in a traditional-to-Roth IRA conversion. Converting amid a falling market means you’ll pay income taxes on a lower portfolio value.

No more do-overs: Don’t, however, let the tax possibilities be your only consideration. If you convert a traditional IRA to a Roth now, the move is permanent.

Under prior tax law, you could convert a traditional IRA to a Roth and then, if your personal financial circumstances or retirement account value changed, you could change it back.

This process, known as recharacterizing, meant things were like before and you didn’t have to pay the tax on the amount you initially wanted to convert to a Roth IRA.

That’s no longer possible. The TCJA eliminated the IRS recharacterization option. Make the move from traditional to Roth IRA and it’s now a Roth forever, conversion taxes and all.

If you still think it’s time to go Roth, consider converting incrementally. You can move a small amount of your traditional IRA now and, depending on what the market does down the road, convert more to a Roth as the year end nears.

And here’s one final piece of advice when it comes to making any changes to your portfolio.

Whether you decide to make one or both of these potential tax-saving stock related moves, talk with your tax and financial planner(s) first. He or she can give you big picture advice based on their years of working with you and your money.

Trump explores U.S. purchase of Greenland

Sorry, United States, but Greenland doesn’t want to become part of us.

Yes, the U.S. buying the world’s biggest island is, or rather, was a thing.

Donald J. Trump, true to his real estate development roots, has broached the possibility of Greenland, according to The Wall Street Journal.

People familiar with the discussion, reports the newspaper, said Trump has, “with varying degrees of seriousness, repeatedly expressed interest in buying the ice-covered autonomous Danish territory between the North Atlantic and Arctic oceans.”

Joking ensues: As expected, mocking on social media has been rampant. It would have happened even if, in a weirdly fitting way, Trump’s interest in buying Greenland hadn’t been revealed on the eve of today’s National Tell a Joke Day

Yes, the standard green/golf course greens connection has been made. Repeatedly

The White House lawn mower meme was invoked.

David Priess@DavidPriess


View image on Twitter

82611:34 PM – Aug 16, 2019Twitter Ads info and privacy184 people are talking about this

A Democratic presidential nominee wannabe bought a Greenland-for-sale related websiteand turned Trump’s interest in the independent Danish island into a fundraising website for his long-shot effort at the chance to unseat 45.

Lars Løkke Rasmussen, Denmark’s former prime minister, even chimed in, characterizing Trump’s inquiry as “an April Fool’s Day joke … but totally out of sesson!

Real reasons for Greenland interest: But the idea, once you sign off Twitter, isn’t as far-fetched as it first seems.

United States has long considered Greenland to be a strategic military location.

Thule Air Base on the island’s northwestern coast is the U.S. Air Force’s northernmost facility — it’s less than 1,000 miles from the north pole — and provides America with missile warning, space surveillance and a constant view of both military and for commercial air space.

And while this summer’s historic heat wave has chipped away at Greenland’s ice at alarming rates, the exposure of land has made access easier to the island’s vast quantities of metals and energy sources, including iron ore, lead, zinc, diamonds, gold, copper, uranium and oil.

Joking aside, a possible U.S. purchase of Greenland, whose 836,330 square miles are almost precisely the combined size of Alaska and California, has been explored seriously twice before.

However, it looks like Trump isn’t going to get, whatever his reasons, Greenland.

Greenland’s tax system: Still, since heretofore unthinkable things seem to happen in connection with the current Oval Office occupant, I decided to take a look at Greenland’s taxes. 

Here’s an overview from PwC of Greenland’s personal income tax system. Just in case.

An individual may be taxed in Greenland on the basis of full or limited tax liability.

An individual who is resident in Greenland is subject to full tax liability on one’s worldwide income unless the individual is considered a resident of another country according to a double residence clause in a relevant double taxation treaty (DTT).

An individual who is fully tax resident in Greenland will, as a main rule, be taxed at up to 44%, depending on the municipality of taxation. Some deductions are applicable.

An individual not fully tax liable may have limited tax liability to Greenland. Limited tax liability is restricted to income from Greenlandic sources, listed in the Greenlandic Tax Act Section 2, including:

  • Salary for work performed in Greenland, unless the employment is exercised during stays not exceeding 14 consecutive days and the employee is employed by an employer who is neither resident nor has a permanent establishment (PE) in Greenland. An allowance (deduction) of the lesser of 10% of the income taxable to Greenland and DKK [Danish krones] 1,000 is available.
  • Certain other types of personal income, including income as an artiste or sportsman, director’s fees, pension distributions, economic education support from sources in Greenland, etc.  
  • Income arising from a business enterprise with a PE.
  • Income from independent personal services performed either from a fixed base in Greenland or during a stay of 90 days or more.
  • Income from shipping or air traffic within, or, in case of regular traffic, to or from Greenland.
  • Income from real estate located in Greenland, including sale.
  • Dividends from Greenlandic companies.
  • Royalty income from Greenland.

An individual with limited tax liability to Greenland will, as a main rule, be taxed at up to 44% on income from sources in Greenland.

Generally, individuals are subject to state taxes (national income tax) and municipal tax.

The tax percentages may be adjusted every year, and the 2017 percentages are as follows:

 Municipality Municipality 
 tax (%)
 tax (%)
 Joint local 
 municipality tax (%)
 tax (%)
 Kujalleq 28 10 6 44
 Sermersooq 26 10 6 42 
 Qeqqata 26 10 6 42
 Qaasuitsup 28 10 6 44
 Outside municipal areas 26 10 N/A 36

Individuals working in Greenland in relation to oil, gas, and mineral activities or construction activities outside existing towns and settlements are taxed at a flat rate of 35% with no deductions allowed, provided that they have not been taxable to a local Greenlandic municipality for six months prior to the commencement of the activities.

Treasury and IRS tax auctions offer bargains

I’ve seen a lot of estate sale signs lately. Either it’s an indication of the changing demographics of my part of Austin or folks are trying to fancy up their garage sales.

An estate (or renamed garage) sale basically is a way to dispose of most of an owner’s property either because family doesn’t want their deceased relative’s items or the goods need to be sold to make a move easier.

Uncle Sam regularly holds his own versions, but in many instances these government sales are to settle tax debts.

Nationwide asset auctions: Each year, says the U.S. Treasury’s auctions website, 300 or so public auctions are conducted throughout the United States and Puerto Rico.

Upcoming auctions on the Internal Revenue Service’s seizures-for-sale online page primarily feature real estate and you can get some bargains.

Tax auction Prescott AZ home IRS tax auction walkway to pool

The Arizona home pictured at the top of this post and the view from the back of the house at right, for example, has almost 3,400 square feet of living space parceled out among four bedrooms, three full baths, a living/dining room, den and family room (not sure the difference in the last two …), along with a three-car garage and pool on just more than three acres.

The minimum bid on the home built in 2005 is $230,000.

That’s almost enough to make me put a for sale by owner sign in my current Austin front yard and start packing.

It’s also enough (or little) to earn this week’s By the Numbers recognition.

More locations, more items: Not a fan of the desert? No problem.

The IRS also is looking to sell homes in Alabama, California, Colorado, Florida, Georgia, Iowa, Illinois, Kansas, Louisiana, Minnesota, North Carolina, North Dakota New Hampshire, New Jersey, Nevada, New York, Ohio, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Utah, Wisconsin and West Virginia.

There also are federal tax auctions on homes here in the Lone Star State. There are a couple in towns not far from Austin, including one that’s closer to my mother.

In addition, the IRS is looking to unload commercial property and a selection of vehicles.

Treasury’s other auction items: The Department of the Treasury, under the auspices of the Treasury Executive Office for Asset Forfeiture (TEOAF), also is in charge of other auctions of property seized or forfeited due to violations of federal laws enforced by Treasury and the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.

At these additional auctions you might be able to pick up for some spare pennies such things as high-speed watercraft, like the hydrofoils shown below, or a private plane.


Check out the links on Treasury’s main auctions page. They provide details on the property on the block, as well as locations of the sales and those in which you can participate online.

I live close enough to several lakes for some of the watercraft to pique my interest, especially with Texas’ new tax break for yacht owners. Then I remember that a boat is a hole in the water into which you pour your money. I’m already doing enough of that with my house maintenance!

So for the time being I’ll probably stick with in-person perusal of nearby local estate sale tchotchkes that folks are selling of their own volition, not because they have to pay Uncle Sam.

But if you’re interested in some of the feds’ items up for auction, have at ’em. The U.S. Treasury would appreciate your contribution. 

Wealth taxes are losing appeal everywhere except on the Democratic presidential campaign trail

Many of the folks trying to become the Democrat to challenge Donald J. Trump in 2020 support raising taxes on the wealthy.

It’s a popular U.S. campaign rallying cry, but globally, such taxes on net worth are vanishing.

All for taking from the rich: The Democratic Party is bucking the global dying wealth tax trend. One of its top goals remains raising the top ordinary income tax rate, which the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act (TCJA) cut from 39.6 percent to 37 percent.

Former Vice President Joe Biden wants to go back to that pre-tax reform top rate for individuals, as well as the 28 percent corporate income tax rate.

South Bend, Indiana Mayor Pete Buttigieg is more vague, simply calling for a wealth tax.

But there are some specific tax proposals to get more from the rich.

Sen. Elizabeth Warren was the first to talk in detail about a wealth tax. The Massachusetts Democrat wants, among other taxes on the rich, an Ultra-Millionaire Tax. Warren’s wealth tax would be 2 percent on net worth of more than $50 million and 3 percent on net worth of more than $1 billion.

Former Housing and Urban Development Secretary Julián Castro’s plan would boost taxes on the wealthy and expand or create a host of federal programs for low- and middle-income families, including universal child care, paid family leave and a $15-per-hour minimum wage.

New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio says he wants to “tax the hell out of the wealthy.” Among the ways he proposes are a 1 percent added wealth tax on assets between $10 million and $25 million, a 2 percent tax on assets of $25 million to $100 million and a 3 percent tax for those with assets of more than $100 million. This would be in addition to a 40 percent top ordinary income tax rate.

Bernie Sanders focuses on what the rich leave behind. The Vermont Independent (he’s only a Democrat during primary season) would tax estates valued from $3.5 million to $10 million at a 45 percent rate. The rate would be 50 percent for estates worth $10 million to $50 million, 55 percent for estates valued from $50 million to $1 billion and 77 percent on estates exceeding a valuation of more than $1 billion.

You can read more on the 2020 Democratic primary contenders’ tax plans in overviews put together by Kiplinger and the Tax Foundation.

Waning wealth taxes: You also can find out more on what wealth taxes entail and how they [are supposed to] work in the paper by the Washington Center for Equitable Growth’s paper on net worth taxes.

It’s a section of that Washington, D.C.-based think tank’s analysis that gets this weekend’s Sunday Shout Out .

Authors Greg Leiserson, director of Tax Policy and senior economist at the Washington Center for Equitable Growth (WCEG), and WCEG research assistants Will McGrew and Raksha Kopparam note in their paper’s section on net worth taxes around the world that such levies are declining globally.

Twelve countries that are part of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) had net worth taxes in 1990. In 2000, only nine countries were collecting these taxes.

By 2018, the number had dropped to just three: Norway, Spain and Switzerland.

OECD net worth tax declines_Washington Center for Equitable Growth

The trend away from net worth taxes has been part of a broader trend of reduced taxation of the wealthy around the world. The only change came for a short period during the Great Recession, when Iceland and Spain restored their net worth taxes.

Opposite route in America: So why are the Democratic candidates bucking the global trend? The obvious answer is that economic inequality in the United States has been getting more and more attention since the first Occupy Wall Street protests in 2011.

The TCJA benefits that are skewed more toward the wealthy than middle class taxpayers has exacerbated this complaint, at least on the campaign trail.

Plus, and critically important as Uncle Sam’s deficit crosses the $1 trillion mark, the potential tax take is appealing.

The WCEG paper notes that “the revenue potential of these [net worth] taxes remains large in absolute terms. The Swiss tax raised about 1 percent of [gross domestic product] GDP in 2017 and the Norwegian tax 0.4 percent of GDP. Applied to the U.S. economy, revenues at these levels would correspond to about $80 billion to $200 billion in 2018. “

There’s also the sheer amount money in the United States, albeit concentrated in a few hands.

“Regardless of measure, U.S. aggregate wealth is large. In conjunction with the highly skewed nature of the wealth distribution, this suggests that the revenue potential of a net worth tax in the United States is large, even if applied only to the very wealthiest families,” write WCEG analysts. “The wealthiest 1 percent of families holds $33 trillion in wealth, and the wealthiest 5 percent holds $57 trillion.”

Monetary and political appeal: Bottom line, says the paper’s authors, those looking for “a highly progressive tax instrument that raises substantial revenue would find a net worth tax appealing.”

And even more appealing to politicians looking to energize a diverse and less-than-rich electorate, is that wealth taxes, according to WCEG, “would thus generally shift the tax burden not only from low-wealth families to high-wealth families, but also from younger families to older families and from families of color to white families.”

Better tax deduction apples for teachers proposed

Classes are back in session in many communities across the United States. And part of the supplies that are being used to help educate our youngsters were paid for by their teachers.

Every year, studies by both private groups and federal agencies report that most public school teacher pay for products they need to get their lessons across to the students.

The amounts vary, ranging from nearly $500 in a U.S. Department of Education survey from several years ago to nearly twice that (or more) in some of today’s classroom situations.

Easy to claim: The good news for these dedicated teachers is that they can claim some of those expenses on their tax returns. Even better, they can do so without itemizing, claiming the classroom costs as an above-the-line deduction on their annual form 1040.

A single filing teacher can claim $250 spent toward classroom supplies. For married educators, their joint filing allows for $500 in personal payment of school supplies to be deducted or, as it’s officially counted on the return, subtracted from filers’ gross income to get to a lower adjusted gross income (AGI) amount.

The deduction amounts are adjusted annually for inflation. It wasn’t enough to kick up the amount for 2019, so it’s still at $250 or $500.

But not big enough: However, even with inflation, the harsh fiscal and tax reality for teachers is that most of them shell out more to help enhance their students’ learning experiences than they can claim on their taxes.

Plus, the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act (TCJA) did away with one way that teachers had to claim the excess.

Before the new tax law took effect, teachers who itemized had the option to claim any classroom expenses that exceed the $250 (or $500) amount by claiming the costs as an employee business expense. It the school-related costs and other eligible miscellaneous expenses exceeded 2 percent of their AGI, it provided an additional Schedule A claim amount.

Under the TCJA, however, itemized employee business expenses are gone.

That part of why some members of Congress are calling for an increase in the teachers’ expenses tax deduction.

Doubling the teacher expense claim: Back in January, Rep. Anthony Brown (D-Maryland) introduced the Educators Expense Deduction Modernization Act.

H.R. 878 as it’s officially known would double the current $250 allowable claim for a single filer to cover certain elementary and secondary school out-of-pocket expenses. The new level still would be indexed for inflation.

Brown’s bill is identical to one he introduced in previous Congressional sessions.

Doubling and expanding the teacher tax break: Then this month, just as classes were getting ready to start, two Missouri Representatives, Republican Sam Graves and Democrat William Lacy Clay, introduced their own teachers’ deduction bill.

H.R. 4180, dubbed the Teacher Tax Deduction Enhancement Act of 2019, also would increase the annual limit on the expenses that a single taxpaying teacher may deduct from $250 to $500. It, too, would require the limit to be adjusted for inflation after 2019.

Reps. Graves and Clay also would expand the tax break to more educators.

H.R. 4180 would make a $250 deduction available to part-time teachers and preschool teachers in state-recognized schools.

Extenders are best passage bet: It’s unlikely that either of these bills will pass on their own. But, and admittedly it’s a bit but right now (insert your own 12-year-old double entendre joke here), they could be added to any tax extenders legislation.

The extenders, those technically temporary tax breaks that must be periodically renewed, are stalled for the moment.

However, there’s been some movement on the Senate side, where the Senate Finance Committee last week released three extenders tax force reports (more on these in an upcoming post).

If the extenders are finally put on a fast track, look for Brown, Graves and Clay to try to hop aboard with their teacher tax breaks.

7 common 401(k) FAQs

Trump’s recent campaign rally exhortation that people had to vote for him in 2020 or their 401(k)s will tank got me thinking a lot of things, most of which aren’t applicable to a tax blog.

But one is. It deals with the workplace retirement plan known as a 401(k).

Just how many people across the United States, not just at Trump’s rally, have these tax-deferred retirement savings accounts?

401(k) growth: As of March 31, total 401(k) plans held an estimated $5.7 trillion in assets and represented more than 19 percent of the $29.1 trillion in U.S. retirement assets, according to the Investment Company Institute (ICI).

US retirement market 1Q 2019_Investment Company Institute

See Investment Company Institute, “The US Retirement Market, First Quarter 2019.” 
Sources: Investment Company Institute, Federal Reserve Board, and Department of Labor

That’s an increase from 2010 when, says ICI, 401(k) assets were $3.1 trillion and represented 17 percent of the U.S. retirement market in 2010.

Data from ICI also shows that in 2016, about 55 million American workers were active 401(k) participants and there were nearly 555,000 401(k) plans.

I’m impressed. To be honest I thought the figures would be lower, since surveys typically show that way too many Americans are savings only minuscule amounts for their retirement years.

If you’re one of the 55 million or so 401(k) owners putting money regularly into your plan, good for you!

But even if you have an account, you still might have some questions.

So here are some frequently asked questions and answers to help you maximize both your retirement and tax savings.

As for all y’all who’ve yet to open a 401(k) plan, check out these FAQ, too. The info might be just what you were looking for to help you decide to open one.

OK, Let’s start this questions and answers session with the most basic of basics.

1. What is a 401(k)?
It’s a defined contribution retirement plan offered by your boss where you, the worker, contributes and, in most cases, your boss puts in a percentage, too.

Quick digression. In case you ever here the retirement phrase defined benefit plan, that’s the old-school pension where the boss takes care of all the funding of workers’ retirement plans. Good luck finding any of those nowadays. Now back to 401(k)s.

The 401(k) gets its name from the section of the tax code which authorized the accounts back in 1978.

2. Why is it in the tax code?
Because it offers a tax-saving component.

A traditional 401(k) plan lets you put money in your account, generally through direct payroll deposits from your paycheck. That money goes in before your income taxes are figured, meaning there’s less money from which Uncle Sam gets a cut.

Here’s an example from ICI on how that pays off over the years:

For a worker in a 25 percent tax bracket*, a $1,000 contribution to a 401(k) plan over 20 years will generate $2,405 in distributions and $802 in federal taxes. The same $1,000 contribution to a taxable account over 20 years will generate $1,809 in distributions and $603 in federal taxes. (Investment Company Institute, The Tax Benefits and Revenue Costs of Tax Deferral, September 11, 2012)
*This tax result example was created before the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act (TCJA) changed the tax rates for tax years 2018-2025, but you get the idea.

Meanwhile, your 401(k) money grows tax-deferred. You don’t pay tax on it until your take it out if the account.

One quick note about those taxes. They are at the ordinary income tax rates, not the usually lower capital gains rates even though your 401(k) plan is invested in, say, a stock fund. Be aware of that difference so that you’re not shocked at a tax bill when you’re enjoying your golden years sipping mojitos on a beach.

You can avoid those ordinary taxes in retirement if your company offers a Roth 401(k) plan. Many now are.

Like Roth IRAs, you put money into these workplace plans after it’s been taxed. But that means you don’t owe tax on the money you take out later.

3. How much can or must I contribute?
There are limits on how much you can put into a 401(k) plan and they are adjusted annually for inflation.

You can get the full scoop in my 2019 update of retirement-related inflation adjustments.

For 401(k)s in 2019, workers younger than 50 can put in up to $19,000 into their 401(k). Folks older than the big 5-Oh(no!) get an extra $6,000 catch-up amount, meaning they can max out at $25,000 by the end of this year.

Few of us will be able to hit those amounts, but we should put in as much as we can without jeopardizing our daily living expenses needs.

And you definitely should put in at least as much as your employer is willing to match. That’s typically 50 cents on your plan contribution dollar up to 6 percent, giving you an added 3 percent of money to grow tax-deferred.

Employer matching of 401(k) contributions is free money. Don’t pass it up and, if possible, maximize it.

4. When can or do I have to take out 401(k) funds?
You can access your 401(k) and not face any penalty if you wait until you turn 59½.

If you take the money out before that age, you’ll generally owe a 10 percent early distribution penalty in addition to the taxes due on the amount withdrawn

At the other end of the distribution spectrum, you must start taking money out of 401(k)s when you turn 70½.

These are known as required minimum distributions (RMDs) and are calculated based on your age and the amount of tax-deferred retirement savings you have. You can find more on this in my 10 RMD FAQ post.

5. Are there exceptions to the 10 percent early withdrawal penalty?
Yes, there are some instances, generally classified as hardship withdrawals, where you won’t face a penalty on the early distribution from a retirement plan.

But they tend, for the most part to be rather specific and in some cases involved situations we don’t want to happen.

They include:

  • You must pay unreimbursed medical expenses.
  • You buy medical insurance when you’re out of work.
  • You need the money to buy your primary residence.
  • You need the funds to prevent eviction from or foreclosure on your principal residence.
  • You need to pay college tuition and related educational costs for the next 12 months for you, your spouse, dependents or children who are no longer dependents.
  • You have a permanent disability, either physical or mental, that prevents you from getting a job.
  • You are a reservist called to active duty.
  • You have a court-ordered Qualified domestic Relations Order (QDRO) that mandates funds from your account go to a former spouse, child, or dependent.
  • You are facing an IRS levy.
  • You have died and your beneficiary gets the money.

Note, too, that while penalty-free hardship withdrawals are allowed by law, your employer is not required to provide for them in your plan. Most do, but double check.

And even if you do have an allowable penalty-free withdrawal circumstances, you’ll still owe the tax on the tax-deferred funds you take early.

Rather than take an outright distribution, you might want to consider a 401(k) loan. You’ll have to pay the money back, but at least you avoid the 10 percent penalty as long as you continue to work for your company during the loan repayment period.

Retirement savings street signs

6. Can I contribute to both a 401(k) and an IRA?
Good for you for wanting to double down on retirement savings. The IRS thinks it’s a good idea, too.

That’s why it says it’s OK for an active 401(k) participant to also contribute up to the maximum to a traditional IRA. Note, however, that your contributions to a traditional IRA may not be fully deductible depending on your income and marital status.

7. What are my options if I leave the job where I have a 401(k)?
You have several.

If you employer allows it, you can leave the account there. Some reasons to do so is that you like the fund your money is in. Your new company doesn’t have a 401(k) option. You haven’t had time to research where you want to move your account.

When you are ready to move an old 401(k) you can have it transferred to your new company (if, unlike in the reason above, it offers such plans) or to an IRA.

In moving an old retirement account, make sure you do so via a called a trustee-to-trustee transfer. This will ensure that you never get your hands on the money. That’s important because if you do and you’re younger than 59½ you’ll have to pay the penalty and tax on the money.

Where you do take the money, even if you eventually put it into another qualified retirement account, known as a rollover, your old account holder must take 20 percent off the top for federal taxes (and more for state taxes, too) before giving you the money.

If you put the remainder into a qualified retirement plan within the required 60-day transfer period, you can get the taxes back when you file your tax return the next year, but you’ll have lost the earning power of that amount.

A trustee-to-trustee transfer, however, means the money goes from one retirement plan to another, sidestepping potential penalties and taxes.

If you want to move your 401(k), first talk with your former employer and the place where you’re sending the money to ensure the process goes smoothly.

Finally, if you move a 401(k) don’t freak out the next year when you get a Form 1099-R. The former account administrator has to file this document with the IRS letting them know you took the tax-deferred money.

But it doesn’t mean you owe taxes. Note the code in box 7. If you completed a direct trustee-to-trustee transfer the letter G will let the IRS know that the money was never in your hands so you don’t owe any taxes.

These common 401(k) FAQ should answer the most common questions about these workplace retirement plans. If you have more, talk to your company’s plan administrator, as well as your financial and/or tax adviser.