Who qualifies for “head of household” tax filing status?

When you file your tax return, you must check one of the following filing statuses: Single, married filing jointly, married filing separately, head of household or qualifying widow(er). Who qualifies to file a return as a head of household, which is more favorable than single?

To qualify, you must maintain a household, which for more than half the year, is the principal home of a “qualifying child” or other relative of yours whom you can claim as a dependent (unless you only qualify due to the multiple support rules).

A qualifying child?

A child is considered qualifying if he or she:

  • Lives in your home for more than half the year,
  • Is your child, stepchild, adopted child, foster child, sibling stepsibling (or a descendant of any of these),
  • Is under age 19 (or a student under 24), and
  • Doesn’t provide over half of his or her own support for the year.

If a child’s parents are divorced, the child will qualify if he meets these tests for the custodial parent — even if that parent released his or her right to a dependency exemption for the child to the noncustodial parent.

A person isn’t a “qualifying child” if he or she is married and can’t be claimed by you as a dependent because he or she filed jointly or isn’t a U.S. citizen or resident. Special “tie-breaking” rules apply if the individual can be a qualifying child of (and is claimed as such by) more than one taxpayer.

Maintaining a household

You’re considered to “maintain a household” if you live in the home for the tax year and pay over half the cost of running it. In measuring the cost, include house-related expenses incurred for the mutual benefit of household members, including property taxes, mortgage interest, rent, utilities, insurance on the property, repairs and upkeep, and food consumed in the home. Don’t include items such as medical care, clothing, education, life insurance or transportation.

Special rule for parents

Under a special rule, you can qualify as head of household if you maintain a home for a parent of yours even if you don’t live with the parent. To qualify under this rule, you must be able to claim the parent as your dependent.

Marital status

You must be unmarried to claim head of household status. If you’re unmarried because you’re widowed, you can use the married filing jointly rates as a “surviving spouse” for two years after the year of your spouse’s death if your dependent child, stepchild, adopted child, or foster child lives with you and you “maintain” the household. The joint rates are more favorable than the head of household rates.

If you’re married, you must file either as married filing jointly or separately, not as head of household. However, if you’ve lived apart from your spouse for the last six months of the year and your dependent child, stepchild, adopted child, or foster child lives with you and you “maintain” the household, you’re treated as unmarried. If this is the case, you can qualify as head of household.

We can answer questions if you’d like to discuss a particular situation or would like additional information about whether someone qualifies as your dependent.

© 2021

How to ensure life insurance isn’t part of your taxable estate

If you have a life insurance policy, you may want to ensure that the benefits your family will receive after your death won’t be included in your estate. That way, the benefits won’t be subject to federal estate tax.

Current exemption amounts

For 2021, the federal estate and gift tax exemption is $11.7 million ($23.4 million for married couples). That’s generous by historical standards but in 2026, the exemption is set to fall to about $6 million ($12 million for married couples) after inflation adjustments — unless Congress changes the law.

In or out of your estate

Under the estate tax rules, insurance on your life will be included in your taxable estate if:

  • Your estate is the beneficiary of the insurance proceeds, or
  • You possessed certain economic ownership rights (called “incidents of ownership”) in the policy at your death (or within three years of your death).

It’s easy to avoid the first situation by making sure your estate isn’t designated as the policy beneficiary.

The second rule is more complicated. Just having someone else possess legal title to the policy won’t prevent the proceeds from being included in your estate if you keep “incidents of ownership.” Rights that, if held by you, will cause the proceeds to be taxed in your estate include:

  • The right to change beneficiaries,
  • The right to assign the policy (or revoke an assignment),
  • The right to pledge the policy as security for a loan,
  • The right to borrow against the policy’s cash surrender value, and
  • The right to surrender or cancel the policy.

Be aware that merely having any of the above powers will cause the proceeds to be taxed in your estate even if you never exercise them.

Buy-sell agreements and trusts

Life insurance obtained to fund a buy-sell agreement for a business interest under a “cross-purchase” arrangement won’t be taxed in your estate (unless the estate is the beneficiary).

An irrevocable life insurance trust (ILIT) is another effective vehicle that can be set up to keep life insurance proceeds from being taxed in the insured’s estate. Typically, the policy is transferred to the trust along with assets that can be used to pay future premiums. Alternatively, the trust buys the insurance with funds contributed by the insured. As long as the trust agreement doesn’t give the insured the ownership rights described above, the proceeds won’t be included in the insured’s estate.

The three-year rule

If you’re considering setting up a life insurance trust with a policy you own currently or simply assigning away your ownership rights in such a policy, consult with us to ensure you achieve your goals. Unless you live for at least three years after these steps are taken, the proceeds will be taxed in your estate. (For policies in which you never held incidents of ownership, the three-year rule doesn’t apply.)

Contact us if you have questions or would like assistance with estate planning and taxation.

© 2021

New law tax break may make child care less expensive

The new American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) provides eligible families with an enhanced child and dependent care credit for 2021. This is the credit available for expenses a taxpayer pays for the care of qualifying children under the age of 13 so that the taxpayer can be gainfully employed.

Note that a credit reduces your tax bill dollar for dollar.

Who qualifies?

For care to qualify for the credit, the expenses must be “employment-related.” In other words, they must enable you and your spouse to work. In addition, they must be for the care of your child, stepchild, foster child, brother, sister or step-sibling (or a descendant of any of these), who’s under 13, lives in your home for over half the year, and doesn’t provide over half of his or her own support for the year. The expenses can also be for the care of your spouse or dependent who’s handicapped and lives with you for over half the year.

The typical expenses that qualify for the credit are payments to a day care center, nanny or nursery school. Sleep-away camp doesn’t qualify. The cost of kindergarten or higher grades doesn’t qualify because it’s an education expense. However, the cost of before and after school programs may qualify.

To claim the credit, married couples must file a joint return. You must also provide the caregiver’s name, address and Social Security number (or tax ID number for a day care center or nursery school). You also must include on the return the Social Security number(s) of the children receiving the care.

The 2021 credit is refundable as long as either you or your spouse has a principal residence in the U.S. for more than half of the tax year.

What are the limits?

When calculating the credit, several limits apply. First, qualifying expenses are limited to the income you or your spouse earn from work, self-employment, or certain disability and retirement benefits — using the figure for whichever of you earns less. Under this limitation, if one of you has no earned income, you aren’t entitled to any credit. However, in some cases, if one spouse has no actual earned income and that spouse is a full-time student or disabled, the spouse is considered to have monthly income of $250 (for one qualifying individual) or $500 (for two or more qualifying individuals).

For 2021, the first $8,000 of care expenses generally qualifies for the credit if you have one qualifying individual, or $16,000 if you have two or more. (These amounts have increased significantly from $3,000 and $6,000, respectively.) However, if your employer has a dependent care assistance program under which you receive benefits excluded from gross income, the qualifying expense limits ($8,000 or $16,000) are reduced by the excludable amounts you receive.

How much is the credit worth?

If your AGI is $125,000 or less, the maximum credit amount is $4,000 for taxpayers with one qualifying individual and $8,000 for taxpayers with two or more qualifying individuals. The credit phases out under a complicated formula. For taxpayers with an AGI greater than $440,000, it’s phased out completely.

These are the essential elements of the enhanced child and dependent care credit in 2021 under the new law. Contact us if you have questions.

© 2021

New law: Parents and other eligible Americans to receive direct payments

The American Rescue Plan Act, signed into law on March 11, provides a variety of tax and financial relief to help mitigate the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic. Among the many initiatives are direct payments that will be made to eligible individuals. And parents under certain income thresholds will also receive additional payments in the coming months through a greatly revised Child Tax Credit.

Here are some answers to questions about these payments.

What are the two types of payments?

Under the new law, eligible individuals will receive advance direct payments of a tax credit. The law calls these payments “recovery rebates.” The law also includes advance Child Tax Credit payments to eligible parents later this year.

How much are the recovery rebates?

An eligible individual is allowed a 2021 income tax credit, which will generally be paid in advance through direct bank deposit or a paper check. The full amount is $1,400 ($2,800 for eligible married joint filers) plus $1,400 for each dependent.

Who is eligible?

There are several requirements but the most important is income on your most recently filed tax return. Full payments are available to those with adjusted gross incomes (AGIs) of less than $75,000 ($150,000 for married joint filers and $112,500 for heads of households). Your AGI can be found on page 1 of Form 1040.

The credit phases out and is no longer available to taxpayers with AGIs of more than $80,000 ($160,000 for married joint filers and $120,000 for heads of households).

Who isn’t eligible?

Among those who aren’t eligible are nonresident aliens, individuals who are the dependents of other taxpayers, estates and trusts.

How has the Child Tax Credit changed?

Before the new law, the Child Tax Credit was $2,000 per “qualifying child.” Under the new law, the credit is increased to $3,000 per child ($3,600 for children under age 6 as of the end of the year). But the increased 2021 credit amounts are phased out at modified AGIs of over $75,000 for singles ($150,000 for joint filers and $112,500 for heads of households).

A qualifying child before the new law was defined as an under-age-17 child, whom the taxpayer could claim as a dependent. The $2,000 Child Tax Credit was phased out for taxpayers with modified AGIs of over $400,000 for joint filers, and $200,000 for other filers.

Under the new law, for 2021, the definition of a qualifying child for purposes of the Child Tax Credit includes one who hasn’t turned 18 by the end of this year. So 17-year-olds qualify for the credit for 2021 only.

How are parents going to receive direct payments of the Child Tax Credit this year?

Unlike in the past, you don’t have to wait to file your tax return to fully benefit from the credit. The new law directs the IRS to establish a program to make monthly advance payments equal to 50% of eligible taxpayers’ 2021 Child Tax Credits. These payments will be made from July through December 2021.

What if my income is above the amounts listed above?

Taxpayers who aren’t eligible to claim an increased Child Tax Credit, because their incomes are too high, may be able to claim a regular credit of up to $2,000 on their 2021 tax returns, subject to the existing phaseout rules.

Much more

There are other rules and requirements involving these payments. This article only describes the basics. Stay tuned for additional details about other tax breaks in the new law.

© 2021

Estimated tax payments: The deadline for the first 2021 installment is coming ups

April 15 is not only the deadline for filing your 2020 tax return, it’s also the deadline for the first quarterly estimated tax payment for 2021, if you’re required to make one.

You may have to make estimated tax payments if you receive interest, dividends, alimony, self-employment income, capital gains, prize money or other income. If you don’t pay enough tax during the year through withholding and estimated payments, you may be liable for a tax penalty on top of the tax that’s ultimately due.

Four due dates

Individuals must pay 25% of their “required annual payment” by April 15, June 15, September 15, and January 15 of the following year, to avoid an underpayment penalty. If one of those dates falls on a weekend or holiday, the payment is due on the next business day.

The required annual payment for most individuals is the lower of 90% of the tax shown on the current year’s return or 100% of the tax shown on the return for the previous year. However, if the adjusted gross income on your previous year’s return was more than $150,000 (more than $75,000 if you’re married filing separately), you must pay the lower of 90% of the tax shown on the current year’s return or 110% of the tax shown on the return for the previous year.

Most people who receive the bulk of their income in the form of wages satisfy these payment requirements through the tax withheld by their employers from their paychecks. Those who make estimated tax payments generally do so in four installments. After determining the required annual payment, they divide that number by four and make four equal payments by the due dates.

The annualized method

But you may be able to use the annualized income method to make smaller payments. This method is useful to people whose income flow isn’t uniform over the year, perhaps because they’re involved in a seasonal business.

If you fail to make the required payments, you may be subject to a penalty. However, the underpayment penalty doesn’t apply to you:

  • If the total tax shown on your return is less than $1,000 after subtracting withholding tax paid;
  • If you had no tax liability for the preceding year, you were a U.S. citizen or resident for that entire year, and that year was 12 months;
  • For the fourth (Jan. 15) installment, if you file your return by that January 31 and pay your tax in full; or
  • If you’re a farmer or fisherman and pay your entire estimated tax by January 15, or pay your entire estimated tax and file your tax return by March 1

In addition, the IRS may waive the penalty if the failure was due to casualty, disaster, or other unusual circumstances and it would be inequitable to impose it. The penalty may also be waived for reasonable cause during the first two years after you retire (after reaching age 62) or become disabled.

Stay on track

Contact us if you have questions about how to calculate estimated tax payments. We can help you stay on track so you aren’t liable for underpayment penalties.

© 2021

Didn’t contribute to an IRA last year? There still may be time

If you’re getting ready to file your 2020 tax return, and your tax bill is higher than you’d like, there might still be an opportunity to lower it. If you qualify, you can make a deductible contribution to a traditional IRA right up until the April 15, 2021 filing date and benefit from the tax savings on your 2020 return.

Who is eligible?

You can make a deductible contribution to a traditional IRA if:

  • You (and your spouse) aren’t an active participant in an employer-sponsored retirement plan, or
  • You (or your spouse) are an active participant in an employer plan, but your modified adjusted gross income (AGI) doesn’t exceed certain levels that vary from year-to-year by filing status.

For 2020, if you’re a joint tax return filer and you are covered by an employer plan, your deductible IRA contribution phases out over $104,000 to $124,000 of modified AGI. If you’re single or a head of household, the phaseout range is $65,000 to $75,000 for 2020. For married filing separately, the phaseout range is $0 to $10,000. For 2020, if you’re not an active participant in an employer-sponsored retirement plan, but your spouse is, your deductible IRA contribution phases out with modified AGI of between $196,000 and $206,000.

Deductible IRA contributions reduce your current tax bill, and earnings within the IRA are tax deferred. However, every dollar you take out is taxed in full (and subject to a 10% penalty before age 59 1/2, unless one of several exceptions apply).

IRAs often are referred to as “traditional IRAs” to differentiate them from Roth IRAs. You also have until April 15 to make a Roth IRA contribution. But while contributions to a traditional IRA are deductible, contributions to a Roth IRA aren’t. However, withdrawals from a Roth IRA are tax-free as long as the account has been open at least five years and you’re age 59 1/2 or older. (There are also income limits to contribute to a Roth IRA.)

Here are two other IRA strategies that may help you save tax.

1. Turn a nondeductible Roth IRA contribution into a deductible IRA contribution. Did you make a Roth IRA contribution in 2020? That may help you in the future when you take tax-free payouts from the account. However, the contribution isn’t deductible. If you realize you need the deduction that a traditional IRA contribution provides, you can change your mind and turn a Roth IRA contribution into a traditional IRA contribution via the “recharacterization” mechanism. The traditional IRA deduction is then yours if you meet the requirements described above.

2. Make a deductible IRA contribution, even if you don’t work. In general, you can’t make a deductible traditional IRA contribution unless you have wages or other earned income. However, an exception applies if your spouse is the breadwinner and you are a homemaker. In this case, you may be able to take advantage of a spousal IRA.

What’s the contribution limit?

For 2020 if you’re eligible, you can make a deductible traditional IRA contribution of up to $6,000 ($7,000 if you’re 50 or over).

In addition, small business owners can set up and contribute to a Simplified Employee Pension (SEP) plan up until the due date for their returns, including extensions. For 2020, the maximum contribution you can make to a SEP is $57,000.

If you want more information about IRAs or SEPs, contact us or ask about it when we’re preparing your return. We can help you save the maximum tax-advantaged amount for retirement.

© 2021

Did you make donations in 2020? There’s still time to get substantiation

If you’re like many Americans, letters from your favorite charities may be appearing in your mailbox acknowledging your 2020 donations. But what happens if you haven’t received such a letter — can you still claim a deduction for the gift on your 2020 income tax return? It depends.

What is required

To support a charitable deduction, you need to comply with IRS substantiation requirements. This generally includes obtaining a contemporaneous written acknowledgment from the charity stating the amount of the donation, whether you received any goods or services in consideration for the donation and the value of any such goods or services.

“Contemporaneous” means the earlier of:

  • The date you file your tax return, or
  • The extended due date of your return.

So if you made a donation in 2020 but haven’t yet received substantiation from the charity, it’s not too late — as long as you haven’t filed your 2020 return. Contact the charity and request a written acknowledgment.

Keep in mind that, if you made a cash gift of under $250 with a check or credit card, generally a canceled check, bank statement or credit card statement is sufficient. However, if you received something in return for the donation, you generally must reduce your deduction by its value — and the charity is required to provide you a written acknowledgment as described earlier.

New deduction for non-itemizers

In general, taxpayers who don’t itemize their deductions (and instead claim the standard deduction) can’t claim a charitable deduction. Under the CARES Act, individuals who don’t itemize deductions can claim a federal income tax write-off for up to $300 of cash contributions to IRS-approved charities for the 2020 tax year. The same $300 limit applies to both unmarried taxpayers and married joint-filing couples.

Even better, this tax break was extended to cover $300 of cash contributions made in 2021 under the Consolidated Appropriations Act. The new law doubles the deduction limit to $600 for married joint-filing couples for cash contributions made in 2021.

2020 and 2021 deductions

Additional substantiation requirements apply to some types of donations. We can help you determine whether you have sufficient substantiation for the donations you hope to deduct on your 2020 income tax return — and guide you on the substantiation you’ll need for gifts you’re planning this year to ensure you can enjoy the desired deductions on your 2021 return.

© 2021

Did you make donations in 2020? There’s still time to get substantiation

If you’re like many Americans, letters from your favorite charities may be appearing in your mailbox acknowledging your 2020 donations. But what happens if you haven’t received such a letter — can you still claim a deduction for the gift on your 2020 income tax return? It depends.

What is required

To support a charitable deduction, you need to comply with IRS substantiation requirements. This generally includes obtaining a contemporaneous written acknowledgment from the charity stating the amount of the donation, whether you received any goods or services in consideration for the donation and the value of any such goods or services.

“Contemporaneous” means the earlier of:

  • The date you file your tax return, or
  • The extended due date of your return.

So if you made a donation in 2020 but haven’t yet received substantiation from the charity, it’s not too late — as long as you haven’t filed your 2020 return. Contact the charity and request a written acknowledgment.

Keep in mind that, if you made a cash gift of under $250 with a check or credit card, generally a canceled check, bank statement or credit card statement is sufficient. However, if you received something in return for the donation, you generally must reduce your deduction by its value — and the charity is required to provide you a written acknowledgment as described earlier.

New deduction for non-itemizers

In general, taxpayers who don’t itemize their deductions (and instead claim the standard deduction) can’t claim a charitable deduction. Under the CARES Act, individuals who don’t itemize deductions can claim a federal income tax write-off for up to $300 of cash contributions to IRS-approved charities for the 2020 tax year. The same $300 limit applies to both unmarried taxpayers and married joint-filing couples.

Even better, this tax break was extended to cover $300 of cash contributions made in 2021 under the Consolidated Appropriations Act. The new law doubles the deduction limit to $600 for married joint-filing couples for cash contributions made in 2021.

2020 and 2021 deductions

Additional substantiation requirements apply to some types of donations. We can help you determine whether you have sufficient substantiation for the donations you hope to deduct on your 2020 income tax return — and guide you on the substantiation you’ll need for gifts you’re planning this year to ensure you can enjoy the desired deductions on your 2021 return.

© 2021

2021 individual taxes: Answers to your questions about limits

Many people are more concerned about their 2020 tax bills right now than they are about their 2021 tax situations. That’s understandable because your 2020 individual tax return is due to be filed in less than three months (unless you file an extension).

However, it’s a good idea to acquaint yourself with tax amounts that may have changed for 2021. Below are some Q&As about tax amounts for this year.

Be aware that not all tax figures are adjusted annually for inflation and even if they are, they may be unchanged or change only slightly due to low inflation. In addition, some amounts only change with new legislation.

How much can I contribute to an IRA for 2021?

If you’re eligible, you can contribute $6,000 a year to a traditional or Roth IRA, up to 100% of your earned income. If you’re 50 or older, you can make another $1,000 “catch up” contribution. (These amounts were the same for 2020.)

I have a 401(k) plan through my job. How much can I contribute to it?

For 2021, you can contribute up to $19,500 (unchanged from 2020) to a 401(k) or 403(b) plan. You can make an additional $6,500 catch-up contribution if you’re age 50 or older.

I sometimes hire a babysitter and a cleaning person. Do I have to withhold and pay FICA tax on the amounts I pay them?

In 2021, the threshold when a domestic employer must withhold and pay FICA for babysitters, house cleaners, etc., is $2,300 (up from $2,200 in 2020).

How much do I have to earn in 2021 before I can stop paying Social Security on my salary?

The Social Security tax wage base is $142,800 for this year (up from $137,700 last year). That means that you don’t owe Social Security tax on amounts earned above that. (You must pay Medicare tax on all amounts that you earn.)

I didn’t qualify to itemize deductions on my last tax return. Will I qualify for 2021?

A 2017 tax law eliminated the tax benefit of itemizing deductions for many people by increasing the standard deduction and reducing or eliminating various deductions. For 2021, the standard deduction amount is $25,100 for married couples filing jointly (up from $24,800). For single filers, the amount is $12,550 (up from $12,400) and for heads of households, it’s $18,800 (up from $18,650). If the amount of your itemized deductions (such as mortgage interest) are less than the applicable standard deduction amount, you won’t itemize for 2021.

If I don’t itemize, can I claim charitable deductions on my 2021 return?

Generally, taxpayers who claim the standard deduction on their federal tax returns can’t deduct charitable donations. But thanks to the CARES Act that was enacted last year, single and married joint filing taxpayers can deduct up to $300 in donations to qualified charities on their 2020 federal returns, even if they claim the standard deduction. The Consolidated Appropriations Act extended this tax break into 2021 and increased the amount that married couples filing jointly can claim to $600.

How much can I give to one person without triggering a gift tax return in 2021?

The annual gift exclusion for 2021 is $15,000 (unchanged from 2020). This amount is only adjusted in $1,000 increments, so it typically only increases every few years.

Your tax situation

These are only some of the tax amounts that may apply to you. Contact us for more information about your tax situation, or if you have questions

© 2021

Don’t forget to take required minimum distributions this year

If you have a traditional IRA or tax-deferred retirement plan account, you probably know that you must take required minimum distributions (RMDs) when you reach a certain age — or you’ll be penalized. The CARES Act, which passed last March, allowed people to skip taking these withdrawals in 2020 but now that we’re in 2021, RMDs must be taken again.

The basics

Once you attain age 72 (or age 70½ before 2020), you must begin taking RMDs from your traditional IRAs and certain retirement accounts, including 401(k) plans. In general, RMDs are calculated using life expectancy tables published by the IRS. If you don’t withdraw the minimum amount each year, you may have to pay a 50% penalty tax on what you should have taken out — but didn’t. (Roth IRAs don’t require withdrawals until after the death of the owner.)

You can always take out more than the required amount. In planning for distributions, your income needs must be weighed against the desirable goal of keeping the tax shelter of the IRA going for as long as possible for both yourself and your beneficiaries.

In order to provide tax relief due to COVID-19, the CARES Act suspended RMDs for calendar year 2020 — but only for that one year. That meant that taxpayers could put off RMDs, not have to pay tax on them and allow their retirement accounts to keep growing tax deferred.

Begin taking RMDs again

Many people hoped that the RMD suspension would be extended into 2021. However, the Consolidated Appropriations Act, which was enacted on December 27, 2020, to provide more COVID-19 relief, didn’t extend the RMD relief. That means if you’re required to take RMDs, you need to take them this year or face a penalty.

Note: The IRS may waive part or all of the penalty if you can prove that you didn’t take RMDs due to reasonable error and you’re taking steps to remedy the shortfall. In these cases, the IRS reviews the information a taxpayer provides and decides whether to grant a request for a waiver.

Keep more of your money

Feel free to contact us if have questions about calculating RMDs or avoiding the penalty for not taking them. We can help make sure you keep more of your money.

© 2021