INNOCENT SPOUSE RULES OFFER PROTECTION UNDER SOME CIRCUMSTANCES
Must one spouse pay the tax resulting from a fabrication or omission by another spouse on a jointly filed tax return? It depends. If the spouse qualifies, he or she may be able to avoid personal tax liability under the “innocent spouse” rules.
Joint filing status
Generally, married taxpayers benefit overall by filing a joint tax return on the federal level. This is particularly the case when one spouse earns significantly more than the other. Filing jointly may also help the couple maximize certain income tax deductions and credits.
But joint filing status comes with a catch. Each spouse is “jointly and severally” responsible for any tax, interest and penalties attributable to the return. And this liability continues to apply even if the couple gets a divorce or one spouse dies. In other words, the IRS may try to collect the full amount due from one spouse, even if all the income reported on the joint return was earned by the other spouse.
However, the tax law provides tax relief for an “innocent spouse.” Under these rules, one spouse may not be liable for any unpaid tax and penalties, despite having signed the joint return.
To determine eligibility for relief, the IRS imposes a set of common requirements. The spouses must have filed a joint return that has an understatement of tax, and that understatement must be attributable to one spouse’s erroneous items. For this purpose, “erroneous items” are defined as any deduction, credit or tax basis incorrectly stated on the return, as well as any income not reported.
From there, the other (“innocent”) spouse must establish that, at the time the joint return was signed, he or she didn’t know — or have reason to know — there was an understatement of tax. Finally, to qualify, the IRS needs to find that it would be unfair to hold one spouse liable for the understatement after considering all the facts and circumstances.
For many years, innocent spouse relief had to be requested within two years after the IRS first began its collection activity against a taxpayer. But, in 2011, the IRS announced that it would no longer apply the two-year limit on collection activities.
In addition, by law, when one spouse applies for innocent spouse relief, the IRS must contact the other spouse or former spouse. There are no exceptions even for victims of spousal abuse or domestic violence.
Historically, courts haven’t been particularly generous about upholding claims under the innocent spouse rules. State laws can also complicate matters. If you’re wondering whether you’d qualify for relief, please contact us for help.
DEDUCTING BUSINESS LOSSES FOR PASS-THROUGH ENTITIES
It’s not uncommon for businesses to sometimes generate tax losses. But the tax law limits deductible losses in some situations. And the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act (TCJA) further restricts the amount of losses that sole proprietors, partners, S corporation shareholders and, typically, limited liability company (LLC) members can now deduct. If your company operates under one of these business structures, it’s important to bear all these limitations in mind as the year rolls along.
Before and after
Under pre-TCJA law, an individual taxpayer’s business losses could usually be fully deducted in the tax year when they arose unless the passive activity loss (PAL) rules or some other provision of tax law limited that favorable outcome. Another restriction was if the business loss was so large that it exceeded taxable income from other sources, creating a net operating loss (NOL).
The TCJA temporarily changes the rules for deducting an individual taxpayer’s business losses. If your pass-through business generates a tax loss for a tax year beginning in 2018 through 2025, you can’t deduct an “excess business loss” in the current year.
An excess business loss is the excess of your aggregate business deductions for the tax year over the sum of your aggregate business income and gains for the tax year, plus $250,000 ($500,000 if you’re a married taxpayer filing jointly). The excess business loss is carried forward to the following tax year and can be deducted under the rules for NOLs.
What it means
For business losses passed through to individuals from S corporations, partnerships and LLCs treated as partnerships for tax purposes, the new excess business loss limitation rules apply at the owner level. In other words, each owner’s allocable share of business income, gain, deduction or loss is passed through to the owner and reported on the owner’s personal federal income tax return for the owner’s tax year that includes the end of the entity’s tax year.
Keep in mind that the new loss limitation rules kick in after applying the PAL rules. So, if the PAL rules disallow your business or rental activity loss, you don’t get to the new loss limitation rules.
The rationale underlying the new loss limitation rules is to restrict the ability of individual taxpayers to use current-year business losses to offset income from other sources, such as salary, self-employment income, interest, dividends and capital gains.
The practical impact is that your allowable current-year business losses can’t offset more than $250,000 of income from such other sources (or more than $500,000 for joint filers). The requirement that excess business losses be carried forward as an NOL forces you to wait at least one year to get any tax benefit from those excess losses.
If you’re expecting your business to generate a tax loss in 2019, we can help you determine whether you’ll be affected by the new loss limitation rules.
SEND YOUR KIDS TO DAY CAMP AND YOU MAY GET A TAX BREAK
Among the many great challenges of parenthood is what to do with your kids when school lets out. Do you keep them at home and try to captivate their attention yourself or with the help of sitters? Or do you send them off to the wide variety of day camps now in operation? There’s no one-size-fits-all answer, but if you choose the latter option, you might qualify for a tax break!
Day camp — but, to be clear, not overnight camp — is a qualified expense under the child and dependent care tax credit, which is worth 20% of qualifying expenses (more if your adjusted gross income is less than $43,000), subject to a cap. For 2019, the maximum expenses allowed for the credit are $3,000 for one qualifying child and $6,000 for two or more.
Remember that tax credits are particularly valuable because they reduce your tax liability dollar-for-dollar — $1 of tax credit saves you $1 of taxes. This differs from deductions, which simply reduce the amount of income subject to tax. For example, if you’re in the 24% tax bracket, $1 of deduction saves you only $0.24 of taxes. So, it’s important to take maximum advantage of the tax credits available to you.
Qualifying for the credit
A qualifying child is generally a dependent under age 13. (There’s no age limit if the dependent child is unable physically or mentally to care for him- or herself.) Special rules apply if the child’s parents are divorced or separated or if the parents live apart.
Eligible costs for care must be work-related. This means that the child care is needed so that you can work or, if you’re currently unemployed, look for work.
If you participate in an employer-sponsored child and dependent care Flexible Spending Account (FSA), also sometimes referred to as a Dependent Care Assistance Program, you can’t use expenses paid from or reimbursed by the FSA to claim the credit.
Additional rules apply to the child and dependent care credit. If you’re not sure whether you’re eligible, contact us. We can assist you in determining your eligibility for this credit and other tax breaks for parents.
SHOULD YOU BE WORRIED ABOUT AN IRS AUDIT?
Now that you’ve likely filed your 2018 tax return, one troubling afterthought may come to mind: Could I get audited? The mere notion strikes fear into most people’s hearts. And for good reason — under a worst-case scenario, an audit could take up lots of your time, create an enormous amount of stress and leave you with a hefty bill from the federal government in unpaid tax, penalties and interest.
Now let’s take a deep breath. An audit can also be a rather routine process that results in zero additional liability or even a refund. What’s more, the IRS is performing audits much less frequently than it used to.
Basically, the higher your income and more complex your return, the greater the likelihood that it will be audited. The IRS uses something called a Discriminant Inventory Function (DIF) score to rate the potential for change in a return, based on past IRS experience with similar returns. The agency also uses an Unreported Income Discriminant Index Formula (UIDIF) score to rate each tax return’s potential to indicate unreported income.
If you happen to be a business owner, the IRS may subject your return to intensified scrutiny in years it decides to target a category that your company falls into. Examples might include sole proprietorships with many cash transactions or companies that rely heavily on independent contractors.
By and large, the answer to the question posed in our headline is: Probably not. The best way to prevent a targeted audit or prepare for one you can’t avoid is to get sound guidance from a CPA before filing your return every year.