“Innocent spouses” may get relief from tax liability

joint tax return

When a married couple files a joint tax return, each spouse is “jointly and severally” liable for the full amount of tax on the couple’s combined income. Therefore, the IRS can come after either spouse to collect the entire tax — not just the part that’s attributed to one spouse or the other. This includes any tax deficiency that the IRS assesses after an audit, as well as any penalties and interest. (However, the civil fraud penalty can be imposed only on spouses who’ve actually committed fraud.)

Innocent spouses

In some cases, spouses are eligible for “innocent spouse relief.” This generally involves individuals who were unaware of a tax understatement that was attributable to the other spouse.

To qualify, you must show not only that you didn’t know about the understatement, but that there was nothing that should have made you suspicious. In addition, the circumstances must make it inequitable to hold you liable for the tax. This relief is available even if you’re still married and living with your spouse.

In addition, spouses may be able to limit liability for any tax deficiency on a joint return if they’re widowed, divorced, legally separated or have lived apart for at least one year.

Election to limit liability

If you make this election, the tax items that gave rise to the deficiency will be allocated between you and your spouse as if you’d filed separate returns. For example, you’d generally be liable for the tax on any unreported wage income only to the extent that you earned the wages.

The election won’t provide relief from your spouse’s tax items if the IRS proves that you knew about the items when you signed the return — unless you can show that you signed the return under duress. Also, the limitation on your liability is increased by the value of any assets that your spouse transferred to you in order to avoid the tax.

An “injured” spouse

In addition to innocent spouse relief, there’s also relief for “injured” spouses. What’s the difference? An injured spouse claim asks the IRS to allocate part of a joint refund to one spouse. In these cases, an injured spouse has all or part of a refund from a joint return applied against past-due federal tax, state tax, child or spousal support, or a federal nontax debt (such as a student loan) owed by the other spouse. If you’re an injured spouse, you may be entitled to recoup your share of the refund.

Whether, and to what extent, you can take advantage of the above relief depends on the facts of your situation. If you’re interested in trying to obtain relief, there’s paperwork that must be filed and deadlines that must be met. We can assist you with the details.

Also, keep “joint and several liability” in mind when filing future tax returns. Even if a joint return results in less tax, you may choose to file a separate return if you want to be certain of being responsible only for your own tax. Contact us with any questions or concerns.

About the author

Brady is the owner of Ramsay & Associates. He specializes in financial statement preparation and personal, fiduciary and corporate tax and accounting.

His professional experience includes seven years' experience for local and national CPA firms before joining Ramsay & Associates in 2006.

He has a Bachelor of Accounting degree from the University of Minnesota Duluth. He is a Certified Public Accountant, a member of the Minnesota Society of CPA's, an Eagle Scout, as well as an active volunteer in the community.

Understanding the contents of a will

understanding a will

You probably don’t have to be told about the need for a will. But do you know what provisions should be included and what’s best to leave out? The answers to those questions depend on your situation and may depend on state law.

Basic provisions

Typically, a will begins with an introductory clause, identifying yourself along with where you reside (city, state, county, etc.). It should also state that this is your official will and replaces any previous wills.

After the introductory clause, a will generally explains how your debts and funeral expenses are to be paid. The provisions for repaying debt generally reflect applicable state laws.

Don’t include specific instructions for funeral arrangements. It’s likely that your will won’t be accessed in time. Spell out your wishes in a letter of instructions, which is an informal letter to your family.

A will may also be used to name a guardian for minor children. To be on the safe side, name a backup in case your initial choice is unable or unwilling to serve as guardian or predeceases you.

Specific bequests

One of the major sections of your will — and the one that usually requires the most introspection — divides up your remaining assets. Outside of your residuary estate, you’ll likely want to make specific bequests of tangible personal property to designated beneficiaries.

If you’re using a trust to transfer property, make sure you identify the property that remains outside the trust, such as furniture and electronic devices. Typically, these items won’t be suitable for inclusion in a trust. If your estate includes real estate, include detailed information about the property and identify the specific beneficiaries.

Once you’ve covered real estate and other tangible property, move on to intangible property, such as cash and securities. Again, you may handle these items through specific bequests where you describe the property the best you can.

Finally, most wills contain a residuary clause. As a result, assets that aren’t otherwise accounted for go to the named beneficiaries, often adult children, grandchildren, or a combination of family members.

Naming an executor

Toward the end of the will, name the executor — usually a relative or professional — who is responsible for administering it. Of course, this should be a reputable person whom you trust. Also, include a successor executor if the first choice is unable to perform these duties. Frequently, a professional is used in this backup capacity.

Cross the Ts and dot the Is

Your attorney will help you meet all the legal obligations for a valid will in the applicable state and keep it up to date. Sign the will, putting your initials on each page, with your signature attested to by witnesses. Include the addresses of the witnesses in case they ever need to be located. Don’t use beneficiaries as witnesses. This could lead to potential conflicts of interest.

Contact us with questions.

About the author

Brady is the owner of Ramsay & Associates. He specializes in financial statement preparation and personal, fiduciary and corporate tax and accounting.

His professional experience includes seven years' experience for local and national CPA firms before joining Ramsay & Associates in 2006.

He has a Bachelor of Accounting degree from the University of Minnesota Duluth. He is a Certified Public Accountant, a member of the Minnesota Society of CPA's, an Eagle Scout, as well as an active volunteer in the community.

The tax implications of being a winner

tax implications of being a winner

If you’re lucky enough to be a winner at gambling or the lottery, congratulations! After you celebrate, be ready to deal with the tax consequences of your good fortune.

Winning at gambling

Whether you win at the casino, a bingo hall, or elsewhere, you must report 100 percent of your winnings as taxable income. They’re reported on the “Other income” line on Schedule 1 of your 1040 tax return. To measure your winnings on a particular wager, use the net gain. For example, if a $30 bet at the racetrack turns into a $110 win, you’ve won $80, not $110.

You must separately keep track of losses. They’re deductible, but only as itemized deductions. Therefore, if you don’t itemize and take the standard deduction, you can’t deduct gambling losses. In addition, gambling losses are only deductible up to the amount of gambling winnings. So you can use losses to “wipe out” gambling income but you can’t show a gambling tax loss.

Maintain good records of your losses during the year. Keep a diary in which you indicate the date, place, amount and type of loss, as well as the names of anyone who was with you. Save all documentation, such as checks or credit slips.

Winning the lottery

The chances of winning the lottery are slim. But if you don’t follow the tax rules after winning, the chances of hearing from the IRS are much higher.

Lottery winnings are taxable. This is the case for cash prizes and for the fair market value of any noncash prizes, such as a car or vacation. Depending on your other income and the amount of your winnings, your federal tax rate may be as high as 37 percent. You may also be subject to state income tax.

You report lottery winnings as income in the year, or years, you actually receive them. In the case of noncash prizes, this would be the year the prize is received. With cash, if you take the winnings in annual installments, you only report each year’s installment as income for that year.

If you win more than $5,000 in the lottery or certain types of gambling, 24 percent must be withheld for federal tax purposes. You’ll receive a Form W-2G from the payer showing the amount paid to you and the federal tax withheld. (The payer also sends this information to the IRS.) If state tax withholding is withheld, that amount may also be shown on Form W-2G.

Since your federal tax rate can be up to 37 percent, which is well above the 24 percent withheld, the withholding may not be enough to cover your federal tax bill. Therefore, you may have to make estimated tax payments — and you may be assessed a penalty if you fail to do so. In addition, you may be required to make state and local estimated tax payments.

We can help

If you’re fortunate enough to hit a sizable jackpot, there are other issues to consider, including estate planning. This article only covers the basic tax rules. Different rules apply to people who qualify as professional gamblers. Contact us with questions. We can help you minimize taxes and stay in compliance with all requirements.

About the author

Brady is the owner of Ramsay & Associates. He specializes in financial statement preparation and personal, fiduciary and corporate tax and accounting.

His professional experience includes seven years' experience for local and national CPA firms before joining Ramsay & Associates in 2006.

He has a Bachelor of Accounting degree from the University of Minnesota Duluth. He is a Certified Public Accountant, a member of the Minnesota Society of CPA's, an Eagle Scout, as well as an active volunteer in the community.

The “nanny tax” must be paid for more than just nannies

nanny tax

You may have heard of the “nanny tax.” But even if you don’t employ a nanny, it may apply to you. Hiring a housekeeper, gardener or other household employee (who isn’t an independent contractor) may make you liable for federal income and other taxes. You may also have state tax obligations.

If you employ a household worker, you aren’t required to withhold federal income taxes from pay. But you may choose to withhold if the worker requests it. In that case, ask the worker to fill out a Form W-4. However, you may be required to withhold Social Security and Medicare (FICA) taxes and to pay federal unemployment (FUTA) tax.

FICA and FUTA tax

In 2019, you must withhold and pay FICA taxes if your household worker earns cash wages of $2,100 or more (excluding the value of food and lodging). If you reach the threshold, all the wages (not just the excess) are subject to FICA.

However, if a nanny is under age 18 and childcare isn’t his or her principal occupation, you don’t have to withhold FICA taxes. So, if you have a part-time babysitter who is a student, there’s no FICA tax liability.

Both an employer and a household worker may have FICA tax obligations. As an employer, you’re responsible for withholding your worker’s FICA share. In addition, you must pay a matching amount. FICA tax is divided between Social Security and Medicare. The Social Security tax rate is 6.2% for the employer and 6.2% for the worker (12.4% total). Medicare tax is 1.45% each for both the employer and the worker (2.9% total).

If you want, you can pay your worker’s share of Social Security and Medicare taxes. If you do, your payments aren’t counted as additional cash wages for Social Security and Medicare purposes. However, your payments are treated as additional income to the worker for federal tax purposes, so you must include them as wages on the W-2 form that you must provide.

You also must pay FUTA tax if you pay $1,000 or more in cash wages (excluding food and lodging) to your worker in any calendar quarter. FUTA tax applies to the first $7,000 of wages paid and is only paid by the employer.

Reporting and paying

You pay household worker obligations by increasing your quarterly estimated tax payments or increasing withholding from wages, rather than making an annual lump-sum payment.

As a household worker employer, you don’t have to file employment tax returns, even if you’re required to withhold or pay tax (unless you own your own business). Instead, employment taxes are reported on your tax return on Schedule H.

When you report the taxes on your return, you include your employer identification number (not the same as your Social Security number). You must file Form SS-4 to get one.

However, if you own a business as a sole proprietor, you include the taxes for a household worker on the FUTA and FICA forms (940 and 941) that you file for your business. And you use your sole proprietorship EIN to report the taxes.

Keep careful records

Keep related tax records for at least four years from the later of the due date of the return or the date the tax was paid. Records should include the worker’s name, address, Social Security number, employment dates, dates and amount of wages paid and taxes withheld, and copies of forms filed.

Contact us for assistance or questions about how to comply with these employment tax requirements.

About the author

Brady is the owner of Ramsay & Associates. He specializes in financial statement preparation and personal, fiduciary and corporate tax and accounting.

His professional experience includes seven years' experience for local and national CPA firms before joining Ramsay & Associates in 2006.

He has a Bachelor of Accounting degree from the University of Minnesota Duluth. He is a Certified Public Accountant, a member of the Minnesota Society of CPA's, an Eagle Scout, as well as an active volunteer in the community.

You may have to pay tax on Social Security benefits

pay tax on social security benefits

During your working days, you pay Social Security tax in the form of withholding from your salary or self-employment tax. And when you start receiving Social Security benefits, you may be surprised to learn that some of the payments may be taxed.

If you’re getting close to retirement age, you may be wondering if your benefits are going to be taxed. And if so, how much will you have to pay? The answer depends on your other income. If you are taxed, between 50% and 85% of your payments will be hit with federal income tax. (There could also be state tax.)

Important: This doesn’t mean you pay 50% to 85% of your benefits back to the government in taxes. It means that you have to include 50% to 85% of them in your income subject to your regular tax rates.

Calculate provisional income

To determine how much of your benefits are taxed, you must calculate your provisional income. It starts with your adjusted gross income on your tax return. Then, you add certain amounts (for example, tax-exempt interest from municipal bonds). Add to that the income of your spouse, if you file jointly. To this, add half of the Social Security benefits you and your spouse received during the year. The figure you come up with is your provisional income. Now apply the following rules:

  • If you file a joint tax return and your provisional income, plus half your benefits, isn’t above $32,000 ($25,000 for single taxpayers), none of your Social Security benefits are taxed.
  • If your provisional income is between $32,001 and $44,000, and you file jointly with your spouse, you must report up to 50% of your Social Security benefits as income. For single taxpayers, if your provisional income is between $25,001 and $34,000, you must report up to 50% of your Social Security benefits as income.
  • If your provisional income is more than $44,000, and you file jointly, you must report up to 85% of your Social Security benefits as income on Form 1040. For single taxpayers, if your provisional income is more than $34,000, the general rule is that you must report up to 85% of your Social Security benefits as income.

Caution: If you aren’t paying tax on your Social Security benefits now because your income is below the floor, or you’re paying tax on only 50% of those benefits, an unplanned increase in your income can have a significant tax cost. You’ll have to pay tax on the additional income, you’ll also have to pay tax on (or on more of) your Social Security benefits, and you may get pushed into a higher tax bracket.

For example, this might happen if you receive a large retirement plan distribution during the year or you receive large capital gains. With careful planning, you might be able to avoid this tax result.

Avoid a large tax bill

If you know your Social Security benefits will be taxed, you may want to voluntarily arrange to have tax withheld from the payments by filing a Form W-4V with the IRS. Otherwise, you may have to make estimated tax payments.

Contact us to help you with the exact calculations on whether your Social Security will be taxed. We can also help you with tax planning to keep your taxes as low as possible during retirement.

About the author

Brady is the owner of Ramsay & Associates. He specializes in financial statement preparation and personal, fiduciary and corporate tax and accounting.

His professional experience includes seven years' experience for local and national CPA firms before joining Ramsay & Associates in 2006.

He has a Bachelor of Accounting degree from the University of Minnesota Duluth. He is a Certified Public Accountant, a member of the Minnesota Society of CPA's, an Eagle Scout, as well as an active volunteer in the community.