So, You’ve Been Audited: Should You Go It Alone or Hire a CPA?

IRS Hire a CPA or Represent yourself?I sincerely hope you have never had to go through an IRS audit – and never have to in the future. But what if that dark day does arrive? Should you go it alone and defend yourself or hire a CPA to be on your side?

The temptation to handle this alone is usually prompted by one of two things. First, the notion is that this is not such a big deal. Other times, people think if they handle it themselves, they will save money.

Unfortunately, neither of these are good reasons to defend yourself in a tax audit against the IRS. While the decision to hire a CPA or tax lawyer does depend on the case and the issues at hand, the procedural setting plays an important role as well. The answer is nearly universal that you should hire a CPA to defend you – or even a tax lawyer if the situation warrants it (sometimes they are one in the same person).

Why it is a Terrible Idea to Defend Yourself in a Tax Audit

There are several reasons why partnering with a pro is a good idea. Let’s look at each one and why.

  1. Working with your CPA, you can go back and forth with your side of the story, dig into the facts, and challenge each other in formulating a response. You essentially have a thinking partner and someone to fact check your side of the situation. Plus, they know how to “handle” the IRS in the messaging of responses.
  2. It is prudent to create some space between you and direct communications with the government. For the same reason, defense attorneys do not want their clients talking directly to the police. It is best if you communicate via your CPA or tax lawyer. Whenever you are in direct communications with the IRS, the chance of making a misstep is greater. Once you have said or written something to the IRS, it is pretty much impossible to backtrack.
  3. CPAs are experienced in advocating for clients and documentation.
  4. Early representation is a must! One of the biggest mistakes taxpayers subject to an audit make is to start off on their own and then end up in an even worse situation than they started. One of the biggest reasons why an audit can cost a lot is because the taxpayer dug themselves into hole that a CPA then later had to get them out of.
  5. Most cases rest on fundamental accounting problems. Someone with expertise and good records can address these problems early and competently. Seeing your own facts and documents through an unbiased and objective lens is not easy for most of us.

Conclusion

Ultimately, the decision to hire a CPA to represent you in a tax audit is a personal one. Exactly how necessary this is depends on the facts and circumstances of each individual situation, but it’s almost never a good idea to go it alone. If you ever find yourself in an audit, seriously consider hiring a CPA – and do it early in the process.

Marrying a Non-U.S. Citizen? No Tax Honeymoon for You

Marrying a Non-U.S. Citizen? Taxes for Marrying a Non-U.S. CitizenMarriage is a major life event. One that comes with all kinds of change, including financial. After getting married, there is so much to consider, from merging bank and brokerage accounts to setting up a will; from changing your withholding to updating retirement account beneficiary forms. If this seems like a lot to consider, it’s important to keep in mind that when a U.S. citizen marries a non-U.S. citizen, the situation gets even more complex.

Among some of the more complex tax considerations of mixed citizenship marriages are gift and estate taxes, which we will dive into below.

Gift and Estate Tax Overview

Before getting into the details on non-citizen spousal situations, here is a recap of the basics on U.S. estate and gift taxes. In the United States, estate and gift taxes are essentially a type of transfer tax, with the tax paid by the giver. Tax rates range between 18 percent and 40 percent of the assets transferred, but there are exemptions (with lifetime limits) that can reduce or even cancel out these taxes. Currently, the lifetime exemption is $13.61 million per person; however, this is set to drop to about $7.5 million starting January 1, 2026.

Gifting – No Free Ride in Marriage

When both spouses are U.S. citizens, there is an unlimited gift tax exemption, meaning no gift tax period. In the case where the recipient spouse is a U.S citizen, this still applies; however, when the spouse receiving the gifts is a non-U.S. citizen, then it’s different.

In the case where the U.S. spouse gifts to the non-citizen spouse, there are annual limits. For 2024, the annual aggregate limit for tax-free gifting is $185,000. Gifting beyond this amount starts to eat into the total lifetime exclusion.

Leaving Assets to Heiring Spouses

Leaving a bequest to a non-citizen spouse is very similar to gifting in that it also does not benefit from the uncapped marriage exemption. When a U.S. citizen dies and leaves assets to the non-citizen spouse, the estate tax can apply. After using up the lifetime limit, taxes on these bequests can be up to 40 percent. While each situation it unique, estate planning maneuvers such as setting-up trusts can prevent or mitigate the tax hit.

Reporting Requirement – It’s About More Than Just Paying Taxes

The concept of not needing to pay tax due to exemption limitations or gift/estate tax strategies is distinct from the reporting requirements. Here, the reverse situation is the tricky one: When the non-U.S. citizen makes a gift or bequest to the U.S. spouse. Despite having no tax implications, the U.S. spouse may need to comply with informational reporting requirements if the gifts or bequests are technically foreign-sourced and more than $100,000 (in any given year). Failure to comply with reporting standards can yield serious penalties.

Gift-Splitting is Different

Gift-splitting is a technique that allows a married couple to pool their individual annual gift limits and give more tax-free money to the same person. For example, each spouse gets an annual gifting limit of $18,000 they can give to any one recipient (per calendar year), without any tax considerations or use of the lifetime limits. Gift-splitting lets each spouse give this amount to the same person, effectively doubling the amount they can give together to any one person to $36,000. This is not allowed when one spouse is a non-U.S. citizen.

Conclusion

In the end, there is almost always an issue when the U.S. citizen spouse gifts or bequests to the non-U.S. citizen spouse (not the other way around). Keep these details in mind when tax planning and you’ll be on the right path. Also, it’s important to remember that these are the U.S. tax rules and regulations. Any tax implications for the non-U.S. citizen spouse in their country is beyond the scope of this article.

‘Master’ The Augusta Rule and Save Money on Your Taxes

 Augusta Tax Rule, short term rental taxesAnyone who lives in a highly seasonal tourist destination knows you can make money on short-term rentals during events and festivities in your city or town. Think high concentration, short-term, tourist-driven events such as horse racing season in Saratoga Springs, N.Y., or The Masters Tournament in Augusta, Ga.

As a result, it is common for locals to get out of dodge and rent out their place during these highly lucrative periods. Typically, this is just for a very brief period while they are on vacation somewhere else themselves, for instance.

Given these circumstances, Congress realized it does not make sense to tax rental income for very short-term periods the same way that long-term rentals are taxed. In response, the government passed the Section 280A exclusion, often called the Augusta Rule in reference to the famous Masters golf tournament.

For the remainder of this article, we will look at the Augusta Rule in more detail and provide practical considerations for taxpayers.

The Augusta Rule, aka the Section 280A Exclusion

At its core, the Augusta Rule creates an exclusion to the concept that real estate rental income is always taxable.Per Section 280A, renting out your residence for 14 days or less, you are exempt from reporting the rental income. This also means no deduction for rental expenses. So, it is like it never happened from a tax perspective. As soon as you rent out that residence for 15 days or more, this exception no longer applies.

Note, it does not matter why you rented out your residence. There is no need for it to be related to an event or any special occasion.

Technical Workings of the Augusta Rule

While the basic rule itself is quite simple, there are details you need to meet in order to qualify for the exclusion – in addition to the 14-day time limit.

  • The property must be a home or similar. This means the properly must be a “dwelling unit” per IRS definitions, meaning houses, apartments, condos, etc. (although houseboats do qualify).
  • The rental price must be reasonable. Look at comparable rents in the area to get an idea of what to charge. Luckily, this is easy today with Airbnb, VRBO, etc.

Practical Considerations

First, the above rules only apply to federal income taxation. State and local tax regulations may differ, so make sure you are up to snuff on these for your area.

Second, just because the IRS does not consider this kind of rental activity a real estate business does not mean you are exempt from local, state or other business licensing or permit needs.

Conclusion

Qualifying under the Augusta Rule can be a wonderful way to save taxes. It can be especially beneficial to those who live in or around major events that occur for only a brief period and bring in massive amounts of tourists, creating high demand and soaring prices as a result. Moreover, it can be a terrific way to a make some tax-exempt income while you are enjoying a personal vacation.

In the end, you must pay attention to the timing – and most importantly, keep excellent records.

Reduce Your Taxes by Putting the Right Assets in Your IRA

Reduce Your Taxes by Putting the Right Assets in Your IRAMost people know the basic concept that certain types of investment accounts are tax sheltered while others are not. Think 401(k), 403(b), IRA and Roth IRA accounts, for example. What most people are not aware of is how you split your investment positions between your taxable and non-taxable accounts can result in major tax savings.

Asset Allocation and Location

One of the core principles of investing is to have an appropriate asset allocation that aligns with your risk tolerance and goals. In other words, how much of your investable net worth is in cash, stocks, bonds, precious metals, real estate, alternative assets, private investments, etc? Once you have this determined, the next consideration should be the location of these assets, primarily meaning whether you hold them in a taxable or tax-sheltered account.

The first, core principle behind asset location positioning is that bonds and other fixed income investments get the highest priority within tax sheltered accounts because they pay high-taxed ordinary income. Stocks that pay qualified dividends may be taxed at the more advantageous long-term capital gains rate, so they are typically better in taxable accounts.

What Are the Stakes?

To put it simply, big money. Take the example of a hypothetical $2 million portfolio evenly split between stocks and bonds. In the case where an investor has $1 million each in a taxable account (50/50 stock and bonds) and another $1 million in a tax-sheltered account (again 50/50 stock and bonds); this would cost about $148,000 over 30 years versus placing all the stock in a taxable account and all the bonds in a tax-sheltered account.

Asset Class Location Ranking

Of course, there are many more nuances and types of investments. Below we review 10 different types of assets, ranking them in order of those that get the most benefit from being in a tax-sheltered account with an explanation of why.

  1. K-1-Free Commodity Funds
    Popular for investing in futures, these are typically structured as Cayman Islands holding companies. As a result, they often kick-off highly taxed ordinary income even when the fund is losing money. Keep these in a tax-sheltered account at all costs.
  2. Junk Bonds
    High-yield corporate bonds typically come with large coupons (often 7 percent to 9 percent) and a small capital loss in the 1 percent to 2 percent range. Since the large coupon payment is taxed as ordinary income, while capital losses are worth less from a tax perspective, junk bonds are a prime candidate to go into a tax-sheltered account.
  3. Income Stocks
    Preferred shares and real estate investment trusts are characterized by their high unqualified dividends, so they are not eligible for preferential capital gains tax rates. This makes them best suited for a tax-sheltered account.
  4. High-Grade Bonds
    Similar to junk bonds, but with lower coupons and smaller capital losses, the benefits of holding these in a tax-sheltered account is less than the items above, but it is still preferable to place them in a tax-sheltered account.
  5. U.S. Treasuries
    The interest on U.S. Treasuries is taxed as ordinary income; however, it is exempt from state income tax. Depending on the state in which you are subject to taxes, these fall in the middle ground and could be held in either a taxable or tax-sheltered account.
  6. Actively Managed Mutual Funds
    The frequent churn of the holdings in actively managed funds typically creates more short-term capital gains versus long-term. Again, depending on total returns and how active the fund manager is, these could be held in either a taxable or tax-sheltered account.
  7. K-1 Commodity Funds
    Usually taxed as partnerships, profits typically get a 60/40 treatment, with 60 percent of gains classified as long-term and qualifying for favorable rates, putting them in the middle ground as well.
  8. High-Dividend Stocks
    For some investors, dividends are king. Think utility stocks and big-name blue chips with a steady track record of paying consistent dividends, like Altria. Since most, if not all, the dividend income is usually in the form of qualified dividends, holding these in a taxable account is much less painful.
  9. Stock Index Funds and Low Dividend Stocks
    Broader market mutual funds and ETFs have lower dividends. For example, on average, a total U.S. market ETF yields approximately 0.3 percent. Given this and their low churn, these funds are prime to be held in a taxable account, especially if the intended holding period is more than a year and will qualify you for long-term capital gains treatment and defer any taxable event until sale.
  10. Master Limited Partnerships (MLPs) and Private Real Estate Funds
    Typical of oil and natural gas pipeline investments, MLPs pay big dividends early on and they usually are not taxed in early years. Similarly, private placement real estate fund investments are shielded from the income they produce due to the upfront benefits of depreciation. Given their structure and the fact that they hold debt attributable to the owner, however, makes them a no-go for a tax-sheltered account since they create what is considered “unrelated business taxable income.” This makes these investments only suitable for a regular taxable account.

Conclusion

The decision of which types of investments you keep in either taxable or tax-sheltered accounts can make a big difference in how your investments grow and how much you keep. Consider evaluating not only your asset allocation but also your asset location to optimize for taxes.

U.S. Beneficial Ownership Information Reporting Begins

The U.S. Treasury recently enacted a new reporting requirement aimed at quashing illicit financial transactions. The agency believes that corporate anonymity is enabling money laundering, terrorism, and drug trafficking. As part of the 2021 Corporate Transparency Act (CTA), certain companies are now required to report information about their beneficial owners. The goal of the new registration requirements is to create a centralized database of beneficial ownership information.

There has been push-back from some lawmakers and small business organizations, citing this as an erroneous regulatory process that just makes life harder for small businesses. Efforts to carve out exceptions or delay the implementation failed. As a result, the Treasury Department officially opened beneficial ownership information reporting on Jan. 1, 2024.

Who is Subject to Reporting?

Generally, a company may need to report beneficial ownership information if it is a corporation, LLC, or other business entity created by the filing with a U.S. secretary of state or a foreign company registered to do business in the United States. Reporting requirements for trusts and other entity types are more dependent on state law.

At first glance, the rules make it look like all businesses are subject to reporting. There are exemptions, however, including nonprofits, publicly traded companies, and certain large operating companies. The FinCEN’s Compliance Guide provides an exemption qualification checklist.

Reporting Timelines and Requirements

First, you only must file an initial report once. There are no annual reporting requirements. Filing deadlines vary based on when a company was created or registered with the relevant secretary of state.

  • Before Jan. 1, 2024, => Deadline of Jan. 1, 2025
  • Between Jan. 1, 2024, and Jan. 1, 2025, => You have 90 calendar days after receiving notice of the company’s creation or registration to file.
  • On or after Jan. 1, 2025, => Deadline is 30 calendar days from the company’s creation or registration.

While there is no annual filing requirement, filing updates are necessary within 30 days of any changes. Ownership activity subject to change reporting includes registering a new business name, a change in beneficial owners, or a beneficial owner’s name, address, or unique identifying number previously provided.

What Do You Need to Report?

Beneficial ownership reporting must identify the following data.

At the company level, it must report:

  • Company name, both legal and trade (if applicable)
  • Company physical address (no post office boxes)
  • Jurisdiction of formation or registration
  • Taxpayer Identification Number

For each beneficial owner, the following must be reported:

  • Name
  • Date of birth
  • Address
  • Driver’s license, passport, or other acceptable identification

Depending on the situation, there also may be reporting requirements about the company applicant. This is generally a person involved in the creation or registration of the company. The same four pieces of data as for a beneficial owner would need to be provided.

As a general rule, a beneficial owner is someone who controls the company or owns 25 percent or more.

The full definition and all exemptions to whom constitutes a beneficial owner or company applicant can be found here.

No financial information or details about the business operations are required.

How and Where to File

You have the option to file online or via PDF. Filing online can be done through the Beneficial Ownership Information (BOI) E-Filing System on the FinCEN site.

There is no cost to file.

Conclusion and Cautions

While the reporting is simple, the requirements should not be taken lightly. Failure to report could result in civil penalties of up to $500 per day and criminal charges of up to two years imprisonment and a fine of up to $10,000.

The message is this: Don’t wait – and don’t forget to file!