Updating Beneficiary Designations & Benefits of Health Savings Accounts (HSA)

The importance of updating beneficiary designations

Most of us have more than enough to do. We’re on the go from early in the morning until well into the evening — six or seven days a week. Thus, it’s no surprise that we may let some important things slide. We know we need to get to them, but it seems like they can just as easily wait until tomorrow, the next day, or whenever.

A U.S. Supreme Court decision reminds us that sometimes “whenever” never gets here and the results can be tragic. The case involved a $400,000 employer-sponsored retirement account, owned by William, who had named his wife, Liv, as his beneficiary in 1974 shortly after they married. The couple divorced 20 years later. As part of the divorce decree, Liv waived her rights to benefits under William’s employer-sponsored retirement plans. However, William never got around to changing his beneficiary designation form with his employer.

When William died, Liv was still listed as his beneficiary. So, the plan paid the $400,000 to Liv. William’s estate sued the plan, saying that because of Liv’s waiver in the divorce decree, the funds should have been paid to the estate. The Court disagreed, ruling that the plan documents (which called for the beneficiary to be designated and changed in a specific way) trumped the divorce decree. William’s designation of Liv as his beneficiary was done in the way the plan required; Liv’s waiver was not. Thus, the plan rightfully paid $400,000 to Liv.

The tragic outcome of this case was largely controlled by its unique facts. If the facts had been slightly different (such as the plan allowing a beneficiary to be designated on a document other than the plan’s beneficiary form), the outcome could have been quite different and much less tragic. However, it still would have taken a lot of effort and expense to get there. This leads us to a couple of important points.

If you want to change the beneficiary for a life insurance policy, retirement plan, IRA, or other benefit, use the plan’s official beneficiary form rather than depending on an indirect method, such as a will or divorce decree.

It’s important to keep your beneficiary designations up to date. Whether it is because of divorce or some other life-changing event, beneficiary designations made years ago can easily become outdated.

One final thought regarding beneficiary designations: While you’re verifying that all of your beneficiary designations are current, make sure you’ve also designated secondary beneficiaries where appropriate. This is especially important with assets such as IRAs, where naming both a primary and secondary beneficiary can potentially allow payouts from the account to be stretched out over a longer period and maximize the time available for the tax deferral benefits to accrue.

The many benefits of a Health Savings Account (HSA)

A Health Savings Account (HSA) represents an opportunity for eligible individuals to lower their out-of-pocket health care costs and federal tax bill. Since most of us would like to take advantage of every available tax break, now might be a good time to consider an HSA, if eligible.

An HSA operates somewhat like a Flexible Spending Account (FSA) that employers offer to their eligible employees. An FSA permits eligible employees to defer a portion of their pay, on a pretax basis, which is used later to reimburse out-of-pocket medical expenses. However, unlike an FSA, whatever remains in the HSA at year end can be carried over to the next year and beyond. In addition, there are no income phaseout rules, so HSAs are available to high-earners and low-earners alike.

Naturally, there are a few requirements for obtaining the benefits of an HSA. The most significant requirement is that an HSA is only available to an individual who carries health insurance coverage with a relatively high annual deductible. For 2015, the individual’s health insurance coverage must come with at least a $1,300 deductible for single coverage or $2,600 for family coverage. For many self-employed individuals, small business owners, and employees of small and large companies alike, these thresholds won’t be a problem. In addition, it’s okay if the insurance plan doesn’t impose any deductible for preventive care (such as annual checkups). Other requirements for setting up an HSA are that an individual can’t be eligible for Medicare benefits or claimed as a dependent on another person’s tax return.

Individuals who meet these requirements can make tax-deductible HSA contributions in 2015 of up to $3,350 for single coverage or $6,650 for family coverage. The contribution for a particular tax year can be made as late as April 15 of the following year. The deduction is claimed in arriving at adjusted gross income (the number at the bottom of page 1 on your return). Thus, eligible individuals can benefit whether they itemize or not. Unfortunately, however, the deduction doesn’t reduce a self-employed person’s self-employment tax bill.

When an employer contributes to an employee’s HSA, the contributions are exempt from federal income, Social Security, Medicare, and unemployment taxes.

An account beneficiary who is age 55 or older by the end of the tax year for which the HSA contribution is made may make a larger deductible (or excludible) contribution. Specifically, the annual tax-deductible contribution limit is increased by $1,000.

An HSA can generally be set up at a bank, insurance company, or other institution the IRS deems suitable. The HSA must be established exclusively for the purpose of paying the account beneficiary’s qualified medical expenses. These include uninsured medical costs incurred for the account beneficiary, spouse, and dependents. However, for HSA purposes, health insurance premiums don’t qualify.

Tax Planning and Organizing & Combined Business and Vacation Travel

Summer time is a good time to start planning and organizing your taxes

You may be tempted to forget all about your taxes once you’ve filed your tax return, but that’s not a good idea. If you start your tax planning now, you may avoid a tax surprise when you file next year. Also, now is a good time to set up a system so you can keep your tax records safe and easy to find. Here are some tips to give you a leg up on next year’s taxes:

Take action when life changes occur. Some life events (such as marriage, divorce, or the birth of a child) can change the amount of tax you pay. When they happen, you may need to change the amount of tax withheld from your pay. To do that, file a new Form W-4 (“Employee’s Withholding Allowance Certificate”) with your employer. If you make estimated payments, those may need to be changed as well.

Keep records safe. Put your 2014 tax return and supporting records in a safe place. If you ever need your tax return or records, it will be easy for you to get them. You’ll need your supporting documents if you are ever audited by the IRS. You may need a copy of your tax return if you apply for a home loan or financial aid.

Stay organized. Make tax time easier. Have your family put tax records in the same place during the year. That way you won’t have to search for misplaced records when you file next year.

If you are self-employed, here are a couple of additional tax tips to consider:

Employ your child. Doing so shifts income (which is not subject to the “kiddie tax”) from you to your child, who normally is in a lower tax bracket or may avoid tax entirely due to the standard deduction. There can also be payroll tax savings; plus, the earnings can enable the child to contribute to an IRA. However, the wages paid must be reasonable given the child’s age and work skills. Also, if the child is in college, or is entering soon, having too much earned income can have a detrimental impact on the student’s need-based financial aid eligibility.

Avoid the hobby loss rules. A lot of businesses that are just starting out or have hit a bump in the road may wind up showing a loss for the year. The last thing the business owner wants in this situation is for the IRS to come knocking on the door arguing the business’s losses aren’t deductible because the activity is just a hobby for the owner. If your business is expecting a loss this year, we should talk as soon as possible to make sure you do everything possible to maximize the tax benefit of the loss and minimize its economic impact.

Combined business and vacation travel

If you go on a business trip within the U.S. and add on some vacation days, you know you can deduct some of your expenses. The question is how much.

First, let’s cover just the pure transportation expenses. Transportation costs to and from the scene of your business activity are 100% deductible as long as the primary reason for the trip is business rather than pleasure. On the other hand, if vacation is the primary reason for your travel, then generally none of your transportation expenses are deductible. Transportation costs include travel to and from your departure airport, the airfare itself, baggage fees and tips, cabs, and so forth. Costs for rail travel or driving your personal car also fit into this category.

The number of days spent on business vs. pleasure is the key factor in determining if the primary reason for domestic travel is business. Your travel days count as business days, as do weekends and holidays if they fall between days devoted to business, and it would be impractical to return home. Standby days (days when your physical presence is required) also count as business days, even if you are not called upon to work on those days. Any other day principally devoted to business activities during normal business hours is also counted as a business day, and so are days when you intended to work, but could not due to reasons beyond your control (local transportation difficulties, power failure, etc.).

You should be able to claim business was the primary reason for a domestic trip whenever the business days exceed the personal days. Be sure to accumulate proof and keep it with your tax records. For example, if your trip is made to attend client meetings, log everything on your daily planner and copy the pages for your tax file. If you attend a convention or training seminar, keep the program and take some notes to show you attended the sessions.

Once at the destination, your out-of-pocket expenses for business days are fully deductible. Out-of-pocket expenses include lodging, hotel tips, meals (subject to the 50% disallowance rule), seminar and convention fees, and cab fare. Expenses for personal days are nondeductible.

Identity Verification Letters & Donating a Life Insurance Policy

What you should do with an identity verification letter from the IRS

In its efforts to combat identity theft, the IRS is stopping suspicious tax returns that have indications of being identity theft, but contain a real taxpayer’s name and/or Social Security number, and sending out Letter 5071C to request that the taxpayer verify his or her identity.

Letter 5071C is mailed through the U.S. Postal Service to the address on the return. It asks taxpayers to verify their identities in order for the IRS to complete processing of the returns if the taxpayers did file it or reject the returns if the taxpayers did not file it.

It is important to understand that the IRS does not request such information via e-mail; nor will the IRS call you directly to ask this information without first sending you a Letter 5071C. The letter number can be found in the upper corner of the page.

Letter 5071C gives you two options to contact the IRS and confirm whether or not you filed the return: You can (1) use the www.idverify.irs.gov site or (2) call a toll-free number on the letter. However, the IRS says that, because of the high volume on its toll-free numbers, the IRS-sponsored website, www.idverify.irs.gov, is the safest, fastest option for taxpayers with Web access.

Before accessing the website, be sure to have your prior-year and current-year tax returns available, including supporting documents, such as Forms W-2 and 1099. You will be asked a series of questions that only the real taxpayer can answer.

Once your identity is verified, you can confirm whether or not you filed the return in question. If you did not file the return, the IRS will take steps at that time to assist you. If you did file the return, it will take approximately six weeks to process it and issue a refund.

You should always be aware of tax scams, efforts to solicit personally identifiable information, and IRS impersonations. However, www.idverify.irs.gov is a secure, IRS-supported site that allows taxpayers to verify their identities quickly and safely. IRS.gov is the official IRS website. Always look for a URL ending with “.gov” — not “.com,” “.org,” “.net,” or other nongovernmental URLs.

Donating a life insurance policy to charity

A number of charities now ask their donors to consider donating life insurance policies rather than (or in addition to) cash in order to make substantially larger gifts than would otherwise be possible. The advantage to donors is that they can make a sizable gift with relatively little up-front cash (or even no cash, if an existing policy is donated). The fact that a charity may have to wait many years before receiving a payoff from the gift is typically not a problem, because charities normally earmark such gifts for their endowment or long-term building funds.

Of course, good reasons may exist for keeping the policy in force (such as to provide liquidity for a taxable estate or to meet the continuing needs of a surviving spouse or disabled child). Still, for individuals with both excess life insurance and a charitable intent, the donation of a life insurance policy may make sense.

If handled correctly, a life insurance policy donation can net the donor a charitable deduction for the value of the policy. A charitable deduction is also available for any cash contributed in future years to continue paying the premiums on a policy that was not fully paid up at the time it was donated. However, if handled incorrectly, no deduction is allowed. For this reason, we encourage you to contact us if you are considering donating a life insurance policy. We can help ensure that you receive the expected income tax deduction and that the contribution works as planned.