Tax Cuts and Jobs Act

TCJA changes to employee benefits tax breaks: 4 negatives and a positive

The Tax Cuts and Jobs Act (TCJA) includes many changes that affect tax breaks for employee benefits. Among the changes are four negatives and one positive that will impact not only employees but also the businesses providing the benefits.

4 breaks curtailed

Beginning with the 2018 tax year, the TCJA reduces or eliminates tax breaks in the following areas:

1. Transportation benefits. The TCJA eliminates business deductions for the cost of providing qualified employee transportation fringe benefits, such as parking allowances, mass transit passes and van pooling. (These benefits are still tax-free to recipient employees.) It also disallows business deductions for the cost of providing commuting transportation to an employee (such as hiring a car service), unless the transportation is necessary for the employee’s safety. And it suspends through 2025 the tax-free benefit of up to $20 a month for bicycle commuting.

2. On-premises meals. The TCJA reduces to 50% a business’s deduction for providing certain meals to employees on the business premises, such as when employees work late or if served in a company cafeteria. (The deduction is scheduled for elimination in 2025.) For employees, the value of these benefits continues to be tax-free.

3. Moving expense reimbursements. The TCJA suspends through 2025 the exclusion from employees’ taxable income of a business’s reimbursements of employees’ qualified moving expenses. However, businesses generally will still be able to deduct such reimbursements.

4. Achievement awards. The TCJA eliminates the business tax deduction and corresponding employee tax exclusion for employee achievement awards that are provided in the form of cash, gift coupons or certificates, vacations, meals, lodging, tickets to sporting or theater events, securities and “other similar items.” However, the tax breaks are still available for gift certificates that allow the recipient to select tangible property from a limited range of items preselected by the employer. The deduction/exclusion limits remain at up to $400 of the value of achievement awards for length of service or safety and $1,600 for awards under a written nondiscriminatory achievement plan.

1 new break

For 2018 and 2019, the TCJA creates a tax credit for wages paid to qualifying employees on family and medical leave. To qualify, a business must offer at least two weeks of annual paid family and medical leave, as described by the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA), to qualified employees. The paid leave must provide at least 50% of the employee’s wages. Leave required by state or local law or that was already part of the business’s employee benefits program generally doesn’t qualify.

The credit equals a minimum of 12.5% of the amount of wages paid during a leave period. The credit is increased gradually for payments above 50% of wages paid and tops out at 25%. No double-dipping: Employers can’t also deduct wages claimed for the credit.

More rules, limits and changes

Keep in mind that additional rules and limits apply to these breaks, and that the TCJA makes additional changes affecting employee benefits. Contact us for more details.

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Defer tax with a Section 1031 exchange, but new limits apply this year

Normally when appreciated business assets such as real estate are sold, tax is owed on the appreciation. But there’s a way to defer this tax: a Section 1031 “like kind” exchange. However, the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act (TCJA) reduces the types of property eligible for this favorable tax treatment.

What is a like-kind exchange?

Section 1031 of the Internal Revenue Code allows you to defer gains on real or personal property used in a business or held for investment if, instead of selling it, you exchange it solely for property of a “like kind.” Thus, the tax benefit of an exchange is that you defer tax and, thereby, have use of the tax savings until you sell the replacement property.

This technique is especially flexible for real estate, because virtually any type of real estate will be considered to be of a like kind, as long as it’s business or investment property. For example, you can exchange a warehouse for an office building, or an apartment complex for a strip mall.

Deferred and reverse exchanges

Although a like-kind exchange may sound quick and easy, it’s relatively rare for two owners to simply swap properties. You’ll likely have to execute a “deferred” exchange, in which you engage a qualified intermediary (QI) for assistance.

When you sell your property (the relinquished property), the net proceeds go directly to the QI, who then uses them to buy replacement property. To qualify for tax-deferred exchange treatment, you generally must identify replacement property within 45 days after you transfer the relinquished property and complete the purchase within 180 days after the initial transfer.

An alternate approach is a “reverse” exchange. Here, an exchange accommodation titleholder (EAT) acquires title to the replacement property before you sell the relinquished property. You can defer capital gains by identifying one or more properties to exchange within 45 days after the EAT receives the replacement property and, typically, completing the transaction within 180 days.

Changes under the TCJA

There had been some concern that tax reform would include the elimination of like-kind exchanges. The good news is that the TCJA still generally allows tax-deferred like-kind exchanges of business and investment real estate.

But there’s also some bad news: For 2018 and beyond, the TCJA eliminates tax-deferred like-kind exchange treatment for exchanges of personal property. However, prior-law rules that allow like-kind exchanges of personal property still apply if one leg of an exchange was completed by December 31, 2017, but one leg remained open on that date. Keep in mind that exchanged personal property must be of the same asset or product class.

Complex rules

The rules for like-kind exchanges are complex, so these arrangements present some risks. If, say, you exchange the wrong kind of property or acquire cash or other non-like-kind property in a deal, you may still end up incurring a sizable tax hit. If you’re exploring a like-kind exchange, contact us. We can help you ensure you’re in compliance with the rules.

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Sec. 179 expensing provides small businesses tax savings on 2017 returns — and more savings in the future

If you purchased qualifying property by December 31, 2017, you may be able to take advantage of Section 179 expensing on your 2017 tax return. You’ll also want to keep this tax break in mind in your property purchase planning, because the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act (TCJA), signed into law this past December, significantly enhances it beginning in 2018.

2017 Sec. 179 benefits

Sec. 179 expensing allows eligible taxpayers to deduct the entire cost of qualifying new or used depreciable property and most software in Year 1, subject to various limitations. For tax years that began in 2017, the maximum Sec. 179 deduction is $510,000. The maximum deduction is phased out dollar for dollar to the extent the cost of eligible property placed in service during the tax year exceeds the phaseout threshold of $2.03 million.

Qualified real property improvement costs are also eligible for Sec. 179 expensing. This real estate break applies to:

  • Certain improvements to interiors of leased nonresidential buildings,
  • Certain restaurant buildings or improvements to such buildings, and
  • Certain improvements to the interiors of retail buildings.

Deductions claimed for qualified real property costs count against the overall maximum for Sec. 179 expensing.

Permanent enhancements

The TCJA permanently enhances Sec. 179 expensing. Under the new law, for qualifying property placed in service in tax years beginning in 2018, the maximum Sec. 179 deduction is increased to $1 million, and the phaseout threshold is increased to $2.5 million. For later tax years, these amounts will be indexed for inflation. For purposes of determining eligibility for these higher limits, property is treated as acquired on the date on which a written binding contract for the acquisition is signed.

The new law also expands the definition of eligible property to include certain depreciable tangible personal property used predominantly to furnish lodging. The definition of qualified real property eligible for Sec. 179 expensing is also expanded to include the following improvements to nonresidential real property: roofs, HVAC equipment, fire protection and alarm systems, and security systems.

Save now and save later

Many rules apply, so please contact us to learn if you qualify for this break on your 2017 return. We’d also be happy to discuss your future purchasing plans so you can reap the maximum benefits from enhanced Sec. 179 expensing and other tax law changes under the TCJA.

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Claiming bonus depreciation on your 2017 tax return may be particularly beneficial

With bonus depreciation, a business can recover the costs of depreciable property more quickly by claiming additional first-year depreciation for qualified assets. The Tax Cuts and Jobs Act (TCJA), signed into law in December, enhances bonus depreciation.

Typically, taking this break is beneficial. But in certain situations, your business might save more tax long-term by skipping it. That said, claiming bonus depreciation on your 2017 tax return may be particularly beneficial.

Pre- and post-TCJA

Before TCJA, bonus depreciation was 50% and qualified property included new tangible property with a recovery period of 20 years or less (such as office furniture and equipment), off-the-shelf computer software, water utility property and qualified improvement property.

The TCJA significantly expands bonus depreciation: For qualified property placed in service between September 28, 2017, and December 31, 2022 (or by December 31, 2023, for certain property with longer production periods), the first-year bonus depreciation percentage increases to 100%. In addition, the 100% deduction is allowed for not just new but also used qualifying property.

But be aware that, under the TCJA, beginning in 2018 certain types of businesses may no longer be eligible for bonus depreciation. Examples include real estate businesses and auto dealerships, depending on the specific circumstances.

A good tax strategy • or not?

Generally, if you’re eligible for bonus depreciation and you expect to be in the same or a lower tax bracket in future years, taking bonus depreciation is likely a good tax strategy (though you should also factor in available Section 179 expensing). It will defer tax, which generally is beneficial.

On the other hand, if your business is growing and you expect to be in a higher tax bracket in the near future, you may be better off forgoing bonus depreciation. Why? Even though you’ll pay more tax this year, you’ll preserve larger depreciation deductions on the property for future years, when they may be more powerful — deductions save more tax when you’re paying a higher tax rate.

What to do on your 2017 return

The greater tax-saving power of deductions when rates are higher is why 2017 may be a particularly good year to take bonus depreciation. As you’re probably aware, the TCJA permanently replaces the graduated corporate tax rates of 15% to 35% with a flat corporate rate of 21% beginning with the 2018 tax year. It also reduces most individual rates, which benefits owners of pass-through entities such as S corporations, partnerships and, typically, limited liability companies, for tax years beginning in 2018 through 2025.

If your rate will be lower in 2018, there’s a greater likelihood that taking bonus depreciation for 2017 would save you more tax than taking all of your deduction under normal depreciation schedules over a period of years, especially if the asset meets the deadlines for 100% bonus depreciation.

If you’re unsure whether you should take bonus depreciation on your 2017 return — or you have questions about other depreciation-related breaks, such as Sec. 179 expensing — contact us.

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2 tax credits just for small businesses may reduce your 2017 and 2018 tax bills

Tax credits reduce tax liability dollar-for-dollar, potentially making them more valuable than deductions, which reduce only the amount of income subject to tax. Maximizing available credits is especially important now that the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act has reduced or eliminated some tax breaks for businesses. Two still-available tax credits are especially for small businesses that provide certain employee benefits.

1. Credit for paying health care coverage premiums

The Affordable Care Act (ACA) offers a credit to certain small employers that provide employees with health coverage. Despite various congressional attempts to repeal the ACA in 2017, nearly all of its provisions remain intact, including this potentially valuable tax credit.

The maximum credit is 50% of group health coverage premiums paid by the employer, if it contributes at least 50% of the total premium or of a benchmark premium. For 2017, the full credit is available for employers with 10 or fewer full-time equivalent employees (FTEs) and average annual wages of $26,200 or less per employee. Partial credits are available on a sliding scale to businesses with fewer than 25 FTEs and average annual wages of less than $52,400.

The credit can be claimed for only two years, and they must be consecutive. (Credits claimed before 2014 don’t count, however.) If you meet the eligibility requirements but have been waiting to claim the credit until a future year when you think it might provide more savings, claiming the credit for 2017 may be a good idea. Why? It’s possible the credit will go away in the future if lawmakers in Washington continue to try to repeal or replace the ACA.

At this point, most likely any ACA repeal or replacement wouldn’t go into effect until 2019 (or possibly later). So if you claim the credit for 2017, you may also be able to claim it on your 2018 return next year (provided you again meet the eligibility requirements). That way, you could take full advantage of the credit while it’s available.

2. Credit for starting a retirement plan

Small employers (generally those with 100 or fewer employees) that create a retirement plan may be eligible for a $500 credit per year for three years. The credit is limited to 50% of qualified start-up costs.

Of course, you generally can deduct contributions you make to your employees’ accounts under the plan. And your employees enjoy the benefit of tax-advantaged retirement saving.

If you didn’t create a retirement plan in 2017, you might still have time to do so. Simplified Employee Pensions (SEPs) can be set up as late as the due date of your tax return, including extensions. If you’d like to set up a different type of plan, consider doing so for 2018 so you can potentially take advantage of the retirement plan credit (and other tax benefits) when you file your 2018 return next year.

Determining eligibility

Keep in mind that additional rules and limits apply to these tax credits. We’d be happy to help you determine whether you’re eligible for these or other credits on your 2017 return and also plan for credits you might be able to claim on your 2018 return if you take appropriate actions this year.

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Meals, entertainment and transportation may cost businesses more under the TCJA

Along with tax rate reductions and a new deduction for pass-through qualified business income, the new tax law brings the reduction or elimination of tax deductions for certain business expenses. Two expense areas where the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act (TCJA) changes the rules — and not to businesses’ benefit — are meals/entertainment and transportation. In effect, the reduced tax benefits will mean these expenses are more costly to a business’s bottom line.

Meals and entertainment

Prior to the TCJA, taxpayers generally could deduct 50% of expenses for business-related meals and entertainment. Meals provided to an employee for the convenience of the employer on the employer’s business premises were 100% deductible by the employer and tax-free to the recipient employee.

Under the new law, for amounts paid or incurred after December 31, 2017, deductions for business-related entertainment expenses are disallowed.

Meal expenses incurred while traveling on business are still 50% deductible, but the 50% limit now also applies to meals provided via an on-premises cafeteria or otherwise on the employer’s premises for the convenience of the employer. After 2025, the cost of meals provided through an on-premises cafeteria or otherwise on the employer’s premises will no longer be deductible.

Transportation

The TCJA disallows employer deductions for the cost of providing commuting transportation to an employee (such as hiring a car service), unless the transportation is necessary for the employee’s safety.

The new law also eliminates employer deductions for the cost of providing qualified employee transportation fringe benefits. Examples include parking allowances, mass transit passes and van pooling. These benefits are, however, still tax-free to recipient employees.

Transportation expenses for employee work-related travel away from home are still deductible (and tax-free to the employee), as long as they otherwise qualify for such tax treatment. (Note that, for 2018 through 2025, employees can’t deduct unreimbursed employee business expenses, such as travel expenses, as a miscellaneous itemized deduction.)

Assessing the impact

The TCJA’s changes to deductions for meals, entertainment and transportation expenses may affect your business’s budget. Depending on how much you typically spend on such expenses, you may want to consider changing some of your policies and/or benefits offerings in these areas. We’d be pleased to help you assess the impact on your business.

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