The Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act (CARES Act) is a massive stimulus package that became law on March 27, 2020. In total, the bill provides roughly $2 trillion, making it the largest economic stimulus bill in U.S. history. One noteworthy provision for small businesses involves a refundable employment tax credit for employers, known as the Employee Retention Credit (ERC). This credit is available to qualifying businesses that are experiencing a severe downturn in business, or that must suspend operations entirely under state and local public health orders.

Employee Retention Credit

Section 2301 of the CARES Act establishes the ERC. This tax credit is available for wages paid between March 12, 2020 and January 1, 2021.

Amount of Wages

Employers may take the credit against the Social Security portion of payroll taxes in an amount equal to fifty percent of wages, up to a maximum of $10,000 per employee. The maximum tax credit is therefore $5,000 per employee. If an employer ordinarily pays an employee $1,500 per week, the available tax credit for that week is $750.

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As local and state governments continue to implement protective measures against the global coronavirus pandemic, businesses have had to adapt quickly. Many businesses have had to close indefinitely because of “shelter in place” orders that urge people to remain home except for essential functions. The IRS has extended the deadline for paying income taxes and filing returns. Other federal agencies have taken similar actions. A de facto ban on social gatherings in many parts of the country has almost certainly had an impact on businesses that sell alcohol, along with other businesses regulated by the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB). In late March 2020, this agency announced postponement of multiple filing and tax deadlines.

The Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau

Like the IRS, the TTB is part of the U.S. Department of the Treasury. It was created when the Homeland Security Act of 2002 moved the law enforcement functions of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (ATF) to the Department of Justice. The Treasury Department retained ATF’s regulatory and tax collection roles and transferred them to the newly created TTB. It has authority over the federal taxation of alcohol, tobacco, and firearms.

National Emergency

The Internal Revenue Code (IRC) gives the Secretary of the Treasury the authority to postpone payment and filing deadlines in the event of a “federally declared disaster.” The president made an emergency declaration on March 13, 2020.

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The world has had to learn a new vocabulary in recent weeks. In an effort to slow the spread of the coronavirus and the disease it causes, COVID-19, public health officials across the globe have urged people to practice “social distancing.” Non-essential businesses are closed, and thousands if not millions of people have quickly learned how to work remotely. In the midst of all of this, the federal government has offered some relief by delaying Tax Day for three months. Instead of income tax returns and payments being due on April 15, they will now be due on July 15.

Why April 15?

April 15 has been the due date for federal income taxes for a little less than seventy years. Income taxes themselves have only been an inevitable part of life nationwide for a bit more than a century.

The Sixteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution first authorized the federal government to levy an income tax in 1913. Eight years earlier, the Supreme Court had ruled that an income tax contained in a tariff bill was unconstitutional. Amending the Constitution overruled the court.
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Our tax advocates know that investing in an individual retirement account (IRA) can be an excellent way to set money aside for retirement and save on federal income taxes. An important caveat for traditional IRAs is the required minimum distribution (RMD). As the name implies, you must withdraw a minimum amount by a certain date, based on your age. A bill signed into law last year, the Setting Every Community Up for Retirement Enhancement (SECURE) Act, raises the age for the RMD, and removes an obligation for banks to notify their IRA customers of an upcoming RMD date.. The new law took effect almost immediately, which might catch some banks by surprise. The IRS has therefore issued a notice giving latitude to banks that issue incorrect notices in 2020, provided they also issue a correction to those customers.

What Is a Required Minimum Distribution?

With a “traditional” IRA, you can contribute money before taxes up to a certain amount each year, but you must withdraw a minimum amount by a specified date. Prior to the SECURE Act, the Internal Revenue Code (IRC) required an RMD by April 1 of the calendar year following whichever occurs later:  the account owner reaches the age of 70½; or the account owner retires. This can be confusing for many people:

– If a person turned 70 years old on February 1, 2017, they would turn 70½ on August 1, 2017, and their RMD date would be April 1, 2018.
– If, however, they turned 70 on August 1, 2017, then they would turn 70½ on February 1, 2018, and their RMD date would be April 1, 2019.

This might be why the law required banks to notify customers with traditional IRAs of an upcoming RMD. Banks use IRS Form 5498 to show IRA contributions during the year. Box 11 shows whether an IRA owner must make an RMD. Boxes 12a and 12b show the RMD date and amount, respectively. Banks must send these forms out by January 31 of each year.

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In December 2019, Congress passed the Setting Every Community Up for Retirement Enhancement (SECURE) Act, with the intention of facilitating the creation and use of retirement accounts, including individual retirement accounts (IRAs) and 401(k) plans. Whether intentional or not, the bill has eliminated a popular tool used in estate planning known as the “stretch IRA,” which allowed people to convey an IRA to their heirs while minimizing tax liability. Some options may still be available, though, and our Los Angeles tax advisors can explain them.

What Was a Stretch IRA?

A stretch IRA was a way of passing both the value of a retirement account and its tax deferrals from generation to generation. The term does not describe a type of account, but rather a strategy used to maximize the returns on a retirement account passed down through a will with a minimal tax bill. It was most commonly used with traditional IRAs, which defer income taxes on contributions until the money is distributed to the owner or other beneficiary.

Under new rules found in the SECURE Act, owners of traditional IRAs must begin taking required minimum distributions (RMDs) by a certain date. The amount of the RMD is based on the account owner’s life expectancy, using IRS tables. The remaining balance of the account is divided by the number of years left in the owner’s life expectancy.

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Paying taxes involves disclosing a vast amount of personal information about oneself, one’s family, and one’s business to the IRS. If you seek the assistance of an accountant or other tax preparer, your personal information makes an additional stopover on its way to the government. Unfortunately, the wealth of information included in tax returns is incalculably valuable to identity thieves and other scammers. As a result, federal law closely protects the privacy of taxpayer information. This protection relies on extensive security measures by both the government and the businesses that handle taxpayers’ returns. Our Los Angeles tax advisors want to take this opportunity to explain the scope of your protections.

Privacy of Taxpayer Information

Section 6103 of the Internal Revenue Code (IRC) establishes that the information in taxpayers’ returns is confidential. The IRS may not disclose taxpayer information to anyone without the taxpayer’s written consent, unless disclosure to other tax officials or law enforcement is specifically required by law.

Federal law holds the IRS to a high standard of accountability in this matter. An IRS employee or other person who accesses confidential taxpayer information in violation of § 6103 commits a criminal offense punishable by up to one year in prison and a fine of up to $1,000. The taxpayer whose information is accessed without authorization may bring a civil suit against the U.S. government for the greater of either $1,000 per violation, or the actual damages they suffered plus, in the event of a willful or grossly negligent violation, punitive damages.

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The IRS must follow a series of procedures to collect unpaid taxes. The first step is to send written correspondence to the taxpayer informing them that their tax return is overdue and advising them of the penalties for continuing to fail to file. From there, the IRS may place a lien on a taxpayer’s property, followed by the execution of a levy. It could hand long-delinquent cases over to private debt collectors. Our Los Angeles tax advisors have observed that the IRS recently announced that revenue officers (ROs) will be visiting high-income taxpayers with at least one unfiled tax return in 2020. “High-income” in this instance means annual income of more than $100,000.

What Is a Revenue Officer?

ROs work at IRS field collection offices located around the country. Their job is to collect unpaid taxes, but their powers in that regard are somewhat limited. They are civilian employees, not law enforcement officers. They therefore do not wear a uniform or carry a firearm, and they cannot make arrests. They carry identification cards, not badges.

If an RO has reason to believe a criminal offense, such as tax fraud, has occurred, they must refer the matter to the IRS’s Criminal Investigation Division (CID). CID agents carry badges and can make arrests.

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Student loans account for a substantial portion of this country’s total indebtedness. Outstanding student loan debt is estimated at $1.5 to 1.6 trillion. The U.S. Department of Education (DOE) holds almost all of this debt, giving it substantial power over repayment, forgiveness, and discharge. Normally, discharge of debt is considered a taxable event. The IRS has established revenue procedures creating a “safe harbor” for discharges under certain DOE programs. Our Los Angeles tax advisors observed that it recently issued a new revenue procedure expanding that safe harbor.

Student Loan Discharge Programs

The DOE maintains several programs that allow partial or total discharge of student loan debt in specific situations. These programs only apply to student loans made or guaranteed by the DOE.

Closed School Discharge

The Higher Education Act (HEA) of 1965, as amended in 1986, directs the DOE to discharge the student loan debt of a borrower who is unable to complete their studies because their school closes, or because of certain fraudulent actions on the part of the school. Borrowers must apply to the DOE to obtain a discharge under this program. They must be able to demonstrate that they were either enrolled in the school or on an “approved leave of absence” at the time of closure, or that they withdrew 120 days or less before the school closed.

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The Social Security program has provided benefits for millions of people in its eighty-five years of existence. Political compromises have kept the program going as the cost of living has increased faster than wages. One of these compromises resulted in the assessment of federal income taxes on some Social Security benefits. This only applies to taxpayers with income above a threshold amount. Even if an individual’s income is above the threshold, only part of their Social Security benefits are taxable. Not all benefits payable by the Social Security Administration (SSA) are subject to federal income tax, and our Los Angeles tax advisors can explain the extent to which tax rules apply.

Types of Social Security Benefits

The SSA is an independent federal agency, meaning that while it is part of the Executive Branch of the federal government, it is not part of a federal executive department. Much of the funding for SSA programs comes from payroll taxes. The agency administers numerous benefit programs, including:
Retirement benefits, which are available to people who have made a minimum number of payments into the program through their payroll taxes, and who have reached the age of sixty-two;
Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI), which helps eligible individuals who are unable to support themselves because of an injury or medical condition;
Survivors benefits, which provides assistance for family members of SSA beneficiaries; and
Supplemental Security Income (SSI), which pays benefits to elder individuals, blind individuals, and individuals with disabilities.

Most of these benefits are taxable if the individual meets the income threshold. Dependent or survivor benefits received by a child are usually not taxable, unless the child has sufficient income to file their own income tax return. SSI benefits are not subject to federal income tax under any circumstances.

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