In late December of 2020, President Trump signed into law the Consolidated Appropriations Act, 2021 (the Act), which included the long-anticipated pandemic-related Tax Relief Act of 2020. It also included the Taxpayer Certainty and Disaster Relief Act of 2020, which extends or makes permanent numerous tax provisions, including tax breaks for individuals. The following is an overview of these key tax-related provisions for individuals.
Medical Expense Deduction
The Tax Cuts and Jobs Act (TCJA) set the threshold for itemized medical expense deductions at 7.5% of Adjusted Gross Income (AGI), but this threshold was scheduled to return to 10% of AGI as set in the Affordable Care Act. However, the expense deduction had been extended perpetually by Congress, allowing a taxpayer to continue to deduct their total qualified unreimbursed medical expenses that exceed only 7.5% of their AGI. The Taxpayer Certainty and Disaster Relief Act of 2020 made this threshold permanent.
Charitable Contribution Deduction
Generally, charitable donations are tax-deductible only if you itemize your taxes, but the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act incorporated a provision that authorized individuals who don’t itemize to deduct up to $300 ($600 for married couples filing jointly) in cash donations in 2020. The Taxpayer Certainty and Disaster Relief Act of 2020 extended this provision into 2021 and makes it more valuable for married couples filing jointly.
Taxpayers who do itemize their deductions are typically limited to a 60% cap (i.e., the amount of charitable donations you could deduct generally could not exceed 60% of your AGI). As in 2020, that limit has been suspended in 2021.
Mortgage Insurance Premium Deduction
The Taxpayer Certainty and Disaster Relief Act of 2020 includes a one-year extension of the mortgage insurance premium deduction, so premiums paid or accrued through December 31, 2021 can be deducted on tax returns by those who itemized deductions and otherwise qualify for the mortgage insurance premium deduction.
Exclusion for Canceled Mortgage Debt
Cancelled or forgiven debt by a commercial lender can be counted as income for tax purposes. However, the Mortgage Forgiveness Debt Relief Act of 2007 generally allowed for taxpayers to exclude canceled mortgage debt from their taxable income, but only for a finite number of years. The Taxpayer Certainty and Disaster Relief Act of 2020 extended the Mortgage Forgiveness Debt Relief Act of 2007 through 2025.
Residential Energy-Efficient Property Credit
Individuals who have implemented certain energy-efficient upgrades to their homes (i.e., solar electricity, solar water heaters, geothermal heat pumps, and small wind turbines) are eligible for the residential energy-efficient property credit. The credit had been set to phase out after 2021, but the Taxpayer Certainty and Disaster Relief Act of 2020 extended it as follows:
- Continuing the rate applicable to 2020, eligible property that is put into service in 2022 will qualify for a credit worth up to 26% of the property cost
- Eligible property that is put into service in 2023 will qualify for a credit worth up to 22% of the property cost.
The Consolidated Appropriations Act, 2021 (the Act) signed into law by President Trump on Dec. 27, 2020 includes significant modifications to the Employee Retention Tax Credit (ERC) enacted under the CARES Act. The credit originally provided a 50% refundable tax credit for businesses that maintain employee payroll, even amidst temporary business closures due to government-mandated lockdowns, or considerable downturns in gross receipts due to loss of business. This article will highlight changes to the ERC for 2021.
Period of Credit Availability
The CARES Act originally provided credit for qualified wages paid after March 12, 2020 and before Jan. 1, 2021. The new law extends availability of the credit for qualified wages to the first two quarters of 2021 (before July 1, 2021).
Amount of Credit
Under the original law, the credit amount was set at 50% of the qualified wages paid to the employee, plus the cost to continue providing employee health benefits. The Act increases the credit amount to 70% of qualified wages, which is intended to include the cost of employee health benefits.
Maximum Credit Amount
The CARES Act capped the credit at $5,000 per employee for all qualified wages paid during 2020, but the Act increases the maximum credit to $7,000 per employee for each of the two quarters in 2021, so the maximum credit for 2021 will be $14,000.
Eligibility Requirements for the Credit
In order to qualify for the ERC under the original law, businesses must have been experiencing full or partial suspension of operations due to a Covid-19 lockdown order. They could also qualify if, for any quarter in 2020, gross receipts were less than 50% of gross receipts for the same quarter in 2019. With the passage of the Act, businesses whose operations are either fully or partially suspended by a government-mandated lockdown order due to Covid-19 or whose gross receipts are less than 80% of gross receipts for the same quarter in 2019 can qualify for the ERC.
Credit Eligibility Whether or Not Employees Are Working
For a company with more than 100 employees, the original law under the CARES Act did not provide credit for wages paid to employees who were performing services for the employer in some capacity. However, a company with 100 employees or less did qualify for the credit, even if the employee was working. The Act raises this threshold to 500 employees, so that for the first two quarters of 2021, a company with 500 or fewer will be eligible for the credit, even if employees are working.
PPP Loan Eligibility
A company that received a Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) loan was not eligible for the ERC under the original CARES Act. With the passage of the Act, companies that received a PPP loan in 2020 may also qualify for the ERC. To prevent double dipping, a credit may not be claimed for wages paid with the proceeds of a PPP loan that have been forgiven. However, amounts paid that were either not forgiven or are over and above the PPP loan amounts can be included for ERC purposes.
President Trump recently signed a second stimulus package—called the Consolidated Appropriations Act, 2021 (Act)—into law. The legislation includes over $300 billion in aid for small businesses. Below is a breakdown of some of the business tax changes and extenders in the new COVID-19 relief bill.
Payroll Tax Credit for Paid Sick and Family Leave
The refundable payroll tax credit for paid and sick family leave, established in the Families First Coronavirus Response Act, is extended until March 31, 2021. The tax credits are modified so that they now apply to practically any payments made to workers for these purposes.
Payroll Tax Repayment
The time frame for employees to repay deferred employment taxes under the President’s executive order, which was issued in August 2020, has been extended from April 2021 to December 31, 2021.
Employee Retention Credit
The Employee Retention Credit (ERC) under the CARES Act has extended to July 1, 2021. Further, the refundable tax credit has increased from 50% to 70%, the per-employee wages limitation has increased from $10,000 per year to $10,000 per quarter, and the determination of a large employer for purposes of the ERC has increased from 100 to 500 employees.
30-Year Depreciation of Certain Residential Rental Property
The new law determines that the recovery period relevant to residential rental property placed in service before Jan. 1, 2018, and held by an electing real property trade or business, is 30 years.
Business Meal Deduction
Rather than the current 50% business expense deduction for meals, the bill temporarily allows a 100% expense deduction for meals provided by restaurants in 2021 and 2022.
Deduction for Energy Efficient Commercial Buildings
The deduction for energy-efficient improvements to commercial buildings, such as lighting, heating, cooling, ventilation, and hot water systems was made permanent. The amount will be inflation-adjusted after 2020.
Changes to the Work Opportunity Tax Credit
If employers hire workers who are members of one of more of ten targeted groups under the Work Opportunity Tax Credit (WOTC) program, they are permitted to use an elective general business tax credit. Previously applicable to hires before 1/1/2021, the TCDTR extends the credit through 2025.
Employer Payments of Student Loans
Section 127, which permits employers to provide certain educational assistance to employees on a tax-free basis, was modified under the CARES Act to authorize the payment by an employer of principal or interest on specific employee qualified education loans through December 31, 2020. The Consolidated Appropriations Act expands this through December 30, 2025. As the pandemic subsides, employers may want to consider this valuable tax-free benefit.
Health and Dependent Care Flexible Spending Arrangements
The bill allows taxpayers to roll over unused funds in their health and dependent care flexible spending accounts from 2020 to 2021 and from 2021 to 2022. This arrangement also permits employers to grant employees a 2021 midyear prospective adjustment in contribution amounts.
Customarily, retirement savings plans such as 401(k)s are tough to withdraw from before age 59.5 without accruing penalties and tax withholdings, but the CARES Act, which was passed by Congress in response to the economic hit caused by the Covid-19 pandemic, temporarily eliminated such penalties. Now that you can more easily access assets that have been set aside for future use, should you?
Amended Penalties for Early Withdrawal
Recognizing that many Americans who live paycheck to paycheck would need access to funds in the face of lost income as a result of government shutdowns, Congress passed the CARES Act, which temporarily eliminates the 10% early-withdrawal penalty and the 20% federal tax withholding on early 401(k) withdrawals. Taxes on any withdrawn funds will still be applicable because the original contributions were pre-tax, but whereas those taxes are typically due within the same year as the withdrawal, the CARES Act permits the amount due to be stretched over a period of three years.
Be Aware of Potential Penalties
It may seem as though the vault has been unlocked, but before you decide to take advantage of the easily accessible funds, you should consider the potential ramifications of such a move. If the amount withdrawn isn’t returned within the three-year window (either in one lump sum or in multiple payments over three years), you will be responsible for paying income tax on the withdrawal. This could be a significant amount depending on the size of the withdrawal. It’s also worth remembering that for the amount of time the funds are out of your retirement savings, they discontinue making returns on your investment, which could result in potentially long-term consequences, including compound tax deferred growth benefits.
Remember the End Goal
If you are struggling in today’s economic downturn, the laxed rules and penalties to access retirement funds is tempting, but it’s important to keep the end goal in sight, which is retirement. The long-term impact to your savings, even when it’s paid back over time, may not be worth it. Unless you’re really struggling to make ends meet, the best move is to leave the money in your 401(k). Cashing out now, when the market reflects depressed values, means that you’d be selling low, which isn’t a recommended strategy.
Beginning next year, for the first time in 39 years, Social Security is projected to dispense more money than it takes in, which means that the money being collected by the program will soon not be enough to cover the benefits being paid out. Does this mean that Social Security is going bankrupt?
How the Program Came to Be and How it Works
In 1935, after decades of American workers advocated for a social insurance program that could help support retired workers, President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed the Social Security Act into law. Social Security taxes were first collected in 1937 with payments to retired workers beginning in 1940.
A dedicated tax on earnings funds the Social Security program, and the collected money is disbursed as retirement benefits for retirees in the form of a monthly check. How much money a retired worker gets from the program is measured in “work credits”, which are based on total income earned during their career. The program also supplies survivor benefits in many cases to widowed spouses.
What Went Wrong?
Social Security was signed into law over 80 years ago, and there have been significant shifts in demographics since then. The baby-boom generation is retiring, tipping the scale on the worker-to-beneficiary ratio, but other contributing factors include:
- growing income inequality
- sizable decline in birth rates
- legal immigration, which has been cut in half over the last two decades
- Longer life expectancy as a result of modern medicine, which means people are collecting checks for more years than earlier generations
Is Bankruptcy in the Future for Social Security?
Rumors of the program’s impending bankruptcy have been circulating for years, and some people believe that Social Security funds are going to run out, leaving the workers who are paying into the system now without benefits. This is unlikely to be the case, but lawmakers rightfully continue to discuss proposals to Social Security legislation that would protect the program in coming years. While GOP lawmakers have expressed a desire to raise the minimum age at which you can begin to receive payments, Democrat lawmakers have proposed increasing the payroll tax that pays for Social Security. Neither plan is perfect. The GOP proposal would take years before any savings are realized, and the democrats’ plan to tax the rich would only put the program on borrowed time until it’s back in the same position. A bipartisan plan is needed for the future of Social Security, but how long it will take lawmakers to get there remains to be seen.
On Aug. 28, 2020, as part of COVID-19 relief, President Trump issued a presidential memorandum allowing employers to suspend withholding and paying to the IRS eligible employees’ Social Security payroll taxes from September 1, 2020 through December 31, 2020. The IRS then issued guidance on the payroll tax deferral in Notice 2020-65, but some questions still remain, and additional guidance in anticipated. Here’s what we know now.
Notice 2020-65 Provides Basic Guidance
For those implementing the program, the Notice provides barebones components of the payroll tax deferral, which applies to the employee portion of Social Security Tax.
- For employees earning less than $4,000 in a bi-weekly pay period, employers would defer withholding/depositing employee share of social security tax on wages earned for payroll periods on or after September 1, 2020.
- For employees whose wages fluctuate, the deferral is applicable to wages paid in any bi-weekly pay period during the dates specified in which the employee earns less than $4,000, regardless of wages or compensation paid to the employee for any other pay period. Therefore, the employer may defer to collect the tax in a pay period where the employee earns less than $4,000 but be required to collect it for another pay period where the employee earns more than $4,000.
Though Treasury Secretary Mnuchin announced previously that the deferral program would be optional, the Notice does not specifically address whether it is mandatory or optional.
One main reason that employers may not be eager to offer the benefit to employees is due to the absence of guidance regarding the situation of an employee’s termination or otherwise leaving employment ahead of paying the deferred amount. The employer and employee can come up with an arrangement (i.e. deducting the amount owed from the final paycheck), but should an employer fail to collect from the employee, the IRS could go after the employer.
To Defer or Not to Defer?
Given that the motive behind the tax deferral program is to get more money into the pockets of employees now in order to make ends meet due to reduced wages and/or hours, employers may think it worthwhile to extend this option to their employees. An average worker who completely defers Social Security taxes until December 31, 2020 would save just under $800, or about $60 per week. Employees must keep in mind that it is a temporary relief in the form of a deferral, not a tax forgiveness, though the President’s Executive Order does encourage Treasury to look into possible avenues for forgiveness. At best the tax deferral is an opportunity for workers to funnel those funds into an emergency savings account, ensuring that the savings will be on hand should Treasury fail to put forth a path for forgiveness and the taxes are consequently deducted from paychecks next year.