The arrival of year end presents special opportunities for most taxpayers to take steps in lowering their tax liability. The tax law imposes tax liability based upon a “tax year.” For most individuals and small business, their tax year is the same as the calendar year. As 2013 year end gets closer, most taxpayers have a more accurate picture of what their tax liability will be in 2013 than at any other time during the current year. However, if you don’t like what you see, you have until year end to make improvements before your tax liability for 2013 is permanently set in stone.
A good part of year-end tax planning involves techniques to accelerate or postpone income or deductions, as your tax situation dictates. Efforts are generally focused on keeping projected tax liability for 2013 slightly lower than that anticipated for 2014, not overweighing projected tax liability for any one year. Having spikes in taxable income in any one tax year puts you in a higher average tax bracket than you would be in if you had evened out the amount of taxable income between the current and subsequent year.
Right to income versus cash receipt
Generally, a cash-basis taxpayer (which includes most individuals) recognizes income when it is received and takes deductions when expenses are paid. There is a subtle but important difference between the two:
- Income is generally taxable in the year that it is received, by cash or check or direct deposit. You cannot postpone tax on income by refusing payment until the following year once you have the right to that payment in the current year. However, if you make deferred payments a part of the overall transaction, you may legitimately postpone both the income and the tax on it into the year or years in which payment is made. Postponement in this context usually takes place in a business setting. Examples include: installment sales, on which gain is prorated and taxed based upon the years over which installment payments are made; like-kind exchanges through which no gain is realized except to the extent other non-like-kind property (including cash) may change hands; and, on a higher level, tax-free corporate reorganizations pursuant to special tax code provisions.
- Deductions, on the other hand, are generally not allowed until you pay for the item or service for which you want to take the deduction. Merely accepting the liability to pay for a deductible item does not make it deduction. Therefore, a doctor’s bill does not become a medical expense deduction necessarily in the year that services are rendered or the bill is sent for payment. Rather, it is only considered deductible in the year in which you pay the bill. Determining when you pay your bills for tax purposes also has its nuances. A bill may be paid when cash is tendered; when a credit card is charged; or when a check is put in the mail (even if it is delivered in due course a few days into a new calendar year).
Compensation arrangements carry their own special set of tax rules. The timing of the inclusion and deduction of compensation is largely governed by the employee’s and the employer’s normal methods of accounting. Under the cash method of accounting, amounts are includible in income when they are actually or constructively received and deductible when they are paid. Most employees are on the cash method.
Cash-basis employers can only deduct the cost of compensation the employee actually or constructively received. Constructive receipt comes into play when an employee attempts to decline offered compensation in order to defer its receipt and thereby postpone tax. Under the constructive receipt rule, the employee is currently taxed in this situation. However, there is no analogous constructive payment rule. Thus, a cash-basis employer may not take a deduction for amounts that it is willing to pay, and that it may have debited on its corporate books, but that it has not actually paid.
Deferred compensation plans, however, may be used to modify these general rules. There are basically two kinds of deferred compensation plans: qualified plans (such as 401(k) plans) and nonqualified plans or arrangements (common in executive compensation packages). Qualified plans are tax favored in that an employer can take an immediate deduction even though the employee might not recognize the income for years. With a nonqualified plan, the employer cannot take its deduction until the employee recognizes the income.
Particularly relevant to employers at year end is an annual bonus rule. Bonuses paid within a brief period of time after the end of the employer’s tax year may be deducted in that tax year. Compensation is generally considered to be paid within a brief period of time if it is paid within two and one-half months of the end of the employer’s tax year.