2018 Year End Tax Considerations

The Biggest Change Since 1986—The Tax Cuts and Jobs Act


This past year was the first time in a long time that individuals, businesses, and even tax specific professionals all had to adapt and reconsider how they have been doing business. The Tax Cuts and Jobs Act of 2018 (the “TCJA”), signed into law by President Donald Trump, caused a large splash in the business and tax communities. The TCJA has required businesses and individuals alike to revisit and reexamine the strategies to minimize their federal and state tax exposure. While politicians claimed that they would pass a new set of tax legislation that would make it so easy that you could file your taxes via a post-card . . . that was far from the truth. In fact, the law has gotten more complex, and hopefully we can shed some light on these new provisions–


Notable Changes on the Individual Level


Standard Deduction and Personal Exemption


In the past, people with enough qualifying below-the-line-deductions such as unreimbursed employee expenses, tax preparation fees, medical expenses, and investment fees had to go through a thorough analysis of whether they would elect to itemize on their personal return or go with the standard deduction that all taxpayers are allowed. Additionally, taxpayers were entitled to a $4,000 deduction for themselves, their spouse, and their qualifying dependents—which put taxpayers with a large family at an advantage by claiming so many exemptions on their personal return. Well, the TCJA changed this– Congress eliminated the personal exemption and changed the standard deduction to provide taxpayers with a large enough standard deduction so that taxpayers no longer have to run through this thorough analysis. Congress did this by doubling the standard deduction and eliminating a lot of itemized deductions such as a few of those mentioned above—unreimbursed employees expenses, tax preparation fees, investment expenses, etc. The results of this change are just starting to roll in with the arrival of the 2018 tax season. Below are the updated standard deduction amounts for 2018–


Single/Married Filing Separately $12,000
Married Filing Jointly/Surviving Spouse $24,000
Head of Household $18,000


Changes to the Itemized Deduction


As mentioned above, the TCJA also made changes to the itemized deductions that taxpayers have been used to taking on their personal returns. The changes to the itemized deduction regime were also meant to further Congress’s intent to reduce the complexity of the US tax system. By limiting the amount of itemized deductions, the majority of US taxpayers are now almost required to take the doubled standard deduction. The biggest changes to itemized deductions once or still allowed are outlined below–


  • State and Local Real Estate Taxes: Prior to the recent tax reform, there was no limitation on the amount of state and local real estate that taxpayers could claim as an itemized deduction. This benefit has now been capped to an $10,000 itemized deduction for married filing jointly taxpayers, and $5,000 for those taxpayer filing single.
  • Primary Residence Mortgage Interest: Prior to the tax reform, taxpayers could deduct as an itemized deductions interest paid on primary residence mortgage debt equal to $1 million or less. However, this benefit was altered so that taxpayers can now only deduct interest on mortgage debt incurred after December 15, 2017 totaling $750,000 or less
  • Home Equity Loans Interest: Prior to the reform, homeowners were able to deduct interest paid on home equity loans equal to $100,000 or less. However, this deduction was completely eliminated under the recent reform.
  • Miscellaneous Itemized Deductions: Prior to the passage of the recent tax reform, taxpayers were able to take as itemized deductions investment expenses, professional service and tax preparation fees, as well as unreimbursed business expenses. However, the applicability of this provision was eliminated through the end of 2025.


Notable Changes on the Business Level


The New Interest Deduction Limitation


One of the most notable changes made under the TCJA is the change to a business’s ability to deduct interest expenses. While this limitation had existed in the tax law prior to the passage of the TCJA, it was only limited to businesses very extremely leveraged. However, as part of the TCJA, Congress changed this provision to combat perceived abuse through companies that incurred high amounts of interest expense. Specifically, the deduction of interest expense is now limited to the business interest income of the taxpayer, plus 30% of the business’s earnings before income, taxes, depreciation and amortization (i.e. EBITDA). Any interest paid in excess of the limit described is carried forward to the next taxable year, where it can be deducted as long as the taxpayer is under the limit. Additionally, any disallowed interest can be carried forward indefinitely until either (1) it can be deducted by the taxpayer in a tax year or (2) until the sale of the business where all such carried forward interest expenses may be deducted.


While the new interest deduction limitation could potentially impact those businesses who have traditionally used leverage as part of their normal operations, not all should fear. In fact, Congress did provide some relief by only applying this provision to businesses with average gross receipts of $25 million of more over the prior three tax years. Thus, those smaller businesses who are depend on their initial leverage shouldn’t have to worry—it’s only those large businesses who can meet this threshold.


199A—The New Pass-through Deduction


199A—probably one of the most high profile and complex additions to US tax law under the TCJA. This provision provides a 20% deduction on the income passed through to owners of certain qualifying businesses. This deduction was provided in order to bring the effective tax rate on income generated by pass-through entities competitive with the new, lower 21% corporate tax rate.  If an owner is able to obtain the 20% deduction on all of the income passed through to them, the owner will pay an approximate ~27% effective tax rate on such income. However, this provision is highly complex and not all types of income is eligible for the deduction.


There are a lot of factors that determine how large the deduction will be on income passed through to an business owner—the type of business activity leading to the income, the amount of wages paid to employees, as well as the amount of qualifying business property owned. Without diving too deeply into all of the nuances and complexities present in this new deduction, only certain types of income qualify. The code section providing this new deduction expressly prohibits certain type of income from eligibility—this includes income generated by professionals in the fields of health, law, accounting, actuarial science, performing arts, consulting, athletics, financial services, brokerage services or any trade or business where the principal asset of such trade or business is the reputation or skill of one or more of its employees or owners, as narrowly defined in proposed regulations.


Meal and Entertainment Expenses

Prior to the TCJA, Congress generally allowed a 50% deduction for meal and entertainment expenses incurred by businesses. However, the TCJA spun this deduction on its head—the TCJA no longer allows deduction for (1) entertainment activities even if it is directly related to the conduct of the taxpayer’s business, (2) membership dues for any club organized for business, pleasure, or other social purposes, and (3) any deduction for facilities used in connection with the aforementioned purposes.


The TCJA was not all bad news for businesses–While the the deductibility of meal and entertainment expenses has been greatly limited, Congress has still allowed for a 50% deduction for meals that are provided or consumed in connection with a taxpayer’s trade or business. This 50% deduction limitation is also now applicable to meals that used to be fully deductible under the tax code prior to the recent reform. Additionally, after 2025, these expenses incurred for these meals will no longer be deductible.


Year End Tax Planning Considerations


Even though there were a number of sweeping changes to the tax code, there are strategies that taxpayers should consider to lower their taxable income for 2018—


Maximizing Contributions to IRAs, 401(k) plans, 403(b) plans, SEP plans, etc.


Normal IRA, 401(k), 403(b), SEP and other qualifying plans enable taxpayers to receive a deduction for the portion of earnings that the taxpayer contributes these plans. These contributions allow a taxpayer to reduce their taxable income for the year, as well as increase the value of other deductions since they reduce a taxpayer’s adjusted gross income. Additionally, the contributions in these plans are allowed to grow tax-free until distributions are taken from them at a later date. The general limitations on the deduction provided for a taxpayer’s contribution to these qualifying plans are outlined below, however, there are a number of restrictions on the deductibility of these contributions so please consult your tax advisor before doing so.


Type of Plan 2018 Contribution Limits
IRA $5,500
401(k) and 403(b) Plans $18,500
SEP Plans $55,000


Engaging in Like Kind Exchanges


A taxpayer may defer capital gains realized on the sale of real-property if, within a set time limit, the investor reinvests those capital gains into another like-kind parcel of real property that is used in a trade or business. Prior to the recent reform, this deferral strategy was available for both personal and real property, however, the recent reform has limited this benefit to gains realized on the sale of real property.


Employing a strategy on the exchange of like-kind real property allows an owner of highly appreciated real property to indefinitely defer the gain that they would normally be required to recognize on the sale of real property. Theoretically, an owner of real property can continue to employ this strategy all the way through death—if done correctly, the taxpayer’s heirs will take the piece of real property with a stepped-up tax basis and will never be required to pay tax on the appreciation of the property. However, as a word of warning, this is a strategy that is easier said than done. There are many stringent requirements around completing a successful like-kind exchange.


Additionally, a taxpayer should not engage in a like-kind exchange of real property when its fair market value is less than the taxpayer’s tax basis in the property. In this scenario, the taxpayer should sell the property and recognize the loss. If a taxpayer decides to not sell the property in this scenario but rather engages in a like-kind exchange, the taxpayer does not get the benefit of the potential loss as it will be deferred.


Investing Capital Gains into Opportunity Zone Investments


Capital gains recognized by a taxpayer can be deferred though December 31, 2026 if they invest those capital gains into a qualified opportunity zone fund within 180-days of recognizing the gain. Additionally, the taxpayer who invests their capital gains into a qualified opportunity fund obtains incremental tax benefits determined by the number of years they hold their investment in the fund—


  • If an investor holds their capital gains in the qualifying fund for five years, then 10% of the original capital gain invested will not be subject to tax when the deferral period ends;
  • If an investor holds their capital gains in the qualifying fund for a total of seven years, then an additional 5% of the original capital gain will not be subject to tax when the deferral period ends; and
  • If an investor holds their capital gains in the qualifying fund for ten or more years, any appreciation on the capital gains invested in the fund when the taxpayer later sells their interest will not be subject to tax.


The benefits provided by this opportunity zone program are very unique as they also allows taxpayers to invest their capital gains into businesses who are located and operate in these designated zones and qualify for the benefits listed above. This is different from the like-kind exchange program discussed earlier as those capital gains only qualify for the like-kind exchange program if they arose from the sale of real property and are re-invested back into real property. Under the opportunity zone program, a taxpayer can take capital gains from the sale of any property (i.e. stocks, property held for investment such as an expensive painting, real property, etc.) and have them qualify for the benefits provided under the program whether or not they reinvest them back into like-kind property.


An issue many taxpayers face is that they do not know amount of capital gains they recognized throughout the year until they receive their K-1s from partnerships, or other funds or vehicles they are invested in. Additionally, many of these taxpayers find out about such capital gains only after the 180-day period to reinvest them into a qualified opportunity fund has passed. However, the government addressed this problem—in the recently released guidance on the opportunity zone legislation, the government is allowing taxpayers, who receive capital gains from pass-through entities,  an 180-day reinvestment period beginning the day that the underlying pass-through entity’s tax year ends. For example, if a taxpayer is invested in a calendar year partnership that incurs capital gains for the year, and the taxpayer does not find out about these gains until after year end, the guidance allows the taxpayer 180-days beginning on January 1 of the next year to reinvest such gains into a qualified opportunity fund and qualify for all of the benefits provided.


Want to Learn More on These Topics?


If you have any questions on the above topics and how they may apply to you, contact Alton.


Want to find more on tax reform or these topics? Well follow any of the links below:

Internal Revenue Service Site for Tax Reform 

IRS Tax Reform Tax Tip 2019-28; Tax reform brought significant changes to itemized deductions

Retirement Topics – Contributions 

Tax reform creates opportunity zone tax incentive 

Like-kind exchanges now limited to real property 

March 1, 2019

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