Tax Bill Passes; Strategies for Musicians

Two weeks ago, we posted how musicians would lose their tax deductions under the proposed tax bill in the Senate. Let me again state that this applies to musicians who take itemized deductions on Schedule A against their W-2 income. For 1099 income or self-employment income reported on Schedule C, there will be little or no change in claiming those business expenses.

While there have been many last minute changes to the version passed in the Senate, I am sad to report that all of concerns which I have for my clients (and myself) have made it into the final version passed at 1:51 AM in Washington. The last step will be for a committee to reconcile the House and Senate bills into a final version to be signed by President Trump. They will begin work on the process on Monday.

The bill applies to your 2018 tax year, so your 2017 tax return (due April 15, 2018) is still under the old rules. Here is an overview of significant changes which will be relevant to musicians as you prepare your taxes.

  1. The Senate version keeps our current seven bracket structure, but lowers everyone’s marginal tax rate by a percent or two. The current brackets of 10, 15, 25, 28, 33, 35, and 39.6 percent will become 10, 12, 22, 24, 32, 34, and 38.5 percent. Additionally, the income levels for these brackets are increased at the high end. The income brackets will be linked to inflation, but the IRS will use chained CPI, which will likely have a lower growth rate than the current method of calculating CPI. Most significantly, the lower tax brackets have a sunset after 2025 at which time, the higher rates return. (Note that the corporate tax reduction from 35% to 20% is permanent. That will have to be a conversation for another day!)
  2. The Standard Deduction will increase from $6,350 single ($12,700 married) to $12,000 single ($24,000 married). However, the personal exemption of $4,050 is eliminated. So the net change is only from $10,400 to $12,000 single, or $20,800 to $24,000 for a married couple. Additionally, since the personal exemption applies to dependents, a family of four would actually see their standard deduction and personal exemptions drop from $28,900 to $24,000. Offsetting this is the child tax credit, which will increase from $1,000 to $2,000 in the Senate bill. The additional $1,000 increase under the Senate plan will be non-refundable, meaning it can reduce your tax liability to zero but will not be paid back.
  3. With a higher standard deduction, it will be more difficult for musicians to have enough itemized deductions to claim a tax deduction. As a reminder, itemized deductions currently include state and local income, sales, and property taxes, mortgage interest, charitable donations, and miscellaneous itemized deductions such as unreimbursed employee expenses.
  4. The Senate Bill eliminates the tax deduction for state and local income and sales taxes and caps the property tax deduction to $10,000. Starting in 2018, you will no longer be able to deduct home equity loans or interest on a second home. Another change: in order to receive the capital gains exclusion on the sale of your home, you must have had the house serve as your primary residence for 5 of the past 8 years. (An increase from 2 of the past 5 years.)
  5. Also eliminated are the Miscellaneous Itemized Deductions. This is on page 83 of the Senate Bill. This category includes unreimbursed employee expenses which are very significant to many musicians. You will no longer be able to claim the following as itemized deductions: tools and supplies, required clothing, home office expenses, mileage and travel, union dues or professional organization dues. Again, this applies to your expenses in generating W-2 income and not to 1099 income. It is essential to know how you are paid.
  6. The Senate version increased the above-the-line deduction for teacher classroom expenses from $250 to $500. This was eliminated in the House bill, to universal outrage. You do not have to itemize to take this deduction. Let’s hope this makes it into the final bill.
  7. There are many other changes to Alternative Minimum Tax, the Estate Tax, the individual mandate of the ACA, pass-through entities, and allowing 529 Plans to pay for private and religious schools for K-12. The student loan interest deduction is eliminated. We’re aware of these changes and others and are happy to discuss those on an individual basis.

While I cannot provide personal tax advice to non-clients, I can make some general recommendations you may want to consider for your own tax situation.

If you currently itemize, you may want to accelerate as many of your deductions into 2017. Before December 31, consider:

  • Paying your property taxes. Next year, you will be capped to $10,000. But even if you are below $10,000, only your itemized deductions above $24,000 will net you any additional tax savings versus the standard deduction. Will you have more than $24,000 in itemized deductions in 2018? It will be more difficult under the new rules.
  • If you have unreimbursed employee expenses, you might want to make those purchases in 2017: concert clothes, sheet music, tools and supplies, or musical instruments. Buy your plane tickets now for 2018 travel. Pay your dues and subscriptions. Remember that to count as a 2017 expense, you just have to put these on a credit card by December 31.
  • Making your charitable donations. If you are over age 70 1/2, you really have to look into doing a Qualified Charitable Donation from your IRA rather than trying to deduct a charitable donation.
  • Reviewing your sources of 1099 /  Schedule C income. If you have both W-2 and 1099 income, you will want to tie your expenses to your Schedule C business expenses instead of Schedule A itemized deductions starting in 2018. If you are primarily W-2, having some 1099 gigs may allow you to claim expenses which will otherwise be lost.

As a musician and the spouse of a musician, I have spent hundreds of hours in keeping receipts and detailed records of expenses which will no longer be tax deductible for us. It’s frustrating, and I believe our taxes will be higher in 2018 as a result. Being a musician is already a challenging way to make a living and this change will complicate things further for many of us.

Musicians want financial security and we can help you achieve those goals. If you’re ready to have a financial plan that is specific to your life and needs, please contact me and we can discuss how we work with musicians.

As an aside, I’d like to applaud Senator Bob Corker who was the sole Republican to vote against the Bill, because it will increase deficits by $1 trillion over the next decade. Corker – who is retiring and not running for re-election – was the only Senator who did not vote along party lines. The Bill passed 51-49. Interesting times, indeed.

George M. Cohan and Keeping Receipts

Happy Birthday today, July 3, to George M. Cohan, broadway composer of Yankee Doodle, You’re a Grand Old Flag, Over There, and countless other hit songs. In 1930, George found himself in hot water with the IRS. He lived a lavish life, spending cash, and deducting his expenses without receipts or evidence. The IRS challenged his tax return, and he took them to court. Remarkably, the Judge ruled in Cohan’s favor, establishing what today is called “The Cohan Rule”, and still legal precedent.

In the current IRS Guide for the Self-Employed, here’s what they say about The Cohan Rule:

The “Cohan Rule,” as it is known, originated in the decision of Cohan v. Commissioner, 39 F.2d 540 (2d Cir. 1930). In Cohan, the court made an exception to the rule requiring taxpayers to substantiate their business expenses. George M. Cohan, the famous entertainer, was disallowed a deduction for travel and business expenses because he was unable to substantiate any of the expenses. The judge wrote that “absolute certainty in such matters is usually impossible and is not necessary, the Board should make as close an approximation as it can.” In general, the Tax Court has interpreted this ruling to mean that in certain situations “best estimates” are acceptable in order to approximate expenses. The Cohan Rule is a discretionary standard and can be used to support a reasonable estimate of compliance requirements.

My advice: keep your receipts to document your business expenses. The Cohan Rule may be a valid defense in the Tax Court, but it would be much more pleasant if you didn’t end up in a legal battle with the IRS to begin with!

However, it may be helpful to know that the IRS does currently does not require you keep receipts for travel, meals, or entertainment if the expense is below $75. Instead, you may keep a log of such expenses, listing the date, amounts, location, purpose, and people involved in each expense. To be considered current, the IRS expects you to maintain the log weekly, so it’s not something you can just put down on paper a year after the expense occurs. While the IRS can accept a log of these expenses, they can also challenge a log and request other documentation, such as bank or credit card statements. All of which brings us back to the best practice of keeping your receipts in the first place.

Happy Birthday, George!