Bonus Depreciation for Self-Employed Musicians

We’ve written extensively about the loss of tax deductions for W-2 musicians under the new Tax Cuts and Jobs Act (TCJA). For self-employed musicians, however, there are some changes for 2018 which may benefit you if you are an Independent Contractor (1099), Sole Proprietor, or have formed an LLC or Corporation. Specifically, Section 179 has been expanded, which enables business owners to expense certain items (take an immediate tax deduction) instead of depreciating those purchases over a longer number of years.

Section 179 has existed for many years, but Congress has continually changed the rules, setting caps on how much you can deduct. At the start of 2017, you could only take bonus depreciation of up to 50%. Under the TCJA, for 2018, bonus depreciation is increased to 100%, the cap increased from $520,000 to $1 million, and now you can also purchase used equipment and receive bonus depreciation.

As a self-employed musician, Section 179 can help you deduct:

  • Equipment for the business, such as musical instruments, sound gear, or accessories
  • Office furniture and office equipment
  • Computers and off the shelf software
  • Business vehicles with a Gross Vehicle Weight Rating (GVWR) of over 6000 pounds

You cannot use Section 179 to deduct the costs of real estate (land, buildings, or improvements), for passenger cars or vehicles under 6000 GVWR, or for property used outside of the United States.

One of the most attractive benefits of Section 179 is the ability to deduct a vehicle for your business. Under Section 179, your first year deduction on a 6000 GVWR vehicle is limited to $25,000. You would first deduct this amount. Second, you are eligible for Bonus Depreciation, which used to be 50%, but now is 100%. That means that a self-employed musician can effectively deduct 100% of any qualifying vehicle in 2018, even if it is a $95,000 Range Rover.

To be deductible, you must use the vehicle for business at least 51% of the time. If you also use the vehicle for personal use, you may only deduct the portion of your expenses attributable to the percentage of business miles. The way to maximize your Section 179 deduction, is to use the vehicle 100% of the time for your business. If the IRS sees you claim 100% business miles on your tax return, you had better have another vehicle for personal use. You might use your spouse’s vehicle, or perhaps keep your old vehicle, for personal miles.

Don’t forget that commuting between home and the office are considered personal miles, not business miles. This works best if your primary office is at home and all of your concerts, gigs, or teaching, are self-employed or 1099. If you are self-employed, then any driving to rehearsals, performances, teaching, business meetings, auditions, etc., would be business miles.

The 6000 pound GVWR requirement doesn’t mean that the vehicle literally weighs over 6000 pounds, but has a total load rating (vehicle, passengers, cargo) over this weight. If a manufacturer lists the weight of the vehicle, that is not the GVWR; the GVWR is often 1500 or more pounds higher than the vehicle weight. Make sure you are looking specifically at the official GVWR. You can generally find the GVWR printed on a sticker in the driver’s door frame to confirm.

The list of qualifying vehicles varies from year to year and from model to model, but includes most full-size trucks, vans, and SUVs. Be careful – sometimes a 4WD model is over 6000, but the 2WD version is not. On one SUV, a model with 3rd row seating was over 6000, but without the extra seats, it was under 6000. An another SUV, 2016 models were over 6000 GVWR, but the new and lighter 2017 model was not.

There are many lists on the internet of which vehicles qualify; in addition to full-size pick-up trucks and vans, most large SUVs such as a Tahoe, Suburban, Expedition, or Escalade are also above 6000 GVWR. Several mini-vans qualify (Honda Odyssey, Dodge Grand Caravan), as do some more medium size SUVs (Jeep Grand Cherokee, Toyota 4Runner, Audi Q7, BMW X5, Ford Explorer). Again, be absolutely certain your vehicle will qualify before making a purchase. One of the nice things about the new law is that now you do not need to buy a new vehicle to qualify for bonus depreciation; used vehicles are also eligible.

Please discuss this with your tax preparer. You cannot deduct more than you earned, so don’t buy a $50,000 SUV if you only show $30,000 in net profits. Similarly, you might be able to now deduct a $100,000 violin, but if you don’t have $100,000 in self-employment income, you might be better off depreciating the instrument over several years. Lastly, consider these caveats:

  • You have a choice between taking the “standard mileage rate” of 54.5 cent/mile for 2018, or using the “actual cost” method. When you take the standard rate, that already includes depreciation. If you use Section 179 to purchase a vehicle, you are going to be locked in to using “actual costs” for the life of that vehicle. You cannot take the Section 179 deduction upfront and later switch the standard mileage rate.
  • If you are using “actual costs”, you can also deduct your other operating expenses such as gasoline, oil changes, maintenance/repairs, insurance, tolls, and parking, but will need to document your costs. Keep those receipts!
  • You may still be required to keep a mileage log (“contemporaneous record” in IRS terms) to prove you are using the vehicle for more than 50% business miles. If business use falls below 50%, you may be required to pay back some of the depreciation. Let’s just say that would be expensive and a headache.
  • If you depreciate 100% of the cost of the vehicle upfront, that will reduce your cost basis to zero. When you sell the vehicle, you may be creating a taxable gain.
  • You may be able to finance a vehicle and still claim an upfront deduction under the Section 179 rules.

Under the TCJA, these expansions to Section 179 are temporary through 2022; after that time, bonus depreciation will be phased back down from 100% to 0%. So if you want to buy an SUV or truck, you have a five-year window to take advantage of this full depreciation.

This tax deduction is especially effective if you have a banner year of high income and anticipate being in a higher tax bracket, because it will let you accelerate future depreciation on a vehicle into the current year, provided the vehicle is purchased and placed into service that year. Please remember that this section 179 deduction is available only to the self-employed and not to W-2 employees.

I feel I should point out that driving a large SUV or truck may not always be the most cost effective decision. I am not suggesting everyone rush out and buy a Suburban just to get a tax deduction. But if you were thinking about buying a vehicle this year, it can certainly help to know about this tax deduction. And it might influence which vehicle you choose to buy!

I see a lot of musicians who keep good records and find out after the fact which expenses they can deduct. But I don’t see a lot of musicians who are proactively making business decisions to maximize their economic benefit. If you’re going to need a vehicle to haul your drums, or harp, amps, or even just yourself, why not choose one where you can potentially deduct the full cost of the vehicle? With the high costs of operation, insurance, and depreciation of any vehicle, I think there are a lot of musicians who would benefit from an actual cost approach, rather than tracking miles using the standard mileage rate. If your musical life involves a lot of windshield time, know your options.

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!