April 15 hasn't always been the national exercise in self-flagellation that it is today. Up until the 1940s, you could just waltz into your local IRS office and they would do your taxes for you. But those days have long since passed. You're still welcome to do it yourself, if you need more stress in your life. But how will you know if you're paying too much? Even software like TurboTax can't guarantee you'll get it right. If you don't know how to use it, the program just helps you make the same expensive mistakes faster than when you made them with paper and pencils.
If you're like most Americans, you just throw up your hands and call a pro. That begs a new question: who to call? Certified Public Accountants and Enrolled Agents have traditionally dominated the field. But up until 2010, anyone with a pencil could call himself a tax preparer. (Most of them use computers now — but, surprisingly, not all. Hey, some people still carry flip phones, too.) That seems like an obvious vacuum in today's regulatory environment, considering that in most places, you need a license just to catch a fish. And we all know bureaucracy abhors a vacuum.
In 2009, the IRS decided to do something. After a series of public forums and comments, they launched the Registered Tax Return Preparer (RTRP) program. The new rules required preparers to: 1) sign up for a Preparer Tax Identification Number, 2) pass a 2.5 hour test, and 3) complete 15 hours of continuing education per year. Naturally, the IRS charged a fee for the program, which started at $64.25 per year. And they based their authority to do it all on an obscure 1884 law regulating representatives of civil war soldiers looking for compensation for dead horses.
Everyone was happy with the RTRP, except the people subject to the new rules (and maybe those long-dead horses). Preparers felt like they were being forced to take a test to prove they could do something they had done, in some cases, for decades. So three of them sued to shut down the program. And they won — the court agreed that the 1884 law didn't give the IRS authority to regulate an industry that didn't even exist when it was passed. (Oops.)
The IRS suspended the RTRP program. But they kept charging the PTIN fees, even though the program the fees were supposed to finance had ended. So, one year later, a different group of preparers filed another suit to recover those fees.
Once again, the court ruled in their favor. This June, the court decided that PTINs aren't a "service or thing of value" justifying a fee. The IRS can't charge fees for PTINs, "because this would be equivalent to imposing a regulatory licensing scheme and the IRS does not have such regulatory authority." (Don't hold your breath waiting for Congress to give it to them.) And yes, the IRS has to give back all the PTIN fees they've collected. That was $175 million when the plaintiffs filed their complaint; but it could be as high as $300 million now.
Chalk one up for the good guys, right? Well, sure. But here's the real lesson: most tax preparers, credentialed or not, focus on putting the "right" numbers in the "right" boxes on the "right" forms. They do a great job of telling you how much you owe — but nothing about how to pay less. And that has everything to do with attitude, not credentials. So call us when you're ready to save — and remember, we're here for your family, friends, and colleagues, too!
Every year, PNC Bank publishes their "Christmas Price Index" to track the cost of the Twelve Days of Christmas. For 2017, it's a hefty $157,558. (And you thought your holiday spending was out of control!) The index may not be completely accurate — for example, the ten lords-a-leaping are valued using the cost of male ballet dancers, rather than actual lords, and the eight maids-a-milking don't include eight actual cows. But still, it got us wondering . . . what sort of taxes are we looking at on the whole affair?
Your kids and grandkids have finally finished eating their Halloween candy, which means that the real holidays are right around the corner. But before you sit down to open presents, December 16th marked the 244th anniversary of an important holiday in tax history — a pop-up costume ball in Boston Harbor called the Boston Tea Party.
From 1698 through 1767, Britain's Parliament passed a series of laws giving the East India Company a monopoly on the British tea trade, forcing the colonies to buy their tea from British wholesalers, and slapping hefty taxes on it all. But Dutch traders, who paid no tax, could sell their tea for less, costing the East India Company a fortune. (If you remember Miami Vice in the 1980s, try picturing a colonial-era Crockett and Tubbs, dressed in fly white buckskins, chasing Dutch bootleggers in a sleek Italian brigantine.)
In 1767, Parliament passed the Indemnity Act to lower the tax on tea to compete with the Dutch. (Earl Gray was just three years old, so he didn't vote.) But they needed a "payfor" to make up the lost revenue, so they brewed up the Townshend Acts taxing colonial imports, including tea. (Hmmmm . . . sounds like the sort of horse-trading today's Congress is up to right now with the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act.) Five years later, the Indemnity Act expired, and everyone was back where they started. (Sort of like what happened in 2013 when the Bush tax cuts expired . . . . )
The Tea Act of 1773 brought things to a head. The new law actually lowered the price of tea to undercut the smugglers. But the colonists still hated Parliament taxing them without their consent. They hated how England used those taxes to pay colonial governors and judges, thus insulating them from local influence. And that's where things stood in November, 1773, as the tea ship Dartmouth sailed into a Boston Harbor steeped in resentment and controversy.
British law required the shipper to unload and pay the tax within 20 days. But colonists, who gathered by the thousands, were determined to prevent that. On the night of December 16, the final deadline, a group of 30 to 130 of them boarded the Dartmouth and two more ships. A few of them sported elaborate Mohawk warrior costumes to hide their faces and show their loyalty to American identity. They spent three hours dumping 342 chests of tea into the water. The next day, future President John Adams wrote in his diary:
"There is a Dignity, a Majesty, a Sublimity, in this last Effort of the Patriots, that I greatly admire . . . . This Destruction of the Tea is so bold, so daring, so firm, intrepid and inflexible, and it must have so important Consequences, and so lasting, that I cant but consider it as an Epocha in History."
The Tea Party set all sorts of consequences in motion besides the obvious "American Revolution" thing. (Does that remind you of Taylor Swift's song, "We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together"?) If you're a coffee drinker, for example, you should know that coffee first became popular here as an alternative to "unpatriotic" tea. (Sort of like renaming french fries "freedom fries" during the Second Iraq War . . . . )
244 years later, we still resent paying taxes we don't have to pay. The good news is, you don't have to don a Mohawk headdress and row out into the middle of the harbor for three hours of creative vandalism to pay less. You just need a plan. So call us when you're ready to save, and let us give you something to celebrate!
Two hundred and forty one years ago, we declared our independence from Mother England — over taxes, of course. But here on our side of the pond, we've never completely lost our affection for all things British. We applauded as the Queen celebrated her 70th wedding anniversary. Netflix fans who just finished binge-watching Stranger Things are eagerly awaiting Season Two of The Crown. And now we've learned that Prince Harry and his longtime girlfriend, actress Meghan Markle, are getting married in May.
Now, Harry may be just fifth in line for the throne, and about to be bumped down to sixth when Princess Kate gives birth to her third child next spring. But a royal wedding is still a Very Big Deal. There's going to be lots of work to keep the couple knackered out for months to come. That includes a guest list, a gown, and flowers. And of course there will tax questions, too.
Here's the issue: Markle isn't a Brit. She's a Yank. Buckingham Palace has already announced that Markle will become a British citizen, which involves passing a test with questions like "What did the Statute of Rhuddlan in 1284 lay the basis for?" and, "Who or what is Vindolanda"? But that transition will certainly complicate her finances, and possibly the rest of the royal family's, whether she says cheerio to her American citizenship or not.
Giving up her U.S. passport would be a simple but possibly pricey proposition. There's no magic to it: you make an appointment at the nearest embassy, sign some forms, and take an Oath of Renunciation. There's a $2,350 fee to process the paperwork, but that's low enough that she could probably add it to her wedding registry and count on a generous Member of Parliament, or maybe a lesser Marchioness, pick it up for her.
The real problem with expatriating is the bloody exit tax. If your net worth is over $2 million, or your average annual income for the five years before you leave tops $162,000, you'll owe tax on any appreciated assets you own, calculated as if you had sold them on the day you leave. That could make it frightfully expensive to move into a palace!
Things get more complicated if Markle keeps her U.S. citizenship. She'll still owe U.S. tax on her worldwide income. And she can't hide foreign holdings from the IRS. If she keeps more than $300,000 in assets abroad, she'll have to file Form 8938 reporting them. (And, really, what's the point of being "Her Royal Highness Princess Henry of Wales" if she's not going to have more than $300,000 in assets?)
If Her Royal Yankee Highness hold anything jointly with Harry, those U.S. filings could reveal assets the Crown prefers keeping confidential. We know that Harry inherited half of his mother, Princess Diana's £21.5 million estate (roughly $28.5 million), and he shares a £3.5 million allowance with his brother. But the royals work hard to keep the bulk of their finances private. The recent "Paradise Papers" leak revealed that Harry's grandmum the Queen benefits from investments the Duchy of Lancaster holds in the Cayman Islands and Bermuda.
You probably thought that marrying a royal would solve your financial problems, not create new ones. But life is full of surprises, even for princesses. So let us propose a jolly good solution: a plan for paying the legal minimum, no matter who you marry! Call us when you're ready to save, and take a few quid to treat the queen to a cuppa!
In today's new Gilded Age, Americans are constantly vying to one-up each other. You show up at your high-school reunion in a new Mercedes E-Class; then your classmate pulls up in a Maserati Quattroporte. (Some would call it a $50,000 car with a $50,000 hood ornament, but still, it's a Maserati.) You show off a picture of your 42-foot sloop; your neighbor whips out his phone to show off his 62-foot schooner. You show up in Davos in your new GII; your business rival flies in on a GIV. When will it all end?
The IRS isn't generally interested in financing your conspicuous consumption. (Not unless you drive that Maserati to work, in which case, trust us, you'll want to choose the "actual expense" method for calculating your deduction.) But there's a new toy that some of capitalism's winners are showing off, and this one comes with some beautiful tax breaks. We're talking, of course, about a private art museum.
Rich art collectors have always taken fat tax breaks for donating art. The Association of Art Museum Directors estimates that 90% of the collections held by major museums were gifted by individual donors. This is an especially good way to avoid tax on capital gains. Let's say you bought a minor Cezanne or an early de Kooning 30 years ago for $100,000. Now the painting is worth $3 million. If you give it to your local art museum, you can deduct the full $3 million fair market value!
Of course, there are rules in place to frame the deduction to make sure you don't abuse the privilege. If the value is more than $5,000, you'll need a qualified appraisal. Your deduction is limited to 50% of your adjusted gross income, although you can carry forward any excess for up to five years if you can't use it all in a single brushstroke. And the IRS maintains an Art Advisory Board to review appraisals.
But museums can't always give your donation the same care and attention you would give it. New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art includes over two million pieces. It's easy to imagine your donation winding up somewhere back in storage, like the Ark of the Covenant in the last scene of Raiders of the Lost Ark. That's where the private museum comes in. There's really not much to it. Just set up a private foundation to hold the collection and operate the facility, then stuff it full with your art. Now you've got your deduction and control over your collection.
Who sets up one of these private museums? Peter Brant Jr. is the son of a billionaire paper magnate who married supermodel Stephanie Seymour. In 2010, he opened the Brant Foundation Art Center, conveniently down the street from his Greenwich estate and next door to his polo club. In Potomac, MD, Mitchell Rales, founder of the Danaher Corporation, opened the Glenstone Museum across the duck pond from his house.
Plenty of public museums, including New York's Frick Museum, Philadelphia's Barnes Foundation, and Washington's Phillips Museum all started life as private collections. But critics have argued that, while the new breed of private museum meets the letter of the law, it may not always meet the spirit.
We realize your art collection might not include more than the dogs playing poker hiding in your basement rec room. But that doesn't mean you can't canvass the tax code for the same tax-planning strategies that major collectors use to structure their private museums. Just call us for a plan, and we'll see if we can make beautiful art with your finances.