NEWS & NOTES
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The Infinite Monkey Theorem holds that if you sit an infinite number of monkeys down at an infinite number of typewriters, eventually one of them will bang out the complete works of William Shakespeare — or, at the very least, Hamlet. But do you know what those monkeys are banging out when they're not banging out Shakespeare? The Internal Revenue Code, of course! (Sadly, the Infinite Monkey Theorem will probably never be more than just a theorem. For starters, can you imagine the smell in that room?)
The tax code may look like 70,000-odd pages of monkey-banging gibberish. But there really is a twisted logic to it. Think of it as a series of red lights and green lights. Red lights, like Section 1 (setting out rates), Section 1401 (imposing the net investment income tax), and Section 1432 (imposing employment taxes) make you stop and pay tax. Green lights, like Section 105 (making employer health benefits tax-free), Section 162 (making "ordinary and necessary" business expenses deductible), and Section 170 (making charitable gifts deductible) let you go without paying tax.
Last year's Tax Cuts and Jobs Act added a new red light. Specifically, it capped deductions for state and local tax deductions at $10,000 per year. That's an obvious blow to the states that reach the deepest into their residents' pockets. In New York, for example, one-third of taxpayers claimed the deduction, averaging more than $20,000. In Alabama, just one-fourth claimed it, averaging just $6,000.
But the new limit hits taxpayers all over the country. Microsoft founder Bill Gates lives in Seattle, where there's no state income tax. (Washington has one of the highest sales taxes in the country.) But last year, he paid $1,024,292.55 in property tax on his 66,000-square-foot mansion, "Xanadu 2.0." It used to be that Uncle Sam picked up 39.6% of that bill. Now Gates has to cover it all himself.
Of course, human nature being what it is, we don't always want to stop at those red lights. So society has developed an entire profession, called "the law," dedicated to finding ways around them. (Even Pope Francis, when he announced the church's opposition to capital punishment, left exceptions for people who drive the speed limit in the left-hand lane or bring Popeye's fried chicken on an airplane.)
So it shouldn't surprise you to learn that officials in some states are working to let residents turn right on that red light. New York and New Jersey have set up so-called "charitable" funds to pay for essential services like schools, then authorized dollar-for-dollar credits against their own taxes for contributions to those funds. Just like magic, your state tax bill transforms into a charitable contribution, not subject to the new limit. (We think Harry Potter would call this spell a "sketchius loopholius.")
Of course, our friends back in the Home Office in Washington aren't stupid. Last week, the Treasury Department issued proposed regulations effectively eliminating charitable deductions for gifts tied to state tax credits. But will that be the end of the story? Not if the states have their way, and they're sure to take the Treasury to court. Round and round it goes . . . and now you know why tax lawyers drive Jaguars!
Bottom line? Most tax professionals focus on the red lights. That's important, because blowing through them gets you in trouble. But that's also where most tax pros stop. We're different. We focus on finding the green lights that can save you thousands. So call us when you're ready to go, and we'll help take your foot off the brake!
Parenting is full of all sorts of milestones. Some of them are precious, like your child's first steps, their first words, and their first day of school. Some of them are less welcome, like a first broken bone, or a visit from the law. But there's one milestone that takes some parents by surprise, and that's the day they realize they can't help their kid with math homework anymore. This is especially jarring when the kids come home insisting their teacher taught them 2+2=5. The "new" math can't be that different from the "old" math? It's still just math, right?
Last week, a California lawsuit involving Monsanto Corporation's flagship product, Roundup weed killer, reveals how the new math of last year's tax law changes the rules. A San Francisco-area school groundskeeper named Dewayne Johnson, who sprayed up to 150 gallons of the pesticide at a time, sued Monsanto, claiming it gave him cancer. The jury agreed and awarded him $289 million, including $39 million in compensatory damages and $250 million in punitive damages.
Unfortunately for Johnson, he's not going to get to keep anywhere near that whole $289 million. He's going to run into some new math and wonder if maybe 2+2 doesn't somehow equal just one.
Here's the first problem: legal fees. Lots of attorneys go to law school because there's no math. But there's one calculation any ambulance chaser can do in his sleep, and that's take a third off the top. (The next time you meet one at a party, throw out an 11-digit prime number, and be amazed how fast you get back a response. Try it, it's fun!) We'll assume for this discussion that Johnson's lawyers take 40% in fees and expenses, or $115.6 million. That leaves him with $23.4 million net compensatory damages and $150 million in punitives.
That leads to the second problem: taxes. Compensatory damages are tax-free, so Johnson keeps his full $23.4 million there. And under the "old math," he could deduct the remaining $100 million in legal fees before paying tax on his $250 million in punitive damages. He'll be in the top 37% tax rate, meaning $55.5 million goes Uncle Sam. As a California resident, another $18 million goes to Sacramento. That leaves $95 million. That's a lot less than $289 million, of course. But it's still a pretty nice result, although we're guessing Johnson would rather get to "live" than "be rich."
Now here's where the "new math" upends those numbers. Last year's Tax Cuts and Jobs Act eliminates the deduction for legal fees related to punitive damages. So now Johnson pays the same $100 million to his lawyers, but still pays tax on it. That launches his tax bill up to $122.5 million and leaves him with just $50.9 million — less than 18% of the original award!
Of course, the IRS is delighted. They get to collect tax on that $100 million in legal fees for the punitive damages twice: once from Johnson who wins them and again from the lawyers who earn them. What's not to like from their perspective?
Now finally, here's the good part, at least for you. You don't have to know the first thing about new math to pay less tax. Our tax planning service gives you a pesticide that eliminates wasted taxes, with no unpleasant side effects. So call us when you're ready to save, and we'll see how "green" your garden grows!
The best marriages, so they say, age like fine wine. They gain richness, and color, and depth. They ripen and mellow as experience piles upon experience, bonding the couple and deepening the intimacy as husband and wife (Or Husband and Husband or Wife and Wife - this stuff applies to us now too you know) stroll hand-in-hand through the majestic tapestry of life. (Cue the rainbows, and unicorns, and George Harrison lyrics.)
Remy and Lara Trafelet didn't have that kind of marriage. Their union aged more like milk. No, scratch that. Imagine strapping a toddler into his car seat to go see Grandma on a hot summer day. You hand him a sippy cup of milk to keep him pacified for the drive. Halfway there, he drops the cup and it rolls under the front seat — but you forget it's there. Three weeks later, when you can't ignore the smell, you find the results. What is it? Some mutant strain of . . . cottage cheese, maybe? Something even worse? That's what happened to Remy and Lara's marriage.
Ordinarily, the IRS wouldn't care about a couple of feuding spouses. But Remy is one of Wall Street's fatter cats, a hedge fund manager who did well enough before the recession to treat 100 of his employees to a long weekend at Venice's five-star Hotel Bauer. He's struggled a bit since then but he's still worth $200 million or so. That's enough to give the IRS a stake in the fight — although maybe not what you think.
From the outside, the Trafelets lived an enviable life. They split their days between a $15 million Park Avenue apartment, a $10 million Long Island house, a grouse-hunting estate in Scotland, a quail-hunting estate in Georgia, and two morehouses. (Seriously, did they really shoot so many birds they needed two estates for it?) They supported a personal trainer, a chauffeur, a private chef, and a 16-seat jet. Apparently, though, all that money failed to buy happiness, and the couple filed for divorce in 2015.
Lara may not have loved her husband anymore. But she still loved the money. So, she hired a squad of accounting ninjas to "kick him between his legs and bring him to his knees." And the ninjas were happy to oblige, working "around the clock" to sort through Remy's "multi-layered complex web of business entities." They even set up a dedicated conference area called the "War Room" for Lara to use. That effort helped convince a judge to bump her interim alimony from $17,000 to $45,000 per month.
But financial samurai don't come cheap, and when they sent Lara a bill for $4.2 million, she freaked. Now she's fighting them in court, too! (Honestly, it sounds like it sucks to be Lara.) Here's where our friends at the IRS come in. The good news is, legal fees for arranging alimony are deductible. So Lara should be able to write off at least part of her bill. The bad news is, the rules are about to change, and starting in January, alimony won't figure into taxes anymore. So she better hope she can wrap things up fast!
Now, lots of us have a painful breakup or two under our belt. But we've never had to put our accountants' kids through college to sort it out!
Fortunately, not all accounting ninjas bill millions. Take us, for example. We can help make sure you aren't paying more tax than you legally owe. And we promise not to bill you seven figures unless we save you millions more. So call us when you're tired of overpaying, and we'll even let you decide how to share it with your spouse!
When Mark Zuckerberg was 19 years old, he launched Facebook from his Harvard University dorm room. (Some cynics might say "stole" is a better word than "launched," but who wants to start that debate?) Since then, he's made Facebook one of the internet's most valuable brands. And as he's done it, his net worth has climbed as high as $81.6 billion, making him the world's third-wealthiest man behind Amazon founder Jeff Bezos and Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates.
At least, that was the case until July 25. That day, just after the market closed, Facebook released its second-quarter earnings. Revenue was up — but not as much as investors had hoped. When the market opened the next morning, investors unfriended the stock big-time. Zuckerberg saw $16.8 billion of his stash evaporate in the first hour of trading. (Shareholders as a group lost $120 billion.) That's roughly the total salaries of all 1,696 players in the National Football League. (Not a football fan? It's also enough to buy the Yankees, Dodgers, Cubs, Giants, and Red Sox combined.)
So at this point, Zuckerberg is hardly even rich anymore. But while he and his wife are tightening their belts, scrounging for change in the couch cushions, and debating whether to keep the HBO, we got to wondering what our friends at the IRS think of the news. The answer, not surprisingly: "it's complicated."
Zuckerberg owes tax on his regular income as soon as he earns it. But his salary is just a dollar a year, which doesn't leave much for Uncle Sam. Of course, he also gets some nice perks. Facebook spent $7.3 million on Zuckerberg's security last year. (Fortune 500 companies can't just hire a bunch of knuckle-dragging goons to trail their CEOs. Top bodyguards, who come from federal agencies like the State Department or FBI, command six-figure salaries, and Facebook's security chief served on former Vice-President Joe Biden's Secret Service detail.) That protection is taxable, too.
But the real action, for a tech entrepreneur like Zuckerberg, is in the stock. Facebook announced last September that Zuckerberg plans to sell 35 to 75 million shares — worth between $6 billion and $12.5 billion — to finance his charitable limited liability company. He'll owe tax on those sales, but he'll get corresponding deductions for much of the cash he donates. In fact, last year's Tax Cuts and Jobs Act made those gifts even more valuable, raising the deduction limit from 50% to 60% of his adjusted gross income.
The IRS gets another whack at the rest of Zuckerberg's stock at his death. Considering he's just 34, that probably won't be for a while. But at that point, at least under current law, they'll download 40% of his taxable estate over $11.18 million. Now, unless Facebook implodes like MySpace, Zuckerberg should still be worth billions at his death. But — Zuckerberg and his wife have announced plans to leave 99% of their fortune to charity. Charitable bequests aren't subject to that 40% tax, which leaves the IRS scrounging for crumbs from whatever table scraps the pair leave for their kids.
The bottom line here is that the IRS had no reason to regret Zuckerberg's terrible, horrible, no good, very bad day, because his smart tax-planning means they wouldn't have gotten into a relationship with the stock anyway. The good news for you is that you can put the same sort of planning to work for yourself. And you don't even have to lose $16 billion in a day to do it! Just direct-message us when you're tired of paying more than you have to. We're sure you'll "like" the savings!
Classic rock fans celebrated a milestone birthday on July 26: Rolling Stones front man and rock legend Mick Jagger turned 75! If that doesn't make you feel old, try these on for size: Aerosmith's Steven Tyler is old enough to collect maximum Social Security benefits. Cyndi Lauper still just wants to have fun, but now she's on Medicare. And 80s icon Madonna can finally take money from her IRA without paying a 10% penalty on early withdrawals.
In 1969, Jagger and the Stones scored one of their biggest hits with "Gimme Shelter," a bleak, brooding meditation on the war and violence that characterized the late 60s. But did you know that "Gimme Shelter" describes the band's philosophy on taxes, too?
The Stones' troubles with taxes go back nearly as far as their troubles with the police. Starting in 1968, British authorities had accused the bandmates of taking a certain laissez-faire attitude to controlled substances laws. Later, reports surfaced that they had taken a similarly lax approach to tax laws, too. As Jagger recalls, "So after working for eight years I discovered at the end that nobody had ever paid my taxes and I owed a fortune. So then you have to leave the country. So I said &@#& it, and left the country."
At that point, guitarist Keith Richards paid $2,500/month for the 16-room Belle Époque-style Villa Nellcôte overlooking the Mediterranean on the French Côte D'Azur. (He should have bought it — in 2005, a Russian oligarch dropped $128 million for the place.) There, the band hosted a summer of legendary debauchery: drinking, smoking, snorting, and injecting anything that didn't move. Somehow along the way, they also managed to record Exile on Main Street in a makeshift basement studio they had soundproofed with cheap carpet and (probably) more drugs.
Running from the law has a wonderful way of concentrating the mind, and the Stones vowed not to repeat their financial mistakes. (The drugs were another story.) Jagger put his London School of Economics education to work, and the band started jamming with some top-notch tax planners. They eventually set up a series of Dutch corporations and trusts which helped them pay just 1.6% in tax over the last 20-odd years. More recently, they established a pair of private Dutch foundations to avoid estate taxes at their deaths.
"Mick would come and visit me occasionally in Switzerland and talk about 'economic restructuring,'" Richards wrote in his 2010 autobiography, Life. "We're sitting around half the time talking about tax lawyers! The intricacies of Dutch tax law vis-à-vis the English tax law and the French tax law. All of these tax thieves were snapping at our heels . . . Mick picked up the slack; I picked up the smack." (It's worth mentioning that Richards — now heroin-free for 40 years — makes his home in decidedly unglamorous, but, relatively speaking, low-taxed Connecticut.)
As for us, we may not be able to make beautiful music. But our tax planning rocks. And we think paying less beats fleeing the country. So call us for when you're ready to pay less and see how much you're wasting right now. We're here for you, and your bandmates too!
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