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Is The Pass-Through For You? A Primer On The New Deduction For Freelancers

February 1, 2019

Tax season is never a dull moment for freelancers. And this year brings a particularly notable new wrinkle: the 20 percent pass-through deduction for small businesses that was included in the 2017 tax reform bill. Like many tax rules, this deduction is a little more complex than it sounds at first. So before you get your hopes up, let’s take a closer look at the potential savings for writers for hire.

First, keep in mind that the new pass-through deduction applies to sole proprietorships, S-corporations partnerships and LLCs (that did not elect to be taxed as a corporation). So if you are a self-employed business owner operating one of these types of entities, this deduction may apply to you. Some other important eligibility considerations:

• The deduction is not based on the definition of “business income” most of us are used to. Instead, it uses “qualified business income” (QBI) to calculate any deduction to which you may be entitled.

• There is an income-based limitation on the amount of the deduction.

• Some types of businesses, referred to as a Specified Service Trade or Business (SSTB) in the new tax law are not eligible for the deduction once certain income thresholds are met.

Let’s look at each of these rules as they pertain to a freelance writing business:

• QBI, from the IRS’ standpoint, is equal to the income you derive from your pass-through business minus any net capital gains or short-term capital losses. In addition, QBI does not include pass-through income from W-2 wages received from an S-corporation or from the guaranteed payments received from a partnership.

The amount you can deduct is also subject to caps of either 50 percent of the wages your business pays its employees or 25 percent of wages plus 2.5 percent of the basis of the business’ qualified property—whichever is higher. These calculations must be compared to the 20 percent of your QBI, then you may deduct whichever amount is less. This limit also phases in over the same $315,000 and $415,000 taxable income range for joint filers.

• The income-based limitation applies to non-corporate taxpayers who exceed the $315,000 income threshold. If you own a personal service business (called a specified service business), the amount of your QBI is phased-out on a pro-rated basis your total taxable income hits $415,000. At this income level and above, you no longer qualify for the benefit of the 20 percent deduction. Businesses that are not specific service business are still eligible for the deduction.

• A specific service trade or business defined by the IRS is any trade or business providing services in the fields of health, law, accounting, actuarial science, performing arts, consulting, athletic, financial services, brokerage services and other industries. Also included are any trades or businesses involving investing and investment management, trading or dealing in securities. Engineers and architects are not defined as a specific service trade or business and thus are excluded from this limitation.

• Businesses that are capital intensive were taken into account under the new law with an increase in the wage limit to include a qualified property calculation. According to the IRS, qualified property is tangible depreciable property that’s used by your business to earn QBI. These deductions can be taken on your individual return and the calculations would apply to each business that you operate separately.

So how do freelance writers calculate the 20 percent pass-through deduction?

You should first determine if your business is an SSTB as mentioned above, because you would not be eligible for the deduction. However, assuming that you qualify, the following examples show how you would calculate the Qualified Business Income (QBI) from your business. This is simply the net income of your business excluding any salary, wages or payments made to you, the owner. If you have a sole proprietorship, this would be your Schedule C income.

• If your business is under the income-phase out threshold described above, then you simply calculate 20 percent of the pass-through income from your business(es) and take the deduction as long as it is less than 20 percent of your taxable income excluding net capital gains.

• If your business is not an SSTB and you are over the maximum income threshold amount, then your calculation is more complex in order to account for the deduction phasing out.

You will need to determine the ratio of the income you may have over the threshold limitation of $157,500 for single taxpayers and $315,000 for Married Filing Jointly taxpayers.

Keep in mind also that if your taxable income reaches $207,500 (single filer) or $415,000 (married joint filer), the QBI deduction is limited to 50 percent of your W-2 wages from that business or the sum of 25 percent of W-2 wages from the business, plus 2.5 percent of any qualified property. Then, using the income threshold stated above and the phase out amount of $207,500/$415,000 to calculate the limitation on a prorated basis.

Here is an example of how to do it assuming:

• You have $425,000 in taxable income (Married, Joint Filing), including $300,000 in QBI earned through a non-SSTB LLC.

• You paid two employees a total of $100,000 in W-2 wages.

• You own the building where your office is located, which has an unadjusted acquisition basis of $250,000.

Given this hypothetical situation, your maximum pass-through deduction is 20 percent of your $300,000 QBI, which equals $60,000. With your taxable income being over $415,000, any pass-through deduction you claim is limited to the greater of (i) 50 percent of the W-2 wages paid to your employees, or (ii) 25 percent of W-2 wages plus 2.5% of your office building’s $250,000 basis. (i) is $100,000 (50% x $100,000) = $50,000; (ii) is (2.5% x $250,000) + (25% x $100,000) = $31,250. Since (i) is greater than (ii) you would have to take the greater amount of $50,000 as the pass-through deduction.

The bottom line: this new pass-through deduction could be something to write home about. But as with most tax issues, the devil will be in the details. So our best advice is to do your due diligence well before your return is due.


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