Although unemployment figures are slowly improving, it can still be extremely difficult, if not impossible, in the current job market for some college students and recent graduates to find seasonal or permanent jobs. As this article explains, in addition to the family business perhaps being a child’s only job option, employing a child may generate tax savings regardless of how the family business is organized.
Income shifting. Regardless of how a business is organized, its owners may be able to turn some of their high-taxed income into tax-free or low-taxed income by employing their children. The work done by the children must be legitimate, and the amount that the enterprise pays them must be reasonable for the wages to be deductible.
Illustration: A business person in the 33% tax bracket for 2013 hires her 17-year-old son to help with office work full-time during the summer and part-time into the fall. He earns $6,100 during the year (and doesn’t have earnings from other sources). If that $6,100 otherwise would be paid to the parent, she saves $2,013 (33% of $6,100) in income taxes at no tax cost to her son, who can use his $6,100 standard deduction for 2013 to completely shelter his earnings.
Family taxes are cut even if the child’s earnings exceed his or her standard deduction. That’s because the unsheltered earnings will be taxed to the child beginning at a rate of 10%, instead of being taxed at the parent’s higher rate.
Kiddie tax implications. The kiddie tax applies to the child if he or she does not file a joint return for the tax year and (1) hasn’t reached age 18 before the close of the tax year or, (2) his or her earned income doesn’t exceed one-half of his support and the child is age 18 or is a full time student age 19-23. Thus, employing a child age 18 or a full-time student age 19-23 could cause his or her earned income to exceed more than half of his or her support. This, in turn, could help to avoid the kiddie tax on the child’s unearned income (there is no earned income escape hatch from the kiddie tax for children under age 18).
Even if the kiddie tax applies, it only causes a child’s investment income in excess of $2,000 (for 2013) to be taxed at the parent’s marginal rate. It has no impact, however, on the child’s wages and other earned income, which can be sheltered by the child’s standard deduction.
Retirement plan savings. Additional savings are possible if the child is paid more (or works part-time past the summer), and deposits the extra earnings into a traditional IRA. For 2013, the child can make a tax-deductible contribution of up to $5,500 to his or her own IRA. The business also may be able to provide the child with retirement plan benefits, depending on the type of plan it uses and its terms, the child’s age, and the number of hours worked.
Observation: Thus, between the child’s standard deduction and IRA contribution, a child can earn up to $11,600 in 2013 without paying any income taxes.
Tax savings via education credits. Additional intra-family tax savings in the form of education credits may be available.
For 2013, taxpayers may claim an American opportunity tax credit (AOTC; formerly known as the Hope credit) equal to 100% of up to $2,000 of qualified higher-education tuition and related expenses plus 25% of the next $2,000 of expenses paid for education furnished to an eligible student in an academic period. Thus, the maximum AOTC is $2,500 a year for each eligible student. The availability of the credit phases out ratably for taxpayers with modified AGI of $80,000 to $90,000 ($160,000 to $180,000 for joint filers).
The AOTC may be elected for a student’s expenses for four tax years, and only for students who have not completed the first four years of post-secondary education as of the beginning of the tax year.
Subject to an exception, 40% of a taxpayer’s otherwise allowable AOTC is refundable. No portion of the credit is refundable if the taxpayer claiming the credit is a child subject to the kiddie tax under Code Sec. 1(g) or a resident of a U.S. possessions (who instead claim the credit where they reside).
Taxpayers may elect a Lifetime Learning credit equal to 20% of up to $10,000 of qualified tuition and related expenses paid during the tax year. The maximum credit for a tax year is $2,000, regardless of the number of students. For 2013, the credit is phased out ratably for taxpayers with modified AGI from $53,000 to $63,000 ($107,000 to $127,000 for marrieds filing jointly).
Where a parent pays the college education expenses of a child whom he claims as a dependent, only the parent may claim the education credits (if otherwise eligible). However, if a parent is eligible to but does not claim a student as a dependent, the student may claim the education credit for qualified expenses paid by him or the parent.
Recommendation: It may pay for a parent not to claim the student as a dependent if (1) the parent can’t claim education credits because of high modified AGI, and (2) the student pays or is deemed to pay the expense and has sufficient tax liability (e.g., from summer or part-time employment) to claim the credit.
Illustration: A married couple has AGI of $250,000 and is in the 33% bracket. For 2013, claiming their 19-year-old college-freshman son as a dependent would save $1,287 in taxes (33% of $3,900 dependency exemption for the son). The parents spend $24,000 on the son’s AOTC-eligible qualified tuition, and the son has $15,000 of taxable income from his salary working for the family business. The parents can’t claim an education credit for their child because of their high income and would be better off not claiming their son as a dependent. This way, the son may use the education credit to completely eliminate his $1,803.75 tax liability (10% of $8,925 taxable income, plus 15% of the $6,075 balance). However, note that the son would not be able to claim a refundable AOTC because he is subject to the kiddie tax under Code Sec. 1(g) (he is a full time student age 19-23 and his earned income doesn’t exceed one-half of his support).
Caution: If a parent is eligible to claim child as a dependent but doesn’t, the child still cannot claim an exemption for himself.
Income tax withholding. Regardless of how the family business is organized, it probably will have to withhold federal income taxes on the child’s wages. Usually, an employee who had no federal income tax liability for the prior year, and expects to have none for the current year, can claim exempt status. However, exemption from withholding can’t be claimed if (1) the employee’s income exceeds $1,000 and includes more than $350 of unearned income (such as dividends), and (2) the employee may be claimed as a dependent on someone else’s return (whether or not he actually is claimed). (Instructions to Form W-4 for 2013) Keep in mind that the child probably will get a refund for part or all of the withheld tax when he or she files a return for the year.
FICA and FUTA. Employment for FICA tax purposes doesn’t include services performed by a child under the age of 18 while employed by a parent. This can generate some savings for a parent who runs an unincorporated business, including an entity disregarded as separate from its owner for tax purposes.
Illustration : A sole proprietor who usually takes $120,000 of earnings from the business pays $5,000 to her 17-year-old child in 2013. The sole proprietor’s self-employment income would be reduced by $5,000, saving her $145 (i.e., the 2.9% HI portion of the self-employment tax she would have paid on the $5,000 shifted to her child). This doesn’t take into account a sole proprietor’s income tax deduction for one-half of her own social security taxes. That’s on top of the $382.50 (.0765 × $5,000) in employee FICA that the child saves by working for a parent instead of someone else.
A similar but more liberal exemption applies for FUTA, which exempts earnings paid to a child under age 21 while employed by his or her parent. The FICA and FUTA exemptions also apply if a child is employed by a partnership consisting solely of his parents.
However, there is no FICA or FUTA exemption for employing a child in an incorporated business or in a partnership that includes non-parent partners. The children are subject to the same rules that apply to all other employees.
© 2013 Douglas Rutherford, CPA, CGMA. All Rights Reserved. Douglas Rutherford is a nationally recognized CPA practicing in the real estate industry. He is the founder of Rutherford, CPA & Associates, and the President and CEO of RentalSoftware.com. He is also the developer of the national leading real estate investment analysis software, the Cash Flow Analyzer ® & Flipper’s ® software products. Doug earned his Masters of Taxation degree from Georgia State University, Atlanta, GA.
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