5.5 Questions with Steve Merriman on Clergy Taxes
By Allen White
Steve Merriman is the CEO and Enrolled Agent at Clergy Advantage, Loveland, CO. Steve has worked with ministers and churches for 40 years and works with over 6,000 ministers including Rick Warren, Saddleback Church; Rick Rusaw, LifeBridge Christian Church; Tim Harlow, Parkview Christian Church; and Nelson Searcy, The Journey Church. You can connect with Steve and his staff at clergyadvantage.com.
Q1. Now that everyone is in a festive mood and ready to celebrate the birth of our Savior, let’s talk about taxes. With just a few days left in the year, what can pastors do right now to reduce their taxes for 2016?
Ministers can save a considerable amount by reviewing their housing allowance designations to make sure it’s adequate. The rule of thumb is to make it higher than what you think you’re going to spend. If you spend more than the designation on housing, you’ll lose out on big deductions.
Other ways to save and reduce tax liability before the end of the year would include contributions to an HSA or a retirement plan. Probably the easiest way to save is through a charitable contribution. As long as the check or credit card date is in 2016, you get the deduction in 2016. People are allowed to give cash contributions up to 50% of their adjusted gross income. Any excess contributions can carry over for 5 additional years.
Q2. Ministers’ taxes are not like anybody else’s taxes. What makes ministers’ taxes so unique?
There are four unique tax rules for ministers’ taxes:
(1) Ministers are completely exempt from all payroll tax. The minister (not the church) is responsible for taxes. Ministers can enter into a voluntary withholding arrangement with the church, but this is matter of convenience, but not a requirement.
(2) Ministers are entitled to a housing allowance exclusion. The amount designated for your Housing Allowance can have a dramatic impact on your tax savings. As I said before, the minister wants to set the housing allowance higher than what they plan to use in case of unforeseen housing expenses or repairs. If a portion of the housing allowance is not used for housing, then that amount will be taxed as regular income.
(3) Dual employment status – Ninety percent of ministers are considered common law employees for state and Federal income tax, but are deemed as self-employed for social security tax. Minister receive a W2 which reports their income, but they have to pay self-employment tax on the income.
(4) Opting out of social security on ministry income. Ministers for religious reasons are allowed to opt out of social security. This is a decision that must be made early on in their ministry.
There are many ways pastors can receive what we call “Tax-Free Money.” For an overview of these strategies, take a look at the “Tax-Free Money for Ministers” video on the website.
Q3. What could pastors do to save taxes in 2017 that they might not be doing now?
Ministers should implement an Accountable Reimbursement Plan for ministry income. There are huge advantages. If you utilize it correctly, you get all of the ministry expenses off the tax return and it reduces your chance of audit. We offer a free 20 minute webinar on high points of an Accountable Reimbursement Plan: Click Here for More Info.
The key is in the implementation of the accountable plan. Other than automobile, the single biggest item is human expenses, including expenses of entertaining members or prospective members in the minister’s home. There is a significant key to church growth in personal entertainment, which can be reimbursed. If minister deducts these expenses on a tax return, the minister only gets a 50% deduction, but if they are reimbursed by the church then it’s a 100% savings. This strategy also reduces social security expense.
Q4. How can a minister’s salary structure give an advantage at tax time?
How the minister’s pay package salary is structured plays a big part in the overall tax savings. A Common mistake in the church is to equate “package” and “pay” as the same. They are not! The minister’s “take home” pay that is available to provide for the minister’s family is not the same as the total pay package. The tax treatment of expenses, pay and benefits is different in the church from the business world. Clergy compensation itself is quite different from employee compensation in the business world. These are “apples” to “oranges” comparatives.
A properly structured pay package will frequently be more impactful to savings taxes than how the tax return is completed.
Q5. I just received a notice from Clergy Advantage about the mileage deduction being reduced from $0.54 to $0.535 in 2017. How can church staff keep up on changes like this?
We offer articles, videos and webinars on our website: clergyadvantage.com. Ministers and church staff can also sign up for Tax Tips which are delivered by email at clergyadvantage.com
Q5.5. With a new Congress and President in 2017, what are your predictions for any changes that might affect pastors and their taxes?
Going into my 40th tax season, I’ve learned to differentiate between talk and what is actually legislated. Best to wait and see what will actually be legislated.