Tag Archives: tax

The IRS Is Not Always Right

A letter in the mailbox with the IRS as the return address is sure to raise your blood pressure. Here are some tips for handling the situation if this happens to you:

  • Stay calm. Try not to overreact to the correspondence. They are often in error. This is easier said than done, but remember the IRS sends out millions of notices each year. The vast majority of them correct simple oversights or common filing errors.
  • Open the envelope. You would be surprised at how often people are so stressed by receiving a letter from the IRS that they cannot bear to open the envelope. If you fall into this category, try to remember that the first step in making the problem go away is to simply open the correspondence.
  • Carefully review the letter. Understand exactly what the IRS thinks needs to be changed and determine whether or not you agree with its findings. Unfortunately, the IRS rarely sends correspondence to correct an oversight in your favor, but its assessment of your situation is often wrong.
  • Respond timely. The correspondence should be very clear about what action the IRS believes you should take and within what timeframe. Delays in responses could generate penalties and additional interest payments.
  • Get help. You are not alone. Getting assistance from someone who deals with this all the time makes going through the process much smoother.
  • Correct the IRS error. Once the problem is understood, a clearly written response with copies of documentation will cure most of these IRS correspondence errors. Often the error is due to the inability of the IRS computers to conduct a simple reporting match. Pointing the information out on your tax return might be all it takes to solve the problem.
  • Use certified mail. Any responses to the IRS should be sent via certified mail. This will provide proof of your timely correspondence. Lost mail can lead to delays, penalties and additional interest on your tax bill.
  • Don’t assume it will go away. Until a definitive confirmation that the problem has been resolved is received, you need to assume the IRS still thinks you owe the money. If no correspondence confirming the correction is received, a written follow-up will be required.

5 Summer Tax Savings Opportunities

Ah, summer. The weather is warm, kids are out of school, and it’s time to think about tax saving opportunities! Here are five ways you can enjoy your normal summertime activities and save on taxes:

  1. Rent out your property tax-free. If you have a cabin, condo, or similar property, consider renting it out for two weeks. The rental income you receive on property rented for less than 15 days per year is not considered taxable income. In addition, you can still deduct your mortgage interest expense and property taxes in full as itemized deductions! Track the rental days closely — going over 14 days means all rent is taxable and rental income rules apply.
  2. Take a tax credit for summer childcare. For many working parents, the summer comes with the added challenge of finding care for their children. Thankfully, the Child and Dependent Care Credit can cover 20-35 percent of qualified childcare expenses for your children under the age of 13. Eligible types of care include day care, nanny fees and day camps (overnight camps and summer school do not qualify).
  3. Hire your kids. If you own a business, hire your kids. If you are a sole proprietor and your child is under age 18, you can pay them to work without withholding or paying Social Security and Medicare tax.
  4. Have a garage sale. In general, the money you make from a yard or garage sale is tax-free because you sell your goods for less than you originally paid for them. Once the sale is over, donate the remaining items to a qualified charity to get a potential charitable donation deduction. Just remember to keep a log of the items you donate and ask for a receipt.
  5. Start a Roth IRA for your children. Roth IRA contributions are limited to the amount of income your child earns, so earned income is key. This can include income from mowing lawns or selling lemonade. Start making contributions as soon as your child makes some money to take advantage of the tax-free earnings available in a Roth IRA.

Taking the time this summer to execute these tips can put extra money in your pocket right away and provide you tax-saving happiness in the future.

Five Great Finance Tips Everyone Should Know

Avoid hard-won experience and costly mistakes by taking advantage of these five personal finance tips.

 

Pay yourself first – Paying yourself first means taking a percentage of everything you earn and saving it. Consider it as important as any other bill you pay each month. This is a fundamental rule of personal finance that when used properly can help build an emergency fund and save you from living paycheck to paycheck.

Calculate compound interest by using the Rule of 72 – You can roughly calculate the number of years compound interest will take to double your money using the Rule of 72. Simply divide 72 by the rate of return to rough out how long it takes to double your money. For example, 10 percent compound interest will double a sum in 7.2 years; 8 percent in nine years. It’s a concept that helps us understand the power of saving and investment.

Avoid debt – Unpaid debt is like compound interest, but in reverse. If left unaddressed, it grows exponentially over time as interest and fees add to the original balance due. The result is that you have to work harder and earn more to pay for the items you purchased. Why not save first, then purchase your dream item? When done this way, the purchase price is limited to what you paid for the item, rather than adding the burden of debt over time.

Understand amortization – When a bank loans you money, it gives you a certain interest rate and a set number of years to pay it back. Each payment you make contains interest as well as a reduction of the amount owed, called principal. Most of the interest payments are front-loaded, while the last few payments are virtually all principal. A smart consumer knows this and tries to make additional interest payments at the beginning of the term. This will dramatically reduce the number of payments required to pay back the loan.

Take advantage of tax deductions, credits and capital gains – Tax laws are complicated and made even more complex when the rules change. There are many tax deductions and credits to take advantage of, as well as strategies to minimize capital gains tax. Why leave money on the table just because you don’t know the rules? Ask for help and ask for it early in the year. The power of getting the right tax plan in place every year is definitely something everyone should know about.

Year-End Tax Checklist

As the year draws to a close, there are several tax-saving ideas you should consider. Use this checklist to make sure you don’t miss an opportunity before the year is out.

Retirement distributions and contributions. Make final contributions to your qualified retirement plan, and take any required minimum distributions from your retirement accounts. The penalty for not taking minimum distributions can be high.

Investment management. Rebalance your investment portfolio, and take any final investment gains and losses. Capital losses can be used to net against your capital gains. You can also take up to $3,000 of capital losses in excess of capital gains each year and use it to lower your taxable ordinary income.

Last-minute charitable giving. Make a late-year charitable donation. Even better, make the donation with appreciated stock you’ve owned more than a year. You often can make a larger donation and get a larger deduction without paying capital gains taxes.

Noncash donation opportunity. Gather up non-cash items for donation, document the items, and give those in good condition to your favorite charity. Make sure you get a receipt from the charity, and take a photo of the items donated.

Gifts to dependents and others. You may provide gifts to an individual of up to $14,000 per year in total. Remember that all gifts given (birthdays, holidays, etc.) count toward the annual total.

Organize records now. Start collecting and organizing your end-of-year tax records. Estimate your tax liability and make any required estimated tax payments.

The Clock is Ticking…Tax Reduction Ideas Still Available

As the end of the year approaches, there is still time to make moves to manage your tax liability. Here are some ideas to consider.

Maximize your retirement plan contributions. This includes traditional IRAs, Roth IRAs, and SEP IRAs for self-employed. Now is the time to maximize the contribution potential for this year and plan for next year’s contributions.

Estimate your current and next year taxable income. With this estimate you can determine which year receives the greatest benefit from a reduction in income. By understanding what the tax rate will be for your next dollar earned, you can understand the tax benefit of reducing income in this year versus next year.

Make charitable contributions. Consider which tax year will benefit most from your charitable giving of cash and non-cash items. Shift your giving into the year that will provide you the most benefit.

Take capital losses. Each year you can net capital losses against capital gains. You can also deduct up to $3,000 in excess losses against your other income. Start to identify which investments may make sense to sell to take advantage of this. If planned correctly, these losses can offset ordinary income.

Consider donating appreciated stock. This strategy gives you a charitable deduction for the market value of the stock, while not having to pay capital gains tax on the charitable gift. If you provide an annual pledge sheet to your church, this can be a great way to maximize your gift while giving needed funds to your church at the beginning of the year.

Retirement plan distributions. If you are age 70½ or older, take your required minimum distributions for the year. If you are retired, but younger than 70½, consider taking tax efficient distributions from your retirement accounts. By paying some tax now, you may avoid paying higher taxes later when you have to follow the minimum distribution rules.

Consider tax legislation. Please recall that tax laws passed in late 2016 made many temporary tax savings permanent and extended others into 2017. So save classroom related receipts if you are a teacher. Consider charitable contributions from your retirement plan if you are a senior. Keep receipts of large purchases to track a potential sales tax deduction.

Say Goodbye to the College Tuition Deduction

It’s hard enough to watch your child leave for college. Now you also have to say goodbye to the tuition and fees tax deduction. Congress decided not to extend this $4,000 deduction for 2017, leaving many parents worried that college will now be more expensive.

But it isn’t as bad as it sounds. That’s because Congress left in place two popular education credits that often offer a more valuable tax break:

The AOTC. The American Opportunity Tax Credit (AOTC) is a credit of up to $2,500 per student per year for qualified undergraduate tuition, fees and course materials. The deduction phases out at higher income levels, and is eliminated altogether for married couples with a modified adjusted gross income of $180,000 ($90,000 for singles).

Lifetime Learning Credit. The Lifetime Learning Credit provides an annual credit of 20 percent on the first $10,000 of tuition and fees, for either undergraduate or graduate level classes. There is no lifetime limit on the credit, but only couples making less than $132,000 per year (or singles making $66,000) qualify. Unlike the AOTC, this deduction is per tax return, not per student.

So who is affected by the loss of the tuition and fees deduction? If you are paying for your student’s graduate-level courses and are making too much to qualify for the Lifetime Learning Credit, the tuition and fees deduction was generally the only means you had to reduce your tax bill.

But there’s still hope! In addition to the two alternative education credits, there are many other tax benefits that reduce the cost of education. There are breaks for employer-provided tuition assistance, deductions for student loan interest, tax-beneficial college savings options, and many other tax-planning alternatives.

Taxation Without Representation is Alive and Well

Our forefathers launched the Revolutionary War with the claim “taxation without representation.” What few of us realize is that taxing the other guy who has no say in the matter is now a prevalent technique. Here are some examples.

  • Hotel taxes to fund sports stadiums – New professional sports stadiums across the country are using hotel taxes to fund their construction. This tax is added to every visitors’ bill without input on whether they agree to the tax or not. In perhaps the most brazen example, supporters of a potential new NFL stadium referendum in San Diego are promoting getting fans from competing football teams to pay for their new stadium through hotel taxes.
  • High property tax on vacation property – Own a cabin or other vacation property? The property tax you pay for this property is set by local officials. Temporary residents do not have a vote in electing these people. So out-of-town cabin owners end up footing the bill for local initiatives without a vote.
  • Small business taxes – While the legal system treats corporations as legal entities, they have no voting rights. In addition, millions of small businesses are taxed on individual tax returns as flow-through entities, but the owners have no voting authority to represent their business if they do not live in the same community as their business. This means things like property taxes and sales taxes are set without representation.
  • Out-of-state taxes despite no physical presence – Many states are taxing non-resident individuals and businesses with new legislation. For example, a consultant working for a California company may be subject to California income tax, even if residing and working in another state. Out-of-state businesses are challenged with newly defined “nexus” rules. As non-residents, these new taxpayers have no voice in the matter.

What’s the big deal?

Unfortunately, the pace of targeting taxes towards people and businesses with no voting rights is increasing. This is often due to legislatures taking the path of least resistance. Why not place the tax burden on someone who does not vote? Here are some suggestions on what you can do to manage this problem for you.

  • Manage your stay – Know which cities have hotel taxes to support construction projects. Vote with your wallet by selecting your location for business and vacation stays. Sometimes the tax only applies to select counties around a stadium. This is the case with the tax to fund the construction of the Minnesota Twins baseball stadium. So select a nearby county that does not collect the tax.
  • Shop wisely – When looking for a new vacation home or cottage, pay attention to the property tax. There are cases where two similarly valued properties on the same lake have different property taxes because the lake is in two different communities.
  • Squeak – While you have no vote, you can still try to apply influence. If a community is not business-friendly in their tax proposals, getting the word out is often your only approach. Visit city council meetings and voice your concerns. Support local candidates that understand your plight. Consider challenging property valuations to minimize the impact of tax increases.

Every state, county, and community is different. Know the tax climate before you buy, move, or work in a community that is not your primary residence. It is often your only defense when you are subject to taxation without representation.

The College Student Tax Scam

School is well under way and the IRS has reminded us to pay attention to a new scam that is targeting students and their parents. Here is what you need to know.

  • The scam – Callers will contact your student and demand payment of an unpaid Student Tax. This tax does not exist. The contact is typically via phone call, but can take the form of a realistic looking email.
  • It will seem real – The caller will say they are from the IRS. They will have your student’s name and some of their personal information stolen from another source. There may be a caller ID displaying IRS. They will often call multiple times and may even threaten arrest.
  • Their goal – To get your unwary student (or you – the unwary parent) to provide them with payment through a prepaid debit card, credit card, or other type of gift card.
  • What to do – If this happens to you, hang up. If they call back, do not answer. Make sure your students are aware that this may happen and they should inform you immediately of the call. Remember, the IRS NEVER initiates a tax question with a phone call or email. You can also report the scam to the Treasury Inspector General for Tax Administration: IRS Impersonation Scam Reporting Form

 Your data must be stolen

Should this scam occur, one thing is certain. Personal data has been stolen. If you receive this scam call, you may be targeted for other scams. So be alert and consider reviewing your credit reports to ensure someone is not trying to access your identity in other ways.

Year-End Tax Planning Ideas – Part 2

As the end of the year approaches, it is a good time to think of planning moves that will help lower your tax bill for this year and possibly the next.  We have compiled a checklist of actions that may help you save tax dollars if you act before year-end. Not all actions will apply in your particular situation, but you (or a family member) will likely benefit from many of them.

Below is part two of a two-part series – this second is aimed at ideas for businesses.

Year-End Tax-Planning Moves for Businesses & Business Owners

Businesses should consider making expenditures that qualify for the business property expensing option. For tax years beginning in 2016, the expensing limit is $500,000 and the investment ceiling limit is $2,010,000. Expensing is generally available for most depreciable property (other than buildings), off-the-shelf computer software, and qualified real property—qualified leasehold improvement property, qualified restaurant property, and qualified retail improvement property. The generous dollar ceilings that apply this year mean that many small and medium sized businesses that make purchases before the end of 2016 will be able to currently deduct most if not all their outlays for machinery and equipment. What’s more, the expensing deduction is not prorated for the time that the asset is in service during the year. This opens up significant year-end planning opportunities.

Businesses also should consider making expenditures that qualify for 50% bonus first year depreciation if bought and placed in service this year. The bonus depreciation deduction is permitted without any proration based on the length of time that an asset is in service during the tax year. As a result, the full 50% first-year bonus write-off is available even if qualifying assets are in service for only a few days in 2016.

  • Businesses may be able to take advantage of the “de minimis safe harbor election” (also known as the book-tax conformity election) to expense the costs of lower-cost assets and materials and supplies, assuming the costs don’t have to be capitalized under the Code Sec. 263A uniform capitalization (UNICAP) rules. To qualify for the election, the cost of a unit of property can’t exceed $2,500.
  • A corporation should consider accelerating income from 2017 to 2016 if it will be in a higher bracket next year. Conversely, it should consider deferring income until 2017 if it will be in a higher bracket this year.
  • A corporation (other than a “large” corporation) that anticipates a small net operating loss (NOL) for 2016 (and substantial net income in 2017) may find it worthwhile to accelerate just enough of its 2017 income (or to defer just enough of its 2016 deductions) to create a small amount of net income for 2016. This will permit the corporation to base its 2017 estimated tax installments on the relatively small amount of income shown on its 2016 return, rather than having to pay estimated taxes based on 100% of its much larger 2017 taxable income.
  • To reduce 2016 taxable income, consider deferring a debt-cancellation event until 2017.
  • To reduce 2016 taxable income, consider disposing of a passive activity in 2016 if doing so will allow you to deduct suspended passive activity losses.
  • If you own an interest in a partnership or S corporation, consider whether you need to increase your basis in the entity so you can deduct a loss from it for this year.

Year-End Tax Planning Ideas – Part 1

As the end of the year approaches, it is a good time to think of planning moves that will help lower your tax bill for this year and possibly the next.  We have compiled a checklist of actions that may help you save tax dollars if you act before year-end. Not all actions will apply in your particular situation, but you (or a family member) will likely benefit from many of them.

Below is part one of a two-part series – this first is aimed at ideas for individuals.

Year-End Tax Planning Moves for Individuals

  • Realize losses on stock while substantially preserving your investment position. There are several ways this can be done. For example, you can sell the original holding, and then buy back the same securities at least 31 days later.
  • Postpone income until 2017 and accelerate deductions into 2016 to lower your 2016 tax bill. This strategy may enable you to claim larger deductions, credits, and other tax breaks for 2016 that are phased out over varying levels of adjusted gross income (AGI). These include child tax credits, higher education tax credits, and deductions for student loan interest. Postponing income also is desirable for those taxpayers who anticipate being in a lower tax bracket next year due to changed financial circumstances. Note, however, that in some cases, it may pay to actually accelerate income into 2016. For example, this may be the case where a person’s marginal tax rate is much lower this year than it will be next year or where lower income in 2017 will result in a higher 2017 tax credit for an individual who plans to purchase health insurance on a health exchange and is eligible for a premium assistance credit.
  • It may be advantageous to try to arrange with your employer to defer, until early 2017, a bonus that may be coming your way.
  • Consider using a credit card to pay deductible expenses before the end of the year. Doing so will increase your 2016 deductions even if you don’t pay your credit card bill until after the end of the year.
  • If you expect to owe state and local income taxes when you file your return next year, consider asking your employer to increase withholding of state and local taxes (or pay estimated tax payments of state and local taxes) before year-end to pull the deduction of those taxes into 2016 if you won’t be subject to alternative minimum tax (AMT) in 2016.
  • Estimate the effect of any year-end planning moves on the AMT for 2016, keeping in mind that many tax breaks allowed for purposes of calculating regular taxes are disallowed for AMT purposes. These include the deduction for state and local property taxes on your residence, state income taxes, miscellaneous itemized deductions, and personal exemption deductions. Other deductions, such as for medical expenses of a taxpayer who is at least age 65 or whose spouse is at least 65 as of the close of the tax year, are calculated in a more restrictive way for AMT purposes than for regular tax purposes. If you are subject to the AMT for 2016, or suspect you might be, these types of deductions should not be accelerated.
  • You may be able to save taxes this year and next by applying a bunching strategy to “miscellaneous” itemized deductions, medical expenses and other itemized deductions.
  • Increase the amount you set aside for next year in your employer’s health flexible spending account (FSA) if you set aside too little for this year.
  • If you become eligible in or before December of 2016 to make health savings account (HSA) contributions, you can make a full year’s worth of deductible HSA contributions for 2016.
  • Consider increasing charitable deductions by the end of the year.
  • If you are thinking of installing energy saving improvements to your home, such as certain high-efficiency insulation materials, do so before the close of 2016. You may qualify for a “nonbusiness energy property credit” that won’t be available after this year, unless Congress reinstates it.
  • Make gifts sheltered by the annual gift tax exclusion before the end of the year and thereby save gift and/or estate taxes. The exclusion applies to gifts of up to $14,000 made in 2016 and 2017 to each of an unlimited number of individuals. You can’t carry over unused exclusions from one year to the next. The transfers also may save family income taxes where income-earning property is given to family members in lower income tax brackets who are not subject to the kiddie tax.
  • Maximize retirement deferrals such as 401K, Simple Plan, catch-up contributions if you are over 50, DB plan, etc.