Tuesday, February 26, 2013
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7 Tax Tips You Need Now
Remember when the IRS would send a packet of paper forms each year? They arrived a day or two after Christmas, an unwelcome holiday gift from our favorite government office.
Good thing they're all electronic today. Heated budget debates that dragged on until the end of 2012 stretched more than our patience.
The temporary agreement politicians would eventually come to required tax changes to implement. Not knowing what those changes would entail, forms couldn't be created in time for tax preparers to service early filers. The window to prepare and file taxes got shorter.
The shorter window causes more filers than usual to be in preparation mode at the same time. Here comes the trickle down effect... Expect to find a crowd if you walk into an H&R Block office without an appointment. Expect online tax preparation servers to slow with the higher demand. Expect it to take longer to get an appointment with your tax professional. Expect really long hold times if you have to call IRS with a question.
Reaching a human at the IRS will be almost impossible this year. According to the Taxpayer Advocate Service, more than 30% of the 100 million who called last year never reached a customer service representative. It's not likely to be any better this year.
Tax Tip 1: Most people call the IRS on a Monday or Friday morning. You have a better chance of reaching someone midweek after 2 p.m. If you wait until April, your chances are best after 7 p.m. You'll need your income statements and previous tax returns when you call to help you answer questions and confirm your identity.
While the IRS doesn't usually waste their time auditing the "little guy" with less than $1 million in assets, there are common mistakes a lot of people make that will catch their eye. Missing a detail can result in a penalty on top of the adjusted amount you owe the agency.
Tax Tip 2: Don't forget to report a switch from the traditional IRA to a Roth IRA. Roth contributions are taxed when you contribute rather than when you take the distributions as you do with the traditional version. If you converted in 2012, half the contributions are considered taxable income in 2012 and the other half in 2013.
The IRS uses document-matching programs to cross check the income you report. Even small amounts of omitted income gets their attention. It causes them to wonder what else may you have missed.
Tax Tip 3: Include ALL income received during the reporting period. If you cut the neighbor's grass, sold handmade trinkets at a craft show or submitted an article to the local newspaper, it's income. The buyer may have reported the sale as a deduction. Why take a risk over peanuts?
Besides, that extra income may well be offset by deductions that you missed. The one most commonly overlooked is the state sales tax deduction according to the IRS.
Taxpayers have the choice of deducting either state income taxes paid or state sales taxes paid on Schedule A of Form 1040. This option expired in 2012 and got caught up in the aforementioned budget debates. It was finally restored for 2012 and 2013 returns.
Tax Tip 4: Even if you live in a state that imposes a state income tax, the sales tax may give you a larger deduction. IRS tables show how much you can deduct based on your state of residence. But if you bought a high tax item like a car, boat or airplane, you can add that amount to that shown on the tables. Same goes for homebuilding materials.
And if you owed the state and had to pay it with last year's return, don't forget to include that amount with this year's deduction.
Tax Tip 5: Traveling on business? Be sure to include baggage fees to your deductible travel expenses.
Congress is looking for ways to close IRS loopholes. Problem is, these loopholes aren't exactly targeting high income earners as is portrayed. They're talking about reducing or eliminating things we all deduct such as mortgage interest, medical expenses and charitable contributions.
This is nothing new. Every budget negotiation includes talk of eliminating such items, probably throughout history I'm guessing. So don't miss taking any of these while you still can.
Tax Tip 6: Currently, medical expenses that exceed 7.5% of your AGI can be deducted. Don't forget to include mileage for medical care. You can deduct 24 cents for every mile along with tolls, parking or overnight lodging if required. Next year the deduction level rises to 10% of your AGI to help pay for the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act.
Changes to charitable deductions have been ongoing. I wouldn't be surprised if it were the first category to be eliminated. This will hurt those most in need, yet it's also the area most abused by tax cheats.
Tax Tip 7: Monetary deductions are easy to track. But when you calculate your charitable expenses, don't forget to include out of pocket costs. This might be the cost of ingredients for the dish you brought to the potluck dinner, stamps you bought for a fundraiser mailing or materials you used to knit a blanket for the craft fair.
Mileage counts here, too. Deduct 14 cents for mileage you drove for charity plus parking and tolls.
Questions? Consult your tax professional.
Beware of These Tax Scams
Repeat after me: I CAN become a scam victim.
None of us are too smart, too educated on the subject, too old or too young to fall for a scam. All it takes is letting your guard down for a split second as I revealed in Confessions of a Scam Victim.
Bernie Madoff's victims included high profile financiers and celebrities. Any of which could be considered too intelligent to be scammed.
Tax season brings opportunity for crooks to ply their trade. Some of their techniques sound so blatantly obvious you may wonder how anybody could fall for them. Yet if nobody took their bait, we wouldn't be writing about it. Remember, it isn't lack of knowledge that makes one a victim. It's letting your guard down.
Phony emails claiming to come from the IRS start circulating in earnest this time every year. The message includes the IRS name and logo. Various stories are spun. All want the recipient to click a link and provide personal or financial information.
One message claims to be from the "IRS Antifraud Commission" reporting that the taxpayer's credit card was enrolled in an EFTPS bank account. Clicking their link will help them recover their funds.
Another alerts the recipient to money the IRS has waiting for them, yet another warns of an upcoming audit. All promise desired results if the recipient will click the link and provide whatever information is needed to confirm their identity, process their refund, etc.
All are scams. The IRS, nor any other legitimate institute in the government or private sector, will ever send you an email of this nature. You will never be asked to provide personal information or login credentials to confirm anything online.
You're probably shaking your head thinking same old yadda, yadda..... Yet as long as people continue to fall for phishing scams, it bears repeating.
Accountants may be scam artists, too. In 2011, the IRS established a program requiring tax preparers to take a competency test and continue education courses. But the program was struck down in court. Anybody can now take your money to prepare your taxes. Some take not only your money but your refund and reputation, too.
There are accountants who will inflate your refund by faking information on your return. They often take a cut of your extra refund money. Or they'll include items that are not legitimate deductions. Suggest you hide income.
It's your name on the return. When it's caught, you are liable for the information contained on your return. Not if it's caught but when. Your accountant signs your return, too. When the same name appears on multiple fraudulent tax returns, others bearing that same signature catch their eye.
Select an accountant carefully. Ask for references. Check their standing in the community.
Don't wait very long to check the status of your refund. Filing false tax returns has become a common ploy. The thief will get their hands on personal information a variety of ways.
Stealing records from the workplace can be profitable if your employer is someone like the government, a lawyer, doctor, medical center, or anywhere that records your name, address or social security number.
Information collected in a phishing scam is often sold at a high price to other thieves who use your identity for their gain.
Fake returns are filed early, the crook gets the refund. Your legitimate return isn't processed since one is already on record in your name. It can take a long time for the IRS to untangle something like this.
If you choose to deduct something that might be a bit of a stretch, chances are the IRS will consider it frivolous. Taxpayers who offer frivolous arguments face criminal prosecution as attempting to evade taxes.
What might be considered frivolous? People who believe taxes are only voluntary. Those who believe tips are not considered income. Others try to define themselves as citizens of a state rather than the United States. Or they protest taxes on religious grounds. Or that the Sixteenth Amendment, which instituted the federal income tax, was not properly ratified.
If any of these were true, none of us would be liable for income taxes. Challenges to each of these claims have stood up in court. Taxes are not voluntary. All of our Constitutional Amendments have been properly ratified. Your beliefs and definitions do not relieve you of your financial responsibility.
Don't let your guard down. Use common sense to avoid those situations that you can control. Be watchful for the rest to minimize any damage they may present.
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