Here’s What Could Happen If You Try to Short-Change the IRS

Article Highlights:

  • Self-employed taxpayers
  • Underreported income
  • Unscrupulous tax preparers
  • Phony deductions or credits
  • Inflating the Earned Income Tax Credit
  • Taking fake education credits
  • Petty cheating

Some refer to it as “creative accounting” or just “a little fudging here and there.” However, if your tax return is missing some income that should have been reported or includes overstated deductions, regardless of whether you prepared your return or had it prepared, you are the one who is ultimately responsible. If you get caught, there can be very unpleasant consequences, including substantial monetary penalties and the possibility of jail time for blatant cases.

Those who fudge on their taxes may think that they are just cheating the government out of money. In actuality, however, the government is going to get the taxes it needs from somewhere, so those who fudge on their taxes are causing others to pay more.

Currently, just short of 50% of all U.S. taxpayers pay no income tax. A large percentage of these folks get money back from the government because their income is low, and they qualify for certain refundable tax credits. How many of those not paying taxes are either not reporting all of their income or exaggerating their deductions? There are no statistics on the issue, but it would seem to be a large number.

One of the most significant areas of cheating involves self-employed individuals not reporting cash payments. Some will even go so far as to offer discounts for cash payments; these discounts, of course, are attractive, and customers often opt for them, thus enabling the self-employed individuals to cheat on their taxes. However, if self-employed individuals get caught, perhaps because their reported income doesn’t support their lifestyles, they can end up with a high tax bill and penalties. Additionally, when the IRS finds a cheater, that person’s returns, or their company returns, are often audited for other years.

Some individuals who underreport their income are not just avoiding income taxes, but qualifying for low-income tax credits and other subsidies meant for those who need them.

Unscrupulous tax preparers also cheat, and you could end up being the victim. Here are some of the schemes they pull:

  • Adding false deductions or credits – They do your return correctly and tell you what your refund is. Then, before they e-file it, the preparer adds false deductions or credits to inflate the refund. The refund amount you expect is direct-deposited to your account, but the extra amount is sent to their bank account.
  • Inflating the Earned Income Tax Credit – Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) is a refundable tax credit for low-income taxpayers that is based upon the amount of the taxpayer’s income from working (earned income). The credit increases up to a point as the taxpayer’s earned income increases then phases out for higher-income taxpayers. This credit is the frequent target of scams, and one of the most common is to create earned income by fabricating self-employment income of an amount that will result in the maximum EITC. Even though this may create more taxes, the EITC is higher than the taxes, netting an increase in the taxpayer’s refund.
  • Taking fake education credits – Another frequent scam is to claim a higher education tax credit, especially the partially refundable American Opportunity Tax Credit (AOTC), using made-up education expenses. The AOTC can be as much as $2,500, and $1,000 of that amount is refundable.

If you were a victim of an unscrupulous tax preparer and need assistance, please contact your Tarlow advisor.

Petty cheating is also prevalent. The following lists common areas of fraud and the steps that the IRS takes to counter them.

  • Inflating the value of noncash goods donated to charity – This is probably one of the most commonly inflated tax deductions.
    IRS Countermeasures: The IRS requires documentation from the charity, and if the value of the donation is more than $500 for the year, a detailed list of the items that the taxpayer contributed. The IRS will generally include charitable contributions in every audit, no matter what triggered the audit in the first place. 
  • Claiming fictitious cash contributions – This typically involves claiming that cash was donated through a house of worship’s collection plate or holiday charity kettle.
    IRS Countermeasures: All cash contributions must be verified with a bank record or a written record from the charity. Without such a document, no deduction is allowed. 
  • Purchasing an item at a charity event – Generally, when you receive something of value for donating, the amount of that item is not a deductible charitable contribution. Thus, the cost of pancake breakfasts, charity auctions, Girl Scout cookies, car washes, and the like are not deductible as charitable contributions.
    IRS Countermeasures: The IRS requires charities to include the value of goods or services provided to the donor on the charity’s receipt, making it easy for the IRS to detect when improper deductions are taken when it examines the receipts during an audit.
  • Donating cars to charity – At one time, individuals were donating vehicles that were close to being scrapped and then deducting the blue book value for the car as if it were in good or better condition. This trend became so prevalent that Congress actually stepped in and limited the vehicle contribution to $500 (generally).
    IRS Countermeasures: The IRS now requires the charity to issue a Form 1098-C to the donor; this form includes the information that needs to be reported if the vehicle contribution meets the requirements for a contribution greater than $500. 
  • Using a business vehicle for personal purposes – Have you seen pickups and other trucks with company logos on their doors towing boats and trailers down the highway? There is a good chance that the drivers of these trucks are writing off the mileage through their businesses.
    IRS Countermeasures: The IRS generally requires businesses, primarily closely held ones, to verify the business use of their vehicles (particularly those that are suitable for personal use) with a log, including the odometer readings for the start and finish of each business use. 
  • Deducting more home mortgage interest than entitled – Tax law limits the amount that can be deducted for home mortgage interest to the interest paid on $1 million in debt ($750,000 for debt incurred after December 15, 2017) from purchasing or improving a home. This limit applies to a taxpayer’s first and second homes only. Many taxpayers simply take the mortgage interest from the Form 1098 provided by the lender without any regard to these limitations.
    IRS Countermeasures: IRS Form 1098 requires lenders to include additional information that will allow the IRS computer to determine whether the limits have been exceeded. 
  • Making repairs on a personal home and deducting the expenses on a rental or business property – It is pretty easy for landlords or owners of business real estate to make repairs on their homes and then deduct those repairs on their rental or business properties.
    IRS Countermeasures: An auditor will look at the dates and addresses on receipts to ensure that they make sense. If an auditor catches such a violation, expect him or her to become very aggressive in other areas and to possibly invoke substantial penalties due to the intentional disregard of laws and regulations.
  • Falsifying investment costs to minimize gain – Until a few years ago, it was up to taxpayers to track their basis in the securities they owned. Inflating the price was prevalent before the IRS required brokers to begin monitoring basis.
    IRS Countermeasures: The IRS modified Form 1099-B, issued by brokers when stocks, bonds, etc., are sold, to include the basis if known, and to indicate otherwise if basis was unknown. Then, the IRS developed Form 8949 to separate investment sales into those for which the broker was tracking the basis, and those for which the broker did not know the basis or wasn’t required to track it. The information on these forms allows the IRS to focus on the sales for which the taxpayer was tracking the basis. 

If you suspect your tax returns could be fraudulent, or if you know someone who has been the victim of a dishonest or inept tax preparer, please contact us.

Is It Time for a Payroll Tax Checkup?

Article Highlights:

  • Tax Reform
  • Underpayment Penalties
  • W-4 Modifications for 2020
  • Withholding Estimator
  • Penalty Abatement

Was your 2018 federal tax refund less than normal, or did you owe taxes despite usually receiving a refund? If so, this was most likely due to the last-minute passage of the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act at the end of 2017. Because the law was only passed late in the year, the IRS did not have adequate time to adjust its W-4 form and the related computation tables to account for all the changes in the law. Thus, even if your taxes were lower for the year, the lack of adjustments to the W-4 and payroll-withholding tables meant that you likely had lower withholding and higher take-home pay for 2018. The bottom line is that, because your withholding was lower than it should have been, either your refund was lower than normal, or you ended up owing money instead of getting a refund.

This situation surprised many taxpayers, some of whom faced financial hardships because they depended on their federal refunds to cover other expenses, such as home property taxes.

Throughout 2018, the IRS issued nearly weekly warnings that the W-4 form and its corresponding withholding tables did not properly account for the tax reform’s changes. The warnings stated that in many cases this caused the 2018 withholding amounts to be inappropriate. The problem was so widespread that Congress asked the IRS to waive underpayment penalties for taxpayers who ended up with a balance due but who had prepaid at least 80% of their 2018 tax liabilities. (Normally, taxpayers need to prepay 90% of their tax liabilities to avoid this penalty.)

Unfortunately, this problem will not be solved in time for the 2019 returns. Despite the problems in 2018, the IRS is waiting until 2020 to implement a new W-4 and to revise the accompanying computations to accommodate the tax reform’s changes. As a result, the problem of insufficient withholding will persist for many taxpayers in 2019.

We are now over halfway through 2019, so it may be a good time to double-check your withholding and projected tax amounts in order to prevent another unpleasant surprise at tax time. Your Tarlow tax advisor can assist you and we encourage you to contact us. If you are conversant with tax terminology, you can use the IRS’s newly updated withholding estimator. This online tool helps you to determine whether your employer is withholding the right amount of tax from your paychecks. However, the results are only as good as the information that you put into the withholding estimator. You must also estimate your income for the year from various sources.

Regarding the underpayment penalty, there are two points to consider:

  • First, if you filed early in 2018 and you had tax due, then you may have paid an underpayment penalty because you hadn’t prepaid enough tax through either withholding or estimated tax payments. As mentioned earlier, the IRS allowed a special exception to the underpayment penalty for those who prepaid at least 80% of their 2018 tax liabilities. However, it didn’t establish the 80% penalty waiver until well into March, so those who filed early may have paid a penalty that they did not end up being liable for. To determine if you paid a penalty, look at line 23 of your 2018 Form 1040. If there is an amount on that line but you met the 80% minimum for the underpayment exception, you will receive a refund from the IRS. On August 14, 2019, the IRS announced that they will automatically refund the penalty to all qualifying taxpayers. There is no need to contact the IRS to apply for or request the waiver.
  • Second, don’t count on the IRS again lowering the underpayment penalty for this year; it has given fair warning to taxpayers, who have had many months to review and adjust their tax withholding amounts. If you need to increase your 2019 withholding, you should do so soon; the end of the year will be here before you know it and spreading out the adjustment over a longer period results in the least amount of pain in your budget.

If you are self-employed, pay estimated tax, or have questions about your federal tax refund, please contact us. We can assist you by performing a tax checkup and answer any questions you may have about a complicated tax return.

IRS Giving a Break to Some Taxpayers Who Under-prepaid Their 2018 Taxes

Taxpayers are required to pre-pay their taxes for any tax year through payroll withholding, estimated tax payments or a combination of the two. Employees and retirees generally accomplish this through withholding, and self-employed individuals and those with investment income by paying quarterly estimated payments.

The late-2017 passage of tax reform that became effective for 2018 and its radical changes added considerable confusion for taxpayers trying to determine how much they should prepay for 2018. This confusion was made worse because the existing W-4 that employees complete and that their employers use to determine the correct withholding was designed for prior law and does not work well with the new tax law. As a result, there has been ongoing concern by the IRS that many taxpayers will end up owing tax this year when they file their 2018 returns, even though they got a tax reduction due to the tax reform changes, simply because their pre-payments through withholding and estimated tax payments were not enough.

For most of 2018, the IRS was issuing alerts that taxpayers may be under-withheld because of tax reform and the fact the W-4 could no longer be relied upon to produce a correct withholding amount.

Taxpayers whose pre-payments are less than certain safe harbor amounts are penalized. Those safe harbors are:

  • 90% of the current year’s tax liability; or
  • 100% of the prior year’s tax liability (110% where the prior year AGI is over $150,000 ($75,000 if married and filing separate returns).

Recently several members of Congress have called upon the IRS to waive underpayment penalties for 2018. On January 16, 2019, although not waiving the penalties entirely, the IRS did change the current year safe harbor from 90% of the 2018 tax liability to 85%, providing a break for some taxpayers.

Even if you don’t meet one of the safe-harbor exceptions, a waiver of the penalty for 2018 may apply if you:

  • Retired (after reaching age 62) or became disabled in 2017 or 2018.
  • You did not make payments because of one of the following situations and it would be inequitable to impose the penalty:
    a. Casualty
    b. Disaster, or
    c. Other unusual circumstance.

There are two other exceptions to the penalty for 2018:

  • If the total tax shown on your 2018 return minus the tax that was withheld is less than $1,000, you will not owe a penalty.
  • If you had no tax liability in 2017, were a U.S. citizen or resident alien for all of 2017, and your 2017 return was for a full 12 months (or would have been had you been required to file), you won’t be charged an under-prepayment penalty.

In addition, where your tax liability and /or tax pre-payments were uneven, the penalty amount may be mitigated by figuring it on a quarterly basis.

If you have questions or would like to make sure your withholding and estimated payments are adequate for 2019, please give us a call.

Do I Qualify for an IRS Offer in Compromise?

If you’re facing outstanding tax debt that you cannot pay, you may want to consider looking into an Offer in Compromise from the IRS. Specifically, an Offer in Compromise is an option offered from the IRS to qualifying individuals that allows them to settle tax debt for less than what they actually owe.

Unfortunately, there seem to be a lot of misunderstandings about Offers in Compromise; many people falsely believe that these are seldom accepted by the IRS. In reality, it is estimated that the current acceptance rate is over 40%, with the average dollar amount of a settlement reaching more than $10,000.

If you’re worried about your inability to pay tax debt, knowing the basic qualifications of an IRS Offer in Compromise and what to expect from the application process can be extremely helpful moving forward.

How to Know if You Qualify

Generally, there are three factors that are considered by the IRS when somebody applies for an Offer in Compromise. Most commonly, the IRS must have a belief that you will not be able to pay your tax debt off at any point in the near future. This means that your financial situation is probably not going to improve anytime soon and that the IRS would not likely be successful in forcing collections on you.

At the end of the day, the IRS needs to believe they are getting a fair deal – so if you have any potential to pay your debt at any point in the near future, you may not qualify.

You might also qualify for an Offer in Compromise if there is doubt as to your actual tax liability; if you have documentation proving that you owe less in taxes than the IRS believes to be true, or if an assessor has made a mistake on your reporting, you may be more likely to have an Offer in Compromise accepted by the IRS.

Finally, if paying your tax bill would create a significant financial hardship, you may also qualify for an Offer in Compromise. Of course, proving financial hardship can sometimes be a challenge.

In addition to all of these considerations, there are several other eligibility requirements that you must meet in order to qualify for an Offer in Compromise:

  • You must pay the application fee 
  • You must have filed all of your required tax returns 
  • You cannot be going through a bankruptcy at the time of filing 
  • You must submit all required documentation 

What to Expect From the Process

One of the most complicated aspects of going through the application process for an IRS Offer in Compromise is filling out and submitting all the required paperwork. There are several documents you may need to complete to even be considered for an Offer in Compromise, including:

  • IRS Form 433-A – this form requires information on your assets, liabilities, expenses, and income to determine your Reasonable Collection Potential
  • IRS Form 433-B – this form needs to be filled out for businesses applying for an Offer in Compromise
  • IRS Form 656 – use this form to apply for an Offer in Compromise so long as there are no doubts as to your tax liability.
  • IRS Form 656-L – use this form to apply if you are disputing your tax liability to the IRS. 

In addition to completing these official forms as part of the application process, you will also need to provide some documentation, such as:

  • health care statements 
  • bank and credit card statements 
  • investment information 
  • proof of living expenses 
  • car loan, mortgage, and similar loan statements 
  • copies of related tax returns 

Working With a Tax Professional Can Help

As you can probably see, the process of determining your eligibility and applying for an Offer in Compromise with the IRS can be quite time consuming and complex. This is where it can be helpful to consult with a tax professional for assistance. A qualified and experienced tax professional will be able to assess your current tax situation and give you a better idea as to whether or not going through the Offer in Compromise application process is worth your time and efforts.

If so, he or she will also be able to assist you with the application process, ensuring that you’re filling out the correct forms and that you submit all required documentation as well. This can increase your chances of reaching a successful offer with the IRS and take a lot of the stress and burden off your chest.

Even if you don’t qualify for an Offer in Compromise, your tax professional may be able to assist you in figuring out other alternatives for making your tax payment more financially manageable for you. This might include options to work out a payment/installment program with the IRS, among other options.

The Bottom Line

Overall, getting an Offer in Compromise accepted by the IRS is nearly a 50/50 shot – but if you meet the eligibility requirements and take the time to correctly submit all paperwork and documentation, your chances of reaching an offer are high. And the best way to get the help you need in gathering this documentation and submitting this paperwork is to consult with an experienced tax professional. Schedule a consultation with us at your earliest convenience to get the ball rolling.

What Are The Penalties For Not Filing Your Tax Return?

Everybody knows the old saying about death and taxes, yet a surprising number of people fail to file an income tax return. If you’re one of those people and you think you’ll be able to slide by, you need to reconsider your position. Even if you’re unable to pay your taxes, you need to file a return. Not doing so will eventually lead to a domino effect of negative consequences.

No matter how many people have told you that it’s no big deal, or that the IRS has “bigger fish to fry” than you, the employees of the Internal Revenue Service have a job to do and a process that they follow. Even if no legal action is taken against you, failure to file a return will end up working against you. Let’s take a look at the rules regarding filing your taxes and the various outcomes that you risk:

Most are Required to File Tax Returns
If your income is less than the standard deduction and you don’t owe self-employment taxes, ACA penalties or refunds or qualify for a refundable credit, then you probably don’t have to file a tax return. However, these days with health and family assistance all tied to the tax return the number not required to file a return is shrinking. So just about all individuals, estates and trusts have to file a return and may have to pay taxes. Those are two different things, and there are penalties involved with ignoring or rejecting each of them. Even people who don’t have the money available to pay the tax that they owe are better off sending in a tax return rather than skipping the process. Here’s why:

  • The IRS imposes a fee for not paying your taxes, and they impose a separate fee for not filing. The larger of the two is imposed for not filing – it’s 4.5%, compared to just 0.5% for not paying, and that fee gets charged every single month. You can end up paying up to 22.5% for failure to file and 25% for not paying (plus interest on unpaid taxes accrues from the return’s due date until you pay). The bottom line is that whether you can pay or not, you’ll save yourself big fees by submitting the required paperwork.
  • In addition to incurring fees, consideration must also be given to the actions that the IRS takes when they haven’t received a tax return from a taxpayer. The process involves the preparation of a substitute return which will be completed without consideration of tax advantages, deductions or write-offs, which leads to a higher calculated amount owed than would be the case if you prepared and filed your return for yourself.
  • The IRS is limited by a rule known as the “statute of limitations” that gives them just three years from the date that you file to perform an audit. The three-year clock starts when you file a return, so the sooner you get the paperwork in, the sooner your risk of being audited expires. That statute also applies to any refund you might have coming, after three from the date of filing you forfeit any refund. Beyond audit, if the IRS allows ten years from the date of your filing to go by without pursuing your taxes owed, they lose their ability to collect taxes, penalty or interest. The same is true of your ability to include your tax debt, interest debt or penalty debt in a Chapter 7 Bankruptcy discharge is based upon the date of your tax filing (generally two to four years after your tax return is filed).

What happens if you file your return without submitting the money you owe?
Once the IRS processes a return that is not accompanied by payment or discovers a taxpayer’s failure to file and pay taxes, they issue a Notice of Tax Due and Demand for Payment that will detail how much you owe in taxes, interest, and penalties. You are able to submit payment via cash, money order, credit card, check or electronic funds transfer, and the sooner you submit payment the better, as penalties and interest will continue to accumulate. If you don’t have the funds available, it is better to contact the IRS and discuss your problem with them than to ignore the notification. Options for resolving your payment issue include:

  • Allowing a temporary delay. This is generally offered after a review of your situation, during which time the agency may file a Notice of Federal Tax Lien. This document will allow the government to put a placeholder on the amount that you owe them until such time that you are able to pay.
  • Setting up an installment agreement. This allows you to make smaller monthly payments based on what you can afford.
  • Settling through an Offer in Compromise. This is an agreement that is only possible after all other options have been exhausted, allowing you to pay a lower amount than what is owed. It is issued after a complete review of your financial situation and addresses penalties and interest along with the original tax amount itself. Reaching an Offer in Compromise requires filing an application that costs $150.

It’s important to remember that if you receive a tax bill that you think is incorrect, ignoring it is just as big a mistake as not filing a return. Instead, take positive action by contacting your local IRS office, taking all pertinent documentation along with you to prove your case.

The bottom line
Perhaps more important than all other reasons, you need to be aware that if you fail to file a tax return and you owe income tax, there is a possibility of consequences that go beyond the financial. You could end up vulnerable to criminal prosecution, as well as a whole lot of stress. By following the rules and staying in touch with the IRS, you’ll save yourself a huge headache, and a fair amount of money too. If you have any questions about the penalties for not filing your tax return, please contact us for assistance.

Procrastinating on Filing Your Taxes?

If you have been procrastinating about filing your 2017 tax return or have not filed other prior year returns, you should consider the consequences, including the penalties, interest, and aggressive enforcement actions. Plus, if you have a refund coming for a prior year, you may end up forfeiting it.

If you haven’t filed your return and you owe taxes, you will be subject to both a late payment and a late filing penalty. You should file a return as soon as possible and pay as much as possible to reduce the penalties and interest.

The failure-to-pay penalty is one-half of one percent for each month, or part of a month, up to a maximum of 25%, of the amount of tax that remains unpaid from the due date of the return until the tax is paid in full. Should you put off filing, if the IRS issues a notice of intent to put a levy on your property and any amount billed is not paid within 10 days, the interest rate will be increased to a full one percent per month.

There is also a penalty for not filing on time. The failure-to-file penalty is five percent of the tax owed for each month or part of a month that your return is late, up to a maximum of 25%. If your return is over 60 days late, there’s also a minimum penalty for late filing; it’s the lesser of $210 or 100 percent of the tax owed.

On top of that, in addition to interest and late filing penalties, interest accrues on the unpaid balance at the current federal short-term rate plus 3 percent compounded daily. Even if you have received extension, the late payment penalty and interest will accrue on any balance due, so it’s best to file as soon as possible to minimize them.

Of course, there’s no penalty for filing a late return if a refund is due. Penalties and interest only accrue on the unfiled returns of taxpayers who have a balance due and don’t pay by the deadline. However, you can lose your refund and potentially forfeit any tax credits you are entitled by waiting too long to file. In order to receive a refund, the return must be filed within three years of the due date.

Taxpayers who continue to not file a required return and fail to respond to IRS requests to do so may be subject to a variety of enforcement actions, all of which can be unpleasant.

You are strongly encouraged to bring yourself into compliance with your federal—and state, if applicable—income tax return filings. Please call us so we can help you file back returns and, if necessary, advise you on ways to pay or mitigate any tax liability and, when necessary, assist in establishing a payment plan.

I Didn’t File My Tax Return; Now What?

There are a lot of perfectly reasonable reasons for not having filed your income taxes. Many people who fail to file are new to the job market, and never having filed before may simply have been unaware of the requirement to do so. Some people know but are too overwhelmed with other life events, including illnesses, death, or job loss. Whatever your reason and whether you’ve only missed one year of filing or several, there comes a point when you either remember on your own or are prompted for a request for a copy. Now, what do you do? And how much trouble are you in?

Here’s the Good News
First of all, if you’re the one who realized that you haven’t filed rather than getting a notice from the IRS or your state tax authority, then you’re probably not in too much trouble. Even if you’ve gotten a notice, there’s a specific legal process that gets followed when a taxpayer hasn’t filed a return, and it is a perfectly reasonable procedure that can be addressed and managed. There is no reason to panic, as nobody is going to break down your door and haul you away. Filing taxes is a matter of paperwork and payment. If you haven’t been in compliance, you simply need to amend the situation and pay some penalties, and possibly some interest.

As A Matter of Fact …
You may not even have been required to file a return.

There are plenty of taxpayers whose circumstances are such that they aren’t required to file a tax return, and when that’s the case, the state frequently follows their lead (which is a good thing, as many times the penalties that a state charges for failure to file tax returns are higher than those imposed by the federal government.)

The best and easiest way to find out whether you are one of those who didn’t need to file is to visit the IRS website, where there is a handy tool called “DO I NEED TO FILE A TAX RETURN?” Plug in your relevant information about the tax year in question, your income, household composition and filing status for a quick answer. You may be in for a pleasant surprise unless you fall into one (or more) of the following categories:

  • You earned at least $400 in profit from being self-employed. This can include any job for which you received a 1099, and anything from doing freelance work as a writer to providing landscaping services for your neighbors. Driving for Lyft or Uber counts too.
  • You sold your house, even if it was a break even or loss and you had no income that year
  • You received unemployment benefits
  • You are a worker who earns tips and they weren’t reported to your employer. Even if you reported them you may have to file a tax return if they didn’t submit payroll taxes for them.

In each of these situations, you are required to file a tax return, regardless of how much or how little you earned and whether you paid taxes on those earnings or not.

Fortunately, filing a tax return is always possible, though you may have to pay a penalty.  On the flip side, you may actually have a refund coming which obviously will benefit you to file.

Did the Government Do It For You?
Though the IRS doesn’t always catch every time that a taxpayer fails to file a tax return, when they do they will send out a notice. And if your Social Security Number was linked to any type of document or paperwork that they received, whether that’s a W-2, a 1099 or any other type of form, they also probably filed a substitute tax return to make up for your oversight. These substitute returns represent a bare minimum of information. They don’t enter any of the information that you might have provided in order to minimize your tax liability – they use the standard deduction and personal exemption, then record the income information that they have. It’s also what they’ll use to figure out your penalties, interest, and fines owed.

There are a lot of reasons why you should take action to get a real tax return in for yourself instead of the substitute return that the government provided, but one of the best reasons is that when you’re asked for a previous year’s tax return so you can take out a loan, the substitute won’t satisfy the lender’s requirements.

Better Late Than Never, But It Has to be Right
When you’re filing a past-due tax return, you want to make sure that every “t” is crossed and every “I” is dotted. This is no time for making mistakes or leaving out important information. Even if your returns are generally simple, you’d be wise to work with an experienced tax professional in getting your papers turned in to the federal and state authorities. They will look out for your best interest, helping you to avoid any potential pitfalls and acting on your behalf to address complex questions and offering authoritative explanations of your inaction if necessary.  In some circumstances a tax professional can even get your penalties abated or minimized.

If You Owe the IRS a Lot of Money, You May Not Want to Plan Any Out-of-the-Country Trips

As promised several months back, the IRS has begun to crack down on seriously delinquent taxpayers. A law passed on Dec. 4, 2015, that requires the IRS to notify the U.S. State Department when someone has “seriously delinquent tax debt,” after which the State Department will generally deny an application for issuance or renewal of a passport for that individual and can even revoke or limit a previously issued passport.

It has taken the IRS and the State Department some time to establish the procedures for this program, but they are finally in place and are being implemented in January 2018.

A “seriously delinquent tax debt” is the unpaid, legally enforceable, and assessed federal tax liability of an individual that is greater than $51,000, for which a notice of federal tax lien has been filed and the taxpayer’s right to a hearing has been exhausted or lapsed, or a levy has been issued. The total amount of all current tax liabilities (including penalties and interest) for all tax years and periods meeting these criteria is included in determining if the $51,000 threshold is met.

Seriously delinquent tax debts do not include those for which the IRS or the Justice Department and a taxpayer have entered into a valid payment agreement, such as an installment agreement or an offer-in-compromise payment plan. Tax debts for which collection has been suspended pending a due-process hearing or those suspended as a result of an innocent spouse claim are also excluded from the definition of a seriously delinquent tax debt.

The law requires the IRS to contemporaneously notify a taxpayer when it has certified the taxpayer as having a seriously delinquent tax debt, so that the taxpayer has time to request a judicial review before steps are taken to deny or revoke a passport.

This provision does not apply to an individual serving in a combat zone or participating in a contingency operation.

If you or someone you travel with has a seriously delinquent tax debt and you have questions about this subject, please give us a call.

Foreign Account Reporting Requirements (FBAR)

U.S. citizens and residents with a financial interest in or signature or other authority over any foreign financial account need to report that relationship by filing FinCEN Form 114 if the aggregate value of the accounts exceeds $10,000 at any time during 2016. Failure to file can result in draconian penalties.

CAUTION: Prior to 2016, the Form 114 was not required until the end of June. That due date has been moved up to April 18, 2017 for 2016 reporting. Previously there was no filing extension allowed, but the law that changed the filing date also gave FinCEN the authority to provide a six-month extension. FinCEN announced that an extension to October 16, 2017 will be automatic for anyone who was required to file Form 114 by April 18, 2017 but failed to do so.

Keep in mind that “financial account” includes securities, brokerage, savings, checking, deposit, time deposit, or other accounts at a financial institution. Commodity futures and options accounts, mutual funds, and even non-monetary assets such as gold are also included. It becomes a “foreign financial account” if the financial institution is located in a foreign country. If you own shares of a foreign stock or a mutual fund that invests in foreign stocks, and the stock or fund is held in an account at a financial institution or brokerage located in the U.S., this is not considered a foreign financial account, and the FBAR rules don’t apply to it. An account maintained with the branch of a foreign bank physically located in the U.S. also is not a foreign financial account.

You may have an FBAR requirement and not even realize it. For instance, perhaps you have relatives residing in a foreign county and they have put you on their bank account in case something happens to them. If the value of the account exceeds $10,000 at any time during the year, you will need to file the FBAR. Or if you are gambling on the Internet, that online casino may be located in a foreign country, and if your account exceeds the $10,000 limit at any time during the year, you will have an FBAR reporting requirement.

You may also have an additional requirement to file Form 8938, which is similar to the FBAR requirement but applies to a wider range of foreign assets with a higher dollar threshold. If you are married filing jointly, you must file Form 8938 if the value of certain financial assets exceeds $100,000 at the end of the year or $150,000 at any time during the year. If you live abroad, the thresholds are $400,000 and $600,000, respectively. For other filing statuses, the thresholds are half of those amounts. The penalty for failing to file the 8938 is $10,000 per year, and if the failure continues for more than 90 days after you receive an IRS notice of failure to file, the penalty can go as high $50,000.

As you can see, not complying with the foreign account reporting requirements can have some very nasty repercussions. Please call this office with questions or if you need assistance in meeting your foreign account reporting obligations.

Health Reimbursement Arrangements Approved For Qualified Small Employers

Under the Affordable Care Act (ACA or Obamacare), a health reimbursement arrangement (HRA) is treated as a group health plan, and as such, it has to meet all of the ACA’s market-reform requirements, which is not possible for the typical HRA. Stand-alone HRAs do not meet two key requirements of the ACA in that they:

  • Limit annual dollar benefits for the insured and
  • Fail to provide certain preventive-care services without cost-sharing requirements.

Previously, under the IRS’s interpretation of the ACA law, employers who offered stand-alone HRAs were subject to a draconian excise tax penalty of $100 per day per employee (maximum: $36,500 per year). That is a chilling penalty for any small employer, and it caused most of them to back away from offering any sort of health coverage for their employees.

To alleviate this problem, Congress passed the 21st Century Cures Act, which is generally effective beginning in 2017, and which created a “qualified small-employer HRA” that is not treated as a group health plan for income tax purposes. Thus, a qualified small-employer HRA will not face the $100 per day excise tax that is levied on group health plans that don’t meet the ACA’s market reform requirements.

To qualify as a small-employer HRA, a plan must meet the following requirements:

  1. An eligible employer maintains it. An eligible employer is one that employs fewer than 50 employees (in full-time equivalents) and that does not offer a group health plan to any of its employees.
  2. The HRA is provided on the same terms to all eligible employees except:
    • Those who have not completed 90 days of service,
    • Those under the age of 25,
    • Part-time workers (generally those working an average of fewer than 30 hours per week),
    • Seasonal workers (generally those employed for 6 months or fewer during the year),
    • Employees covered by a collective bargaining unit, and
    • Certain nonresident aliens.
  3. The HRA is funded solely by an eligible employer, with no salary-reduction contributions.
  4. The HRA only reimburses the employees after being provided with proof of their medical expenses.
  5. The HRA limits reimbursements to $4,950 (or $10,000 if the plan includes family members) per year. Amounts are subject to inflation adjustments for years after 2016. For employees who are covered for less than a full year, the dollar limits are prorated.An employee’s premium tax credit is reduced for any coverage month when the employee is provided with a qualifying HRA. To prevent “double dipping,” if the employee purchases health insurance through the Marketplace, that employee is required to notify the Marketplace of his or her permitted benefit for the year under the HRA.

Partners in a partnership or limited liability company (LLC) or owners and officers with greater than a 2% share of a Subchapter S corporation must treat any reimbursement under an HRA plan as taxable income, and may then deduct as an above-the-line deduction their cost of health insurance that was included in income. For greater than 2% shareholders of a Subchapter S corporation the taxable reimbursements are subject to income tax withholding.

If you have questions related to how your business could use a qualified small-employer HRA, please give this office a call.