What Are the Differences Between an IRS Tax Lien and a Tax Levy?

If you’re reading this, the chances are high that you’re one of the many, many people who have received a notice from the Internal Revenue Service. Some level of correspondence with the IRS is natural ‒ particularly leading up to and in the immediate aftermath of tax season. But if you’ve received notification that the government is about to file a tax lien or tax levy against you, suddenly you’re talking about an entirely different ballgame.

But the most important thing you can do at this point is stay calm. Yes, both of these notices mean that your financial situation has just gotten significantly more complicated. But you do have rights in each scenario that you would do well to protect at all costs.

What Is an IRS Tax Lien?

An IRS tax lien is a very specific type of claim that the government (in this case, the Internal Revenue Service) makes on your property. That property can include but is not limited to real estate and other types of assets. Typically, this is something that occurs when you’re past due on your income taxes and you’ve failed to make proper arrangements to get yourself back up-to-date again.

A tax lien can affect you in a number of different ways, all of which are less than ideal. Even though tax liens no longer appear on your credit report, your credit rating will still suffer ‒ thus harming your ability to get a loan or secure new credit for your business. Tax liens also usually appear during title searches, which can impact your ability to sell your house or refinance the mortgage you already have.

What Is an IRS Tax Levy?

A tax lien is essentially the first part in a two-step process. That second step takes the form of a tax levy, which involves the actual seizure of the property in question in an effort to pay the tax money you owe. Via a tax levy, the IRS can do everything from garnish your wages, seize assets like real estate or even take control of your bank accounts to get their money.

At the very least, you’re likely to go through wage garnishment ‒ meaning that you’ll be taking home far less money at the end of the week in your paycheck. A 21-day hold might be placed on your bank account in an effort to encourage you to “work things out,” and if you don’t, they may even try to seize your home as a last resort.

Luckily, there are a few things that the IRS CAN’T seize even by way of a tax levy. These include things like unemployment benefits, certain pension benefits, disability payments, workers’ compensation and others.

What Can I Do About Them?

Thankfully, even in the unfortunate event of a lien or levy, you do still have some options available to you.

More than anything, if you CAN pay your tax bill, you SHOULD pay your tax bill. If necessary, get on an IRS payment plan to help you get back up-to-date. Yes, your past due balance will continue to accrue both interest and penalties until you’ve paid it off. But the choice between paying interest and losing your house isn’t really a choice at all.

It’s also important for you to actively work to protect your rights if you feel it necessary to do so. After receiving either a lien or a levy notice, you can always file an appeal with the IRS Office of Appeals if you feel you’re being treated unfairly. It is within your right to ask for a conference with the IRS agent’s manager so that your case can be reviewed by a fresh set of eyes. If nothing else, this is a great way to make sure that your side of the story is known.

You can also apply for a Withdrawal of the Notice of Federal Tax Lien, which will remove the public notice of a tax lien filing. If the IRS has notified you that any of your property is about to be seized, you can file something called a Certificate of Discharge. This will remove the property in question from the effects of the tax lien, allowing you to sell something like your home (or another asset) without worrying.

A seasoned Tarlow tax professional can assist with these challenges. Please call us with any questions and for assistance.

A Government Shutdown Isn’t Going to Save You from an IRS Audit

Yes, it’s true that we’re just coming out of the longest government shutdown in the history of the United States. It will take many government agencies – including the Internal Revenue Service – a significant period of time to get back up to speed. But if you think that all this means that the chances of your getting audited are lower than ever, you’re going to want to think again.

According to one recent study, the IRS audited about 0.6 percent of individual tax returns in 2016, which means that your chances of getting that unfortunate letter in the mail were about one in 160. When you expand the definition of a traditional audit to include all of the other types of notices that you may receive to re-examine your taxes or provide backup documentation, for example, that number jumps to about 6.2 percent— or roughly one in 16.

So not only were your chances of getting audited always higher than you thought, but a government shutdown isn’t going to prevent this particular train from running on time. There are a few common IRS audit red flags in particular that you’ll want to know more about as April approaches once again.

The Dreaded Math Errors

A lot of people don’t realize just how much of the IRS’s own processes are automated. When you file your income tax return, that information gets entered into a computer, and a lot of the processing is done before a human ever looks at it — if one ever comes into contact with your return at all.

Therefore, one of the major red flags that will certainly trigger an audit are math errors, because a computer doesn’t care whether the government was shut down or not. A math error is a math error, and if you make one (or multiple), it’ll send up a red flag within the IRS’s system, and an automated notice will likely be issued as a result.

HOW You Make Your Money

The people who work for the IRS aren’t amateurs; they know that certain types of industries feature more instances of unreported cash earnings than others. This is why another one of the major red flags that could see you on the receiving end of an IRS audit has to do with the industry you’re operating in to begin with.

If you work in the restaurant industry where cash tips are common, for example, you are probably always going to garner more attention from IRS professionals than someone who may have a more rigid salary. Simply being a part of these types of industries automatically raises your odds of being audited, and no government shutdown is going to change that.

Earned Income Tax Credit Audits

In 2018, the IRS actually came right out and admitted that people who claim the Earned Income Tax Credit are twice as likely to be audited than those who don’t. A large part of this comes down to the fact that people sometimes take this credit who shouldn’t, and it costs the United States government about $10 billion per year.

At this point, it’s important to note that taking this credit intentionally when you shouldn’t is fraud, and that is not a situation you want to find yourself in. If you can prove that you took the credit by accident, you don’t necessarily have anything to worry about. But you’ll likely still be audited, and you’re certainly going to have some explaining to do.

Large Charitable Contributions

Finally, one of the biggest red flags that the IRS always looks for when determining whom to audit ultimately comes down, not to charitable contributions as a concept, but to significantly large contributions under peculiar circumstances.

When viewing charitable contributions, the IRS always looks at the amount you gave relative to the overall amount you made during a year. The IRS definitely knows, on average, how much people in certain income brackets are likely to donate. Sure, there are always special circumstances – but if you give two years’ worth of donations in a single year in an effort to maximize the deduction you can take, you’re almost always going to attract the type of attention you don’t necessarily want.

Provided that you’ve got the documentation to back up your donations, you have absolutely nothing to worry about. But a lot of people try to game the system by saying that they gave X amount of dollars in one year when they really gave that money over the last few years, and that is something the IRS will try to put a stop to.

An audit isn’t necessarily a bad thing, especially if you have the documentation to support every move you made and why it was the right one for you at the moment. But again, don’t assume that the government shutdown means that your chances of an IRS audit are practically zero. They never were, but they certainly aren’t now, which is why you’ll always want to make sure that you’ve crossed your T’s and dotted your I’s before you submit your tax return information this year. Please contact us with any questions.

Vacation Home Rentals: How the Income Is Taxed

If you have a second home in a resort area, or if you have been considering acquiring a second home or vacation home, you may have questions about how rental income is taxed for a part-time vacation-home rental. The applicable rental rules include some interesting twists that you should know about before you begin renting. Although some individuals prefer to never rent out their homes, others find such rentals to be a helpful way of covering the cost of the home. For a home that is rented out part time, one of three rules must be considered, based on the length of the rental:

  1. Home Rented For Fewer Than 15 Days – If a property is rented out for fewer than 15 days in a year, the property is treated as if it were not rented out at all: The rental income is tax-free, and the interest and taxes paid on the home are still deductible. In this situation, however, any directly related rental expenses (such as agent fees, utilities, and cleaning charges) are not deductible. This rule can allow for significant tax-free income, particularly when a home is rented as a filming location.
  2. Home Rented For At Least 15 Days With Minor Personal Use – In this scenario, the home is rented for at least 15 days, and the owners’ personal use of the home does not exceed the greater of 15 days or 10% of the rental time. The home’s use is then allocated as both a rental home and a second home. For example, if a home is used 5% of the time for personal use, then 5% of the interest and taxes on that home are treated as home interest and taxes; these costs can be deducted as itemized deductions. The other 95% of the interest and taxes, as well as 95% of the insurance, utilities, and allowable depreciation, count as rental expenses (in addition to 100% of the direct rental expenses). The combined expenses for all rental activities are deductible as a tax loss. However, this amount is limited to $25,000 per year for a taxpayer with adjusted gross income of $100,000 or less and is ratably phased out between $100,000 and $150,000. Thus, if a taxpayer’s income exceeds $150,000, the rental-expense tax loss cannot be deducted; it is carried forward until the home is sold or until gains from other passive activities can be used to offset the loss.
  3. Home Rented For At Least 15 Days With Major Personal Use – In this scenario, a home is rented for at least 15 days, but the owner’s personal use exceeds the greater of 14 days or 10% of the rental time. With such major personal use, no rental-related tax loss is allowed. For example, consider a home that has personal use 20% of the time and is a rental for the remaining 80%. The rental income is first reduced by 80% of the combined taxes and interest. If the owner still makes a profit after deducting the interest and taxes, then direct rental expenses and certain other expenses (such as the rental-prorated portion of the utilities, insurance, and repairs) are deducted, up to the amount of the remaining income. If there is still a profit, the owner can take a deduction for depreciation, but this is also limited to the remaining profit. As a result, no loss is allowed, and any remaining profit is taxable. The interest and taxes from the personal use (20% in this example) are deducted as itemized deductions, which are subject to the normal interest and tax limitations.

Vacation Home Sales – A vacation-home rental is considered a personal-use property. Gains from the sales of such properties are taxable, and losses are generally not deductible.

Unlike primary homes, second homes do not qualify for the home-gain exclusion. Any gain from a second home is taxable unless it served as the taxpayer’s primary residence for two of the five years immediately preceding the sale and was not rented during that two-year period. In the latter scenario, the taxpayer does qualify for the home-gain exclusion, provided that he or she has not used that exclusion for another property in the prior two years. As a result, by the home-gain exclusion can offset an amount of gain that exceeds the depreciation previously claimed on the home; this amount is limited to $250,000 for an individual or $500,000 for a married couple filing jointly (if the spouse also qualifies).

There are complicated tax rules related to the home-gain exclusion for homes that are acquired in a tax-deferred exchange or converted from rentals to primary residences. Homeowners may require careful planning to utilize the home-gain exclusion in such cases.

As an additional note, when a property is rented for short-term stays or when significant personal services (such as maid services) are provided to guests, the taxpayer likely will be considered a business operator rather than just an individual who is renting a home. If so, the reporting requirements will differ from those outlined above.

As with all tax rules, there are certain exceptions to be aware of. Please call us to discuss your situation in detail.

Several Ways to Defer the Tax on Gains

When a sale of a business or investment property results in a gain, the seller is typically taxed on that gain during the year of the sale, even when the gain was generated over many years. However, the tax code provides opportunities to spread this gain over several years, to postpone it by deferring the gain into another property, or to simply defer it for a specified period of time. These arrangements can be accomplished by selling the property in an installment sale, by exchanging the property for another, or by investing in a qualified opportunity fund. As with all tax strategies, these options have unique requirements. To follow is an overview of what tax law says about these strategies:

Tax-Deferred Exchange – Many people refer to this arrangement as a “tax-free exchange,” but the gain is not actually tax-free; rather, it is deferred into another property. The gain will eventually be taxed when that property is sold (or will be deferred again in another exchange). These arrangements are also known as “1031 exchanges,” in reference to the tax code section that authorizes them: IRC Sec. 1031.

In the past, these exchanges applied to all properties, but since 2017, they have only applied to business- or investment-related exchanges of real estate. One of the requirements is that the exchanges must involve like-kind properties. However, the tax regulations for real estate exchanges are very liberal, and virtually any property can be exchanged for any other, regardless of whether they are improved or unimproved. One exception to this rule is that U.S. property cannot be exchanged for foreign property.

Exchange treatment is not optional; if an exchange meets the requirements of Sec. 1031, the gain must be deferred. Thus, taxpayers who do not wish to defer gains should avoid using an exchange.

It is almost impossible to for an exchange to be simultaneous, so the tax code permits delayed exchanges. Although such exchanges have other requirements, they generally involve a replacement property (or properties) that is identified within 45 days and acquired within 180 days or the tax-return due date (including extensions) for the year when the original property was transferred—whichever is sooner. An exchange accommodator typically holds the proceeds from such exchanges until they can be completed.

The tax code also permits reverse exchanges, in which an exchange accommodator holds the replacement property’s title until the exchange can be completed. The other exchange property must be identified within 45 days, and the transaction must be completed within 180 days of the sale of the original property.

The amount of gain that is deferred using the exchange method depends on the properties’ fair-market values and mortgage amounts, as well as on whether an unlike property (boot) is involved in the exchange. The rule of thumb is that the exchange is more likely to be fully tax deferred when the properties have greater value and equity.

Installment Sale – In an installment sale, the property’s seller provides a loan to the buyer. The seller then only pays income taxes only on the portion of the taxable gains that occur during the year of the sale; this includes the down payment and any other principal payments received in that year. The seller then collects interest on the loan at rates approaching those that banks charge. Each year, the seller pays tax on the interest and the taxable portion of the principal payments received in that year. For a sale to qualify as an installment sale, the seller must receive at least one payment after the year when the sale occurs. Installment sales are most frequently used for real estate; they cannot be used for the sale of publicly traded stock or securities. The installment sale provisions also do not apply when the sale results in a tax loss.

If the sold property is mortgaged, the mortgage must be paid off as part of the sale. Even if the seller does not have the financial resources to pay off the existing loan, an installment sale may be possible if the seller takes a secondary lending position or includes the existing mortgage in the new loan.

An installment sale has hazards; for instance, the buyer may decide to either pay off the installment loan or sell the property early. If either occurs, the installment plan ends, and the balance of the gains are taxable in the year when the buyer either paid off the loan or sold the property (unless the new buyer assumes the loan).

Qualified Opportunity Funds – Individuals who have capital gains from the sale of a personal, investment, or business asset can temporarily defer those gains into a qualified opportunity fund (QOF). In the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act, Congress created QOFs to help communities that still have not recovered from the previous decade’s economic downturn. QOFs are intended to promote investments in certain economically distressed communities, or “qualified opportunity zones.” To qualify as a QOF, a fund must hold at least 90% of its assets in qualified-opportunity-zone property.

Investments in QOFs provide unique tax incentives that are designed to encourage taxpayers to participate in these funds:

  1. For a gain to be deferrable, it must be invested in a QOF within 180 days of the sale that resulted in the gain.
  2. The gain is deferred until December 31, 2026—or to the year when the taxpayer withdraws the QOF assets, if that occurs earlier.
  3. As the investment is an untaxed gain, the taxpayer’s initial basis in the QOF is zero; this basis lasts for five years, so any funds withdrawn from the QOF in that time are fully taxable.
  4. If the funds are left in the QOF for at least five years, the basis increases to 10% of the deferred gain; in other words, 10% of the original gain is tax-free.
  5. If the funds are left in the QOF for at least seven years, the basis increases again, to 15% of the deferred gain; thus 15% of the original gain is tax-free.
  6. If the funds remain in the QOF after the tax on the gain has been paid, then the basis is equal to the amount of the original deferred gain.
  7. If the funds are left in the QOF for at least 10 years, the taxpayer can elect to increase the basis to the property’s fair market value. With this adjustment, the appreciation of the QOF investment is not taxable.

If a taxpayer’s investment in a QOF consists of both deferred gains and other funds, it is treated as two investments. The special tax treatment described above only applies to the deferred gains; the other funds are treated as an ordinary investment.

Unlike tax-deferred exchanges, QOFs only require the investment of the gains (not the entire proceeds of the sale).

Each of the aforementioned tax strategies is complicated and only applies in certain situations. None of these strategies should be utilized without careful analysis to ensure their suitability. Please note that not all of the qualifications for these strategies are included in this article.

If you have questions about these strategies or would like to make an appointment to analyze whether these tax-deferral options fit your situation, please call us.

Don’t Be a Victim of Cybercrooks

The season to prepare tax returns has begun. Unfortunately, it is also the season for scammers who are out to steal your identity, swindle you out of your money, and even file tax returns in your name. All of this can make you poorer, ruin your credit rating, cause financial havoc, and cost you hours of time trying to straighten out the messes caused by cybercrooks.

The best way to prevent your ID from being stolen, your computer from being hacked, or yourself from being tricked by some clever schemer is not to take their bait. These schemers will target you in a number of ways, including through email, regular mail and phone. Each one will try to scare you, appeal to your greedy side or trick you into allowing access to your electronic devices.

The most common way for cybercriminals to steal money, bank account information, passwords, credit cards and Social Security numbers is to simply ask for them in an unsuspecting way.

Here are a few steps you can take to protect against phishing and other email scams:

  • Be vigilant and skeptical. Never open a link or attachment from an unknown or suspicious source. Even if the email is from a known source, the recipient should approach it with caution. Cybercrooks are good at acting like trusted businesses, friends, family and even the IRS.
  • Emails and other electronic contact from the IRS. If you should receive an email claiming to be from the IRS or directing you to an IRS web site, you should know that the IRS never initiates contact via email. This includes asking for information via text messages and social media channels. The first thing you should do is contact this office. But above all, DO NOT reply to the message, open any attachments (which may contain malicious code that will infect your computer), or click on any links in a suspicious email or phishing website and enter your confidential information. The IRS never asks for detailed personal and financial information like PINs, passwords, or similar secret access information for credit cards, banks, or other financial accounts.
    The address of the official IRS website is www.irs.gov. Do not be misled by sites claiming to be the IRS but ending in .com, .net, .org, or anything other than .gov. If you discover a website that claims to be the IRS but you suspect it is bogus, do not provide any personal information on the site.
  • Double check the email address. Thieves may have compromised a friend’s email address. They might also be spoofing the address with a slight change in text, such as by using narne@example.com instead of name@example.com. Merely changing the “m” to an “r” and “n” can trick people.
  • Remember that the IRS doesn’t initiate spontaneous contact with taxpayers by phone or email to ask for personal or financial information. The IRS does not call taxpayers with aggressive threats of lawsuits or arrests. It is a common tactic for criminals to call, acting as an IRS agent to try collecting a tax bill and threatening to arrest you or have your home seized for payment. These same individuals will sometimes ask you to make payments using a gift card, which the IRS would never do.
  • Don’t click on hyperlinks in suspicious emails. It is common practice for cyber crooks to send out emails asking you to click on an embedded link to update your password or other sensitive information. Legitimate firms would not do that, so be safe and ignore and then delete the email. If the email is from a business or person you deal with and you are concerned, contact the business directly, either through its main webpage or by phone. Also remember that no legitimate business or organization will ask for sensitive financial information by email. Another trick cybercrooks employ is to hack into a friend’s emails and then send you messages asking you to click on an embedded link in the email, which can end up installing malware on your computer.
  • Use security software to protect against malware and viruses found in phishing emails. Some security software can help identify suspicious websites that are used by cybercriminals as well as detect malware on your computer.
  • Use strong passwords to protect online accounts. Experts recommend the use of a passphrase, instead of a password, with a minimum of 10 digits, including letters, numbers, and special characters. But don’t use a family name or birth date, as cybercriminals may already have that information and will try it.
  • Use multi-factor authentication when offered. Two-factor authentication means that in addition to entering a username and password, the user must enter a security code. This code is usually sent as a text to the user’s mobile phone. Even if a thief manages to steal usernames and passwords, it’s unlikely the crook would also have a victim’s phone.
  • Communication from the IRS. If you receive a phone call, fax, or letter from an individual claiming to be from the IRS, you should immediately contact us before providing any information. You should do this whether you suspect the contact is legitimate or not. You can also contact the IRS at 1-800-829-1040 to determine if the IRS has a legitimate need to contact you.
  • Educate the elderly. The elderly are frequent victims of scammers. If you have elderly family members or friends, take the time to sit down with them and educate them about scammers, email phishing and the like.
  • Too good to be true. One of the tactics used by scammers is fooling you into thinking that you won a foreign lottery or have received a foreign inheritance and that you need to send money before the funds can be transferred. Remember the old adage: “If it is too good to be true, it probably isn’t true.”
  • Report phishing scams. Should you receive a suspicious email, you can help the government fight the cybercrooks by forwarding it to phishing@irs.gov.

Unfortunately, our modern communication methods have provided opportunities for cybercrooks to scam you, which is a growing problem. You have to be vigilant and always keep your guard up. Don’t take their bait.

Always contact us if you receive any communications from the IRS or state tax authorities. Be extra cautious with emails, phone calls, and mail. If you have questions related to phishing or ID theft, please call us.

Unforced Errors – The 8 Most Common IRS Tax Penalties and How to Avoid Them in 2019

You know the old line about the inevitability of death and taxes? It’s still true. What isn’t inevitable, however, is the need to pay penalties to the IRS. It happens, but it doesn’t have to, and the main reason that it does is because taxpayers don’t educate themselves about the rules. When you get hit with an IRS penalty, it adds on to a number that you already wish you didn’t have to pay.

To ensure that you get through tax season without unnecessary costs and aggravation, below is a list of the tax penalties that the IRS most frequently assesses against taxpayers.

The Eight Most Common Tax Penalties Assessed:

  1. Penalty for underpaying estimated tax payments
  2. Penalty for taking early withdrawals from tax-advantaged retirement accounts, including IRA accounts and 401(k) accounts
  3. Penalty for taking nonqualified withdrawals from 529 plans, health savings accounts (HSAs), and similar tax-favored accounts
  4. Penalty for failing to take required minimum distributions (RMDs) from tax-favored retirement accounts
  5. Penalty for making excess contributions to IRAs and other tax-favored accounts
  6. Penalty for failing to file, or for filing your required tax return after the designated due date
  7. Penalty for failing to pay your taxes on time
  8. Penalty for filing a substantially incorrect tax return or taking frivolous positions on a return

Let’s take a deep dive into each penalty. The more you know, the better you’ll understand how to avoid these mistakes.

1. Penalty for not making estimated tax payments
Where does your income come from? If you’re a W-2 employee whose employer withholds your federal income tax on your behalf, then estimated tax payments are not something you need to worry about. On the other hand, if you get income from which withholding isn’t deducted, then you are legally obligated to submit estimated quarterly tax. Failure to do so is subject to penalty.

Who has to submit quarterly estimated taxes? You do if you’re a part of the “gig” economy which makes part or all of your income from freelance jobs or independent contracting work, or if you’re a retiree who relies on or derives income from Social Security and your personal savings accounts or other accounts whose withdrawals are taxable (or subject to capital gains). Own a small business? If you’re subject to self-employment tax, then you’re supposed to submit it quarterly. Though this requirement is straightforward, most people start their income journey as W-2 employees: they may have no familiarity with estimated quarterly taxes, or if they do they may not be in the habit of paying it and have forgotten. Whatever the reason, the penalties for failure to make these payments can add up pretty quickly.

The government has set up the quarterly payments so that the IRS Form 1040-ES is marked with four dates throughout the year — April 15th, June 15th, September 15th and January 15th (or the next business day if the 15th falls on weekend or legal holiday) of the year that the year’s tax filing is due. In doing so, they have it set up so that the majority of the taxes that are owed are paid throughout the year, though not on a weekly, biweekly or monthly basis the way that W-2 employees withholding is sent in. Failing to send the monies in for each quarter of 2018 is set to be penalized on an annualized basis of 4 to 5 percent. The best way to avoid the penalty is to pay your taxes on the dates that they’re due, calculating the payments accurately enough to represent either 90 (85% for 2018) percent of the actual amount you end up owing or 100% of the amount that was appropriate from the previous tax year. That 100% of the previous year’s amount is acceptable under what is known as safe-harbor, though for those whose income is more than $150,000, the percentage needed is 110% of the previous year’s income tax. Conversely, those who owe less than $1,000 in annual taxes do not get penalized at all. It is important to note that the penalty percentage has jumped to 6 percent as of the first quarter of 2019.

2. Penalty for taking early withdrawals from tax-advantaged retirement accounts, including IRA accounts and 401(k) accounts
Having a retirement account is a smart thing to do, and it’s something that the government has encouraged by allowing for the creation of special tax-advantaged vehicles. These tax advantages represent a tremendous incentive and benefit, but they come with strings: until you are 59 ½, you are not permitted to take money out of those accounts prior to retirement without having to have to pay a hefty 10% penalty.

As important as it is to know about the penalty so that you don’t take money out hastily and without a full understanding of the impact of doing so, but it’s also important to know when you can take the money out without being penalized. You’re permitted to take out up to $10,000 from an IRA for the purchase of a first home, as well as to pay any uncovered, unreimbursed medical bills that add up to more than ten percent of your adjusted gross income from any retirement plan. If you’ve been out of work and received unemployment compensation for a minimum of 12 weeks, you can take out up to $10,000 from and IRA to pay for your health insurance premiums.  Distributions can also be taken from an IRA to pay for qualified higher education expenses, including fees, room and board and of course tuition, all without penalty. And if you’re leaving your job during the same year that you’re turning 55 or older, you can take money out of a 401(k) account from the job that you’re leaving without penalty. The fact that there is no penalty does not negate the income taxes that you would be required to pay on withdrawals from any retirement account.

3. Penalty for taking nonqualified withdrawals from 529 plans, health savings accounts (HSAs), and similar tax-favored accounts
Just as the government works hard to make sure that the retirement accounts they’ve allowed to be tax-advantaged are used as intended, they take a similar approach to other tax-advantaged accounts, penalizing improper use and withdrawals from 529 plans, health savings accounts, and similar vehicles.

  • 529 plans – These plans provide the ability to set aside funds to pay for the cost of college, and were expanded under the recent tax reform act to also allow for funds to grow tax-free for eligible expenses for K-12 education too. Any money that is deposited into a 529 can be withdrawn without penalty as long as the money is going to pay for tuition, books and similar school-related expenses, but if the money is withdrawn for any other purpose, the withdrawn amount is subject to both income taxes on appreciation and a 10% penalty on the entire distribution. One important thing to note: if you have set up a 529 in one child’s name and wanted to use the monies for another child, that is not subject to penalty as long as you change the beneficiary. The same is true for Coverdell ESAs.
  • Health Savings Accounts (HSAs) – These plans were created to assist with the payment of out-of-pocket healthcare expenses. Money deposited into those accounts can grow to be withdrawn tax free as long as they are used for eligible costs; however, if you’re under the age of 65 and you use any of those funds for nonmedical expenses, the withdrawn amount will be subject to a 20% penalty and will also need to be reported on your tax return as income.

4. Penalty for failing to take required minimum distributions (RMDs) from tax-favored retirement accounts
If you are a person who has been dedicated to putting money into your 401(k), your IRA, or another retirement account, then the idea of taking money out before you feel like you need it will just feel wrong. Unfortunately, the government requires that you do so once you hit a certain age. The IRS’ rules say that once you are 70 ½ you have to take what is known as a required minimum distribution, a percentage that is based on a published table that factors in your life expectancy and how much your account holds. As much as you might want to let your money continue to grow, the government wants to limit the amount of tax-deferred growth that each taxpayer can realize and start claiming its portion of the money you’ve been keeping it from taxing: that’s the reason for the requirement.

No matter how much you’d prefer not to touch your principal, the IRS takes an aggressive approach to make sure that you do so: the penalty for failure to take the amount out on the government timetable is more than significant – it’s 50% of the amount that you were supposed to take out, and if you don’t take out the right amount then you’re going to have to pay half of whatever you should have taken out but didn’t. The annual deadline is December 31st, though for the first year that you owe you have until April 1st to take the withdrawal. Not only do you have to make sure that you make your payment on time, but you have to calculate it correctly, and that can be somewhat complicated because the amount changes each year as your life expectancy and the value of your account shift. The good news is that the bank or investment company where you’re holding your money is generally equipped to assist with the calculation, and can even make things easier by arranging for automatic dispersals. Setting this up makes a lot of sense, as it eliminates the emotional twinge of writing a check and makes sure that it gets done so you can avoid that draconian penalty. However, the IRS does have the power to waive the penalty if you can show reasonable cause for failing to take the distribution and have a made a corrective distribution before applying for a penalty waiver.

5. Penalty for contributing too much to tax-favored accounts
Have you ever heard the phrase “they get you coming and going?” It may have been written for the IRS. Just as you’re learning that they’ll penalize you for not taking out enough money, you find out that they’ll also penalize you for depositing too much. Tax-deferred accounts like IRAs and 401(k)s limit the amount that you can contribute each year, and if you end up putting in too much, you’re going to be hit with a 6% charge. Though that penalty is a significantly lower percentage than is imposed for not taking the annual required minimum distribution, the amount can grow over the years if it isn’t addressed: if you make the mistake of leaving the excess funds in the account, you’ll face the same penalty each year until it’s been withdrawn. That can add up quickly, especially if you aren’t aware of the mistake you made until the government hits you with the penalty several years later.

The solution is to review the amount that you’ve deposited to make sure that there is no overage, and if there is to take it out before the deadline for your tax return. If you’ve filed an extension, then you’ve also extended the deadline for the withdrawal. This penalty applies to all tax-deferred accounts that limit the amount of money you can deposit in a given year.

6. Penalty for failing to file, or for filing your required tax return after the designated due date
The tax deadline is set in stone every year. It’s in the news; it’s on the IRS website and your tax forms. There’s no escaping it, and if you try, then you’re going to get penalized. Some people miss the deadline because they are procrastinators or they just forgot, while others make the mistake of thinking that if they don’t send in paperwork, then they won’t have to pay. Whatever the reason, you’re going to end up getting caught one way or another and having to pay the penalty. Those who run on the idea of “if I don’t send them my name and income then they’ll never know that I owe them money” fail to realize that the entity that provided that income also is required to send in paperwork to the government. When there is no tax return filed to match the tax information filed by your employer or investment, the government is going to begin an audit, and you’ll be in far bigger financial trouble than you would have been if you’d filed a return and let the government know that you couldn’t afford to pay what you owe. Failure to file results in penalties that add up quickly: 4.5% of the tax due will be assessed and added to your tax liability for each month that you’re late, up until you pass the five-month mark and hit the maximum penalty of 22.5%. There is also a minimum penalty amount of smaller of $210 or 100% of your tax due where it greater the percentage amount.

7. Penalty for failing to pay your taxes on time
In all fairness, some people don’t file their tax return because they don’t have the money available to pay what they owe. The truth is that the amount that is penalized for failing to file is much more than what you would be penalized if you did file without paying. Though you’re looking at a penalty one way or another, it makes sense to file, even without sending in the money that you owe.

We’ve already gone over the 4.5%  monthly penalty for failure to file, up to a maximum penalty of 22.5%. On top of the failure to file penalty, there is 0.5% penalty per month for failure to pay to bring the total penalty for failing to file and pay for the first five months to 5% per month. However, If you get your paperwork on time without actually sending in a payment, you avoid the 4.5% late filing penalty. Even after the first 5 months, the late payment penalty continues to accrue until the tax is paid.  One important thing to remember is that the requirement to pay begins on the tax due date – even if you request an extension for filing your return, the clock starts ticking on the non-payment penalty on the tax deadline date. If you’re at all able to send in money, then do so – even if it’s only a portion of what you owe.

For those who are suffering from financial difficulties, the IRS offers installment arrangements to make things easier. Though penalties are still likely to be tacked on to your tax liability, setting up an arrangement will prevent you from getting into arrears with the government and stop them from initiating a collection action. There are also negotiations available for those who provide proof of their inability to pay. The government is willing to help and does help many taxpayers, offering compromises where appropriate. You’re much better off coming forward, submitting all necessary paperwork on time, and asking for help.

8. Penalty for filing a substantially incorrect tax return or taking frivolous positions on a return
The IRS understands that mistakes happen: people have trouble with mathematical calculations or misunderstand definitions, and when that happens, and they discover the errors, they generally send out a letter notifying the taxpayer of their mistake and are open to hearing explanations. Sometimes they forgive the mistake and allow a correction to be made, and in other cases, they impose a penalty, usually no more than 20% of the underpayment for innocent errors. When the penalty is that high, it’s generally an indication that the government has reason to believe that the mistake represents legal negligence. It can also be a reflection of the magnitude of the underpayment, with larger underpayments resulting in more significant penalties.

However, none of these penalties are as significant as what you will face if the government has reason to believe that your underpayment was intentional.

Purposely understating the information on your tax return to minimize your liability constitutes civil fraud, and subjects you to 75% penalties of the amount that you underpaid. Of course, you will also still be on the hook for the amount that you should have paid in the first place if your tax return had been accurate and reflective of your real income. The IRS has little patience for either fraud or for what they refer to as frivolous tax arguments meant to help people evade paying what they owe. Depending upon the individual situation, some taxpayers are penalized with no concern for the amount that they actually owed, and are required to pay a flat rate of $5,000.

These penalties are what results from civil fraud, but that is not the worst penalty you can face. The IRS has the right to charge a person who perpetrates significant underpayment or tax evasion as a criminal fraud subject to jail time in addition to economic penalties. Where the line between civil tax fraud and criminal tax evasion is drawn is subjective, but assume that when the government can prove that you purposely tried to get out of paying what you owe, you’re going to be held accountable in a way that’s going to hurt. Lying on a return is considered a form of perjury, and there are plenty of tax evaders who have been forced to spend years in jail and to pay hundreds of thousands of dollars in penalties.

IRS Penalties Are An Entirely Preventable Problem
Though the list of penalties provided here is not exhaustive, it gives you a good idea of where you can get into trouble, as well as how to avoid it. Learn the requirements, follow them, and when in doubt, contact us with any questions and to request assistance. It’s also important to know that if you get yourself into trouble, you’re much better off facing your situation then trying to pretend it doesn’t exist. Our professionals can guide you through the process, help you find answers, and implement solutions.


When To Claim a Disaster Loss

Tax reform eliminated the deduction for casualty losses but did retain a deduction for losses within a disaster area. With the wild fires in the west, hurricanes and flooding in the southeast and eastern seaboard, we have had a number of presidentially declared disaster areas this year. If you were an unlucky victim and suffered a loss as a result of a disaster, you may be able to recoup a portion of that loss through a tax deduction. If the casualty occurred within a federally declared disaster area, you can elect to claim the loss in one of two years: the tax year in which the loss occurred or the immediately preceding year.

By taking the deduction for a 2018 disaster area loss on the prior year (2017) return, you may be able to get a refund from the IRS before you even file your tax return for 2018, the loss year. You have until the unextended due date of the 2018 return to file an amended 2017 return to claim the disaster loss. Before making the decision to claim the loss in 2017, you should consider which year’s return would produce the greater tax benefit, as opposed to your desire for a quicker refund.

If you elect to claim the loss on either your 2017 original or amended return, you can generally expect to receive the refund within a matter of weeks, which can help to pay some of your repair costs.

If the casualty loss, net of insurance reimbursement, is extensive enough to offset all of the income on the return, and results in negative income, you may have what is referred to as a net operating loss (NOL). Because tax reform changed how NOLs are treated after 2017 your decision whether to claim the loss in the current year or the prior year will have significant tax ramifications.

  • Claimed in 2017 – If the loss is claimed in 2017 and results in an NOL, that NOL is carried back two years and the forward 20. Meaning if the loss results in a negative 2017 income the NOL can be carried back to your 2015 return before being carried forward.
  • Claimed in 2018 – Tax reform changed the treatment of NOLs and as a result no longer be carried back to prior years. In addition, NOL occurring in 2018 and subsequent years can only offset 80% of a subsequent years taxable income. Determining the more beneficial year in which to claim the loss requires a careful evaluation of your entire tax picture for both years, including filing status, amount of income and other deductions, and the applicable tax rates. The analysis should also consider the effect of a potential NOL. 

Casualty losses are deductible only to the extent they exceed $100 plus 10% of your adjusted gross income (AGI). Thus, a year with a larger amount of AGI will cut into your allowable loss deduction and can be a factor when choosing which year to claim the loss.

For verification purposes, keep copies of local newspaper articles and/or photos that will help prove that your loss was caused by the specific disaster.

As strange as it may seem, a casualty might actually result in a gain. This sometimes occurs when insurance proceeds exceed the tax basis of the destroyed property. When a gain materializes, there are ways to exclude or postpone the tax on the gain.

If you need further information on disaster losses, your particular options for claiming the loss, or if you wish to amend your 2017 return to claim your loss, please call us to schedule an consultation.

You May Be Able to Sell Profitable Stocks Without Paying Any Tax

Taxpayers whose top marginal tax bracket is lower than 25% enjoy a long-term capital gain tax rate of zero. Yes, you read correctly: the tax on any long-term capital gains for taxpayers within the 10% or 15% tax bracket is zero! This can provide you with the opportunity to sell some of your winner stocks and pay no tax on the resulting gain. Long-term capital gains apply to stocks and other capital assets you have owned for a year and a day or longer.

Even if you want to hold on to the stock because it is performing well, you can sell it and immediately buy it back, allowing you to include the current accumulated gain in this year’s return with no tax while also reducing the amount of taxable gain in the future. If you are concerned about the so-called wash sale rules that require a taxpayer to wait 60 days before buying back stock, don’t be—the wash sale rules only apply to stocks sold at a loss.

To see if you can take advantage of this tax-saving strategy, you must determine if your taxable income without the potential sale is below the 25% tax bracket. The following table shows the point at which income becomes taxable at 25% for different filing statuses in 2017.

25% Tax Bracket Threshold for 2017
Filing Status
Single
Head of Household
Marrried Filing Jointly
Married Filing Separately
Taxable Income $37,950
$50,800
$75,900
$37,950
Example: Suppose you are filing married joint and your taxable income for the year is projected to be $50,000. From the table above, we find that the 25% tax bracket threshold for you is $75,900. This means you could add $25,900 ($75,900 − $50,000) in long-term capital gains to your income and pay zero tax on the capital gains.

Of course, this strategy must be worked out based upon your projected taxable income for the year, and your actual income could be more or less than the estimated amount, meaning that some of the gain may end up getting taxed if your income is greater than projected. Or if you overestimated your income, you will not have taken advantage of as much tax-free long-term capital gains as you might have been able to.

In addition, if you have any loser stocks, you can sell them for a loss, allowing you to bring in that much more zero-taxed long-term capital gains.

There are also somewhat rare situations where the increase in your adjusted gross income as a result of the added long-term capital gains could have unanticipated adverse effects on your taxes that could reduce the overall benefit of this strategy.

If you would like to take advantage of this strategy and need assistance in projecting your 2017 taxable income, checking for adverse effects of the strategy, and determining the approximate amount of long-term capital gains you can assimilate with zero tax, please give this office a call.

Ignoring Those IRS Notices Only Makes It Worse

Remember those 1099s, W-2s, K-1s and other informational forms you receive each year reporting your interest, dividends, sales, wages, retirement income, IRA withdrawals, health insurance forms and other items having to do with your tax return? Well, the IRS also gets this information and feeds it into its computers. Thanks to modern computer technology, the IRS is able to match that information to what you reported on your tax return, and if something significant is omitted or there’s a discrepancy with the numbers, the IRS is going to send you a letter asking for an explanation or a tax payment. You will also receive correspondence if you don’t file a return and the data the IRS has indicates that you should have filed. It has form letters for just about every possible situation.

Most frequently, these notices will include a proposed tax due, plus interest and/or penalties, along with an explanation of the examination process and how you can respond. However, the letters must, by law, advise you of your rights and other information. Thus, these letters can become overly lengthy and are sometimes difficult to understand. That is why it is important to have a trained eye review them before you take any action.

Do not procrastinate or throw the letter in a drawer hoping the issue will go away. After a certain period of time, another letter will automatically be produced. And, as you might expect, each succeeding letter will become more aggressive and more difficult to deal with, and it may reach the point where you might have to go to tax court to argue your case or pay whatever amount of money the IRS is demanding.

Most importantly, don’t automatically pay an amount the IRS is requesting unless you are positive it is correct. Quite often, you really do not owe the amount being billed, and it will be difficult and time consuming to get your payment back.

It is always good practice to have a tax professional review the correspondence and respond to the IRS in a timely manner. Also, note that these “love letters” from the IRS will come by regular mail, not email. If you receive an email from someone claiming to be from the IRS and demanding a tax payment, this communication will be a fraud, since the IRS does not use email for this purpose. Please call this office immediately in regards to any notice you receive about your tax returns.

Habits That Can Threaten Your Identity and Pocketbook

They’re just old habits. You likely to do them without even thinking. But these are habits that can threaten your identity and pocketbook — making you vulnerable to hacks, scams, ID theft and Internet phishing schemes out to separate you from your hard-earned money.

1. What’s in Your Wallet or Purse? Does it contain items that include your Social Security Number (SSN) and birth date? For instance, does it contain your driver’s license and either your Social Security card or Medicare card? If it does, and the wallet or purse falls into the wrong hands, the thief will have both your SSN and birth date, the two key items that can be used to compromise your identity. If your ID gets hacked, you are in for a long-running and expensive nightmare. Make sure your wallet or purse isn’t a jackpot for an ID thief.

2. Your Fear of the IRS. It is common for most folks to have a natural fear of the IRS. Get a letter in the mail from the IRS, and the adrenalin kicks in and your pulse rate quickens. Scammers play on that emotion to ply their scams on the unsuspecting who don’t want to have any problems with the IRS. These range from e-mail messages to personal calls threatening arrest, property seizure or other dire consequences. But wait a minute! The IRS only initially communicates by U.S. mail, so any other form of communication is fake, and you can hang up on the caller or delete the e-mail without fearing you’ll incur the IRS’s wrath. Still unsure? Call your tax preparer. Don’t be a victim!
3. Using Public Internet Connections. These days you can find public Internet connections almost anywhere – at the airport, your favorite coffee house and even shopping malls. Getting work done or taking care of financial dealings while you are out and about may seem like a good idea, but remember the cyber thieves also have access to that Wi-Fi and they have the know-how to access your computer through that Wi-Fi connection. Only use secure Internet connections to get work done or conduct financial transactions, and save public connections for personal browsing purposes.
4. Not Screening Your E-Mails. ID thieves send out e-mails trying to entice you into clicking on an imbedded link within the e-mail, which will then allow them access to your computer and whatever is on it. They will try to sucker you into clicking on the imbedded link by promising free this and that, or even telling you that you have won a monetary prize and need to go to a website to claim it. Don’t be tempted; just remember, if it’s too good to be true it probably isn’t true. Just delete the e-mail!
5. E-Mailing and Texting Sensitive Information. What we all forget is how easy it is for e-mail and text messages to get hacked. You have to worry not only about your end getting hacked but also about the one to whom you are sending the message. Never send documents that include sensitive information. A common error is to inadvertently send a document with your SSN, birth date, passwords, or other information. The best practice is to always assume your e-mails and texts can be seen by others and act appropriately.
6. Being Free and Easy with Passwords. It may not seem like a big deal to share your password with a family member that you’re close to, but even if that person is completely trustworthy, they may not be as safety conscious as you and may accidently leak the password. You should always keep your passwords completely confidential to ensure that they don’t fall into the wrong hands.
7. Using Identical Passwords. It is easier to remember one password than several, and in today’s digital world just about everything needs a password. But if you use just one and it gets compromised, then all your accounts are compromised. It is a best practice to use a different password for every account. In addition, it is a good idea to periodically change your passwords.
Bottom line, stop and think before you act, always be skeptical of unsolicited and unexpected communications, guard your sensitive information like you are guarding Fort Knox and when in doubt call this office for assistance.