Mistakes on Taxes? Avoid These

It’s tax season again, yee haw! Sure as the sun comes up in the morning, the IRS has its hand out from January to April 15th (and beyond) waiting for somewhere in the area of 150 million tax returns. In spite of ever more complicated tax laws, approximately one-third of those returns will be self-prepared. Based on their own research, my competitor (ha!), H&R Blockhead says that one of every five self-preparers forgo almost $500 in taxes (e.g. lower refunds or higher balances due) because of mistakes they’ve made on their own returns. These mistakes can lead to letters from IRS, possibly with penalties or other harsher actions resulting. As a licensed tax professional, my recommendation to all taxpayers is to avoid all preparers whose names start with either “H&R” or “Turbo”, and instead engage a qualified tax professional (preferably a CPA whose name starts with “Jay the”) who understands the tax laws, and stands a way better chance than you of preparing an error free return. But…I’m not naïve enough to think that people will actually listen to me (or read this), so for those of you who still insist on going it alone, and preparing your own tax returns, pay attention now, and don’t make these mistakes.

Claiming the wrong number of dependents-IRS has publications and pages and pages of information on who can and who can’t be claimed as a dependent on your tax return. Don’t think that just because somebody lives with you or is your kid that they can be claimed as a dependent.

Failing to itemize deductions-taxpayers automatically get a standard deduction, but don’t be so fast to leave it at that. Add up how much you paid in state/local tax, personal property tax, mortgage interest, charity, and other various items, and if that total exceeds the standard deduction, you can shave a few bucks off your tax bill by itemizing.

Overstating charitable contributions-yeah yeah, you put ten bucks in the Salvation Army kettle at Christmas time, or you put money in the basket when it’s passed around in church, but can you prove it? Like dependents, IRS has all sorts of information to read, that discusses the required substantiation for deducting charitable contributions. And they’ve been increasing their audits in this area, so make sure you’ve got the correct documentation, before you claim that deduction. Another mistake to avoid is forgetting about the United Way or CFC contributions that were deducted from your paycheck.

Deducting points on a refinance-while points paid on an original first mortgage are deductible when paid, you generally cannot do the same with points paid on a refinance. Instead, you must amortize that deduction over the life of that loan.

I could go on and on about mistakes you should avoid, but I think that’s enough free advice for one article. Remember rule number 1, which is to go to a qualified tax professional to have your tax return prepared. Rule number 1(a) is that the qualified tax professional should be me. Finally, rule number 2, if you’re gonna go it alone, make sure you review everything twice before you send the return out, and if you’re not sure about something, research and read!

Have you made any good (or bad) mistakes on tax returns, and are willing to tell about it? Leave a comment, and share it with others, so that they may learn.

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The Supreme Court, the Defense Of Marriage Act, and Tax Planning

If you’ve either been living under a rock or on another planet in 2013, I want to let you know about a momentous event that happened about a half year ago. The U.S. Supreme Court held that Section 3 of the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), which required same-sex spouses to be treated as unmarried for purposes of federal law, was unconstitutional. Obviously there are many federal laws, and a lot that have been affected by this ruling, but I’ll try to lay out a few things to keep in mind, as they relate to tax laws and tax planning.

For Federal tax purposes, IRS will generally recognize as married, same-sex couples who were married in a state, the District of Columbia, a U.S. territory, or a foreign country that authorizes same-sex marriages. Note that the determining factor is where the couple marries, not where the couple is domiciled (generally, where they live). As an example, a same-sex couple lives in VA but gets married in DC. For federal tax purposes they will be considered married. On the flip side of this, IRS will not recognize as married, same-sex couples who have entered into a registered domestic partnership, civil union, or other similar formal relationship under state law “that is not denominated as a marriage under the laws of that state.”

O.K., you’re a same-sex couple, you’ve gotten married in a state that recognizes same-sex marriages, so for federal tax purposes, now what? Under this ruling, legally married same-sex couples will be treated as married for all Federal tax purposes, including income, gift, and estate taxes. Some of provisions that need to be considered are filing status, claiming personal and dependency exemptions, the standard deduction, contributing to an IRA, earned income tax credit, child tax credit, and many others.

I’m guessing that you’re now wondering when all of this goes into effect (did I guess correctly?). The answer is, it already did. IRS’s revenue ruling (2013-17) is generally effective on or after September 16, 2013. One thing that can be done immediately is to look back to any tax year for which the statute of limitations has not yet expired (generally three years) and determine whether amending tax returns will result in tax refunds. If it will, amended returns can be filed. Note that for 2012 or prior year “original” returns filed before 9/16/13, same-sex couples may choose (but are not required) to amend returns.

If a same-sex couple files an “original” 2012 or prior year return on or after 9/16/13, they must file the return as married filing jointly or as married filing separately. As with opposite sex couples, the date of the marriage will be the determining factor for what year married returns will start, and for which years single (or possibly head of household) would apply.

For the upcoming 2013 tax return filing season, legally married same-sex couples must file as married filing jointly or married filing separately. Single filing status does not apply, period.

Having said all of that, you now ask “what about the states”, right? The answer is, we’re not sure yet. Virginia recently issued a statement unequivocally saying that same-sex marriages are not recognized in the state. VA legally married same-sex couples (for Federal purposes) will have to file married returns for Federal purposes (joint or separate) and for VA purposes will have to file as single (or head of household, if applicable). This scenario will be the same for any state that doesn’t recognize same-sex marriages. Check your state’s laws to determine applicability.

I could go on for another 600 words, but I’ve barely scratched the surface of discussing planning points and opportunities. You should consult with your favorite tax professional (whose name hopefully starts with Jay and ends with Reiner) about details that you need to know as you move into the upcoming filing season and tax years beyond. Please send a link to this article to any friends, family, or associates who could benefit by it.

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Holidays and Tax Planning

Thanksgiving is history. Black Friday’s gone. Cyber Monday’s in the books. What’s there to look forward to? The second half of Hanukkah? Christmas? Are you kidding, we’re talking tax planning, people!

That’s right, rather than thinking about ways to spend money, think about ways to save money, especially on taxes. Since there’s about a month left in 2013, you still have a little time to save a few dollars in tax before the ball drops in Times Square.

Net Investment Income Tax – starting with the 2013 tax year, taxpayers with adjusted gross income (AGI) over $200K single/$250K married filing jointly are subject to an additional tax of 3.8% on net investment income above the threshold amounts. This tax applies to income that includes capital gains, interest, dividends, rents, and others. While some of these items may be beyond your control (such as how much dividend is paid on a stock or mutual fund), you may be able to control your AGI, to keep it below the threshold where the 3.8% tax kicks in. One way is if you’re taking retirement plan (IRA etc) distributions. If you’re considering taking more than a minimum distribution, consider whether a higher distribution would put you above the level where the 3.8% tax kicks in.

Personal Exemption Phase-out – this “gem” has been (thankfully) missing from tax returns for the last three years, but has come roaring back for 2013. For AGI over $250K single/$300K joint, the deduction for personal exemptions reduces (phases out), and goes down to zero with AGI of about $372K single/$422K joint. Taxpayers closing in on the phase-out range of AGI should consider if there are ways to push off 2013 income to 2014, to keep personal exemptions intact.

Itemized Deduction Phase-out – similar to the personal exemption phase-out, the reduction of itemized deductions returns in 2013. Common itemized deductions are mortgage interest, real estate tax, charitable contributions, and others. As with the exemption phase-out, when AGI goes above the thresholds, the total allowed itemized deductions begin to reduce. Note that reduced deductions and exemptions have the effect of subjecting more income to tax, which has the effect of increasing your overall net tax rate.

As you may have concluded, the tax and phase-outs I mentioned above are driven by your level of AGI, so it’s important to look at ways to reduce your adjusted gross income. The best way to address this is to look at page 1 of your 2012 tax return, since the page 1 ends at AGI. Consider if there are ways of delaying income, taking losses on investments (which would reduce income/AGI up to $3K), switch investments to tax free municipal bonds/funds, and increasing retirement plan contributions, among other things.

While increasing itemized deductions won’t reduce your AGI, they will still probably net you some tax savings. Making additional charitable contributions could help, as would bunching medical or miscellaneous itemized deductions, both of which are subject to AGI related “floors”.

So while you’re in the middle of a tug of war with that jerk at Walmart over the last Xbox 360 on the shelf, just think about how much more fun it would be to save some money on your taxes!

How are you planning on saving on your taxes this year? Or next? Leave a comment and let me know what you’re thinking. And please forward this article to a friend or family member who might (tax) benefit from it.

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Is it a Business, or is it a Hobby?

How many of you out there make really good homemade hummus? I’m typing with one hand, while I raise the other. My wife thinks that it’s better than the pre-made store bought stuff, and that I should sell it to the public. For all my clients, no, I’m not quitting my day job (yet, haha!). Aside from figuring out a catchy name for it (JayTheCPA’s hummus doesn’t quite roll off the tongue), could I really make a go of this as a business, or is it really just a hobby?

If you’ve been doing some sort of activity that you love to do (baking cakes for friends, for example), is this something that you can deduct the expenses for, and reduce your taxes? I’ll give you a big resounding maybe!

IRS has various rules to determine whether an activity is a bona fide business, or just a hobby. If an activity is an actual business, for a sole proprietor the income and expenses are shown on Schedule C, as part of your individual income tax return, and if your expenses exceed your income, the resulting loss can offset other income items on your tax return. If the activity is a hobby, expenses can only be deducted to the extent of income, so if you have no income, you can’t deduct any expenses. If you do have income, the expenses are deducted as a miscellaneous itemized deduction, subject to a floor/deductible/”haircut” of 2% of your adjusted gross income. The bottom line is that if you’ve got a hobby, you’re probably not going to get much of a tax deduction for it, if at all.

So how do you know whether your activity is a business or a hobby? Here are a few of IRS’s factors for determining the answer:

1-how is the activity carried on – IRS will look at whether the activity is being conducted in a businesslike manner. Is there a separate bank account? Are books and records being kept?

2-what is the individual’s expertise – there should be extensive knowledge of the activity, potentially showing that advice has been sought from experts.

3-time and effort on the activity – if you have a full time job and pursue the activity an hour a week, it may indicate that this is not a serious business activity for you.

4-history of income or losses from the activity – while you may be able to get away with showing a loss on Schedule C for a year or two, showing losses year after year would indicate that there’s no real profit motive for the activity, in which case IRS will deem the activity a hobby, and disallow previous losses claimed.

IRS looks at a number of other factors when making a determination of whether an activity is a business or a hobby. At this point, my hummus making (and other culinary adventures) is strictly a hobby, so I’ll keep IRS out of what’s left of my hair, and will leave the expenses off my tax return. Before you start taking deductions for your hobby, contact your friendly neighborhood CPA for advice. Do you have any interesting tax stories regarding hobbies? Please share.

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Home Sales and Taxes

With the housing market as hot as it’s been, you may be thinking of selling a home, and hopefully taking the profit and running. But will you owe any taxes to Uncle Sam? The short answer is, it depends (hey, nothing’s ever straightforward when it comes to taxes!) This article will discuss various aspects of home sales and taxes.

Principal Residence?

If the home being sold is your principal residence, up to $500K of gain on the sale can be excluded from tax on a married joint return ($250K for a single taxpayer). Note that this is gain on the sale, which is generally the difference between the selling price and the cost basis of the home. Also remember that this is for the place that you call home, normally your primary residence, and not a second or vacation home. The exclusion can be claimed if you’ve lived in this residence for at least two of the previous five years. If you don’t meet the two year requirement due to certain specific unforeseen circumstances, a reduced exclusion can be available.

Rental Property?
Do you live in a home that’s also partially rented out to somebody else? If you do, the two parts (residence and rental) need to be split into two transactions for tax purposes, and only the residence part is subject to the gain exclusion. Any gain on the rental portion will be 100% taxable.

3.8% Medicare Tax

For tax years starting in 2013, there’s a 3.8% Medicare tax on “net investment income”, and I’ll give you one guess what gets included in this computation. The good news is that if the principal residence exclusion amount wipes out your gain on sale, you won’t be subject to the 3.8% tax either.

Sale of Principal Residence at a Loss

Sorry, this one just isn’t deductible, period, end of story. The story has a different ending if it’s a property you rented out to others, but that’s beyond the immediate scope of this article.

Home Office Depreciation

If you took depreciation deductions on a home office, this will reduce the basis of your home, for purposes of computing the gain on sale. Not only that, but the amount of depreciation taken in previous tax years will be recaptured on sale as taxable income, and also be subject to the 3.8% Medicare tax.

Obviously there are lots of non-tax related things to think about when selling a home (moving, for one), but don’t lose sight of the tax laws surrounding the sale, because if you do, you may have a nasty surprise come tax time. My recommendation is to speak with your favorite CPA (hint hint) and do some pre-sale tax planning.

Please forward this article to anybody you know who is considering selling a home, and if you have any personal stories or comments about home sales and taxes, please leave a comment.

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The Penalty of Marriage

It’s June, and what better time for love, weddings, and marriage penalties? Yes my friends, while you’re busy picking out flowers, caterers, and tacky bridesmaid dresses, start thinking about how much more tax you’re going to be paying, come tax time. That’s right, I said more tax, and if you’re in the majority of taxpayers, you’ll most probably wind up paying more tax as part of a married couple than you would as a single bachelor(ette). I wrote about this a couple of years ago, but a recent meeting with a new client reminded me of how often this subject has come up over the years, so I thought I’d revisit it.

You may or may not have heard of the term “marriage penalty”. What this refers to is combining two spouses’ incomes on one married tax return which will result in a higher tax than the same amount of income split between the two spouses on two single tax returns. In one of the more recent tax law changes within the last few years, Congress had attempted to eliminate the marriage penalty, but the problem is, they didn’t do it for all the tax brackets. For the lowest (10%) and next lowest (15%) tax brackets, the amount of joint income that falls into each bracket is exactly double the amount of single income that falls into each bracket. And that’s where marriage penalty relief ended. Taxable income for a single taxpayer in the next bracket (25%) falls between $36,250 and $87,850, while married joint taxpayers will find that bracket only covers income between $72,500 (double the single amount) and $146,400, (only 167% of the single amount). So if you have two taxpayers with taxable income of $87,850 each, they’ll both be in the 25% bracket, but add those up ($175,700), and on a joint return they’ll now be in the 28% bracket…penalty! For those in the uppermost tax bracket (39.6%), single taxpayers will hit that bracket with taxable income of $400K, while joint taxpayers will hit that bracket at $450K.

This may have you thinking “what about married filing separately?” Unfortunately, the answer is that the tax brackets are even less forgiving than the single ones, and you’ll be in the top tax bracket with only $225K of taxable income, compared to $400K single and $450K joint. There are reasons to file separately that are more legal and protective than tax saving (e.g. divorcing couples who want to keep their taxes/finances separate), and in my experience, in a majority of cases, filing jointly will be cheaper than filing separately, so for the happily married couple, filing jointly will probably be the best course of action.

There are limited ways to try to reduce the effect of the marriage penalty, but that wasn’t the goal of this article. The idea here is to make you aware that the marriage penalty is “out there”, so if you’re planning on tying the knot this year (or know somebody who is), when the dust has settled from the wedding, and the honeymoon is (literally) over, the next thing to think about is meeting with your friendly neighborhood CPA, and do some tax planning early, to help avoid a major tax headache next April 15th.

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Summertime Child Care

No more pencils, no more books, no more teacher’s dirty looks…school’s out for summer. If you’re old enough to remember the Alice Cooper song, you can blame me when you’re still humming it six hours from now!

Now that another school year is coming to a close, how are you going to keep the kiddies occupied and out of trouble for the next few months? Chances are, you and your spouse will both be working during the lazy hazy crazy days of summer, and you’ll have to pay for child care, so why not have Uncle Sam pay for part of the cost? The federal Child and Dependent Care Tax Credit is applicable for summertime child care too, so take advantage of it, but first you need to know how it works. Here are some important points:

1-you have to pay for care so you (and your spouse if filing jointly) can work or actively look for work. The spouse can meet this test for any month that he/she is a full-time student or physically or mentally incapable of self-care.

2-you must have earned income, and if you’re filing jointly, your spouse must have earned income too. Earned income is generally wage and self-employment income.

3-the care must be for one or more qualifying people. In the case of this article, since I’m writing about children, they must be under age 13 and be claimed as a dependent.

4-the care can be provided at home, at a daycare facility, or even at a day camp. If it’s inside your home, then you also have to think about the household employer requirements.

5-the credit is a percentage of the qualified expenses that you for the qualifying person. This percentage starts at 35% and drops to a minimum of 20%, depending on income.

6-up to $3,000 of expenses for one person or $6,000 for two or more qualifying people can be used to compute the credit.

7-the cost of overnight camps or summer school tutoring doesn’t qualify, nor does anything paid to a spouse or other dependent. If either spouse receives dependent care benefits from an employer, special rules apply.

8-the credit is claimed on Form 2441, and basic information on the provider will need to be entered on this form, so make sure you have the provider’s name, address, and identifying number (social security or employer i.d. number). Keep good records to substantiate the credit claimed.

I’ve had many clients over the years who had unrealistic expectations of how much money they were going to save by claiming this credit. Realistically, if you have two or more eligible kids, $6,000 is the maximum amount of child care expenses you can use to compute the credit, and if your income is over $43,000, the percentage for the credit will be 20%, so the maximum credit you can get is $1,200, which isn’t a lot. Obviously it’s better than nothing, and it’s a credit so it will reduce your tax dollar for dollar, as opposed to a deduction which will only reduce your tax by whatever marginal tax rate you’re at. But with good record keeping you’ll save a few bucks, and will be able to afford to give each of your kids (and your spouse) their very own copy of Alice Cooper’s “School’s Out”.

Please forward this article to all parents who incur child care expenses, and have a good summer.

No more pencils, no more books…

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