Oh S#$%, I Screwed Up My Tax Return!

No…not me, my return is perfect! But if you’re one those people who got in over your head, trying to do a return on TurboTax when you had no idea what you were doing, or you had an incompetent tax preparer omit things from your return, it’s not the end of the world, and you won’t go to jail for it either! So take a deep breath, and read on.

It’s a fact of life that people make mistakes, even when it comes to tax returns. After filing your returns, you may discover that you forgot to claim all those charitable contributions you made, or you realized that you forgot to include the W-2 income (and withholdings) from that job you left at the beginning of last year, or the broker sent you a corrected 1099 package. These are just a few examples, but the point is, there are many things that you may remember (or come to your attention) after you already filed your tax returns. The vehicle for making the corrections is filing Form 1040X (Amended U.S. Individual Income Tax Return) with IRS. Don’t forget to amend your state tax return too. Not all states have a separate form for amending the original return, so check with the tax department of the state you live in, to find out how to do it (or have your favorite tax professional help you out!). Note that an amended return doesn’t have to be filed for reasons such as mathematical errors (IRS will probably catch those, and send a notice), or if you forgot to attach a form that you should’ve attached (they’ll let you know about this, too).

Form 1040X can be used to amend whatever original federal return you filed, meaning that if you filed Form 1040, 1040A, 1040EZ, or even 1040NR, you can use the 1040X to make corrections. The 1040X isn’t ‘year specific’ like the 1040 is, meaning there isn’t a 2011 Form 1040X, rather, there are boxes at the top of the form for you to check which year you’re amending. If you have multiple years to amend, you must submit a separate 1040X for each year, and check the year that you’re amending. IRS recommends (and I personally concur) that if you’re amending more than one year, put each year in a separate envelope. That way, if one year gets lost in the mail, they won’t all get lost.

The structure of Form 1040X is fairly simple. There are three columns; the first one is for entering amounts from various lines on your original return, the second one shows the changes you’re making, and the third shows the corrected amounts. In addition to the form itself, you must attach any schedules that have changed from your original submission. Using one of the examples above, if you omitted charitable contributions on your original return, you must attach Schedule A (Itemized Deductions) to your amended return, to show the change. In addition to any attachments, there’s a section on page 2 of the return where you need to put an explanation of why you’re amending the return. And continuing the above example, you would write something like “original return omitted charitable contributions of $100,000” (yes, you were very charitable!)

Depending on whether you’re amending the return to include income or deductions that were missed on your original return will determine whether you owe additional tax or you will receive a refund. It’s all determined as part of the computations on page 1. If you have a balance due, pay it with the amended return, and IRS will send you a bill for any interest or penalties you owe. If you’re due a refund, it’ll be mailed at some point, after the return is processed. IRS indicates an 8 to 12 week processing time for amended returns. The other thing to remember is that if you’re amending a return to claim a refund, you must file it within three years of the date you filed the original return, or within two years of the date you paid the tax, whichever is later.

The moral of the story is, if you screwed up your return, don’t fret; it can be fixed. And next time, think about having a competent, trained professional (like Jay the CPA) prepare your taxes.

Please share this article with others who may benefit from the wisdom contained herein(!) And if you’ve had any interesting personal experiences with amending tax returns, please leave a comment.

S Corporations and Reasonable Compensation

If you’re a small business owner, you may have heard the term “S corporation” or “S corp”. If you haven’t, then I’m guessing that you haven’t had a conversation with a CPA lately. Small businesses choose to make an “S” election to eliminate the self-employment tax on net income that a sole proprietor, single or multi-member LLC, or partnership would ordinarily be subject to. While there is this valuable tax benefit (13.3% for 2012) to being an S corporation for tax purposes, it’s extremely important to be aware that the savings on self-employment tax is not a giveaway by IRS, and if you’re not careful, it can cost you.

While it’s very tempting to just claim the net income from your S corp on your personal tax return, and only pay income tax (and no self-employment tax) on that income, IRS wants to see you pay yourself a “reasonable compensation” if you perform services for your S corp. If you’re the 100% shareholder and only person involved in your S corp, it would be difficult to claim that you provided no services for your own business, so you need to take a salary, the same way that you would pay a salary to an employee, since you’re in reality an employee of your own S corp. As such, you also become involved with filing quarterly payroll tax returns, making federal and state unemployment contributions, and issuing yourself a W-2 at the end of the year.

If you’re a small business that has made the S election, and are thinking “the heck with taking a reasonable compensation”, be advised that this is something that has seen a lot of noncompliance and abuse in recent past, and it’s on IRS’s radar. They’ve won many court cases on this subject, in spite of the fact that the Internal Revenue Code doesn’t explicitly define what “reasonable compensation” means, even though they’ve issued a fact sheet about compensation for S Corporation officers (just Google “FS-2008-25”).

Making an S election can be a source of significant tax savings, even with the additional costs of using a payroll service to issue paychecks to you and file payroll tax returns, and having a CPA prepare a separate tax return for the business (Form 1120S). It may be worth your while to invest a few dollars in having your tax professional run a side by side comparison of how much total tax you’d pay without having the S election vs. how much you’d pay with the election.

Please share this article with fellow business owners, and leave a comment on your own experience with being an S corp.

Tax Planning After Death?!

Did you read the title of the article and think that I lost my mind? How could a deceased taxpayer plan anything?! Of course they can’t, but the executor of the estate can use various tax planning techniques to save money, and minimize or shift the amount of tax that a decedent’s estate will pay. Here are just a few tips…

Select a Fiscal Year End-one basic thing to keep in mind when considering the taxation of an estate is that the assets held by a decedent when she/he passed away will generally continue to generate income after death. Think of any dividend paying stock or mutual fund, and you’ll see that dividends will continue to be paid, regardless of whether they’re held by an individual or an estate. An estate is one of just a couple of “tax paying” entities that has the ability to choose a fiscal year end, that is, a year end other than December 31. By picking a different fiscal year end, the estate can effectively defer tax on income retained in the estate, or on income distributed to beneficiaries.

Elect to Include Income From the Decedent’s Trust on the Estate’s Income Tax Return-as I mentioned above, an estate is able to choose a fiscal year end, while a trust must use a calendar year end. By electing to include the income from a decedent’s qualified revocable trust on the estate income tax return, the executor can effectively shift the income (and tax) from one taxable year to another.

Consider Distributions to Beneficiaries to Minimize Tax-this “tool” is almost a no brainer, provided there are no issues with an estate’s ability to make distributions to beneficiaries (such as assets tied up due to legal problems, or family issues). The tax brackets for an estate are so small that an estate will be in the maximum (35%) bracket at $11,650 of taxable income. By contrast, a single taxpayer doesn’t hit the 35% bracket until getting to $388,350 of taxable income. So if it’s at all possible, the estate’s income should be distributed out to the beneficiaries.

File an Initial/Final Return-o.k., even though this one potentially means less fees in my pocket, one thing an executor should consider is filing just one tax return for an estate, in which both the “initial return” and “final return” boxes are checked. For smaller estates that are able to take care of business quickly, and make all the required distributions, this is the way to go, since it will save having to file a return for a second year.

These are just a few of many things that an executor can do, to save tax money on an estate. Please pass this article along to anybody you know who may be dealing with an estate, and post any comments you may have, based on your own experience.