Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Does Filing My Tax Return Early Make Sense?

Although individual income tax returns don't have to be filed until April 15, taxpayers who file early get their refunds a lot sooner. The IRS begins accepting returns in January but does not starting processing returns until February. Determining whether to file early depends on various personal and financial considerations. Filing early to somehow fly under the IRS's audit radar, however, has been ruled out by experts as a viable strategy.

Required documents

Filing a return early may not be practical for many taxpayers because they do not yet have enough information to accurately fill out their return. If you have not received information returns, like Forms 1099 or Schedule K-1, or if you are missing documents or other information you need to complete your return, it may be difficult, if not impossible, to accurately prepare your tax return. For example, employers do not have to provide wage statements to their employees until January 31 (although an employer can provide Form W-2 sooner if an employee terminates employment). The IRS requires this statement to be attached to your return (either in paper form or electronically when filing online).

Information returns also do not have to be furnished until January 31. These include, among others, the forms for dividends, interest income, royalty income (Form 1099-MISC), stock sales (Form 1099-B), real estate sales (Form 1099-S), state tax refunds (Form 1099-G), mortgage interest paid (Form 1098), and distributions from pension plans (Form 1099-R). Waiting until you receive all the information needed to complete your return accurately also lessens your chances of making mistakes, which can call attention to your return by the IRS. The IRS will not process your return electronically until it is accurate.

Last year's return

You'll also want to take a look at your 2009 tax return. Did your circumstances change in 2010? Changes such as starting a new job, retiring, getting married, having a child, and so on, have important tax consequences. Congress extended, enhanced and created new tax incentives in 2010 under the Tax Relief, Unemployment Insurance Reauthorization, and Job Creation Act of 2010 (2010 Tax Relief Act) that could generate a larger refund. Another important consideration is the current economic downturn, which may have generated significant tax losses in many investment portfolios.


If you have all the information you need to completely and accurately fill out your tax return, and you are owed a refund, filing early is attractive. The sooner you file, the sooner you'll see your refund check from the IRS. If you file your return electronically and choose to have your refund directly deposited into your bank account, the IRS typically will issue your refund in as few as 10 days.

If you owe money, however, you may want to wait until April 15 to file. Alternatively, you can file early online and date your tax payment to be released on April 15. If you have the funds to pay what you owe and you pay early, you could lose out on keeping the money invested and earning interest until April 15.

Also remember, no matter how early you file your return, the three-year statute of limitations during which the IRS can question your return and assess more tax doesn't start to run until April 15. Please contact our office if you have any questions about filing early.

Circular 230 notification - Any U.S. federal tax advice that is contained in this document was not intended or written to be used by any taxpayer for the purpose of avoiding penalties that may be imposed on the taxpayer by the Internal Revenue Service, and it cannot be used by any taxpayer for such purpose.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

2010 Tax Relief Act extends lucrative tax breaks for families through 2012.

Congress not only extended the current, lower individual income tax rates through 2012 in the recently enacted Tax Relief, Unemployment Insurance Reauthorization and Job Creation Act of 2010 (2010 Tax Relief Act); it also extended a number of beneficial tax breaks for families and individuals. Through 2012, the law extended significant tax incentives for education, children, and energy-saving home improvements.

Individual Tax Rates. The 2010 Tax Relief Act extends all of the current lower individual tax rates across the board, for all taxpayers, at 10, 15, 25, 28, 33, and 35 percent for two years, through 2012. In addition, under the new law the size of the 15 percent tax bracket for married couples filing jointly and surviving spouses remains double that of the 15 percent tax bracket for individual filers, thus continuing to provide "marriage penalty" relief.

State and local sales tax deduction. Congress also extended the deduction for state and local sales taxes in lieu of the state and local income tax deduction through 2011.

More marriage penalty relief. In addition to expanding the 15 percent income tax rate bracket, the 2010 Tax Relief Act also maintains the increased basic standard deduction for joint filers. Through 2012, the standard deduction for married taxpayers filing a joint return (and surviving spouses) is twice the basic standard deduction amount for single individuals. For example, the standard deduction for individuals for 2011 is $5,800; for married taxpayers filing jointly, the standard deduction for 2011 will be $11,600.

No personal exemption phaseout. Higher-income individuals and families will also benefit from the ability to claim an unreduced personal exemption. Before 2010, taxpayers with income over certain amounts were subject to phaseout of their personal exemption. However, under the 2010 Tax Relief Act, personal exemptions are not reduced, for an additional two years through 2012.

Expanded child tax credit. The 2010 Tax Relief Act extends the $1,000 child tax credit for two years, through December 31, 2012. The child tax credit can be claimed for each qualifying child under age 17 (at the close of the year) that the taxpayer can claim as a dependent. However, the amount of the credit is reduced as a taxpayer's income increases. The credit is reduced (but not below zero) by $50 for each $1,000 of modified adjusted gross income (AGI) above $110,000 for joint filers and above $75,000 for others. The new law also extends other enhancements to the credit, including the ability to offset both the regular tax and alternative minimum tax.

Expanded earned income tax credit. The 2010 Tax Relief Act extends the enhanced earned income tax credit (EITC) for two years, through 2012. The new law also simplifies computation of the EITC.

Adoption credit. Through 2012, the new law expands the adoption credit and the exclusion from income for employer-provided adoption assistance. However, the new law does not extend certain changes made by the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act of 2010 (PPACA) for 2010 and 2011. Therefore, the credit is not refundable after 2011 and the additional $1,000 under the PPACA is not available after 2011. For 2012, the maximum credit therefore is $12,170 (indexed for inflation after 2010) and is phased out ratably for taxpayers with modified AGI over $182,520.

Dependent care credit. The 2010 Tax Relief Act extends the enhanced dependent care credit for two years, through 2012. A taxpayer who incurs expenses to care for a child under age 13 or for an incapacitated dependent or spouse, in order to enable the taxpayer to work or look for work, is eligible to claim the dependent care credit. The maximum expenses that can be claimed through 2012 are $3,000 for one qualifying individual and $6,000 for more than one qualifying individual. Additionally, the maximum credit rate is 35 percent. Thus, for 2010, the maximum dependent care credit is $1,050 (35 percent of up to $3,000 of eligible expenses) for one qualifying individual and $2,100 for more than one qualifying individual (35 percent of up to $6,000 of qualified eligible expenses).

Tax breaks for education. The 2010 Tax Relief Act extends a number of tax incentives to help defray the costs of education. The new law extends the American Opportunity Tax Credit (AOTC), the student loan interest deduction, the exclusion from income for employer-provided assistance, and more. The AOTC, which is 40 percent refundable, can be claimed for expenses incurred for the first four years of a student's post-secondary education. The credit equals 100 percent of the first $2,000 of qualified higher education tuition and related expenses (including course materials), and 25 percent of the next $2,000 of expenses. In effect, a maximum credit of $2,500 a year can be claimed for each eligible student.

Through 2012, employees who receive educational assistance from their employer can continue to exclude up to $5,250 in employer-provided educational assistance from their income and employment taxes. Graduate school tuition also qualifies for the exclusion.

Taxpayers will also continue to benefit from the $2,500 above-the-line student loan interest deduction through 2012. The new law also expanded the modified AGI range for the phaseout of the deduction. For 2010, for instance, the deduction phases out ratably for taxpayers with modified AGI between $60,000 and $75,000 ($120,000 and $150,000 for joint filers).

Coverdell education savings accounts (ESAs) provide taxpayers with another mechanism to save for education. The 2010 Tax Relief Act enables taxpayers to continue to contribute up to $2,000 a year to a Coverdell ESA for beneficiaries under age 18 (as well as special needs beneficiaries of any age). In addition to higher education expenses, Coverdell ESAs can be used to pay for elementary and secondary education expenses through 2012. However, the amount that can be contributed is subject to income phaseouts.

Incentives for energy-efficient improvements. The 2010 Tax Relief Act also rewards individuals and families who make energy-saving improvements to their home. For example, the new law extends through 2011 (only one year) the popular Code Sec. 25C tax credit, which provides a credit for expenses for qualified energy efficiency improvements and property, such as furnaces, water heaters, insulation materials, exterior windows, skylights, doors, and other items.

Sunday, January 16, 2011

IRS Audit Red Flags: The Dirty Dozen

As the 2011 tax season begins, we want to address one of the most frequent concerns our clients have as they begin to gather their tax information: what could trigger an audit? The following Yahoo Finance article addresses this area of concern for many taxpayers.

IRS Audit Red Flags: The Dirty Dozen
by Joy Taylor

Here are 12 hot spots on your return that can raise the chances of scrutiny by the IRS.

Ever wonder why some tax returns are audited by the IRS while most are ignored? Well, there's a whole host of reasons to this age-old question. The IRS audits only about 1% of all individual tax returns annually. The agency doesn't have enough personnel and resources to examine each and every tax return filed during a year. So the odds are pretty low that your return will be picked for an audit. And of course, the only reason filers should worry about an audit is if they are cheating on their taxes.

However, the chances of you being audited or otherwise hearing from the IRS can increase depending upon various factors, including whether you omitted income, the types of deductions or losses claimed, certain credits taken, foreign asset holdings and math errors, just to name a few. Although there's no sure way to avoid an IRS audit, you should be aware of red flags that could increase your chance of drawing some unwanted attention from the IRS. Here are the 12 most important ones:

1. Failure to report all taxable income. The IRS receives copies of all 1099s and W-2s that you receive during a year, so make sure that you report all required income on your tax return. The IRS computers are pretty good at matching these forms received with the income shown on your return. A mismatch sends up a red flag and causes the IRS computers to spit out a bill. If you receive a 1099 for income that isn't yours or the income listed is incorrect, get the issuer to file a corrected form with the IRS.

2. Returns claiming the home-buyer credit. First-time homebuyers and longtime homeowners who claimed the homebuyer credit should be prepared for IRS scrutiny. Make sure you submit proper documentation when taking this credit. First-time homebuyers have to attach a copy of their settlement statement to the return, and longtime homeowners should also attach documents showing prior ownership of a home, including records of property tax and insurance coverage. All claims for this credit are being screened. As of May 2010, more than 260,000 returns had been selected for correspondence audits (examinations done by mail rather than face-to-face) because filers did not attach the necessary documents to their tax returns. And those numbers will continue to grow.

Also, the IRS has ways of policing the recapture of the homebuyer credit. Generally, the credit is required to be recaptured if the home is sold within three years for homes bought in 2009 or 2010 and within 15 years for homes bought before 2009. The IRS is checking public real estate databases for sales of homes in which the credit was taken.

3. Claiming large charitable deductions. This comes up again and again because the IRS has found abuse on audit, especially with those taking larger deductions. We all know that charitable contributions are a great write-off and help you to feel all warm and fuzzy inside. However, if your charitable deductions are disproportionately large compared to your income, it raises a red flag. That's because the IRS can tell what the average charitable donation is for a person in your tax bracket. Also, if you don't get an appraisal for donations of valuable property or if you fail to file Form 8283 for donations over $500, the chances of audit increase. Be sure you keep all your supporting documents, including receipts for cash and property contributions made during the year, and abide by the documentation rules. And attach Form 8283 if required.

4. Home office deduction. The IRS is always very interested in this deduction, primarily because it has a pretty high adjustment rate on audit. This is because history has shown that many people who claim a home office don't meet all the requirements for properly taking the deduction, and others may overstate the benefit. If you qualify, you can deduct a percentage of your rent, real estate taxes, utilities, phone bills, insurance, and other costs that are properly allocated to the home office. That's a great deal. However, in order to take this write-off, the space must be used exclusively and on a regular basis as your principal place of business. That makes it difficult to claim a guest bedroom or children's playroom as a home office, even if you also use the space to conduct your work. Exclusive use means a specific area of the home is used only for trade or business, not also where the family watches TV at night. Don't be afraid to take the home-office deduction if you're otherwise entitled to it. Risk of audit should not keep you from taking legitimate deductions. If you have it and can prove it, then use it.

5. Business meals, travel and entertainment. Schedule C is a treasure trove of tax deductions for self-employeds. But it's also a gold mine for IRS agents, who know from past experience that self-employeds tend to claim excessive deductions. Most under-reporting of income and overstating of deductions are done by those who are self-employed. And the IRS looks at both higher-grossing sole proprietorships as well as smaller ones.

Big deductions for meals, travel and entertainment are always ripe for audit. A large write-off here will set off alarm bells, especially if the amount seems too large for the business. Agents know that many filers slip in personal meals here or fail to satisfy the strict substantiation rules for these expenses. To qualify for meals or entertainment deductions, you must keep detailed records generally documenting the following for each expense: amount, place, persons attending, business purpose and nature of discussion or meeting. Also, receipts are required for expenditures over $75 or any expense for lodging while traveling away from home. Without proper documentation, your deduction is toast.
[New Tax Deal: What's In It For You?]

6. Claiming 100% business use of vehicle. Another area that is ripe for IRS review is use of a business vehicle. When you depreciate a car, you have to list on Form 4562 what percentage of its use during the year was for business. Claiming 100% business use for an automobile on Schedule C is red meat for IRS agents. They know that it's extremely rare that an individual actually uses a vehicle 100% of the time for business, especially if no other vehicle is available for personal use. IRS agents are trained to focus on this issue and will closely scrutinize your records. Make sure you keep very detailed mileage logs and precise calendar entries for the purpose of every road trip. Sloppy recordkeeping makes it easy for the revenue agent to disallow your deduction. As a reminder, even if you use the IRS' standard mileage rate to deduct your business vehicle costs, ensure that you are not also claiming actual expenses for maintenance, insurance and other out-of-pocket costs. The IRS has found filer noncompliance in this area as well and will look for this.

7. Claiming a loss for a hobby activity. Your chances of "winning" the audit lottery increase if you have wage income and file a Schedule C with large losses. And, if your Schedule C loss-generating activity sounds like a hobby -- horse breeding, car racing and such -- the IRS pays even more attention. It's issued guidelines to its agents on how to sniff out those who improperly deduct hobby losses. Large Schedule C losses are audit bait, but reporting losses from activities in which it looks like you might be having a good time is just asking for IRS scrutiny.

Tax laws don't allow you to deduct hobby losses on Schedule C. However, you do have to report any income earned from your hobbies. In order to claim a hobby loss, your activity must be entered into and conducted with the reasonable expectation of making a profit. If your activity generates profit three out of every five years (or two out of seven years for horse breeding), the law presumes you're in business to make a profit, unless the IRS establishes to the contrary. If audited, the IRS is going to make you prove you have a legitimate business and not a hobby. So, make sure you run your activity in a business-like manner and can provide supporting documents for all expenses.

8. Cash businesses. Small business owners, especially those in cash-intensive businesses -- taxi drivers, car washes, bars, hair salons, restaurants and the like -- are an easy target for IRS auditors. The agency is well aware that those who primarily receive cash in their business are less likely to accurately report all of their taxable income. The IRS wants to narrow the tax gap, and history has shown that cash-based businesses are a good source of audit adjustments. It has a new guide for agents to use when auditing cash intensive businesses, telling how to interview owners and noting various indicators of unreported income.

9. Failure to report a foreign bank account. The IRS is intensely interested in people with offshore accounts, especially those in tax havens. U.S. tax authorities have had some recent success in trying to get foreign banks (such as UBS in Switzerland) to disclose information on U.S. account holders. Also, the IRS had a voluntary compliance program where people came in and reported their foreign bank accounts and foreign assets in exchange for lesser penalties than they would have otherwise been subject to. The IRS has learned a lot from these probes.

Failure to report a foreign bank account can lead to pretty severe penalties, and the IRS has made this issue a top priority. Make sure that if you have any such accounts, you properly report them when you file your return. Keep in mind, though, that if you have never previously reported the foreign bank account on your return, and you decide to do so for the first time in 2010, that might also look suspicious to the IRS.

10. Engaging in currency transactions. The IRS gets many reports of cash transactions in excess of $10,000 involving banks, casinos, car dealers and other businesses, plus suspicious activity reports from banks and disclosures of foreign accounts. A recent report by Treasury inspectors concluded that these currency transaction reports are a valuable source of audit leads for sniffing out unreported income. The IRS agreed and it will make greater use of these forms in its audit process. So if you are a person who makes large cash purchases or deposits, be prepared for IRS scrutiny. Also, beware that banks and other institutions file reports on suspicious activities that appear to avoid the currency transaction rules (such as persons depositing $9,500 cash one day and an additional $9,500 cash two days later).

11. Math errors. One of the biggest reasons that people receive a letter from the IRS is because of mathematical mistakes they make on their tax returns. If you make an error in your favor, you are going to hear from the tax man, and there is a greater risk of the IRS pulling the whole return for audit. So take time to ensure all your calculations are correct. Even though math errors may not lead to a full-blown audit, it's always best to remain under the radar of IRS computers.

12. Taking higher-than-average deductions. If deductions on your return are disproportionately large compared to your income, the IRS audit formulas take this into account when selecting returns for examination. Screeners then pull the most questionable returns for review. But if you've got the proper documentation for your deduction, don't be scared to claim it. There's no reason to ever pay the IRS more tax than you actually owe.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010