It’s Tax Time! Are You Ready?

If you’re like most taxpayers, you find yourself with an ominous stack of “homework” aroundTAX TIME! Unfortunately, the job of pulling together the records for your tax appointment is never easy, but the effort usually pays off when it comes to the extra tax you save! When you arrive at your appointment fully prepared, you’ll have more time to:

• Consider every possible legal deduction;
• Better evaluate your options for reporting income and deductions to choose those best suited to your situation;
• Explore current law changes that affect your tax status;
• Talk about possible law changes and discuss tax planning alternatives that could reduce your future tax liability.

Choosing Your Best Alternatives

The tax law allows a variety of methods for handling income and deductions on your return. Choices made at the time you prepare your return often affect not only the current year, but later-year returns as well. When you’re fully prepared for your appointment, you will have more time to explore all avenues available for lowering your tax.

For example, the law allows choices in transactions like:

Sales of property. . . .

If you’re receiving payments on a sales contract over a period of years, you are sometimes able to choose between reporting the whole gain in the year you sell or over a period of time, as you receive payments from the buyer.

Depreciation. . . .

You’re able to deduct the cost of your investment in certain business property using different methods. You can either depreciate the cost over a number of years, or in certain cases, you can deduct them all in one year.

Where to Begin?

Ideally, preparation for your tax appointment should begin in January of the tax year you’re working with. Right after the New Year, set up a safe storage location – a file drawer, a cupboard, a safe, etc. As you receive pertinent records, file them right away, before they’re forgotten or lost. By making the practice a habit, you’ll find your job a lot easier when your actual appointment date rolls around.

Other general suggestions to consider for your appointment preparation include. . .

• Segregate your records according to income and expense categories. For instance, file medical expense receipts in an envelope or folder, interest payments in another, charitable donations in a third, etc. If you receive an organizer or questionnaire to complete before your appointment, make certain you fill out every section that applies to you. (Important: Read all explanations and follow instructions carefully to be sure you don’t miss important data – organizers are designed to remind you of transactions you may miss otherwise.)

• Keep your annual income statements separate from your other documents (e.g., W-2s from employers, 1099s from banks, stockbrokers, etc., and K-1s from partnerships). Be sure to take these documents to your appointment, including the instructions for K-1s!

• Write down questions you may have so you don’t forget to ask them at the appointment. Review last year’s return. Compare your income on that return to the income for the current year. For instance, a dividend from ABC stock on your prior-year return may remind you that you sold ABC this year and need to report the sale.

• Make certain that you have social security numbers for all your dependents. The IRS checks these carefully and can deny deductions for returns filed without them.

• Compare deductions from last year with your records for this year. Did you forget anything?

• Collect any other documents and financial papers that you’re puzzled about. Prepare to bring these to your appointment so you can ask about them.

Accuracy Even for Details

To ensure the greatest accuracy possible in all detail on your return, make sure you review personal data. Check name(s), address, social security number(s), and occupation(s) on last year’s return. Note any changes for this year. Although your telephone number isn’t required on your return, current home and work numbers are always helpful should questions occur during return preparation.

Marital Status Change

If your marital status changed during the year, if you lived apart from your spouse, or if your spouse died during the year, list dates and details. Bring copies of prenuptial, legal separation, divorce, or property settlement agreements, if any, to your appointment.

Dependents

If you have qualifying dependents, you will need to provide the following for each:

• First and last name
• Social security number
• Birth date
• Number of months living in your home
• Their income amount (both taxable and nontaxable)

If you have dependent children over age 18, note how long they were full-time students during the year. To qualify as your dependent, an individual must pass five strict dependency tests. If you think a person qualifies as your dependent (but you aren’t sure), tally the amounts you provided toward his/her support vs. the amounts he/she provided. This will simplify making a final decision about whether you really qualify for the dependency deduction.

Some Transactions Deserve Special Treatment

Certain transactions require special treatment on your tax return. It’s a good idea to invest a little extra preparation effort when you have had the following transactions:

Sales of Stock or Other Property:  All sales of stocks, bonds, securities, real estate, and any other type of property need to be reported on your return, even if you had no profit or loss. List each sale, and have the purchase and sale documents available for each transaction.

Purchase date, sale date, cost, and selling price must all be noted on your return. Make sure this information is contained on the documents you bring to your appointment.

Gifted or Inherited Property: If you sell property that was given to you, you need to determine when and for how much the original owner purchased it. If you sell property you inherited, you need to know the date of the decedent’s death and the property’s value at that time. You may be able to find this information on estate tax returns or in probate documents.

Reinvested Dividends: You may have sold stock or a mutual fund in which you participated in a dividend reinvestment program. If so, you will need to have records of each stock purchase made with the reinvested dividends.

Sale of Home: The tax law provides special breaks for home sale gains, and you may be able to exclude all (or a part) of a gain on a home if you meet certain ownership, occupancy, and holding period requirements. If you file a joint return with your spouse and your gain from the sale of the home exceeds $500,000 ($250,000 for other individuals), record the amounts you spent on improvements to the property. Remember too, possible exclusion of gain applies only to a primary residence, and the amount of improvements made to other homes is required regardless of the gain amount. Be sure to bring a copy of the sale documents (usually the closing escrow statement) with you to the appointment.

Purchase of a Home:  If you purchased a home during 2009 and you are a first-time homebuyer or a long-term homeowner after November 6, 2009, you may qualify for a substantial tax credit.  Be sure to bring a copy of the escrow closing statement if you purchased a home.

Vehicle Purchase: If you purchased a new car (or cars) this year, you can deduct the sales tax.  If the car was a hybrid vehicle or one that qualifies as a lean burn vehicle, you may also qualify for a special credit.  Please bring the purchase statement to the appointment with you.

Standard Deduction: If you usually take the standard deduction, you should be aware that a portion of your property taxes, certain vehicle sales taxes and disaster casualty losses can be deducted as part of your standard deduction this year without itemizing your deductions.  Be sure to bring your property tax statements, car purchase statements and records relating to any losses incurred in a federally declared disaster area.

Home Energy-Related Expenditures: If you made home modifications to conserve energy (such as special windows, roofing, doors, etc.) or installed solar, geothermal, or wind power generating systems, please bring the details of those purchases and the manufacturer’s credit qualification certification to your appointment.  You may qualify for a substantial energy-related tax credit.

Ponzi Scheme or Bank Failure Losses:  If you suffered losses as the result of a Ponzi scheme or as the result of a bank failure, there is special tax treatment for these types of losses.  Please be prepared with the details of the losses and the amounts lost.

Car Expenses: Where you have used one or more automobiles for business, list the expenses of each separately. The government requires that you provide your total mileage, business miles, and commuting miles for each car on your return, so be prepared to have them available. If you were reimbursed for mileage through an employer, know the reimbursement amount and whether the reimbursement is included in your W-2.

Charitable Donations: Cash contributions (regardless of amount) must be substantiated with a bank record or written communication from the charity showing the name of the charitable organization, date and amount of the contribution.

Cash donations put into a “Christmas kettle,” church collection plate, etc., are not deductible. For clothing and household contributions, the items donated must generally be in good or better condition, and items such as undergarments and socks are not deductible. A record of each item contributed must be kept, indicating the name and address of the charity, date and location of the contribution, and a reasonable description of the property. Contributions valued less than $250 and dropped off at an unattended location do not require a receipt. For contributions of $500 or more, the record must also include when and how the property was acquired and your cost basis in the property.

Please call us 773-728-1500 the Accountatns in Chicago if you have any questions.

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You’re Fired! The story of an IRS auditor!!

Nobody really likes paying taxes. Sometimes, even the folks who work for the IRS resent paying the taxes that go towards funding their own salaries. Usually they just grumble about it and then go on with their day. But sometimes they try a little “self help.” So now let’s look at what one auditor did when she wanted to minimize her taxes.

Jacynthia Quinn spent 20 years as an IRS auditor in El Monte, California. The IRS audited her and her husband for 2006 (when she claimed $23,549 in charitable deductions and $22,217 in medical expenses) and 2007 (when she claimed $24,567 in charitable deductions and $25,325 in medical expenses). The Service disallowed those charitable and medical deductions, among other write-offs, and the case wound up in Tax Court.

You’d think an IRS auditor would be the first to know how to avoid an audit! So, how did Quinn do on the other end of the hot seat? Well, let’s look at those charitable contributions first:

“Petitioner proffered ‘receipts’ purportedly confirming charitable contributions. They were inconsistent and unreliable. Representatives from seven different charitable organizations credibly testified that the receipts were altered or fabricated. For example, petitioner offered a receipt purportedly substantiating $12,500 of charitable contributions to a religious organization. The purported receipt, however, identified individuals other than the couple as the donors. The organization’s records did not reflect any contributions made by the couple and confirmed that the other identified individuals had contributed $12,500.”

That doesn’t sound good. Bad enough if one donor testifies your receipts are faked. But seven? How about those medical deductions? Any better luck there?

“Petitioner similarly failed to substantiate the claimed medical and dental expenses. Some of her documentation also suffered from authenticity problems and appeared to have been ‘doctored.’ Petitioner offered three documents purportedly issued by Dr. Christopher Ajigbotafe or his staff confirming more than $9,000 in medical expenses for Mr. Quinn. Each document, however, spelled the doctor’s last name differently (‘Ajigohotafe,’ ‘Ajibotafe’ and ‘Ajigbotafe’). One ‘statement’ was dated in January 2006 and estimated expenses for the upcoming year. The amount of expenses for 2007 contained in another ‘statement’ was contradicted by a letter purportedly from the doctor’s staff.”

Keep in mind here that Quinn is an IRS auditor, with 20 years of training and experience auditing exactly these sorts of deductions! Naturally, the Tax Court didn’t show her a lot of sympathy — they sided with the IRS on every issue and even smacked her with a civil fraud penalty. In fact, the IRS Restructuring and Reform Act of 1998 requires the IRS to fire any employee who willfully understates their federal tax liability (unless they can show the understatement is due to “reasonable cause” and not “willful neglect”). Since Quinn’s own “excuse” is on a par with the dog eating her homework, she’s likely to lose her job as well.

It’s certainly entertaining to read about cases like Jacynthia Quinn’s. It’s satisfying to see a cheater get her comeuppance. And it’s great to see the IRS enforcing the same rules for its own employees as it does for us. But there’s a valuable lesson here, even for the majority of us who don’t cheat. Dotting the “i’s” and crossing the “t’s” is important for everyone. That’s why we don’t just outline strategies and concepts to help you pay less tax. We work with you toimplement those strategies and document them to survive scrutiny. And remember, we’re here for your family, friends, and colleagues too, so give us a call: 773-728-1500.

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A BIG Auch!!

The English novelist and playwright Henry Fielding once wrote that “a rich man without charity is a rogue; and perhaps it would be no difficult matter to prove that he is also a fool.” But sometimes you can be rich, charitable, and foolish, all at the same time. And that can make for some really expensive mistakes.

Joseph Mohamed is a California real estate broker and appraiser who has made a fortune buying, selling, and developing real estate. In 1998, he and his wife Shirley set up a charitable remainder trust for the benefit of the Shriners Hospitals for Children, the Sacramento Food Bank & Family Services, and the Pacific Legal Foundation. Then, in 2003 and 2004, he donated six California properties to the trust: four adjacent street corners in Rio Linda, a 40-acre subdivided parcel south of Sacramento, and a shopping center in Elk Grove.

Mohamed prepared his own taxes for those two years—definitely not standard operating procedure for someone in his shoes. When it came time to fill out Form 8283, “Noncash Charitable Contributions”, he skipped the instructions because “it seemed so clear that he didn’t think he needed to.” The form said the description of the donated property could be“completed by the taxpayer and/or appraiser”. And Mohamed was an appraiser, right? Of course he knew what his own properties were worth. How hard could it really be? He attached statements to his returns explaining how he valued the two biggest parcels. Then he deducted $18.5 million for the gift, satisfied that he had done all he needed to substantiate his write off.

It turns out, though, that the IRS wants a teensy bit more than just your say-so before handing out eighteen million in benefits. In fact, they have some pretty specific rules for deducting anygift of property worth more than $5,000. You need a “qualified” appraisal, made no sooner than 60 days before the gift and no later than the due date of the return reporting the gift itself. It has to be signed by a certified appraiser — not the donor or the taxpayer claiming the deduction. And the appraisal has to include specific information about the property itself, your basis in the property, and how you acquired it in the first place.

The IRS started auditing Mohamed’s 2003 return in April, 2005. You can probably imagine how charitably inclined they were toward his self-appraisal. So Mohamed went out and gotindependent appraisals showing the properties were worth over $20 million — two million morethan he deducted. And the trust actually sold the 40 acres south of Sacramento for $23 million. You would think that would be enough. But you would be wrong. The IRS held firm, and the case wound up in Tax Court.

Last month, the Court issued their 26-page opinion in Mohamed v. Commissioner. They ruled that none of Mohamed’s appraisals were “qualified” under Section 1.170A-13(c)(3)(i) and shot down his entire deduction. The Court confessed that

“We recognize that this result is harsh — complete denial of charitable deductions to a couple that did not overvalue, and may well have undervalued, their contributions — all reported on forms that even to the Court’s eyes seemed likely to mislead someone who didn’t read the instructions […] the problems of misvalued property are so great that Congress was quite specific about what the charitably inclined have to do to defend their deductions, and we cannot in a single sympathetic case undermine those rules.”

So, ouch. Big, big ouch. Eighteen million bucks worth of deductions, lost because someone didn’t dot the i’s and cross the t’s. Six million in actual tax savings, down the proverbial drain.

We realize it sounds self-serving to tell you to come to us before you make a big financial move. But Joseph Mohamed’s case emphasizes how important this really is. You may not have millions riding on doing it right. But are you really willing to risk tax benefits you truly deserve by doing it yourself?

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Photo from Nouhailler on flickr.com

Income Tax Tip: Save money by deducting mileage expenses

Don’t miss out on tax savings this year by forgetting about tax deductible travel expenses. There are four cases in which you may deduct your travel expenses. In each case, if you drove, you may deduct a standard rate per mile. If you took another form of transportation, the actual fare for a taxi, bus, or train may be deducted.

  • BUSINESS: Business miles are those driven for business, other than your daily commute. If you are travelling out of town, or even nearby for a meeting, conference, or seminar, you may deduct these miles. If your principle place of business is a home office, you may deduct miles driven to and from other work locations.
  • MEDICAL:  Qualifying miles are those driven to medical or dental appointments occurring in order to prevent or alleviate a physical or mental defect or illness. This includes miles driven to and from doctors, dentists, surgeons, chiropractors, psychiatrists, psychologists, and more.
  • MOVING: Moving expenses may be deducted if the move is for business purposes. For moving to qualify, the new residence must be located fifty miles or more closer to the new place of business than the old residence.
  • CHARITY:   Travel expenses that necessarily arise while performing services for a charitable organization–such as through volunteer work or as an appointed representative of a religious institution–are considered charitable and thereby deductible. This applies whether you pay the expenses directly or indirectly (by contributing to the organization) as long as the trip is not significantly for recreation or vacation.

Using the most up-to-date mileage rates will help you get the biggest deductible possible from your 2011 tax return. Standard mileage rates are used to calculate the deductible costs of driving a vehicle for business purposes, charitable purposes, medical purposes, or for moving over 50 miles for business purposes.

For cars, vans, and pick-up trucks, the mileage is:

55.5 cents per mile for business miles

23 cents per mile for medical or moving

14 cents per mile for charitable organizations

These mileage rates were given on July 1st, 2011 by the IRS for the mid-year adjustment. The IRS recently came out with the mileage rates effective January 1st, 2012, and they are the same as the current rates.

These tips come from your favorite Chicago accountants at TaxCutters, Inc.  Feel free to call us at (773) 728-1500 or email info@taxcutters.com for more information or tax help.

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