IRS issues another warning

Another strong warning from the IRS is alerting taxpayers to phone scams that have already resulted in 90,000 complaints and the theft of millions of dollars. Here’s how the typical scam works: The caller claims to be from the IRS and, using hostile and abusive language, demands immediate payment of taxes by a prepaid debit card or wire transfer. The IRS reminds taxpayers it will never contact you by phone about owed taxes; the first contact will be by mail. It will never ask for credit, debit, or prepaid card information in a phone call, and it will never request immediate payment over the phone.

Worthless stock and tax timing

In the last few years, you may have purchased stock in a dot-com that’s now out of business, or in another company whose share price is now just pennies. Does this mean you can take a tax loss for a worthless security? Here’s a quick look at the rules.

First, the stock must be completely worthless before you can claim a loss. For example, if it’s a publicly traded company and the share price is as low as a penny, it still doesn’t qualify as worthless. (If this is the case, you may be better off selling it to your broker for a penny and taking a regular capital loss.)

If it is worthless, you must be able to identify an event that caused it to become worthless and a date for that event. For example, even if a company declares bankruptcy, the stock may not be worthless if there’s a chance it will reorganize and emerge from bankruptcy. But if it becomes clear at a bankruptcy hearing that the creditors will own the reorganized company, you can consider your stock worthless at that time.

You must claim a worthless security’s loss in the tax year it became worthless. Because this is sometimes not obvious until later, the IRS allows you to go back seven years to file an amended return claiming the loss.

Because these are general rules and because it is often a judgment call to decide that a stock is worthless, we encourage you to contact our office with any questions you have.

Grandparents can help with college costs

Are you a grandparent who wants to help pay for a grandchild’s college education? You’ll find several ways to do this, each with its own limitations and tax consequences.

GIFTS. The simplest way is to make an outright cash gift to your grandchild each year. In 2014, you can give up to $14,000 without any gift tax liability. If your spouse joins in the gift, you can jointly give each grandchild up to $28,000 each year.

DIRECT PAYMENTS. You can give unlimited amounts without gift tax consequences if you make the payments directly to a qualified education institution on behalf of your grandchild. Payments can only be for tuition, not for dorm fees, meals, books, etc.

EDUCATION ACCOUNTS. You could set up a Coverdell education savings account or a Section 529 plan for your grandchild. These plans offer tax-free growth of amounts you contribute to them. Age, income, and contribution limits apply, however.

To discuss the options best suited to your circumstances, contact our office.

IRS posts “Taxpayer Bill of Rights

The IRS has just issued a “Taxpayer Bill of Rights” that you should be aware of.

The Rights are divided into ten main categories. According to this “cornerstone” document you have The Right:

* to be informed

* to quality service

* to pay no more than the correct amount of tax

* to challenge the IRS’s position and be heard

* to appeal an IRS decision in an independent forum

* to finality

* to privacy

* to confidentiality

* to retain representation

* to a fair and just tax system

Selling vacant land could bring a tax break

You probably know that you can exclude up to $250,000 of gain ($500,000 for most joint filers) when you sell your principal residence. IRS regulations may now allow you to apply this gain exclusion when you sell vacant land that is adjacent to your home.

To qualify, the land you sell must be adjacent to the parcel on which your house sits. Also, the land sale must occur within two years before or after the residence is sold. You must meet the other usual requirements for claiming the exclusion. If you qualify, you can apply your $250,000 or $500,000 exclusion to both sales combined.

Example: You own and live in a house which sits on four acres. You decide to sell the house on a one-acre lot and sell the other three acres of empty land to a developer. Provided the land sale occurs within two years before or after you sell the house, you can exclude up to $250,000 ($500,000 if you file jointly) of the combined gain from both sales.

 

Emergency savings: How much is enough?

We all need an emergency fund, but what’s considered “an emergency?” Any unexpected hit to your finances, including layoffs, unanticipated illnesses, and natural disasters. Car insurance premiums and regular home maintenance are (or should be) anticipated, so they’re not emergencies. The same is true of credit card bills for vacations and visits to the dentist’s office. An emergency fund is designed to keep your life intact during temporary setbacks and to help you avoid unnecessary debt.

How much emergency savings is enough? In general, your emergency fund should cover three to six months of expenses. How much you’ll need will vary based on your financial situation, including the vulnerability of your income. For example, a one-earner household is more vulnerable than a two-earner household when it comes to paychecks. So the one-earner family generally should set aside more for emergencies. Or if you don’t have disability insurance, you might consider setting aside a bigger balance in an emergency account. Some companies provide payment for accrued vacation and/or sick leave to laid off employees. If your company provides such benefits and you maintain significant balances in these accounts, you may not need as much in an emergency fund (at least to help you weather an unexpected layoff).

Another factor to consider is your ongoing debt payments. Putting excess cash toward high interest credit card balances might make more sense than funding a savings account that earns four percent interest. Also, in a true emergency some spending can be reduced and postponed, such as retirement plan contributions, vacations, and entertainment. Ask yourself, “How much will I need to cover my minimum monthly expenses without resorting to credit cards or lines of credit?” That’s a good starting point for determining how much to set aside in an emergency fund.

Once you have a savings goal in mind, don’t wait. You can start small and increase contributions as you receive pay increases or windfalls. The money should be liquid – easy to get at – so don’t put it in investments with withdrawal penalties. A savings or money market account is a great place to set aside cash for a rainy day.

Then post a sign on the account: “Use only in case of emergency.”

Should you adjust your withholding for 2014?

Early this year, review the amount of income tax you’re having withheld from your wages to see if it should be adjusted. While you must meet minimum tax payment requirements, don’t overwithhold or you’ll be giving the IRS interest-free use of your money for a year. Don’t underwithhold either, or you face penalty and interest charges on the underpayment.

Are disability insurance benefits taxable?

ave you decided to include disability insurance as part of your financial plan? If so, the next decision is how to pay the premiums. Here’s why: The choice you make now can affect the taxability of the benefits received later.

For example, say your employer offers disability insurance as part of a cafeteria plan. When you sign up, the premiums are deducted from your paycheck before taxes. You’re getting a current break in the form of excluding the premiums from income, and later payouts of policy benefits are generally taxable to you.

What if you pay part of the premium with after-tax income and your employer pays the rest? In that case, policy benefits are split into taxable and nontaxable portions.

Illustration: You pay 40% of the premium and your employer pays 60%. Benefits are 60% taxable.

If you opt to buy a policy yourself, premiums are not deductible on your personal tax return, and benefits you collect are not taxable.

Like other aspects of financial planning, choosing insurance involves weighing your alternatives and selecting what’s most suitable for achieving your goal of protecting and growing assets. Give us a call. We’ll help ensure that your financial plan remains on track.

Many of us are living close to our financial limit these days.

Many of us are living close to our financial limit these days. We pay our bills on time, but there’s not a lot left over. But that’s a dangerous situation. If things go wrong, your financial situation can change very quickly from adequate to critical. Without a cash reserve, you could find yourself in serious trouble.

Imagine this situation. You’re driving home from work when a motorist runs a red light and smashes into your car. You’re rushed to the hospital with a broken leg that must remain in traction for several weeks. You quickly use up any sick leave from your job and your paycheck dries up. Luckily you have basic health and car insurance, but the deductibles and co-pays quickly add up to thousands of dollars. Meanwhile the mortgage and credit card payments are coming due, and you find yourself slipping into arrears.

It sounds grim, but it can easily happen. Natural disasters or a downsizing by your employer can have similar results. And when things go wrong, often several things go wrong at the same time. That’s why it’s a good idea to build a cash reserve of at least three months’ living expenses.

Invest your reserve in a safe, liquid account. Consider investments such as a bank CD, a money market fund, or a very short-term bond fund. Make sure you have easy access to the funds without losing too much interest. And once you’ve built your fund, avoid temptations to raid it for nonessentials.

It may not be easy to build a reserve, especially if you’re barely paying your bills now. But you’ll never get there unless you try. Consider setting aside your tax refund or your next bonus, or set yourself a monthly saving goal. Perhaps you give up one espresso a day, eat at home instead of a restaurant one evening a week, or make your own lunch instead of eating out for a month. However you do it, and however long it takes, you might one day be very grateful that you made the effort.

Delay in 2014 filing season

The Internal Revenue Service has announced a delay of approximately one to two weeks to the start of the 2014 filing season due to the 16-day federal government shutdown.

The government closure came during the peak period for preparing IRS systems for the 2014 filing season. Updating these core systems is a complex, year-round process with the majority of the work beginning in the fall of each year.

There are additional training, programming, and testing demands on the IRS this year as the agency works to prevent refund fraud and identity theft.

The IRS is exploring options to shorten the delay and will announce a final decision on the start of the 2014 filing season in December.