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  • Jun 6, 2011
    3:11 PM ET

    Wesley Snipes Appeal Rejected

    Actor Wesley Snipes isn’t getting a new day in court, at least not this time.


    The Supreme Court announced Monday that it wouldn’t consider his appeal for a 3-year-prison term for tax evasion.

    The Hollywood star is serving his sentence in Pennsylvania and not scheduled for release until 2013. He was convicted in 2008 of three misdemeanor charges of willful failure to file income tax returns.

    Snipes said his constitutional rights were violated because he should have been impaneled where the crime allegedly occurred. The actor wanted his 2008 tax trial to be held in New York City, where he lived, but the charges were brought in Florida, where he held a driver’s license, according to Fox News.

  • Jun 3, 2011
    11:39 AM ET

    How to Avoid Tax Relief Firms

    Recently, we talked about Roni Deutch’s film, “Death or Taxes: The Sad Truth About Our American Tax System.”

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    It’s time to look at one of the saddest components of the American tax system – the predators. It’s bad enough having to fight off the sometimes-terrifying collections tactics of the IRS. It’s even worse when the firm hired to protect you, gets you deeper into debt or causes you to lose your home or business.

    The fees for tax debt reduction assistance range from $1,200 to $5,000 or more. Those fees aren’t unreasonable. When handled properly, it takes 30-50 hours to prepare an offer in compromise (OIC).

    But the expenses are outrageous when the firms take your money and make promises they can’t keep. They shouldn’t sign you up when they know the IRS won’t approve your OIC. But too many do, and months later, they tell you the IRS rejected your request. By then, your penalties and interest may have skyrocketed, your credit been ruined and your wages been garnished.

    Let’s look at recent court cases filed against television and radio advertisers, preying on your fears, your insecurities, and your tax terrors. All cases involve national tax resolution firms who have misled troubled taxpayers.

    On April 22nd, the California Superior Court froze the assets of Roni Deutch for shredding documents in defiance of a court order, and not giving refunds to clients, as ordered. IRS has also hit her with a $183,000 lien. Trial is set for July.

    Minnesota Attorney General Lori Swanson filed suit accusing Houston-based TaxMasters of fraud and deception. Texas filed suit alleging the company unlawfully “engaged in false, misleading, and deceptive acts and practices.” Florida is investigating them, too.

    Florida is also investigating JK Harris for allegedly violating a 2008 settlement with Florida and 17 other states over misleading sales tactics.

    If there’s a TV advertiser promising that you can pay pennies on the dollar, you can bet there will be consumer complaints and investigations sooner or later. The IRS even publishes an alert. Why? Not everyone qualifies for offers in a compromise. But some of these firms will sell them to anyone desperate enough to pay.

  • May 27, 2011
    12:19 PM ET

    IRS Seeking Real Estate Gifts

    If you haven’t told the Internal Revenue Service about a real estate gift, you probably want to start talking.

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    The agency has a low-profile but sweeping effort under way to find out about these transactions. It’s using land-transfer records from at least 15 states for evidence of omissions and is seeking the records of more states, including the high-priced property mecca of California.

    Until recently, between 60% and 90% of transactions that appear to be gifts of property to family members weren’t reported to the IRS, according to an agency estimate. In at least one state, Ohio, 100% may have evaded IRS radar, the agency suspects.

    A significant amount of unpaid tax may be involved, according to Scott Michel, a partner at Caplin & Drysdale. Even if a particular gift did not trigger a tax when made, the transaction could reduce a lifetime gift-tax credit for the taxpayer, so that more gift or estate tax could be due later.

    New tax rules have made big gifts to family members popular this year because  someone can now give up to $5 million in his or her lifetime without having to pay gift tax. Nonetheless, any time a gift to one person exceeds $13,000 a year, the giver is supposed to let the federal tax agency know in a filing.

    The IRS effort has the look of a stealth operation. Some details were revealed late last year in a John Doe summons for data the IRS issued to the California State Board of Equalization, a taxing body. The summons was required because the state’s Proposition 58 and Proposition 193 complicate the data it maintains about real-estate transfers.

    States that have handed over information on gift-like transactions to the IRS include Connecticut, Florida, Hawaii, Nebraska, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New York, North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Tennessee, Texas, Virginia, Washington and Wisconsin.

    The IRS declined to comment beyond what was in the John Doe document.

    Taxpayers need to be aware that there is no special exception to the rules when making a transfer to a family member, says Beth Shapiro Kaufman, a partner in the private-client group at law firm Caplin & Drysdale in Washington, D.C. If the property is valued at more than $13,000, a gift-tax return must be filed. Even if the transfer falls within a lifetime exemption amount–currently $5 million–there is a reporting requirement.

  • May 16, 2011
    11:53 AM ET

    Depreciation Rules Favor Big Cars

    The most recent Tax Report summarized tax breaks both new and old for cars used in a business, especially new depreciation rules passed by Congress in 2010 that expire at the end of this year.


    The bottom line: There’s a big incentive for business owners to buy a behemoth gas guzzler like a Cadillac Escalade or Ford Expedition this year. They can deduct 100% of the purchase price right away (minus a disallowance for any personal use, of course).

    Lawmakers were far less generous with depreciation deductions for purchases of cars weighing less than 6,000 lbs. For these lighter vehicles they also favored more expensive cars (like a Lexus) over less expensive ones (like a Hyundai ).

    CPA Douglas Stives of Monmouth University teased this overall result out of highly complex guidance issued earlier this year by the Internal Revenue Service (See Rev. Proc. 2011-21 and 2011-26).

    Here is a longer explanation of how Mr. Stives arrived at his conclusion about larger and smaller cars weighing less than 6,000 lbs.

    *The IRS defines a “luxury car” as –believe it or not—one costing more than $15,300. Such cars are subject to depreciation limits unless they weigh more than 6,000 lbs. and the special 100% deduction applies.

    *The maximum first-year depreciation for these “luxury cars” is $11,060. This consists of annual regular depreciation of $3,060 for the first year plus “bonus” depreciation of up to $8,000. The write-off in Year Two is normally $4,900, then $2,950 in Year Three, and $1,775 in Years Four and beyond.

  • May 13, 2011
    1:13 PM ET

    How to File Foreign Bank Reports

    Although the FBAR (Foreign Bank Account Report) has been around for decades, it has loomed large ever since Congress and the IRS learned that Swiss banking giant UBS was encouraging U.S. taxpayers to hide money in Swiss accounts. Following the revelations, Congress imposed new penalties on those with undeclared accounts. This year’s overseas financial accounting reports are due June 30.

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    For both taxpayers and tax preparers, the FBAR poses problems because the rules are complex and the associated penalties can be draconian. Unusually, they are linked to the size of a foreign account rather than to the amount of unpaid taxes, if any. So what might seem (to some) like the mere foot-fault of missing FBAR filings can wind up swallowing half a foreign account and also putting other assets in jeopardy, say experts.

    Because the stakes are high, Andy Mattson, a CPA with Mohler, Nixon & Williams CPAs in Campbell, Calif., says his firm warns clients in three separate ways about FBAR filings. Even then, he says, there are narrow misses: “I had client who said he had no foreign financial accounts, but I knew he was Canadian. So I asked him if he had an SSRP (the Canadian version of an IRA). He did, and he had to file.”

    David Lifson, a CPA with Crowe Horwath in New York City, calls the process of filling out an FBAR “counterintuitive.” “With taxes we always strive to be exact and minimize where possible,” he says. “But with FBARs, there could be a margin of safety in overestimating account size.” The reason: No taxes are due with the FBAR, which is an information return, but there could be penalties for understatement. He says that a FBAR can add anywhere from $200 to $1500 to tax preparation fees.

  • Apr 29, 2011
    10:32 AM ET

    Why State Tax Audits Are Increasing

    When most people imagine a painful tax audit, it’s the Internal Revenue Service that comes to mind, but it’s now just as likely to be a state auditor at the door.

    Hungry for revenue, some states are going after more current and former residents for omissions and errors, intentional or otherwise, on their tax filings. They also are conducting more audits of estate tax returns, even as the government does fewer because of an increase in the estate tax exemption.

    Tax advisers say audits have increased in California, New York, New Jersey and Iowa. The Illinois Department of Revenue recently added 50 auditors, in part to help a group of 136 others work on individual and corporate income tax audits.

    Connecticut increased its income tax and estate tax audits by 10% for fiscal year 2011 over the previous year, says Sarah Kaufman, a spokesperson for the Connecticut Department of Revenue Services. She attributed the rise to updated computer programs and better use of information sharing between federal and state agencies that let Connecticut target questionable returns more efficiently.

    State audits tend to begin with red flags including a change of residence, out-of-state property holdings, real estate in general, and trusts or partnerships that hold different kinds of assets. Stock options also now get a lot of attention, according to AmyLynn Flood, partner, global human resource services at

  • Apr 22, 2011
    10:49 AM ET

    Why ‘Crying Innocent’ May Get Easier

    It’s not unusual for a person to learn – sometimes years later – that a current or former spouse tried to cheat the IRS on a joint tax return.

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    Crying innocence can be a valid defense, but a fight is on about how long they have to make that claim.

    Right now, the Internal Revenue Service’s “innocent spouse” rules require that a claim of ignorance must be filed within two years of when it starts collecting back taxes. But courts have differed with the IRS and among themselves about that limit. Exactly who can use the defense also is in dispute. Meanwhile, the lawsuits have stacked up.

    Earlier this month, nearly 50 members of Congress threw their weight behind advisers and taxpayers who want the time limit to be longer. The group, which includes Rep. Sander M. Levin (D-Mich.), ranking minority member on the House Ways and Means Committee, says 50,000 innocent spouse claims are filed with the IRS. Of these, about 2,000 are barred because of the time limit.

    Tax advisers hope the Congressional pressure will help break the gridlock. IRS commissioner Doug Shulman said in a statement this week that the agency has started a review of the rules to ensure they give innocent spouses “reasonable opportunities” to present their claims.

    Linda Lea Viken, a divorce attorney in Rapid City, S.D., and president of the American Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers, says a two-year limit is “a terrible idea” that defeats the whole purpose of the rule. Many times, she says, “it is years after a divorce that a party learns that their former spouse cheated on their taxes–without their knowledge.”

    Often enough, it is a still-married spouse who employs the defense. “People will forgive a lot in marriage if they still love the person,” says Robert E. McKenzie, an attorney in the Chicago law firm Arnstein & Lehr LLP. In some of those instances, couples hold assets separately or have an economic hardship that makes the claim useful.

    Often, though, the issue comes up when a couple has divorced. The problem with the two-year limit is that deceit often happens in the twilight zone when the split is happening and communication has faltered. A spouse who gets a letter from the IRS could well conceal it if the relationship is on rocky ground.

  • Apr 21, 2011
    1:36 PM ET

    Why Rental Property Is a Business

    In a recent MarketWatch article, I made the remark that rentals are a business. A reader disagreed. “Rental property is considered ‘investment income,’ and is filed on a Schedule E, not a Schedule C. But I understand your confusion on this matter because many people don’t understand the truth of the matter any more than you do. I know, I’m a real estate investor for 20 years now,” she wrote.

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    Despite investing her money in real estate, theoretically, to make a profit, this woman passionately believes that rentals are not a business. She’s not alone. Many people are confused because they’ve forgotten that the definition of a business is something that occupies your time, with the intention of making a profit. They’ve also forgotten the history of these taxes.

    Shades of 1984

    When Congress signed the Tax Reform Act of 1986 (TRA 86) the real estate investment  climate was very different – people were chasing lucrative tax benefits, rather than profits. TRA 1986 introduced the concepts of “passive income” and “active participation,”  “passive loss limitations,” “material participation” and “real estate professional” and “at-risk rules”.

    The IRS urged Congress to include limitations on rental income because, at the time, rental limited partnerships were often designed to be tax shelters for the limited partners. They were sold purely for the tax benefits, not for the potential increase in property value. Not only did these limited partnerships become an abuse of the tax system, they created worthless investments. Those properties were never operated with a profit motive. They often sold the property for less than the purchase price, once the tax benefits were stripped.

    Consider a typical California investment of the time. The partnership would buy a property for $2 million with 10% down. Back then, we had ACRS depreciation over 15 years – 19 years for real estate, with accelerated rates of 8% – 10% in the first three years. Mortgage interest rates were around 10% and so were management fees, usually paid to the general partners. A 10% investor would buy in for about $25,000 to cover the down payment and purchase costs.

    The properties were bought for about eight times gross rents, so rental income would be $250,000. Deducting the cost of interest would be about $180,000 (10% of $1.8 million), management fees of $25,000 (10% of $250,000 rental income), and property taxes of $25,000. Operating expenses, like maintenance and utilities, would inevitably eat up the rest of the cash flow. However, depreciation would be around $90,000 ($1 million building value times 9%).

  • Apr 19, 2011
    2:29 PM ET

    What You Plan to Do With That Refund

    Now that you’ve met the April 18 tax filing deadline comes the good news – three-quarters of filers are expected to get refunds this year, and the average amount will be more than $3,000. That’s almost twice the $1,698 average it was in 1999, writes Wall Street Journal Tax Report columnist Laura Saunders.

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    Why the increase? A number of factors. People who lost jobs or investment income in recent years overpaid inadvertently. Consumers also didn’t adjust their withholdings after the addition of some tax benefits such as the American Opportunity education credit, the home-buyer credits or the expanded child credit.

    Saunders writes that while conventional wisdom has discouraged large tax refunds because it amounts to an interest-free loan to the government, many consumers like the forced savings, especially when the money would earn little in the bank with interest rates so low. More importantly, that $3,000 check might not get frittered away if it comes all at once rather than “dribbled” in paychecks.

    So how do most of us plan to spend the cash? Quite responsibly, according to a number of reports.

    Almost half of consumers surveyed in March by Deloitte said they would use their refund to pay bills and credit cards. About 40% plan to save that money. Only 13% said they would spend it on a vacation or trip, and 8% plan to use to remodel a home.

  • Apr 18, 2011
    4:26 PM ET

    How Much Tax Havens Cost You

    Consumers pay an average of $434 a year to compensate for the estimated $100 billion lost overseas to tax havens, according to a new report by the U.S. Public Interest Research Group. “That’s enough money to feed a family of four for three weeks,” says the report.

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    While taxpayers from every state are picking up the tab, those living in Delaware and New Jersey shouldered the biggest state-wide averages of $920- and $752-a-year. “Abuse of tax havens inflicts a price on other American taxpayers, who must pay higher taxes now or in the future to cover the government’s revenue shortfall, or must deal with cuts in government services,” the report says.

    How did PIRG come up with the $434? It divided $100 billion by the number of tax returns filed in 2010. Simple. And the big-bang smack-wallop figure of $100 billion? This comes from a 2008 U.S. report, Tax Haven Banks and U.S. Tax Compliance, which itself states, “This $100 billion estimate is derived from studies conducted by a variety of tax experts.”

About Tax

  • The Tax Blog brings together a team of award-winning tax journalists from the Dow Jones network and around the web to examine the tax issues, changes and legislation that affect families, investors and small business owners. Our contributors include Tax Report columnist Laura Saunders (WSJ), Tax Guy columnist Bill Bischoff and senior reporter Jilian Mincer (, retirement-focused reporter Anne Tergesen (WSJ), wealth management writer Arden Dale (Dow Jones Newswires), TaxWatch columnist Eva Rosenberg and personal finance reporter Andrea Coombes (MarketWatch), and reporter Alyssa Abkowitz (SmartMoney). They’ll provide the latest news and insight, mine the tax code for tips and loopholes, and answer your questions about tricky tax situations. Contact the The Tax Blog with ideas, suggestions or tax questions at