This time of year many Americans would like to take a swipe at the IRS. Some taxpayers even should, experts say — with their credit card.
Though paying a bill in full is the best way to avoid late charges and other hassles, credit card payments can help those struggling with the their bills to buy time – and even save money. “If you’re going to need a year or more to pay it out you could borrow on a low interest credit card and it could be a good deal,” says Gregg Wind, a certified public accountant in Los Angeles.
While not ideal, credit cards and lines of credit can help people pay the tax man by this year’s April 17 while avoiding potentially steep late payment penalties and interest charges. The IRS generally charges interest on any unpaid tax starting from the day the tax is due to the date it is paid. Currently at 3%, the interest rate is reset quarterly. And that doesn’t include late payment penalties, which are 0.5% of taxes owed a month. Between interest charges and late payment penalties, someone who is a year late in paying their taxes could see their bill increase by 9%, Wind estimates.
As many taxpayers gather their financial documents to do their tax returns, a number of unlucky filers are finding that someone else has already filed in their name — and walked away with their refunds.
For the 12th year in a row, identity theft topped the list of consumer complaints received by the Federal Trade Commission in 2011, with nearly 280,000 complaints, according to a report released on Tuesday. And a bigger chunk of those cases is tax related, with 24% of identity theft complaints being tied to tax or wage-related fraud, up from about 15% in 2010, according to the FTC.
For some victims, the fraud isn’t discovered until they hit the send button on their electronic tax returns — and get a rejection note from the IRS. Other times it takes a little longer to know something is wrong, such as not receiving a refund check. You might also receive an IRS letter saying the income reported doesn’t match their records — a sign someone else could be using that Social Security number.
Some early filers trying to track their refunds through the Internal Revenue Service’s Where’s My Refund feature are getting a maddening response: what refund?
Glitches with the online feature are leaving taxpayers without any information on when they might get their refund, or any details about their tax returns. Normally taxpayers who enter their Social Security number, filing status and exact refund amount into the tool get an update on the status of their refund, including confirmation that their return is being processed and an estimate for when the IRS expects to cut the check.
One revenue-raising strategy unveiled in President Barack Obama’s budget proposal on Monday calls for beefing up the Internal Revenue Service’s enforcement efforts. That could mean increased scrutiny on individual tax returns, especially for small business owners.
The president’s budget plan would increase the IRS’s budget next year to $12.8 billion, about $950 million more than the 2012 budget, with the goal of ramping up collections from individuals and business that are behind on federal and state taxes or that owe government loans. The bulk of this money would be part of a program to prevent tax evasion and cheating and to update the IRS’s data system, according to the proposal. The reforms call for increasing collection by more than $2 billion over the next 10 years, much of that owed to states. The enforcement program should return $5 for each additional IRS dollar spent, according to the proposal. The IRS did not respond to requests for comment.
The Internal Revenue Service commissioner is warning Congress that anticipated cuts to the agency’s funding will result in a “noticeable degradation” of services, including audits and efforts to collect unpaid taxes.
In a letter sent to legislators last week, commissioner Douglas Shulman wrote that if Congress moves ahead with its plan to reduce the IRS’s budget by about $500 million next year, the agency would have to reduce the number of workers in its enforcement department. Such cuts, he added, would lead to a 5% to 8% decrease in collection efforts, including audits, which would reduce revenue by about $4 billion.
But what sounds like good news for deadbeats could be bad for regular taxpayers. Shulman warned that the spending cuts would mean that half of the taxpayers trying to contact the agency for help would get busy signals or will “hang up in frustration.” Responses to letters, including those taxpayers trying to resolve account issues, could be delayed up to five months, he wrote, and small businesses could have more trouble reaching the IRS to work out a payment plan.
Weekend Investor’s recent feature, “Write Off Your Job Hunt!” offers a tax guide for the unemployed. It has drawn much reader interest and a few questions.
For answers we turned to Douglas Stives, a professor at Monmouth University in West Long Branch, N.J. Stives was a full-time CPA for 36 years and still practices part-time in addition to teaching at Monmouth’s business school. He prides himself on making optimum use of tax deductions allowed by Uncle Sam, and last spring he was featured in a WSJ article dubbing him “The Most Tax-Efficient Man.”
Stives agrees with experts cited in the story that often a job hunter’s best hope for maximizing deductions is to set up a Schedule C sole proprietorship and look for part-time as well as full-time work, so that the same deductions work for both.
Like them, he also stresses that taxpayers must have some income to offset the deductions. “The good news is, you don’t have to have income in the first year, just in three out of five years,” says Stives. “It also helps if you can show that some of the future income was generated by your earlier expenses.”
The perks of municipal bond investing are on the chopping block — again.
President Obama has proposed limiting the amount of interest from municipal bonds that high earners can excludefrom their taxable income, a move that could make the bonds much less appealing for their biggest buyers.
Weekend Investor’s recent “IRS Whistleblower” feature story, about how to turn in a tax cheat to the Internal Revenue Service and collect part of the proceeds, drew a host of reader comments. Reaction ranged from enthusiastic support of the program—“White-collar crime detection deserves the help of citizens”—to outright condemnation of it, with detractors comparing the IRS’s efforts to police-state tactics.
Tax cheats have more to worry about than just whistleblowers. According to recent report from a governmental watchdog, the criminal division of the IRS is getting more efficient. The study was issued by the Treasury Inspector General for Tax Administration, known as TIGTA, which closely monitors the IRS and often issues assessments critical of it.
This TIGTA report was unusually positive. It praised IRS agents for taking an average of 365 days to complete a case vs. 401 days in 2009. The agency spent about $660 million on criminal tax cases during the 2010 fiscal year.
Overall, the IRS criminal division initiated some 4,700 investigations and completed 4,300 during the same period, exceeding preset goals in both categories.
Most important, say outside experts, is that the IRS continues to make progress on initiating “pure” criminal tax cases. These are cases in which the tax charges are central to the case, instead of simply an add-on to a long list of more important charges, such as drug running or money laundering. The agency calls these cases “legal-source investigations.”
The August 6 Tax Report on the controversial “carried interest” issue attracted many comments. Some readers defended the provision’s current generous tax treatment and said changing it could damage the U.S.’s ability to create jobs and compete internationally.
“Does America really want to drive away the private equity industry when international competitiveness and international demand for U.S. products is more threatened than ever?” said Bernard Peperstraete of NGN Capital in New York.
Mark Heesen, president of the National Venture Capital Association, agreed. In a statement to the Wall Street Journal, he said, “Continuing to apply a capital gains tax rate to carried interest earned by venture capitalists who invest long-term to build new companies and create jobs is not only appropriate by definition, but from a public policy perspective it is paramount to U.S. economic recovery as we desperately need to encourage - not discourage – this high growth activity.”
Others disagreed. An investment manager from Hilton Head, S.C. said, “The carried-interest rules benefit me personally as a manager of investment partnerships. But even I can’t argue that they are sound tax policy.”
A few readers had technical questions. “Do you think REITs and Master Limited Partnerships would be included in changes on carried interest?” asked one adviser.
Independent tax analyst Robert Willens said no, because the dividends from most REITs and MLPs are already taxed at ordinary income rates. “They aren’t part of the discussion on carried interest,” he said. Neither has there been talk of changing the capital gains tax rates for timber REITs.
While some believe all carried interest should be taxed as ordinary income, others suggested a less radical approach. It is to tax the original award of carried interest at ordinary income rates but then allow further appreciation to be taxed as a capital gain.
Here’s an example: Say that Ted, Joe and Jane form a partnership. Ted and Joe each put in cash in return for an 80% of the profits, while Jane contributes her expertise in return for a 20% share. Jane would be taxed at ordinary income rates on her 20% profit share when she receives it. After that, her future appreciation would be taxed as capital gain.
Recently, the Internal Revenue Service announced an increase in standard mileage rates taxpayers can claim for the final six months of 2011. Beginning July 1, the rate for business miles increases to 55.5 cents from 51 cents and to 23.5 cents from 19 cents per mile for medical and moving expenses. The per-mile deduction for charitable expenses remains unchanged, at 14 cents.
“This year’s increased gas prices are having a major impact on individual Americans,” said IRS Commissioner Douglas Shulman, so “the IRS is adjusting the standard mileage rates to better reflect [them].”
The business standard mileage rate is used by many taxpayers to compute deductible costs of a using a car in a business in lieu of tracking actual costs. The rate is also used as a benchmark by the federal government and many businesses to reimburse employees for mileage.
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 (SmartMoney.com), 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 email@example.com.