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The Tax Blog
The latest news, insights and tips about taxes
  • Jun 23, 2011
    9:40 AM ET

    Star’s Former Manager in Tax Trouble

    Michael Jackson’s former manager and spokeswoman  pleaded guilty Wednesday in a Washington, D.C. federal court to charges that she hadn’t paid hundreds of thousands of dollars in taxes.

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    Raymone Bain pleaded guilty to two counts of failing to file federal and District of Columbia income tax returns between 2006 and 2008 despite substantial earnings as the pop star’s general manager and president of the Michael Jackson Co.

    Sentencing was scheduled for Aug. 31, 2011. She faces a maximum 12 month prison term and $100,000 fine for the federal charges and a six month prison term and $5,000 fine for the District of Columbia violation.

    According to evidence, she was responsible for the daily operation of the Michael Jackson Co., including its “financial, public relations and marketing tasks.” Despite substantial earnings, the tax loss was $200,000 to $400,000.

  • Jun 10, 2011
    10:57 AM ET

    Why Paying Taxes Takes Longer

    If paying taxes wasn’t bad enough, the process is expected to get even longer. That’s because the Internal Revenue Service needs more employees to take your payments.


    Hiring of revenue officers hasn’t kept pace with attrition, according to a study released this week by the IRS watchdog Treasury Inspector General For Tax Administration. The IRS doesn’t know how many officers are actually needed. In fact, it expects to lose revenue officers as fast as it can replace them, says the report.

    The findings were based on a study of recent IRS hires in a unit that collects taxes from small businesses and the self-employed. The IRS division added more than 1,515 new revenue officers in three waves between June 2009 and February 2010 — 38% of the 4,002 officers on staff before the first wave began

    Nearly two-thirds of the revenue officers who left the agency the last three years retired.

    Responding to the report, the IRS said it has started to improve workforce planning across all of its collection programs.

    The workload for tax collectors is only expected to grow, the report noted. The agency is closing delinquent tax accounts at the highest rates since fiscal year 2005, but new delinquent accounts are mounting.

  • 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.

  • May 12, 2011
    9:27 AM ET

    How to Gift a Vacation Home

    Lower real estate prices and higher gift tax limits are making this the perfect time for some wealthy individuals to gift vacation homes. An individual can give up to $5 million during his or her lifetime without paying a gift tax, and for couples that threshold is $10 million. Before, the limit was $3.5 million per person.


    The higher limit only applies until 2013, and clients aren’t waiting, says Jay D. Waxenberg, chairman of the personal planning department at law firm Proskauer in New York. “We don’t know what’s going to happen,” he says.

    Another consideration is the low price of real estate. When a cottage on the coast of Maine or a cabin on a lake in northern Wisconsin is worth less, the potential tax impact is smaller.

    But some things need to be weighed carefully before making a gift of a vacation place, tax advisers say. Once ownership is transferred, parents or grandparents lose the legal right to decide who gets to use the place and when, whether it can be rented out and who is in charge of upkeep.

    To retain some control or for tax purposes, owners typically use a trust. One health-care executive, for example, plans to pass a $4 million Jersey shore house in two trusts to his children, who are in their 20s. One trust will be in the man’s name, the other in his wife’s.

  • 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.

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