The start of a new year is a time for fresh starts and new goals, but it’s also the beginning of the oft-dreaded tax season, which means Tax identity thieves are on the lookout for information they can use in order to create fraudulent tax returns. Here are some tips to help protect yourself from tax identity theft during tax season.
File Early to Prevent Tax Identity Theft
Tax-related identity theft most commonly occurs from February to early March because thieves want to beat real taxpayers to the punch by filing fraudulent returns before legitimate ones. Because the IRS allows only one tax return per Social Security number per year, your best defense against identity theft is to file your taxes as early as possible.
Use E-File Instead of Postal Mail
An e-filed tax return arrives instantly at the IRS, which then sends back an acknowledgement receipt. At this point you’ll be notified if there’s any suspicious activity, such as possible identity theft. The quicker you know, the quicker you can deal with it. Before you e-file, however, be sure that your firewall, antivirus, and anti-spyware software are all up to date. If you do send your tax return in by post, think about taking it directly to the post office rather than letting it sit in your mailbox.
Don’t Fall for Scams
The IRS will not contact you by phone, email, or text to ask for personal or financial information. Never give out your Social Security number, passwords, PINs, and credit card or bank information to someone who reaches out via these channels. Official correspondence from the IRS is issued in the form of a letter and sent through the mail. However, scammers are getting increasingly clever, and sometimes phony links can look just like the real IRS website. If you ever have questions about the legitimacy of an IRS related query, your best bet is to call the IRS at 800-829-1040.
Protect Your Financial Accounts
Start by using a different password for each of your financial accounts, preferably one that combines letters, numbers, and special characters. It’s also wise to use a two-factor authentication when available, which requires you to verify your login—typically a code sent via call or text.
How to Report Tax Identity Theft
If you’re a victim of tax-related identity theft, you’ll find out when you try to file your return and learn that a return has already been filed with your Social Security number, or you’ll receive a letter from the IRS stating that a suspicious return using your Social Security number has been identified. If either of these happen, you should do the following:
- Complete a paper return. As shocking as it is to learn that you’ve been the target of identity theft, you still need to file your tax return. In order to avoid tax penalties or late fees, submit a paper return by the filing deadline.
- Go to IdentityTheft.gov to file a report with the FTC and IRS.
- File an Identity Theft Affidavit (Form 14039). Fill out and attach this form to your paper return. It will make its way to the Identity Theft Victim Assistance Organization, which will work on your case. Be prepared to submit various forms of documentation proving your identity.
- Contact the three major credit bureaus—Equifax, Experian, and TransUnion—and ask them to place a fraud alert on your credit records. You should also consider asking them to freeze your credit in case the thief should try to open new credit accounts in your name.
- Request a copy of the fraudulent return via Form 4506-F. Seeing the fraudulent return will help you determine the specifics of the theft, such as what family information has been compromised.
- As a precaution, delete any stored credit card numbers from shopping sites and change saved passwords to online accounts.
If you have questions on tax identity theft or would like to discuss your 2019 tax return, please feel free to email me at firstname.lastname@example.org or call 317.549.3091.
As the clock winds down to the end of the year, there are a few last-minute money moves to make in order to lower your tax bill.
Maximize Your 401(k) and HSA Contributions
While tax deductible contributions can be made to traditional and Roth IRA accounts until April 15 of 2020, the deadline for 401(k)s and HSA accounts is December 31 of this year. You can contribute up to $19,000 to a 401(k), 403(b), most 457 plans, and federal Thrift Savings Plans (plus $6,000 in catch-up contributions for those who are 50 or older). As for HSA accounts, the maximum contribution for 2019 is $3,500 for individuals and $7,000 for family coverage. And if you’re 55 or older you can contribute an additional $1,000.
Start Thinking About Retirement Contributions for 2020
Retirement contributions to 401(k)s have increased for 2020. Individuals can contribute $19,500 next year, and those 50 or older can contribute an additional $6,500. If you prefer to spread out your contributions evenly throughout the year, you’ll need to adjust your monthly contribution amounts by January.
Take Advantage of Your Flexible Spending Account
Funds in a flexible spending account revert back to the employer if not spent within the calendar year. Some companies might provide a grace period extending into the new year, but others end reimbursements on December 31.
Prevent Taxes on an RMD with Charitable Donations
After seniors reach age 70 ½ they must take a required minimum distribution each year from their retirement accounts (an exception to this rule is a Roth IRA account). Seniors who aren’t dependent on this money for living expenses should consider having it sent directly from the retirement account to a charity as a qualified charitable distribution, effectively preventing the money from becoming taxable income.
Consider a Roth Conversion
Because withdrawals from traditional IRAs are taxed in retirement while distributions from Roth IRAs are tax-free, you might think about converting some funds from a traditional IRA to a Roth IRA. Just be sure this move doesn’t tip you into the next tax bracket. You’ll need to pay taxes on the initial conversion, but the money will then grow tax-free in the Roth IRA.
Take Stock of Losses
Sell any losses in stocks for a deduction of up to $3,000, but be aware that purchasing the same or a substantially similar stock within 30 days of the sale would violate the wash-sale rule. If that happens your capital loss would be deferred until you sell the new shares.
Meet with a Tax Advisor
If you’re unsure whether or not you’re ending the year in a favorable tax bracket, check in with an advisor who can identify actionable steps to reduce taxable income through retirement contributions or itemized deductions.
When doing your taxes, the goal is to maximize the tax credits and deductions for which you’re eligible. But tax credits are worth more than deductions with the same value, so knowing the differences between the two will help you save money on taxes.
Both credits and deductions lower your tax bill but in different ways and with different outcomes. Tax credits lower your tax liability while tax deductions reduce your taxable income. For instance, someone who’s in the 25% tax bracket with a $100 tax credit will save $100 dollars in taxes, but if that same person has a $100 deduction, they will only save $25 in taxes (25% of $100).
Tax credits are a dollar-for-dollar reduction on your tax bill, regardless of tax rate, which explains the $100 savings with a $100 tax credit in the previous example. Taking advantage of eligible tax credits after applying all deductions will help to slash your taxes due. Some of the more popular tax credits include:
- Earned Income Tax Credit (EIC or EITC)
- Child Tax Credit
- Child and Dependent Care Credit
- American Opportunity Tax Credit
- Lifetime Learning Credit
- Adoption Credit
- Saver’s Credit
- Residential Energy Tax Credit
Refundable Tax Credits vs. Non-Refundable Tax Credits
Some tax credits are refundable while others are not. When you claim a refundable tax credit that exceeds your total tax liability, the IRS will send you the difference. For example, if your tax liability is $1,000 and then you apply your EITC, which is $2,500, you would use that $2,500 to pay your liability and the remaining $1,500 would be refunded to you. By contrast, a non-refundable tax credit can reduce your federal income tax liability to zero, but any leftover balance from the credit will not be refunded.
There are two types of tax income deductions, which reduce the amount of income you’re taxed on: itemized deductions and above-the-line deductions.
Itemized deductions are certain tax-deductible expenses that you incur throughout the year. For some taxpayers, those expenses add up to be greater than the standard deduction amount, in which case, they should itemize their tax returns rather than take the flat-dollar standard deduction. Keep in mind that if you plan to itemize, you should accurately track your spending throughout the year, and keep supporting documentation (receipts, bank statements, check stubs, insurance bills, etc.) in the instance that IRS would ask for proof.
Common itemized deductions include:
- Medical expenses
- State and local income taxes
- Property taxes
- Mortgage interest
- Charitable contributions
The standard deduction is a fixed amount that varies in consistency to your filing status. For 2019 returns, the standard deduction is:
- $12,200 for single filers and married filers filing separately
- $24,400 for married filers filing jointly
- $18,350 for heads of household
If you claim the standard deduction, you can use “above-the-line” deductions, which reduce your adjusted gross income (AGI), to lower your tax bill. Some of these deductions are:
- Health savings account (HSA) contributions
- Deductible contributions to IRAs
- The deductible portion of self-employment taxes
- Contributions to self-employed SEP-IRA, SIMPLE IRA, and other qualified plans
- Self-employment health insurance premiums
- Penalties on early savings withdrawals
Above-the-line deductions typically aren’t as valuable as tax credits, but they help to lower your AGI, which can slash your tax liability and qualify you for other tax breaks based on income limits.
The Social Security Administration sends survivor benefits to about 6 million Americans every month, directed to widows, widowers, and children who have experienced the loss of someone who has paid into the social security program. Read on to find out who is eligible to receive survivor benefits and how to collect them.
Who is Eligible to Receive Survivor Benefits?
If you were married to your spouse for at least nine months before their death, you are eligible for social security survivor benefits. (The one exception to this length-of-marriage stipulation is if you are caring for a child of the deceased who is under 16 years old). Children of the deceased who are under 18 years old may also receive survivor benefits, as can disabled children under the age of 22. Finally, parents, stepparents, or adoptive parents who are at least age 62 and were dependent upon the deceased could potentially qualify for survivor benefits.
When Can You Begin Social Security Survivor Benefits?
Surviving spouses can begin collecting survivor benefits as early as age 60, but this will result in only about 70% of the amount the survivor could get if they wait until their survivor full retirement age, which is 66 for people born between 1945-1956 and gradually increases to age 67 for those born in 1962 or later. There are some exceptions to this as well: if you are disabled, you may begin collecting survivor benefits at age 50; any surviving spouse can collect a one-time death benefit payment of $255 at any age; and as noted above, survivors who are caring for a child of the deceased who is under age 16 can collect at any age.
How to Claim Social Security Widow and Widower Benefits
First, the death needs to be reported, which is a task that most funeral homes include as part of their service as long as the social security number of the deceased is provided. Documents needed to apply for Social Security survivor benefits include:
- Proof of death for the deceased in the form of a death certificate
- Social Security number of the deceased
- Social Security numbers of the survivor and any dependent children
- Your birth certificate
- Your marriage certificate
- Most current W-2 forms of the deceased
- Bank information for direct deposit
Once everything is submitted, you’ll be notified of your eligibility to receive survivor benefits.
How Much Will You Receive?
The amount you receive is determined by the deceased’s earnings and whether or not the deceased was collecting benefits (either full or reduced) at the time of death. The basic breakdown looks like this:
- For couples who hadn’t started receiving benefits: it’s recommended for the highest earner of the two to wait until age 70 to begin Social Security benefits. This generates a larger monthly benefit amount that becomes the survivor benefit if and when the first spouse passes away.
- If both spouses had already started claiming: the higher benefit amount becomes the survivor benefit while the lesser of the two benefit amounts will stop.
- If the deceased spouse had already begun benefits, but the survivor had not:
The surviving spouse will need to decide when they will claim survivor benefits in a way that is likely to give them more lifetime income.
In addition to whether or not either spouse was already receiving Social Security benefits at the time of death, the actual dollar amount a survivor receives will depend on how much money the deceased spouse paid into Social Security over their lifetime.
What happens when you file your taxes and discover that you owe money to the IRS? What are your options? What about when the amount owed is greater than you can afford at the moment? Luckily, there are several options for both scenarios.
Before we get into the different options for making payments to the IRS, remember that your payment has to be received by the IRS no later than the April 15th tax deadline, or be prepared for IRS-issued tax penalties and interest. This deadline applies to those who filed for a tax extension as well.
Below are the different payment options available to pay the IRS.
If you have the funds available when you file, you can have them automatically withdrawn from your bank account when you e-file and choose the e-pay option. This is available whether you use tax preparation software or an accounting professional to do your taxes.
The IRS has a “Direct Pay” service through its website, where you can pay from your checking or savings account at no cost. In order to track your payment, use the “Look Up a Payment” tool on the website or enable email notifications.
Credit or Debit
The IRS provides three third-party payment processors on its website through which you can pay your balance using a credit or debit card either online or by phone. They do charge a small service fee, which may be tax-deductible, and your credit card company may charge a fee as well.
Check or Money Order
Make checks payable to the United States Treasury and include your social security number or employer identification number, phone number, related tax form or notice number, and the tax year in the memo field. Send your check with a Form 1040-V, which is a payment voucher found on the IRS website, but don’t paperclip or staple your check to the voucher. You’ll find the correct mailing address for your check on page two of Form 1040-V.
Pay in Person
If you want to be absolutely sure that your payment is getting to the IRS on time, you can pay in person at your local IRS Taxpayer Assistance Center, which can be located on the IRS website. You will need to schedule an appointment before you go.
Check with your bank to see if they offer same-day wire transfer payable to the IRS. Be sure to ask about cut-off times and fees for this service.
What if you don’t have the full amount now? Luckily, the IRS offers two installment plans – a short-term plan and a long-term plan – which you can apply for online with the Installment Agreement Request (Form 9465). Which plan you qualify for depends on how much you owe and your specific tax situation. There is an application fee, and once approved the IRS can void the agreement if you don’t stay on schedule with payments.
Another option is to request a temporary delay from the IRS. You might have to fill out a Collection Information Statement and provide transparent information on your personal finances, and penalties and interest will factor in until the amount is paid in full.
Finally, you can offer to settle for a smaller amount than what’s owed, but the IRS encourages taxpayers to consider all other options before submitting an offer to settle. If you decide to go this route, you will need to be current on your tax filings and not involved in an open bankruptcy proceeding. To determine if you qualify, the IRS will take into account your income, expenses, ability to pay, and asset equity.
The end of 2018 is quickly approaching, but there are a few key money moves you should make before the new year, especially in light of the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act. The higher standard deduction means more Americans will ditch itemizing their 2018 federal tax returns.
That means you should probably focus on year-end tax strategies that first lower taxable income, rather than maximize tax deductions. Here are a few key items to tackle before the ball drops on the new year.
Take Stock of Losses
If you follow the stock market, you know that the last few months have been volatile, so there’s a good chance that some of your investments have become losses. That might sound bad, but any losses that are in a taxable account, such as an investment account, bank account, or money market mutual fund, can be sold to offset other taxable investment gains in the same year. Furthermore, if your losses exceed your gains, you can apply up to $3,000 to offset ordinary taxable income from this year.
Max Out Retirement Savings
As close as possible, that is. The more money you put into your 401(k), the more financial security you’ll have in the long run, but a lot of these contributions also reduce your taxable income. At this point you probably only have one or two more paychecks from which to have funds withheld, but even a few hundred dollars more can provide some near-term tax relief as well as bolster your retirement savings.
Fund Your HSA
You have until the 2018 tax-filing deadline to fully fund your health saving account (HSA) in order to get a bigger deduction. The maximum limits are:
- Individuals: $3,450
- Families: $6,900
- 55 or older: an additional $1,000 catch-up contribution
These accounts can roll over indefinitely, so they’re a smart way to save for future medical expenses. HSAs also have a triple tax benefit: contributions are tax-deductible (even if you don’t itemize), earned interest is tax-free, and withdrawals are tax-free as long as they’re used to pay for qualified medical expenses.
Use Up Your FSA
The funds in a flexible spending account typically don’t roll over to the next calendar year. However, some employers allow $500 to carry over into the new year or grant employees until March to spend FSA funds. Even so, now is a good time to use the pretax dollars for doctor appointments, flu shots, and even some “everyday” drugstore items, such as non-prescription reading glasses, contact lenses and solutions, and reading glasses.
If you’re wondering whether you should itemize your 2018 tax returns or take the standard deduction, here are a few last things to keep in mind:
- Medical treatment: If you spend more than 7.5 percent of your adjusted gross income this year on medical expenses, you can deduct those costs.
- Property taxes: If you paid less than the $10,000 limit for state and local taxes, your state may allow you to prepay 2019 property taxes. This way you’ll get the most from the state and local taxes deduction.
- Mortgage Interest: Provided you’re not near the cap on the mortgage interest deduction, which is $750,000 after the new tax law, you can make your January mortgage payment in December to boost the amount of interest you paid during the 2018 tax year.
- Charitable donations: If you routinely give to charities, double up on contributions and make your 2019 donation before year’s end. If you put the double donation into a donor advised fund, which is like a charitable investment account, you’re eligible to take an immediate tax deduction. That means you can take the deduction for 2018 while your funds are invested for tax-free growth, allowing you to make distributions to charity next year or beyond.