Scam alert: your secrets are not safe with the IRS

The IRS recently announced that the tax information of 104,000 filers was stolen by hackers and used to file false returns. The same thieves attempted to steal tax data from an additional 100,000 filers, but were unsuccessful.

The unauthorized access of records occurred between February and May of 2015, when hackers used the IRS’s “Get a Transcript” web tool to access filers’ tax return transcripts. The hackers had previously obtained social security numbers of these 200,000 filers from other sources. The IRS pointed out that their servers were not hacked, but their online service allowed resourceful thieves to access filers’ information.

This breach is especially alarming because IRS Transcripts contain sensitive information about filers. Specifically, they include much of the information reported to the IRS on 1040 and the supporting forms, such as W-2s. The stolen information was then used to file 36,500 fraudulent tax returns seeking refunds. As many as 13,000 of those phony returns were accepted by the IRS, for a total of $39 million in refunds paid.

The IRS acted after discovering the breach by closing down the “Get a Transcript” tool for individual filers. Filers may still request their transcripts, but must do so by mailing in a completed form 4506. The IRS has not indicated when it will provide the online service again.

Their next step was to notify all 200,000 victims, informing them that their social security numbers and possibly other personal data was stolen. For those 104,000 whose tax information was stolen, the IRS is offering credit monitoring services. These victims will receive instructions to sign up for the credit monitoring note: these outreach letters will not request any personal identification information from taxpayers). In addition, the IRS will continue to monitor those tax accounts.

As always, victims may apply for identity protection numbers to prevent the filing of future returns using their information. Additionally, the IRS plans to strengthen its authentication procedures.

The hackers were able to answer many of the “out of wallet” security questions by using information that can be easily found on credit reports and social media sites like Facebook. As a result, the IRS will use questions that are more difficult to answer.

The IRS plans to employ a more proactive approach to prevent future breaches by partnering with private tax software companies, payroll companies and state agencies to share data on uncovered scams. Congress may act as well and may move up the date that W-2 forms must be filed with the government to January 31. This change would make it more difficult for scammers to e-file fake 1040s.

If you were affected by this breach, you will receive a notice in the mail from the IRS. If you do not receive a notice, we still recommend you access your free credit reports annually and stay vigilant about keeping your sensitive data protected.

Year-end tax planning – how to minimize the total tax paid in 2014 and 2015

This year, when projecting your potential taxes, you have to factor in the changes from 2013 that affect 2014 and 2015, which can be daunting. That is:

  • You have the standard plan: “defer income/accelerate deductions unless you are in the alternative minimum tax (“AMT”)” (see below).
  • But then you also have the new 3.8% surtax, with rules that do not play well with the others!
  • Finally, the tax rates changed again for 2014 (see the table below).

If any of this is not clear, please ask questions.

Can you act?
To make your review of 2014 planning less daunting, take these separate steps: (1) ask “can you act?” – determine what you can do reviewing the “what can you act on” list below; then (2), if you can act on any of the items in 2014 or 2015 – moving from one year to the other, or delaying further – then ask “what impact does your acting have?” ; and finally, ask “what happens if I take all of these actions?” – determine the impact of all possible moves in concert, especially vis a vis the AMT. Preparing tax projections for both years is the best way to find out how to act most effectively to reduce taxes. It permits you to see which moves have the best results in which years, so that the total tax paid in the two years is minimized.

What can you act on?
Wages – Can you defer or accelerate between years or even convert income into deferred income, such as stock options, or income to be received at retirement? Can you convert compensation into tax-free fringes?

AMT – the AMT is the 28% flat rate calculated differently than the marginal rate of up to 39.6%. If your deductions bring the regular tax down too low, the AMT kicks in, so that the deductions are wasted and need to be moved to another year, if possible. Otherwise, you will want to increase income for that year to “pull yourself out of the AMT.” The AMT exemptions amounts for 2014 are $52,800 for individuals and $82,100 for married couples filing jointly.

The 3.8% Medicare surtax – This affects all income for 2014 and beyond, but only to the extent of the lesser of (a) net investment income or (b) the excess of modified adjusted gross income (“AGI”) over the threshold, which is $250,000 ($200,000 for single taxpayers). Investment income includes interest, dividends, capital gains, annuities, royalties and passive rental income but excludes pensions and IRA distributions. The 3.8% surtax must be covered with your withholdings and estimated payments to avoid penalties and interest. See our post at Update on the impact of the 3.8% Medicare surtax .

Standard Deduction – up in 2014 to $6,200 for single taxpayers and married taxpayers filing separately, $12,400 for married couples filing jointly, and $9,100 for heads of household.

Schedule A itemized deductions – can you shift income and deductions for the maximum benefit, given the income-based deduction thresholds?

  • //Miscellaneous// – only the amount above 2% is allowed on Schedule A. Miscellaneous expenses include items such as unreimbursed employee expenses, tax preparation fees and investment-related expenses.
  • //Other Deductions// – certain itemized deductions are phased out once your AGI exceeds $305,050 for married filing jointly ($254,200 for singles), so that your itemized deductions are reduced by 3%, on up to 80% of the deduction, for the excess of your AGI above $305,050 ($254,200 for single filers).

N.B. – (a) many of the deductions affected by the phase-out are the ones not allowed in the AMT calculation and (b) investment interest is not subject to reduction on Schedule A.

Schedule C income and expenses – can you defer or accelerate between years so that the net income falls in the best year?

Investment income – can you shift interest, dividends, and capital gains? The tax rate on capital gains was as low as 0% in 2013, with a cap at 15%. However, that cap went up to 20% in 2014 for AGI over $457,600, for married filing jointly ($406,750 for single; $12,150 for trusts and estates). You net losses against gains, with up to $3,000 of an excess loss over gains being allowed to shelter other income and losses you do not use carry to the next year.

Notes

  • (a) capital gains include the sale of a primary residence (above the $250,000 per owner shelter);
  • (b) if you sell to recognize a loss, and want to hold the stock again, be aware of the wash sale rule which bars recognition of the loss if you re-purchase substantially the same security within 30 days, even if it is in different accounts you own, including repurchasing in your IRA;
  • (c) an installment sale that spreads gain over several years; a like-kind exchanges involve investment property, which means you can swap, rent and later convert to residential; and
  • (d) purchasing mutual funds late in the year can lead to dividend and capital gains distributions where the mutual fund price changes but your investment does not, such that you have no economic gain for the distribution on which you pay taxes – you are effectively pre-paying taxes because you did not purchase after the declared distribution date.

Investment income also includes passive income and losses (rental property, limited partnerships and LLCs). If you can re-characterize any activities as material participation rather than passive by grouping together to meet the material participation rules, you have a one-time election to regroup (see final regulations on when and how you elect issued early in 2014).

Roth conversions – can you convert an IRA to a Roth IRA, so that future distributions are not subject to tax? Be sure to pay the tax with funds outside of the IRA so that the conversion has maximum benefit.

Stock options – can you exercise a non-qualified option (“NQ”), which is treated as ordinary income, or instead exercise ISOs, which can be investment income (but create an AMT)? Disqualifying an ISO converts it into a NQ, so that you have control over the type and timing of the income.

Required minimum distributions (“RMD”) – If you turned age 70½ in 2014, you can take a distribution in 2014 instead of next year to decrease your 2015 income – but the IRA distribution is not subject to the surtax so this would be done for the Schedule A phase outs (see below).
A direct distribution from an IRA to a charity allows you to give up to $100,000 (per person) of your RMD and lower your AGI for purposes of determining taxes.

Estate taxes – Federal Estate Tax Exemption for estates of decedents who die in 2014 is $5,340,000, up from $5,250,000 for 2013.

Gifting – can you shift assets by gifting within the $14,000 per year/per person annual gift tax exclusion, or even by filing a gift tax return to use some of your unified credit now, so that income is in the lower tax bracket of new owner? You may want to combine this estate tax savings strategy with income tax savings ideas so that you shift an income-producing asset to someone in a lower tax bracket.

Inherited IRA – be sure to divide an inherited IRA among beneficiaries to get the maximum life expectancy for RMD calculations for each.

If you made it this far, I hope you have a good idea of your 2014-2015 tax plan, or else a set of questions to ask so we can help devise one for you! //Please contact us//.

Federal Tax Rates for 2014:
[[image:2014-federal-tax-rates.jpg|large|link=source]][[file:2014-federal-tax-rates.pdf]]

Tax Law Changes Coming, including raised capital gains and dividend tax rates

This month, President Obama released his proposed FY 2014 budget which contains new taxes, limits on deductions, and other changes intended to meet the goal of raising more than $580 billion in revenue.
The most significant of these is the termination of capital gains breaks and qualified dividend treatment, causing them both to be taxed as ordinary income. The Kiplinger Tax Letter suggests taking capital gains before 2015 to lock in the lower rate. However, as always, do not let a tax strategy override a good investment plan.
Here is a summary of other changes that may affect you:
The 28% Limitation:
• Affects married taxpayers filing jointly with income over $250,000 and single taxpayers with income over $200,000.
• Limits the tax rate at which these taxpayers can reduce their tax liability to a maximum of 28%.
• Applies to all itemized deduction including charitable contributions, mortgage interest, employer provided health insurance, interest income on state and local bonds, foreign excluded income, tax-exempt interest, retirement contributions and certain above-the-line deductions.
The “Buffet Rule”
• Households with income over $1 million pay at least 30% of their income (after charitable donations) in tax.
• Implements a “Fair Share Tax,” which would equal 30% of the taxpayer’s adjusted gross income, less a charitable donation credit equal to 28% of itemized charitable contributions allowed after the overall limitation on itemized deductions. The Fair Share Tax would be phased in, starting at adjusted gross incomes of $1 million, and would be fully phased in at adjusted gross incomes of $2 million.
Estate, gift, and generation-skipping transfer (GST) Tax
• Reintroduce rules that were in effect in 2009, except that portability of the estate tax exclusion between spouses would be retained.
• This change would take effect in 2018.
• Top tax rate would be 45% and the exclusion amount would be $3.5 million for estate and GST taxes, and $1 million for gift taxes.
The Kiplinger Tax Letter anticipates the changes being acted on as early as 2014. On April 23, 2013, Max Baucus (D-MT), the head of the Senate Finance Committee, announced he would retire from the U.S. Senate at the end of his term in 2015. In The Kiplinger Tax Latter, Vol. 88, No. 9, Kiplinger predicts that “he’ll push to make revamping the tax code his legacy.”
You may feel as though you are done with taxes and do not need address them for another year. Resist that urge and schedule a meeting with us so we can review the potential impact of proposed tax changes on your portfolio and investments. We can also discuss the best strategies for saving money on your 2013 and 2014 tax returns.

Same-sex marriages filing jointly with the IRS…

Kiplinger’s Tax Newsletter reports:

Same-sex couples are one step closer to joint filing of their federal returns. An Appeals Court scrapped a law barring them from being treated as married for purposes of federal law, even though they are legally married under state law. This part of the Defense of Marriage Act is unconstitutional (Gill v. OPM, 1st Cir.).
This decision will almost certainly be appealed to the Supreme Court, delaying any final resolution until next year. So until the High Court gives the nod, all same-sex couples remain barred from filing joint income tax returns with IRS.
In the interim, married same-sex couples should file protective refund claims with IRS on Form 1040-X if joint return status would save them tax. The Service will hold the protective claims in abeyance until there’s a final decision in the case.

Same-sex couples also can enroll in long-term-care insurance programs that states offer to their employees. A federal district court struck down a U.S. law
that disqualifies state-maintained long-term-care plans if married same-sex couples or domestic partners are covered (Dragovich v. Treasury Department, D.C. Calif.).

We will continue to track this…..

Roth Conversions – decisions on 2010, recharacterize now or pay taxes over two years?

You can still decide as late as October 15th (if you extend filing of your tax returns) to either recharacterize or pay the taxes in 2011 and 2012 instead of on your 2010 taxes for your 2010 conversion to a Roth IRA.

Recharacterize – if you have the misfortune of losing value on the IRA after converting, you can “un-convert” by “recharacterizing” the Roth IRA as a traditional IRA using an IRA-to-IRA transfer (do not distribute funds to yourself, as that distribution voids the recharacterization). You can do this for all or a portion of the account. Once you do so, you cannot convert again until later of 30 days after the recharacterization or the year after the year of the original conversion.
This strategy is useful to address a decreased IRA value or to shift the conversion into future years with less income, so you are in a lower tax bracket.

Tax payments
– 2010 is the only year where you can choose to have the income of the conversion split in half and carried onto your 2011 and 2012 tax returns. This (1) spreads the time to come up with funds to pay the taxes (you never want to use the funds in the IRA as that defeats the purpose) and (2) gives you earnings on funds already available to pay the taxes until the payment due date.

Note: if you are paying taxes on the conversion with your 2010 taxes, the amounts are due April 18, 2011, even if you extend to have the option of recharacterizing. If you do recharacterize, then you will have over paid and have a refund due …. until you convert again.