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Archive for February, 2011

IRS Announces New Effort to Help Struggling Taxpayers Get a Fresh Start; Major Changes Made to Lien Process

February 28th, 2011

In its latest effort to help struggling taxpayers, the Internal Revenue Service announced a series of new steps to help people get a fresh start with their tax liabilities.

The goal is to help individuals and small businesses meet their tax obligations, without adding unnecessary burden to taxpayers. Specifically, the IRS is announcing new policies and programs to help taxpayers pay back taxes and avoid tax liens.

“We are making fundamental changes to our lien system and other collection tools that will help taxpayers and give them a fresh start,” IRS Commissioner Doug Shulman said. “These steps are good for people facing tough times, and they reflect a responsible approach for the tax system.”

Today’s announcement centers on the IRS making important changes to its lien filing practices that will lessen the negative impact on taxpayers. The changes include:

  • Significantly increasing the dollar threshold when liens are generally issued, resulting in fewer tax liens.
  • Making it easier for taxpayers to obtain lien withdrawals after paying a tax bill.
  • Withdrawing liens in most cases where a taxpayer enters into a Direct Debit Installment Agreement.
  • Creating easier access to Installment Agreements for more struggling small businesses.
  • Expanding a streamlined Offer in Compromise program to cover more taxpayers.

“These steps are in the best interest of both taxpayers and the tax system,” Shulman said. “People will have a better chance to stay current on their taxes and keep their financial house in order. We all benefit if that happens.”

This is another in a series of steps to help struggling taxpayers. In 2008, the IRS announced lien relief for people trying to refinance or sell a home. In 2009, the IRS added new flexibility for taxpayers facing payment or collection problems. And last year, the IRS held about 1,000 special open houses to help small businesses and individuals resolve tax issues with the Agency.

Today’s announcement comes after a review of collection operations which Shulman launched last year, as well as input from the Internal Revenue Service Advisory Council and the National Taxpayer Advocate.

Tax Lien Thresholds

The IRS will significantly increase the dollar thresholds when liens are generally filed. The new dollar amount is in keeping with inflationary changes since the number was last revised. Currently, liens are automatically filed at certain dollar levels for people with past-due balances.

The IRS plans to review the results and impact of the lien threshold change in about a year.

A federal tax lien gives the IRS a legal claim to a taxpayer’s property for the amount of an unpaid tax debt. Filing a Notice of Federal Tax Lien is necessary to establish priority rights against certain other creditors. Usually the government is not the only creditor to whom the taxpayer owes money.

A lien informs the public that the U.S. government has a claim against all property, and any rights to property, of the taxpayer. This includes property owned at the time the notice of lien is filed and any acquired thereafter. A lien can affect a taxpayer’s credit rating, so it is critical to arrange the payment of taxes as quickly as possible.

“Raising the lien threshold keeps pace with inflation and makes sense for the tax system,” Shulman said. “These changes mean tens of thousands of people won’t be burdened by liens, and this step will take place without significantly increasing the financial risk to the government.”

Tax Lien Withdrawals

The IRS will also modify procedures that will make it easier for taxpayers to obtain lien withdrawals.

Liens will now be withdrawn once full payment of taxes is made if the taxpayer requests it. The IRS has determined that this approach is in the best interest of the government.

In order to speed the withdrawal process, the IRS will also streamline its internal procedures to allow collection personnel to withdraw the liens.

Direct Debit Installment Agreements and Liens

The IRS is making other fundamental changes to liens in cases where taxpayers enter into a Direct Debit Installment Agreement (DDIA). For taxpayers with unpaid assessments of $25,000 or less, the IRS will now allow lien withdrawals under several scenarios:

  • Lien withdrawals for taxpayers entering into a Direct Debit Installment Agreement.
  • The IRS will withdraw a lien if a taxpayer on a regular Installment Agreement converts to a Direct Debit Installment Agreement.
  • The IRS will also withdraw liens on existing Direct Debit Installment greements upon taxpayer request.

Liens will be withdrawn after a probationary period demonstrating that direct debit payments will be honored.

In addition, this lowers user fees and saves the government money from mailing monthly payment notices. Taxpayers can use the Online Payment Agreement application on IRS.gov to set-up with Direct Debit Installment Agreements.

“We are trying to minimize burden on taxpayers while collecting the proper amount of tax,” Shulman said. “We believe taking away taxpayer burden makes sense when a taxpayer has taken the proactive step of entering a direct debit agreement.”

Installment Agreements and Small Businesses

The IRS will also make streamlined Installment Agreements available to more small businesses. The payment program will raise the dollar limit to allow additional small businesses to participate.

Small businesses with $25,000 or less in unpaid tax can participate. Currently, only small businesses with under $10,000 in liabilities can participate. Small businesses will have 24 months to pay.

The streamlined Installment Agreements will be available for small businesses that file either as an individual or as a business. Small businesses with an unpaid assessment balance greater than $25,000 would qualify for the streamlined Installment Agreement if they pay down the balance to $25,000 or less.

Small businesses will need to enroll in a Direct Debit Installment Agreement to participate.

“Small businesses are an important part of the nation’s economy, and the IRS should help them when we can,” Shulman said, “By expanding payment options, we can help small businesses pay their tax bill while freeing up cash flow to keep funding their operations.”

Offers in Compromise

The IRS is also expanding a new streamlined Offer in Compromise (OIC) program to cover a larger group of struggling taxpayers.

This streamlined OIC is being expanded to allow taxpayers with annual incomes up to $100,000 to participate. In addition, participants must have tax liability of less than $50,000, doubling the current limit of $25,000 or less.

OICs are subject to acceptance based on legal requirements. An offer-in-compromise is an agreement between a taxpayer and the IRS that settles the taxpayer’s tax liabilities for less than the full amount owed. Generally, an offer will not be accepted if the IRS believes that the liability can be paid in full as a lump sum or through a payment agreement. The IRS looks at the taxpayer’s income and assets to make a determination regarding the taxpayer’s ability to pay.

Checking the Status of Your Refund

February 24th, 2011

If you already filed your federal tax return and are due a refund, you have several options to check on your refund. Here are eight things the IRS wants you to know about checking the status of your refund:

1. Online Access to Refund Information Where’s My Refund? or ¿Dónde está mi reembolso? are interactive tools on http://www.irs.gov and are the fastest, easiest way to get information about your federal income tax refund. Whether you split your refund among several accounts, opted for direct deposit into one account, used part of your refund to buy U.S. Savings Bonds or asked the IRS to mail you a check, Where’s My Refund? and ¿Dónde está mi reembolso? give you online access to your refund information, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. It’s quick, easy and secure.

2. When to Check Refund Status If you e-file, you can get refund information 72 hours after the IRS acknowledges receipt of your return. If you file a paper return, refund information will generally be available three to four weeks after mailing your return.

3. What You Need to Check Refund Status When checking the status of your refund, have your federal tax return handy. To get your personalized refund information you must enter:

  • Your Social Security Number or Individual Taxpayer Identification Number
  • Your filing status which will be Single, Married Filing Joint Return, Married.
  • Filing Separate Return, Head of Household, or Qualifying Widow(er).
  • Exact whole dollar refund amount shown on your tax return.

4. What the Online Tool Will Tell You Once you enter your personal information, you could get several responses, including:

  • Acknowledgement that your return was received and is in processing.
  • The mailing date or direct deposit date of your refund.
  • Notice that the IRS could not deliver your refund due to an incorrect address. In this instance, you may be able to change or correct your address online using Where’s My Refund?

5. Customized Information Where’s My Refund? also includes links to customized information based on your specific situation. The links guide you through the steps to resolve any issues affecting your refund.  For example, if you do not get the refund within 28 days from the original IRS mailing date shown on Where’s My Refund?, you may be able to start a refund trace.

6. Visually Impaired Taxpayers Where’s My Refund? is also accessible to visually impaired taxpayers who use the Job Access with Speech screen reader used with a Braille display and is compatible with different JAWS modes.

7. Toll-free Number If you do not have internet access, you can check the status of your refund in English or Spanish by calling the IRS Refund Hotline at 800-829-1954 or the IRS TeleTax System at 800-829-4477. When calling, you must provide your or your spouse’s Social Security number, filing status and the exact whole dollar refund amount shown on your return.

8. IRS2Go This is the IRS’ first smartphone application that lets taxpayers check on the status of their tax refund. Apple users can download the free IRS2Go application by visiting the Apple App Store. Android users can visit the Android Marketplace to download the free IRS2Go app.

Ten Important Facts About Capital Gains and Losses

February 21st, 2011

Capital assets include a home, household furnishings and stocks and bonds held in a personal account. When a capital asset is sold, the difference between the amount you paid for the asset and the amount you sold it for is a capital gain or capital loss.

Here are ten facts from the IRS about gains and losses and how they can affect your Federal income tax return.

  1. Almost everything you own and use for personal purposes, pleasure or investment is a capital asset.
  2. When you sell a capital asset, the difference between the amount you sell it for and your basis – which is usually what you paid for it – is a capital gain or a capital loss.
  3. You must report all capital gains.
  4. You may deduct capital losses only on investment property, not on property held for personal use.
  5. Capital gains and losses are classified as long-term or short-term, depending on how long you hold the property before you sell it. If you hold it more than one year, your capital gain or loss is long-term. If you hold it one year or less, your capital gain or loss is short-term.
  6. If you have long-term gains in excess of your long-term losses, you have a net capital gain to the extent your net long-term capital gain is more than your net short-term capital loss, if any.
  7. The tax rates that apply to net capital gain are generally lower than the tax rates that apply to other income. For 2010, the maximum capital gains rate for most people is 15%. For lower-income individuals, the rate may be 0% on some or all of the net capital gain. Special types of net capital gain can be taxed at 25% or 28%.
  8. If your capital losses exceed your capital gains, the excess can be deducted on your tax return and used to reduce other income, such as wages, up to an annual limit of $3,000, or $1,500 if you are married filing separately.
  9. If your total net capital loss is more than the yearly limit on capital loss deductions, you can carry over the unused part to the next year and treat it as if you incurred it in that next year.
  10. Capital gains and losses are reported on Schedule D, Capital Gains and Losses, and then transferred to line 13 of Form 1040.

IRS Begins Processing Tax Forms Affected by Late Tax Changes; Taxpayers can e-File Immediately

February 15th, 2011

 The Internal Revenue Service announced today it has started processing individual tax returns affected by legislation enacted in December and reminded taxpayers that they can begin filing electronically immediately.

 On Monday, IRS systems began to accept and process both e-file and paper tax returns claiming itemized deductions on Form 1040, Schedule A, as well as deductions for state and local sales tax, higher education tuition and fees and educator expenses.

 “The IRS is now accepting all the 1040 forms,” IRS Commissioner Doug Shulman said. “We worked hard to update our systems and get the changes in place as quickly as possible. We appreciate the patience of those impacted by the delay. We urge taxpayers to use e-file with direct deposit, and they can get their refunds within days.”

 In late December 2010, the IRS announced it would delay processing of some tax returns in order to update processing systems to accommodate the late tax law changes. These tax law provisions were extended by the Tax Relief, Unemployment Insurance Reauthorization and Job Creation Act of 2010, which became law on Dec. 17.

 For the vast majority of taxpayers, the filing season this year began on time in January. Most taxpayers claiming itemized deductions and the other delayed forms file later in the year.

 The IRS urged taxpayers who haven’t filed yet to use e-file instead of paper tax forms to ensure accuracy and to get refunds fast. Taxpayers can do their taxes for free through Free File, which is brand-name software or online fillable forms. Free File is available exclusively at www.irs.gov/freefile.  Anyone who makes $58,000 or less can use Free File software. There are no income limits to online fillable forms. Both Free File software and Free File Fillable Forms allow taxpayers to prepare and e-file their federal returns for free.

 The IRS worked closely with the tax software industry and the tax professional community during the reprogramming process to minimize disruptions for taxpayers and ensure a smooth tax season.

 As a result of these efforts, many major software providers and paid tax preparers started accepting impacted returns before the Feb. 14 start date, which they held and started submitting after the IRS systems opened.

 Due to the expected increase in tax return volumes being transmitted this week, the IRS cautioned a small number of taxpayers may experience a brief delay in receiving their e-file acknowledgement, which is normally provided within 24-48 hours. The IRS continues working with the software industry to minimize any impact to taxpayers.

 Business taxpayers who use the 1040 series can file now as well. However, the Feb. 14 start date does not apply to non-1040 business tax forms (add link) affected by the recent tax law changes. The IRS will announce a specific date in the near future when it can begin processing those impacted business tax forms.

Why Employees and Retirees may see Changes in 2011 Payments and Withholding

February 14th, 2011

  The Tax Relief, Unemployment Insurance Reauthorization and Job Creation Act of 2010, enacted on December 17, 2010, included several changes impacting workers’ take-home pay and retirees’ net pension checks for 2011. The Tax Relief Act extended for two years the income tax rates that were scheduled to expire at the end of 2010; that extension prevented a large increase in federal income tax withholding.

 However, the new law did not extend the Making Work Pay (MWP) credit that had been available for tax years 2009 and 2010. While most workers qualified for the maximum MWP credit, pension recipients did not qualify for any MWP credit unless they also had wages or other earned income.

 In December 2010, the IRS published new federal income tax withholding information to reflect the impact of the Tax Relief Act. The fact that that the MWP credit expired, by itself, would have resulted in increased withholding for most taxpayers. However, under the Tax Relief Act, withholding for social security tax for all wage earners was reduced from 6.2% to 4.2% (withholding for Medicare, at 1.45%, did not change). For most employees, the net effect of these two changes will result in less total tax being withheld from their checks. The social security tax reduction does not affect pension payments.

 Due to the late enactment of these tax law changes, the IRS asked employers and plan administrators to adjust their systems as soon as possible but not later than January 31, 2011. This means employees and pension recipients may not have seen the full impact of these changes until their first paycheck in February, 2011.

 Once employers implement the changes, there will be a net increase in take-home pay for most employees (excluding the impact of any other withholding amounts, such as withholding for health insurance, state income taxes, etc.).

 Once pension plan administrators implement the 2011 changes, the retirement check payments for some pensioners may be lower depending upon the method that their plan administrators used to calculate withholding in 2010.  Because the MWP credit did not apply to pensioners, the IRS published a table for 2009 and 2010 giving plan administrators the option of increasing withholding for their pension recipients. Not all plan administrators made the optional adjustment and instead allowed pensioners to make the adjustment when they filed their tax returns. Since the 2011 withholding tables do not reflect the expired credit, pension recipients in this situation are likely to see the withholding for their 2011 pension payments increase by approximately $7 to $50 per payment, depending on filing status, the amount of the payment, and how often the payment is made.

 IRS encourages both employees and pensioners to review their withholding every year using the withholding calculator on IRS.gov and, if necessary, fill out a new W-4 or W-4P form and give it to their employer or pension plan administrator.

Six Facts about IRS Publication 17

February 11th, 2011

Starting with “What’s New for 2010” IRS Publication 17, Your Federal Income Tax, takes you step by step through each part of your individual Federal Income tax return.  This comprehensive booklet explains the tax law in a way that will help you better understand your taxes so that you pay only as much as you owe and no more.

Here are the top six things the IRS wants you to know about Publication 17.

  1. Publication 17, Your Federal Income Tax, is available on the IRS website at http://www.irs.gov and contains a wealth of information for individual taxpayers.
  2. The online version of Publication 17 contains electronic links that make finding your answer simple.  Both the downloadable PDF and online 2010 Publication 17 have thousands of helpful hyperlinks.
  3. Publication 17 is packed with basic tax-filing information and tips on what income to report and how to report it.
  4. Publication 17 also includes information on figuring capital gains and losses, claiming dependents, choosing the standard deduction versus itemizing deductions, and how to claim valuable tax credits.
  5. Publication 17(SP) El Impuestos Federal sobre los Ingresos is available in Spanish.

Eight Essential Facts about Claiming the First-Time Homebuyer Credit

February 8th, 2011

If you purchased a home in 2010, you may be eligible to claim the First-Time Homebuyer Credit, whether you are a first-time homebuyer or a long-time resident purchasing a new home. The purchaser must have been at least 18 years old on the date of purchase; for a married couple, only one spouse must meet this age requirement. A dependent is not eligible to claim the credit.

Here are eight things the IRS wants you to know about claiming the credit:

  1. You must have bought – or entered into a binding contract to buy – a principal residence located in the United States on or before April 30, 2010. If you entered into a binding contract by April 30, 2010, you must have closed on the home on or before September 30, 2010.
  2. To be considered a first-time homebuyer, you and your spouse – if you are married – must not have jointly or separately owned another principal residence during the three years prior to the date of purchase.
  3. To be considered a long-time resident homebuyer you and your spouse – if you are married – must have lived in the same principal residence for any consecutive five-year period during the eight-year period that ended on the date the new home is purchased.
  4. The maximum credit for a first-time homebuyer is $8,000, half that amount for married individuals filing separately. The maximum credit for a long-time resident homebuyer is $6,500. Married individuals filing separately are limited to $3,250.
  5. You must file a paper return and attach Form 5405, First-Time Homebuyer Credit and Repayment of the Credit with additional documents to verify the purchase. Therefore, if you claim the credit you will not be able to file electronically.
  6. New homebuyers must attach a copy of a properly executed settlement statement used to complete such purchase. Buyers of a newly constructed home, where a settlement statement is not available, must attach a copy of the dated certificate of occupancy. Mobile home purchasers who are unable to get a settlement statement must attach a copy of the retail sales contract.
  7. If you are a long-time resident claiming the credit, the IRS recommends that you also attach any documentation covering the five-consecutive-year period, including Form 1098, Mortgage Interest Statement or substitute mortgage interest statements, property tax records or homeowner’s insurance records.
  8. Members of the military and certain other federal employees serving outside the U.S. have an extra year to buy a principal residence in the U.S. and qualify for the credit.

Five Tips if You Changed Your Name Due to Marriage or Divorce

February 3rd, 2011

If you changed your name as a result of a recent marriage or divorce you’ll want to take the necessary steps to ensure the name on your tax return matches the name registered with the Social Security Administration. A mismatch between the name shown on your tax return and the SSA records can cause problems in the processing of your return and may even delay your refund.

Here are five tips from the IRS for recently married or divorced taxpayers who have a name change.

  1. If you took your spouse’s last name or if both spouses hyphenate their last names, you may run into complications if you don’t notify the SSA. When newlyweds file a tax return using their new last names, IRS computers can’t match the new name with their Social Security Number.
  2. If you were recently divorced and changed back to your previous last name, you’ll also need to notify the SSA of this name change.
  3. Informing the SSA of a name change is easy; you’ll just need to file a Form SS-5, Application for a Social Security Card at your local SSA office and provide a recently issued document as proof of your legal name change.
  4. Form SS-5 is available on SSA’s website at http://www.socialsecurity.gov, by calling 800-772-1213 or at local offices. Your new card will have the same number as your previous card, but will show your new name.
  5. If you adopted your spouse’s children after getting married, you’ll want to make sure the children have an SSN. Taxpayers must provide an SSN for each dependent claimed on a tax return. For adopted children without SSNs, the parents can apply for an Adoption Taxpayer Identification Number – or ATIN – by filing Form W-7A, Application for Taxpayer Identification Number for Pending U.S. Adoptions with the IRS. The ATIN is a temporary number used in place of an SSN on the tax return. Form W-7A is available on the IRS website at http://www.irs.gov, or by calling 800-TAX-FORM (800-829-3676).

Use Your Federal Tax Refund to Buy Savings Bonds

February 1st, 2011

You can buy Series I U.S. Savings Bonds with a portion or all of your federal tax refund for yourself or anyone. Series I bonds are low-risk bonds that grow in value for up to 30 years. While you own them they earn interest and protect you from inflation.

Here are six things the IRS wants you to know about using your federal refund to purchase savings bonds.

  1. You may use a portion of your refund to purchase up to $5,000 in U.S. Series I Savings Bonds for yourself or anyone.
  2. The total amount of saving bonds purchased must be in multiples of $50. Any portion of your refund not used to buy savings bonds will be deposited into another financial account – such as a checking or savings account or can be mailed to you as a paper check.
  3. Paper bonds will be issued in your name or the name you designate as primary owner, co-owner or beneficiary. If you are married and filed a joint return, the bonds will be issued in yours and your spouse’s name. You can also designate a beneficiary or co-owner under this name registration option.
  4. You will receive the U.S. savings bonds in the mail.
  5. Buying bonds with your refund is easy. Just select this option by filing Form 8888, Allocation of Refund (Including Savings Bond Purchases).
  6. Form 8888 has step-by-step instructions on how to select this option and how to specify the amount of your refund you want to use to purchase savings bonds.