Tax Planning

Common Mistakes Taxpayers Make when Filing their Tax Return

Tax season can be stressful, especially when you’re unsure if the information you provided on your tax return was accurate. The IRS encounters errors on a regular basis, often causing delays when processing your tax return or sending your tax refund on time. There are many of these common mistakes taxpayers make when filing their tax returns that lead to these delays.  Here are some ways you can avoid those mistakes and ensure that when you file, you file properly.

Make sure to include all income on your tax return

Many taxpayers underreport their income. This is usually an innocent oversight, such as forgetting to include income from rental property, retirement income, 1099 income, stocks, or other supplementary incomes. It’s important to remember that your income is directly reported to the IRS, so accidentally leaving out any source of income could leave you at risk to be audited. Reporting all income when filing your taxes is necessary for your tax return to properly process and be accepted with the IRS.

Choosing the right filing status

Failing to select the correct filing status on your tax return could potentially cause future tax problems. For example, some married taxpayers will choose to file single when they should have chosen between Married Filing Separate or Married Filing Joint. This could raise a red flag with the IRS if a person repeatedly selects the wrong filing status. Don’t forget – if you are married but living separately, you can still claim single on your tax return. 

Know who you can claim on your tax return

Claiming ineligible dependents on a tax return could also signal a red flag with the IRS. The IRS will only allow you to claim dependents if you are supporting the person that is being claimed and may even ask you to provide substantiation to prove it. Make sure to keep any receipts as proof, because if you are audited and you cannot provide supporting documentation, penalties and interest will be added to whatever balance may be owed – or even be deducted from your refund.

Double-check your tax return

Make sure to never use anything but your full name when filing your taxes. Using a nickname could cause your tax return to be rejected or in a worst-case scenario; the IRS could consider it identity theft if you file your return with your full name the following year. Some other common mistakes that could be avoided by simply double-checking the information provided include, failing to sign your tax return when mailing it off to the IRS or placing incorrect bank account numbers on your return. While these mistakes may seem minor and relatively insignificant, they can cause major problems for your tax returns for years to come.

Always be mindful of how you are filing your taxes and make sure to check your tax return for accuracy before sending it to the IRS. Taking just a few minutes to verify your work can prevent these simple mistakes, and help you get the most out of your tax return.

Optima Tax Relief provides assistance to individuals struggling with unmanageable IRS tax burdens. To assess your tax situation and determine if you qualify for tax relief, contact us for a free consultation.

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Tax Tips for Uber Drivers and those Working in the Gig Economy

So you just joined Uber. Now you have a little extra cash, and you’re the one picking up the tab at dinner when you go out with friends and family. There couldn’t possibly be a downside to earning this additional income, right? Well, while there isn’t necessarily a drawback to having more money in your pocket, there are a few factors to being an Uber driver that you should consider from a tax standpoint. Here are some common questions and tax tips that first time Uber drivers should think about before getting started.

What is the difference between a 1099 earner versus a W2 earner?
If you have taxes being deducted out of every paycheck, you are most likely a W2 earner. At the end of the year, a W2 earner will receive a form that will state their annual wages along with a breakdown of the taxes that were withheld throughout the year.

A 1099 earner, however, does not have any taxes withheld from their income. The total amount of pay you received from Uber (or any other person or entity for whom you were a 1099 earner) during the year will be reported on a 1099 form. It is the responsibility of the 1099 earner to either make estimated tax payments (more on this below) or pay any balance in full at the end of the tax year.

What are estimated tax payments and can they help me avoid owing at the end of the year?
Estimated tax payments, or ETPs, are based on the amount of income that you expect to have earned in the current tax year. ETPs are usually made if a taxpayer believes that they will have a tax balance at the end of the year. A taxpayer may also wish to make ETPs if they are not withholding enough taxes from their paycheck, or if taxes are not being deducted from their income at all. A 1099 earner (or even a W2 earner who does not have enough withholdings listed) has the choice to pay their estimated tax payments bi-weekly, monthly or even quarterly. ETPs must be made in order to avoid owing at the end of the year, and it is even possible to receive a penalty if ETPs are not being made. The IRS allows you to make your estimated tax payments by either mailing a payment in, paying over the phone, or even paying online.

What are tax write-offs and how do I keep track of all my business expenses?
Being that you are a 1099 earner for Uber, it’s a little like running your own business. And just like if you were running your own business, you must document and report any income you have received and expenses you have made. Many of these expenses are tax write-offs. Some expenses that you may experience as an Uber driver include car maintenance, gas, and mileage. You will need to keep proof of your expenses throughout the tax year in order to write them off with the IRS. In order to do this accurately, you will need to keep track of how much of your mileage is used for business and how much is used for your personal life. There are multiple downloadable apps on the market designed to keep track of this for you. If you forgot to do this, don’t worry – you can request this information directly from Uber. Once you know what percentage of your mileage is used for business, you can calculate what percentage of your gas and maintenance can be listed as a tax write-off. Don’t forget to save those receipts; you will need them in case you are ever audited by the IRS!

Whether you’re using Uber to pay the bills or to give you a little extra income on the side, paying your taxes doesn’t have to be scary. Following the steps above and stashing away a little bit of your income can help ensure you don’t get blindsided come tax season. Now get out there and have some fun with your extra cash and remember, drive safe!

IRS Tax News: Your Home Office Deduction Just Got Simpler

One Forbes.com article claims that half of all working Americans either work for or own a small business. Of that group, 52% are home-based and use part of their homes exclusively for business purposes. This article highlights the new IRS home office deduction guidelines.

Fear of Setting Off an Audit

auditCall it consensus, rumor or just plain urban legend, but according to conventional wisdom, claiming the home office deductions is a sure-fire IRS audit trigger. In actuality, there is no concrete evidence that claiming tax breaks for working at home was any more a trigger for an audit than any other tax deduction or credit. Certainly, claiming the home office deduction would seem to be less of a red flag than, say, claiming $25,000 worth of deductions on an adjusted gross income of $30,000.

For most taxpayers, it’s more likely that a combination of factors is what actually sets off audit red flags. Perhaps it’s not so much running a business at home, but claiming deductions for a business that consistently loses money that triggers an audit. A taxpayer attempting to claim a 10-foot by 12-foot dedicated home office who lives in a two bedroom home with his wife and two children would also likely raise an auditor’s suspicions.

Even without the fear of an audit, many taxpayers were tempted to skip claiming legitimate deductions, with good reason. Calculating home office deductions prior to 2013 could be a time consuming chore. The first step was to divide the entire square footage of the home to generate a percentage of the home that was dedicated to the home office. The next step was to add all the expenses for the home, including mortgage interest, property taxes, utilities and money spent at Home Depot for home improvement. The next step involved multiplying that total by the percentage of the home devoted. Now add all that up and multiply it by the percentage of the home used for the home office. You get the picture.

New Calculations

measureThis all changed when the IRS announced new rules which provided a simpler method of calculating home office expenses beginning in the 2013 tax year. All that’s needed now is to calculate the square footage of the space devoted to the home, then multiply that figure by five and put a dollar sign in front of the result. That’s it. The simplified formula can be used for home offices measuring up to 300 square feet, which translates to a maximum $1,500 deduction.

Taxpayers still have the option of sticking with the original method, which might be advantageous under the following conditions:

  • If a home office space is greater than 300 square feet.
  • If actual home expenses are higher than the maximum deductible amount through the new method.
  • For businesses that were not profitable during the previous tax year.
  • For taxpayers who changed residences during the previous year.

On the other hand, it’s a good idea to opt for the new method ($5 per square foot) if home expense records are incomplete, or if calculating actual expenses is too cumbersome. Taxpayers who have sizable real estate and mortgage interest deductions, which they prefer to itemize fully and separately from the home office deduction should also consider utilizing the new calculation method.

Taxpayers must choose one method or the other during any particular tax year, but may change methods from one year to the next. Regardless of which method is used, the following conditions apply:

  • The home office must be used exclusively and regularly as the main place of business.
  • “Exclusive” means that the home office is used only for trade and for no other family recreational or living space.

Don’t Miss Out

If you have a home office and have not been taking advantage of allowable deductions, you have been passing up tax benefits that can lower your overall tax liability. And with the new simpler method, you no longer have to perform tedious record keeping and computations. Read more about the home office deduction on the IRS website.

free money

When Your Tax Exemption Grows Up And Gets A Job

BabyIt is inevitable that at some point children will be able to claim their own tax deductions and get big refunds. At this point, it’s time to bring out the dependency worksheet.

Parents should know that if a child makes enough money to challenge your income tax exemptions, it could add significantly to your tax obligations. In addition, some parents mistakenly believe that as long as their children are under age 24 and in college full time that they can still claim them on their tax returns. However, if a child is contributing to more than half of his/her own support, then parents can no longer claim that child as a dependent.

Let’s take a hypothetical example of 16 year old Betty. She works after school and on weekends at a sporting goods store, where she earns a minimum wage salary and a commission on sales. She is gifted in sales, so even though she is still in high school, she made $11,500 the previous year. Betty and her three sisters live with her parents and her grandmother, and qualifies as a dependent for Betty’s parents on their joint income tax return.

boyAccording to the worksheet for the dependency support test, (available in IRS Publication 501, page 16) household expenses, including groceries consumed in the home, utility bills, repairs, and the fair rental value of the house must be divided by the number of residents in the household. In this case, with a married couple, a grandparent, and four children, the household is comprised of seven people.

If the fair rental value of the home is $2500, then $357.00 person is the figure that will be applied to Betty’s support. The utility bills add up to an average of $500 per month. Divided by 7, Betty’s share is $71 every month. If groceries average $200 per week, then Betty’s share is $29 per week. Annual plumbing repairs of $840 translate to $120 per year for each person in the household. A recap of Betty’s annual household expenses is below:

  •                $4284 Fair rental value
  •                $852 Utilities
  •                $1508 Groceries
  •                $120 Plumbing repairs

This translates to $6764 for Betty’s total share of household expenses per year. Christmas presents, her share of an annual family vacation, clothing, recreation, electronics equipment, medical expenses not paid by insurance, and her insurance premiums add $12,000 to Betty’s share of total household expenses, bringing Betty’s total share of household expenses to $18,764.

teenLet’s recall Betty’s salary of $11,500. Unless her parents can prove that her earnings went to savings or investments, it will count as money spent toward her own support. As it turns out, Betty bought a car, and pays for her own insurance, which runs $300 or $400 per month. She spends an additional $10 or $11 a day on lunch or movies. Of course she wears the latest fashions, regularly downloads (legally) music from Adele, Katy Perry and Beyoncé, and has purchased the complete set of episodes for the first season of Game of Thrones. She also has an iPhone 6 Plus and a tablet. Life is large, and so is her tax refund. Meanwhile, her parents’ allowable credits and deductions have shrunk. Her parents have lost the child tax credit.

A second example considers Betty going away to college. Betty’s parents’ income has risen, but private tuition for Betty has also risen. Meanwhile, Betty pitches in by taking a part-time job while she’s enrolled in classes. Depending on how much she earns, her parents may lose the dependency exemption. If Betty qualifies as an independent student for financial aid purposes, her parents will lose the educational credit, too.

manIt’s important to remember that if you choose not to claim a child that qualifies as your dependent, the child still cannot claim the exemption for herself. To prevent tax surprises later, there should ideally be an understanding within the family before children start earning substantial salaries about establishing a savings account and other plans to minimize tax burdens for both parents and children. A good place to start is by enlisting the help of a tax professional. Contact us today to schedule a strategy session.

Things You Can Do After Tax Season To Make Next Year Easier

The best tax advice is to get an earlier start on filing income tax returns. Putting off completing your tax returns until April only increases the stress and anxiety of confronting all of the rules and regulations of the IRS. The strain of filing this year’s returns should serve as an incentive to make next year go a little smoother. To make that happen, incorporate a few organizational techniques, and aim for a goal to file your return by February next year.

mileageEspecially if you use your car frequently for business, you’ll find that the miles add up quickly.  Many taxpayers can legitimately claim the mileage deduction for their personal vehicles. However, the IRS wants a mileage diary at audit time. Many tax practitioners, afraid of accuracy penalties, are reluctant to include estimated mileage numbers on their customers’ tax returns.

The solution? Buy a small expense diary that will fit in an easy-to-reach cubby-hole near your dashboard. Attach a pen to the notebook. As soon as you buy the expense booklet, write down the mileage from the odometer, next to the date. Put the booklet and envelope in the glove box of your car.  You should also purchase a manila folder to keep by your computer.  Whether you prepare your own taxes or leave the task to a tax professional, the presence of the manila folder can remind you to either print out copies of mortgage statements or other transactions. If you receive statements or bills by mail, put them in the folder.  If there is a particular place where you empty your pockets or purse, make sure a second envelope or folder for receipts is nearby.

Your manila folder and glove compartment envelope can be used for any receipt, including prescription and over-the counter drugs or doctor receipts. Did you make a tuition payment online for your child’s college tuition? Print out a receipt right away, and stash it in the folder.

ReceiptsIf you occasionally make a purchase for your rental property, keep an envelope in the glove box to keep receipts. You can use the same envelope for gas receipts. Even though gas purchases are not deductible, gas receipts can provide substantiating evidence for mileage deduction claims. Did you take clothes or other donations to your church, or the Salvation Army?  Put the receipt you should have received in the envelope along with your gas receipts and receipts for rental purchases.  Maintaining receipts is essential in case the IRS questions your deductions.

Whenever you use the car for a deductible trip, copy down the odometer reader at the beginning and again when you return home. To cement the habit of keeping track of your mileage, copy the odometer reading every time you get in the car. Your log should include the date, the beginning odometer reading, the purpose of the trip, including names of people you’re meeting with if your trip is business related, and the ending mileage.

Once your system is in place, maintenance requires only a few seconds a day.  Writing down your mileage will become second nature. You’ll be surprised by how quickly your receipts add up as the year progresses.  And you’ll be able to look forward to a more lucrative and less stressful tax season next year!

Tax Filing Help: Deducting Medical and Dental Expenses

pub502-147x147Going to the doctor or to the dentist is almost never an enjoyable experience. Nonetheless, even if you’re in excellent health, you are still likely to accumulate medical and dental expenses – if only for insurance premiums and checkups. In some cases, you can recover at least some of your expenses through credits and deductions on your federal income tax returns. However, depending on your circumstances, recent changes in the tax code may make it more difficult for you to qualify for tax relief. If you have questions, the professionals at Optima Tax Relief can help you decipher which benefits you are entitled to and how to claim them.

Increase in the Adjusted Gross Income (AGI) Threshold

Before January 1, 2013, wage earners were allowed to deduct medical and dental expenses that exceeded 7.5 percent of their adjusted gross income (AGI). However, from 2013 forward, the AGI threshold for most taxpayers to deduct medical and dental expenses has increased to 10 percent. Taxpayers who are married with at least one spouse age 65 or older may still use the 7.5 percent threshold to claim medical and dental expense deductions until December 31, 2016. Beginning in 2017, the AGI threshold for claiming medical and dental expenses increases permanently to 10 percent for all taxpayers who are wage earners.

deductionsAllowable Medical and Dental Expenses

Although the increase in the AGI threshold is steep, the list of allowable expenses to claim as medical and dental expenses is extensive. Insurance premiums, office visits, vision correction, chiropractic care, physical therapy and mental health treatments are all deductible. Even transportation to and from the hospital or doctor’s office can be deducted, including public transportation costs, parking and tolls. Taxpayers who use their personal cars to travel to and from their homes to receive treatment may deduct 24 cents per mile on their federal income tax returns for 2014. On the other hand, elective cosmetic surgery (reconstructive or corrective plastic surgery is deductable) and Medicare tax payments for self-employed taxpayers are not allowable deductions.

Wage Earners Must Itemize

Wage earners who take the standard deduction cannot claim an additional deduction for medical and dental expenses. Instead, wage earners must itemize their deductions by filing Form 1040, commonly called the “long form” along with Schedule A to claim those expenses that exceed 10 percent of AGI (or 7.5 percent taxpayers eligible for the temporary exemption). Taxpayers may claim expenses paid for themselves, their spouses and children or other individuals claimed as dependents.

Rules for Self-Employed Taxpayers

Self-employed taxpayers are generally exempt from the AGI threshold requirement, and can claim eligible medical and dental expenses even if they take the standard deduction. To claim the deduction, self-employed taxpayers should file Form 1040 along with Schedule C, Profit or Loss from Business, Schedule C-EZ, Net Profit from Business, or Schedule F, Profit or Loss from Farming. Although self-employed taxpayers are not required to meet the AGI threshold, they are still prohibited from double-dipping. This means that expenses paid through a HSA are not deductible. In addition, self-employed taxpayers cannot claim deductions for medical or dental expenses for any month that they would have been eligible for subsidized health care coverage by an employer, former employer, spouse’s employer or ex-spouse’s employer.

calculateCalculating Your Medical and Dental Expense Deduction

Besides meeting the AGI threshold, taxpayers are only entitled to deduct medical and dental expenses that are not reimbursed or otherwise accounted for. This means that expenses that were paid through a Health Savings Account (HSA) or Flexible Spending Arrangement (FSA) cannot be deducted, because withdrawals from HSAs or FSAs to cover medical and dental expenses are almost always tax-free. Taxpayers are also prohibited from deducting expenses that are covered by their insurance or paid for by their employers such as worker’s compensation claims.

Deductions can only be claimed for expenses paid during the previous calendar year. However, if you mailed a check or posted a credit or debit card payment on December 31, you can include that payment even if it doesn’t actually post until the new year. Therefore, be sure to keep your receipt or other proof of when the payment was made. If you are unsure about whether a specific expense qualifies for the medical or dental expense deduction, a tax professional, such as an attorney from Optima Tax Relief, can determine whether or not the expense in question is deductible.

Tax Filing Help: Who Are My Dependents?

dependentsEach year during tax season, U.S. taxpayers spend millions of hours compiling and sorting tax documents, meeting with tax professionals and hoping to stay out of the red. Some of the most important tax information affecting your return, however, is not related to your W2 or profit/loss statement; it’s related to your household.

For many taxpayers, the question “who are my dependents” is often not seriously contemplated until they are sitting directly across the table from their tax preparer. A thorough tax preparer will be able to help you examine details of your household and determine who may qualify. However, educating yourself on the following points will help you get the most out of your return.

Dependents Don’t Have To Be Related To You

When people talk about their dependents, most people infer they are speaking of their children. Indeed, a major category of dependents is the “qualifying child“. This category includes, for example, children and grandchildren who:

1) lives with you more than half the year,

2) are under the age of 19,

3) relied on you for more than half of their support and

4) if married, does not file a joint return unless it’s solely to claim a tax credit.

Adopted children, step-children, siblings and descendants of both also fall into this category.

A second, broader category of dependents falls under the “qualifying relative” category. Although it is implied by the name, no familial relationship is actually required under this provision. In fact, a qualifying relative can be anyone who:

1) lives with the taxpayer all year,

2) made less than the exemption amount ($3,950 for 2014),

3) relied on the taxpayer for more than half their support and

4) is not a qualifying child of another taxpayer.

An important distinctions between the qualifying child and qualifying relative categories are that the qualifying relative has no “age test”, but does have a “gross income test”.

Dependents Don’t Have To Live With You

collegeGenerally, dependents must meet a “residency test” in order to be claimed. A qualifying child has to live with the taxpayer more than half the year and qualifying relatives must live with the taxpayer all year to be considered dependents. However, a number of exceptions apply.

First, the qualifying relative category carves out an exception to the residency test for persons related to the taxpayer, such as children who exceed the age test, as well as siblings and parents who are related directly or through marriage. Under this provision, these related people are not required to be a member of the household where the taxpayer resides. For example, a taxpayer can claim a parent who does not reside with them as long as the “support test” and the “gross income test” are met.

Second, a qualifying child is not required to meet the traditional residency test if he/she is a full-time student during any five months of the year. This is because education is considered a “temporary absence” where the main home remains within the taxpayers home. Additionally, for full-time students, the age test increases from being under 19 to under 24 years of age.

Dependents Can Have Income

dependentsFinally, a person can be claimed as a dependent even if that person has their own income. Applying the gross income test correctly requires you to identify the type of dependent and the type of income received by that person. When applicable, the gross income test uses an income threshold that matches the exemption amount for the applicable year. In 2014 for example, that threshold (exemption) is $3,950.

First, the gross income test is primarily a concern for a qualifying relative, as the qualifying child dependent does not have to satisfy a gross income test. The following example is illustrative of this distinction:

In 2014, Junior (age 17) worked part-time for his father’s landscaping business and earned $5,000 for the year. Even though Junior’s income exceeded the $3,950 threshold amount, because he is under 19 years old and meets both the residency and support tests, his income does not disqualify him from being a qualifying child. However, if Junior was 22 years old in 2014 and not a full-time student, he would not qualify as a dependent under either category because he fails both the age test for a qualifying child and the income test for the qualifying relative.

Second, the type of income derived must be considered in the gross income test. Tax exempt income, such as social security benefits or municipal bond interest, is not considered income for the gross income test. So for example, if a taxpayer provides more than half the support for her aged parent and the parent receives $15,000/yr in untaxed social security benefits, the parent would still qualify under the income test as a qualifying relative.

In conclusion, being aware of the various ways a person can qualify as a dependent will help you be informed as a taxpayer, as well as ensure that you are providing the proper information to your tax professional (or software) and will ultimately help you get the most out of your tax return.

For more reading on this topic, see IRC 152 or IRS Publication 17.

Renting out a Spare Room? Don’t Forget Uncle Sam.

Tax Tips For Landlords

If you have decided to join the sharing society and rent out part of your home,either through a service like AirBnB or independently, you have several tasks ahead of you.

You’ll most likely want to spruce up the place with comfy furnishings and linens, and maybe a fresh coat of paint. You will also want to avoid legal dust-ups like Über, Lyft and AirBnB have recently experienced in cities like New York and San Francisco.

And of course, Uncle Sam wants his share. Running afoul of the IRS can potentially wipe out any financial gains you may reap from opening your home to complete strangers. Fortunately, you can reduce your potential tax bite – with diligent record keeping.

The Magic Number? 14 (Days)

The most convenient and potentially lucrative scenario would be to completely avoid reporting or paying income taxes on the income you earn from renting out your couch or your spare room. Well, you can, if you meet two relatively easy requirements set by the IRS.

First, you must use the residence as a home at least 14 days out of each calendar year. Second, you must limit the time that you rent any part of the residence that you use as a home to 14 days or less each tax year. That’s it.

So if you have a primary residence plus a vacation home where you spend at least two weeks of the same year, you could rent out rooms in both and collect rental revenue for 28 days (14 days for each residence) completely tax free. It gets better: the IRS places no upper limit on how much income you earn as long as you don’t exceed 14 total days of rental per property. (IRS.gov)

If you live near the town where the All-Star game for a major sport is being played that year, you could rent out one room or the entire place for the week, rake in major cash and never report a dime on your tax return. Pretty sweet. But if a renter burns a hole in your floor, you’re stuck paying for the repairs.

Renting Beyond 14 Days Annually

Should you exceed the 14-day threshold, matters become somewhat more complex. First, you must determine whether you or one or more family members resides in the residence or uses it for personal purposes for at least 10 percent of the time that you rent at fair rental price. You don’t have to be there at the same time you’re renting, but your time in the residence must equal at least 10 percent of the total rental time.

So if you rent out your vacation home for 300 days each year, you or another qualifying person will need to live there for at least 30 days during the same year for the IRS to qualify the residence as a home. For the purposes of this article, the assumption will be that the residence qualifies as a home for IRS purposes. (IRS.gov)

The rules differ for rental properties that are used for what the IRS calls “personal purposes” rather than as residences. There are also different regulations that apply if you use the rental property as a residence, but don’t live there enough of the time for the residence to qualify as a home. To sort out those types of issues issues, consult with a professional such as an attorney with Optima Tax Relief.

IRS Tax Forms for Contractors

As a contractor with AirBnB living within the United States, you would complete Form W-9, Request for Taxpayer Identification Number and Certification. You would also receive Form 1099, Miscellaneous Income before you file your federal income tax return for the following year. (International contractors complete different forms.) If you operate as an independent, you will need to maintain your own records for rental income and expenses, preferably separate from your personal household expenses.

If you provide sleeping space, but no frills, report income and losses on Schedule E, Supplemental Income and Loss, attached to Form 1040, Form 1040NR or Form 1041. If you splash out on fluffy towels, turn-down service, and catered breakfast in bed for your guests, report income and expenses through Schedule C, Profit or Loss from Business, also filed with Form 1040, Form 1040NR or Form 1041.

In either case, you are also allowed to deduct the costs of repairs, depreciation (by filing Form 4562, Depreciation and Amortization), uncollected rents and actual operating expenses. But if a renter trashes the place and you file Schedule E, you would also need to complete Form 6198, At-Risk Limitations or Form 8582, Passive Activity Loss Limitations. If you’re not sure which form you should complete, consulting a tax professional is your best strategy.

Fair Rental Price and the Hobby Loss Rule

If you live in the heart of Manhattan or in a condo overlooking Lake Michigan in Chicago, you might think that setting your rents at bargain basement levels would help you beat the competition. If you set your prices too low, you may well attract the unfavorable attention of the IRS.

That doesn’t mean that you must charge exactly what every other landlord or private renter in your area charges for rent. It does mean that you must set prices for your rental that are comparable to the going rent for similar properties in your area – what the IRS calls “fair rental price.”

If you fail to charge fair rental prices or if you never report a profit from your rental, the IRS may decide that you’re not serious about making money. You don’t have to show a profit every year, but he IRS assumes that you have a genuine profit-making motive if you show gains during at least 3 of the most recent 5 years, including the current year. (IRS.gov)

Otherwise, you could you could be hit by the so-called “hobby loss rule,” which prevents you from using losses related from your venture to offset other income on your federal tax return. Instead, you use must losses related to your rental activities as itemized deduction on Schedule A. Deductions would be limited to the following strict limitations.

  • Deductions such as mortgage interest and taxes are allowed in full
  • Deductions like advertising, insurance and premiums are allowed only to the extent that gross income exceeds deductions from the first category
  • Deductions such as depreciation and amortization are allowed only to the extent that gross income exceeds the amount of deductions taken for both of the prior two categories.

Participating in the Sharing Economy

This article is not intended to discourage you from renting space in your home or otherwise participating in the sharing economy. It’s a potentially exciting way to meet interesting people from all over the country or even other parts of the world.

But just as you want your house or apartment to look its best, you’ll also want your financial house to be in order, too. That way you can concentrate on being the best host you can be, without being hit with unpleasant surprises at tax time.

California Tax Credits, Incentives and Exemptions for Entrepreneurs

As the most populous state in the union, California attracts new residents from all over the country and around the world. From the glow of Tinseltown to the technological buzz of Silicon Valley, dreamers and entrepreneurs alike are drawn to the state. But California is also one of the most expensive states to call home – sixth highest to be exact. California residents also bear the highest income and sales tax rates in the nation.

Businesses in California are not spared from the tax hammer. California imposes corporate income taxes on “C” corporations and limited liability companies that operate like corporations. As a result, many entrepreneurs who operate small businesses in California are subject to quadruple taxation – double taxation from Uncle Sam and double from California.

But as of 2014, California has enacted a series of tax breaks which will award millions of dollars in tax credits to qualifying businesses. These tax incentives were designed to lure businesses to re-locate or keep their base of operations within the state.

The Final Frontier

One business field seeing some high-profile tax breaks in California is the aerospace industry. California was at one point in time the center of the aerospace industry, before the US government was forced to make drastic cut-backs in the 1990’s, essentially reducing the workforce by more than 50% of its workers. California Governor, Jerry Brown, has been trying to put together an incentive package of sorts to entice some of the larger employers to come back to the state, which would improve employment rates, bring a huge influx of new business and cash flows, as well as help off-set the current financial problems that California is facing.

The Aerospace Tax Clarification Act, which was passed in April, cleared up some ambiguity regarding the classification of rocket propulsion systems. This new act clarifies that these rockets qualify for an existing business tax exemption, rather than being classified as a taxable business supply as the prior law read.

“The space commercialization industry is not only developing some of the most advanced space vehicles in the world,” stated Assembly member Al Muratsuchi, “but is also creating thousands of local, high-paying manufacturing jobs.” This law was a direct nod to the Space Exploration Technologies Corporation, a Los Angeles based enterprise founded by Tesla billionaire, Elon Musk. The bill was also supported by Northrop Grunman, the Commercial Spaceflight Federation, Aerojet Rocketdyne Inc., a division of GenCorp Inc. and Lockheed Martin.

Governor Brown is also pushing for the aerospace bill to be expanded to cover the automotive industry. California is one of several states currently bidding for Tesla to build its proposed $6 billion factory to manufacture a new auto battery, known as the “gigafactory”, here in the state. This addition to California would mean the creation of at least 6500 new jobs as well.

Additionally, Governor Brown signed a law in July of this year which grants a 17.5 percent tax credit on wages for workers hired to build aircraft. The bill serves as an incentive to score lucrative contracts for high-paid aerospace jobs within the state. There was also a 10-year tax exemption granted for the manufacturing of equipment used for the space travel industry.

Not Just for Big Business

Huge corporations are not the only beneficiaries of the new tax incentives in California. The state recently instituted the California Competes tax credit program, designed to provide financial incentives for businesses to relocate to California or for businesses within the state to remain and add jobs. Under the California Competes program, a full 25 percent of the $29 million in tax credits will be reserved to small businesses with gross receipts of less than $2 million annually.

The California Competes tax credit program replaces the former Enterprise Zone program, which was eliminated last year due to it being wasteful and inefficient. Credits allocated by the program are tentatively set at $30 million for fiscal year 2013/14, $150 for fiscal year 2014/15 and $200 million for each fiscal year after that through 2018. The state’s website lists the following criteria by which California Competes tax credits will be awarded:

  • The number of jobs created or retained
  • Total compensation, including wages and fringe benefits
  • Investment in the state
  • Unemployment or poverty rates where businesses are located
  • Other state and local incentives available to the business
  • Incentives from other states
  • Duration of commitment of the business or project
  • Overall economic impact
  • Strategic importance of the business to the state, region, or locality
  • Future growth or expansion opportunities
  • Expected benefit to the state in excess of benefit to the business from the tax credit

The California Competes Tax Credit is a non-refundable tax credit, meaning that businesses cannot receive cash back even if the credit is greater than what they would otherwise owe in corporate income taxes. But excess funds from the credit can be carried forward for as long as five years, or until the excess funds are exhausted, whichever is sooner.

Other Business Tax Incentive Programs

Other tax incentives for businesses that locate or expand within the state of California include the Manufacturing Equipment Sales Tax Exemption and the New Employment Credit program. Each program is for businesses located within designated Enterprise Zones, or areas that are struggling economically.

The sales tax exemption allows eligible businesses to exclude the State’s portion of the sales and use tax (currently 4.19%), from the first $200 million in equipment purchases made between July 1, 2014 and June 30, 2022. This program will generate significant savings for eligible businesses, allowing them to pay a reduced sales and use tax rate of 3.3125% on qualifying equipment purchases.

The New Employment Credit program allows eligible businesses to receive a credit that may be taken against corporate income tax. This credit may be taken for all qualified employees hired on or after January 1, 2014. The amount of the tax credit equals 35% of the qualified wages paid for each new full-time employee hired, making a potential tax break of up to $56,000 or more per new employee over a five-year period.

In order for a newly hired employee to qualify the business for the New Employment Credit, they must fall into one of the following categories:

  • Unemployed for 6 months or more (excluding students and self-employed workers) either without a degree or having completed a degree more than 12 months before being hired
  • Veterans separated from active duty for less than 12 months
  • Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) recipients during the previous year
  • Ex-offenders convicted of felonies
  • Current CalWORKS or county general assistance recipients

Trying to keep up with the competition

Many Californians approve of Governor Brown’s latest attempts to keep California in the running when it comes to attracting new businesses and keeping the existing ones from moving to another state that offers better business incentives. California is beginning to offer many appealing incentives to businesses, including State Tax credits, new employee credits, green tax incentives, as well as energy and transportation credits. When combined with available Federal tax credits and discounts, California can be a very profitable place for business owners to call home.

Below is a list of some additional tax incentives and credits currently offered in the state of California.

California Tax Programs, Credits, and Incentives Benefits to Businesses
California Competes $29 million in various tax credits to businesses who create or retain jobs within the state of California
Aerospace Tax Clarification Act Qualifies rocket propulsion systems for an existing business inventory tax exemption
California Motion Picture and Television Production Credit (AB-1839) 20% of expenditures for a qualified motion picture and 25% of production expenditures for an independent film or a TV series that relocates to California
Manufacturing Equipment Sales Tax Exemption Allows businesses to exclude the state share of sales tax (4.19%) from the first $200 million equipment purchases.
SB 1309 Tesla bill to include tax credits, workforce training grants and streamlined permitting and environmental reviews
New Employment Credit 35 percent of wages between 1.5 and 3.5 times the minimum wage for a period of five years.
California Research and Development  Tax Credit Credit for costs attributable to research activities conducted in California
California Capital Access Program Collateral Support (Cal-CAPS CS) Pledges cash (up to 40% of loan) to cover collateral shortfall of loans of $100,000 or more in Severely Affected areas
Small Business Loan Guarantee Program Enables small businesses to obtain a loan it could not otherwise obtain
Industrial Development Bond Provides manufacturing and processing companies low-cost, low-interest financing for capital expenditures
Employment Training Panel Helps assist with post-hire training reimbursement
Community Development Financial Institutions Investment Credit 20% of qualified investments made into a community development financial institution
Disabled Access for Eligible Small Businesses  (FTB-3548) $125 per eligible small business, and based on 50% of qualified expenditures that do not exceed $250
Enhanced Oil Recovery  (FTB 3546) 1/3 of the similar federal credit but limited to qualified enhanced oil recovery projects located within California
Environmental Tax (FTB 3511) $0.05/each gallon of ultra-low sulfur diesel fuel produced during the year by a small refiner at a California facility
Low-Income Housing (FTB 3521) Similar to the federal credit but limited to low-income housing in California
Manufacturing Enhancement Area Hiring Hiring credit for Manufacturing Enhancement Area
Prison Inmate Labor (FTB 3507) 10% of wages paid to prison inmates
Targeted Tax Area Hiring (FTB 3809) Business incentives for trade or business activities conducted within a targeted tax area

 This article was written by staff writers Audrey Henderson and Jennifer Leonhardi. 

10 Tax Tips for the Suddenly Unemployed

If you lose your job unexpectedly, your first reaction may be to panic. Your second reaction may be to despair about whether you will ever work again. What you may not consider are the implications for federal and state income taxes. But you will have to deal with your taxes sooner or later. Fortunately, the IRS provides tax breaks that may ease the blow of losing your job, and make the task of seeking a new job easier.

1. Don’t Forget to File Your Return

This may seem painfully obvious, but in your efforts to deal with reduced (or no) income, resumes and job interviews, tasks like filing your income tax return can be shoved to the side. The silver lining is that depending on how long you’ve been unemployed, you may qualify for a sizeable tax refund, which would provide much needed cash. If you lose your job right before the filing deadline, and you really just can’t handle filing a return, file a request for an automatic extension to give yourself an extra six months. But don’t forget to pay at least an estimated amount of taxes that you owe to avoid underpayment penalties.

2. Utilize Free Income Tax Filing Services

If you never took advantage of free tax filing services before, now is the time to check out this benefit. The IRS allows taxpayers with adjusted gross incomes under a certain amount ($58,000 for 2013 tax returns) to file their federal returns for no charge through the Free File program. Many states also allow taxpayers to file their income taxes for free. Depending on your circumstances, you may also qualify for face-to-face assistance in filing your income tax returns from nonprofit agencies in your area.

3. Keep Track of Job Search Expenses

If you always just take the standard deduction, you may wish to reconsider that position once you become unemployed. That’s because job search expenses for a position in your present line of work are tax deductible, but only if you itemize your deductions. Job search expenses must exceed 2 percent of your adjusted gross income to be deductible, but if you are receiving unemployment or no income at all, this hurdle is relatively easy to overcome. Expenses such as printing and mailing resumes, travel expenses for job interviews, employment agency fees and career counseling add up quickly.

4. Medical Expenses May be Tax Deductible

Clearing the hurdle of 7.5 percent of adjusted gross income necessary to deduct medical expenses is ordinarily a tall order, barring major surgery or catastrophic illness. But if your income is reduced due to job loss, clearing that hurdle may be easier. Save receipts for doctor visits, prescriptions and over-the-counter medications just in case.

5. Take the Health Insurance Tax Credit if You Qualify

If you lost your job as a result of a foreign trade agreement, you may be able to claim the Health Insurance Tax Credit. You must be receiving Trade Adjustment Assistance benefits to qualify. The HITC covers 80 percent of your health insurance premiums, which can free up a significant amount of cash for other areas of your budget.

6. Consider Your Retirement Plan

If you have an employer-sponsored 401(K), you will need to roll those funds into a traditional IRA or other qualified retirement fund to avoid paying taxes on the money. If you already have a traditional IRA, it may make sense to convert the account to a Roth IRA while your income is lower. You will have to pay income taxes on the funds that you convert, but you may still come out ahead financially in the long term. Consult with Optima Tax Relief to determine the best strategy for you.

7. Take Advantage of Tax Breaks for Low and Moderate Income Earners

Since you lost your job, your income has likely decreased dramatically, while many of your expenses have remained the same. Tax credits like the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC), the Child Tax Credit, Child and Dependent Care Credit and Savers Credit allow low and moderate income taxpayers to reduce the amount of income that they must declare on their federal income tax returns and in some cases, such as with the EITC, receive a tax refund, even if they don’t actually owe federal income taxes.

8. Don’t Get Blindsided by Taxes on Severance Pay or Unemployment Insurance

It is a cruel irony that unemployment insurance and severance pay are considered taxable income. As painful as it may be, set aside funds from each unemployment check or your severance check to cover your estimated federal income tax liability if at all possible. The IRS receives copies of Form 1099 which reports unemployment income and Form W-2 which reports income – including severance pay – from your former job. Underreporting this income or failing to pay the taxes you owe could land you in serious trouble. The risks simply aren’t worth it.

9. Get to Know Schedule C

While your ultimate goal may be to find another full-time or part-time job, you may take temporary jobs or self employment to fill gaps in your income during your search. Income and expenses from self employment are calculated on Schedule C, which is filed along with your federal income tax return. Deductions and credits differ significantly for income from self employed workers and small business owners than for wage earners.

Depending on how long you remain unemployed, you may be able to claim tax breaks through Schedule C that would be difficult or impossible to claim as a wage earner itemizing your deductions on Schedule A. In particular, self employed workers can claim tax breaks on health insurance premium payments without itemizing deductions. Who knows, you may decide to ditch the job search in favor of full-time self employment.

10. Withdraw from Your Retirement Fund Only as a Last Resort

When the balance in your bank account shrivels and your bills begin to pile up, funds that you have set aside for your kids’ education or for your retirement begin to look like a lifeline. If you are really hard up for money and you must choose between Junior’s education fund and your traditional IRA as a source of much-needed cash, deplete Junior’s college fund first. This is not to punish Junior, but because resources such as grants, scholarships, loans and part-time work are available to assist college students with financial need. If all else fails, Junior can attend a community college for a year or two before transferring to a four-year institution.

On the other hand, draining your retirement fund deprives you of funds that you may or may not be able to replenish. Even if you can replace the funds you withdraw, it is unlikely that you will ever be able to make up for the earnings that those funds would have generated had they remained in your account. Worse, you may have to pay a stiff tax penalty for early withdrawal from your traditional IRA. That said, the IRS allows unemployed taxpayers or their heirs to make hardship withdrawals from traditional IRAs before age 59 ½ without paying a tax penalty under strictly defined circumstances.

The rules for making early withdrawals from a Roth IRA are less strict than for a traditional IRA. Nonetheless it’s still a bad idea to drain your Roth IRA before you intend to retire unless it is absolutely necessary. But if you have both a traditional IRA and a Roth IRA, it may be less financially painful to draw from the Roth IRA. Consult with a tax professional to obtain expert advice about your particular circumstances.

Don’t Give Up

Losing your job and going through the grind of seeking work can wear on even the most determined job seeker. While it’s tempting to give up, you should do whatever you can to continue your search. Taking advantage of tax breaks designed to assist job seekers and other taxpayers with moderate or reduced incomes may help you provide your family’s basic financial necessities until you are back on the job.