Tax Planning

Out with the Old, in With the New: How to Prepare for Tax Season

Now that the holidays are over, it’s time to start preparing for the next season. This can be a very stressful time for most taxpayers because of the fear they will owe the IRS or they will not receive as big of a refund as they had received for the previous years. There are ways to ensure that you are more than ready for tax season so you don’t have to scramble to be prepared for whatever your CPA asks you for. Some of the most important things you can do to get ready to file your tax return are having the appropriate information for your return to be filed, knowing what deductions you qualify for, and understanding which filing status you’re going to pick.

Gather your personal information 

Most CPAs will ask that you bring your previous tax return and any forms such as W2s, 1099s, rental income, or any other source of income you have received. You should also bring your social security card or tax ID card as well as your driver’s license to ensure your tax return is filed properly. Ensuring that you bring all the applicable items is vital for your return to be filed accurately. Some additional items you may need to bring if applicable:

  • Dependent information
  • Childcare payment records
  • Death certificates
  • Alimony payments

Make note of any deductions

Any deduction applied to your tax return is considered a reduction in your income and in turn, could potentially reduce the total amount of income tax you would have owed after filing your tax return. If you are looking to itemize your deductions, it is important to keep a record of all the expenses you may have. Deductions can range from:

  • Self-employed 
  • Rental homes
  • Investments
  • Real estate
  • Property taxes
  • Charitable donations
  • Medical expenses

Figure out how you want to file

If you just got married, how you typically file your tax return will change. Your filing status is typically based on what will result in lowering what you owe in taxes; your marital status or family situation. If you’re married, you have the choice to either file jointly with your spouse or separately. If you file head of household, it is required that you are not married, a qualifying person has lived with you for more than half the year and that you’ve paid more than half the cost of keeping up a home for the year. 

Getting a head start on the most stressful time of the year, tax season can be extremely beneficial for you. Understanding what you want to be placed on your tax return is important and dependent on how much of a refund or how much you will owe at the end of the year. If you are having difficulty understanding what you can and can’t place on your tax return, talk to a CPA to see what is allowable to ensure that your tax return is filed properly.

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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What is Tax Evasion and How can it Affect You?

For some, it can be a terrifying ordeal to file your tax return, especially if you forget to include vital information when filing. It is important for taxpayers to double-check whatever they have placed on their return in order to avoid the IRS further looking into your tax return. The IRS will flag a taxpayer’s return if they notice that the income reported in inaccurate, if there are too many credits and deductions placed on the return, or if a taxpayer has not filed a required tax return. Although the IRS does not pursue many tax evasion cases, it is the taxpayer’s responsibility to ensure they are filing correctly to avoid the IRS investigating them – and finding something that can send them to jail. If you still have questions on what should be included in your tax return and how to properly file, here are some ways to avoid the IRS coming after you.

The IRS will usually start off with an audit process rather than taking immediate action against a taxpayer. During the audit process, the IRS will review the tax return(s) filed by a taxpayer to see what errors were knowingly made. If the IRS sees that a taxpayer has repeatedly made the same mistakes on several of their tax returns, such as not fully disclosing large amounts of income they had been receiving throughout multiple years, it could be seen as tax evasion. If a taxpayer continuously makes false statements and hides records like bank statements from an IRS auditor, it could potentially lead to criminal prosecution.

To avoid running into trouble with the IRS, specifically avoiding an audit, or being charged with tax evasion it is important to understand what you should include on your tax return. Whatever income you are earning needs to be included on your tax return. This means that if you have a full-time job as well as a side job, you must report both sources of income. If you also meet the filing requirements, you must file your tax return with the IRS. Avoiding filing a return for multiple years could be considered tax evasion by the IRS. This could also lead to the IRS looking further into the unfiled years and file a tax return on your behalf, which could cause any owed liability to increase on top of the penalties and interest you accrue for not filing in the first place. 

Understanding the IRS as well as their rules will help you navigate the tax filing system put into place. It is up to every taxpayer to keep themselves informed on any tax changes that may occur throughout the year and to also be transparent on their tax return by disclosing any information that may be vital for the IRS to know. If you are unsure of how to file and need further assistance, you can ask the advice of a tax attorney or a tax relief company that can provide you with the necessary assistance you need in order to get compliant with the IRS.

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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What Could Happen If You Don’t File Your Tax Return?

It is not hard to fall behind on your taxes. This can happen for a number of different reasons, such as you were unable to afford any tax services, you simply forgot about the tax deadline, or you suffered a serious illness which left you unable to file your tax return. It can be easy to avoid filing your tax return and ignore any serious repercussions – until the IRS starts sending you notices informing you of your unfiled tax years or a delinquent debt you have failed to pay. The IRS has the ability to take action against you for failure to file so it is important to know what the possible consequences could be for not filing your tax returns. 

The IRS can file a substitute return for you

The IRS can file a Substitute for Return, or SFR, on your behalf if they notice a failure to file for any tax year or years. The IRS does not file an SFR as a courtesy for those who fail to file their tax return and will not include any exemptions or deductions. Because of this, filed SFRs can reflect that a taxpayer owes a tax liability. The IRS will also send out an informative collection notice stating that a substitute return was filed or if there is a tax balance associated with the SFR.

The IRS has no time limit to collect from you

When it comes to the IRS taking collection action, the IRS has no timeline as to when they can stop. Once the IRS assesses a balance against you, they can garnish your wages, levy your bank accounts, and place liens on your physical assets. Just because you have past tax years that are unfiled, it does not mean the IRS has forgotten. It could even mean that the IRS will have the ability to hold you liable for your tax balance for up to 10 years from the date that your balance was assessed. 

Failure to file your tax return could be considered a crime

For some taxpayers, failing to file your tax return could mean getting in serious trouble. The IRS could consider this a crime and assume that you are evading the liability that they have assessed on your behalf. Consequences for not filing your tax return could mean jail time or fines as high as $250,000. 

Why it is beneficial to file your missing tax return

Filing all outstanding tax returns is important in order to avoid having the IRS take collection action against you. Although there is not a time limit for you to file any past tax years, the IRS does put a limit on receiving a refund for a previous tax return. The IRS also allows you to collect on a tax refund for up to three years from the due date of your return.

Filing your tax returns may not be the most exciting thing to do and some may even dread the filing season as it comes every year. Regardless of how you feel about having to file, it is a requirement in order to stay compliant and out of collections with the IRS. If you do have unfiled tax years, it can be beneficial to speak with a tax attorney or a tax resolution company in order to resolve any outstanding debt you have for the unfiled years or any tax debt that was assessed against you when the IRS filed an SFR for you. 

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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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!

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.

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.