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October 2011 Newsletter

Feature Articles

Tax Tips

October Tax Due Dates

This newsletter is intended to provide generalized information that is appropriate in certain situations. It is not intended or written to be used, and it cannot be used by the recipient, for the purpose of avoiding federal tax penalties that may be imposed on any taxpayer. The contents of this newsletter should not be acted upon without specific professional guidance. Please call us if you have questions.

Tax Relief for Those Affected By Natural Disasters

With hurricanes, tornadoes, floods, wildfires, and other natural disasters affecting so many people throughout the US this year, many have been left wondering how they're going to pay for the cleanup or when their businesses will be able to reopen. The good news is that there is some relief for tax payers--but only if you meet certain conditions.

Recovery efforts after natural disasters can be costly. For instance, when Hurricane Irene struck last month causing widespread flooding, many homeowners were not covered because most standard insurance policies do not cover flood damage.

Tax Relief for Homeowners

Fortunately, personal casualty losses are deductible on your tax return as long as the property is located in a federally declared disaster zone AND these four conditions are met:

1. The loss was caused by a sudden, unexplained, or unusual event
Natural disasters such as flooding, hurricanes, tornadoes, and wildfires all qualify as sudden, unexplained, or unusual events.

2. The damages were not covered by insurance
You can only claim a deduction for casualty losses that are not covered or reimbursed by your insurance company. The catch here is that if you submit a claim to your insurance company late in the year, your claim could still be pending come tax time. If that happens you can file an extension on your taxes. Call us if you need help filing an extension or have any questions about what losses you can deduct.

3. Your losses were sufficient to overcome reductions required by the IRS
The IRS requires several "reductions" in order to claim casualty losses on your tax forms. The first is that effective December 31, 2009 you must subtract $100 from the total loss amount. This is referred to as the $100 loss limit.

Second, you must reduce the amount by 10 percent of your adjusted gross income (AGI) or adjusted gross income. For example, if your AGI is $25,000 and your insurance company paid for all of the losses you incurred as a result of flooding except $3,100 you would first subtract $100 and then reduce that amount by $2500. The amount you could deduct as a loss would be $500.

4. You must itemize
As it now stands, you must itemize your taxes in order to claim the deduction. If you normally don't itemize, but have a large casualty loss you can calculate your taxes both ways to figure out which one gives you the lowest tax bill. Contact us if you need assistance figuring out which method is best for your circumstances.

Tax Relief for Individuals and Business Owners

The Internal Revenue Service (IRS) is also providing tax relief to individual and business taxpayers impacted by Hurricane Irene that are located in federally declared disaster zones. The measures postpone certain tax filing and payment deadlines until October 31, 2011 and includes corporations and businesses that previously obtained an extension until September 15, 2011 to file their 2010 returns. Individuals and businesses that received a similar extension have until October 17 to file their 2010 returns. Also included are estimated tax payments for the third quarter of 2011, which would normally be due September 15. Please call our office if you need help figuring out when your tax payments are due.

Tax Relief Tips

The IRS also states that you have two options when it comes to deducting casualty losses on your tax returns. You can deduct the losses in the year in which they occurred or claim them for the prior year's return. So if you were affected by Hurricane Irene this year you can claim your losses on your 2011 tax return or amend your 2010 tax return and deduct your losses. If you choose to deduct losses on your 2010 tax return, then you have one year from the date the tax return was due to file it.

Confused about whether you qualify for tax relief after a recent natural disaster? Give us a call. We'll help you figure out the best way to handle casualty losses related to Hurricane Irene and other natural disasters.

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Living Trusts 101

A trust, like a corporation, is an entity that exists only on paper but is legally capable of owning property. However, a live person called the trustee must be in charge of the property. Further, you can actually be the trustee of your own living trust, keeping full control over all property legally owned by the trust.

Note: Property held in trust that is actually "owned" by the trustees of the trust, subject to the rights of the beneficiaries. The trust itself doesn't actually own anything.

There are many kinds of trusts. A living trust (also called an inter vivos trust) is simply a trust you create while you're alive, rather than one that is created upon your death under the terms of your will.

All living trusts are designed to avoid probate. Some also help you save on estate taxes, while others let you set up long-term property management.

Do I need a living trust?
Property you transfer into a living trust before your death doesn't go through probate. The successor trustee, the person you appointed to handle the trust after your death, simply transfers ownership to the beneficiaries you named in the trust.

In many cases, the whole process takes only a few weeks and there are no attorney or court fees to pay. When the property has all been transferred to the beneficiaries, the living trust ceases to exist.

Is it expensive to create a living trust?
The cost of creating a living trust depends on what you want to achieve. The more complicated a living trust is, the more expensive it will be. Also important to note is that while the fees associated with creating a living will are paid upfront a living trust actually saves you money and time by avoiding probate court.

Is a trust document ever made public, like a will?
A will becomes a matter of public record when it is submitted to a probate court, as do all the other documents associated with probate - inventories of the deceased person's assets and debts, for example. The terms of a living trust, however, need not be made public.

Does a trust protect property from creditors?
Holding assets in a revocable trust does not shelter those assets from creditors. A creditor who wins a lawsuit against you can go after the trust property just as if you still owned it in your own name.

After your death, however, property in a living trust can be quickly and quietly distributed to the beneficiaries (unlike property that must go through probate). That complicates matters for creditors; by the time they find out about your death, your property may already be dispersed, and the creditors have no way of knowing exactly what you owned (except for real estate, which is always a matter of public record). It may not be worth the creditor's time and effort to try to track down the property and demand that the new owners use it to pay your debts.

On the other hand, probate can offer a kind of protection from creditors. During probate, known creditors must be notified of the death and given a chance to file claims. If they miss the deadline to file, they're out of luck forever.

Do I need a trust if I'm young and healthy?
Probably not. At this stage in your life, your main estate planning goals are probably making sure that in the unlikely event of your premature death, your property is distributed how you want it to be and, if you have young children, that they are cared for. You don't need a trust to accomplish those ends; writing a will, and perhaps buying some life insurance is sufficient.

Can a living trust save taxes?
A simple probate-avoidance living trust has no effect on either income or estate taxes. More complicated living trusts, however, can greatly reduce your federal estate tax bill if you expect your estate to owe estate tax at your death.

If you're wondering whether you need a living trust give us a call and we'll help you figure out the answer.

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Hobby or Business? Why It Matters

Millions of Americans have hobbies such as sewing, woodworking, fishing, gardening, stamp and coin collecting, but when that hobby starts to turn a profit, it might just be considered a business by the IRS.

Definition of a Hobby vs a Business

The IRS defines a hobby as an activity that is not pursued for profit. A business, on the other hand, is an activity that is carried out with the reasonable expectation of earning a profit.

The tax considerations are different for each activity so it's important for taxpayers to determine whether an activity is engaged in for profit as a business or is just a hobby for personal enjoyment.

Of course, you must report and pay tax on income from almost all sources, including hobbies. But when it comes to deductions such as expenses and losses, the two activities differ in their tax implications.

Is Your Hobby Actually a Business?

If you're not sure whether you're running a business or simply enjoying a hobby, here are some of the factors you should consider: 

  • Does the time and effort put into the activity indicate an intention to make a profit?
  • Do you depend on income from the activity?
  • If there are losses, are they due to circumstances beyond your control or did they occur in the start-up phase of the business?
  • Have you changed methods of operation to improve profitability?
  • Do you have the knowledge needed to carry on the activity as a successful business?
  • Have you made a profit in similar activities in the past?
  • Does the activity make a profit in some years?
  • Do you expect to make a profit in the future from the appreciation of assets used in the activity?

An activity is presumed to be for profit if it makes a profit in at least three of the last five tax years, including the current year (or at least two of the last seven years for activities that consist primarily of breeding, showing, training, or racing horses).

The IRS says that it looks at all facts when determining whether a hobby is for pleasure or business, but the profit test is the primary one. If the activity earned income in three out of the last five years, it is for profit. If the activity does not meet the profit test, the IRS will take an individualized look at the facts of your activity using the list of questions above to determine whether it's a business or a hobby. (It should be noted that this list is not all-inclusive.)

Business Activity: If the activity is determined to be a business, you can deduct ordinary and necessary expenses for the operation of the business on a Schedule C or C-EZ on your Form 1040 without considerations for percentage limitations. An ordinary expense is one that is common and accepted in your trade or business. A necessary expense is one that is appropriate for your business.

Hobby: If an activity is a hobby, not for profit, losses from that activity may not be used to offset other income. You can only deduct expenses up to the amount of income earned from the hobby. These expenses, with other miscellaneous expenses, are itemized on Schedule A and must also meet the 2 percent limitation of your adjusted gross income in order to be deducted.

What Are Allowable Hobby Deductions?

If your activity is not carried on for profit, allowable deductions cannot exceed the gross receipts for the activity.

Note: Internal Revenue Code Section 183 (Activities Not Engaged in for Profit) limits deductions that can be claimed when an activity is not engaged in for profit. IRC 183 is sometimes referred to as the "hobby loss rule."

Deductions for hobby activities are claimed as itemized deductions on Schedule A, Form 1040. These deductions must be taken in the following order and only to the extent stated in each of three categories: 

  • Deductions that a taxpayer may claim for certain personal expenses, such as home mortgage interest and taxes, may be taken in full.
  • Deductions that don't result in an adjustment to the basis of property, such as advertising, insurance premiums, and wages, may be taken next, to the extent gross income for the activity is more than the deductions from the first category.
  • Deductions that reduce the basis of property, such as depreciation and amortization, are taken last, but only to the extent gross income for the activity is more than the deductions taken in the first two categories.

If your hobby is regularly generating income, it could make tax sense for you to consider it a business because you might be able to lower your taxes and take certain deductions.

Give us a call if you're not sure whether your hobby is actually a business and we'll help you figure it out.

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Late Filing Penalties for S-Corp, Partnership Returns

Penalties for S-Corps, Partnerships, and Fiduciaries failing to file returns have been steadily rising, but starting in tax year 2010 penalties for S-Corp, Partnership, and Fiduciary filing late returns increased to $195.

The IRS states that for returns on which no tax is due, the penalty is $195 for each month or part of a month (up to 12 months) the return is late multiplied by the total number of persons who were shareholders in the corporation during any part of the corporation's tax year for which the return is due. The penalty may also be charged if the return does not show all the information required.

For example, if a S-Corporation fails to file its 2010 return (including a Schedule K-1 to each shareholder) on time the penalty could be as much as $2,340 per shareholder per year ($195 per shareholder for the maximum of 12 months).

These failure-to-file penalties do not include tax that is due or penalties for tax that is due, but not paid on time. Add in the fact that the penalty isn't tax deductible on your tax returns the following year and you've got yourself a double whammy.

If the partnership or S-corporation can show that the failure to file on time was due to "reasonable cause", the IRS might provide relief. Be advised however, that if the partnership or S-corporation has established a pattern of failing to file in the past, it's unlikely that the IRS will be sympathetic.

Why take a chance? If you need assistance filing your S-Corp, Partnership, or Fiduciary return, call us today.

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Advantages of Keeping Good Records

You can avoid headaches at tax time by keeping track of your receipts and other records throughout the year. Good record-keeping will help you remember the various transactions you made during the year, which in turn may make filing your return less, well, taxing.

Records help you document the deductions you've claimed on your return. You'll need this documentation should the IRS select your return for examination. Normally, tax records should be kept for three years, but some documents - such as records relating to a home purchase or sale, stock transactions, IRA, and business or rental property - should be kept longer.

In most cases, the IRS does not require you to keep records in any special manner. Generally speaking, however, you should keep any and all documents that may have an impact on your federal tax return: 

  • Bills
  • Credit card and other receipts
  • Invoices
  • Mileage logs
  • Canceled, imaged, or substitute checks or any other proof of payment
  • Any other records to support deductions or credits you claim on your return

Good record-keeping throughout the year saves you time and effort at tax time. For more information on what kinds of records you should keep, call our office.

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Do You Qualify for the Earned Income Tax Credit?

Millions of Americans forfeit critical tax relief each year by failing to claim the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC), a federal tax credit for low-to-moderate-income individuals who work. Taxpayers who qualify and claim the credit could owe less federal tax, owe no tax, or even receive a refund.

The EITC is based on the amount of your earned income and whether or not there are qualifying children in your household. If you have children, they must meet the relationship, age, and residency requirements. Additionally, you must be a US citizen, have a valid social security card, and file a tax return to claim the credit.

General requirements: If you were employed for at least part of 2011 and are at least age 25, but under age 65, and are not a dependent of anyone else you may be eligible for the EITC based on these general requirements: 

  • You earned less than $13,660 ($18,740 if married filing jointly) and did not have any qualifying children.
  • You earned less than $36,052 ($41,132 if married filing jointly) and have one qualifying child.
  • You earned less than $40,964 ($46,044 if married filing jointly) with two or more qualifying children.
  • You earned less than $43,998 ($49,078 if married filing jointly) with three or more qualifying children.

Tax Year 2011 Maximum Credit

  • $5,751 with three or more qualifying children
  • $5,112 with two or more qualifying children
  • $3,094 with one qualifying child
  • $464 with no qualifying children

Investment income must be $3,150 or less for the year.

If you think you qualify for the EITC but aren't sure, call our office today.

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College Tax Credit - It's Not Too Late!

It's not too late to take advantage of the American Opportunity Tax Credit, a credit that helps parents and college students offset the cost of college. This tax credit is part of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 and is available through December 31, 2012. It can be claimed by eligible taxpayers for college expenses paid until 2012.

Here are six important facts about the American Opportunity Tax Credit:

  1.  This credit, formerly known as the Hope Credit, has been expanded. Eligible taxpayers can claim qualified tuition and related expenses paid for higher education through 2012. Qualified tuition and related expenses include tuition, related fees, books, and other required course materials.
  2. The credit is equal to 100 percent of the first $2,000 spent per student each year and 25 percent of the next $2,000. Therefore, the full $2,500 credit may be available to a taxpayer who pays $4,000 or more in qualifying expenses for an eligible student.
  3. The full credit is generally available to eligible taxpayers who make less than $80,000, or $160,000 for married couples filing jointly. The credit is gradually reduced, however, for taxpayers with incomes above these levels.
  4. Forty percent of the credit is refundable, so even those who owe no tax can get up to $1,000 of the credit for each eligible student as cash back.
  5. The credit can be claimed for qualified expenses paid during any of the first four years of post-secondary education.
  6. You cannot claim the tuition and fees tax deduction in the same year that you claim the American Opportunity Tax Credit or the Lifetime Learning Credit. You must choose to take either the credit or the deduction.

If you would like more information about the American Opportunity Tax Credit please call us. We're more than happy to help.

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Tax Due Dates for October 2011

Note: September due dates were extended into October for areas impacted by Hurricane Irene. See article "Tax Relief for Those Affected By Natural Disasters" in this newsletter.

October 11

Employees who work for tips - If you received $20 or more in tips during September, report them to your employer. You can use Form 4070.

October 17

Individuals - If you have an automatic 6-month extension to file your income tax return for 2010, file Form 1040, 1040A, or 1040EZ and pay any tax, interest, and penalties due.

Electing Large Partnerships - File a 2010 calendar-year return (Form 1065-B). This due date applies only if you were given an additional 6-month extension. See March 15 for the due date for furnishing the Schedules K-1 to the partners.

Employers (nonpayroll withholding) - If the monthly deposit rule applies, deposit the tax for payments in September.

Employers (Social Security, Medicare, and withheld income tax) - If the monthly deposit rule applies, deposit the tax for payments in September.

October 31

Employers - Social Security, Medicare, and withheld income tax. File form 941 for the third quarter of 2011. Deposit any undeposited tax. (If your tax liability is less than $2,500, you can pay it in full with a timely filed return.) If you deposited the tax for the quarter in full and on time, you have until November 10 to file the return.

Certain Small Employers - Deposit any undeposited tax if your tax liability is $2,500 or more for 2011 but less than $2,500 for the third quarter.

Employers - Federal Unemployment Tax. Deposit the tax owed through September if more than $500.

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