Don’t Call Us Continues

April 22nd, 2015

Back in the 1970s Saturday Night Live had this sketch of Lily Tomlin reprising her role as Ernestine the phone company operator (from Laugh-In):

That’s how I feel about calling the IRS. I have three matters I need to get resolved with the IRS. Today, the response I received when calling the IRS’s Practitioner Priority Service was, “Due to extremely high call volumes that option is not available now. Please try your call again later.” Well, I tried again later. And later. And later still. “We’re sorry, but due to extremely high call volumes that option is not available now. Please try your call again later.”

Meanwhile, we find out today that the IRS has deliberately cut customer service.

During the 2015 tax-filing season, the IRS provided what its own Commissioner described as “abysmal” customer service, blaming skyrocketing wait times for telephone and in-person assistance on agency budget cuts. The IRS even called budget cuts “a tax cut for tax cheats.” But a close review of the agency’s spending shows the IRS deliberately cut $134 million in funding for customer service to pay for other activities. Spending decisions entirely under the IRS’s control led to 16 million fewer taxpayers receiving IRS assistance this filling season. Other spending choices, including prioritizing employee bonuses and union activity on the taxpayer’s dime, used up resources that otherwise could have been used to assist another 10 million taxpayers.

The above quote is from the House Ways and Means Committee majority staff titled “Doing Less with Less: IRS’s Spending Decisions Harm Taxpayers.” There’s not much to add. If I can’t get through I’ll have to write follow-up letters; on one topic it will be my third letter without a response. On another, it’s been over one year without a response.

If anyone thinks the IRS’s budget will be increased for next year, they’re dreaming.

Of Deadlines and Taxes

April 21st, 2015

As I look back at April 15th I can draw some conclusions. First, thank goodness the IRS relented on the property regulations. There is no way tax professionals would have been able to prepare all of the required Change in Accounting Methods.

Second, this was the year of the impossible to reach IRS. I saw a statistic today that only 38.5% of callers received customer service from the IRS phone lines. That was true for tax professionals, too: I could not get through via the Practitioner Priority Service during the last three weeks of Tax Season. My usual trick, calling at 6:55pm PDT (right before they close), did not work.

Third, I don’t know what our deadlines will be for next year (that is, 2015 returns filed in 2016) but they will be earlier. I don’t know if I’ll go to March 1st, but it will be earlier than March 24th. I suspect it will be March 15th. We did get to every return where paperwork reached us by our deadline (March 24th), but we felt very pressured this year.

Fourth, I’m not happy with certain aspects of our tax software. Unlike Robert Flach who thinks that tax software is flawed and shouldn’t be used, I look at it as a tool that helps me do my job. However, this year some parts of it hindered my job and that’s not acceptable. Every three years I evaluate new software and this year is that year. I’ll absolutely be looking at other products for next year.

This definitely wasn’t the worst Tax Season I’ve gone through, but it was far from the best. For taxpayers, this likely was one of the worst. Unfortunately, I don’t see any improvements on the horizon. The light I see is the oncoming train not the end of the tunnel.

Bozo Tax Tip #1: Let Your IRS Notice Age Like Fine Wine!

April 12th, 2015

My brother is a wine connoisseur. As all my friends know, I’m anything but a wine aficionado. But I have learned one difference between fine wine and a notice from the IRS: Wine can age very well but IRS notices don’t.

Almost all IRS notices come with deadlines. You need to act to stop the IRS. If you ignore the notice, you usually will get a second notice. After that, you may receive a Notice of Deficiency. If that ages the tax is assessed.

Yet most IRS notices are wrong in whole or in part! The last study I saw showed that two-thirds of IRS notices are wrong. That’s a shockingly high percentage. An obvious question is why doesn’t the IRS change its procedures so that the bad notices aren’t issued? The answer is simple: People pay those notices. The IRS’s Automated Underreporting Unit is a huge profit center for the agency.

What does this mean for you? Put simply, if you get an IRS notice read it carefully. Let your tax professional know about it when you receive it, not on the day a response is due. It’s a lot easier (and cheaper) to act earlier in the process than later.

My brother tells me that some of the best wine he’s tasted have been old varietals. I can tell you that I’ve never seen a tax notice get better with age.


I hope you’ve enjoyed this series of Bozo Tax Tips for the 2015 Tax Season. I’ll be back next week with normal blog content.

Bozo Tax Tip #2: The Eternal Hobby Loss

April 9th, 2015

The goal of must businesses is to make money. There aren’t many businesses that can lose on each sale and make it up in volume. In fact, I don’t know of any. But I digress….

So let’s take Sam and Edna, two successful individuals who love horses. They decide to start raising horses. They remember their accountant telling them that if they had a business that loses money they can take the loss and offset some of their income. That’s true. They don’t remember their accountant telling them that the business does need to be structured to make money eventually.

Hobby losses are not allowed. The IRS has a webpage that notes the major factors used in determining whether or not your business is a business or a hobby:

The following factors, although not all inclusive, may help you to determine whether your activity is an activity engaged in for profit or a hobby:

– 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?

If your business loses money year-after-year, and you’re not making any efforts to change it, and you get a lot of personal enjoyment out of the business, beware! Your “business” might be a hobby. Yes, circumstances can cause any business to fail (and the IRS knows this). But when your business is losing money every year and you make no effort to change your business, at least on the surface you’re looking like a hobby. The eternal hobby loss is a good way to head to an IRS audit.

Bozo Tax Tip #3: Just Don’t File

April 8th, 2015

We’re running some repeats, but there is some new Bozo material coming. It’s just that people keep trying the same things over and over again.

It’s tough to avoid the tax system. There are currency transaction reports (cash transactions of $10,000 or more) and suspicious activity reports (theoretically can be done on any transaction, but usually starts at $3,000 or more) done with cash. Businesses must send out 1099s on payments of $600 or more to individuals. Barter organizations must send out 1099s.

But that doesn’t stop the Bozo contingent. “They’ll never catch me,” they believe. Until the IRS or the Franchise Tax Board (substitute your state tax agency if you’re not in California) knocks on their door. There’s no statute of limitations if you don’t file.

Paying taxes isn’t fun. Avoiding the system and living on the edge may give you a thrill, but if you get caught you’ll be given a bill…and possibly a trip to ClubFed.

Bozo Tax Tip #4: Procrastinate!

April 8th, 2015

Today is April 8th. The tax deadline is just seven days away.

What happens if you wake up and it’s April 15, 2015, and you can’t file your tax? File an extension. Download Form 4868, make an estimate of what you owe, pay that, and mail the voucher and check to the address noted for your state. Use certified mail, return receipt, of course. And don’t forget your state income tax. Some states have automatic extensions (California does), some don’t (Pennsylvania is one of those), while others have deadlines that don’t match the federal tax deadline (Hawaii state taxes are due on April 20th, for example). Automatic extensions are of time to file, not pay, so download and mail off a payment to your state, too. If you mail your extension, make sure you mail it certified mail, return receipt requested. (You can do that from most Automated Postal Centers, too.)

By the way, I strongly suggest you electronically file the extension. The IRS will happily take your extension electronically; many (but not all) states will, too.

But what do you do if you wait until April 16th? Well, get your paperwork together so you can file as quickly as possible and avoid even more penalties. Penalties escalate, so unless you want 25% penalties, get everything ready and see your tax professional next week. He’ll have time for you, and you can leisurely complete your return and only pay one week of interest, one month of the Failure to Pay penalty (0.5% of the tax due), and one month of the Failure to File Penalty (5% of the tax due).

There is a silver lining in all of this. If you are owed a refund and haven’t filed, you will likely receive interest from the IRS. Yes, interest works both ways: The IRS must pay interest on late-filed returns owed refunds. Just one note about that: the interest is taxable.

Bozo Tax Tip #5: Ignoring California

April 6th, 2015

Perhaps I should call this Bozo Tax Tip “Forming a California Trust.” Why? Let me explain.

Let’s assume John and Jane, two California residents, form a trust to benefit their children, Ann and Bob. Ann lives in Florida; Bob resides in California. The trust is an irrevocable trust, so it files its own tax return (a Form 1041). The income to the beneficiaries is reported on Schedule K-1s. Ann is surprised and calls her accountant when she receives both a federal K-1 and a California K-1.

The issue is simple: The trust is a California trust, so the income is California-source. California requires that a Schedule K-1 for Form 541 (California’s trust tax return) be included. Yes, Ann must pay California tax on the income. Ann’s CPA called me and asked me why I included the K-1 from California. My response was succinct: I have to and Ann has to pay the tax.

California’s desire to have anyone and everyone pay California tax has led to many trusts relocating to Nevada (which has no state income tax) and other trust-friendly states. California isn’t one of those states. Ann’s parents, John and Jane, could have formed the trust in Nevada but because they didn’t Ann is stuck in the Hotel California. You can check out any time but you can never leave.

Ignoring the California K-1 is a Bozo idea. Instead of just paying tax, you will get the joy of paying tax, penalties, and interest. If your parents are in California and thinking of forming a trust to benefit you, it may be worth your time to talk about Nevada to them. Otherwise, welcome to the Hotel California.

Bozo Tax Tip #6: Nevada Corporations

April 5th, 2015

As we continue with our Bozo Tax Tips–things you absolutely, positively shouldn’t do but somewhere someone will try anyway–it’s time for an old favorite. Given the business and regulatory climate in California, lots of businesses are trying to escape taxes by becoming a Nevada business entity. While I’m focusing on California and Nevada, the principle applies to any pair of states.

Nevada is doing everything it can to draw businesses from California. Frankly, California is doing a lot to draw businesses away from the Bronze Golden State. But just like last year you need to beware if you’re going to incorporate in Nevada.

If the corporation operates in California it will need to file a California tax return. Period. It doesn’t matter if the corporation is a California corporation, a Delaware corporation, or a Nevada corporation.

Now, if you’re planning on moving to Nevada forming a business entity in the Silver State can be a very good idea (as I know). But thinking you’re going to avoid California taxes just because you’re a Nevada entity is, well, bozo.

Bozo Tax Tip #7: Be Suspicious!

April 2nd, 2015

As I write this (in March), I just got off the phone with one of my clients. He’s had a very good year, and has $100,000 in cash to deposit. He had been keeping the money as cash because he thought he would need it for the high-stakes poker games he plays. Well, his February was really good so now he wants to deposit the $100,000. He was wondering about making a cash deposit of over $10,000 as there would be a Currency Transaction Report issued. He said shouldn’t he break-out his deposits into $9,000 transactions?

I told him that a Currency Transaction Report isn’t anything to worry about it. The IRS gets so many of them that as long as you’re paying your taxes they’re not a big deal. Just smile as the bank teller fills out the extra paperwork.

On the other hand, if you break up your $100,000 transaction into several $9,500 deposits, you can get in trouble. Big trouble. A suspicious activity report (SAR) might be issued. The IRS doesn’t get as many of these, and almost all of them are investigated. And you will never know when one is issued. (My client deposited his $100,000 all at once.)

You don’t believe me? Here’s a tale of woe that caused the downfall of a politician.

He was a prosecutor, and he used the Bank Secrecy Act (among other laws) to help send many individuals—primarily in organized crime—to prison. He then became Attorney General of his state, serving two terms in that office. He was then elected Governor.

But our public figure had a problem. He enjoyed the world’s oldest profession. While traveling to Washington, D.C. he used a service called the Emperor’s Club. He funded his nighttime activities by making multiple wire transfers of just under $10,000.

Come on, could a politician who used to use the Bank Secrecy Act actually get blindsided by the Act? Yes. Eliot Spitzer’s wire transactions were duly reported by North Fork Bank. That led to an IRS investigation which led to an FBI investigation which led to a governor becoming an ex-governor.

So if you want to deposit money, go big-time. Deposit more than $10,000. But whatever you do, don’t break up your cash transactions into smaller pieces to evade the reporting requirements. One day you might find two armed federal agents at your door, reminding you, “You have the right to remain silent….”

IRS Website and Electronic Services Down

April 2nd, 2015

I have been trying to get into two different IRS websites since midday yesterday but can’t. It appears that the IRS may be a victim of a DDOS (distributed denial of service) attack or there website simply has gone down.

When the IRS is telling people to use the Internet and they see this:

Capture

Well, I guess this should happen on the day that we find that Lois Lerner won’t be prosecuted….

UPDATE: Whatever was wrong with the IRS websites was cured mid-morning.