Do-It-Yourself Identity Theft Protection

Credit Score Ingredients

Identity theft is a growing problem in the United States, and dozens of companies offering various forms of identity theft protection have sprung up to combat it. Unfortunately, these services often do little to actually protect people’s identities, according to a study released by the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO).

Both the GAO study and consumer protection organizations like The Identity Theft Council point out that consumers have more effective, low-cost methods to protect themselves from identity theft. Here are some of their tips:

 

Bullet Point Monitor your own credit. You can get a free credit report from each of the three credit reporting agencies once a year at www.annualcreditreport.com. You can stagger your request from each agency so that you can check your credit history for any suspicious new account openings every four months.

In addition, one of the most effective things only you can do yourself is to scan your monthly credit card and bank account statements. If you see any irregularities, contact the financial institution at once and let them know if you believe any charges are the result of identity theft.

Bullet Point Place a fraud alert. You can place a free fraud alert on your identity if you believe you’ve become vulnerable for any reason, either because you lost your wallet, had your home or car broken into, or had your information stolen online. All you have to do is call any of the three credit reporting agencies (Equifax 1-888-766-0008; Experian 1-888-397-3742; or TransUnion 1-800-680-7289) and they will notify the other two.

Placing a fraud alert lasts for 90 days. Any credit provider will have to take extra steps to verify the identity of any person who tries to use your credit and open new accounts. It can be renewed for free every 90 days.

Bullet Point Freeze your credit. If you aren’t going to be applying for new credit for a while, one of the most effective things you can do to combat identity theft is to put a temporary freeze on your credit. You’ll have to call each of the three credit reporting agencies and may be required to pay a small fee ($5 to $10 each) to freeze your account, after which no one will be able to access your credit to open new accounts. It won’t affect your credit rating or your ability to use your existing accounts.

Keep in mind that while this shuts down other people from accessing your credit, it also stops you from opening new accounts. It typically takes three days for the agencies to unfreeze your accounts, so keep that in mind if you want to apply for new credit, or need to allow a potential new employer to access your credit report as part of a background check.

Bullet Point Do your taxes early. One of the most common kinds of identity theft is when people use a stolen Social Security number and other personal information to file a fraudulent tax return in the hope of snatching a refund. Your best defense is to simply file your return as soon as possible. Once the IRS receives your return, it shuts the door on potential identity thieves.

Six Tips for Working Beyond Retirement Age

Credit Score Ingredients

Two-thirds of the Baby Boomer generation are now working or plan to work beyond age 65, according to a recent Transamerica Institute study. Some report they need to work because their savings declined during the financial crisis, while others say they choose to work because of the greater sense of purpose and engagement that working provides.

 

 

Whatever your reason for continuing to work into your golden years, here are some tips to make sure you get the greatest benefit from your efforts.

Bullet Point Consider delaying Social Security. You can start receiving Social Security retirement benefits as early as age 62, but if you continue to work it may make sense to delay taking it until as late as age 70. This is because your Social Security benefit may be reduced or be subject to income tax due to your other income. In addition, your Social Security monthly benefit increases when you delay starting the retirement benefit. These increases in monthly benefits stop when you reach age 70.
Bullet Point Don’t get bracket-bumped. Keep in mind that you may have multiple income streams during retirement that can bump you into a higher tax bracket and make other income taxable if you’re not careful. For instance, Social Security benefits are only tax-free if you have less than a certain amount of adjusted gross income ($25,000 for individuals and $32,000 for married filing jointly in 2017), otherwise as much as 85 percent of your benefits are taxable.

Required distributions from pensions and retirement accounts can also add to your taxable income. Be aware of how close you are to the next tax bracket and adjust your plans accordingly.

Bullet Point Be smart about health care. When you reach age 65, you’ll have the option of making Medicare your primary health insurance. If you continue to work, you may be able to stay on your employer’s health care plan, switch to Medicare, or adopt a two-plan hybrid option that includes Medicare and a supplemental employer care plan.

Look over each option closely. You may find that you’re giving up important coverage if you switch to Medicare prematurely while you still have the option of sticking with your employer plan.

Bullet Point Consider your expenses. If you’re reducing your working hours or taking a part-time job, you also have to consider the cost of your extra income stream. Calculate how much it costs to commute and park every day, as well as the expense of meals, clothing, dry cleaning and any other expenses. Now consider how much all those expenses amount to in pre-tax income. Be aware whether the benefits you get from working a little extra are worth the extra financial cost.
Bullet Point Time to downsize or relocate? Where and how you live can be an important factor determining the kind of work you can do while you’re retired. Downsizing to a smaller residence or moving to a new locale may be a good strategy to pursue a new kind of work and a different lifestyle.
Bullet Point Focus on your deeper purpose. Use your retirement as an opportunity to find work you enjoy and that adds value to your life. Choose a job that expresses your talents and interests, and that provides a place where your experiences are valued by others.

 

Business or Hobby?

Credit Score Ingredients

When you incorrectly claim your favorite hobby as a business, it’s like waving a red flag that says “Audit Me!” to the IRS. However, there are tax benefits if you can correctly categorize your activity as a business.

Why does hobby versus business activity matter?

Chiefly, you’re allowed to reduce your taxable income by the amount of your qualified business expenses, even if your business activity results in a loss.

On the other hand, you cannot deduct losses from hobby activities. Hobby expenses are treated as miscellaneous itemized deductions and don’t reduce taxable income until they (and other miscellaneous expenses) surpass 2 percent of your adjusted gross income.

Here are some tips to determine whether you can define your activity as a business.

BUSINESS versus HOBBY
You have a reasonable expectation of making a profit. Profit Motive You may sell occasionally, but making money is not your main goal.
You invest significant personal time and effort. You depend on the resulting income. Effort and Income It’s something you do in your free time; you make the bulk of your money elsewhere.
Your expenses are ordinary and necessary to run your business. Reasonable Expenses Your expenses are driven by your personal preferences and not strictly necessary.
You have a track record in this industry, and/or a history of making profits. Background You don’t have professional training in the field and have rarely or never turned a profit.
You have multiple customers or professional clients. Customers You have few customers, mainly relatives and friends.
You keep professional records, including a separate checkbook and balance sheet; you have business cards, stationery and a branded business website. Professionalism You don’t keep strict professional records of your activities; you don’t have a formal business website or business cards.

The IRS will consider all these factors to make a broad determination whether you operate your activity in a businesslike manner. If you need help ensuring you meet these criteria, reach out to schedule an appointment.

 

Marriage Tax Tips

Credit Score Ingredients

If you recently got married, plan to get married, or know someone taking the matrimonial plunge, here are some important tax tips every new bride and groom should know.

 

 

 

 

 

1 Notify Social Security. Notify the Social Security Administration (SSA) of any name changes by filling out Form SS-5. The IRS matches names with the SSA and may reject your joint tax return if the names don’t match what the SSA has on file.
1 Address change notification. If either of you are moving, update your address with your employer as well as the Postal Service. This will ensure your W-2s are correctly stated and delivered to you at the end of the year. You will also need to update the IRS with your new address using Form 8822.
1 Review your benefits. Getting married allows you to make mid-year changes to employer benefit plans. Take the time to review health, dental, auto, and home insurance plans and update your coverage. If both of you have employer health plans, you need to decide whether it makes sense for each of you to keep your plans or whether it’s better for one to join the other’s plan as a spouse. Pay special attention to the tax implication of changes in health savings accounts, dependent childcare benefits and other employer pre-tax benefits.
1 Update your withholdings. You will need to recalculate your payroll withholdings and file new W-4s reflecting your new status. If both of you work, your combined income could put you in a higher tax bracket. This can result in reduced and phased-out benefits. This phenomenon is known as the “marriage penalty.”
1 Update beneficiaries and other legal documents. Review your legal documents to make sure the names and addresses reflect your new marital status. This includes bank accounts, credit cards, property titles, insurance policies and living wills. Even more importantly, review and update beneficiaries on each of your retirement savings accounts and pensions.
1 Understand the tax impact of your residence. If you are selling one or two residences, review how capital gains tax laws apply to your situation. This is especially important if one of you has been in your home for only a short time or if either home has appreciated in value. This review should be done prior to getting married to maximize your tax benefits.
1 Sit down with an expert. It is natural for newlyweds to focus their attention on the big day. There are so many decisions to be made from selecting a venue to planning the honeymoon. Because of this, reviewing your tax situation often is an afterthought. Do not make this mistake. A simple tax and financial planning session prior to the big day can save on future headaches and avoid potentially expensive tax mistakes.

If you’d like a review of how marriage will affect your tax and financial situation, call at your earliest opportunity.

 

 

Three Popular Tax Breaks are Gone

Expense paperwork

As you make plans for the 2017 tax year, take note that three popular tax breaks expired last year and won’t be available unless Congress acts to extend them.

1 Tuition and fees deduction. You used to be able to deduct as much as $4,000 in college tuition and fees as an adjustment to taxable income. This provision was popular because it provided an alternative to other credits and did not require you to itemize deductions to receive the tax benefit. While this tax benefit is currently expired, several tax breaks geared toward students still exist:

student loan interest expense deductions
student education savings plans (529 plans)
education credits such as the American opportunity credit and the lifetime learning credit
1 Mortgage insurance premiums. The ability to deduct the cost of mortgage insurance premiums as an itemized deduction expired last year. This expired benefit used to phase out for taxpayers with more than $100,000 in adjusted gross income. Mortgage insurance is typically required of homeowners with a less than 20 percent down payment on their home purchase.
1 Lower senior threshold for medical expense deductions. The threshold for deducting itemized medical expenses raises to 10 percent of adjusted gross income for all taxpayers beginning in 2017. Prior to this, those age 65 or older had a lower 7.5 percent threshold. Only unreimbursed, qualified medical expenses in excess of 10 percent of your adjusted gross income can now be taken as an itemized deduction. For example, if a 70 year old taxpayer has $50,000 in adjusted gross income, he could have deducted his medical expenses that exceeded $3,750 as an itemized deduction. This year that number rises to $5,000 with the same income, putting it that much further out of reach for seniors.

Remember to plan for these changes. But also keep an eye on future action from Congress that could bring these dead tax deductions back to life.

Seven Common Retirement Account Mistakes

Retirement Mistakes

It is all too easy to make a mistake that can cost you plenty if you do not actively manage your retirement assets. Here are some common retirement account mistakes that can easily be avoided.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Bullet Point Borrowing money, then leaving your job. Those with employer-provided retirement accounts, such as 401(k)s, can often borrow money from their accounts. Unfortunately if you leave your job, this money must be repaid immediately. If it’s not repaid, your loan will be considered a withdrawal of funds, creating a hefty tax bill and early withdrawal penalty.
Bullet Point Incorrect rollover of funds. If you plan on moving funds from one retirement account to another, do not have the withdrawal check issued to you. If the funds are not correctly redeposited, your transfer could be deemed a taxable event.

Better: Create a trustee-to-trustee transfer. By having the funds go directly from one retirement account to another, you eliminate the risk of the IRS assuming you made a withdrawal.

Bullet Point Waiting until 70½ before taking money out. A key concept in retirement planning is to make your retirement accounts as tax efficient as possible. This often means taking money out of an account before you actually need it. When you reach age 70½ or older most retirement accounts require you to take a minimum distribution based on a formula.

Better: Review your tax situation each year. It may make sense to take a withdrawal out of a retirement account now in order to pay a lower tax compared with the tax on a required distribution when you are older.

Bullet Point Not reviewing beneficiaries. The beneficiaries of most retirement accounts have priority over what is stated in your will. This can have unintended consequences.Better: Review your retirement account beneficiaries each year. Note alternative beneficiaries if allowed within the account.
Bullet Point Not reviewing your investment mix. Many make their retirement investment decisions when they set up their account and then leave it alone. But as you age, your investment mix should change. Your account can also become out of balance as funds perform at different rates.Better: Review your funds annually, rebalance your funds and replace poorly performing funds as needed. Your employer or trustee appointed advisors can help you make investment decisions that meet your needs.
Bullet Point Not maximizing your employer contributions. Most employer-provided retirement accounts include an employer-provided contribution. Often this is a matching contribution where your employer will match 50% to 100% of your contribution up to a percent of your pay. Not taking advantage of this free money is one of the worst mistakes you can make.
Bullet Point Not participating. And the worst retirement account mistake? Not participating. Unless your retirement plan is to win the lottery, you will need income during your retirement years. You are never too young or old to start saving for a retirement free from financial worry.

The Right Ingredients to Improve Your Credit Score

Credit Score Ingredients

Your credit score is important. It dictates how easy it is to obtain a loan for a car, house, or business acquisition. Your score is expressed as a number that ranges between 300 and 850 points. The closer you are to 850 points, the more likely you are to receive a loan and the less you’ll pay in interest. So, how is your credit score calculated and how can you improve it?

 

 

Credit score ingredients

1 Payment history, 35 percent. The most important element of your credit score is your payment history, or your record of paying your bills on time. Lenders place such a premium on this element that even one payment made later than 30 days after the due date can have a drastic effect. It can drop your score by as much as 100 points, according to FICO, the company that sets the credit score standard.
1 Credit card debt usage, 30 percent. Lenders like to see that you aren’t getting close to using your maximum credit card limit each month. For the best score, you should keep your monthly debt between 10 percent and 30 percent of your maximum limit. The lower the better. A great place to start is to understand your spending limits on your credit cards and keeping any balance on your cards below the 30 percent threshold.
1 Credit age, 15 percent. You get a better credit score depending on how far back your credit goes. The age of your credit is the average of all your accounts, so if you open a lot of new accounts, this will shorten your credit age and start to lower your credit score.
1 Account mix, 10 percent. Lenders like to see that you have a track record of paying a variety of different kinds of debts, such as credit cards, mortgages, car, and business or education loans.
1 Credit inquiries, 10 percent. Each time you apply for a new credit card, a new loan, or ask for a substantial increase in your credit limits you generate a “hard inquiry” on your credit report. It’s a sign that lenders are checking into your credit history to determine your risk. While that’s not necessarily a bad thing, trying to open too many new accounts in a short period of time is seen as a red flag by lenders.

 Key ideas to improve your credit

Bullet Point Pay your bills on time. Ask your credit card providers or lenders to set all your due dates on the same day, and then set a reminder in your calendar. Consider using auto-pay for more important bills like credit cards and mortgage payments.
Bullet Point Manage your credit card debt limits. Ask your credit issuers to increase your card line limit. You can also limit the amount of credit card debt you accumulate by paying your bill in full each month, stop using a card but not closing the account, or switching to cash as you approach your line limits.
Bullet Point Build a credit history. The sooner you get started in establishing a credit history, the sooner you’ll establish a track record of payments that give lenders confidence in your ability to repay debt.
Bullet Point Create variety. Manage your debt, but understand that making student loan payments on time, paying off credit card debts and other loans can present you as a quality credit risk to prospective lenders.
Bullet Point Manage your credit hits. Try to limit the number of new accounts you open over a short period of time. Each hard inquiry will only impact your credit score by a few points, but each one stays on your credit report for two years.
Bullet Point Know your number. Last, but not least, know your credit score. Sometimes a low score can be the result of an error in your credit history or a recent identity theft problem. You have the right to receive your credit report free once per year from each of the major credit reporting agencies. Here is the link: AnnualCreditReport.com

 

 

Inherited Property: A Matter of Value

Estate

Avoid this potential tax headache

If you are expecting to inherit property when friends or relatives pass away, know that their generosity can come with tax consequences. It’s important to understand how the value of your inheritance is determined in order to avoid a potential tax surprise in the future.

Estate tax basics

When a friend or relative dies and leaves behind a will, someone will be named executor of their estate. The term “estate” means the total amount of the assets and liabilities the deceased person leaves behind, and the “executor” is the person named to handle the the affairs of the estate. It also includes managing the distribution of remaining assets to “beneficiaries,” which is another word for the people who inherit the assets.

The executor has the responsibility to calculate the value of the assets, generally on or around the date of death. This is called the “stepped-up basis.” If the total value of the estate is worth less than $5.49 million, the estate pays no federal tax. If it’s more than that amount, the IRS’s piece of the pie scales up to a whopping 40 percent. Thirteen states and the District Columbia also collect state estate taxes of as much as 20 percent.

The conflict over value

Generally speaking, executors would rather have the estimated value of an estate’s total property fall below estate-tax thresholds. But as a beneficiary receiving an inheritance, it’s in your interest to have a higher estimate of value. That way you may avoid higher capital gains tax if you sell the property.

A high estate valuation helps you as a beneficiary because you only pay tax on the increase in value from the “stepped-up basis.” So, if your inherited property was valued at $200,000 and you later sell it for $300,000, you would pay taxes on $100,000. But if the same property was valued at $300,000, you would potentially owe no tax.

A matter of value

In valuing a piece of property, an executor will compare it to similar properties that have recently sold. Ideally there is a qualified appraisal by an expert to determine the “fair market value”.

If you disagree with the way an executor has valued property you are inheriting, it may be a good idea to have your own appraisal done. With your appraisal in hand, reach out to the executor and make your case for the higher valuation based on your appraisal. Keep in mind that you don’t want an evaluation that is either too low or too high — you want a reasonable fair market value of the assets. If you don’t talk to the executor and you end up using a different valuation in reporting to the IRS, you could be facing a big tax headache.

If you’re able to talk to the executor and agree on a valuation, consider asking for a Form 8971 Schedule A. This form itemizes the valuation of property and is now often required by the IRS for estates worth more than $5.49 million. However it can also be used to provide you with documentation showing that you and an executor have reached an agreement on the value of a specific piece of inherited property.

IRS Announces Annual Tax Scams

Tax ScamsEach year the IRS announces a list of the “Dirty Dozen Tax Scams” its agents encounter most frequently. Highlighted here are seven of the most common.

Bullet Point Creating fake income. It has come to the attention of the IRS that some taxpayers are creating false income for the sole purpose of obtaining tax credits like the Earned Income Tax Credit. This false income can be in the form of a fake 1099-MISC or fictitious self-employment income. The penalties for this type of fraud can be severe.
Bullet Point Falsely padding deductions. Creating deductions and inflating dollar amounts of legitimate deductions is now on the IRS Dirty Dozen list. While it may seem a little thing to stretch the amounts, the increased reporting received by the IRS makes it easier for them to see these inflated deductions.
 Bullet Point Excessive business credits. This scam focuses on two commonly misused business credits: the fuel credit and the research credit. The fuel credit is usually only available for off-street vehicle use (typically for farming). While the research credit may seem straightforward, there are stringent qualifications and reporting requirements. Prior to using either of these credits, you should ask for a review of your situation.
Bullet Point Fake charities. After major disasters, many charitable givers are scammed into making donations to fake charities. This makes donations to them nondeductible. To protect against this, prior to donating funds make sure the charity is both legitimate and deemed a qualified charity by the IRS. Here is a link to the IRS tool to confirm charitable organizations. IRS Exempt Organizations List Check
Bullet Point Identity Theft. Identity theft tops the Dirty Dozen list every year. Thankfully, the IRS takes precautionary measures to curtail this out-of-control problem. In addition to limiting the number of direct deposits it will make to any single account, the IRS is working with states and tax preparation software vendors to put more controls in place. This includes some states requiring drivers license numbers on their tax forms, delays in early processing of tax refunds, internal tracking within software programs, and continual checking for heavy filing activity.
Bullet Point Phone scams. Phone calls from thieves representing themselves as IRS agents continue to get more sophisticated. The caller ID may show as coming from the IRS and the scam may involve numerous phone calls instead of a single contact. These thieves often have some of your personal information and try to intimidate their victims with threats of jail time, deportation or license revocation. Remember, never give information over the phone to someone claiming to be from the IRS.
Bullet Point Phishing. This recurring scam involves receiving fake emails and websites that look like the real deal. The IRS will not send you billing information or refund information via email. Do not click on any email link received from the IRS unless you requested it. Remember the IRS does not initiate contact through emails.

Collectibles and the Tax Collector

Collectible Coins

It typically takes a great deal of personal interest and expertise in a given field — whether it’s rare art, coins or baseball cards — to judge a treasure from a trinket. For those of you who have been bitten by the collector’s bug, here are some tax considerations.

 

Collectibles defined

According to the IRS: “Collectibles include works of art, rugs, antiques, metals (such as gold, silver, and platinum bullion), gems, stamps, coins, alcoholic beverages, and certain other tangible properties.” 1 What makes something a collectible is that it carries additional value based on its rarity and its market demand. Essentially, the opinion of other collectors and experts, based on what they are willing to pay for your collection, determines its value.

For example, a typical one-ounce gold coin is worth about $1,200 based upon the value of the metal and would not be considered a collectible by the IRS. However, a rare antique double eagle gold coin produced in the 19th century could be worth $20,000 to a collector, even though it is made of exactly the same amount of gold as the non-rare coin.

Collectibles special tax rate

When collectibles are sold, they become taxable at a maximum tax rate of 28 percent. The tax applies to profit on the sale of your collectibles.

That tax rate is considerably higher than the average capital gains tax of 15 percent that most people pay for non-collectible investments such as stocks and bonds (the tax range for long-term capital gains is from 0 to 20 percent). The exception to this rule is that if you’ve held your collection less than a year before you sell it, your capital gain will be taxed as regular income.

It’s all about the basis

In order to calculate what you owe to the IRS if you sell your collectibles, start with your basis. Your basis typically equals the amount you paid for your collectibles, plus any auction or broker fees incurred during your purchase. If you spent money to refurbish, restore or maintain collectibles while you owned them, you can also add that to your basis.

Then, subtract your basis from the sale price of your collectibles; the amount left over is what is taxed. Here’s an example:

Ima Dahl decides to sell an 1898 German Bisque porcelain doll from her collection. She’s owned the doll for ten years and originally paid $700 for it. She also paid $150 two years ago to repair its cracked finish. She receives $1,800 by selling it at an online auction and spends $100 paying her auction fees and shipping to the new owner. Since she owned the doll for more than one year, her long-term capital gain is $850 and her potential maximum tax is $238. The calculation: $1,800 net sales price, minus the $700 basis, minus $150 for repairs, minus $100 selling expense multiplied by 28%.

Some collectible hints

Bullet Point Know the market value. If you inherit a collectible you will need to know the value of the object on the date you obtain it. This will usually become your basis when you sell it.
Bullet Point Investment or personal use. If your collectible is an investment you can usually take a loss on the sale of the collectible. Unfortunately, if the IRS deems the collectible has an element of personal use, you may not deduct the loss. An example of personal use may be the hanging of a painting on your wall. Being careful how you sell your collectible can also make a difference in managing your potential tax liability.
Bullet Point Collectibles tax rate good or bad. The 28 percent capital gain tax on collectibles is the maximum tax rate. For example, if you are in the 15 percent income tax range, your collectible gain is taxed at that rate. If your income tax bracket is higher than 28 percent, the collectibles tax rate is capped at 28 percent, resulting in a potentially lower tax rate versus ordinary income taxes.

As you can imagine, the taxes on buying and selling collectibles can be complex. If you are considering selling a potentially valuable item, ask for assistance.