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.

 

Reminder: It is Tax Scam Season Too

hidden person

Imagine you receive a call from an IRS agent who says you owe back taxes and threatens to arrest you if you don’t immediately make a payment over the phone.

Thousands of Americans faced this situation in 2016, though the people on the other end of their phone lines weren’t actually from the IRS. They were scam artists calling across the world from Mumbai, India. Their aggressive intimidation of U.S. taxpayers brought in $150,000 a day until police cracked down on their call center.

Amazingly, con artists impersonating IRS agents were involved in a quarter of all the consumer fraud incidents reported to the Better Business Bureau last year, making it by far the most common financial scam. With the new tax-filing season underway, now is the time to be especially vigilant.

Top scams of 2016 graphic

The threatening approach used in Mumbai is just one variety of IRS scam. Another involved sending emails from fake IRS addresses telling taxpayers that due to a mistake they were owed larger refunds. According to the email, all they had to do was provide their bank information and prepay the tax due on the larger refund. Once they made the prepayment, both the scammer and their supposed refund disappeared.

See through any IRS scam

By following a few guidelines you can see through any IRS scam:

Bullet Point Digital communication is a big no. The IRS will never initiate contact with you via email, text message or social media, nor will they request personal or financial information over those channels. If you do get an email communication purporting to be from the IRS don’t click on any links or open any attachments. Instead, forward the email to phishing@irs.gov.
Bullet Point Mail first. The first contact from the real IRS will be through the mail. If you get a letter from the IRS that is unexpected or suspicious, it should have a form or notice number searchable on the IRS website, www.irs.gov. Compare what you find there with what you received. If it doesn’t look right, you can call the IRS help desk at 1-800-829-1040 to question it.
Bullet Point  Never pay by phone. A legitimate IRS agent will never make a call to demand immediate payment of a bill or ask you to provide your debit or credit card information over the phone. If you are suspicious, ask for the employee’s name, badge number and phone number. A real IRS agent won’t hesitate to provide this information. You can then politely end the call and dial the IRS at 1-800-366-4484 to confirm the person’s identity.

 

Know Your Audit Risk

Audit Risk Nearly every taxpayer can imagine a worst-case scenario where they run afoul of the IRS and are selected for an audit. Here are a few areas that tend to get unwanted audit attention and ideas to help you stay prepared. Your audit risk is (probably) low. The first thing to remember is that the risk of having your tax return examined by the IRS is probably very low. The IRS audits less than 1 in 100 returns. If you are among the roughly 95 percent of Americans who make less than $200,000 a year, your chance of being audited is closer to 1 in 200. Audit chances rise dramatically the higher your income is above $200,000, according to the IRS annual Data Book.

Areas that get attention:

Bullet Point Missing something. Aside from your income level, one of the biggest red flags for the IRS is a missing or incorrect tax form. Assume a copy of every official tax form you get also goes to the IRS.

Action: Create a list of all your expected tax forms. Check them off as you start to receive them over the next month or so. Immediately review the forms for accuracy. These include W-2s, 1099s, 1095s, 1098Ts and more.

Bullet Point Excessive deductions. Your risk of an audit increases when your tax return shows unusually high-value itemized deductions, such as charitable donations or losses from theft.

Action: A legitimate deduction should always be taken. If your itemized deductions are high, make sure your proof of these deductions is well documented.

Bullet Point Large charitable donations. Your chances of an audit increase if you take large deductions for donations to charity, especially “noncash” donations of property with unclear value.

Action: Always remember to file a Form 8283 for any donation above $500 in value. If you are donating anything at that value or higher, it may be worth paying for an appraisal of the value of the property so you can defend your deduction.

Bullet Point Disparities with your ex. Your tax return may as well have a red siren attached to it if you and an ex-spouse are not on the same page on claiming dependents, child support or alimony.

Action: Ensure you and your ex-spouse are consistent in how tax items are treated on your separate returns. If you have had problems with this in the past, a quick phone call could save headaches for both of you.

Bullet Point Business activity. IRS agents have a keen eye for small business reporting, typically done on a Schedule C. In particular, the agency is quick to review claimed business activities they perceive as being hobbies.

Action: Maintain detailed business accounts and record significant time spent on your business activity in order to demonstrate both professionalism and a profit motivation.

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Know Your Audit Risk

Audit Risk

Nearly every taxpayer can imagine a worst-case scenario where they run afoul of the IRS and are selected for an audit. Here are a few areas that tend to get unwanted audit attention and ideas to help you stay prepared.

Your audit risk is (probably) low. The first thing to remember is that the risk of having your tax return examined by the IRS is probably very low. The IRS audits less than 1 in 100 returns. If you are among the roughly 95 percent of Americans who make less than $200,000 a year, your chance of being audited is closer to 1 in 200. Audit chances rise dramatically the higher your income is above $200,000, according to the IRS annual Data Book.

Areas that get attention

Bullet Point Missing something. Aside from your income level, one of the biggest red flags for the IRS is a missing or incorrect tax form. Assume a copy of every official tax form you get also goes to the IRS.

Action: Create a list of all your expected tax forms. Check them off as you start to receive them over the next month or so. Immediately review the forms for accuracy. These include W-2s, 1099s, 1095s, 1098Ts and more.

Bullet Point Excessive deductions. Your risk of an audit increases when your tax return shows unusually high-value itemized deductions, such as charitable donations or losses from theft.

Action: A legitimate deduction should always be taken. If your itemized deductions are high, make sure your proof of these deductions is well documented.

Bullet Point Large charitable donations. Your chances of an audit increase if you take large deductions for donations to charity, especially “noncash” donations of property with unclear value.Action: Always remember to file a Form 8283 for any donation above $500 in value. If you are donating anything at that value or higher, it may be worth paying for an appraisal of the value of the property so you can defend your deduction.
Bullet Point Disparities with your ex. Your tax return may as well have a red siren attached to it if you and an ex-spouse are not on the same page on claiming dependents, child support or alimony.Action: Ensure you and your ex-spouse are consistent in how tax items are treated on your separate returns. If you have had problems with this in the past, a quick phone call could save headaches for both of you.
Bullet Point Business activity. IRS agents have a keen eye for small business reporting, typically done on a Schedule C. In particular, the agency is quick to review claimed business activities they perceive as being hobbies.Action: Maintain detailed business accounts and record significant time spent on your business activity in order to demonstrate both professionalism and a profit motivation.

Private Agencies to Start Collecting for IRS

Change Your Password

What you need to know

In late 2015 Congress required the IRS to turn over uncollected taxes it is no longer pursuing to outside collection agencies. The agencies are now selected and in early 2017 they will begin their collection efforts. This will impact all of us. Here is what you need to know.

Alert icon Turn up your scam alert. Rest assured the IRS identity scam epidemic is going to hit a new high as these scam artists now will try to impersonate collection agencies. Never pay a collection agency directly for any tax owed. Always send any payments directly to the IRS. If you do not think you owe money to the IRS, ask for help.
Agencies icon Four agencies have been authorized. Only four collection agencies have been authorized to collect unpaid taxes for the IRS. They are:
Conserve Fairport,
New York
Pioneer Horseheads,
New York
Performant Livemore,
California
CBE Group Cedar Falls,
Iowa
Notice icon You will receive written notice…twice. Before an outside agency calls you, the IRS will send two written notices to you and your representative about the transfer of the bill to an outside collection agency. Without these notices, you must assume any contact with a collection agency saying they represent the IRS is a scam.
Payment icon No payment to the agency. These collection agencies may not receive direct payment. You will be asked to use the IRS online payment system or to send your payment into the IRS. Payment is to be made to the U.S. Treasury and not to the collection agency.

Unfortunately, these agencies are going to begin their collection process right in the middle of this year’s tax filing season. So be prepared now and ask for help if you may be impacted by this change within the IRS.

Preview of Some Key 2017 Tax Figures

2017 compass

While official numbers for 2017 are not yet released by the Internal Revenue Service (IRS), many figures are based on the Consumer Price Index (CPI) published by the Department of Labor. Using the release of recent CPI figures, a number of sources are projecting key figures for 2017.

 

Tax Brackets: While the actual income brackets for tax rates are not set for 2017, the rate of inflation impacting the income levels for each rate is anticipated to raise the income brackets by approximately 0.6 – 0.8%.

Personal Exemption: $4,050 in 2017 (unchanged from 2016)

Standard Deductions:

Deduction Tax Year 2017 Tax Year 2016
Single
$6,350
$6,300
Head of Household
$9,350
$9,300
Married Filing Jointly
$12,700
$12,600
Married Filing Separately
$6,350
$6,300
Dependents (kiddie tax)
$1,050
$1,050
65 or Blind: Married
Add $1,250
Add $1,250
Single
Add $1,550
Add $1,550

Other Key figures:

Estate & Gift Tax Exclusion
$5.49 million
$5.45 million
Annual Gift Tax Exclusion
$14,000
$14,000
Roth and Traditional IRA Contribution Limit
$5,500
$5,500

Caution: Remember, these are early figures using the recently announced Consumer Price Index. Official numbers are released by the IRS later in the year.

 

The IRS is Not Always Right

Quotes from actual IRS correspondence received by clients:

“Our records show we received a 1040X…for the tax year listed above. We’re sorry but we cannot find it.”
“Our records show you owe a balance due of $0.00. If we do not receive it within 30 days, appropriate collection steps will be taken”.
“Payment is due on your account. Please submit payments on or before June 31st to avoid late payment penalties and interest.”

IRS mistakesIt’s pretty tough to pay a balance due of $0 on June 31st when June only has 30 days. The message should be clear. If you receive a notice from the IRS do not automatically assume it is correct and submit payment to make it go away. The same is true for any state notices. They are often in error. So what should you do?

Bullet Item Stay calm. Try not to overreact to the correspondence. This is easier said than done, but remember the IRS sends out millions of notices each year. The vast majority of them correct simple oversights or common filing errors.
Bullet Item Open the envelope. You would be surprised at how often clients are so stressed by receiving a letter from the IRS that they cannot bear to open the envelope. If you fall into this category try to remember that the first step in making the problem go away is to open the correspondence.
Bullet Item Careful review. Review the letter. Make sure you understand exactly what the IRS thinks needs to be changed and determine whether or not you agree with their findings. Unfortunately, the IRS rarely sends correspondence to correct an oversight in your favor, but it sometimes happens.
Bullet Item Respond timely. The correspondence received should be very clear about what action the IRS believes you should take and within what timeframe. Ignore this information at your own risk. Delays in responses could generate penalties and additional interest payments.
Bullet Item Get help. You are not alone. Getting assistance from someone who deals with this all the time makes going through the process much smoother.
Bullet Item Correct the IRS error. Once the problem is understood, a clearly written response with copies of documentation will cure most of these IRS correspondence errors. Often the error is due to the inability of the IRS computers to conduct a simple reporting match. Pointing the information out on your tax return might be all it takes to solve the problem.
Bullet Item Certified mail is your friend. Any responses to the IRS should be sent via certified mail. This will provide proof of your timely correspondence. Lost mail can lead to delays, penalties, and additional interest on your tax bill.
Bullet Item Don’t assume it will go away. Until a definitive confirmation that the problem has been resolved is received, you need to assume the IRS still thinks you owe the money. If no correspondence confirming the correction is received, a written follow-up will be required.

The Chances of Being Audited

2015 audit statistics show continued changes

What are the Chances?

Every year the IRS publishes the statistics on the number of tax returns they are examining. Provided here are the last three years of published information and a look back to 2008 to see any trends:

Percent of Individual Tax Returns Audited

Fiscal Year Year 2015 2014 2013 2008
All Individual Tax Returns 0.84% 0.86% 0.96% 1.00 %
No Income (AGI) 3.78% 5.26% 6.04% 2.15%
Income under $25,000 1.01% .93% 1.00% .90%
$25,000 – 50,000 .50% .54% .62% .72%
$50,000 – 75,000 .47% .53% .60% .69%
$75,000 – 100,000 .49% .52% .58% .69%
$100,000 – 200,000 .64% .65% .77% .98%
$200,000 – 500,000 1.54% 1.75% 2.06% 1.92%
$500,000 – $1 million 3.81% 3.62% 3.79% 2.98%
$1 million – $5 million 8.42% 6.21% 9.02% 4.02%
$5 million – 10 million 19.44% 10.53% 15.98% 6.47%
$10 million and over 34.69% 16.22% 24.16% 9.77%
Note: These audit rates are stated as a percent of total tax returns in each Adjusted Gross Income (AGI) class as claimed on individual tax returns. In general the examinations are for tax returns filed in the previous calendar year.

Source: IRS Data Books

Observations:

Point Overall, you have less than 1 out of 100 chance of being selected for an audit. The .84% audit rate is down .02% versus 2014.
Point The IRS is continuing its focus on returns with no AGI or negative income. This group’s 3.78% audit rate is down versus last year, but is still significantly higher than the 2.15% audit rate in 2008.
Point The IRS continues its focus on who pays the income tax. Those with incomes over $500,000 continue to have audit rates significantly higher than in 2008.
Point Over 1/3 of those with incomes over $10 million were faced with an audit.

Having good records
Your best defense in case of an audit is retaining adequate records for as long as you need them. This includes retaining copies of original tax returns and any supporting documentation. Please keep all receipts, statements and cancelled checks that support any tax return entry. Also retain legal documents, confirmation of asset purchases, asset sales, real estate transactions, mileage logs, and informational tax forms. Remember the IRS can audit your tax return for three years after the later of the filing date or when you filed your tax return. This time-frame is six years if your income is understated by more than 25%. Include any state record retention requirements as you review when it is safe to destroy old records. This can add one to two years to your recordkeeping requirements

You Still May Wish to File a Tax Return

1040 form and IRS logo

Too many taxpayers fail to file a tax return under the false notion that one is not required to pay income tax. This assumption can cause problems. Here are some examples of when to file a tax return even when not required to do so.

Check mark Wish to qualify for Premium Tax Credit. This tax credit helps reduce the cost of health insurance for those who purchase their insurance through the new health insurance marketplace. Without a filed tax return you cannot have the Premium Health Credit applied towards your monthly premiums. In fact, non-filing could limit your ability to receive this credit in future tax years as the IRS continues to place controls on the payment of this credit.
Check mark Receive refundable tax credits. There are certain tax credits that will provide refunds even if you do not owe income tax. The most common of these is the Earned Income Tax Credit.
Check mark You wish to limit potential audits. The IRS typically has three years to audit a filed tax return. If no tax return is filed, this audit time limit never starts.
Check mark You are applying for financial aid or loans. Banks and colleges will often use tax return information to qualify you for loans and financial aid. Even if not required to file, it is nice to provide this information if requested.
Check mark You are filing a final tax return for a loved one. The IRS will eventually receive death information through the Social Security Administration. By filing a final tax return, you can put the breaks on unwanted communication from the IRS as they wait for this confirmation.
Check mark You want withholdings returned to you. Always file a tax return if an employer or other supplier withheld tax funds. It is the only way you will receive them back from the federal government.
Check mark You wish to protect against someone else filing a tax return. With the vast increase in identity theft from the IRS, filing a tax return can close the door on would-be thieves. Your filed tax return can block attempts by someone else who files a second tax return with fake information.

Twelve Common Missing Tax Return Items

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Want your tax return filed quickly and without error? Then double-check this handy list of items that are often overlooked.

Hopefully, by knowing these commonly missed pieces of information you can prepare to have your tax filing experience be a smooth one.

Point Review and signing your e-file approval. The sooner you review and approve your tax return, the sooner it can be filed.
Point Having proof of health insurance. Most taxpayers should receive a Form 1095 that confirms you have health insurance for the year. Some employers have received approval to delay sending you this form, but you still must have proof of proper insurance.
Point Missing W-2 or 1099. Using last year’s tax return, make sure all prior W-2s and 1099′s are received and applied to your tax return.
Point Incorrect information on a W-2 or 1099. If you fail to confirm the accuracy of your tax forms, you will be faced with a choice. Either try to get the form corrected or delay filing your tax return.
Point Missing or invalid Social Security Number. E-filed tax returns will come to a screeching halt with a missing or invalid number.
Point Dependent Already Claimed. Your return cannot be filed if there is a conflict in this area.
Point Name mismatch. If recently married or divorced, make sure your last name on your tax return matches the one on file at Social Security.
Point Inconsistent information. Most tax programs will check a tax return for inconsistencies. When one occurs, they must be resolved prior to filing your tax return. An example might be you filing Married Filing Separate, while your ex-spouse files as Married Filing Joint or Single.
Point No information for a common deduction. If you claim a deduction you will need to provide support to document the claim.
Point Missing Cost information for transactions. Brokers will send you a statement of sales transactions. If you do not also provide your cost and purchase information, the tax return cannot be filed.
Point Missing K-1. As an owner of a partnership, Sub Chapter S or LLC, you will need to receive a Form K-1 that reports your share of the profit or loss from the business activity. Without this, you cannot file your tax return.
Point Forms with no explanation. If you receive a tax form, but have no explanation for the form, questions could arise. For instance, if you receive a retirement account distribution form it may be deemed income. If it is part of a qualified rollover, no tax is due. An explanation is required to file your information correctly.