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.

 

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

 

 

Overtime Rules Go Into Overtime

Time Clock

The fate of a Labor Department rule extending mandatory overtime pay to workers by doubling the eligible salary cap is uncertain under the new presidential administration.

The rule introduced by the Labor Department under the direction of former President Barack Obama increases the salary cap for workers eligible to receive mandatory overtime to $47,476. It extends mandatory overtime, or time-and-a-half pay, to workers primarily in managerial or administrative roles in the retail, restaurant, and nonprofit industries.

Opponents of the rule won a court injunction blocking it in November 2016. The case may be abandoned altogether depending on the priorities set by President Donald Trump’s appointee to lead the Labor Department. Andrew Puzder, chief executive of fast food corporation CKE Restaurants Holdings Inc. (owner of Hardee’s and Carl’s Jr.) is undergoing Senate confirmation for the role. Until the case is resolved, the previous salary cap of $23,660 remains in place.

 

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2017 Standard Mileage Rates

The IRS recently announced mileage rates to be used for travel in 2017. The business mileage rate decreases by 0.5 cents while medical and moving mileage rates are lowered by 2 cents. Charitable mileage rates are unchanged.

2017 Standard Mileage Rates
Mileage Rate/Mile
Business Travel 53.5¢
Medical/Moving 17.0¢
Charitable Work 14.0¢
Mileage Rates

Here are the 2016 rates for your reference as well.

2016 Standard Mileage Rates
Mileage Rate/Mile
Business Travel 54.0¢
Medical/Moving 19.0¢
Charitable Work 14.0¢
Mileage Rates

Remember to properly document your mileage to receive full credit for your miles driven.

Breaking News: 2017 Retirement Contribution & Social Security Limits

If you have not already done so, now is the time to plan for contributions into your retirement accounts in 2017.

Retirement Contribution Limits

Retirement Program 2017 2016 Change Age 50 or over catch up
IRA: Traditional $5,500 $5,500 none add: $1,000
IRA: Roth $5,500 $5,500 none add: $1,000
IRA: SIMPLE $12,500 $12,500 none add: $3,000
401(k), 403(b), 457 plans $18,000 $18,000 none add: $6,000

Social Security

Item 2017 2016 Change Comment
Wages Subject to Social Security $127,200 $118,500 +$8,700 Annual Social Security employee tax: $7,886.40
Average Estimated Monthly Retirement Benefit $1,360 $1,355 +$5 Change in estimated amount

Don’t forget to account for any matching programs offered by your employer as you determine your various funding levels for next year.

Tips to Make School Expenses Deductible

Apple and pencils

It seems like summer has just begun and the Back-to-School advertising blitz has already started. Are there tax savings opportunities within this nightmare for our kids? Certainly, if you are tax smart about your spending. While the amounts may be small, they can add up in a hurry. Here are some ideas:

 

 

 

Check mark Purchasing the class supply list could have deductions in it. Often schools send a list of requested supplies for the school year. Some of the items on the list are clearly for personal use (such as an eraser or a ruler) while other items on the list are often for school use and classroom use (such as 24 pencils or paper towels). This classroom supply technique effectively transfers the school expenses to our children. Keep track of these non-cash classroom/school donations for possible non-cash charitable deductions.
Check mark Donate funds versus buying the supplies. Instead of buying the classroom supplies yourself, consider providing a check written to the school as a donation. This helps in two ways: First, it becomes a clear cash donation with a canceled check as a receipt. Second, if your school has a good supply agreement, the purchasing power of your donation will go further.

Check mark

Whenever you donate, get a written confirmation from the school or your child’s teacher representing the school. Most teachers do not have the form, so bring one with you that the teacher can sign. You can get the directions on www.irs.gov or simply use a respected charitable group like Goodwill, or the Red Cross for a format to copy.
Check mark Leverage the school’s PTA. This non-profit parent group, if a qualified charitable organization, is a great resource to help your school AND help you get deductible donations for funds you would otherwise provide to your child’s school.
Check mark Use checks not cash. If you usually provide donations to the school in the form of cash (like providing additional money to help other kids go on field trips) make those donations in the form of a check. Cash donations without receipts are not deductible.
Check mark Donate funds versus taking the raffle ticket. Raffles, subscription drives, and silent auctions are fun ways schools raise funds. To maximize your ability to deduct your donations, forego the possible prize. Then the entire donation is clearly deductible.
Check mark Don’t forget your out-of-pocket expenses for your volunteer activities. Perhaps you donate your time at school functions, donate books to the school library, or help assist the teaching staff. Your out-of-pocket expenses and your mileage should be tracked for charitable deduction purposes.
Check mark Teachers, save your out-of-pocket expenses. The $250 deduction for qualified educators out-of-pocket classroom expenses is a popular tax provision in Congress that is now a permanent part of the tax code.

Finally, don’t forget to review state rules for educational expenses. There are often credits available for out-of-pocket school and other educational expenses.

Plan for Tax Filing Season Changes

Coming changes calendar

In an effort to reduce the amount of money paid to identity thieves who file fraudulent returns, the IRS will be implementing changes in the timing and way they handle the processing of tax returns.

These steps will continue to evolve, but recent changes will impact millions who depend on receiving an early refund.

Bullet warning Earlier filing of form W-2s and 1099-MISC. The timing required to send these forms to employees and vendors remains the end of January. However, the extended deadline for filing the electronic version of these forms to the IRS and Social Security Administration is now a full month earlier. This is done to allow the IRS to match records with early filed tax returns. The prior timing gap was ideal for thieves to file fraudulent tax returns.
Bullet warning Earned Income Tax Credit and Additional Child Tax Credit. If you file a tax return that contains either of these credits, do not expect to receive an early refund. The IRS has been mandated to hold these refund payments until February 15th or later. Given the payment backlog this will create, it is still important to file early to get your refund in the queue.
Bullet warning Get Transcript changes. The IRS is now adding a second level of security to their online functions. The initial version of this change is in the recently re-launched Get Transcript online request. You will now need to have a valid email, mobile phone number, and a credit card or financial account number to log into the system. If you are not ready to provide this additional information to the IRS you can still request copies of your tax return using the mail.

Begin planning now to be prepared for these upcoming changes. Rest assured, we can all look forward to further changes as the IRS continues to address the multi-billion dollar identity theft problem plaguing the Agency.

As always, should you have any questions or concerns regarding your situation please feel free to call.