What Is the Generation-Skipping Transfer Tax?

Woman works on her tax returnsEstate planning can help you pass on assets to your heirs while potentially minimizing taxes. When gifting assets, it’s important to consider when and how the generation-skipping tax transfer (GSTT) may apply. Also called the generation-skipping tax, this federal tax can apply when a grandparent leaves assets to a grandchild while skipping over their parents in the line of inheritance. It can also be triggered when leaving assets to someone who’s at least 37.5 years younger than you. If you’re considering “skipping” any of your heirs when passing on assets, it’s important to understand what that means from a tax perspective and how to fill out the requisite form. A financial advisor can also give you valuable guidance on how best to pass along your estate to your beneficiaries.

Generation-Skipping Tax, Definition

The Internal Revenue Code imposes both gift and estate taxes on transfers of assets above certain limits. For 2020, you can exclude gifts of up to $15,000 per person from the gift tax, with the limit doubling for married couples who file a joint return. Estate tax applies to estates larger than $11,580,000 for 2020, increasing to $11,700,000 in 2021. Again, these exemption limits double for married couples filing a joint return.

The gift tax rate can be as high as 40%, while the estate tax also maxes out at 40%. The IRS uses the generation-skipping transfer tax to collect its share of any wealth that moves across families when assets aren’t passed directly from parent to child. Assets subject to the generation-skipping tax are taxed at a flat 40% rate.

This tax can apply to both direct transfers of assets to your chosen beneficiaries as well as assets passed through a trust. A trust can be subject to the GSTT if all the beneficiaries of the trust are considered to be skip persons who have a direct interest in the trust.

How Generation-Skipping Transfer Tax Works

Generation-skipping tax rules cover the transfer of assets to people who at least one generation apart. A common scenario where the GSTT can apply is the transfer of assets from a grandparent to a grandchild when one or both of the grandchild’s parents are still alive. If you’re transferring assets to a grandchild because your child has predeceased you, then the transfer tax wouldn’t apply.

The generation-skipping tax is a separate tax from the estate tax and it applies alongside it. Similar to estate tax, this tax kicks in when an estate’s value exceeds the annual exemption limits. The 40% GSTT would be applied to any transfers of assets above the exempt amount, in addition to the regular 40% estate tax.

This is how the IRS covers its bases in collecting taxes on wealth as it moves from one person to another. If you were to pass your estate from your child, who then passes it to their child then no GSTT would apply. The IRS could simply collect estate taxes from each successive generation. But if you skip your child and leave assets to your grandchild instead, that removes a link from the taxation chain. The GSTT essentially allows the IRS to replace that link.

You do have the ability to take advantage of lifetime estate and gift tax exemption limits, which can help to offset how much is owed for the generation-skipping tax. But any unused portion of the exemption counted toward the generation-skipping tax is lost when you die.

How to Avoid Generation-Skipping Transfer Tax

Accountant prepares a tax return

If you’d like to minimize estate and gift taxes as much as possible, talking to a financial advisor can be a good place to start. An advisor who’s well-versed in gift and estate taxes can help you create a plan for transferring assets. For example, that plan might include gifting assets to your grandchildren or another generation-skipping person annually, rather than at the end of your life. Remember, you can gift up to $15,000 per person each year without incurring gift tax, or up to $30,000 per person if you’re married and file a joint return. You’d just need to keep the lifetime exemption limits in mind when scheduling gifts.

You could also make payments on behalf of a beneficiary to avoid tax. Say you want to help your granddaughter with college costs, for example. Any direct payments you make to the school to cover tuition would generally be tax-free. The same is true for direct payments made to healthcare providers if you’re paying medical expenses on behalf of someone else.

Setting up a trust may be another option worth exploring to minimize generation-skipping taxes. A generation-skipping trust allows you to transfer assets to the trust and pay estate taxes at the time of the transfer. The assets you put into the trust have to remain there during the skipped generation’s lifetime. Once they pass away, the assets in the trust could be passed on tax-free to the next generation.

This strategy requires some planning and some patience on the part of the generation that stands to inherit. But the upside is that members of the skipped generation and the generation that follows can benefit from any income the assets in the trust generates in the meantime. Trusts can also yield another benefit, in that they can offer asset protection against creditors who may file legal claims against you or your estate.

Another type of trust you might consider is a dynasty trust. This type of trust can allow you to pass assets on to future generations without triggering estate, gift or generation-skipping taxes. The caveat is that these are designed to be long-term trusts.

You can name your children, grandchildren, great-grandchildren and subsequent generations as beneficiaries and the transfer of assets to the trust is irrevocable. That means once you place the assets in the trust, you won’t be able to take them back out again so it’s important to understand the implications before creating this type of trust.

The Bottom Line

Man works on his tax returns

The generation-skipping tax could take a significant bite out of the assets you’re able to leave behind to grandchildren or another eligible person. If you’re considering using this type of trust to pass on assets or you’re interested in exploring other ways to transfer assets while minimizing taxes, it’s wise to consult an estate planning lawyer or tax attorney first.

Tips for Estate Planning

  • Consider talking to your financial advisor about how to best shape your estate plan to minimize taxation. If you don’t have a financial advisor yet, finding one doesn’t have to be complicated. SmartAsset’s financial advisor matching tool makes it easy to connect with professional advisors in your local area. It takes just a few minutes to get your personalized recommendations for advisors online. If you’re ready, get started now.
  • Creating a trust can yield some advantages in your estate plan. In addition to helping you minimize tax liability, the assets in a trust are not subject to probate. That’s different from assets you leave behind in a will.

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What Does Having a Derogatory Public Record on My Credit Report Mean

I Found a Judgment on My Credit Report. Now What?

Since the National Consumer Assistance Plan went into effect in 2017, public records must meet strict requirements in order to appear on consumer credit reports. Civil judgments and tax liens do not meet these new requirements, so they were removed from credit reports. At this point, the only derogatory public record that should appear on your credit report is bankruptcy. If a tax lien or civil judgment still appears on your credit report, you should dispute that record with the credit reporting agencies.

How Much Do Public Records Affect Credit Scores?

Bankruptcy can cause a FICO score to drop by 200 points or more. A filing may lower credit scores for seven to 10 years and be difficult to remove from a credit report unless any information is inaccurate.

The decision to exclude other public records slightly increased FICO scores for many consumers and resulted in increases of 20 to 40 points in some cases.

Bankruptcies and Your Credit Report

Bankruptcies are the one public record that are still included on your credit report. In most cases, they will remain on your report for seven to 10 years.

You can dispute an inaccurate report of bankruptcy or one being reported beyond the statute of limitations. Review your report for any inaccuracies and contact the credit bureaus to dispute inaccuracies if need be. If a credit bureau claims to have court verification of a bankruptcy, you should send a procedural letter to determine how they verified the public record on credit report. Follow up with the courts to determine whether the bankruptcy was actually verified.

〉 Learn more about when and why you should file bankruptcy and how doing so will affect your credit.

Civil Judgments and Your Credit Report

Civil judgments result when a creditor sues you for an outstanding debt and wins. That creditor then has more avenues for pursuing payment: they may now satisfy delinquent or outstanding debt through wage garnishment or by seizing funds from checking or savings accounts.

Judgments are no longer factored into credit scores, though they are still public record and can still impact your ability to qualify for credit or loans. Lenders may still check to see whether any outstanding judgments against a potential borrower exist. You should pay legitimate judgments and dispute inaccurate judgments to ensure these do not affect your finances unduly.

〉 Learn more about how to deal with civil judgments.

If a civil judgment is still on your credit report, file a dispute with the appropriate credit reporting agencies to have it removed.

Tax Liens and Your Credit Report

Tax liens are filed by the IRS when you don’t pay your taxes. A lien is automatically filed when you owe more than $10,000. When the IRS files a tax lien against you, it essentially gives the agency first dibs on any payment you receive from selling or liquidating your assets to pay your debts.

While tax liens are no longer reported on credit reports, they can significantly impact your financial situation in ways that indirectly affect your credit score.

〉 Learn more about tax liens.

If a tax lien is being reported on your credit report, file a dispute.

How to Deal with Derogatory Public Records

Although judgments and tax liens are no longer filed on credit reports or factored into credit scores, these penalties can undermine your financial standing. If a derogatory public record is filed against you‚ you should monitor the effects on your credit and ensure that information pertaining to your filing is accurate.

Check your reports regularly to ensure they are fair, accurate and up-to-date. You can watch for changes by getting your free Credit Report Card and credit score monitoring from Credit.com.

〉Sign up now!

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The Average Salary of a Pharmacist

The Average Salary of a Pharmacist.

If you’ve been to the pharmacy lately, you may have found yourself wondering how much pharmacists make. Being a pharmacist, at least at the retail level, involves a lot of standing, long shifts and dealing with customers. In other words, it might not be for everyone. On the plus side, salaries in the field are on the high side, with an average annual salary of $123,670. 

The Average Salary of a Pharmacist: The Basics

The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) reports that the mean annual salary of a pharmacist in May 2018 was $123,670 per year. The highest-paid 10% of pharmacists earn a mean annual wage of $161,250. The lowest-paid 10% of pharmacists make an average of $87,790. So, no matter where you end up on the pharmacist income scale your annual wage is likely to be much higher than the annual income of the average American.

The BLS also provides a job outlook for the professions it studies. The job outlook shows the percent by which a field will grow (or shrink) between 2016 and 2026. The job outlook for pharmacists is 6%, which is just shy of the 7% average across all fields. Between 2016 and 2026, the BLS projects the field will add 17,400 jobs.

Where Pharmacists Make the Most

The Average Salary of a Pharmacist

The BLS also looks at state and metro-area data on the jobs the Bureau studies. So where does it pay the most to be a pharmacist? The top-paying state for pharmacists is Alaska, with a mean annual wage for pharmacists of $139,880. Other high-paying states are California ($139,690), Vermont ($135,420), Maine ($133,050) and Wisconsin ($132,400).

The top-paying metro area for pharmacists is Tyler, TX, with an annual mean wage of $174,870. Other high-paying metro areas are Santa Cruz-Watsonville, CA ($155,330); Vallejo-Fairfield, CA ($153,820); Santa Maria-Santa Barbara, CA ($151,590) and San Jose-Sunnyvale-Santa Clara, CA ($149,790).

Becoming a Pharmacist

In order to get a job as a pharmacist, you first have to get a Doctor of Pharmacy degree, also known as a Pharm.D. A Pharm.D. is a postgraduate degree, but most programs only require applicants to have two years of undergraduate education under their belts. Many future pharmacists will spend two years taking prerequisite courses like chemistry, biology and physics. Then, they’ll matriculate and spend the next four years in pharmacy school.

Once you have your degree, you’ll need to pass two exams to receive your license. The first is The North American Pharmacist Licensure Exam (NAPLEX), which assesses your knowledge and skills. The second is either a state specific test or the Multistate Pharmacy Jurisprudence Exam (MPJE). This tests your knowledge of pharmacy law specific to the state you’ll be practicing in.

The Cost of Becoming a Pharmacist

The Average Salary of a Pharmacist

Becoming a pharmacist requires years of study and, for most people, taking on student debt. According to the American Association of Colleges of Pharmacy
Graduating Student Survey, 84.8% of pharmacists-in-training borrowed money to complete their Pharm.D. degree program. Of the survey respondents who borrowed money, the median amount borrowed (across public and private institutions) was $160,000.

Bottom Line

While pharmacists have an advanced degree and a high salary, they are often working in a retail setting. And retail, with its heavy emphasis on customer service, isn’t for everyone. Still, the high pay and job security, along with the intellectual and public-service aspects of working as a pharmacist, might make it worth it. If you’re thinking of becoming a pharmacist, it’s a good idea to talk to some professionals in the field before you commit to an expensive course of study.

Tips for Forging a Career Path

  • Your salary dictates a lot of your financial life, such as how much you can afford to pay in rent and the slice of your paycheck that goes to taxes. However, there are some principles that apply no matter your income bracket, like having an emergency fund and saving for retirement.
  • Need help managing your money and growing your nest egg? You should probably be working with a financial advisor. Finding the right financial advisor that fits your needs doesn’t have to be hard. SmartAsset’s free tool matches you with financial advisors in your area in 5 minutes. If you’re ready to be matched with local advisors that will help you achieve your financial goals, get started now.

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How to Prepare For Closing Day [Free Download]

After you’ve successfully put in an offer for your dream home and set a date for closing, you’ve come to the final steps of your home buying journey. However aside from getting the keys, you’ll want to be prepared for the additional costs, and steps that will be required for a successful home purchase.

The Preparing For Closing Day guide contains information, tips, and more about what to expect on the big day. The guide will also include a checklist of what to prepare and an example of how to calculate the funds needed for closing.

To learn more about how you can best prepare for closing day, get our free buyer’s guide here.

Pre-Closing Day Checklist

To ensure a smooth process for your home transaction, you’ll still have a few steps to go through before you get your keys. Here are 6 steps to check off your list before closing day:

  1. Review your contract
  2. Complete a final walkthrough
  3. Meet with your lawyer
  4. Purchase home insurance
  5. Know how much cash is required at closing
  6. Secure cash required for closing

Cash Required At Closing

Understanding the costs that will be required at closing day is important to know even before you start your home search. Not only will you be prepared for what to expect, but this can help you with budgeting your costs.

Some examples of costs to include in your calculation:

  • Down payment
  • Title insurance
  • Legal fees
  • Land transfer tax

Statement of Adjustments

Another important document is your statement of adjustments, which will display any credits to both the buyer or seller as well as the final amount payable by the buyer on closing day. You can expect the following to be listed in the statement:

  • Purchase price
  • Your deposit
  • Prepaid property taxes, utilities or fuel
  • Prepaid rents 
  • Appraisal fee
  • Land survey fee

For a sample calculation of cash required at closing, download our Preparing For Closing Day guide here.

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5 Steps for Getting a Car Loan

This Article was Updated July 5, 2018

When you are looking to buy a vehicle, the first thing you should do is apply for a preapproved loan. The loan process can seem daunting, but it’s easier than you think and getting preapproval prior to going to the car dealer may help alleviate a lot of frustration along the way.

Here are five steps for getting a car loan.

  1. Check Your Credit
  2. Know Your Budget
  3. Determine How Much You Can Afford
  4. Get Preapproved
  5. Go Shopping

1. Check Your Credit

Before you shop for a loan, check your credit report. The better your credit, the cheaper it is to borrow money and secure auto financing. With a higher credit score and a better credit history, you may be entitled to lower loan interest rates, and you may also qualify for lower auto insurance premiums.

Review your credit report to look for unusual activity. Dispute errors such as incorrect balances or late payments on your credit report. If you have a lower credit score and would like to give it a bit of a boost before car shopping, pay off credit card balances or smaller loans.

If your credit score is low, don’t fret. A lower score won’t prevent you from getting a loan. But depending on your score, you may end up paying a higher interest rate. If you have a low credit score and want to shoot for lower interest rates, take some time to improve your credit score before you apply for loans or attempt to secure any other auto financing.

2. Know Your Budget

Having a budget and knowing how much of a car payment you can afford is essential. You want to be sure your car payment fits in line with your other financial goals. Yes, you may be able to cover $400 a month, but that amount may take away from your monthly savings goal.

If you don’t already have a budget, start with your monthly income after taxes and subtract your usual monthly expenses and how much you plan to put in savings each month. For bills that don’t come every month, such as Amazon Prime or Xbox Live, take the yearly charge and divide it by 12. Then add the result to your monthly budget. If you’re worried, you spend too much each month, find simple ways to whittle your budget down.

You’ll also want to plan ahead for new car costs, such as vehicle registration and auto insurance, and regular car maintenance, such as oil changes and basic repairs. By knowing your budget and what to expect, you can easily see how much room you have for a car payment.

3. Determine How Much You Can Afford

Once you understand where you are financially, you can decide on a reasonable monthly car payment. For many, a good rule of thumb is to not spend more than 10% of your take-home income on a vehicle. In other words, if you make $60,000 after taxes a year, you shouldn’t spend more than $500 per month on car payments. But depending on your budget, you may be better off with a lower payment.

With a payment in mind, you can use an auto loan calculator to figure out the largest loan you can afford. Simply enter in the monthly payment you’d like, the interest rate, and the loan period. And remember that making a larger down payment can reduce your monthly payment. You can also use an auto loan calculator to break down a total loan amount into monthly payments.

You’ll also want to think about how long you’d like to pay off your loan. Car loan terms are normally three, four, five, or six years long. With a longer loan period, you’ll have lower monthly payments. But beware—a lengthy car loan term can have a negative effect on your finances. First, you’ll spend more on the total price of the vehicle by paying more interest. Second, you may be upside down on the loan for a larger chunk of time, meaning you owe more than the car is actually worth.

4. Get Preapproved

Before you ever set foot on a car lot, you’ll want to be preapproved for a car loan. Research potential loans and then compare the terms, lengths of time, and interest rates to find the best deal. A great place to shop for a car loan is at your local bank or credit union. But don’t stop there—look online too. The loan with the best terms, interest rate, and loan amount will be the one you want to get preapproved for. Just know that preapproved loans only last for a certain amount of time, so it’s best to get preapproved when you’re nearly ready to shop for a car.

However, when you apply, the lender will run a credit check—which will lower your credit score slightly—so you’ll want to keep all your loan applications within a 14-day period. That way, the many credit checks will only show as one inquiry instead of multiple ones.

When you’re preapproved, the lender decides if you’re eligible and how much you’re eligible for. They’ll also tell you what interest rate you qualify for, so you’ll know what you have to work with before you even walk into a dealership. But keep in mind that preapproved loans aren’t the same as final auto loans. Depending on the car you buy, your final loan could be less than what you were preapproved for.

In most cases, if you secure a pre-approved loan, you shouldn’t have any problems getting a final loan. But being preapproved doesn’t mean you’ll automatically receive a loan when the time comes. Factors such as the info you provided or whether or not the lender agrees on the value of the car can affect the final loan approval. It’s never a deal until it’s a done deal.

If you can’t get preapproved, don’t abandon all hope. You could also try making a larger down payment to reduce the amount you are borrowing, or you could ask someone to cosign on the loan. If you ask someone to cosign, take it seriously. By doing so, you are asking them to put their credit on the line for you and repay the loan if you can’t.

When co-signing a car loan, they do not acquire any rights to the vehicle. They are simply stating that they have agreed to become obligated to repay the total amount of the loan if you were to default or found that you were unable to pay.

Co-signing a car loan is more like an additional form of insurance (or reassurance) for the lender that the debt will be paid no matter what.

Usually, a person with bad credit or less-than-perfect credit may require the assistance of a co-signer for their auto financing and loan.

5. Go Shopping

Now you’re ready to look for a new ride. Put in a little time for research and find cars that are known to be reliable and fit into your budget. You’ll also want to consider size, color, gas mileage, and extra features. Use resources like Consumer Reports to read reviews and get an idea of which cars may be best for you.

Once you have narrowed down the car you are interested in, investigate how much it’s worth, so you aren’t accidentally duped. Sites such as Kelley Blue Book or Edmunds can help you figure out the going rate for your ideal car. After you’re armed with this information, compare prices at different car dealerships in your area. And don’t forget to check dealer incentives and rebates to get the best possible price.

By following these steps, you’ll be ready to make the best financial decision when getting a car loan. Even if you aren’t ready to buy a car right now, it doesn’t hurt to be prepared. Start by acquiring a free copy of your credit summary.

It is always a good idea to pull your credit reports each year, so you can make sure they are as accurate as they should be. If you find any mistakes, be sure to dispute them with the proper credit bureau. Remember, each credit report may differ, so it is best to acquire all three.
If you want to know what your credit is before purchasing a car, you can check your three credit reports for free once a year. To track your credit more regularly, Credit.com’s free Credit Report Card is an easy-to-understand breakdown of your credit report information that uses letter grades—plus you get a free credit score updated every 14 days.

You can also carry on the conversation on our social media platforms. Like and follow us on Facebook and leave us a tweet on Twitter.

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7 Things to Know Before Taking a Work From Home Tax Deduction

If you’re one of the millions of workers whose home is now doubling as office space due to COVID-19, you may be wondering whether that means a sweet deduction at tax time. Hold up, though: The IRS has strict rules about taking the home office deduction — and they changed drastically under the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act, which passed in late 2017.

7 Essential Rules for Claiming a Work From Home Tax Deduction

Thinking about claiming a home office deduction on your tax return? Follow these tips to avoid raising any eyebrows at the IRS.

1. You can’t claim it if you’re a regular employee, even if your company is requiring you to work from home due to COVID-19.

If you’re employed by a company and you work from home, you can’t deduct home office space from your taxes. This applies whether you’re a permanent remote worker or if your office is temporarily closed because of the pandemic. The rule of thumb is that if you’re a W-2 employee, you’re not eligible.

This wasn’t always the case, though. The Tax Cuts and Jobs Act suspended the deduction for miscellaneous unreimbursed employee business expenses, which allowed you to claim a home office if you worked from home for the convenience of your employer, provided that you itemized your tax deductions. The law nearly doubled the standard deduction. As a result, many people who once saved money by itemizing now have a lower tax bill when they take the standard deduction.

2. If you have a regular job but you also have self-employment income, you can qualify.

If you’re self-employed — whether you own a business or you’re a freelancer, gig worker or independent contractor — you probably can take the deduction, even if you’re also a full-time employee of a company you don’t own. It doesn’t matter if you work from home at that full-time job or work from an office, as long as you meet the other criteria that we’ll discuss shortly.

You’re only allowed to deduct the gross income you earn from self-employment, though. That means if you earned $1,000 from your side hustle plus a $50,000 salary from your regular job that you do remotely, $1,000 is the most you can deduct.

3. It needs to be a separate space that you use exclusively for business.

The IRS requires that you have a space that you use “exclusively and regularly” for business purposes. If you have an extra bedroom and you use it solely as your office space, you’re allowed to deduct the space — and that space alone. So if your house is 1,000 square feet and the home office is 200 square feet, you’re allowed to deduct 20% of your home expenses.

But if that home office also doubles as a guest bedroom, it wouldn’t qualify. Same goes for if you’re using that space to do your day job. The IRS takes the word “exclusively” pretty seriously here when it says you need to use the space exclusively for your business purposes.

To avoid running afoul of the rules, be cautious about what you keep in your home office. Photos, posters and other decorations are fine. But if you move your gaming console, exercise equipment or a TV into your office, that’s probably not. Even mixing professional books with personal books could technically cross the line.

4. You don’t need a separate room.

There needs to be a clear division between your home office space and your personal space. That doesn’t mean you have to have an entire room that you use as an office to take the deduction, though. Suppose you have a desk area in that extra bedroom. You can still claim a portion of the room as long as there’s a marker between your office space and the rest of the room.

Pro Tip

An easy way to separate your home office from your personal space, courtesy of TurboTax Intuit: Mark it with duct tape.

5. The space needs to be your principal place of business.

To deduct your home office, it needs to be your principal place of business. But that doesn’t mean you have to conduct all your business activities in the space. If you’re a handyman and you get paid to fix things at other people’s houses, but you handle the bulk of your paperwork, billing and phone calls in your home office, that’s allowed.

There are some exceptions if you operate a day care center or you store inventory. If either of these scenarios apply, check out the IRS rules.

6. Mortgage and rent aren’t the only expenses you can deduct. 

If you use 20% of your home as an office, you can deduct 20% of your mortgage or rent. But that’s not all you can deduct. You’re also allowed to deduct expenses like real estate taxes, homeowner insurance and utilities, though in this example, you’d only be allowed to deduct 20% of any of these expenses.

Be careful here, though. You can only deduct expenses for the part of the home you use for business purposes. So using the example above, if you pay someone to mow your lawn or you’re painting your kitchen, you don’t get to deduct 20% of the expenses.

You’ll also need to account for depreciation if you own the home. That can get complicated. Consider consulting with a tax professional in this situation. If you sell your home for a profit, you’ll owe capital gains taxes on the depreciation. Whenever you’re claiming deductions, it’s essential to keep good records so you can provide them to the IRS if necessary.

If you don’t want to deal with extensive record-keeping or deducting depreciation, the IRS offers a simplified option: You can take a deduction of $5 per square foot, up to a maximum of 300 square feet. This method will probably result in a smaller deduction, but it’s less complicated than the regular method.

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7. Relax. You probably won’t get audited if you follow the rules.

The home office deduction has a notorious reputation as an audit trigger, but it’s mostly undeserved. Deducting your home office expenses is perfectly legal, provided that you follow the IRS guidelines. A more likely audit trigger: You deduct a huge amount of expenses relative to the income you report, regardless of whether they’re related to a home office.

It’s essential to be ready in case you are audited, though. Make sure you can provide a copy of your mortgage or lease, insurance policies, tax records, utility bills, etc., so you can prove your deductions were warranted. You’ll also want to take pictures and be prepared to provide a diagram of your setup to the IRS if necessary.

As always, consult with a tax adviser if you’re not sure whether the expense you’re deducting is allowable. It’s best to shell out a little extra money now to avoid the headache of an audit later.

The Penny Hoarder Shop is always stocked with great deals, including technology, subscriptions, courses, kitchenware and more. Check it out today!

Robin Hartill is a certified financial planner and a senior editor at The Penny Hoarder. She writes the Dear Penny personal finance advice column. Send your tricky money questions to DearPenny@thepennyhoarder.com.

This was originally published on The Penny Hoarder, which helps millions of readers worldwide earn and save money by sharing unique job opportunities, personal stories, freebies and more. The Inc. 5000 ranked The Penny Hoarder as the fastest-growing private media company in the U.S. in 2017.

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3 Tax Scams You Need to Watch Out For

Becoming a victim of tax scam

According to the Internal Revenue Service (IRS), there was a 400% increase in phishing and malware incidents during the 2016 tax season. And tax scams extend far beyond email and malware to include phone scams, identity theft and more.  While the April 15 filing deadline still feels far away, as Yogi Berra said, “It ain’t over till it’s over.”

Scammers use multiple ploys and tactics to lure unsuspecting victims in. The IRS publishes an annual “Dirty Dozen” list of tax scams. Sadly, while some of those scams lure people into getting ripped off, others lure people into unwittingly committing tax fraud by falling victim to fake charities, shady tax preparers and false claims on their tax returns.

The most important things you can do to keep yourself scam-free and protected this—and any—tax year are to:

  • Be wary—if it seems too good to be true, it probably is
  • Educate yourself on the most common risks out there
  • File your taxes as early as possible

When you file your taxes as early as possible, you can just politely decline scammer and you can protect yourself from taxpayer identity theft. Tax-related identity theft is primarily aimed at someone posing as you stealing your tax refund. Scammers are creative, sophisticated, persistent and move fast once they have your information in hand. Armed with your Social Security number, date of birth and other pieces of your personally-identifiable information, they can rob you. If you’ve been the victim of a data breach—learn the warning signs—your information is likely available on the dark web. With your information, all a scam artist has to do is log in to a motel’s Wi-Fi network, fill out a fraudulent tax return online and walk away with a refund that could be and should have been yours.

What Is a Tax Scam?

A tax scam is a ploy intended to steal your information and/or your money. It can take several forms. The IRS’s “Dirty Dozen” for 2018 includes these scams:

  • Phishing scams, using fake emails or websites to steal personal information.
  • Phone scams where callers pretend to be IRS agents to steal your information or money.
  • Identity theft scams where identity thieves try and steal your personally identifiable information.
  • Return preparer fraud where a dishonest tax preparer submits a fraudulent return for you or steals your identity.
  • Fake charities where unqualified groups get you to donate money that isn’t actually deductible on your tax return.
  • Inflated refund claim scams where a dishonest tax preparer promises a high refund.
  • Excessive claims for business credits where you or a dishonest tax preparer promises a high refund for claiming credits you aren’t owed, such as the full tax credit.
  • Falsely padding deductions Taxpayers where you or a dishonest tax prepare reports more for expenses or deductions than really occurred.
  • Falsifying income to claim credits where a dishonest tax preparer cons you into claiming income you didn’t earn in order to qualify for tax credits, such as the Earned Income Tax Credit.
  • Frivolous tax arguments where a scam artist gets you to make fake claims to avoid paying taxes.
  • Abusive tax shelters where a scammer sells you on a shelter as a way to avoid paying taxes.
  • Offshore tax avoidance where a scammer convinces you to put your money offshore to hide it as a source of taxable income that you have to pay taxes on.

It’s important to know that if you fall victim, you may not just be the victim. You may also be a criminal and held accountable legally and financially for filing an incorrect return.

A new scam recently hit the wires too. For this one, scammers email employees asking for copies of their W-2s. People who fall victim end up having their names, addresses, Social Security numbers and income sold online. The emails look very valid but aren’t If you see this or other emails that stink like “phish,” email the IRS at phishing@irs.gov

1. Phishing

Phishing uses a fake email or website to get you to share your personally-identifiable information. They often look valid. Know that the IRS will never contact you by email regarding your tax return or bill.

Phishing emails take many forms. They typically target getting enough of your personally identifiable information to commit fraud in your name, making you a victim of identity theft if you take the bait.

Phishing emails may also contain a link that places malware on your computer. These programs can do a variety of things—none of them good—ranging from recruiting your machine into a botnet distributed denial of service (DDoS) attack to placing a keystroke recorder on your computer to access bank, credit union, credit card and brokerage accounts to gathering all the personally identifiable information on your hard drive.

Here’s what you need to know: The IRS will never send you an email to initiate any business with you. Did you hear that? NEVER. If you receive an email from the IRS, delete it. End of story. Oh, and it will never initiate contact by way of phone call either.

That said, there are other sources of email that may have the look and feel of a legitimate communication that are tied to other kinds of tax scams and fraudulent refunds. And not all scams are emailed though. A lot of scammers will call. The IRS offers 5 way to identify tax scam phone calls.

2. Criminal Tax Preparation Scams

Not all tax professionals are the same and you must vet anyone you’re thinking about using well before handing over a shred of your personally identifying information. Get at least three references and check online if there are any reviews before calling them. Also, consider using the Better Business Bureau to see if the preparer has any complaints against them.

Here’s why: At tax-prep time, offices that are actually fronts for criminal identity theft pop up around the country in strip malls and other properties and then promptly disappear a few days later. Make sure the one you choose is legit!

3. Shady Tax Preparation

Phishing emails aren’t always aimed at stealing your personally identifiable information or planting malware on your computer. They may be simply aimed at getting your attention and business through enticing—and fraudulent—offers of a really big tax refund. While these tax preparers may get you a big refund, it could well be based on false information.

Be on the lookout for questions about business expenses that you didn’t make, especially watching out for signals from your tax preparer that you’re giving him or her a figure that is “too low.”

If you are using a preparer and something doesn’t seem right, ask questions—either directly from the preparer or by calling the IRS. The IRS operates the Tax Payer Advocate Service that can help answer your requests. The service’s phone may be unavailable during a government shutdown, but the website is always available.

Other soft-cons of shady tax preparation include inflated deductions, claiming tax credits that you’re not entitled to and declaring charitable donations you didn’t make. Bottom line: If you cheat—intentionally or unintentionally—chances are you’ll get caught. So make sure you play by the rules and follow the instructions or work with a preparer who does. Yes, the instructions are complicated. That’s why it’s not a bad idea to get honest help if you need it.

As Yogi Berra said, “You can observe a lot by watching.” Tax season is stressful without the threat of tax-related identity theft and other scams. It’s important to be vigilant, because, to quote Yogi all over again, “If the world were perfect, it wouldn’t be.”

This article was originally published February 28, 2017, and has been updated by a different author.

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