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Ten tips to help you choose a tax preparer


 

Many people look for help from professionals when it’s time to file their tax return. If you use a paid tax preparer to file your federal income tax return this year, the IRS urges you to choose that preparer carefully. Even if someone else prepares your return, you are legally responsible for what is on it.

Here are ten tips to keep in mind when choosing a tax return preparer:

1. Check the preparer’s qualifications. All paid tax return preparers are required to have a Preparer Tax Identification Number. In addition to making sure they have a PTIN, ask if the preparer belongs to a professional organization and attends continuing education classes.

2. Check on the preparer’s history. Check with the Better Business Bureau to see if the preparer has a questionable history. Also check for any disciplinary actions and for the status of their licenses. For certified public accountants, check with the state boards of accountancy. For attorneys, check with the state bar associations. For enrolled agents, check with the IRS Office of Enrollment.

3. Ask about service fees. Avoid preparers who base their fee on a percentage of your refund or those who claim they can obtain larger refunds than other preparers can. Also, always make sure any refund due is sent to you or deposited into an account in your name. Taxpayers should not deposit their refund into a preparer’s bank account.

4. Ask to e-file your return. Make sure your preparer offers IRS e-file. Any paid preparer who prepares and files more than 10 returns for clients must file the returns electronically, unless the client opts to file a paper return. IRS has safely and securely processed more than one billion individual tax returns since the debut of electronic filing in 1990.

5. Make sure the preparer is accessible. Make sure you will be able to contact the tax preparer after you file your return, even after the April 15 due date. This may be helpful in the event questions arise about your tax return.

6. Provide records and receipts. Reputable preparers will request to see your records and receipts. They will ask you questions to determine your total income and your qualifications for deductions, credits and other items. Do not use a preparer who is willing to e-file your return by using your last pay stub before you receive your Form W-2. This is against IRS e-file rules.

7. Never sign a blank return.  Avoid tax preparers that ask you to sign a blank tax form.

8. Review the entire return before signing. Before you sign your tax return, review it and ask questions. Make sure you understand everything and are comfortable with the accuracy of the return before you sign it.

9. Make sure the preparer signs and includes their PTIN. A paid preparer must sign the return and include their PTIN as required by law. The preparer must also give you a copy of the return.

10. Report abusive tax preparers to the IRS. You can report abusive tax preparers and suspected tax fraud to the IRS on Form 14157, Complaint: Tax Return Preparer. If you suspect a return preparer filed or altered a return without your consent, you should also file Form 14157-A, Return Preparer Fraud or Misconduct Affidavit. Download the forms on the IRS.gov website or order them by mail at 800-TAX-FORM (800-829-3676).

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How to get tax help from the IRS


When tax season is in full swing, the Internal Revenue Service receives millions of calls and thousands of taxpayer visits daily. For faster service, avoid peak times like Monday and Friday mornings when wait times are usually longest. Better yet, get the help you need online 24/7 without delay at IRS.gov.

The IRS website has a wealth of information, including hundreds of publications and guides on almost any tax-related topic. The instructions for a particular form can often provide the answers you need. The Interactive Tax Assistant can also help. It’s a tax law resource that asks a series of questions and provides you with responses to common tax law questions.

Many taxpayers call the IRS’s main help line when they could easily help themselves at www.irs.gov or get services more directly from automated or specialized phone lines.

• Check on your refund Use the “Where’s My Refund?” tool at www.irs.gov or the automated system at 1-800-829-1954. IRS Phone representatives don’t have any additional information beyond what these tools provide.

• Get forms and publications If all you need is forms or publications, download and print them at www.irs.gov or call 1-800-TAX-FORM (800-829-3676) to have them mailed, for free, to your home.

• Get previous years’ tax info You can order a transcript of your account at www.irs.gov.

• Payment plans If you can’t pay the tax you owe, you can apply for an installment agreement using the Online Payment Agreement application, or you can print the Form 9465, Installment Agreement Request from www.irs.gov, then complete and mail it.

• Business taxpayers Taxpayers with small business-related questions should call 1-800-829-4933.

• Understanding a notice If you received a notice, call the number on your notice, not the main help line, to reach the IRS staff trained to help with that issue.

• Specialized reasons If you’re calling for a very specific reason, there may be a direct phone number you should call instead of the main IRS help line. Visit the “Contact IRS” link at www.irs.gov to get more information on contacting the IRS about reporting identity theft or fraud, reaching the Taxpayer Advocate Service, voluntarily disclosing offshore accounts, information on the Health Coverage Tax Credit, or if you’re calling from outside the United States.

Some taxpayers prefer face-to-face tax help. The IRS sponsors Volunteer Income Tax Assistance and Tax Counseling for the Elderly sites in local communities. To find the closest site, search “VITA” on www.irs.gov or call 1-800-906-9887. Call 1-888-227-7669 to find TCE sites through AARP, an IRS partner. The IRS also has Taxpayer Assistance Centers located throughout the country. To find IRS offices, use the locator tool found through “Contact Your Local IRS Office” on www.irs.gov. Be sure to check office hours and services offered before visiting your local IRS office.

There may be some circumstances when you need to call the IRS main taxpayer assistance line, which is 1-800-829-1040. Here are a couple of tips on when to call:

• Call if you have questions about your tax account such as a high dollar balance due or the balance due on your installment agreement.

• Call the IRS if you can’t figure out how or if certain tax laws apply to your situation. IRS representatives can discus your individual circumstances and help you understand your tax obligations or benefits.

 

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Three ways to pay your federal income tax


If you cannot pay the full amount of taxes you owe, don’t panic. You should still file your return and pay as much as you can by the April 17 deadline to avoid penalties and interest. You should also contact the IRS to ask about payment options. Here are three alternative payment options you may want to consider and a tip on penalty relief under the IRS Fresh Start Initiative:

1. Pay by credit or debit card You can use all major cards (American Express, Discover, MasterCard or Visa) to pay your federal taxes. For information on paying your taxes electronically, including by credit or debit card, go to www.irs.gov/e-pay or see the list of service providers below. There is no IRS fee for credit or debit card payments. If you are paying by credit card, the service providers charge a convenience fee based on the amount you are paying. If you are paying by debit card, the service providers charge a flat fee of $3.89 to $3.95. Do not add the convenience fee or flat fee to your tax payment.

The processing companies are:

WorldPay US, Inc.: To pay by credit or debit card: 888-9PAY-TAX (888-972-9829), www.payUSAtax.com

Official Payments Corporation: To pay by credit or debit card: 888-UPAY-TAX (888-872-9829), www.officialpayments.com/fed

Link2Gov Corporation: To pay by credit or debit card: 888-PAY-1040 (888-729-1040), www.pay1040.com

2. Additional time to pay Based on your circumstances, you may be granted a short additional time to pay your tax in full. A brief additional amount of time to pay can be requested through the Online Payment Agreement application at www.IRS.gov or by calling 800-829-1040. Taxpayers who request and are granted an additional 60 to 120 days to pay the tax in full generally will pay less in penalties and interest than if the debt were repaid through an installment agreement over a greater period of time. There is no fee for this short extension of time to pay.

3. Penalty relief To assist those most in need, a six-month grace period on the late-payment penalty is available to certain wage earners and self-employed individuals. An approved request for a six-month extension of time to pay will result in relief from the late-payment penalty for tax year 2011 if:

your income is within certain limits and other conditions are met;

your request is received by April 17, 2012; and

your 2011 tax, interest and any other penalties are paid in full by Oct. 15, 2012.

To find out if you are eligible and to apply for the extension and penalty relief, complete and mail Form 1127-A, Application for Extension of Time for Payment of Income Tax for 2011 Due to Undue Hardship.

4. Installment agreement You can apply for an IRS installment agreement using the Online Payment Agreement (OPA) application on IRS.gov. This web-based application allows taxpayers who owe $50,000 or less in combined tax, penalties and interest to self-qualify, apply for, and receive immediate notification of approval. You can also request an installment agreement before your current tax liabilities are actually assessed by using OPA. The OPA option provides you with a simple and convenient way to establish an installment agreement, eliminates the need for personal interaction with IRS and reduces paper processing. You may also complete and submit a Form 9465, or Form 9465-FS, Installment Agreement Request, make your request in writing, or call 800-829-1040. For balances of more than $50,000, you are required to complete a financial statement to determine the monthly payment amount for an installment plan. You may be able to avoid the filing of a notice of federal tax lien by setting up a direct debit installment payment plan. For more complete information see Tax Topic 202, Tax Payment Options and the Fresh Start page on www.IRS.gov.

For more information about filing and paying your taxes, visit www.IRS.gov and choose 1040 Central or refer to the Form 1040 Instructions or IRS Publication 17, Your Federal Income Tax. You can download forms and publications at www.irs.gov or request a free copy by calling 800-TAX-FORM (800-829-3676).

 

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Injured or innocent spouse tax relief


You may be an injured spouse if you file a joint tax return and all or part of your portion of a refund was, or is expected to be, applied to your spouse’s legally enforceable past due financial obligations.

Here are seven facts about claiming injured spouse relief:

1. To be considered an injured spouse; you must have paid federal income tax or claimed a refundable tax credit, such as the Earned Income Credit or Additional Child Tax Credit on the joint return, and not be legally obligated to pay the past-due debt.

2. Special rules apply in community property states. For more information about the factors used to determine whether you are subject to community property laws, see IRS Publication 555, Community Property.

3. If you filed a joint return and you’re not responsible for the debt, but you are entitled to a portion of the refund, you may request your portion of the refund by filing Form 8379, Injured Spouse Allocation.

4. You may file form 8379 along with your original tax return or your may file it by itself after you receive an IRS notice about the offset.

5. You can file Form 8379 electronically. If you file a paper tax return you can include Form 8379 with your return, write “INJURED SPOUSE” at the top left of the Form 1040, 1040A or 1040EZ. IRS will process your allocation request before an offset occurs.

6. If you are filing Form 8379 by itself, it must show both spouses’ Social Security numbers in the same order as they appeared on your income tax return. You, the “injured” spouse, must sign the form.

7. Do not use Form 8379 if you are claiming innocent spouse relief. Instead, file Form 8857, Request for Innocent Spouse Relief. This relief from a joint liability applies only in certain limited circumstances. However, in 2011 the IRS eliminated the two-year time limit that applies to certain relief requests. IRS Publication 971, Innocent Spouse Relief, explains who may qualify, and how to request this relief.

For complete information on Injured and Innocent Spouse Tax Relief, visit IRS.gov.

 

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Eight tips to determine if your gift is taxable


If you gave money or property to someone as a gift, you may owe federal gift tax. Many gifts are not subject to the gift tax, but the IRS offers the following eight tips about gifts and the gift tax.

1. Most gifts are not subject to the gift tax. For example, there is usually no tax if you make a gift to your spouse or to a charity. If you make a gift to someone else, the gift tax usually does not apply until the value of the gifts you give that person exceeds the annual exclusion for the year. For 2011 and 2012, the annual exclusion is $13,000.

2. Gift tax returns do not need to be filed unless you give someone, other than your spouse, money or property worth more than the annual exclusion for that year.

3. Generally, the person who receives your gift will not have to pay any federal gift tax because of it. Also, that person will not have to pay income tax on the value of the gift received.

4. Making a gift does not ordinarily affect your federal income tax. You cannot deduct the value of gifts you make (other than deductible charitable contributions).

5. The general rule is that any gift is a taxable gift. However, there are many exceptions to this rule. The following gifts are not taxable gifts:

• Gifts that are do not exceed the annual exclusion for the calendar year.

• Tuition or medical expenses you pay directly to a medical or educational institution for someone.

• Gifts to your spouse.

• Gifts to a political organization for its use.

• Gifts to charities.

6. You and your spouse can make a gift up to $26,000 to a third party without making a taxable gift.The gift can be considered as made one-half by you and one-half by your spouse. If you split a gift you made, you must file a gift tax return to show that you and your spouse agree to use gift splitting. You must file a Form 709, United States Gift (and Generation-Skipping Transfer) Tax Return, even if half of the split gift is less than the annual exclusion.

7. You must file a gift tax return on Form 709, if any of the following apply:

• You gave gifts to at least one person (other than your spouse) that are more than the annual exclusion for the year.

• You and your spouse are splitting a gift.

• You gave someone (other than your spouse) a gift of a future interest that he or she cannot actually possess, enjoy, or receive income from until some time in the future.

• You gave your spouse an interest in property that will terminate due to a future event.

8. You do not have to file a gift tax return to report gifts to political organizations and gifts made by paying someone’s tuition or medical expenses. For more information see Publication 950, Introduction to Estate and Gift Taxes. Both Form 709 and Publication 950   are available at www.IRS.gov or by calling 800-TAX-FORM (800-829-3676).

 

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Six tips for people who pay estimated taxes


You may need to pay estimated taxes to the IRS during the year if you have income that is not subject to withholding. This depends on what you do for a living and the types of income you receive.

These six tips from the IRS explain estimated taxes and how to pay them.

1. If you have income from sources such as self-employment, interest, dividends, alimony, rent, gains from the sales of assets, prizes or awards, then you may have to pay estimated tax.

2. As a general rule, you must pay estimated taxes in 2012 if both of these statements apply: 1) You expect to owe at least $1,000 in tax after subtracting your tax withholding (if you have any) and tax credits, and 2) You expect your withholding and credits to be less than the smaller of 90 percent of your 2012 taxes or 100 percent of the tax on your 2011 return. Special rules apply for farmers, fishermen, certain household employers and certain higher income taxpayers.

3. For Sole Proprietors, Partners and S Corporation shareholders, you generally have to make estimated tax payments if you expect to owe $1,000 or more in tax when you file your return.

4. To figure your estimated tax, include your expected gross income, taxable income, taxes, deductions and credits for the year. Use the worksheet in Form 1040-ES, Estimated Tax for Individuals, for this. You want to be as accurate as possible to avoid penalties. Also, consider changes in your situation and recent tax law changes.

5. The year is divided into four payment periods, or due dates, for estimated tax purposes. Those dates generally are April 15, June 15, Sept. 15 and Jan. 15 of the next or following year.

6. Form 1040-ES, Estimated Tax for Individuals, has everything you need to pay estimated taxes. It includes instructions, worksheets, schedules and payment vouchers. However, the easiest way to pay estimated taxes is electronically through the Electronic Federal Tax Payment System, or EFTPS, at www.irs.gov. You can also pay estimated taxes by check or money order using the Estimated Tax Payment Voucher or by credit or debit card.

For more information on estimated taxes, refer to Form 1040-ES and its instructions and Publication 505, Tax Withholding and Estimated Tax. These forms and publications are available at www.irs.gov or by calling 800-TAX-FORM (800-829-3676).

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Tax refunds may be applied to offset certain debts


Past due financial obligations can affect your current federal tax refund. The Department of Treasury’s Financial Management Service, which issues IRS tax refunds, can use part or all of your federal tax refund to satisfy certain unpaid debts.

Here are eight important facts the IRS wants you to know about tax refund offsets:

1. If you owe federal or state income taxes, your refund will be offset to pay those taxes. If you had other debt such as child support or student loan debt that was submitted for offset, FMS will apply as much of your refund as is needed to pay off the debt and then issue any remaining refund to you.

2. You will receive a notice if an offset occurs. The notice will include the original refund amount, your offset amount, the agency receiving the payment and its contact information.

3. If you believe you do not owe the debt or you are disputing the amount taken from your refund, you should contact the agency shown on the notice, not the IRS.

4. If you filed a joint return and you’re not responsible for the debt, but you are entitled to a portion of the refund, you may request your portion of the refund by filing IRS Form 8379, Injured Spouse Allocation. Attach Form 8379 to your original Form 1040, Form 1040A, or Form 1040EZ or file it by itself after you are notified of an offset. Form 8379 can be downloaded from the IRS website at www.irs.gov.

5. You can file Form 8379 electronically. If you file a paper tax return you can include Form 8379 with your return, write “INJURED SPOUSE” at the top left of the Form 1040, 1040A or 1040EZ. IRS will process your allocation request before an offset occurs.

6. If you are filing Form 8379 by itself, it must show both spouses’ Social Security numbers in the same order as they appeared on your income tax return. You, the “injured” spouse, must sign the form. Do not attach the previously filed Form 1040 to the Form 8379. Send Form 8379 to the IRS Service Center where you filed your original return.

7. The IRS will compute the injured spouse’s share of the joint return. Contact the IRS only if your original refund amount shown on the FMS offset notice differs from the refund amount shown on your tax return.

8. Follow the instructions on Form 8379 carefully and be sure to attach the required forms to avoid delays. If you don’t receive a notice, contact the Financial Management Service at 800-304-3107, Monday through Friday from 7:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. (Central Time).

 

 

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Health insurance tax breaks for the self-employed


If you’re self-employed and paying for medical, dental or long-term care insurance, the IRS wants to remind you about a special tax deduction for some insurance premiums paid for you, your spouse, and your dependents.

Starting in tax year 2011, this deduction is no longer allowed on Schedule SE (Form 1040), but you can still take it on Form 1040, line 29.

You must be one of the following to qualify:

A self-employed individual with a net profit reported on Schedule C (Form 1040), Profit or Loss From Business, Schedule C-EZ (Form 1040), Net Profit From Business, or Schedule F (Form 1040), Profit or Loss From Farming.

A partner with net earnings from self-employment reported on Schedule K-1 (Form 1065), Partner’s Share of Income, Deductions, Credits, etc., box 14, code A.

A shareholder owning more than 2 percent of the outstanding stock of an S corporation with wages from the corporation reported on Form W-2, Wage and Tax Statement.

The insurance plan must be established under your business.

For self-employed individuals filing a Schedule C, C-EZ, or F, the policy can be either in the name of the business or in the name of the individual.

For partners, the policy can be either in the name of the partnership or in the name of the partner. You can either pay the premiums yourself or your partnership can pay them and report the premium amounts on Schedule K-1 (Form 1065) as guaranteed payments to be included in your gross income. However, if the policy is in your name and you pay the premiums yourself, the partnership must reimburse you and report the premium amounts on Schedule K-1 (Form 1065) as guaranteed payments to be included in your gross income. Otherwise, the insurance plan will not be considered to be established under your business.

For more-than-2-percent shareholders, the policy can be either in the name of the S corporation or in the name of the shareholder. You can either pay the premiums yourself or your S corporation can pay them and report the premium amounts on Form W-2 as wages to be included in your gross income. However, if the policy is in your name and you pay the premiums yourself, the S corporation must reimburse you and report the premium amounts on Form W-2 as wages to be included in your gross income. Otherwise, the insurance plan will not be considered to be established under your business.

For more information see IRS Publication 535, Business Expenses, available on this website or by calling 800-TAX-FORM (800-829-3676).

 

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Employee business expenses


Some employees may be able to deduct certain work-related expenses. The following facts from the IRS can help you determine which expenses are deductible as an employee business expense. You must be itemizing deductions on IRS Schedule A to qualify.

Expenses that qualify for an itemized deduction generally include:

• Business travel away from home

• Business use of your car

• Business meals and entertainment

• Travel

• Use of your home

• Education

• Supplies

• Tools

• Miscellaneous expenses

You must keep records to prove the business expenses you deduct. For general information on recordkeeping, see IRS Publication 552, Recordkeeping for Individuals available on the IRS website at www.irs.gov, or by calling 1-800-TAX-FORM (800-829-3676).

If your employer reimburses you under an accountable plan, you should not include the payments in your gross income, and you may not deduct any of the reimbursed amounts.

An accountable plan must meet three requirements:

1. You must have paid or incurred expenses that are deductible while performing services as an employee.

2. You must adequately account to your employer for these expenses within a reasonable time period.

3. You must return any excess reimbursement or allowance within a reasonable time period.

If the plan under which you are reimbursed by your employer is non-accountable, the payments you receive should be included in the wages shown on your Form W-2. You must report the income and itemize your deductions to deduct these expenses.

Generally, you report unreimbursed expenses on IRS Form 2106 or IRS Form 2106-EZ and attach it to Form 1040. Deductible expenses are then reported on IRS Schedule A, as a miscellaneous itemized deduction subject to a rule that limits your employee business expenses deduction to the amount that exceeds 2 percent of your adjusted gross income.

For more information see IRS Publication 529, Miscellaneous Deductions, which is available on the IRS website at www.irs.gov, or by calling 1-800-TAX-FORM (800-829-3676).

 

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Tax credits available for certain energy-efficient home improvements


The IRS would like you to get some credit for qualified home energy improvements this year. Perhaps you installed solar equipment or recently insulated your home? Here are two tax credits that may be available to you:

1. The Non-business Energy Property Credit Homeowners who install energy-efficient improvements may qualify for this credit. The 2011 credit is 10 percent of the cost of qualified energy-efficient improvements, up to $500. Qualifying improvements include adding insulation, energy-efficient exterior windows and doors and certain roofs. The cost of installing these items does not count. You can also claim a credit including installation costs, for certain high-efficiency heating and air conditioning systems, water heaters and stoves that burn biomass fuel. The credit has a lifetime limit of $500, of which only $200 may be used for windows. If you’ve claimed more than $500 of non-business energy property credits since 2005, you cannot claim the credit for 2011. Qualifying improvements must have been placed into service in the taxpayer’s principal residence located in the United States before Jan. 1, 2012.

2. Residential Energy Efficient Property Credit This tax credit helps individual taxpayers pay for qualified residential alternative energy equipment, such as solar hot water heaters, solar electricity equipment and wind turbines. The credit, which runs through 2016, is 30 percent of the cost of qualified property. There is no cap on the amount of credit available, except for fuel cell property. Generally, you may include labor costs when figuring the credit and you can carry forward any unused portions of this credit. Qualifying equipment must have been installed on or in connection with your home located in the United States; fuel cell property qualifies only when installed on or in connection with your main home located in the United States.

Not all energy-efficient improvements qualify so be sure you have the manufacturer’s tax credit certification statement, which can usually be found on the manufacturer’s website or with the product packaging.If you’re eligible, you can claim both of these credits on Form 5695, Residential Energy Credits when you file your 2011 federal income tax return. Also, note these are tax credits and not deductions, so they will generally reduce the amount of tax owed dollar for dollar. Finally, you may claim these credits regardless of whether you itemize deductions on IRS Schedule A.

You can find Form 5695 at www.irs.gov or order it by calling 1-800-TAX-FORM (800-829-3676).

 

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