The IRS Versus the Taxpayer

According to the IRS, not only is your ignorance no excuse, but so is that of your tax preparer. In other words, the fact that your tax preparer made a mistake is no excuse and will not absolve you from compliance penalties.

Unfortunately, the penalty for making what could be deemed an innocent mistake can cost a taxpayer a significant sum. What is worse yet is that defending yourself against the IRS is a costly endeavor in terms of both time and money. Part of the problem is that taxpayers often do not have the option of making an appeal directly to the tax court and, instead, must first pay the IRS and then challenge it in either District Court or the Court of Claims. Stated plainly, the average taxpayer simply cannot afford to fight the IRS in tax court.

In the remainder of this article, we will look at two main areas that tend to be problematic for taxpayers: first, assorted penalties for misfilings and mistakes; second, obscure international forms.

Miscellaneous Mishaps and Mistakes

Taxpayers can get caught up in “gotcha” type situations where they inadvertently make a mistake in the type, accuracy or timing of the filings. Here is a checklist of some of most common issues in which taxpayers typically make unintentional errors that will not be forgiven by the IRS.

  • Filing late and paying short: Filing a return late and underpaying the tax owed each carry separate penalties. Together, these penalties can add up to 47.5 percent of the original tax owed in a worst-case scenario.
  • Careless Filing Details: If you make a mistake in filing your return and it results in tax liability in your favor, you can owe a penalty of 20 percent of the under-reported taxes. In the case of faulty appraisals for items such as donated property, the penalty can double up to 40 percent.
  • Writing Bad Checks: Technically it does not matter if it is a physical check or another payment method, but if a taxpayer’s payment to the IRS is declined, the IRS will change an additional 2 percent penalty.
  • Missing Checklists: Failure to file the two-page “due diligence” checklist before claiming certain credits, such as the earned-income or college credits, can result in a fine of $545 per credit.

Obscure International Forms

Many compliance-related rules related to international investments and banking activities were originally created to put a stop to drug dealers, terrorists and flagrant tax cheats. Unfortunately, the regulations are still in force, but apply to increasingly more taxpayers as the threshold amounts have not increased yet more U.S. citizens are working, living or retiring abroad. Moreover, the penalties can be severe. In this section, we will look at some of the most obscure and serious foreign tax compliance issues.

  • Passive Foreign Investments: If you own mutual fund shares incorporated abroad you must file Form 8621.
  • Personal Holding Companies: If you create a corporation to hold a foreign property, you will need to file Form 5471, for a Controlled Foreign Corporation.
  • FBAR: If you have $10,000 or more in any combination of international bank and brokerage accounts, at any single point in the year, you need to file the FBAR form electronically. Note, the trigger here is that the bank or brokerage is outside the United States. If you hold securities of foreign companies or foreign currencies with a U.S. institution, the reporting is not required.
  • Fatca Disclosures: Facta disclosures were created to combat money laundering, covering all manner of foreign financial assets, including insurance and retirement assets. It can overlap with the FBAR requirements, but the additional reporting here is triggered by higher thresholds starting at $50,000 in assets for single U.S. residents and up to $400,000 for couples residing abroad and filing joint returns.

Conclusion

Remember that ignorance of the tax law is no excuse, especially in the eyes of the IRS. It does not matter if a mistake you make is truly innocent; there is still a good chance that you will end up paying unpleasant fines and penalties and, in the worst case, a big mess. It is best to be timely and diligent in your filings.

No-Heir Estate Planning

Even if you have no heirs, you should have an estate plan. Otherwise, the state will determine the fate of your worldly possessions. In fact, if you pass away “intestate” (without a will), the state can even keep all of your assets for itself – if no heirs are found.

The most basic tenet of no-heir estate planning is to write a will. Every state has different rules about what constitutes a legally enforceable will, so be sure to check out your state’s guidelines. If you move, you’ll need to update your will according to the state you live in when you pass away.

In yourwill, direct who receives which of your assets. There is no edict that says you must leave possessions to a relative. You can choose a friend, a group of people or even one or more charitable organizations. You also should choose an executor of your will: someone you trust to carry out your wishes. This person can be an attorney or bank custodian of your assets. You should speak with whomever you choose to make sure they are willing to take on the role of executor. It is generally no small task, and might entail distributing and even selling your possessions in order to make cash distributions to the beneficiaries.

If you have any pets, be sure to figure out during the planning process who is willing to take care of your animals after you pass, or direct their care to a specific shelter.

Also, consider the beneficiaries you will designate for bank and investment accounts, as well as any insurance policies you own. Note that beneficiary designations you assign on these accounts will supersede your will instructions, even if they precede when you wrote your will. For example, your employer might pay for a life insurance policy in your name that pays out proceeds equaling two to three times your salary. You might not even remember that you completed this paperwork years ago, naming your girl/boyfriend at the time as your beneficiary. If you don’t keep those designations up to date, you may end up leaving a substantial sum to a woman/man who broke your heart, instead of the person who embraces it now.

It is also a good idea to name a “Transfer on Death” (TOD) designation on other types of accounts, such as your bank checking and savings accounts. This designation also supersedes will instructions and allows your money to be distributed once the beneficiary presents your death certificate and proper ID. It’s actually advisable to name the executor of your will as TOD, as he may need to access your funds quickly to pay for funeral and burial expenses. Other assets can take longer to distribute, so a TOD designation is a quicker way for your beneficiary to access cash.

Be aware that even if you have prepared a will, your estate will still be subject to probate, in which a judge makes the final determination of your assets. If you wish to avoid this step, you can fold all or a portion of your assets under one or more trusts, which will distribute them according to the trust directionsand avoid probate altogether. A trust is particularly beneficial if you have a large estate or wish to leave a substantial donation to one or more charities.

Another estate planning consideration is what to do if, instead of dying, you become incapacitated and cannot make decisions for yourself. As part of the estate planning process, you should name a power of attorney to make financial decisions for you. This can be anyone – a friend or close neighbor, or the person you name as executor of your will.

You should also establish a living will, advanced care directive, and/or healthcare proxy. A living will is a directive that states your wishes regarding medical care should you become incapacitated (e.g., permanently unconscious). An advanced care directive can be more specific, such as establishing a “do not resuscitate” (DNR) order if your breathing or heartbeat stops, and if you would like to donate tissues or organs after you pass.

A healthcare proxy, which may be referred to as a medical or durable power of attorney, is the assignment of a person who will make all of your healthcare decisions when you no longer can. Note that with medical instructions as well, states have varying guidelines. It’s important to be familiar with your state’s requirements and update your medical care directives if you relocate to another state.

5 Financial Resolutions You Can Live With

For the most part, New Year’s resolutions are hard to keep because many times you either list too many things or ones that aren’t manageable for the long haul – especially those that involve money. Here are a few simple tricks to help you make changes that are bite-sized, easy to implement, and more likely to stick.

Do a five-minute daily money check-in. Life is so busy that sometimes it’s easy to just spend money, then move on to the next task at hand. You might think, “I’ll check my bank balance later,” and then you never do. But if you’re serious about getting a handle on your finances, you might want to try this one thing: give yourself a “money minute.” Select a time of day, maybe after dinner, to log into your bank account. Take stock of what you spent money on. Did you really need that bottled water? That designer coffee? This way, you can nip those small (perhaps unnecessary) expenditures in the bud and make smarter choices in the coming days.

Get a money-saving app. One of the best ones to help you achieve financial goals is Ibotta. Let’s say you want to buy a new pair of running shoes; a good brand that’ll really last. With this app, you’ll save on everyday purchases and when you’ve earned enough cash back, you can cash it in for a gift card from your selected store and get what you really want.

Consider micro savings goals. This technique is actually about rewarding yourself financially for changing your behavior. For instance, every time you go to yoga or Pilates, stash away $5. Or if you wake up early or finish a difficult task, stash away $10. When you’ve saved enough money to buy whatever it is you’ve decided on beforehand, you’ve not only avoided the trap of putting your goodie on credit (and paying interest), but also most likely started a new, healthy habit.

Set up an automatic savings plan. After you’ve paid taxes, insurance premiums and perhaps even your retirement account, you might consider tucking away money for yourself that you’ll never miss. Every. Single. Paycheck. That’s right. When you automatically have a set amount deducted every time you get paid, over time you’ll accumulate a bucket of money to use in whatever way you deem important – it could be saving for a vacation or a new car. It could also be a fund for emergencies. The point is, it’s an easy, failsafe way to save and achieve your goals.

Do one frugal thing a day. This is all about a little bit of forethought and then just taking action. And when you adapt this mindset, you’ll be working daily toward your financial goals like paying off debt, saving money to quit a job you hate, or even having enough extra cash to invest in real estate or whatever strikes your fancy. Here are a few things to consider: drink more water than soda. Eat at home. Use public transportation instead of driving when you can. But this just scratches the surface. For more smart ways to start living frugally, check out this super helpful article. You’ll be surprised at all the ways you can cut back and save.

All of these tricks are easy and, in some cases, no-brainers. When you take a few minutes, set your mind on what you want, anything’s possible. Here’s to fulfilling your dreams in the New Year!

Sources

11 Financial Resolutions That Will Stick in 2023