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Often clients meet with us and they are suffering from a tax mess. The IRS (or NYS Tax Dept.) is pursuing them and they have often fallen behind in preparing tax returns or making tax payments. One aspect of a tax attorney’s job is to help figure out the mess and assist people with their tax problems. To that end goal, its important for potential clients to bring a summary of their tax problem. This could include information of the tax return years not filed, general approximate amount of the tax liability, and the type of taxes owed (income, sales tax, payroll tax). Along with this information, bring any letters you received from the IRS or NYS Tax Department. The value of the tax letters is that it states the amount of the tax debt, who it’s owed to, the tax years and type of tax owed. Most clients do not understand these letters, so bring them to the meeting and we can quickly gather that information. Its also helpful to have an idea of the value of your assets and the amount of debts you have. Estimates are fine, but this information helps us decide the best resolution of your tax case (i.e. a tax payment plan or an offer in compromise). On the flip side, it would not be helpful at the first meeting to bring boxes of information since we do not need all that details at this point. The overall key is to spend a few hours before the meeting to organize yourself and this will pay dividends at the meeting.

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The benefits of disclosing under the IRS streamlined voluntary disclosure program are often thought of the solution for a client who has 1) not filed their FBAR reports, 2) have undisclosed foreign income, and 3) whose conduct was not intentional (non tax fraud cases). However, the limits of the streamlined disclosure program do not require that you must have all three factors in play to be eligible. If you simply have under-reported foreign income , but you filed all your FBAR reports, and disclosed the assets in your tax return, then you are still eligible to file under the program and get the benefits of the program if you just made a mistake in calculating your income. The main benefit of the program is that the outcome is much more certain than a quiet disclosure (where you just mail in the amended income tax returns). The penalty is five percent of the asset balance, plus tax and interest on the under-reported income. Under a quiet disclosure, you could be charged with higher penalties, or even criminal conduct if the IRS disagrees that your conduct was unintentional.  Therefore, while no solution is risk free, the streamlined disclosure may be useful tool in many cases.

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There are major differences in the way that the NY Tax Department and the IRS view a tax debt.

The NYS Tax Department, especially with unpaid sales tax, views the unpaid taxes as money that needs to be paid to them. They are less willing than the IRS to understand that a taxpayer will not be able to pay them back all the taxes, interest (in the 7.5% to 14.5% range) and penalties they owe. They want to be paid back in up to five years through a payment plan, even though legally they have twenty years to collect. When such a payment plan becomes impracticable since the monthly payments are not affordable, an offer in compromise may then be the best solution since I find that the offer in compromise group is willing to work out a fair deal to resolve the tax issue.

The IRS, on the other hand, is more flexible than NYS Tax Department since if you can prove to them that you only have enough income to pay basic living expenses (rent, food, transportation, etc),  they will allow the tax debt payment be differed until your income rises to a level where you can pay toward your tax debt and also pay basic living expenses. The IRS calls this “status” currently non-collectible, and it helpful even though interest (usually about 3-4%) is charged on the unpaid debt, since this status allows for a normal lifestyle and allows for greater planning to take place to resolve the tax debt through an offer in compromise. I have also found that the IRS allows for more flexible payment plan arrangements, such as tax payment plans that  take into account seasonal income issues (contractors, etc in the winter), and modified payment plan where for some period of time (six month, one-year, etc.) the payment is lower to allow the taxpayer to adjust their living expenses to enable them to make the payments. Lately, NYS Tax Department is less willing to entertain the modified payment approach.

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It is easy to think the IRS is not an easy organization to deal with. From my experience, that is true most of the time. One aspect of their collection efforts where they do show kindness is when they view a taxpayer as currently non-collectible. What this means is that even though the taxpayer owes money they are unable to pay off the tax debt based on the taxpayers current income and expenses. From my experience, a taxpayer who makes less than $50,000 a year and has court ordered payment (such as past debts, child support) often falls within this category. The tax debt still accrues interest. However, the delay buys time to submit an offer in compromise to resolve the tax problem.

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Under the newly enacted legislation, the Fixing America’s Surface Transportation Act,  a provision was included that allows the IRS to outsource the collection of tax debts under some circumstances to private debt collection firms. Anyone who has dealt with a private debt collection firm can understand why I think this is a bad idea, manly because such firms sole goal is to collect money, and other circumstances (loss of job, age, sickness, etc.) could be at play and discretion is required. Even the IRS’s own taxpayer advocate was against the idea of using private collection companies. You can read her letter here.

The use of private collection companies will follow a procedure of where they will typically contact the taxpayer by mail and try to establish a payment plan. From my experience, most people being pressured with a collection company will agree to a much higher monthly payment than what they can afford. These plans will then default due to missed payments and then its back to the collection firm to handle once again. Hopefully, the IRS limits the use of this collection tactic so as to not harm the public from over zealous tax collectors, and collects a fair amount through thoughtful collection means.

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Starting January 1, 2016, the Internal Revenue Service will be given the power under new legislation to deny, rescind, or limit a passport of anyone who owes the IRS more than $50,000. This threshold amount includes both taxes, interest and penalties. From a practical perspective, this threshold dollar amount is not  difficult to amass for the average self-employed taxpayer who can have tax rates close to 50% once social security taxes are factored in, or individuals with significant income. From my perspective, if the law was limited to criminal matters, it would make more sense.

The good news, is that the IRS will not rescind or hinder the ability of an individual to have a passport where 1) that individual has entered into an installment agreement with the IRS to pay the back taxes, 2) for humanitarian reasons, or 3) if the taxpayer is contesting the tax liability in Court or an administrative proceeding.  This new legislation will be under section 7345 of the tax code, called “Revocation or Denial of Passport in Case of Certain Tax Delinquencies.”

While different from New York States revocation of a taxpayers drivers license if they owe NYS taxes, it is very troubling nonetheless in that it restricts the ability to travel (or in NY’s case simply drive) which can directly impact a persons ability to generate income to pay for their tax obligation. I doubt this legislation will cause delinquent tax collections to rise dramatically, and may have the unfortunate impact of hurting taxpayers who are already hurting economically.

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As residents throughout New York State prepare to gather with family and friends next week for the Thanksgiving holiday, Jan. 1 and 2016 are just around the corner. Also not far off, or far enough for most people’s liking, is the dreaded April 15 tax filing deadline. For small business owners, there are important steps that should be taken today regarding end-of-the-year tax planning that can make the upcoming tax season much less stressful.

For any business owner, having an organized and partially automated process for keeping track of financial records is a must. Today’s marketplace is flooded with accounting and tax-preparation online software programs that make it much easier to organize and keep track of a business-related expenses, income and deductions. For a small business owner, not only is it important to use one of these programs, but it’s also wise to input related financial data on a regular and consistent basis.

In addition to ensuring that one’s financial records are organized and up-to-date, business owners are also advised to, based on a business’ financial situation, plan and save for expected tax liabilities. Doing so will ensure that a business is able to meet its tax obligations and can prevent a business from incurring fines and penalties imposed by the Internal Revenue Service.

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We are all human and therefore prone to making the occasional mistake or two. This includes financial errors concerning one’s personal or business expenditures as well as tax-related faux pas. This is something that even the Internal Revenue Service acknowledges and seems to understand. However, depending on the type of mistake, the agency’s response may not seem very forgiving.

The IRS lists the following tax-related mistakes as being among the most commonly made by taxpayers.

  • Failing to provide or making errors when entering Social Security numbers

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When it comes to taxes, most Americans are looking for any and every way possible to avoid handing over their hard-earned dollars to Uncle Sam. While failing to file or pay one’s taxes is not an advisable means of accomplishing this goal; there are legitimate ways that one can deduct both personal and, if applicable, business expenses to reduce tax liabilities.

When it comes to personal tax deductions, there are certain deductions that anyone who qualifies can take advantage of. These include school supply expenses for teachers, alimony payments and interest on student loans. Additionally, self-employed individuals who contribute to their own retirement plan and pay their own health insurance can deduct these expenses.

In some cases, it makes financial sense for an individual to use a Schedule A tax form and itemize deductions. Such deductions may relate to medical expenses, gifts and donations as well as taxes paid on real estate, personal property and mortgage interest. When it comes to both standard and itemized personal deductions, it’s important to understand and abide by the Internal Revenue Service’s restrictions and rules.

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While there’s no way for an individual to completely avoid paying taxes, there are ways to cut and reduce the amount of taxes an individual owes. By being proactive and engaging in tax planning, an individual can often reduce his or her tax liabilities substantially. It’s important to note, however, that there are creative strategies that can be employed to reduce the amount of taxes one pays and then there are those that are questionable or outright illegal.

Simply failing to file and/or pay one’s taxes is never a good idea. Not only is an individual likely to accrue costly fees and penalties, but he or she may also face criminal charges related to tax evasion. Additionally, it’s never a good idea to file or submit tax-related documents that contain false or doctored figures. Again, an individual who under- reports the amount of income or overestimates deductions will incur costly fines and penalties and may face charges of tax fraud.

In cases where an individual learns that he or she is being investigated or audited by the Internal Revenue Service, it’s wise to contact an attorney. It’s especially important to retain a strong legal advocate and representative if an individual is concerned that an IRS audit or investigation may result in the discovery of questionable or illegal tax-avoidance activities.

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