IRS Tax Cheat Poll

A recent IRS poll shows that 87% of American taxpayers believe it is NEVER ok to cheat on their income taxes.

In my experience as a tax attorney, I can’t help but think this little statistic is overly-optimistic.  It is obvious that the IRS is trying to spread optimism about the integrity of the tax system at a time when many Americans are making decisions about what (and what not) to report.  I just don’t think this statistic paints an accurate picture.  Here’s why:

  • The poll consisted of 1,500 randomly chosen adults; that’s a pretty small sample size.
  • The participants were questioned over the phone.  I’m gonna go out on a limb and say that tax cheats are more the type to screen their calls and not participate in polls.
  • There appear to have been some follow-up questions such as “What is your reason for honest and accurate reporting?” (to which 95 percent cited “personal integrity”), but what about asking “Do you (or have you) cheated on your taxes?”  I think this is an important question because, while many people believe it is wrong to fudge numbers, I think fewer people tend to strictly follow their own advice/beliefs.
  • It is unclear to me whether or not the IRS actually defined “cheating.”  For example, if the IRS had included in its definition of cheating “providing an estimate when an exact amount is readily available,” then I think we would be looking at something less than 87 percent.  Just keeping it real.

I would be interested in seeing more details about this poll.  If anybody finds anything, let me know!

It's Who You Know

Federal tax refund fraud is a growing problem that has the IRS on its toes.  Over the past few years the IRS has intensifyied its efforts to combat refund fraud, but it has been a challenge for the IRS to keep pace.

Some tax criminals are unsophisticated, inexperienced solo operations that are just not very good at what they do.  These are the people we end up reading about in the news after IRS Criminal Investigation nails them.  The more successful tax fraud schemes involve multiple moving parts, or so they think.  For example, when the unsophisticated, inexperienced individual fraudster is well-connected — if he has the right kind of friends — he believes that his potential for swindling the government will increase exponentially.

And if one of his connections happens to be a banker, then he thinks he’s golden.  Hilda Josephine Hernandez-McMullen, a former employee of Wells Fargo Bank, pleaded guilty to seven felony counts of bank fraud.  She admitted to assisting members of an identity theft and tax fraud ring that had sought $25 million in false refunds.  She opened bank accounts for people knowing the information provided to her was inaccurate and she cashed fraudulent checks totalling about $38,000.

Ten members of the fraud ring were charged, and Hernandez-McMullen herself is looking at 30 years in prison for each count of bank fraud if she receives the maximum sentence.  Not so golden afterall…

Tax Relief For The Home Office Tax Deduction Available in 2013

The home office deduction, while useful, is complex and often the bait for an audit trap. Beginning in tax year 2013, Congress has implemented an optional standard home office deduction in order to make the home office deduction more available to taxpayers in the future.

Pursuant to Internal Revenue Service (IRS) Revenue Procedure 2013-13, beginning next tax season, there will be an optional safe harbor method that individual taxpayers may use to determine the amount of deductible expenses attributable to certain business uses of a residence throughout the tax year. This safe harbor method is an alternative to the burdensome calculation and substantiation of actual expenses needed to satisfy Internal Revenue Code § 280A. This new tax relief procedure is effective beginning on or after January 1, 2013.

These new tax relief provisions allow taxpayers who use their residences for qualifying business purposes to compute the allowable home office expense deduction on the basis of $5 per foot of qualifying home office space per year, up to 300 square feet. The maximum tax deduction allowed when using the new safe harbor provisions is the lesser of $1,500; or the gross income derived from the qualified business use of the home reduced by qualified business deductions.

The new safe harbor option for business home use does away with the previously time consuming calculations and record keeping of actual expenses. However, the traditional calculation method may allow for a greater deduction than allowed under the new safe harbor business home use provisions. Like the decision to take the standard deduction or itemize deductions on your tax return, give yourself time and review your tax situation carefully to ensure you’re not paying excessive taxes in exchange for convenience.

Wal-Mart and the EITC

The Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) is a refundable federal income tax credit that was first offered to taxpayers back in 1975 to help prevent low income families from slipping into poverty.  EITC can mean tax relief (lower taxes) for some and a tax refund (cash in pocket) for others.  When EITC exceeds the amount of tax owed, it results in a tax refund for those who qualify.  As you can imagine, the EITC is one of the tax provisions that is most susceptible to fraud.

Most people who file early expect a tax refund, often due to EITC claims.  Apparently Wal-Mart stores possess a key indicator of how many EITC claims are being made each tax season.  So far this year Walmart’s numbers are low.  Wal-Mart stores have cashed a mere $1.7 billion in refund checks so far this year compared to $3 billion this time last year.

The reason why Wal-Mart’s numbers are off is actually two-fold.  First, the start of tax season was delayed this year, and a whole week’s worth of tax refund checks could add up to at least another $1 billion or so.  Second, and more importantly, the IRS is reviewing as many EITC claims as possible this year to try to identify fraudulent claims.  However, according to the IRS no more than 5 percent of EITC claims are being delayed.

Help the IRS Reduce America's Tax Burden

You’ve probably never heard of the Taxpayer Burden Reduction (TBR) division of the IRS; few people have. TBR is led by senior advisor, Laurie Tuzynski, who recently explained her role in an official IRS video. Taxpayer Burden is defined as the time and money taxpayers spend to comply with their federal tax obligations. Here’s a perfect example: the Treasury Inspector General for Tax Administration (TIGTA) recently stated that individuals and businesses spend an estimated 6.1 billion hours per year complying with tax filing requirements.

And that’s just prepping and filing taxes!  What about the time spent by taxpayers, tax attorneys, and other practitioners in resolving tax problems?

You can help TBR identify forms, procedures, and rules that are wasteful and overly-burdensome so they can go to work trying to simplify. And the procedure for doing so is fairly simple: you just need to fill out a Form 13285-A “Reducing Tax Burden on America’s Taxpayers.” This form asks you to explain the problem, identify the stakeholders (who it is that the problem affects), and propose your solution. However, if you feel that the “Reducing Tax Burden” form itself is overly-burdensome, there is a procedure for that too! And I quote:

If you have suggestions for making this form simpler, we would be happy to hear from you. You can e-mail us at *  Please put “Forms Comment” on the subject line.  Or you can write to [Tax Products Coordinating Committee].


The Neglected Government-Issued BlackBerry

Most people wouldn’t pay for internet service if they didn’t have a computer.  And most people wouldn’t keep the car insurance current on a rusted bucket of bolts that isn’t being driven.  But the IRS isn’t “most people.”  The latest report from the Treasury Inspector General for Tax Administration (TIGTA) reveals waste within the IRS that rivals situations like these.

According to TIGTA, the IRS has been wasting millions of dollars on BlackBerrys and aircards (which supply mobile internet access).  In 2011 the IRS spent about $8.5 million on 35,000 aircards and $2.9 million on 4,400 BlackBerrys.

The audit found that some of these devices were left completely unused for months.  It’s kind of inconvenient to have to carry around two phones all the time; I get that.  I imagine IRS employees discarding their BlackBerrys for their own phones (probably much cooler iPhones) because they are not allowed to use their government issue phone for anything other than business purposes.

The audit also revealed that some smart phones and aircards were given without obtaining proper permission/approval.  Besides managers and field officers, I just don’t see that there are too many IRS employees who would need these devices.  I can understand why a revenue officer may need mobile internet access and a smart phone.  For example, they do need to see when they’re getting a call about a wage garnishment, even if they’re on the road (and even if they’re not going to actually answer).  But most IRS employees are bean counters and the job of a bean counter is fairly sedentary.

Only Tax Debt Blues For Utah Jazz Assistant Coach

Probably not a front page nab, but the North Carolina Department of Revenue recently set their crosshairs on Utah Jazz Assistant Coach and Former North Carolina State basketball head coach Sidney Lowe. The North Carolina Department of Revenue probably has more publicity to gain by seeking criminal charges against Lowe than the Internal Revenue Services does against Bubba (click here to read about the tax charges against Bubba Paris).

Lowe has been criminally charged with failing to file his North Carolina state income taxes for three years; 2009, 2010, and 2011. Lowe was booked at the Wake County jail Monday and released on a $10,000 unsecured bond. Lowe was a player for North Carolina State in the early 1980s and coached the Wolfpack for five seasons before resigning in 2011.

Currently an assistant coach for the Utah Jazz, this is a case where the tax local tax authorities may garner that infamous publicity tax authorities are notorious for. However, outside the devoted basketball fan or North Carolina booster fan, Lowe is likely an unknown. Reports on the alleged income earned bu Lowe for the years in question vary. If the case goes to trial we will likely learn if the government’s prosecution will cost more than the delinquent taxes to be gained, as is likely the case in the IRS’s criminal prosecution against Bubba Paris; or whether the criminal prosecution was worth the expense and deters the public from committing tax crimes. Again, this story proves that seeking the early help of a tax relief attorney may save you from doing hard time down the line.

Facebook's Tax Refund

News that Facebook would be receiving a $429 million tax refund was of course misinterpreted by the general public.  The consensus among those who just don’t understand the complete story is that a company as profitable as Facebook should never be able to get out of paying taxes — not with so many ordinary folks who are up to their necks in tax debt, and not in this economic climate.

But Facebook did pay taxes.  According to its 2012 annual earnings report, Facebook says it paid some $2.86 billion in taxes.  So let’s get our facts straight before we go around defriending anyone.  See full story here.

Is This The Year You Should Itemize Your Deductions on Your IRS Tax Return

It’s now February, and tax day is just around the corner … but far enough away to allow you time to explore your options and minimize your tax exposure. While preparing your tax return the goal is always to legally minimize your tax debt and hopefully increase your tax refund. At its simplest, your tax debt is determined by your taxable income after deductible expenses.

Focusing on the deductible expenses side of the tax equation, according to the Internal Revenue Service (IRS), most taxpayers claim the standard deduction. Is this the year that you should itemize your deductions? My most common response to legal questions is apt; it depends. The analysis requires a determination of which is greater, the standard deduction or itemized allowable deductions?

What is the Standard Deduction?

The standard deduction is a preset amount that reduces the amount of income on which you are taxed. The standard deduction amount depends on your filing status, whether you are 65 or older, or blind, and whether an exemption can be claimed for you by another taxpayer. The standard deduction is generally adjusted annually based on inflation.

The standard deduction amounts for tax year 2012 are $5,950 for single filers and married couples filing separately, $8,700 for head of household filers, and $11,900 for married couples filing jointly and qualifying widow(er). If you are 65 or older, or legally blind you may receive an increased deduction per qualifying status. The additional standard deduction amounts for tax year 2012 are $1,450 for taxpayers who file single or head of household, and $1,150 for those filing married filing jointly, married filing separately, or qualifying widow(er).

Should You Itemize Your Deductions?

Now the hard part: is the standard deduction amount greater than the amount that may be claimed if you were to itemize your allowed expenses? If the standard deduction is greater, use the standard deduction. Determining what expenses you had throughout the year that may be itemized and deducted, is usually difficult because you need to maintain accurate records and the list of the various allowed deductions are exhaustive and riddled with exceptions, exemptions and limitations. Once you have a grasp of the type of deductions that may be claimed, you may find that your actual expenses, when itemized, far exceed the standard deduction provided by the government. This is why it truly pays to prepare your tax return early and not procrastinate so you have time to accurately determine the expenses you may itemize.

The types of expenses that may be itemized are typically a social economic incentivizing type of expenses. Generally, and subject to many exceptions and limitations, expenses paid for or associated with medical care, mortgage interest, student loan interest, taxes, education, charity, job search, relocation, earning income, and investments, may at times be itemized and could potentially reduce your taxes. Once tallied and accounted for, if the total amount spent on the qualified deductions, subject to the applicable exceptions and limitations, are more than your standard deduction, this may be the tax year you save on your taxes by itemizing your deductions; so don’t procrastinate and do your homework … or file an extension.

2012 Whistleblower Awards Top $125 Million

This week the IRS announced that it paid out a total of $125 million in whistleblower claims during 2012 compared to only $8 million in 2011.  But this flashy statistic is not quite as incredible as you might think.  The IRS paid $104 million of that to a single whistleblower, Mr. Bradley Birkenfeld.  Birkenfeld was the guy who blew the whistle on USB which led to a $780 million settlement between the bank and the Federal Government.

If we exclude Birkenfeld, the IRS paid out $21 million in whistleblower claims last year.  Still pretty impressive, but not earth-shattering.  Perhaps a more telling statistic would be the number of whistleblower cases they closed or the average length.  The IRS is still taking far too long to complete their investigations — usually a few years from start to finish.  According to the Whistleblower Office’s annual report to congress, the typical whistleblower tax case sits in the “Award Evaluation” stage of review for 1141 days!