2016 Tax Season Opens Smoothly

2016 Tax Season Opens Smoothly

The IRS officially kicked off tax season this year on January 19th, one day after the Martin Luther King holiday. This marked the first day that the IRS would accept, and begin processing, 2015 federal income tax returns. The IRS said in an official statement that they had received several hundred thousand tax returns up through mid-day and that the 2016 tax season was off to a smooth start.

I don’t know how efficiently they will be processing returns this year (they say that most returns will be processed in 21 days or less), but I can personally vouch for the smoothness of the phone lines, at least on the first day of tax season. I made a few calls on the 19th, and got through surprisingly quickly on the Practitioner Priority Line (PPL), with a similar result when calling the Automated Collections System (ACS) for some of my collections cases. January has often been a terrible time to call the IRS (especially the first half of the month) because people have been away from their offices for the holidays and when they come back it seems like everybody wants to catch up on work at the same time. It is especially bad the day after a federal holiday, so I was surprised how prepared the IRS was on day one of tax season right after MLK.

The IRS expects more than 150 million individual tax returns this year. It may go without saying, but that figure does not include business returns, and it does not include any prior-year tax returns or amended returns that the IRS receives this tax season. The IRS also anticipates that around 80 percent of all returns will be filed electronically. It is always astounding to me that this figure is not up around 99 percent yet. I just can’t imagine filing a paper tax return and don’t understand why people still do it. I suppose the hold-outs are those who like the idea of saving a few bucks (when you paper file, all you pay is the cost of postage) and those who basically want to stick it to the man. This quote I found says it all:

Why should I pay through the nose to save the government money? What rational individual wants to pay $10 or more to save the government $4?

So the IRS received hundreds of thousands of returns within the first few hours of tax season, day one. I guess that means a couple hundred thousand more will be arriving tomorrow or Friday in the post. Queue the letter openers.

GOP Wants Hillary Audited

What’s the worst threat you can think of? The answer to this question probably depends on who you ask. My teenage daughter might say taking away her phone or the threat of somebody unfollowing her on Instagram. If you ask any normal adult person, it might be the threat of physical harm. But if you ask somebody in my circle of friends, it would definitely be the threat of an IRS audit.  There are few things more agonizing than the dreaded audit.

The Republican Party is threatening Hillary Clinton and her family’s charity, the Clinton Health Access Initiative (CHAI), not with legal action, but with an IRS audit. Of course, they can’t audit her themselves; they filed a formal complaint asking the IRS to audit the charity. CHAI staved off an investigation back in May by agreeing to file amended returns and fix the problem. But now they are taking the position that the income was correctly stated and amendments are not necessary. As the Democratic front runner, Hillary will undoubtedly attract plenty of scrutiny, and the Republicans will do their best to portray her as a tax cheat.

Trump’s "I Win" Tax Form

Presidential hopeful and real estate mogul, Donald Trump, is known for his informal and crude style.  If you ask him, he just says it like it is and leaves out the fluff.  If elected to be the next president, he will apparently be leaving out the fluff on IRS tax forms as well.  In describing his tax plan, he suggested that there will be relaxed filing requirements for individual taxpayers who earn less than $25,000 and married taxpayers who earn less than $50,000. Those who fall into this group would not pay taxes under Trump’s tax plan. Not only would they be exempt from paying taxes, but it appears that they would enjoy some kind of exemption from filing taxes as well. Instead of the regular Form 1040 income tax return, these economically disadvantaged households would simply send in their one-page form to the IRS stating “I win.”

I realize that Trump was speaking figuratively in referring to this “I win” form, but part of me would love to see something like that.  Would it come with instructions like most other IRS forms? The instructions might read something like this: “If you earn less than $25,000 (individual) or $50,000 (couples) then you win.  If you win, sign and date the form.” How refreshing it would be to see something so simple and straightforward in the IRS’ document library. Would the font be huge in an attempt to fill the page? Or would they use a standard size font so as to allow room for some cute graphics or a head shot of the Donald? The new “I win” form would certainly pose some new kinds of challenges and questions for the IRS.

All joking aside, doesn’t this comment show that Trump is way out of touch with reality — at least on a subconscious level? To him the biggest win he can imagine is avoiding taxes and keeping a bigger share of his earnings. But ask some of those trying to survive on $25,000 per year if they think they are winning. I’m not sure they would agree.

Trump’s tax plan would also include capping the tax rate for businesses at 15 percent. And the highest effective tax rate would be reduced from nearly 40 percent to 25 percent for individuals. By limiting the number of exemptions wealthy taxpayers can claim, Trump says they (he) will pay higher taxes. But some experts believe that will not be the result given the tax rate reductions he is proposing.

Coca-Cola's $3.3 Billion Tax Bill

It’s official, nobody has any right to complain about the taxes they owe.  Oh you owe $10k? $20k?  You think you’re in dire straits with your $50k or $100k tax debt?  That’s small beans.  The Coca-Cola company owes $3.3 billion!  The additional assessments came after a 5-year long audit associated with tax years 2007-2009.

Many of the tax disputes between the IRS and multinational corporations have to do with these companies trying to shift reportable income away from the US to avoid high domestic tax rates.  I say “avoid” and not “evade” because they all do this and they all claim that it is completely legal. However, I can’t imagine there is much legal precedent due to the fact that the vast majority of these cases settle, never making it to trial.

There are good reasons for settling, and they are all the standard reasons why parties in a lawsuit often choose to settle. One reason is to avoid the “hazards of litigation.” You never know with 100% certainty which way the judge and/or jury will go.  You can weigh the relative strengths on both sides, you can compare the evidence, and you can apply the law to the facts as done in similar cases. But surprises are common in litigation, and you can never predict for sure what will happen. Another good reason for settling is to avoid the high costs of litigation. Hundreds of thousands of dollars can be saved when parties agree to settle complex litigation cases. Of course the key is to settle early enough, before too much has been spent and before huge investments of time and emotion. Coca-Cola will need to decide whether it can justify the legal fees and risk the hazards of litigation.

Coca-Cola insists that it has been doing its taxes the same way for 30 years without any problems from the IRS.

IRS Impersonators Have New Tricks

Scam artists, posing as IRS agents, who contact innocent taxpayers out of the blue and demand payment on tax bills that don’t exist are getting more crafty and casting a bigger net these days. For at least the past few years now, the IRS has regularly published updated warnings each time they perceive a new wrinkle, or if enough time has passed since the prior warning.

This month, the IRS published a scam warning that identifies a couple trends that suggest these tax criminals are taking the time to do some homework rather than calling completely unscripted. For example, one tactic is to alter your caller ID so it appears the call is coming from a legitimate government agency.  Scammers have always posed as official government representatives by giving false names, titles, and badge numbers, but now they are more frequently adding this new layer of “authenticity” to the call.

The ultimate goal of IRS phone scam artists is to get the victim to make a payment over the phone and/or provide sensitive information like your name, address, and social security number. If they are successful in obtaining a payment over the phone, they are now asking victims to mail proof of payment to an actual IRS office nearby. Taxpayers choosing to verify the address can look it up in a Google search and see that it is the correct address to their local service center, which lends a sense of legitimacy to the whole interaction. Of course, anyone with half a brain would know that providing the address to an IRS office that is posted on the internet for anyone to see means absolutely nothing.

In this month’s published warning, the IRS states that these scam artists use angry voices to strike fear into their victims and pressure their victims into making rash decisions. Then the IRS lists a few things that they will “never” do, so it will be easy to distinguish between scammers and true IRS representatives:

  1. Angrily demand payment over the phone
  2. Call prior to sending a bill for overdue taxes
  3. Threaten arrest for non-payment of taxes
  4. Demand payment without the opportunity to appeal the amount owed
  5. Require a specific payment method
  6. Ask for credit or debit card numbers over the phone

#1 on this list is a little strange to me because anger, and the detecting of anger in someone’s voice, is a subjective thing. Isn’t it? I have heard demands for payment in voices that could reasonably be characterized as “angry.”  I have also had IRS representatives tell me that they require an “auto debit” payment arrangement in order to approve an installment agreement, hence somewhat of a violation of #5.  However, in my experience, IRS representatives usually do a pretty good job complying with this list.

The first step in taxing space starts tomorrow in Sacramento

Have you ever thought about space travel? Or even being one of the first human colonists to Mars? If you have, you should also be prepared to pay a tax. Seriously. That’s right, with the developments in space exploration, the Franchise Tax Board (FTB) is preparing to develop a tax strategy for space travel and commerce.

Taxation strategy of the final frontier begins tomorrow in Sacramento during an interested parties meeting at the FTB’s mother ship. If you didn’t book your tax space voyage in time, you can still attend by phone by calling (877) 923-3149 at 10:00 a.m. Enter the participant pass code 2233420, followed by the # sign.

The official captain’s log for the meeting is to discuss possible regulatory efforts for the apportionment and allocation of income derived from space transportation activities, including the transportation of people or cargo into and from Space. I didn’t think it would be possible, but even the FTB can make this meeting sound boring.

According the news release issued by the FTB, during the upcoming initial meeting, FTB staff members will solicit input from industry and practitioners on issues that may arise in the application of a regulation on such space activities, including, but not limited to:

– How should space transportation activities be defined in a regulation?

– At what point should aircraft or space vehicles be considered as traveling into space?

– How should unsuccessful missions be treated?

– What apportionment factors should be used to apportion and allocate income from space transportation activities? How many apportionment factors should there be, and how should they be weighted? Launch factor, recovery factor, mileage factor, or some other factor?

– Should a regulatory effort address the potential for “nowhere income,” and if so, how should it be addressed?

– What issues might be encountered with combining space transportation activities with a taxpayer’s other trade or business activities?

– Should a regulatory effort distinguish between transporting cargo and people?

– Any other issues that industry believes FTB staff should consider.

Isn’t this exciting!? I do wonder however if a Foreign Bank and Financial Account Report (FBAR) will be required if life is found on Mars, and a human opens a bank account there? I suppose that’s a federal question and the July meeting, I further suppose, is limited California state tax matters.

Clinton Foundation Under Fire for Tax Errors

Filing an amended tax return is normally not that big of a deal.  It is not uncommon for folks to make mistakes or leave out information on their Form 1040 personal income tax filing.  To amend a previously filed Form 1040, you need to complete a “1040x.”  If you want to make corrections on multiple tax years, you need a separate 1040x for each year and you need to mail them in separate envelopes to ensure they are processed correctly.  The basic structure of a 1040x is pretty straightforward: Column A shows the figures as reported on your original 1040, Column B shows the corrected figures, and Column C shows the difference between the two.  Furthermore, barring other relevant facts, the filing of a 1040x does not automatically put you into a high audit risk group.

The problem with Hillary Clinton and her foundation is there are a few “other relevant factors” that have placed their actions in the spotlight (catch up on the story here).  For one, we’re talking about million dollar mistakes, meaning they put “zero,” when the correct number was something in the tens of millions of dollars range.  Kind of hard to swallow, right?  And similar “mistakes” were made three years in a row.  In the words of charity law experts:

It [is] not remarkable for a charity to refile an erroneous return once in a while, but for a large, global charity to refile three or four years in a row [is] highly unusual.

Now House republicans are calling for an IRS investigation.  Most letters to Commissioner John Koskinen would probably be ignored or referred out to a different IRS department in typical IRS style, but I’m guessing this one will get adequate attention.

How to Get Fired if you Work for the IRS

As far as I know, an IRS employee can’t be fired just for leaving you on hold for 3 hours, or for giving you bad information that contradicts what the previous IRS employee told you, or for rejecting your Offer in Compromise (as long as procedures are followed). Of course, there could be additional actions and circumstances that might warrant termination, but generally speaking, these are not adequate grounds.

But according to rules established during the 1998 tax code reform, an IRS employee is supposed to be fired for the following actions unless the Commish determines that the employee should be given a second chance due to the presence of mitigating factors:

  • Purposely failing to obtain signatures required prior to certain asset seizures;
  • Lying under oath relevant to matters involving a taxpayer account;
  • destroying or falsifying evidence relevant to matters involving a taxpayer account;
  • Assault or battery of a taxpayer or fellow employee (that’s comforting, knowing that an IRS employee will likely get fired for cold-cocking a taxpayer) — but only if there is a conviction;
  • Purposely violating a provision in the IRC, Regs, IRM, or internal policies for the purpose of retaliating against or harassing a taxpayer or fellow employee;
  • Willful failure to file a tax return or underreporting income on a tax return…

There are others, but this list is getting tedious.  It’s funny to me that some of these prohibitions are related to actions against other IRS employees.  Don’t they get along over at the IRS, or what?

A House Committee has introduced a bill that would add another bullet point to this list above. H.R. 709, the Prevent Targeting at the IRS Act, would require the firing of IRS employees who act in their official capacity to target entities or individuals for personal or political reasons.  And presumably any offending employee would have to be fired regardless of how merciful the Commissioner wants to be.  Thank you Robert Wood for the info on H.R. 709.

In the meantime, I’ll keep an eye out for the Prevent Stupidity at the IRS Act.

800,000 Obamacare Enrollees Received Incorrect Tax Forms

Here’s a suggestion for the IRS’ next Tax Tips article: “What you should know about the incompetence of the IRS.” Or maybe this one: “10 reasons why you should not renounce your citizenship and move to Brazil.”  Their latest screw up came on Friday — or at least it was announced on Friday — that 800,000 Obamacare enrollees were sent the wrong tax forms and will need to wait until sometime in March to file their taxes.  Yet another reason to not be so eager about filing early.  And what about those conscientious tax return filers who already pulled the trigger?  Well, the Obama administration hasn’t quite figured out what to do with them yet.

Just keep checking in with the IRS on their website.  That’s where the IRS likes to funnel all inquiries these days.  They don’t have enough employees in their call centers to answer the phones usually; I would definitely not recommend you try calling.  I’m sure there will be some sort of extension for those who already filed using the wrong forms.  The Obama administration is great about accommodating people with extensions.  It will be all over the internet, just be sure you are looking to reputable news sources for you info.

There are always ways to describe Obamacare (or IRS) blunders so that it highlights the administration’s incompetence:

The White House tells us in a classic Friday news dump that nearly one million Americans could see their tax refunds delayed because of this president’s inability to implement his own law.

~ Diane Black, Rep Tenn

Not a full-blown “spin” though, in my opinion, because they very well could see their tax refunds delayed.  Years from now we will be able to look back, with experience and time giving us a better perspective, and determine if this is one of several innocent mistakes or if the government really did fail in the administration of Obamacare.  I know a lot of people believe we can make that call now, and would say that it has been a complete flop, not only the administration of the new law, but the whole idea of it in the first place.

More than half of Stanislaus’ FTB non-filers live in Modesto

The Franchise Tax Board is beginning its annual force filing season. Haven’t heard of force filing season? If you are one of the million plus people that the FTB is currently investigating, you will soon.

Force filing season is where a taxing government seeks to file an estimated tax return for you, when the government did not receive a tax return from you. The procedure is a profitable one. Last year the FTB collected more than $715 million through its force filing investigation and assessment efforts.

Since we’re now in tax season, the FTB knows that you should be thinking about your taxes. So, this is the time of year that the Franchise Tax Board notifies taxpayers that it didn’t receive a tax return from a particular tax payer and that it believes that a tax return should have been filed.

If you live in Stanislaus County, in Modesto particularly, you may need to contact a Modesto tax attorney in short time. Of the 6,696 Stanislaus taxpayers that the FTB is investigating, 3,570 of them live in Modesto. That’s more than half of the Stanislaus taxpayers that will likely need a Modesto tax attorney.

The first step in the force filing investigation is for the Franchise Tax Board to identify social security numbers where a tax return was not received by the tax return deadline. The FTB then compares those social security numbers to information provided by banks, employers, local governments, the IRS, and other third parties. If the Franchise Tax Board believes that you were required to file a California tax return, but did not do so, you will receive a tax return demand letter.

So if you are one of the 3,570 Modesto residents that recently received one of these tax demand letters, or one of the remaining 3,126 who live elsewhere in Stanislaus County, you have a potential tax debt looming. Our Modesto tax law firm may be able to help you. Speak directly to one of our Modesto tax attorneys by calling us at (209) 248-7157.