Don’t pay tax on a home sale

The law lets you sell your home tax-free if you meet certain requirements. The home must have been owned and used as your principal residence for at least two of the five years prior to the sale. Couples can enjoy up to $500,000 of tax-free profits from a home sale, while singles qualify for up to $250,000 of tax-free gain.

To the extent possible, time home sales to meet the requirements in order to enjoy tax-free profits.

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What if you have a casualty gain?

You may be able to claim a deduction on your current or prior-year federal income tax return for casualty losses from sudden, unexpected, and unusual events, such as tornadoes, hurricanes, and certain straight-line winds.

But what if you have a casualty gain?

Odd as it sounds, when the reimbursement from your insurance company or other payor exceeds your adjusted basis in damaged property, you have an “involuntary conversion gain.” An involuntary conversion is treated as a sale and can result in taxable income. That’s true even when the property is your personal home, assuming the gain is more than your allowable exclusion.

Whether the gain is taxable depends on several factors. For example, you could choose to replace your damaged property with similar property. Making the election allows you to postpone all or part of the tax.

In general, you have two years to replace damaged property, and you may be able to request an extension for an additional year. If your location is declared a federal disaster area, you have up to four years to make the replacement.

Please call for more information about casualty gains and losses. We’ll help you get the most beneficial tax treatment.

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Five home office deduction mistakes

If you operate a business out of your home, you may be able to deduct a wide variety of expenses. These may include part of your rent or mortgage costs, insurance, utilities, repairs, maintenance, and cleaning costs related to the space you use.

It can be a tricky area of the tax code that’s full of pitfalls for the unwary. Here are some of the top mistakes people make:

  1. Not taking it. This is probably the biggest mistake those with home offices make. Some believe the deduction is too complicated, while others believe taking a home office deduction increases your chance of being audited. While the rules can be complicated, there are now simple home office deduction methods available to every business.
  2. Not exclusive or regular. The space you use must be used exclusively and regularly for your business.
  • Exclusively: If you use a spare bedroom as a business office, it can’t double as a guest room, a playroom for the kids, or a place to store your hockey gear. Any kind of non-business use can invalidate you for the deduction.
  • Regularly: It should be the primary place you conduct your regular business activities. That doesn’t mean that you have to use it every day nor does it stop you from doing work outside the office, but it should be the primary place for business activities such as recordkeeping, billing, making appointments, ordering equipment, or storing supplies.
  1. Mixing up your other work. If you are an employee for someone else in addition to running your own business, be careful in using your home office to do work for your employer. Generally, IRS rules state you can use a home office deduction as an employee only if your employer doesn’t provide you with a local office to work at.

Unfortunately, this means if you run a side business out of your home office, you cannot also bring work home from your employer’s office and do it in your home office. That would invalidate your use of the home office deduction.

  1. The recapture problem. If you have been using your home office deduction, including depreciating part of your home, you could be in for a future tax surprise. When you later sell your home you will need to account for this depreciation. This depreciation recapture rule creates a possible tax liability for many unsuspecting home office users.
  2. Not getting help. There are special rules that apply to your use of the home office deduction if:
  • You are an employee of someone else.
  • You are running a daycare or assisted living facility out of your home.
  • You have a business renting out your primary residence or a vacation home.

The home office deduction can be tricky, so be sure to ask for help, especially if you fall under one of these cases.

Things to remember

Recognizing the home office deduction complexity, the IRS created a simplified “safe harbor” home office deduction. You simply take the square footage of your office, up to 300 square feet, and multiply it by $5. This gives you a potential $1,500 maximum deduction. However, your savings could be much greater than $1,500, so it’s often worth getting help to calculate your full deduction.

Finally, if you are concerned about a potential future audit, take a photo or two of your home office. This is especially important if you move. That way if you are ever challenged, you can visually attempt to show your compliance to the rules.

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Don’t assume it’s correct, just because it’s the IRS

Quotes from actual IRS correspondence received by clients:

“Our records show we received a 1040X…for the tax year listed above. We’re sorry but we cannot find it.”

“Our records show you owe a balance due of $0.00. If we do not receive it within 30 days, appropriate collection steps will be taken.”

“Payment is due on your account. Please submit payments on or before June 31 to avoid late payment penalties and interest.”

It’s pretty tough to pay a balance due of $0.00 or submit a payment on June 31 when June has only 30 days. The message should be clear. If you receive a notice from the IRS, don’t automatically assume it is correct and then submit a payment to make it go away. The same is true for errors in any state tax agency notices. They are often in error. So what should you do?

Stay calm. Try not to overreact to the correspondence. This is easier said than done, but remember, the IRS sends out millions of notices each year. The vast majority of these notices attempt to correct simple oversights or common filing errors.

Open the envelope. You’d be surprised how often clients are so stressed by receiving a letter from the IRS that they cannot bear to open the envelope. If you fall into this category, try to remember that the first step in making the problem go away is to open the correspondence.

Review the letter. Make sure you understand exactly what the IRS thinks needs to be changed and determine whether or not you agree with their findings. Unfortunately, the IRS rarely sends correspondence to correct an oversight in your favor, but it sometimes happens.

Respond in a timely manner. The correspondence received should be very clear about what action the IRS believes you should take and within what timeframe. Ignore this information at your own risk. Delays in responses could generate penalties and additional interest payments.

Get help. You are not alone. Getting assistance from someone who deals with this all the time makes going through the process much smoother.

Correct the IRS error. Once the problem is understood, a clearly written response with copies of documentation will cure most IRS correspondence errors. Often the error is due to the inability of the IRS computers to conduct a simple reporting match. Pointing the information out on your tax return might be all it takes to solve the problem.

Certified mail is your friend. Send any response to the IRS via certified mail. This will provide proof of your timely correspondence. Lost mail can lead to delays, penalties, and additional interest on your tax bill.

Don’t assume it will go away. Until you receive definitive confirmation that the problem has been resolved, assume the IRS still thinks you owe the money. If you don’t receive correspondence confirming the correction, send a written follow-up.

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Four tips for building an emergency fund

Planning for emergencies is like buying insurance: you pay into an account and hope you’ll never have to use it. But life happens. Cars break down. Roofs leak. Kids get injured. Having money in the bank to cover those unexpected expenses can reduce stress and keep you from relying on credit cards and loans to make ends meet.

Here are four easy and effective ways to establish and maintain an emergency fund.

  • Start small. Many financial planners advise setting aside enough money to cover at least six months of expenses. That’s a worthy goal. But for many people it’s also a daunting task, an objective that will take years – not months – to achieve. So set a realistic and achievable amount for your emergency fund, and then get in the habit of contributing regularly. Then don’t touch the account except for real emergencies. Leave it alone and it will grow.
  • Pump it up. When you get a bonus, cost-of-living adjustment, tax refund, or windfall, consider using a portion of that money to bolster your emergency account. Fight the temptation to increase spending with every new dollar that comes along.
  • Make it automatic. With online banking, it’s easy to set up routine transfers from your regular checking account to a separate savings account. If allowed by your employer, allocate a portion of each paycheck to an emergency fund. Consider establishing the account at a financial institution other than your regular bank. As the saying goes, “Out of sight, out of mind.” If the money never shows up in your regular checking account, you’ll be less likely to use it for everyday spending.
  • Sell stuff and slash expenses.Think about selling some of your unused stuff through yard sales, online auctions, or consignment shops. This can generate cash to bolster your emergency fund. Take a hard look at your budget and consider everything fair game: expensive dinners, vacations, cable television, and so on. You may find that a surprising number of dollars can be freed up and stashed away in savings. The key, of course, is to direct those savings – immediately, if possible – away from regular spending and into your emergency account.

If you’d like more ideas for setting financial goals or building up an emergency fund, give us a call.

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New job? Four choices for your existing 401(k)

Changing jobs and companies can be an exciting opportunity, but you have a choice to make. What will you do with the retirement savings you have accrued in your 401(k)? Consider these four choices:

  1. Withdraw the money and don’t reinvest it. This is usually the worst choice you can make. Generally, you’ll owe taxes on the distribution at ordinary income rates. (Special rules may apply if you own company stock in the plan.) Unless you’re over age 59½, you’ll pay a 10 percent penalty tax, too. More importantly, you’ll lose the opportunity for future tax-deferred growth of your retirement savings. And once you have the funds readily available, it’s all too easy to spend the money instead of saving for your retirement.
  2. Roll the money into an IRA. You can avoid immediate taxes and preserve the tax-favored status of your savings by rolling the money into an IRA. This option also gives you full control over how you invest the balances in the future. You have a 60-day window to complete the rollover from the time you close out your 401(k). However, you should always ask for a “trustee-to-trustee” rollover to avoid potential problems.
  3. Roll the balance into your new employer’s plan. If your new employer allows it, you can roll the balance into your new plan and invest it according to your new investment choices. However, there may be a waiting period before you can join your new plan.
  4. Leave the money in your old employer’s plan. You may be able to leave the balance in your old plan, at least temporarily. Then you can do a rollover to an IRA or a new plan later. Check with your employer to see if this is an option.

Call if you need help making the right choice for your particular circumstances.

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