[Ed. Note: This guest post is from Robert Flach of Jersey City, NJ. Robert is both a prolific blogger and a terrific source of tax knowledge. Although we have not worked any cases together, I am a regular reader of his blog. Bob prepares returns and dispenses tax advice while we usually help people once they are in a jam. Unlike many accountants and lawyers, Bob is no stuffed shirt. Just read his blog and you will understand why. Here is his bio and links to his website:
Robert D Flach of Jersey City, New Jersey has been preparing 1040s for individuals in all walks of life, from professional athletes and actors to architects and doctors to secretaries and clerks, since 1972. He writes the popular tax blogs THE WANDERING TAX PRO and the NJ TAX PRACTICE BLOG and writes tax articles for TheStreet.com. His tax planning and preparation articles and commentary have appeared on the TAX ALMANAC website and in the National Association of Tax Professionals’ quarterly TAXPRO JOURNAL.]
1. First and foremost – file a complete and accurate tax return. The absolute best way to do this is by going to a qualified, competent tax professional. It will not necessarily cost you a lot of money – actually doing so will probably save you more in federal and state taxes than you will pay for the service.
Whatever you do – do not rely on a “box” (i.e. tax software) to prepare a complete and accurate return if you do not know the tax law. Remember – garbage-in garbage-out. And the IRS or the Tax Court will not accept the “Turbo-Tax Defense” if you screw up.
And, in my considered opinion, do not use the services of a “fast food” tax preparation chain.
2. Report all your income. The IRS matches information reported on your tax return to that reported on such information documents as 1099-INT, 1099-DIV, 1099-MISC and the Form K-1 from partnerships, Sub-Chapter S corporations and estates and trusts.
Just because you have not received a Form 1099 for income earned or received does not mean that one was not sent to the IRS. Your copy could have been lost in the mail, or sent to an old or incorrect address. If a 1099 information return should have been filed then assume it was.
Check information reported on 1099 returns to your own records for accuracy (FYI, you should do the same thing with your Form W-2s). One of my clients received a 1099-INT two years ago with someone else’s account, which earned $300+ interest, included in the listing! Had he not carefully checked the form he would have paid close to $100.00 in unnecessary federal and state income tax.
When you get a Form 1099 that you believe is incorrect the first thing you should do is contact the issuer (bank, mutual fund, brokerage firm, client) and request a corrected return or an explanation. If they will not reissue the form correctly, or do not explain to your satisfaction the difference, claim the gross amount reported on your tax return (Schedule B for interest and dividends or Schedule C for non-employee compensation or Schedule E for rental income) and deduct any corrections elsewhere on the Schedule so that the true net amount is reflected in the “bottom line”.
You want to make sure that (a) the gross amount of income reported on your return matches exactly the amounts reported to the IRS on information returns, and that (b) the net income on which you are ultimately taxed is the correct amount.
If you have received a Form 1099-INT reported under your Social Security number for bank interest on a joint account, and you want to claim your half of the interest and have the co-owner report his/her half, you should enter the name of the bank and the total amount of the interest on your Schedule B and on the next line write “less amount reported by co-owner XXX-XX-XXXX (indicate co-owner’s Social Security number)” and deduct out half of the total interest.
If you receive a Form 1099 for interest or dividends from the account of your dependent child that also has your name on it as co-owner or custodian – an investment that truly belongs to the child but is reported under your Social Security number – do the same thing. Enter the total amount of income on your Schedule B, write “less amount reported by XXX-XX-XXXX”, and deduct out the full amount of the interest. On the Schedule B of your dependent child you would write the name of the bank or stock and next to it write “reported under XXX-XX-XXXX”.
3. Make sure that all the names and Social Security numbers reported on your Form 1040 match exactly the names and Social Security numbers as they appear in the records of the Social Security Administration (i.e. – they are the same as they appear on the individual’s Social Security card).
If when your son was born his last name was recorded with SSA as hyphenated (i.e. father = Smith and mother = Jones, so son = John Smith-Jones) and it appears that way on his SS card, but over the years the hyphenation was dropped and he is referred to now as John Smith, make sure to report the name as John Smith-Jones when identifying dependents on the Form 1040 – unless you have officially changed the name with SSA by requesting a new Social Security card. I have had this very problem with a client recently.
Similarly, if in a marriage the wife took her new husband’s last name (i.e. Jane Jones now becomes Jane Smith), but never changed her name with the Social Security Administration, make sure to report her name as Jane Jones on the 1040. If a wife chooses to take her husband’s last name as her married name the first thing she should do, after returning from the honeymoon and mailing out all the thank you notes, is to officially change her name with SSA by requesting a new Social Security card. This can be done at the SSA website.
4. Do not accept tax advice from anyone other than a qualified, competent professional tax preparer. Don’t listen to a broker, a banker, an insurance salesman, or your Uncle Charlie! You wouldn’t ask your auto mechanic for a medical opinion, so why would you listen to tax advice from your MD?
Over the years clients have come to me wanting to claim the strangest things – telling me “my neighbor” or “a guy I ride in to work with on the train” said it was deductible. And it seems that just about every workplace has a resident self-proclaimed “tax pro”.
If you are given any tax information by a non-tax person make sure to check it out with your own tax professional first before taking any action. You may have to pay your tax pro a few bucks for the consultation – but it is money well spent and far more preferable to losing thousands of dollars by following bad advice.
5. Do not ignore correspondence from the IRS. If you receive a CP-2000 or other notice from the IRS, or a state tax authority, indicating that income was omitted from your tax return, or asking for clarification on an item reported on your return, or for any other reason, give it to your tax professional immediately so that he/she can respond accordingly.
If you prepared your own return review the notice carefully and respond promptly. If you prepared your own return and do not understand the notice, or are not sure what to do, consult a qualified and competent tax professional.
In my 35+ years of experience I have found that more than half of the notices received from the IRS or a state tax agency are incorrect. You should not just automatically assume the notice is correct and pay the amount requested without verification. However, you must respond to all notices you receive – even if only to point out the errors. By ignoring such correspondence the problem will not go away – it will only get worse.
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