Q&A: Why your W-4 forms are likely ‘wrong’

Dear Liz: After being an unmarried couple for 15 years, we were married in February 2014. Though I sent this information to my company’s benefits department, I neglected to change my W-4 status from “single” to “married.” I’m crossing my fingers that when all is said and done, we have paid the correct taxes when we filed for 2014 (we filed jointly as married) regardless of what was withheld pursuant to the W-4. Or do I need to inform the IRS of the oversight for the 2014 and 2015 tax years?

Answer: Best wishes on your marriage, and don’t worry. Since you were married as of Dec. 31, 2014, and you filed as a married couple for 2014, you’re good — assuming, of course, you used current tax software or IRS tax tables for married filing jointly.

The W-4 form is meant to tell your employer how much of your paycheck you want withheld. Most people’s W-4s are “wrong” in the sense that they have the government withhold too much. They get fat refunds that average close to $3,000, but they aren’t penalized for doing so (other than not having access to their own money until they get that refund, of course).

If you’re getting refunds, you can tweak your withholding when you visit your benefits department to update your W-4. The IRS and TurboTax, among other sites, have online calculators to help you figure out what you should have withheld.

While you’re there, check your beneficiaries for any workplace retirement plans and life insurance. Federal law says your spouse must be the beneficiary of your retirement plan unless he or she signs a waiver. Life insurance, by contrast, goes to the named beneficiary even if you subsequently marry.

Q&A: Delayed tax refunds

Dear Liz: How long is too long for an IRS tax refund to be disbursed? I got my state tax refund in a matter of weeks. The IRS refund has been “under review” for almost five months.

Answer: A sizable surge in tax refund theft as well as a database breach that exposed more than 300,000 taxpayers’ returns have kept the IRS pretty busy. At the same time, big budget cuts have left the agency with fewer people to help with these issues.

Five months is a long wait, but people who have been the victims of refund theft report waiting nine months or more to get their money back.

You can try contacting the IRS directly at (800) 829-1040, although you’re likely to be on hold for quite a while. If you can’t get a response, you can contact the IRS’ Taxpayer Advocate at (877) 777-4778, but be advised its resources have been trimmed as well and it may just refer you back to the IRS.

Q&A: Lost tax return

Dear Liz: My CPA sent my completed tax return to my home address via first-class mail with no tracking number. The large envelope should have arrived in two days. Over a week has passed and it’s nowhere in sight. I am freaking out as it has all my financial data and is a gateway to fraud of every sort!

The various post office officials have really done nothing to assist in its location. I have credit freezes at all three bureaus and my bank accounts require passwords. What else can I do to try to avert disaster? I have been so distraught it has literally made me ill. And before you say it, yes, this mode of transit will never happen again.

Answer: It shouldn’t have happened in the first place.

With so much identity theft and tax refund fraud these days, it’s astonishing that tax preparers continue to send sensitive, personal information through the U.S. mail with no tracking — and in envelopes helpfully marked with the CPA firm’s name to make the returns easier for thieves to spot.

Your credit freezes should prevent identity thieves from opening new credit accounts in your name using purloined information, but they won’t stop tax refund fraud.

There’s typically not much you can do to protect yourself from this crime. People who have already been the victims of such fraud can request an “identity protection personal information number” or IP PIN from the Internal Revenue Service to prevent future fraudulent filings.

The IRS also allows residents of Florida, Georgia and the District of Columbia to request IP PINs as part of a pilot program, but residents of other states aren’t eligible.

You can try to file as early in the year as possible, but that’s no guarantee a criminal won’t file using your Social Security number first — and then it can take months to get any money you’re owed.

To help protect your bank accounts, see if your bank offers something called “two-factor authentication.” Two-factor authentication requires something you know, such as a password, plus something you have, such as a token that creates unique number codes or code that’s texted to your cellphone.

If your bank doesn’t offer this layer of protection, and only ascertains your identity with the use of security questions, strongly consider moving your accounts to another bank.

Security questions are easy to hack, as evidenced by the massive breach of the IRS’ Get Transcript service, where hackers were able to successfully answer the security questions for hundreds of thousands of taxpayer accounts.

Four ways to get a jump on tax season

bigstock-U-s-Income-Tax-Return-Form-28476797-e1390508229663Taxpayers face a cliffhanger again this year as Congress dithers about extending more than 50 expired tax breaks, including popular deductions for college tuition and fees, mortgage insurance and sales taxes.

As we wait for lawmakers to act, though, we still have time left in the year to make adjustments based on changes that have already happened. In my latest for Reuters, I share four ways to get a head start on tax season.

In my latest for Bankrate, how to find an honest financial advisor.

Q&A: The legitimacy of tax reduction companies

Dear Liz: I fell behind on making my quarterly estimated tax payments for a long list of reasons, and when I file my return, the IRS will find out. I have heard they can seize your IRAs, which I have but do not want to cash out to pay.

I found a service on the Internet with good references and no bad reviews. The company said it can help get a payment program and often a reduction in the amount owed. It seems worth a couple thousand dollars to try it. Your thoughts?

Answer: There are a number of reasons why a company might have no negative reviews online. Maybe it’s a great company. Or maybe it’s not, but it just launched or took over a legitimate firm with the intention of fleecing as many people as possible.

Don’t be persuaded by the idea that the company might reduce what you owe. Settlements aren’t impossible, but the taxpayers who get them (typically after long and drawn-out battles) are those whose financial situations are dire and not expected to improve.

The IRS has many, many ways to collect its due and won’t just roll over because you don’t want to pay.

In any case, you don’t need to hire someone else to set up a payment plan for you.

If you owe $50,000 or less as an individual or $25,000 or less as a business, you can request an installment plan online and get an immediate response. If you owe more than those amounts, you can request an installment agreement using Form 433F.

The costs are low. If you can pay your balance within 120 days, the plan is free. Otherwise you’ll pay $52 for a direct debit agreement or $105 for a standard or payroll deduction agreement. Lower-income taxpayers can get a reduced fee of $43.

For more, visit http://www.irs.gov/Individuals/Payment-Plans-Installment-Agreements.

If you can’t pay your balance in the allotted time, you may need to hire some help. You can get referrals to CPAs who can represent you in front of the IRS from www.aicpa.org.

Q&A: State tax breaks for 529 plans

Dear Liz: You recently answered a question from grandparents who were contributing $20,000 to their grandson’s college education. You correctly told them they did not qualify fdownloador federal education tax credits or deductions because he was not a dependent. You might let grandparents know, however, that they may get a state tax break for contributing to a 529 college savings plan.

Answer: Most states that have state income taxes offer some sort of a tax break for 529 college savings plan contributions. (The exceptions are California, Delaware, Hawaii, Kentucky, Massachusetts, Minnesota, New Jersey and North Carolina, according to SavingForCollege.com. Tennessee has a tax on interest and dividends but no 529 tax break.) In some states, even short-term contributions qualify for a deduction, so grandparents could contribute money that’s quickly withdrawn to pay qualified higher education expenses and still get the break. SavingForCollege has details on each state’s tax benefits.

Q&A: IRA contributions and tax deductions

Dear Liz: I am changing jobs because of a layoff. I contributed to my former employer’s 401(k) to the extent possible. My new employer also offers a 401(k), but I won’t be eligible for a year.

I want to use an IRA in the meantime. I do not understand how I should answer the question on the tax form about whether my employer offers a retirement plan when I am determining how much of my IRA contribution I can deduct. My employer does, obviously, but I can’t participate yet. Advice, please?

Answer: You’re smart to continue your retirement savings while you wait to become eligible for the new employer’s 401(k). Missing even one year of contributions could cost you tens of thousands of dollars in lost retirement income.

When you’re not covered by an employer plan, all of your contribution to an IRA is typically deductible.

When you are covered, your contribution’s deductibility is subject to income limits. In 2015, the ability to deduct an IRA contribution phases out between modified adjusted gross incomes of $61,000 to $71,000 for singles and $98,000 to $118,000 for married couples filing jointly.

To be considered covered by an employer plan, you have to be an active participant, said Mark Luscombe, principal analyst for Wolters Kluwer Tax & Accounting. That means money has to be put into your account by you or your employer or both.

Here’s the twist: You’re considered covered for the whole tax year if you participated in a plan during any part of that year. So the IRS will consider you an active participant for 2015 because you were contributing to your former employer’s plan for part of this year.

If you start contributing to your new employer’s plan when you become eligible next year, you’ll be considered covered for 2016 as well.

You could decide not to contribute to the new employer’s plan until 2017 to preserve your IRA’s deductibility, but it probably makes more sense to start contributing to the new plan to get both the tax break and any match.

If your contribution to an IRA isn’t deductible, consider making a contribution to a Roth IRA instead.

In retirement, withdrawals from a regular IRA will be subject to income taxes while withdrawals from a Roth IRA will be tax free. In 2015, your ability to contribute to a Roth phases out between modified gross incomes of $116,000 to $131,000 if you’re single and $183,000 to $193,000 if you’re married.

Q&A: IRS Electronic Payment System

Dear Liz: I was intrigued by your answer to the question about paying taxes through the IRS Electronic Tax Payment System. I went to the website you mentioned (www.irs.gov/payments) and found that there was a fee.

You didn’t point this out, and I think it is relevant. My quarterly estimated payment would be $1,726 and the fee for a Visa payment would be 2.29%, which equals $39.55. If my math is correct, that is quite a significant amount. Did I reach the correct interpretation of fees being charged?

Answer: If you return to www.irs.gov/payments, you’ll see two big blue buttons. The one on the left, IRS Direct Pay, takes you to the IRS’ free payment system for individuals. Directly below that button is a link for the Electronic Federal Tax Payment System, which offers a free method for businesses to pay their taxes.

Only if you choose the button on the right that says “Pay by Card” will you be taken to various payment processors that charge a fee. Those fees can be significant, which is why it’s worthwhile to take the time to explore the free options.

Q&A: IRS direct pay

Dear Liz: Regarding the reader whose tax payment never made it to the IRS: I agree that electronic payments are the best and safest, but you might want to emphasize that the payments should be done directly through the IRS website.

I made the mistake of scheduling a couple of payments through my online banking, and a month later I received a notification from the IRS that I was in arrears, although the bank statement indicated that the payment has been debited.

It took several months of correspondence before the IRS acknowledged that the money was received. Luckily, the penalties and interest were only about $20, so I didn’t have to go through the additional hassle and filling out forms to reclaim it. The IRS website is very easy to use, and I haven’t experienced any problems since.

Answer: The IRS’ Electronic Tax Payment System, which was designed primarily for businesses, has been around for nearly two decades, but the agency only recently added a “Direct Pay” option expressly for individuals to make estimated tax payments and pay bills.

These methods and others, including electronic funds withdrawal when you e-file your return, are explained at http://www.irs.gov/payments.

Q&A: Electronic Federal Tax Payment System

Dear Liz: I’m often required to make estimated quarterly payments and was always concerned I would miss one of them.

A few years ago, I came across the Electronic Federal Tax Payment System (EFTPS) that is offered by the U.S. Treasury. The beauty of the system is that once it is set up, there is nothing more for me to do. I set up all the payments I need to make and the system takes care of it.

I just have to set it up each year at the time I file my tax return. I have been using the system for several years and have had no issues whatsoever with it.

Answer: Thanks for sharing your experience with EFTPS. While that system allows you to schedule payments up to 365 days in advance, the Direct Pay option for individuals allows scheduling only up to 30 days in advance.