Q&A: This retiree’s tax preparer allowed IRS fines to accumulate for 15 years. Now what?

Dear Liz: I have a question about an unethical accountant. I am a retiree living on my investments. My accountant continually put me on extension and every October told me how much to pay. Finally, I created an account with the state tax agency and discovered I was being billed for interest, fees and penalties for failing to pay estimated quarterly taxes. What really gets me angry is how I was never told I needed to pay these taxes each quarter. This has been going on at least 15 years. What are my options? Is there an entity that governs the behavior of accountants?

Answer: There is — if your tax preparer is actually an accountant. Some tax preparers use that title even if they don’t have an accounting credential, said Henry Grzes, lead manager for tax practice and ethics with the American Institute of CPAs.

If your tax preparer is in fact a certified public accountant, then you can make a complaint to your state’s board of accountancy. You can find a list of boards here. Otherwise you can consider contacting the Better Business Bureau, your state’s consumer protection agency or the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, Grzes said.

A good tax preparer will alert clients to ways they can reduce their tax bill and will discuss the reasons for filing an extension as well as the need to make quarterly estimated payments, Grzes said. But there are no federal regulations governing tax return preparation, although some states have such laws, he said.

For example, anyone who is physically in California and prepares tax returns for a fee, and who is not an attorney, CPA or enrolled agent, is required to register with the California Tax Education Council, Grzes said. The CTEC site has information about how to file a complaint against a tax preparer who isn’t governed elsewhere.

Q&A: Reducing taxes in retirement

Dear Liz: It appears required minimum distributions will force me to take an additional $3,500 per month from my retirement funds starting in four years at age 72. This added taxable draw will greatly impact my income tax liabilities as I’m now fully retired. Are there any strategies at this time to reduce the hit? As my current income tax rate is 12% federal and 9% state, perhaps I should convert some of these funds to Roth IRAs?

Answer: Partial Roth conversions when your tax bracket is low can be an excellent way to reduce future mandatory withdrawals and save on taxes in the long run.

Let’s say you’re married filing jointly and have $60,000 in taxable income. The 12% federal tax bracket ends at $83,550, so you could convert more than $23,000 of your retirement funds without increasing your marginal federal tax rate. Conversions can affect other aspects of your taxes and finances, so consult a tax pro before proceeding.

Another way to potentially lower your tax bill may be to temporarily suspend your Social Security payments and take more from your retirement funds. Because of the peculiar way that Social Security is taxed, people often face a sharp rise and then fall in marginal tax rates when they have other income, something known as the “tax torpedo.” A tax pro should be able to determine if delaying or suspending Social Security payments could help you reduce the effects.

How to reduce taxes when you sell your home

If your home’s value has soared, congratulations. If you decide to sell, beware.

Financial advisor James Guarino says some clients don’t realize that home sale profits are potentially taxable until their returns are prepared — and by that time, they may have spent the windfall or invested the money in another house.

”They’re not happy campers when they find out that Uncle Sam not only is going to tax this as a capital gain, but they’re also going to have some exposure at the state level,” says Guarino, a certified public accountant and certified financial planner in Woburn, Massachusetts.

In my latest for the Associated Press, understanding how home sale profits are calculated and how you can legally reduce your tax bill.

Q&A: Friend’s write-offs might be fraud

Dear Liz: I have a friend who is driving me crazy because she keeps telling me that I need to start a company. She claims she writes off “everything” from her two companies and a nonprofit. She says her accountant encourages this and that she doesn’t pay taxes. However, when my friend had to claim unemployment benefits during the pandemic, her weekly amount was very small. She kept complaining that she “paid into the system” but thought she should get a higher amount. Maybe she didn’t pay into the system, or isn’t paying enough?

Answer:
People who write off “everything” are often committing tax fraud. Although businesses can write off a number of different expenses, those expenses must be both “ordinary” — common and accepted in the business’ specific industry — and “necessary,” or helpful and appropriate for that particular business or trade. Nonprofits, by IRS definition, are supposed to be organized and operated exclusively for religious, educational or charitable purposes — not the benefit of a single individual.

Your friend could face a substantial tax bill plus serious penalties if she’s audited. She may be counting on the IRS not noticing, but all it may take to trigger an audit is a tip from a disgruntled employee or someone who hears her bragging about not paying taxes. If her accountant is in the habit of filing dubious returns, the IRS might catch on to the pattern and start looking more closely at all that accountant’s customers.

Your friend’s strategy of minimizing her taxable income has already bitten her once when she applied for unemployment and may bite her again when she applies for Social Security. If she doesn’t pay Social Security taxes, or pays only a small amount, her retirement benefits will reflect that. By the time many people realize the enormity of that particular mistake, it’s too late to fix.

Q&A: How to reduce capital gains taxes on a home sale

Dear Liz: We’re retired and living in California. We are planning on selling our home, which is paid for, and moving to Tennessee in a couple of years. I think we qualify for a “one time” capital gains exemption. Our home is worth over $1 million and we paid only $98,000 in 1978. We plan on buying a home in Tennessee for around $800,000. Will we have to pay capital gains tax?

Answer: Before 1997, a homeowner could defer paying taxes on home sale gains as long as they rolled the proceeds into the purchase of another home of equal or greater value. In addition, there was a one-time exclusion for homeowners over age 55, who could exclude up to $125,000 in home sale gains.

Those rules were replaced in 1997 with the current law. Now homeowners of any age can exclude up to $250,000 each in capital gains on the sale of their primary residence, as long as they’ve owned and lived in the house for at least two of the previous five years. As a married couple, you can exclude up to $500,000 of gain — but that still leaves you with more than $400,000 of potential capital gains.

The capital gains calculation doesn’t factor in the value of your replacement home or whether you have a mortgage. However, you can use the value of home improvements you’ve made over the years to reduce your taxable gain — assuming you kept those receipts. The IRS defines home improvements as expenses that add to the value of your home, prolong its useful life or adapt it to new uses. Examples would include additions (bedrooms, bathrooms, decks, garages, etc.), heating or air conditioning systems, plumbing upgrades, kitchen remodels and landscaping, among other costs.

Improvements don’t include maintenance required to keep your home in good condition, such as painting, fixing leaks or repairing broken hardware, or improvements that are later taken out. If you put wall-to-wall carpeting and then removed it to install hardwood floors, only the cost of the hardwood floors would count.

Many of the costs you incur to sell the home, such as real estate agent commissions and notary fees, also can be used to reduce the capital gain. You can find more details in IRS Publication 523, Selling Your Home. A big home sale gain can affect other areas of your finances, such as your Medicare premiums, and may require you to pay quarterly estimated taxes. Consider talking to a tax pro before the sale so you know what to expect.

Q&A: How to minimize taxes after you retire

Roth conversionsDear Liz: In preparing my 2021 tax returns, I was dismayed to find out that my first required minimum distributions from my retirement account have pushed me into the highest tax bracket ever in my life and caused 85% of my modest Social Security benefit to become taxable. Since I retired five years ago at full retirement age, I never had to pay taxes on my Social Security as it was the majority of my income. In my remaining years, I wonder if there is anything I can do to avoid paying about $8,000 to $9,000 a year in income taxes!? Even a partial conversion from a 401(k) to a Roth IRA would surely increase my Medicare Part B premium, another financial problem. I am not rich, just average middle class, and my financial goals are to carefully plan my necessary expenses so that I will not run out of funds. I do not need to leave an inheritance to my two adult children.

Answer: You’re probably correct that Roth conversions aren’t the answer now, although they may have been helpful earlier. You also may have been able to reduce the overall taxes you pay by waiting until age 70 to claim Social Security and taking distributions from your 401(k) instead.

You can discuss your situation with a tax pro to see if there are any other opportunities for reducing your taxes. Mostly, though, your situation is a good illustration of why it’s so important to get professional financial planning and tax advice well before you retire. Even if you think you’re well informed, you’re inexperienced — you’ve never retired before, whereas experienced financial planners and tax pros have guided many people through this phase of their lives.

Some of the decisions you make around retirement are irreversible and can have a profound effect on how much money you can spend. Ideally, you’d meet with a fee-only, fiduciary financial planner five to 10 years in advance of your retirement date and have several check-ins to make sure your financial plan is sound before you give notice.

Q&A: Figuring taxes on Social Security

Dear Liz: How will our Social Security payments be affected by any passive income such as from rental properties? We have two properties, which add $3,000 monthly to our current income. I plan on retiring at 72, which is six years away. My husband may retire earlier due to health problems. We will have savings as well as my 401(k) when I retire. Although my retirement income “pencils out,” I don’t know exactly what to expect from Social Security. How should I calculate my net income in retirement?

Answer: You could pay income taxes on up to 85% of your Social Security benefits if you have other taxable income. Examples of taxable income include wages, interest, dividends, capital gains, rent, royalties, annuities, pension payments and distributions from retirement accounts other than Roths.

To determine how much of your benefit is taxable, you would first calculate your “combined income,” which consists of your adjusted gross income plus any nontaxable interest you receive plus half of your Social Security benefits. If you file a joint return, you typically would have to pay income tax on up to half of your benefits if your combined income fell between $32,000 and $44,000. If your combined income was more than $44,000, up to 85% of your benefits would be taxable.

Q&A: When institutions won’t go paperless

Dear Liz: I have for years insisted on being paperless, not only for credit card statements and utility bills but also for tax documents such as the 1099-INT and 1099-DIV. My problem is that I receive income from two lifetime annuities and those of course generate 1099-R forms each year, which are mailed to me. I have requested to receive those as PDFs from the companies that execute those annuities, and they claim they cannot do so and are not required to. Are they right, or is there some federal regulation I can quote to force the issue?

Answer: The idea that a business can’t generate an electronic form for a customer is a little ridiculous, but there’s not much you can do to force these companies to get with the times.

The IRS requires that any person or entity that files more than 250 information returns — 1099s, W-2s and other forms that report potentially taxable income — do so electronically. But that requirement applies only to forms being sent to the IRS, says Mark Luscombe, principal analyst for Wolters Kluwer Tax & Accounting. There’s no requirement that such forms be issued electronically to individuals.

Which is unfortunate, since as you know getting forms electronically is much safer than having your private financial information sent through the mail. Since these companies are so insistent on clinging to paper, consider sending a letter — certified mail, return receipt requested — to the companies’ chief executives requesting that they join the 21st century.

Friday’s need-to-know money news

Today’s top story: 7 ways small-business owners can save on taxes in 2022. Also in the news: Check your DMs for debt collectors and scams, coupling your finances for Valentine’s Day, and how one couple reconciled their relationship with money.

7 Ways Small-Business Owners Can Save on Taxes in 2022
Seven things entrepreneurs and independent workers can do to lower their tax bills and their anxiety this filing season and in the year ahead.

Check Your DMs for Debt Collectors and Scams
Sites like Instagram, Facebook and Twitter could be where debt collectors slide into your DMs.

For Valentine’s Day, Couple Your Finances
Money coaches discuss how couples can combine finances and bank accounts while balancing autonomy and partnership.

How My Fiance and I Reconciled Our Relationships With Money
When differing financial attitudes collide, communicating openly is the best way to bridge the divide.

Tuesday’s need-to-know money news

Today’s top story: IRS scraps plan to use ID.me selfies for account verification. Also in the news: How to approach taxes if you traded cryptocurrency in 2021, only 23% of investors align their investments to their values, and how to choose the right cryptocurrency wallet.

IRS Scraps Plan to Use ID.me Selfies for Account Verification
The IRS walks back a directive that would have required taxpayers to submit a video selfie to access their online accounts.

Traded Cryptocurrency in 2021? Here’s How to Approach Taxes
With the tax-filing deadline just a few months away, those who traded cryptocurrency last year should understand their tax liability.

Survey: Just 23% of Investors Align Most Investments to Their Values
Socially responsible investing is gaining in popularity, but there’s a pronounced gap between those who value it and those who actually invest this way.

How to Choose the Right Cryptocurrency Wallet
All your cryptocurrency has to be stored somewhere—here’s how to choose the right crypto wallet for your needs.