Q&A: Once is enough for tax returns

Dear Liz: You’ve covered the fact that 2019 tax refunds, especially for those of us who filed paper returns, are delayed. After days of trying to get through to someone at the IRS, I actually connected with an agent. After he told me there are massive problems in their mailroom, I said I was going to file again except this time I would do it electronically. His response, “Don’t do that because it will be a mess.” Can you check with your IRS contacts and see if they are adamant against refiling electronically?

Answer: Adamantly and emphatically, the IRS does not want people to file duplicate returns. Not only will that add to the agency’s already massive backlog, but duplicate returns can trigger identity theft protocols that could make it harder for you to file your returns in the future.

“The only time you would really want to file a duplicate return is when the IRS sends you a notice that the return you previously filed was never received,” said Henry Grzes, lead manager for tax practice and ethics at the American Institute of Certified Public Accountants. In the past, those notices were sent out 12 to 18 months after the return was due.

Many people have been waiting months for their refunds because of pandemic-related shutdowns. The IRS is slowly reopening the processing centers that were closed, but the backlog is tremendous. Although the agency was able to send out more than 150 million stimulus checks and to process most electronically filed returns, more than 10 million unopened paper returns and other mail had accumulated by mid-May.

The agency has been bringing back its workforce in stages, and the last of the IRS’ processing centers is scheduled to open June 29. In addition to the backlog, they’ll be dealing with even more filings as the extended July 15 tax deadline looms. In short, it’s unclear how much longer you’ll have to wait to get your refund.

The fact that you got through to a human being at all means you beat the odds. As mentioned in the previous column, the IRS was struggling even before the pandemic because of congressional budget cuts. Last year the agency was able to answer fewer than 1 in 4 phone calls, according to the Taxpayer Advocate Service.

Q&A: Why tax refunds are taking so long to arrive

Dear Liz: You mentioned that people who file electronically and use direct deposit generally get their refunds much more quickly than those who file paper returns. That has always been true for me, but this year I filed in February and got a message that there was a problem but not to contact the IRS for 60 days. Then COVID-19 happened and the IRS basically shut down. Can you tell me when they will release my money?

Answer: No one knows. The IRS is still in the process of calling employees back to work and some operations centers won’t reopen until later this month.

As employees return, they’re confronting an almost incomprehensible backlog of paperwork and requests for help. Millions of paper returns are sitting in trailers, waiting to be input into the IRS’ computers, and no one has been available to process electronically filed returns that were flagged because of problems.

People who have already been waiting months may still have to wait several weeks more before they see their money or can even access someone who knows what’s happened to their returns. As a reminder, the IRS extended the tax filing deadline to July 15.

Q&A: Roth IRA penalties

Dear Liz: I read your column in which you talked about the Roth IRA and how withdrawals can be penalized if you’re younger than 59½ or the account is not 5 years old. But are there any exceptions? Can we withdraw from our Roth IRA and not pay any tax or penalty if we use the money to pay for our children’s college?

Answer: You can avoid the early withdrawal penalty, but you’ll owe taxes on any earnings you withdraw from a Roth IRA when you use the money for qualified higher education expenses.

To recap, you can always withdraw an amount equal to your total contributions to a Roth IRA without owing any taxes or penalties. You don’t even have to wait five years.

When you withdraw earnings, however, you can avoid taxes and penalties only if the account is at least 5 years old and you’re 59½ or older, or you’re taking the distribution because you’re totally and permanently disabled, you inherited the Roth IRA from the account owner or you’re using as much as $10,000 for a first-time home purchase.

If you don’t meet those qualifications, there are still ways to avoid the penalty if not the taxes.

Withdrawing money to pay qualified education expenses is one of those exceptions, as is paying medical expenses that exceed 7.5% of your adjusted gross income, withdrawing as much as $5,000 after the birth or adoption of a child, paying an IRS levy, taking a qualified reservist distribution if you’re a military reservist called to active duty or taking a series of substantially equal periodic payments.

Let’s say you’ve contributed $20,000 to a Roth that’s now worth $30,000. The first $20,000 you withdraw is tax- and penalty-free. The final $10,000 you withdraw would be taxable, but it would not face the 10% early withdrawal penalty if you used it for your children’s college tuition, fees, books, supplies or other qualified expenses.

How filing taxes could generate your coronavirus stimulus check

Dear Liz: My adjusted gross income in 2019 was too high for me to get a stimulus relief payment. However, my income this year will be much lower and I would qualify. Will I automatically get the stimulus payment when I file my 2020 return or is there something I must do to get the money?

Answer: Just file your 2020 taxes and you’ll get the money.

The recent relief checks of up to $1,200 per adult were created using a refundable credit that will apply to 2020 taxes. (Refundable credits reduce your tax bill dollar for dollar, with any excess refunded to the taxpayer.)

The structure of this refundable credit has created some confusion. Many people thought the payments would reduce the refund they would normally get, but that’s not the case. Rather, the relief checks are an advance on a credit that has been added to their 2020 taxes. When people file their 2020 tax returns, they’ll deduct their relief payments from that new credit. (And although the credits are refundable, the money doesn’t have to be paid back if you got a payment but your 2020 income turns out to be too high.)

If you didn’t get a payment but you qualify based on your 2020 income, you’ll get the credit when you file.

Tuesday’s need-to-know money news

Today’s top story: For self-employed, filing for unemployment benefits is getting easier. Also in the news: How to pay rent when you can’t afford it, what to keep in mind with credit card payments during the pandemic, and how to find out what you owe the IRS.

For Self-Employed, Filing for Unemployment Benefits Is Getting Easier
What you need to know before filing a claim.

How to Pay Rent When You Can’t Afford It
Exploring your options.

COVID-19: What to Keep in Mind With Credit Card Bill Payments
Reach out to your card issuer.

Use This IRS Tool to Check What You Owe Them
Making sure you’re up-to-date.

Thursday’s need-to-know money news

Today’s top story: IRS Data shows agency, filers slow down. Also in the news: How to ask your bank or lender for help, how to protect your health with a clean car, and what to do if you get a bill for your Coronavirus test.

IRS Data: Refunds Lag as Agency, Tax Filers Slow Down
You should get in line for your refund.

How to Ask Your Bank or Lender for Help
Don’t be intimidated.

Protect Your Health With a Clean Car
Protecting your health and your investment.

What to Do if You Get a Bill for Your Coronavirus Test
Navigating your way through the red tape.

Q&A: Taxes when inheriting a home

Dear Liz: My sister recently passed, and I acquired her home, which I’m selling (it’s now in escrow). I was looking at state tax forms for real estate transactions, and there is nowhere to check for a person who was given a home through death. Does this mean it is taxable? I was told since it was an inheritance that it was not taxable.

Answer: Technically, you weren’t given a home. You inherited it, and you’re correct that inheritances are typically not taxable. (Only six states impose inheritance taxes, and your state, California, is not one of them.) When you inherited the home, the property received what’s known as a step-up in tax basis, so that the appreciation that occurred during your sister’s lifetime is not taxed. You would owe tax only on any appreciation that occurred since you owned the property. A tax pro can help you figure out what you might owe.

Q&A: Withdrawing after-tax retirement funds

Dear Liz: I have been contributing to retirement accounts for many years, starting back in the early 1980s. Back then, there were no deductions for contributions. I made about $50,000 of after-tax contributions, meaning I’ve already paid taxes on that money. Later I switched to before-tax contributions. Now that I am retired and approaching 65, in my feeble mind, I believe I should be able to withdraw that $50,000 without having to pay any taxes on it. However, things that I’ve read indicate that it may not be that easy. Can you help with this question, or at least point me in the right direction?

Answer: You will escape taxes on a portion of any withdrawal you make from a retirement plan that has after-tax money in it, said Mark Luscombe, principal analyst at Wolters Kluwer Tax & Accounting. However, only Roth IRAs allow you to make totally tax-free withdrawals of your contributions at any time.

With a Roth IRA, any withdrawals are considered first to be a return of contributions. For example, if you contributed $50,000 to an account that’s now worth $200,000, the first $50,000 you withdraw would be tax- and penalty-free, regardless of your age, Luscombe said. If you were under 59½, additional withdrawals could be subject to taxes and penalties.

With regular IRAs and 401(k)s, the tax treatment is different. Withdrawals are considered to be a proportionate return of your after-tax money, Luscombe said. If you contributed $50,000 after tax and then withdrew the same amount from an account now worth $200,000, only one quarter of the money would escape tax.

Q&A: Coronavirus aid law lets you more easily tap retirement savings. That doesn’t mean you should

Dear Liz: You recently mentioned that a person can withdraw money from their 401(k) and spread the taxes over three years. If 401(k) is paid back, they can amend their tax returns to get those taxes refunded. Because of some major home repairs, I asked our accountant about this before we proceeded. He said that he hasn’t read anything official about the above. Would you please provide where you obtained your information, so we can decide if that’s an avenue we can use?

Answer: It’s possible you had this conversation before March 27, when the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act became law.

Otherwise, it’s kind of hard to imagine an accountant anywhere in the U.S. who hasn’t heard of the emergency relief package that created the stimulus checks being sent to most Americans, as well as the Paycheck Protection Program’s forgivable loans for businesses and the new coronavirus hardship withdrawal rules for 401(k)s and IRAs.

Those rules allow people who have been affected financially or physically by COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus, to get emergency access to their retirement funds if their employers allow it.

Even if you do have access to such a withdrawal, you should consider other avenues first.

The income taxes on retirement plan withdrawals can be substantial, even when spread over three years. Perhaps more importantly, you probably would lose out on future tax-deferred returns that money could have earned because few people who make such withdrawals will be able to pay the money back.

A home equity loan or line of credit is typically a much better option for home repairs, if you can arrange it.