The Tax Man Cometh

Day 105 - Tax Day!
Image by brianjmatis via Flickr

Is the IRS after you?  Did you forget to file your tax returns for the last 10 years?  Are you worried that they are going to seize your bank accounts, leaving you broke and unable to finance your latest Pokemon acquisition?

There are many reasons people neglect to file their tax returns.  None of the reasons are good.  The usual reason is that you know you’ll owe money you can’t afford to pay, so you wrap yourself in denial and attempt to delay the inevitable.   For future reference, the government always wins.  Not filing is a temporary solution at best, and a really bad one at that.   Not paying just guarantees that you will owe more penalties than if you had filed and gotten on a repayment plan.   Avoiding your tax return will come back to haunt you eventually.

If you haven’t filed your tax returns, you need to do so as soon as possible.   The longer you wait, the fewer options you have and the more likely the account seizures.   Keep your money under your own control.  Another problem with not filing is that the IRS will estimate your tax debt.   The estimate is always in their favor.   If you file, you get to list your deductions.  If you don’t file, they give you the standard deduction and ignore almost everything in your favor.   In some cases, this can mean they think you owe $10,000 when in reality, if you file, you will only possibly owe $1500.

To get started, you need to do is call the IRS at (800) TAX-1040.   This call serves three purposes.

First, you need to confirm which years you need to file.   Simply ask for the last year in which you have filed.

Second, request a transcript of all of your 1099s and W-2s.   These are the forms that your employers, investments, and banks have sent to the IRS detailing your income.   Over the years, it’s easy to lose paperwork, so this will ensure that you’re records match theirs.  Depending on the time of the year, you should have the files in under a week.  You’ll get one per delinquent year.

Third, this call gives you a chance to get on the “good debtor” list.   You may have to get transferred to the collections department, but make sure you get someone to update your file with the fact that you are making good on your taxes.  They will probably give you 30 days to file.  Treat this as a hard deadline.

[caption id="" align="alignleft" width="196" caption=" "] [/caption]Now that you have all of your paperwork, it’s time for the long slog.   You have to do several years worth of returns, generally in one or two sittings.   You can usually find back years of Turbo Tax on Amazon for cheap.  As of this writing, the back years are under $10 per year.   While you are filing, please keep in mind any charitable donations or business expenses you may have had.    If you are missing a receipt for a major business purchase, never fear!    The IRS does accept reasonable alternatives.   I know of one case of an individual writing a letter to the IRS that read:

To Whom it May Concern:

Please accept this letter as a receipt for the purchase of a snowplow in the amount of $3000.

If you do this, you had better be able to back it up with the existence of an actual snowplow.

After you prepare your returns, look at the amounts you owe.  You can only collect a refund for the last three years.   If you owe more than you can afford to pay, you have two option, payment plans or settlement.

Payment plans involve delayed or continual payments.  From IRS.gov:

  • Request an Extension of Time to Pay — Based on the circumstances, a taxpayer could qualify for an extension of time to pay. The IRS is willing to allow extensions of time to pay in order to assist in tax debt repayment. A taxpayer can request an extension from 30 to 120 days depending on the specific situation. Taxpayers qualifying for an extension of time to pay of 30 to 120 days generally will pay less in penalties and interest than if the debt were repaid through an installment agreement. Taxpayers can request an extension of time to pay using the Online Payment Agreement option available on thisWeb site.

  • Apply for an Installment Agreement — The IRS may allow taxpayers to pay any remaining balance in monthly installments through an installment agreement. Taxpayers who owe $25,000 or less may apply for a payment plan electronically, using the Online Payment Agreement application. Alternatively, taxpayers may attach a Form 9465, Installment Agreement Request, to the front of their tax return. Taxpayers must show the amount of their proposed monthly payment and the date they wish to make their payment each month. The IRS charges a $105 fee for setting up an installment agreement. The fee is reduced to $52 for those who establish a direct debit installment agreement and $43 for those with an income below a certain level (for more information, see Form 13844). Taxpayers are required to pay interest plus a late payment penalty on the unpaid taxes for each month or part of a month, after the due date that the tax is not paid. A taxpayer who does not file the return by the due date — including extensions — may have to pay a failure-to-file penalty.

The IRS must accept your payment plan if your tax debt is under $10,000 and your proposed plan will pay it off within three years.

The other option is a settlement, or Offer in Compromise.  Generally, only 10-15% of such offers are accepted.  The IRS will rarely accept the off if they feel they can collect the debt for less than the amount owed.  Don’t believe the guys on TV who pretend it is an effortless solution.  From IRS.gov, the three acceptable reasons for OIC are as follows:

1. Doubt as to Collectibility – Doubt exists that the taxpayer could ever pay the full amount of tax liability owed within the remainder of the statutory period for collection.

Example: A taxpayer owes $20,000 for unpaid tax liabilities and agrees that the tax she owes is correct. The taxpayer’s  monthly income does not meet her necessary living expenses. She does not own any real property and does not have the ability to fully pay the liability now or through monthly installment payments.

2. Doubt as to Liability – A legitimate doubt exists that the assessed tax liability is correct. Possible reasons to submit a doubt as to liability offer include: (1) the examiner made a mistake interpreting the law, (2) the examiner failed to consider the taxpayer’s evidence or (3) the taxpayer has new evidence.

Example: The taxpayer was vice president of a corporation from 2004-2005. In 2006, the corporation accrued unpaid payroll taxes and  the taxpayer was assessed a trust fund recovery penalty as a responsible party of the corporation. The taxpayer was no longer a corporate officer and had resigned from the corporation on 12/31/2005.  Since the taxpayer had resigned prior to the payroll taxes accruing and was not contacted prior to the assessment, there is legitimate doubt that the assessed tax liability is correct.

3. Effective Tax Administration – There is no doubt that the tax is correct and there is potential to collect the full amount of the tax owed, but an exceptional circumstance exists that would allow the IRS to consider an OIC. To be eligible for compromise on this basis, a taxpayer must demonstrate that the collection of the tax would create an economic hardship or would be unfair and inequitable.

Example: Mr. & Mrs. Taxpayer have assets sufficient to satisfy the tax liability and provide full time care and assistance to a dependent child, who has a serious long-term illness. It is expected that Mr. and Mrs. Taxpayer will need to use the equity in assets to provide for adequate basic living expenses and medical care for the child. There is no doubt that the tax is correct.

If you have a settlement accepted, you have three options for payment.  A lump-sum payment must be paid in 5 installments or less, a short-term payment plan may be paid over 2 years, and the long-term repayment option has no set payment.   Each of these options must meet differing levels of potential repayment, including figuring your real assets(your house and investments).  In addition, you must include a non-refundable first payment and a $150 application fee when you apply for the settlement.

No matter which option you take, you can’t run from government debt.  It will catch up to you and that will always be more painful that dealing with it on your own terms.

Update:  This post has been included in the Carnival of Personal Finance.

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Watching My Debt

NEW YORK - MAY 20:  In this photo illustration...
Image by Getty Images via @daylife

I’m so excited.  Yesterday, I transferred the final payment for my personal line of credit.  This LOC was originally my overdraft protection LOC that had worked it’s way up to $6000 at 21%.    Today, it is non-existent.

We started to pay down debt on April 15th, 2009.   Since that time, we have paid off  $22, 370.70 of our debt.   That isn’t $22,370.00 in payments, that is a $22k reduction in our total debt!   By my calculations, we have made approximately $28,000 in payments to get that reduction.  Next week, we cross the line for 25% of debt eliminated.  This is a good day.

Over the last 14 months, we’ve settled into much more responsible spending and saving habits.   It no longer feels like we’re sacrificing our lifestyle.   We’ve built up a useful emergency fund and set aside money for some things that we know are coming, like braces for my son.   In 6 weeks, we are taking our first debt-less vacation.

Now, we start on the long slog to the end.   We have 3 debts left to pay:  Our last car loan(ever!),  one credit card which was an accumulation of pretending we were making progress on our debt by combining many debts onto one card, and finally, our mortgage.    The car will be paid by the end of the year.  When summer childcare expenses are over, we’ll be making triple payments until it is gone.    After that, we have a long, slow couple of years paying off the credit card.

It hasn’t always been easy, but right now, it feels good to look at the progress we’ve made.

Update:  This post has been included in the Carnival of Debt Reduction.

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Fall From Grace

When you accumulate a certain level of debt, it feels like you’re wading through an eyeball-deep pool of poo, dancing on your tiptoes just to keep breathing.   Ask me how I really feel.Tip Toe

It shouldn’t be a surprise that I’m in debt.  We have gone over this before.   The story isn’t one of my proudest, so I’ve never talked much about how it happened.

Our debt was entirely our fault.  We messed up and dug our own poo-pool.   There were no major medical bills, no extended unemployment, just a strong consumer urge and an apparent need for instant gratification.  Delayed gratification wasn’t a skill I’d considered learning.  The idea of it was a thoroughly foreign concept.   Why wait when every store we visited offered no payments/no interest for a year?   We didn’t give much thought to what would happen when the year was up.

We got married young.   We bought our house young.  We started our family young.   We did all of that over the course of two years, well before we were financially ready.   Twenty years old, we had excellent credit and gave our credit reports a workout.   Credit was so easy to get.    By the time I was 22, we had a total credit limit more than twice our annual income.  We fought so hard to keep up with the Joneses.   A new pickup, a remodel on our house.   Within a month of paying off the truck, I got a significant raise and rushed out to buy a new car.

Every penny that hit the table was caught in a net of lifestyle expansion.   I was bouncing on my tiptoes.

Four months into my new car payment, I was laid off.  There’s me, hoping for a snorkel.  A week later, we found out our son was going to be a big brother.   Our pool had developed a tide.

We killed the cable and cut back on everything else and…managed.   Money was tight, but we got by.  I got a new job, but had we learned any lessons?  Of course not.   We got a satellite dish, started shopping the way we always had.  Times were good, and could never be bad.  We had such short memories.

Fast forward a couple of years.   Baby #3 is on the way while baby #2 is still in diapers.   Daycare was about to double.  Daddy started to panic.   I built a rudimentary budget and realized there was no way to make ends meet.   There just wasn’t enough cash coming in to cover expenses.   That’s when I made my first frugal decision:  I quit smoking.  That cut the expenses right to the level of our income.  It was tight, but doable.

There was still one serious problem.    Neither one of us could control our impulse shopping.   For a time, I was getting packages delivered almost every day.  It was never anything expensive, but it was always something.  Little things add up quickly.

Last spring, I realized we couldn’t keep going like that.   I started looking into bankruptcy.   Somehow, we managed to toss ourselves into the deep end of the pool.  We had near-perfect credit and no way to maintain it.

While researching bankruptcy, I found our life preserver.   We put together a budget.   We cut and…it hurt.     It’s taken a year, but every bill we have is finally being tracked.   We have an emergency fund and we are working towards our savings goals.    It hasn’t been an easy year, but we are making progress.    We’ve eliminated 15% of our debt and opened out budget to include some “blow money” and an occasional date night.   We are always looking for ways to decrease our bottom line and increase the top line.   Most important, we are actually working together to keep all of our expenses under control, with no hurt feelings when we remind ourselves to stay on track.

We are finally standing flat-footed, head and shoulders above the poo.

Update:  This post has been included in the Carnival of Personal Finance.

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Debt Scams

When you are up to your eyeballs in debt, praying for a step-stool, sometimes life–more accurately, con-artists–try to trip you when you are vulnerable and look for a solution.  They aren’t muggers on the street.  They come at you wearing ties, invite you to a real office, with real furniture and a real nameplate on a real desk.   They are a real company, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t trying to scam you out of the little money you have left to put towards your debt.

Yes, I am talking about debt management scams.  These scams come in 4 main varieties.

Debt Settlement companies instruct you to stop paying your bills completely and send them the money instead to be placed in a settlement fund.  When your creditors get desperate enough, they will be willing to settle for pennies on the dollar.

In theory, this can be a good strategy for some debtors.  Unfortunately, it has some drawbacks, even if the company is legitimate.   They tend to charge high fees as a percentage of your deposits.  Some take another fee when a settlement is accepted.   The entire time you are building your settlement fund, your credit rating is sinking, leaving you open to being sued or garnished.  The bad companies take the fund and run, while even the good companies can’t guarantee your creditors will play ball.

Ultimately, they aren’t doing anything you can’t easily do yourself.    If you want to go the settlement route, stop making your payments and funnel the money into a savings account that you will use to offer settlements from.  It takes discipline, but there is no upside to paying someone else for the same function.

Debt Management plans are used when you owe more than you can afford to pay. These companies work with your creditors to adjust interest rates and minimum payments and they try to get some fees waived for you.

A good company will work with you and your creditors to make sure everyone is working together towards the goal of eliminating the debt.   A bad company will tell you they are working with your creditors while ignoring any contact from the creditor.  They’ll tell you the creditor isn’t willing to negotiate while never stepping up to the negotiation table.   Another trick is to offer the creditor a set payment, with a “take it or leave it” clause.  Any input from the creditor is interpreted as a refusal to participate.   This, coupled with high fees paid by the debtor, make debt management firms a risky proposition.  Most states require the firms to be licensed.  Check to make sure they are before giving them any information.

Debt/Credit Counseling companies work with you to establish a budget and eliminate expenses; in effect, they are training you to be in control of your finances.  They are often organized as a nonprofit, but not always.

Some–the sleazy ones–lie about what they are doing, or attempt to misconstrue what you are agreeing too.   Be careful not to use your home as collateral to consolidate unsecured debt and don’t walk into a Chapter 13 bankruptcy without that being your intention.  Both of those are common debt counseling scams.  If the company isn’t able to provide all of the details of a transaction–company name, address, licensing information–or they aren’t willing to spend as much time as necessary explaining the details of the transaction, walk away.   This is your life, you are in charge of it.  Don’t let anyone bully or prod you into signing something you aren’t comfortable with.

Credit Repair is almost always a scam. There are ways to get correct bad information removed from your credit report.  If the information is correct, those methods are illegal.   There are two legal methods to repair your credit.  First, stop generating bad credit.  Make your payments on time and eventually, the bad items will fall off.   Second, write letters disputing the actual incorrect items on your credit report.  There are no quick fixes, and anybody telling you different is flirting with a jail sentence, possibly yours.

How do you avoid the scammers?

  • Be skeptical. If it looks to good to be true, it probably is.  There is no such thing as a magic wand to fix your credit and make your debt disappear.  Bankruptcy + 10 years of your life is the closest thing to magic credit repair in this world.
  • Only use a legitimate credit counselor. Verify them through the Better Business Bureau and the National Foundation for Credit Counseling (1-800-388-2227 or www.nfcc.org)
  • Check the license. Most states require credit and debt counselors to be licensed.  If they’re not, run away and report them.
  • Read the find print.   Don’t sign anything you don’t understand.  Like every other piece of your financial life, own the transaction. Know what your are doing, or don’t do it.
  • Are they willing to work with you? If they’ve got a generic plan that doesn’t account for your specific situation, they are probably a con.  At the very least, they are a worthless company and a waste of both time and money.
  • Are they willing to work with your creditors? If not, they won’t be accomplishing anything for you.
  • How much do they cost? Higher fees may not be an indicator of a scam, but call around and find out if they are in the right ballpark.  Triple or quadruple the going rate is a sign of someone who will disappear late one night, with your hopes, dreams and savings in tow.
  • Above all else, trust your gut. If it doesn’t feel right, it probably isn’t.  There is nothing a counselor can do that can’t wait a few days while you check them out.

There is no magic bullet to kill debt.   You’re not fighting a werewolf, you’re fighting a lifetime of bad or unfortunate choices and circumstances.  It’s important to keep a realistic outcome in mind.

Update:  This post has been included in the Carnival of Debt Reduction.

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