Articles Posted in Tax

Probably one of the most frequent problems I encounter with new cases clients bring to my office is the lack of documentary evidence.

No one bothers to put down in writing that agreement with the brother-in-law or “friend” about the business they were starting together, the house one was going to buy (by signing on the mortgage) and which the other was going to “own” (by going on the title) and paying the mortgage, the investment they were going to make together, or any other manner of legal arrangements.

Then, when things “go south” and the “owner” does not pay the mortgage or the business fails (or even prospers, in which case you will see fights over profits), the differences in each person’s understanding of what was agreed becomes painfully obvious.

But what’s worse is that the prospective client has nothing in writing to back up his side of the story. It becomes a “he said / she said” dispute hard to win in court. Convincing a judge or jury of the rightness of your position is now just a coin flip.

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It’s tax season and the scam artists are also out in force. Even our law office — which specializes in tax matters — recently got an email asking us to pay a phony tax bill!

There are a number of scams out there with criminals pretending to be IRS agents and contacting persons by email and telephone trying to get them to pay up a phony tax debt.

The single most effective rule to remember is this: IRS does not make initial contact with taxpayers by email. If there is a tax problem, you will be notified by mail. Period.

Below is a press release from IRS warning taxpayers about telephone scams that are also common.

IRS Reiterates Warning of Pervasive Telephone Scam

R-2014-53, April 14, 2014
WASHINGTON — As the 2014 filing season nears an end, the Internal Revenue Service today issued another strong warning for consumers to guard against sophisticated and aggressive phone scams targeting taxpayers, including recent immigrants, as reported incidents of this crime continue to rise nationwide. These scams won’t likely end with the filing season so the IRS urges everyone to remain on guard.

The IRS will always send taxpayers a written notification of any tax due via the U.S. mail. The IRS never asks for credit card, debit card or prepaid card information over the telephone. For more information or to report a scam, go to www.irs.gov and type “scam” in the search box.

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There may be some good news for taxpayers with problems since IRS loosened up the rules for relief in 2012, according to recently-released reports by the agency.

The IRS changes for granting tax relief recognize the downturn in the economy.

From 2012 to 2013 the number of so-called “offers in compromise” (proposed agreements by taxpayers to IRS to discount back taxes) increased from 64,000 to 74,000. And, more importantly, the number of offers accepted jumped from 24,000 to 31,000 — a 29% increase.

Likewise, the IRS seems to be moderating its forced collection efforts. IRS levies on bank accounts and paychecks dropped from 2,961,162 to 1,855,095 — a 37% decrease. And the number of seizures dropped from 733,000 to 547,000, which amounts to 25% fewer seizures of property.

Says Morgan King, a California attorney and tax relief expert: “Clearly, the new policies are making it feasible for more honest but delinquent taxpayers to wipe the slate clean, become compliant with the tax laws, and get a fresh start.”

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It happens almost every week. Somebody comes into our office with a serious tax problem — caused by a shoddy tax preparer, either through incompetence, negligence or sometimes downright fraud.

It boggles my mind that there is no regulation of tax preparers. I thought I was the only one who had noticed this problem. But no.

The National Consumer Law Center, a consumer watch-dog group, has recently issued a very good report on this. Following is from the press release announcing the report:

(BOSTON) One of the most surprising aspects about paying taxes in the United States isn’t about marginal rates, deductions, or loopholes – it’s the lack of regulation for most tax preparers.

Each year, tens of millions of consumers rely upon paid tax preparers to help them file accurate and compliant tax returns, yet the majority of these preparers are not subject to any minimum educational, training,competency, or other standards.

A new report from the National Consumer Law Center (NCLC) documents how a lack of regulation has allowed incompetence and abuses by tax preparers to flourish.

“All 50 states regulate hairdressers, but only three regulate tax preparers,” stated Chi Chi Wu, staff attorney at the National Consumer Law Center (NCLC) and author of the report. “Yet an inaccurate tax return can cause a lot more harm than a bad haircut.”

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Bankruptcy is designed as a way for an insolvent debtor, one who cannot pay his or her creditors, to get a fresh start. Depending on the type of bankruptcy involved–Chapter 7, Chapter 11, or Chapter 13 for example–among the main functions of a bankruptcy court are to liquidate assets, discharge certain debts, or confirm a payment plan for non-dischargeable debts.

It can also serve as a way to dispute taxes, as illustrated in a recent Virginia bankruptcy court decision . In Harris v. Commonwealth, the debtor and his wife filed for Chapter 7 bankruptcy.

In Chapter 7, also known as a liquidation bankruptcy, a trustee takes control of the “nonexempt” assets of the debtor’s and reduces them to cash from which creditors will be paid. (Note that before the case is filed you and your attorney will know if there are any nonexempt assets, and can plan accordingly.) While certain unsecured debts are discharged under Chapter 7, certain types of debt, like child support and income taxes less than three years old, are not dischargeable.

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By now, many have heard the news that well-known former baseball player Jose Canseco recently filed for bankruptcy, mainly to deal with back taxes. What many have not seen, however, is the screed he published on the website, Vice.Com, and titled: “Jose Can Say So – I’m Broke and It’s the Government’s Fault.”

Undoubtedly he intended it as a tirade against the government. But interestingly it also serves very well as a testimonial to the dangers of tax debt I have written about in the website of our DC-based tax and bankruptcy law firm. Some excerpts from his harangue and my comments:

” . . . [I]t’s my duty to warn you: It can happen to anyone.

Tis the time for resolutions. As an attorney specializing in the financial woes of small businesses and the self-employed in DC, VA and MD and drawing from my 22 years of experience, here are three tips to consider as you draw up your list for 2012:

1) Keep books. It’s that simple. So many of the financial problems of small business could be solved simply by keeping regular books, including:

  • Cash flow problems. This is almost certainly the leading factor causing a bankruptcy filing. Often, the business will actually be profitable or have positive net value, but because the managers have not managed the finances to maintain liquidity, they cannot pay bills on a current basis. This, in turn, leads to the debt enforcement actions that force the business to seek bankruptcy court protection so that it can reorganize its finances. It might have been avoided if the managers kept regular books and knew where they stood in terms of cash, account receivables and payables.

The evidence is coming in, and it makes absolutely perfect sense: The federal and state governments are ramping up tax examinations and collections to bring in more money.

Just this morning in our tax and bankruptcy law firm: Five new cases, not including the other tax cases on my desk. I sensed this was coming. It’s a no-brainer for a policy-maker: Why raise taxes and antagonize the citizenry, when you can just enforce more aggressively what’s already on the books?

The difference between what is collected on time and what is legally owed to the government is known as the “tax gap.” IRS has examined the problem and published its a study.

Undoubtedly, as tax day approaches, there are people right now who are struggling with the question: “I haven’t filed in [fill in the blank]____ years. Should I file this year?” As a tax and bankruptcy lawyer serving individuals and businesses in Maryland, Virginia and DC, this law firm is very familiar with this taxpayer’s quandary.

On the whole, it’s better to file — even if you can’t pay — for a number of reasons:

• IRS, and the state tax authority, make a distinction when it comes to charging you with civil tax infractions. There are a separate set of penalties added to your tax bill for “failure to file” and “failure to pay.” Go ahead and file, at least. You’ll save yourself some money in penalties.

It feels like another kick in the teeth: You lose a home or rental property in a foreclosure or short sale, get a Form 1099-C from the mortgage company, and now you have to pay income taxes on it, too? Like a lot of things in the law, it depends.

It’s a curious, but absolutely-settled principle of tax law, that a debt that is forgiven by a lender becomes taxable income to the borrower. Basically the accounting works like this: When you took out the loan it’s not considered income because you have an obligation to pay it back. When, however, that obligation is removed, you become richer by the amount of debt that you will not have to pay, and the tax law says that must be recognized and you must pay income taxes on it.

Unfair, you may say, but it’s the law. In late 2007, federal lawmakers decided to give SOME relief to taxpayers losing personal residences and changed the law so that the resulting income could be excluded from income tax, if the forgiveness (also known as “cancellation in indebtedness” and

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