Beware of the IRS Audit

by Gerri Willis

The IRS has scaled back. It’s not answering most taxpayer’s questions. It’s even printing fewer of its instructional booklets and it’s operating with a smaller budget. Does that mean this is the year to cheat on your taxes? The simple answer is no. The IRS may decide to look back at returns filed in the last three years when it audits a taxpayer and for what it deems a substantial error, the IRS may go back six years. So, even if you shade the truth or outright lie on this year’s return and you get away with it, the IRS can still come back years later and penalize you.

Let’s be clear. Most of us aren’t plotting how to get one over on the IRS. Instead, we’re trying to make sure we don’t get audited. The good news is you can control most of the things that will get your return a second look but not all of them. High income earners, for example, are more likely to get a second look because the IRS focuses on where the money is. Audit rates for $1 million plus earners is 10.7 percent, while the audit rate for those earning $200,000 or less is 0.78 percent. Likewise if your deductions are higher than the average taken by people in your tax bracket or if you are self-employed or own your own business, chances are your return will fall into the pile for further scrutiny. Things you can control that can result in an audit include: failing to report all your income, writing off losses for a hobby or business expenses.

Even the most careful filer can find themselves on the other side of an audit. If you do get a letter from the IRS, you should have a professional handle the inquiry. Don’t be surprised that you’ll have to back up your claims. It’s really all about the documentation. If you claim unreimbursed business expenses, for example, you have to prove each and every restaurant tab and plane ticket expense was paid for by you. That means you will need to have receipts in hand. Dominick Tavella, Diversified Private Wealth Advisors president advises taxpayers to answer only the questions that are asked and no more. Don’t get emotionally involved, says Tavella, the agent is only doing his or her job. Bottom line, if you’re audited, don’t panic.

To hear more from Tavella about what you need to know about the audit, join The Willis Report on the Fox Business Network tonight at 5p.m. ET.

User's Guide to Tax Deductions

by Gerri Willis

Still haven’t filed your taxes? You’re part of the 28 million Americans still scrambling to do so. The good news is that there are still ways to save money. Deductions reduce your taxable income and allow you to pay less. And, while you may be familiar with commonly used deductions, like the home mortgage and charitable giving tax breaks, there are literally hundreds more breaks you may not be familiar with. In 2012, the most recent year for which information is available, the 45 million filers of the long form reduced their gross income by $129 billion. Now do I have your attention?

While a deduction doesn’t pack the wallop of a tax credit, which reduces your taxes dollar for dollar, deductions can still bring your tax bill down. Here are a few you might think about using this year:

  • Deduct student loan interest up to $2,500. It’s good news for newly minted grads facing a mountain of college debt. They can deduct the interest thy paid unless their parents are still claiming them as dependents. The devil is in the details here. Be sure to check income limitations for using the deduction.
  • Help for the sandwich generation. Truth be told, this isn’t a deduction, but I get so many questions about breaks for boomers, I decided to include it. If you are supporting a parent and pay half of their support, you may claim your mom or dad or both as dependents and take the exemption amount on your taxes. Mom and Dad can’t be earning more than $3,950.
  • Teacher bonus. Classroom expenses of up to $250 can be deducted by teachers. Additional classroom expenses must be filed as miscellaneous itemized deductions.
  • Bad investments. You can do more than just prank call your financial advisor if you own worthless securities. You can actually write off stocks, bonds and other investments that have lost all their value. The law allows you to go back as far as seven years to find these beauties.

Finally, don’t be afraid to take the deductions you are due. The IRS expects you to utilize every tool at your disposal to reduce your taxes. And, good luck making the deadline!

Join us at 5 p.m. Eastern time on The Willis Report as Barbara Weltman, a contributing editor at J.K. Lasser’s Tax Guides, joins us to reveal even more little-known deductions.

Tax Season Solutions

by Gerri Willis

What if the worst happens this tax season? Like you miss the April 15 deadline for filing, or you can’t afford the taxes you owe to the Federal Government? The good news, is that there are solutions to even the thorniest tax problems.

Even the most organized among us sometimes find it difficult to meet the April 15 federal tax deadline. And, while it’s true you can file an extension that will allow you to put off the inevitable until Oct. 15, you’ll still have to estimate what you owe and stroke a check. Form 4868 is the form to use if you are applying for an extension. Estimate what you owe and pay the balance on time by tax day.

If your problem is that you simply owe more than you can afford, there’s a solution for that too. The IRS allows you to create your own installment plan at a cost of $52 for set-up. Plus, you’ll pay  interest and a monthly 0.25 percent late fee. File the request by April 15 and ask for an extension at the same time. Not filing at all is not an option. Fines and penalties escalate when you file nothing at all by the deadline.

Late filers can get help last minute by using tax software and filing online. The IRS allows you to use their free file option if your annual income is under $60,000. Go to www.irs.gov for details.

One word of warning: If you’ve filed and have been waiting for a refund with no luck, contact the IRS right away. One of the popular new scams is refund filching. Crooks file tax returns in advance of the actual person whose social security number they are using. They score a tax refund and you get nothing. Getting that money back is possible, but will take weeks, if not months.

Watch The Willis Report all this week at 5pm ET on the Fox Business Network for the latest on this year's tax filing season as we interview experts and answer your questions. 

User's Guide to Filing Your Taxes

by Gerri Willis

When Nina Olson, the nation's taxpayer advocate, predicted earlier this year that this tax season could be the worst for taxpayers and the IRS in 30 years, accounting pros were skeptical. But she's certainly looking prescient now. New estimates of the proportion of taxpayer phone calls to IRS help lines that are ignored have soared to 60 percent from 40 percent just weeks ago. What's more, the IRS itself is warning that refunds may be delayed for weeks. So much for the tax agency's mandate to assist taxpayers.

These days, the IRS is preoccupied with other problems. The stain of scandal from its campaign of harassment of politically conservative groups applying for non-profit status remains. And, Congress still hasn't forgotten the agency's lavish spending on conferences from a few years ago or its awarding of bonuses to IRS employees who failed to pay their taxes. IRS Commissioner John Koskinen complains that the tax agency's budget has been set back to 2012 levels by Congress, constraining its abilities to find tax cheats. But Olson says a better strategy is to focus on is the 98 percent of taxpayers who intend to comply with tax law. Answering their questions, she says, is a more efficient way to raise federal revenue. 

Despite these problems, there is no federal agency that strikes more fear into the hearts of Americans than the Internal Revenue Service, and for good reason. The IRS has the power to garnish your wages or seize your property for nonpayment and, unlike other creditors, they don't have to go to court to obtain a judgement against you to do so. Understanding tax law is virtually impossible unless you are a highly trained professional. There are four million words in the tax code, about five times longer than the Bible or 4.5 times longer than the complete works of Shakespeare. The language is arcane and obtuse. And for that reason, we spend more time and money every year complying with these complicated rules. Americans will spend an average of 16 hours completing their tax filings this year, of which eight hours will be record keeping, two is tax planning and five is form completion and submission (another hour is miscellaneous). The average cost is $260. 

A simpler tax code could go a long way toward helping Americans file taxes. In fact, the code has gotten more complicated rather than less with the White House's decision to give the IRS the job of enforcing Obamacare rules. The law generated 47 major changes to the tax code, the most sweeping changes to tax law in 20 years. The agency decides who gets insurance subsidies and who does not. It's their call whether the coverage offered by private companies meets the rigorous standards of the healthcare law. In short, the tax agency's mandate has expanded beyond tax collection into social policy implementation. Much of that is happening this year for the first time. New tax forms for Obamacare recipients are confusing. What's more, about 800,000 of the recipients received the wrong tax information from the federal government. One H&R Block study showed that 52 percent of Obamacare enrollees received too much in tax subsidies and now owe the federal government an average of $530 per filer. 

Bottom line, this year it is on you because the IRS is offering less and less help even as the laws are growing ever more complex.

Watch The Willis Report all this week at 5pm ET on the Fox Business Network for the latest on this year's tax filing season as we interview experts and answer your questions. 

 

Colleges & Universities Under Financial Scrutiny

by Gerri Willis

Attention college students (...and their moms and dads)!

The Department of Education has made public for the first time a list of about 500 colleges and universities the agency is concerned about and has placed under increased financial scrutiny.

Click the link:

https://www.documentcloud.org/documents/1698355-redacted-schools-on-hcm1-or-hcm2-as-of-3-1-2015.html

Don't miss The Willis Report tonight 5pm ET on the Fox Business Network. Find Fox Business in YOUR area http://www.foxbusiness.com/about/channel-finder/index.html

Colleges Going Broke?

by Gerri Willis

Parents and students have become obsessed by the rapid-fire growth in tuition demanded by the nation’s colleges and universities. And, it’s easy to see why. Over the last 30 years, tuitions and fees have risen twelve-fold. But the steady march of higher college costs has obscured a fact that students and their parents should be focused on: A not insignificant proportion of the nation’s 4,500 degree granting institutions are financially stressed. Though they charge higher and higher fees, student bodies are thinning and a large proportion, particularly private schools, are being forced to slash prices.

The problem began to get national attention when Sweet Briar College, an all-women institution located near Lynchburg, Va., announced it would close its doors. The 114-year old liberal arts college for women that started as a finishing school cited “insurmountable financial challenges” as the reason for its abrupt announcement earlier this year that it would close at the end of the academic year.

Financial woes aren’t limited to all-women colleges. Smaller schools have been merging with larger rivals for some time. And, according to Moody’s, a bond rating agency, operating revenue for four-year schools is on the decline. “We maintain a negative outlook for the U.S. higher education sectordue to lingering stagnation of operating revenue, coupled with mounting expense pressures and anticipated weakening of overall operating performance,” Moody analysts wrote in a recent report.

The agency reports 18 institutions that are “financially stressed,” listed below:

  • Alabama State University, AL
  • Ashland University, OH
  • Bard College, NY
  • Birmingham-Southern College, AL
  • Clark Atlanta University, GA
  • Dowling College, NY
  • Franklin Pierce University, NH
  • Glenville State College, WV
  • Life University, GA
  • Marymount University, VA
  • Mount Saint Mary’s University, MD
  • Regent University, VA
  • Sage Colleges, NY
  • St. Joseph’s College, NY
  • University of Puerto Rico, PR
  • Vermont Law School, VT
  • Wittenberg University, OH
  • Yeshiva University, NY

To be sure, the Moody’s designation does not mean these schools will shutter tomorrow. It simply means that at this time they are financially troubled. Unfortunately, even this list doesn’t tell the whole story. Bond rating agencies only cover the largest and best known universities in the country. Moody’s tracks just 560 schools, a fraction of the total. Much more trouble lurks at the thousands of smaller institutions that have a much lower profile. Private schools that rely on tuition for 80 percent or more of their funding are most prone to financial problems.

Parents, though, will want to identify problem schools this spring as they prepare to choose a school with their child by National Decision Day May 1. Moody’s rates just 30 schools Triple AAA, their highest rating. Those schools tend to be market-leading research universities, sometimes with highly profitable hospitals affiliated with the campus. Harvard University, the University of Virginia and Pennsylvania State University are the sorts of schools that are part of this elite club. Most troubled are smaller, regional schools some of which specialize in narrow fields of study. They rely on tuition for a large proportion of income.

Getting your hands on bond rating agency reports can be difficult. For that reason, check out the Department of Education annual watch list here: https://studentaid.ed.gov/about/data-center/school/composite-scores which contains the names of schools that have failed the department’s financial responsibility test. Even this list, though, is not perfect. Sweet Briar rated high on these tests in recent years. Another way to spot trouble: If a private school’s average discount on tuition is higher than 46 percent, trouble could be ahead. Slashing prices demonstrates financial stress. Also, ask whether the college is making its enrollment goals. Declining student body size is a sign of trouble.

Ultimately, the responsibility will fall to parents to make sure they are sending their dollars to a school that has the financial heft to hold up over time. Choosing a college or university is a decision that will impact your child for the rest of their life, responsible not just for the quality of their education, but what kind of jobs they land and the professional relationships they make.

Watch The Willis Report weeknights at 5pm ET on the Fox Business Network

 

How to Negotiate Financial Aid Offers

by Gerri Willis

One of the dirty little secrets of paying for college is that the price tag is negotiable. Although financial aid officers don’t like to admit it, negotiating prices has become commonplace. And, that’s good news because today’s price tags at $18,943 for in-state public schools, $32,762 out-of-state schools and $42,419 for private schools are simply unaffordable.

College tuition isn’t a tab most of us think can be haggled like a used car price, but declining enrollments mean that the nation’s 4,500 degree-granting institutions are fighting each other for the privilege of educating the nation’s brightest students. Truth is, universities have spent the past couple of decades beefing up their offerings, building elaborate gyms, dorms and student centers just as tuition-paying enrollees have dropped by 930,000 students in four years. In short, they’ve spent a lot to attract a declining clientele.

For that reason, Mom and Dad are finally getting a little leverage. To best take advantage of your better negotiating position, you’ll want to plan ahead, says Kal Chany, author of “Paying for College Without Going Broke,” and founder and president of Campus Consultants. First off, before you do anything else, get all your offers in hand. The standard procedure is that admission offices send out admission letters followed by financial aid offers (by letter or online) over the next six weeks. Chances are good that you will be mystified by the aid offer. That’s okay. The letters are typically loaded with jargon and even misleading information. Contact the aid office to make sure you understand every sentence. Then, compare your offers from different schools on an apples to apples basis to determine which school is giving you the most free money vis a vis the all-in price. It’s possible you can put one school against another to get more aid out of your top choice.

Next, Chany says ask the aid office for the procedure you should use to “appeal” your aid offer. Don’t use the word “negotiate,” or even “bargain.” Financial aid officers consider that presumptuous. Your best bet for success is if you’ve had a major change to your families’ finances. If one parent lost a job or has an expensive health problem, schools are likely to take that into consideration. You’ll need to send them detailed information to document your case, such as letters of dismissal or even medical bills.

Likewise if your household has grown or if your parents are responsible for another college student, a re-look is warranted. However, many schools are now also willing to match or beat offers from other schools. The flexibility of the student aid officer varies from school to school. But some private schools admit to granting appeals to as much as a third of their entering class.

One thing to keep in mind as you work to reduce your college bill: The student aid officer isn’t your friend. In fact, their job is to get your son or daughter to enroll with the smallest financial aid package possible. So, get ready to haggle. And, don’t miss that May 1 deadline for making the big decision where your child will attend college.

Join us tonight 5pm ET on The Willis Report as we help you and your family get the aid you deserve

A Guide to Federal Loans

by Gerri Willis

A free ride to college is a rare thing these days. If you are awaiting financial aid offers, you’re hoping for a grant windfall, but the reality is you will have to beef up your package with loans. Here’s a list of the federal loans, their details and annual award limits.

Federal Perkins loans: These loans are available for undergraduate and graduate students. Eligibility depends on financial need and the availability of funds at the college. The college is the lender and payment is owed to the college that makes the loan. Undergraduates can get up to $5,500, while graduate students can get up to $8,000. Total amounts cannot exceed $27,500 for undergrads and $60,000 for graduate students.

Direct subsidized loans: These loans are for undergraduate students who are enrolled at least halftime and have demonstrated financial need. Interest isn’t charged while the student is in school. The U.S. Department of Education is the lender and payment is owed to DOE. Annual awards are $3,500 to $5,500.

Direct unsubsidized loans: These loans are for undergraduate and graduate students who are enrolled at least halftime. Financial need is not required. The student is responsible for paying interest throughout the life of the loan. Payment is owed to the Department of Education.

Direct PLUS loans: These loans are for parents of dependent undergraduate students and for graduate or professional students. Financial need is not required. Students must be enrolled at least half-time and must be either a dependent undergrad for whom a parent is taking out a Direct PLUS loan or a graduate or professional student who is receiving Direct Plus loans. The borrower cannot have a negative credit history and is responsible for paying interest in all periods. Again, the Department of Education is the lender. The maximum award is the cost of attendance minus any other financial aid the student receives.

Join us tonight 5pm ET on The Willis Report as we help you and your family get the aid you deserve. 

User's Guide to Paying for College

by Gerri Willis

     Over the next six weeks, millions of high school seniors will get word whether the colleges they have applied to are offering them admission for this coming fall.  More than three and a half million applications will be filed, but only about two million will be accepted. Nobody, however, will be watching the mailbox more closely than Mom and Dad. That’s because acceptance letters are followed in short order by financial aid offers.

With the price of college rising 3 to 4 percent faster than inflation each year, anxiety about college aid is no surprise.  Average tuition, fees, room and board for students enrolled at in-state public schools for the 2014-15 school year will total $18,943. All-in costs for students attending public universities out-of-state will be $32,762. Opt for a private school, and you’re looking at a tab of $42,419 – for one year! Prices are so out of control that states as diverse as California and Michigan are offering educational aid to middle class families earning more than six figures. Frankly, the price hikes are nothing new.  Many families have grown accustomed to the fact that the average grad hitting the jobs market will be burdened by a $33,000 college debt load. Strangely, people balk at paying $4 for a gallon of milk, but when it comes to footing a $150,000 tab for four years of university, parents just grin and bear it.

Fortunately, there are ways to reduce this debt burden even after you’ve received the financial aid offer. All next week on The Willis Report, we’ll help you decode these aid letters and negotiate a better deal.  We’ll start by helping you understand the confusing jargon used by admission officers, and show you how to determine the real out-of-pocket costs. Beware of student loans masquerading as gift aid! It’s possible the letter won’t even include the full cost of sending Junior to school. Chances are things like books, transportation, even living expenses may be left out. If you have multiple offers, you’ll want to compare them, and use them as leverage to get more aid.

Don’t stop there. One of the dirty little secrets of applying for the financial aid package is that you can appeal the school’s decision. Thirty to 50 percent of families that ask for additional money get it. All next week, we’ll show you how to squeeze financial aid officers for the best aid package you can get.

Bottom line, keep an open mind. Some of the most expensive schools in the country offer the highest levels of free money, or financial aid. Sticker prices for college, like the ones on a car lot, are just a starting point in the negotiations. And, with enrollment numbers shrinking, many schools are eager to fill classrooms.

Join us starting March 2nd on The Willis Report as we help you and your family get the aid you deserve.

Your Retirement: Where's The Money?

by Gerri Willis

A new study showing that Americans’ average 401(k) balance has risen to $91,300 is being greeted with cheers from some. And, true enough it is the highest balance on record. But the reality is underwhelming. What I found troubling about the study, which is based on mutual fund giant Fidelity’s clients, is that workers and their employers contributed an average $9,670, the most since 2011, but their ending balances rose a measly 2 percent. Think about it, 2014’s market rocketed 11.4 percent, but workers’ 401(k)s barely budged. To be sure, most retirement investors don’t have every nickel and dime in stock mutual funds and ETFs. That would violate every premise of asset allocation. But a 2 percent return in an 11 percent world? No wonder so many of us are frustrated with our retirement nest eggs.

What’s more $91,300 is only a start. Consider if you retired today with that amount as your balance. If you followed the usual retirement practice of taking 4 percent out of your nest egg each year, you’d net $3,652 a year or $304 a month. Add in average monthly Social Security of $1,294 and your monthly budget is just $1,598. That’s hardly enough to relax on a beach with a drink in your hand.

Truth is, the way we plan and save for retirement cries out for reform. Savers take it on the chin for not setting aside enough dough, and that is true enough. But we also pay far too much in fees for the privilege of saving in a 401(k) and our choices are too often too narrow.

However, there is good news. Fidelity says that savers often have more than one account. IRA balances for 2014 were $92,200.  

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