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Opinion Editorials

Major changes to IRS rules going into effect: get ready

(Editorial) If the IRS calls this year… tell them I’m not here. There are quite a few rule changes that many are not aware of, but they go into effect in short order.

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IRS changes are overwhelming

It’s truly shaping up to be one of the worst tax seasons in history. With all of the new legislation passed this year, it’s almost impossible to make heads or tails of it. Are the new regulations effective for 2013 or 2014? What are the new regulations? What happens if I file an extension? Well, rest assured one thing is certain; it is not going to be in your favor.

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First, here are some of the changes and or proposed changes as of Jan. 1st 2014:

  • For high income earners, the top ordinary tax rate will be 39.6 percent if, as a single filer, your taxable income is more than $400,000 ($450,000 for married couples filing jointly).
  • There is a new net investment income tax of 3.8 percent, also known as the Medicare surtax.
  • Personal exemptions and itemized deduction total will be reduced.
  • Affordable Care Act (don’t get me started) – if you don’t buy an insurance plan, you could face a penalty. The charge for 2014 is either 1 percent of your yearly household income or $95 per uninsured adult and $47.50 per child, up to $285 for a family. You pay whichever amount is higher. If you get insurance for part of the year, your penalty will be prorated. You’ll pay the penalty when you file your 2014 tax return in 2015.
  • Married same-sex couples now have the same federal tax filing responsibilities as heterosexual couples. The IRS instructed same-sex married couples to file jointly or as a married couple filing separately, even if the state where they live does not recognize their marriage. This will simplify same-sex couples’ federal filings, but if they must pay state income taxes, depending on their state’s law, they could still face filing two state returns as single taxpayers.
  • For 2013 returns filed in 2014, the IRS is now offering a simplified home office deduction. The new optional deduction is $5 for each square foot of home office space, up to a maximum of 300 square feet. That comes to a maximum $1,500 annual home office deduction. The IRS estimates that this option will save home-office filers who claim it’s an estimated 1.6 million hours of paperwork and record keeping collectively. Instead of filling out Form 8829, you’ll use a worksheet in the Schedule C instruction book and enter your simplified home-office deduction amount on Schedule C.
  • Inflation had a nominal effect on around 40 tax provisions. Most notable is that income brackets were widened, meaning you can earn a more next year without being bumped into a higher tax bracket. Most people claim the standard deduction, and those amounts for each filing status in 2014 were increased slightly, as was the personal exemption amount, going from $3,900 to $3,950. However, the amounts you can contribute to your workplace pension plan and individual retirement account in 2014 have stayed the same as in 2013.

Is there anything positive about these changes?

There is one good thing about all these IRS changes for this tax season – you get more time to file your return. Ok, not technically. Due to the federal government shut down for 16 days last October, the IRS says Jan. 31, 2014, is the earliest it will be ready to process individual tax returns. That date might even be pushed back to Feb. 4 in order for the agency to complete system updates and tests, which were interrupted by the shutdown.

The IRS promises to make an official announcement of the filing season start date as soon as it knows for sure. You can go ahead and submit your return electronically as soon as you’re ready; your e-filer will hold it until the IRS is ready to accept returns. If, however, you file a paper return, the IRS encourages you to wait until Jan. 28 (or later) to mail it.

So how can one avoid all the complication and mess?

Coming from a small business owner who has had his fair share of enjoyment of that 14% interest payment to the IRS, the absolute best thing you can do is DO NOT FILE YOUR OWN TAXES. Hiring a great accountant and/or CPA is well worth the weight in gold that they, or the IRS, will charge.

That is the only way I know to avoid all the hassle and aggravation. They also act as an insurance policy between you and the IRS should you have to go through an audit.

Oh yeah and then there’s this:

The IRS effort to regulate professional tax preparers will continue in 2014, both in the court system and on Capitol Hill. The agency wants to register all tax preparers who aren’t already subject to certain standards (that is, attorneys, Enrolled Agents or CPAs) and require they pass competency exams and take continuing education classes. The IRS believes this will help reduce incorrectly and fraudulently filed returns.

Three tax pros filed a federal lawsuit against the IRS, winning the first court round. An appellate court decision is pending. Meanwhile, legislation has been filed in the House to give the IRS statutory authority to regulate tax preparers. Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus also has suggested such preparer oversight in his tax reform working drafts. A final decision on tax preparer standards could come in 2014, affecting taxpayers who seek professional help in fulfilling their tax responsibilities.

With 16 years of industry experience, earning his CCIM designation in 2007, Smith has held various leadership positions from CCIM Chapter President, CCIM Institute Regional VP, to Partner at McFalls & Smith International Development. Today, Smith is a commercial sales expert at Prudential PenFed Realty's Commercial Division, an Advisory Board Member at the University of Baltimore's Merrick School of Business, and a Professor at the Professional Development Institute. Smith has educated hundreds of REALTORS, investors, and small business owners, helping them find success through Commercial Real Estate.

Business Finance

How to survive a recession in the modern economy

(OPINION EDITORIAL) Advice about surviving a recession is common these days, but its intended audience can leave a large gap in application.

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There’s no question of whether or not we’re in a recession right now, and while some may debate the severity of this recession in comparison to the last major one, there are undoubtedly some parallels–something Next Avenue’s Elizabeth White highlights in her advice on planning for the next few months (or years).

Among White’s musings are actionable strategies that involve forecasting for future layoffs, anticipating age discrimination, and swallowing one’s ego in regards to labor worth and government benefits like unemployment.

White isn’t wrong. It’s exceptionally important to plan for the future as much as possible–even when that plan undergoes major paradigm shifts a few times a week, at best–and if you can reduce your spending at all, that’s a pretty major part of your planning that doesn’t necessarily have to be subjected to those weekly changes.

However, White also approaches the issue of a recession from an angle that assumes a few things about the audience–that they’re middle-aged, relatively established in their occupation, and about to be unemployed for years at a time. These are, of course, completely reasonable assumptions to make…but they don’t apply to a pretty large subset of the current workforce.

We’d like to look at a different angle, one from which everything is a gig, unemployment benefits aren’t guaranteed, and long-term savings are a laughable concept at best.

White’s advice vis-a-vis spending is spot-on–cancelling literally everything you can to avoid recurring charges, pausing all non-essential memberships (yes, that includes Netflix), and downgrading your phone plan–it’s something that transcends generational boundaries.

In fact, it’s even more important for this generation than White’s because of how frail our savings accounts really are. This means that some of White’s advice–i.e., plan for being unemployed for years–isn’t really feasible for a lot of us.

It means that taking literally any job, benefit, handout, or circumstantial support that we can find is mandatory, regardless of setbacks. It means that White’s point of “getting off the throne” isn’t extreme enough–the throne needs to be abolished entirely, and survival mode needs to be implemented immediately.

We’re not a generation that’s flying all over the place for work, investing in real estate because it’s there, and taking an appropriate amount of paid time off because we can; we’re a generation of scrappy, gig economy-based, paycheck-to-paycheck-living, student debt-encumbered individuals who were, are, and will continue to be woefully unprepared for the parameters of a post-COVID world.

If you’re preparing to be unemployed, you’re recently unemployed, or you even think you might undergo unemployment at some point in your life, start scrapping your expenses and adopt as many healthy habits as possible. Anything goes.

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Opinion Editorials

How strong leaders use times of crises to improve their company’s future

(EDITORIAL) We’re months into the COVID-19 crisis, and some leaders are still fumbling through it, while others are quietly safeguarding their company’s future.

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Anthony J. Algmin is the Founder and CEO of Algmin Data Leadership, a company helping business and technology leaders transform their future with data, and author of a new book on data leadership. We asked for his insights on how a strong leader can see their teams, their companies, their people through this global pandemic (and other crises in the future). The following are his own words:

Managers sometimes forget that the people we lead have lives outside of the office. This is true always, but is amplified when a crisis like COVID-19 occurs. We need to remember that our job is to serve our teams, to help them be as aligned and productive as possible in the short and long terms.

Crises are exactly when we need to think about what they might be going through, and realize that the partnership we have with our employees is more than a transaction. If we’ve ever asked our people to make sacrifices, like working over a weekend without extra pay, we should be thinking first about how we can support them through the tough times. When we do right by people when they really need it, they will run through walls again for our organizations when things return to normal.

Let them know it’s okay to breathe and talk about it. In a situation like COVID-19 where everything is disrupted and people are now adjusting to things like working from home, it is naturally going to be difficult and frustrating.

The best advice is to encourage people to turn off the TV and stop frequently checking the news websites. As fast as news is happening, it will not make a difference in what we can control ourselves. Right now most of us know what our day will look like, and nothing that comes out in the news is going to materially change it. If we avoid the noisy inputs, we’ll be much better able to focus and get our brains to stop spinning on things we can’t control.

And this may be the only time I would advocate for more meetings. If you don’t have at least a daily standup with your team, you should. And encourage everyone to have a video-enabled setup if at all possible. We may not be able to be in the same room, but the sense of engagement with video is much greater than audio-only calls.

We also risk spiraling if we think too much about how our companies are struggling, or if our teams cannot achieve what our organizations need to be successful. It’s like the difference in sports between practice and the big game. Normal times are when we game plan, we strategize, and work on our fundamentals. Crises are the time to focus and leave it all on the field.

That said, do not fail to observe and note what works well and where you struggle. If you had problems with data quality or inefficient processes before the crisis, you are not fixing them now. Pull out the duct tape and find a way through it. But later, when the crisis subsides, learn from the experience and get better for next time.

Find a hobby. Anything you can do to clear your head and separate work from the other considerations in your life. We may feel like the weight of the world is on our shoulders, and without a pressure release we will not be able to sustain this level of stress and remain as productive as our teams, businesses, and families need us.

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Opinion Editorials

Declutter your quarantine workspace (and brain)

(EDITORIAL) Can’t focus? Decluttering your workspace can help you increase productivity, save money, and reduce stress.

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It’s safe to say that we’ve all been spending a lot more time in our homes these last few months. This leads us to fixate on the things we didn’t have time for before – like a loose doorknob or an un-alphabetized bookshelf.

The same goes for our workspaces. Many of us have had to designate a spot at home to use for work purposes. For those of you who still need to remain on-site, you’ve likely been too busy to focus on your surroundings.

Cleaning and organizing your workspace every so often is important, regardless of the state of the world, and with so much out of our control right now, this is one of the few things we can control.

Whether you’re working from a home office or an on-site office, take some time for quarantine decluttering. According to The Washington Post, decluttering can increase your productivity, lower stress, and save money (I don’t know about you, but just reading those three things makes me feel better already).

Clutter can cause us to feel overwhelmed and make us feel a bit frazzled. Having an office space filled with piles of paper containing irrelevant memos from five years ago or 50 different types of pens, has got to go – recycle that mess and reduce your stress. The same goes with clearing files from your computer; everything will run faster.

Speaking of running faster, decluttering and creating a cleaner workspace will also help you be more efficient and productive. Build this habit by starting small: try tidying up a bit at the end of every workday, setting yourself up for a ready-to-roll morning.

Cleaning also helps you take stock of stuff that you have so that you don’t end up buying more of it. Create a designated spot for your tools and supplies so that they’re more visible – this way, you’ll always know what you have and what needs to be replenished. This will help you stop buying more of the same product that you already have and save you money.

So, if you’ve been looking to improve your focus and clearing a little bit of that ‘quarantine brain’, start by getting your workspace in order. You’ll be amazed at how good it feels to declutter and be “out with the old”; you may even be inspired to do the same for your whole house. Regardless, doing this consistently will create a positive shift in your life, increasing productivity, reducing stress, and saving you money.

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