Answers to Common Tax Questions

Death and taxes, as the saying goes, are the only two certainties in life. But another, if lesser, certainty centers around the same types of basic tax questions popping up each year. As the 2016 tax-return filing season nears, here are answers to some common tax queries:

What's new this tax season? 

Not a whole lot, at least compared to prior tax years. Legislation passed in late 2015 made several expiring provisions permanent, including the option of deducting state and local income taxes and a provision that allows seniors to donate IRA withdrawals to charities without having to declare them as taxable income.  Some numbers changed too, such as the personal exemption deduction rising to $4,050 from $4,000.

It's worth noting that the normal tax filing deadline this year is April 18, three days later than usual, and the Internal Revenue Service said it won't begin issuing refunds before Feb. 15 on returns that claim the earned income tax credit or the additional child tax credit.

Much bigger tax changes await for 2017 if president-elect Trump and Republicans in Congress carry through on their plans to cut income-tax rates, increase the standard deduction and make other notable moves that could affect most individual filers.

Do I need to file a return? 

The answer depends on a person's gross income, filing status and age. For most full-time workers, the answer is yes. For others, especially those 65 and over, it's a bit trickier.

For example, if you're under 65, you must file if your gross income last year was at least $10,350 (singles) or $20,700 (married filed jointly). If you're 65 and single, you file with gross income of at least $11,900. Married couples file if one spouse is 65 or over with joint income of at least  $21,950, or if both spouses have reached 65 with income of at least $23,200. Internal Revenue Service Publication 17, available at irs.gov, provides details. The IRS website also has an online questionnaire to guide you through the process.

Even if not required, it might be worthwhile to file if you might recoup estimated federal taxes withheld during the past year or if you made estimated payments that might be refundable. Filing also makes sense if you can claim the earned income tax credit or various other credits.

What types of tax-return assistance are available?

There are many choices, such as hiring certified public accountants or tax-return specialists known as "enrolled agents," or other preparers who lack those credentials. The IRS requires all paid preparers to have a PTIN or preparer tax identification number. It's also a good idea to find out if a person is affiliated with a professional organization and attends continuing education classes. Hiring a CPA is the surest way to know that your tax professional is up to date with continuing education and qualified to give you the best advice possible! 

How can I minimize the risks of becoming a victim of tax ID theft? 

Tax fraud mainly involves criminals filing returns in someone else's name in hopes of collecting that person's refund. Consequently, the earlier you file, the less chance a criminal has to beat you to the punch.

That's one tip offered by credit bureau Experian. Others include checking out the professional you hire to prepare your return, and asking that person what safeguards he or she uses to protect client information. If you file yourself electronically, make sure you're using a secure tax-preparation software service and that your machine is protected with anti-virus and anti-malware software — and don't file using public Wi-Fi. Check your credit report periodically for signs that your other financial accounts might have been compromised.

Part of any ID-theft defense involves exercising common sense. So don't divulge sensitive information if someone claiming to represent the IRS contacts you in an unsolicited phone call, email or text message. The IRS generally will mail a bill if you owe taxes and won't call to demand immediate payment, especially with prepaid debit cards, gift cards or wire transfers. Also, the agency won't ask for credit or debit card numbers over the phone, threaten to have you arrested or demand payment without giving you a chance to question or appeal the amount.

From USA Today

Published: 03/21/2017

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