Tax deadline day – April 15, 2014, is just about to hit American taxpayers.
If you haven’t filed yet, try not to rush (too much) through the process. That’s where you can make mistakes or lose money to the federal government that otherwise belongs in your bank account.
One potential stumbling block: preconceived notions of where to put your focus. Over-emphasizing what professionals call “tax myths” can leave big money on the table. Here are five myths cited by accountants, tax preparers and other tax professionals who reached out to Investopedia.
1. Getting a refund means you’re a savvy tax filer.
Many people enjoy receiving a big tax refund from the IRS every year. That’s a big mistake, says Brian Vnak, director of integrated advice strategies at Minneapolis-based Wealth Enhancement Group. “If you like loaning money and not earning interest, then big tax refunds are your best friend,” explains Vnak. “A wiser approach is to implement tax-saving strategies to minimize the amount of tax you pay. Once this plan is established, reducing withholding and estimated payment amounts should be your best friend.”
There is another downside to refunds: The IRS is authorized - and in some cases required - to offset federal income-tax refunds against certain other taxpayer liabilities. “These include federal and state taxes due for prior years, past due child-support payments and student loans that are in default,” says Christine Reuther, a tax attorney at Radnor, Pa.-based McCausland Keen & Buckman. “If you owe any of those types of debts, you would be better off using the extra withholding to pay down the obligations as soon as possible instead of having it taken at the end of the year when the past-due liabilities have already accumulated penalties and interest.”
2. I’ll be tax-free when I retire.
Some retirees have so little income that they don't pay any tax, says Randi L. Jowers, a Wilmington, Del,-based certified public accountant. But it's unwise to base what you do now on that assumption. If you do at all well during your working years, you will have to pay taxes after you retire. “In most cases, people are withdrawing money from retirement plans, such as a 401(k), to support their retirement,” she explains. “Contributions to a 401(k) plan are tax free when made, so the amounts withdrawn from the accounts are taxable when received.”
In some cases, retiring could even make your taxes worse. “When a person retires, his or her income is typically replaced with Social Security, pensions, investment income and eventually required minimum distributions from IRAs,” notes Vnak. “This means that taxable income after age 70 is often higher than before retirement. In that case, not only is the person not tax free, he or she may pay even more in taxes.”
One way to cut future taxes now, is to open a Roth IRA before April 15. According to IRS rules, withdrawals from a Roth IRA are tax free if you are 59-and-a-half or older – or your IRA account is five or more years old. That’s one way to guarantee that at least some of your post-career income really is tax free.
3. You can “audit-proof” your tax return.
No, actually, you can’t. “Nobody can audit-proof their tax return,” says John C. Brandy, a Washington state-based financial advisor. “We don’t get to know what the guidelines are for those who get chosen, but it is reasonable to assume that a pattern of questionable deductions or unusually high income, or typically high-income professions all have a greater chance of being selected for audit.
The good news? Your overall chances of being audited are not great, says Mark Luscombe, a principal analyst at Wolters Kluwer Tax & Accounting, in Riverwoods, Ill. And even if you do get audited, it's usually not that intimidating. Most “audits” are “correspondence audits,” conducted by mail only. Even face-to-face audits generally involve individuals coming to the IRS office, not the IRS coming to their home. “The IRS is more likely to visit business locations when auditing business tax returns,” he says.
Still, that doesn’t mean those not in these categories should feel safe and take risks in how they file that could expose them to penalties. “Some audits are triggered strictly by chance – so whatever you file may have no bearing on whether you get hit with an audit or not,” Luscombe explains.
4. Small businesses can expand without tax consequences.
Small-business owners who think they can expand the size of their business, especially by moving to a new location, should prepare to pay for the privilege.
“Creating or expanding the footprint of a business can trigger unexpected tax liabilities,” says Reuther. “Before venturing into a new location or expanding your online venture, research the state and local (or international) tax obligations,” she explains. “In some cases you can minimize or avoid the local taxes through careful planning. But failing to address the issue in a timely manner can create liability for back taxes, interest and penalties years down the road that dwarfs the cost of compliance in the first instance.”
5. Your child works, so that means you can’t use him/her as a deduction.
Again, that’s just not so. If you provide more than 50% of your child’s support, your working teenage son or daughter can still qualify as your dependent. And that’s worth a $1,000 tax deduction per child, so don’t miss out.
The Bottom Line
If you’ve been operating on any of these tax myths, talk to your accountant or financial adviser, if you have one, to see how it could affect you. And don’t file your taxes until you’ve thought through the best strategy to limit your bill – and your exposure if you’re considering something potentially risky.