New Year, New Opportunities, New Tax Laws

If there is one thing in life you can count on, that would be income tax changes! Over the past few months, we have seen changes in our world that create anxiety for many people – elections, natural disasters, COVID-19, etc. One of the best methods of understanding the factors of anxiety is to acknowledge who controls the process – you. I’ve said it many times, but it is most important that you invest in yourself by taking care of your mental health. By feeding on a diet of negative news on the TV, you implant in your brain the thoughts that control your psyche for the day. Rather than listening to or watching these events that cause you to be anxious, consider reading a good book or walking in the park to gain a fresh perspective about life.

We can’t totally ignore life because we do owe a duty as citizens of the greatest country on the planet. Annually you are asked by the federal, state and local governments to report certain assets, income and other activities for purposes of paying your fair share of the burden to live in a civilized society (well, somedays it may not seem civilized, but it is). Former Justice of the Supreme Court, Oliver Wendell Holmes, coined the phrase applying taxation as the price for a civilized society but, as citizens, we are owed a duty by those elected to represent us to utilize our taxes in a meaningful way that brings order to our world.

Before you file your 2020 individual income tax return, you may want to consider these important changes that may help your family. President Trump signed the Consolidated Appropriations Act, 2021on December 27, 2020. The law impacts individuals in a manner that helps provide family support and small businesses with additional payroll assistance.

No doubt you have watched the news lately and determined that your bank account may contain $600 more than you originally noted. For those individuals who filed electronic returns for 2019, and whose bank information was on the return, many received their stimulus payments the first week of January. One misunderstanding about the Recovery Rebate Credits of $600 is that the payment is a credit against 2020 income taxes. Individuals with adjusted gross income in excess of $75,000, or joint filers with adjusted gross income in excess of $150,000, are not eligible to receive the stimulus payment.

Teachers also receive additional relief for personal protective equipment costs that may be deducted as qualified educator expenses. This above-the-line deduction is helpful to reduce adjusted gross income which lowers the overall hurdle of other expenses the family may incur such as medical expenses that are deductible as itemized deductions.

If you are unable to itemize deductions but wish to continue to support your local qualified charitable organization, you may do so. The law changes in 2020 allows an above-the-line deduction for qualified charitable donations in the amount of $300. 

As we begin a new year for our lives to enjoy, it is critical that we recall the reasons for the founding of the United States of America. The preamble to our constitution provides us a goal for which we must, in a collective manner, strive toward: 1) establish a system of laws and justice equally applied to all citizens; 2) create and maintain a defense of our nation from enemies; 3) promote the general welfare of our citizens; and 4) secure the blessings of liberty. We are a nation of people with one common interest – freedom. Our nation is the beacon to all other nations on the planet as an example for true independence and the opportunity for every citizen to be successful on their own terms. Happy New Year! 

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Last-Minute Strategies To Lower Your Taxes

It’s that time of year when the sand has almost passed to the bottom of the hourglass. Most individual taxpayers are calendar-year filers which means that many opportunities to reduce your 2020 income tax bill will lapse after midnight on December 31, 2020. To help you achieve your goal of paying the least amount of income tax as possible, you may want to consider some simple, yet effective strategies

Taxes for personal property and real estate may be deducted on your individual income tax return if you elect to itemize for 2020. If you own property, you will have received a notice of taxes due on the property from the previous assessment by the County Assessor’s Office. You may wish to pay the full amount of taxes every other year to “bunch” up the deduction allowing you to accumulate deductible expenses in excess of the standard deduction. 

Income taxes paid to state and local governments are included in your itemized deductions. If you are self-employed, or receive income from sources that do not withhold taxes for you, you may be required to remit income taxes on a quarterly voucher. Typically, your fourth and final state income payment for 2020 is due on January 15, 2021. However, you may elect to remit payments in December to the state and local governments and claim the expense in 2020. The Tax Cuts and Jobs Act of 2017 limited the amount of state and local income taxes for deduction to $10,000.

Charitable contributions to qualified charities will increase your itemized deductions for 2020. Consider those charities that you typically support and be generous this year. As long as the charity is a qualified exempt organization and you remit payment before December 31, you should be allowed to include the deduction on your return. Don’t forget that you should request a receipt to document your charitable intent and the receipt of the payment by the organization.

Have you thought about cleaning out your closet or gifting your old car to a worthwhile charity? Good news! You may qualify for an in-kind donation. Additional rules and requirements must be followed to document the deduction but you will have helped a great cause and your closet or garage may look better, too.

Another easy method of lowering your tax bill is to defer any income that is possible. If you are self-employed, you may delay your billing for services until January, 2021 and, thereby, deferring payment to be earned income until the next tax year.

Remember in 2020 that personal exemptions are no longer allowed. Instead, a much larger standard deduction is availed to individuals and married filing joint taxpayers of $12,400 and $24,800, respectively. If you are a single parent with a child in your household, you may qualify for a little larger standard deduction of $18,650.

The key to tax reduction is to be proactive. Don’t procrastinate on this important task. By spending a few minutes planning, you may significantly reduce your tax bill for 2020. One statement we share with our clients is that “you should always seek to pay the least amount of income tax you legally owe”. 

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Gifts, Charitable Donations and Taxes

It is the time of year that we think of others. By “others” I am referring to our favorite charities, loved ones and the IRS. Sounds interesting to place the IRS in the same sentence as charities and love ones, doesn’t it? I offer that this particular government agency should always be a part of any discussion for gifts and donations.

Many people confuse the requirements that qualify charitable donations for deductibility purposes. A particular section of the Internal Revenue Code specifies the types of recipients (donees) that qualify for charitable deduction. Typically, a contribution to your local church may qualify for a charitable deduction in the year it was given. This means that you can generally contribute to your church’s building fund or other designated use funds for your church and claim the contribution on your individual income tax return for the year. Substantiation should be received from the charitable organization, in written form, that discloses the date of receipt of the gift, the amount received as a gift (unless it is other than a check or cash which would require the donor to assign a reasonable fair market value), the name and address of the charitable organization and a statement as to no services or goods given to the donor for the donation.

Unique for most taxpayers, that do not itemize deductions on their individual returns, the tax law changes signed by President Trump in March, 2020, allows for a deduction of $300 of charitable deductions for cash contributions to qualified charities. This deduction is claimed “above the line” which will lower the adjusted gross income of the filer resulting in lowered taxes owed. Highly recommend everyone to take advantage of this opportunity to help qualified charities during this difficult pandemic.

You may not realize but your Christmas gifts to loved ones actually fall within the requirements for reporting purposes to the IRS. You guessed it – gift taxes may apply! Talk about Scrooge, right? Consequently, the IRS wishes to know of any transfers of property for less than full value to another party to determine the amount of gift given to the party. Good news is that the IRS doesn’t require that you report the clothing, toys or other gifts given to your children if the total given for the year is less than $15,000 per donee for 2020. 

If you add up all of your gifts to Cousin Eddie, a reference to one of my favorite Christmas movies, and the amount is greater than $15,000 for 2020, you will need to consult with your tax advisor as to the filing of a gift tax return by April 15, 2021. Although a gift tax return may need to be filed, you will, generally, not remit any tax due to a unified gift and estate tax exemption of $11,580,000 per person. So, be generous this year!

Individuals are typically calendar-year taxpayers. This means that you lose some opportunities to lower your 2020 income taxes after December 31, 2020. It is critical that you review your current tax deductions for 2020 and accumulate those needed receipts to provide your tax preparer. Be proactive this year and contact your tax preparer now to book your appointment for receiving tax preparation services.

Lastly, remember those that have suffered during the pandemic. Families in our community may have little to enjoy the basic living needs of life much less Christmas with their loved ones. Disregard the IRS for a moment and let’s focus on our community. Reach out to families that may need a hand up, not a hand out, this Christmas Season. Put some joy in your life by giving to those in need.

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Do You Qualify For A Penalty-Free Distribution From Your IRA?

Many people possess an Individual Retirement Account (IRA) or employer plan that holds assets for their future financial security. Due to the substantial economic impact caused by the coronavirus, the IRS provided relief to individuals in the form of more liberalized distribution options for these types of accounts.

However, the misunderstanding of many citizens is that anyone under the age 59½ can take a distribution from their IRA without incurring the typical 10% additional tax (or penalty) for premature withdrawals. This misunderstanding could cost you a significant amount of money, including additional penalty and interest, if you fail to pay the correct amount of tax on the distribution.

To qualify for relief from the premature distribution penalty, you must be a “qualified” individual as defined in the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act (CARES Act) enacted on March 27, 2020. A qualified individual is one that has met one of the following criteria:

  • You have been diagnosed with COVID-19 or SARS-CoV-2 by a test approved by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC);
  • Your spouse or dependent is diagnosed with one of the above viruses;
  • You suffered adverse financial consequences as a result of being quarantined, furloughed, laid off or had work hours substantially reduced due to the pandemic;
  • You have been unable to work caused by a lack of childcare due to the pandemic; or
  • You suffered adverse financial consequences as a result of closing or reducing hours of a business that you own or operate due to the pandemic.

As an individual with evidence of one of the criteria applying to your situation, and the proof would be required of you, the 10% additional tax on early distribution would not apply. However, federal and state income taxes would apply in this instance. Relief is provided by the IRS in the payment of the income tax due on the distribution by reporting one-third of the income on your individual return over a three-year period beginning with 2020 or the year you receive your distribution. For example, if you requested and received a $12,000 distribution from your IRA, you may include $4,000 of the distribution in each of the next three tax returns filed beginning with your 2020 return. Of course, if you wish to report the entire distribution in the year of receipt, you may do so and pay the total amount of tax due.

Lastly, what happens if you decide to return or repay the distribution to your account? Additional relief is provided in this instance. If you have reported one-third of the distribution on your tax return for 2020 and 2021 but decide to return the funds to your IRA in 2022, you may file an amended income tax return for 2020 and 2021 to receive your refund of taxes paid in these years associated with the pandemic relief. The repayment of the funds would be treated as if they were repaid in a direct trustee-to-trustee transfer and no federal income tax would be due on the distribution.

In most cases, the perception of relief is far different than its actual purpose. Too many people hoped that a carte blanche relief approach would be offered and anyone, for any reason, could take a penalty-free distribution and that would be the end of the matter. Our tax code is not an area of law that is easily amended or comprehensive enough in its nature that revenue generation may be left out of the analysis.

Tax law is not simple to understand. To help your family and you make sense of these complex laws and regulations, seek out the advice of a CERTIFIED FINANCIAL PLANNER™ professional for an analysis and planning meeting to reduce your tax burden. Judge Learned Hand remarked, “Anyone may so arrange his affairs that his taxes shall be as low as possible; he is not bound to choose that platform which will best pay the Treasury; there is not even a patriotic duty to increase one’s taxes.” Now, that alone should help you enjoy a Happy Thanksgiving! 

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The Importance of Year-End Tax Planning

This is an optimal time to review your potential income tax liability for 2020. Most individual filers under U.S. jurisdiction are calendar-year, cash-basis taxpayers. This means that many of the options to lower your tax liability for 2020 are eliminated simply by the passage of the year. Just like Cinderella in the historic Disney movie of the same name, your world immediately changes for tax filing purposes at the stroke of midnight on December 31 each year.

A few simple strategies you should consider before the end of the year are presented in this article. First, review your withholding on your year-to-date pay stub to determine if adequate amounts have been withheld. This is a simple fix if you need additional withholding before the end of the year. Provide your employer or Human Resource Department a new Form W-4 to reflect your additional or less withholdings. Also, consider that you may experience a refund for federal taxes and owe a balance for state taxes. To mitigate this issue, provide your employer with a Form W-4 specific to each tax agency. This would be accomplished by conspicuously marking one of the Forms W-4 with “Oklahoma Only” or the name of your appropriate state at the bottom of the form below your signature. 

Another area of planning that is simple, yet considerably effective, is your deferral to your retirement plan, Health Savings Account or IRC Section 125 “Cafeteria Plan” to lower your current federal and Oklahoma taxable incomes for withholding purposes. Remember, most plans provide a matching component for your employer-retirement account that aids in the growth of your retirement assets without consideration of market activity. 

If you are utilizing a cafeteria plan for pre-tax qualified medical expenses, consider making an appointment with your medical providers to determine if you could schedule any procedures before the end of the year to mitigate the need for paying more deductible after the start of a new year. Many families have met, or are close to meeting, their insurance deductible by this time of year. Don’t allow this opportunity to pass if you are needing a medical procedure. Be proactive and seek out your medical providers’ attention to complete the procedure prior to December 31. The keys to success is to complete the procedure and the billing date of the procedure is properly noted in 2020.

Personal strategies such as increasing your tax deductible charitable donations may help you reduce your current year tax liabilities. Review your current level of itemized deductions and see if you can “bunch” your deductions every other year to allow you to itemize when you can exceed the standard deduction. By itemizing your deductions you may save additional state income taxes, depending upon your particular state’s law.

If you are wishing to reduce your estate by making inter vivos gifts to heirs, consider completing the gifts prior to yearend. You can gift each heir or donee $15,000 without the requirement of filing an annual gift tax return (Form 709). This is good news for both the donor and the donee. The donor will reduce their gross estate by the amount of the gift, provided the person lives for three years beyond the date of the gift, and the recipient owes no tax on the receipt of the gift. This is a win/win!

What happens if someone gifts you $1,000,000? Do you owe taxes on the gift? No! Isn’t the U.S. Tax Code a beautiful thing? As a recipient of a gift, of any size, where the intent of the donor was to transfer property or cash to you, without the requirement for reciprocal value or services, you will not owe income tax on the gift. I know what you’re thinking. You may have found a reason to eat Thanksgiving Dinner with your estranged, but rich, Uncle Charlie to discuss this important strategy for lowering his estate. Enjoy the giblet gravy!

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Clarifying Tax Law Confusion

Last month, President Trump issued an executive order to provide employees relief from withholding taxes. The result is additional take-home pay for the employee. This article focuses on the mechanics and results of this order. I will also opine on the impact of such order to the solvency of the Social Security Benefit Program which, as stated in my previous article, remains marginally funded through 2035.

We all wish to create greater amounts of cash flow for our living expenses but at what price does this wish come true? For example, if you are currently employed, you are contributing to your future through a withholding program titled “Federal Insurance Contributions Act” abbreviated as FICA. Two components make up the FICA portion of your paycheck withholding. The first component is the Social Security Tax, also called the Old-Age, Survivors and Disability Insurance (OASDI) Tax, at a rate of 6.2% of your gross wages to a maximum wage limit of $137,700.

The second component of the FICA is the Medicare Tax at the rate of 1.45%. This tax is applied to all wages paid to an employee. Unlike the Social Security Tax, the Medicare Tax has no annual wage limit. These withheld funds are committed, by the U.S Government, to your future for purposes of assisting with lifestyle expense. 

The president’s order requires employers to discontinue withholding the 6.2% FICA from employees’ paychecks. However, the employer continues to be responsible for the matching funds at a rate of 6.2%. To further complicate the application of the order, employees with bi-weekly income of greater than $4,000 do not qualify for the deferral of the 6.2% Social Security Tax. Based on a weekly payroll of $2,000, employees earning less than $104,000 in annual wages will be eligible for the deferral and will take home more net pay.

As with any tax benefit, the applicable period for the deferral of Social Security Tax for eligible employees is September 1 through December 31, 2020. The desire of the Executive Branch of our government is to develop a law that will allow the deferred balance of Social Security Tax to be eliminated instead of repaid by the employee.

To remedy the confusion on which party, employer or employee, pays the deferred Social Security Tax, the IRS issued on August 28, 2020, Notice 2020-65. The notice directs employers to remit the deferred Social Security Taxes ratably over the period January 1, 2021 through April 30, 2021. Failure to remit the taxes deferred from 2020 will subject the employer to interest and penalties.

One could argue the additional cash flow required to pay both employee and employer shares of the Social Security Tax places a burden on the employer. What will be the tax deduction allowed the employer if both shares of the tax are paid by the employer? Tax policy would dictate the fairness of allowing the employer the deduction since the economic impact is actually borne by the employer. However, tax policy in the United States is not based on equality but rather revenue generation. Who knows what will happen until we receive additional guidance from the Treasury Department?

Until then, keep smiling, enjoy your extra cash and I’ll see you on the golf course! 

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Social Security Funding Challenges

Social Security benefits are considered sacred territory by elected officials due to the large number of voting beneficiaries. This important “third rail” of untouchable programs started with a mission and purpose that was admirable. However, the projection of beneficiaries compared to those taxpayers funding the program has been dealt a significant blow lately.

To provide working families a larger paycheck, the president has recently ordered that all employer withholding for FICA and Medicare contributions from employees be deferred until January 1, 2021. Can you imagine the furor this caused? Although the intent is beneficial for those working, it is not an elimination of the tax from the pay but merely a deferral. This means that you, the employee, will be required to pay the deferral back to the system at some point. 

The IRS has not issued guidance on this process for repayment but the deferral will begin September 1, 2020 and continue through December 31, 2020. Let’s look at an example of the additional funds an employee will retain through this deferral period. Assume the weekly salary is $500. An employee’s share of SSA benefits withheld, notwithstanding the Medicare portion of 1.45%, is 6.2% of the gross salary or $31.00 ($500 x 6.2%). As of the date this article was authored, seventeen weeks remain in 2020. This provides the employee with an additional $527 of cash flow for her living needs.

How will this seventeen-week deferral impact the reserves for Social Security benefit payments? The SSA Board of Trustees analyzes the economic projections of the program when issuing their report to the public. Below is a graph reflecting the solvency of the program through 2035 under current funding projections.

Old-Age & Survivors Insurance & Disability Insurance Combined Trust Funds Reserves

By reducing the contributions of working individuals to the program for the short period, officials estimate the solvency would be impaired much sooner. Change creates confusion and chaos soon ensues. This is the current state of the changes to the Social Security Program funding for the remainder of 2020.

What does it mean “the program will be insolvent” in 2035? The SSA Board of Trustees has projected the program can continue to fund existing beneficiaries from current income received by the fund. However, the level of funding will only allow beneficiaries to receive approximately 79% of scheduled benefits. What will this mean for future beneficiaries? An obvious answer I inform younger clients is that the program will be available for them but we are not certain of the benefit structure.

One caveat I would offer is that current beneficiaries will not be impacted by this short-term change. However, future changes of a more sustainable nature should be addressed to continue the functions of the current program. The funding source (employed citizens below the retirement age for program benefits) is shrinking in comparison to the beneficiaries receiving benefits.

It is critical that one does not solely rely on SSA benefits for your retirement income. By becoming self-sufficient for your needs, you will be confident and enjoy your retirement years much more. If you are concerned how the changes to the Social Security Program will impact your retirement decisions, seek out a Certified Financial Planner® professional that specializes in retirement planning. It never hurts to get a complimentary second opinion. See you on the golf course!

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Tax Law Changes Due to COVID-19

Many U.S. citizens have been subjected to financial and other difficulties due to the pandemic. In March, 2020, the U.S. Treasury Department issued an extension of time for filing, and paying, income taxes for individuals. The good news is that you have until July 15, 2020, to file your 2019 individual income tax returns and pay your taxes. Even better news is that you will not be penalized for filing the returns and paying your taxes after April 15, 2020, which is the original legal due date. This exception for the filing date is only applicable to this year due to the disruption in the economy and the “safer at home” implementation protocol for reducing the spread of COVID-19.

Confusion arises when you are one of the taxpayers required to make estimated tax payments to resolve your tax liability. For example, the typical estimated tax payment schedule would be April 15, 2020, June 15, 2020, September 15, 2020 and January 15, 2021. The confusion arises when the original due date for your 2019 return has been extended beyond the payment date for your second quarterly estimated tax payment. To reconcile this quandary, the IRS changed the order of the required estimated tax payments to be as follows: 1st quarter – July 15, 2020; 2nd quarter – July 15, 2020; 3rd quarter – September 15, 2020; and 4th quarter – January 15, 2021. 

Additional time to file returns and pay taxes is an anomaly for U.S. tax filers. Typically, an extension of time would be requested by filing a Form 4868 with the IRS on or before April 15. Consequently, if additional time is needed to complete and file your 2019 returns beyond the extended due date of July 15, you must file a Form 4868 to request additional time to file until October 15, 2020. Remember, the tax you owe for 2019 must be paid by July 15, 2020, or additional penalties and interest may be incurred. To alleviate these onerous penalties and interest, remit your estimated amount owed with your filing of Form 4868.

For those of us that are charitably minded but lack the required level of expenses that qualify for itemizing deductions on our individual return, the IRS is allowing an “above-the-line” deduction of $300 for qualified charitable contributions. My philosophy is to support my favorite qualified exempt organizations despite the ability to deduct the contribution. The pandemic has dealt a cruel blow to the finances of many exempt organizations during a time the need is much greater than anticipated. Take advantage of this opportunity to provide support for our citizens in need of these services and deduct up to $300 without itemizing your deductions for your 2020 income tax returns.

Individuals who wish to be generous in their contributions to exempt organizations can donate even more than the previously law allowed in 2020. Under prior law, the limit for cash donations was increased from 50% to 60% of the taxpayer’s adjusted gross income. The CARES Act suspends the limit of 60% and allows you to contribute 100% of your adjusted gross income to qualified exempt organizations. This provision of law was intended to help the funding shortfalls of the exempt organizations during the pandemic. The suspension applies to cash contributions only (of course, a check or other forms of cash will suffice) and not to contributions of property. Let’s support these organizations that provide a substantial service to our communities!

Lastly, join me in taking the necessary actions to eliminate or thwart the spread of the virus. Each of us has a responsibility in our community to do our part. Adhere to the three “W’s”: Wear a mask, Wait for six feet in distance between you and others in small gatherings to avoid close contact and Wash your hands. All people, including our friends in other countries, should care for one another and work together to rid our world of this deadly virus.

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How Long to Keep Tax Records?

If you are like most individuals, you have a drawer in your home or a box in the garage that contains all of your tax returns and supporting information from 1987. It is the sacred box of “all things to defend myself from the IRS”. Today, I am providing you some guidance that will help you clean out that drawer or box as well as relieve your mind from future inquires of taxing agencies.

There is no other word that strikes fear in the hearts of citizens worse than “Internal Revenue Service”. You go to mailbox and open it with a smile hoping that Ed McMahon has sent you the winning ticket to a sweepstakes only to find an ominous envelope from the IRS. Before opening the envelope, your mind races through a myriad of circumstances and outcomes. Survival instincts fire in your brain that you should seek a lawyer or CPA, transfer assets to other relatives or some other ridiculous plan to counter the attack by this federal agency.

Would you believe that most correspondence from the IRS is clerical in nature? The complicated system of revenue collection in the United States does not process without mistakes. A few years ago, one of our new clients came to the office, looking white as a sheet, and holding a rather large, white envelope. Her introduction omitted pleasantries and she immediately initiated her case of fearing the IRS and now “I will lose my house!” After speaking with her for a few minutes, providing a nice cold drink of water, and opening the envelope to read its contents, we disclosed some good news to her. She didn’t owe the government any money, she was actually receiving a refund. She looked at me with her eyes as big as silver dollars and exclaimed, “What?” Her previous tax returns, prepared by someone else, had omitted one of her estimated tax payments and she was receiving a refund of almost $21,000. 

The moral of this story is that many citizens do not understand the role, authority and power of the IRS. This agency is one of the most powerful of our government. However, in my 33-year career of interacting with the IRS, I have experienced very few instances where I was treated unfairly or unprofessionally.

Maintaining proper and complete records of your financial transactions reported on your tax returns is critical to good outcomes. The statute of limitations for most individual income tax returns is three years from the date you filed your return or two years from the date you paid the tax owed. This means that any of your individual income tax return forms can be destroyed or scanned to electronic storage. You should keep all records to document income, expenses, gains and losses from the three years’ of returns so that you may properly defend your tax returns should you be selected for audit. Wow! That sounds like a sinister word – audit.

Certain documents should be retained indefinitely such as property deeds, birth certificates, gift tax transactions, stock certificates, bonds, and marriage licenses. Most of these documents can be reclaimed but the process is rather time consuming.

The key to a pleasant and happy life is to understand the role government plays in our lives. Too often myths and speculation rule our minds when the actual facts are much less menacing. If you receive a notice from any taxing agency, contact your CPA or tax preparer to determine the appropriate response. As citizens, you have appeals rights, amendment capabilities and other actions you can take to mitigate or eliminate your tax matter.

If you have a question about filing your individual income tax returns, click this link for information that may be helpful. Until next week, stay safe and well.

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