Categories
Tax Planning

5 Simple Steps To Achieving Mitt Romney’s Tax Rate

Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney has been getting blasted for months about the fact this effective tax rate is so incredibly low. As an Enrolled Agent, I find the discussion surrounding Romney’s tax situation to be particularly interesting, because there isn’t a single taxpayer on the face of the Earth that personally wants to pay more taxes than they have to. If such a strange person does exist, there is no government that won’t happily cash your check (in fact, the U.S. government happily accepts credit cards for donations).

I’d really like to get on the phone with all these reporters and news anchors blasting Romney for his tax reduction strategies. I’d bet $100 that you can’t find one that would, themselves, personally agree to pay more taxes than they need to. Yet, they will happily ridicule somebody else for doing so.

Actually, I need to back up, because there is actually one person I know of that voluntarily pays more taxes than he’s required to. Guess who that is? Mitt Romney.

That’s right. In order to keep a campaign promise earlier this year stating that he has paid at least 13% in taxes each of the past 10 years, Mitt Romney voluntarily failed to claim $1.75 million in charitable contributions on his 2011 Form 1040. In other words, he only deducted $2.25 million of the total $4 million he actually donated to non-profits. If he had claimed the full deduction, his 2011 effective tax rate would only have been 12%.

Mitt Romney’s strategy for only paying an effective tax rate in the low teens is perfectly legal.

The Internal Revenue Code requires every American citizen, at home or abroad, to pay taxes on all income, from whatever source derived, whether that money is made in America, or overseas. The law requires everybody to pay their mandatory tax amount, and not a single penny more. The tax laws are the tax laws, and the law is the same for every citizen. Just because you are rich does not magically change the tax laws (just ask Wesley Snipes, serving three years for tax fraud).

Some people complain that the tax code favors the wealthy. This simply isn’t true. The tax code provides equal opportunity for all. Equal opportunity to minimize, but also equal opportunity to get screwed.

What does this mean, and and how can you take advantage of it?

First of all, realize that Congress typically makes thousands of changes to the Federal tax code each and every year. Just about every bill passed has some minor tweak to the tax code associated with it.

Second, understand that the tax code is used by the government as a tool for social engineering and economic stimulus. This isn’t a secret — it’s a well documented fact. Certain elements of the tax code exist for the sole purpose of wealth redistribution, such as the Child Tax Credit and Earned Income Credit, both of which are social welfare programs that the government simply chose to implement via the income tax system. Other elements of the tax code exist in order to encourage small business investment, such as tax credits for research and development and domestic production activities. Other pieces of the tax code are intended to attempt to create jobs, such as payroll tax credits for hiring veterans or displaced workers.

The secret behind Mitt Romney paying such a low effective tax rate has to do with his income sources. As I write this, I’m looking at Romney’s 2011 Form 1040, page 1. This return lists the following major income sources and amounts:

  • $4.1 million in taxable interest
  • $3.2 million in taxable dividends
  • $10.8 million in capital gains
  • $2.8 million partnership and trust income

Romney’s tax on all this income isn’t figured using the regular tax tables, and not just because the numbers don’t go that high. Currently, his interest and partnership/trust income is taxed at normal income tax rates, but the $14 million in dividends and capital gains are taxed at much lower rates, currently only 15%.

That 15% tax rate is scheduled to expire at the end of 2012, as part of the expiring Bush tax cuts. However, the U.S. has a long history of creating special reduced tax rates for dividends, capital gains, and other forms of investment income, and there is a perfectly valid reason for doing so: Investment income derives from putting your money to work within the company, which generally creates jobs.

Economic investment has long been the primary source of jobs within modern economies. Without investment, most economies would grind to a screeching halt (been to Greece lately?). In order to encourage people with money to put that money to work within the economy, rather than just saving it under a mattress, governments offer incentives for investment. One such incentive is a reduced tax rate on the investment earnings. Those investments stimulate the economy, create jobs, and keep the economic engine churning for the rest of us. It’s a very critical component of keeping a modern economy operating.

When I flip to page 2 of Romney’s 1040, I see $5.7 million in itemized deductions. Looking at his Schedule A, I can see $4 million in charitable donations alone, of which he only claimed $2.25 million. He paid $2.6 million in tithing to his church. He also deducted $1.5 million in state and local taxes he paid.

Romney could have claimed the entire $4 million in charitable donations. I also see that he claimed absolutely zero business expenses on his Schedule C, and thus paid income tax and self-employment taxes both on every dime of speaking fees he collected.

I’m not going to review every line of this 104 page tax return. What becomes readily apparent, however, is that a tax minimization strategy is possible for everybody, no matter how much or how little your income. I’ll recap the “Mitt Tax Reduction Strategy” in a short list of steps, in case you didn’t pick them up through the course of this article:

Step 1: Own and operate your own small business.
Step 2: Invest in dividend-generating securities.
Step 3: Invest in activities that will produce capital gains.
Step 4: Invest in tax-free investments, such as municipal bonds.
Step 5: Donate a large percentage of your income to non-profit organizations.

Not only does this strategy work for rich people, it works for working class stiffs like us, also. If you’re self-employed, you get to write off an amazing array of things that people that work for other companies can’t, including deductions for business use of your home and your vehicle. Everybody can invest in securities that provide tax-free interest income, generate dividends, and produce capital gains. And everybody can donate to their favorite worthy causes.

Even people earning $30,000 per year can make this sort of thing happen: I’ve not only seen it with clients, I’ve done in myself.

No matter how much or how little money you make, the tax code can either work for you, or against you – the choice is really up to you. Prudent investment management, careful personal financial management, and proactive tax planning can all work together together to drastically reduce your effective tax rate, also.

To schedule a tax planning appointment, browse our directory of top tax firms in your area.

Categories
Tax Planning

Where did your tax debt come from?

For the vast of taxpayers, both individuals and businesses alike, their very first tax bill stems from a series of events.

For individuals, it can be that you simply don’t pay attention to your tax situation throughout the year (hint: you should!). You think of your taxes as a once a year affair, rather than taking a proactive approach to regular tax planning. Perhaps you got a bonus, a raise, or a gambling win at some point in the year that boosted your overall income for the year into a higher tax bracket, and didn’t adjust your withholding at that time to compensate. Or perhaps you had a large debt forgiven or took money out of an IRA early, and didn’t plan for the tax consequences. Failing to take into consideration a significant life change, such as no longer being a homeowner or losing an exemption and tax credits because of a child growing too old to claim, can also have a major impact on your tax situation.

For businesses, it can start with a rough month, and simply not having the cash laying around on the 15th to make the payroll tax deposit for last month’s payroll. Essentially, it becomes a matter of convenience to skip that Federal Tax Deposit one time. Well, in my experience, that one time becomes an expedience for the entire quarter, then two quarters, with no warning or anything from the IRS. Then, suddenly 8 straight quarters have gone by and you get a tax lien notice and a call from IRS Collections, not to mention you are suddenly informed of the massive penalties, which can double the size of your initial tax debt.

Whenever you have a “life event”, be sure to take into consideration the potential tax consequences. What is a life event? Anything to do with large asset acquisition or disposal (such as a home), anything to do with children, marriage, divorce, bankruptcy, foreclosure, job change, moving, or anything that drastically changes your bank account balance. If you are self-employed, there are even more definitions for a “life event”.

For business owners, don’t fall into the “it’s easier not to pay this month” trap, especially with payroll taxes. The long term consequences simply aren’t worth it. In fact, it’s cheaper to raid your personal retirement plan and pay the 10% early withdrawal penalty than it is to pay the penalties that add up for not paying payroll tax deposits. If you have a short-term cash crunch, it’s also better to put off paying OTHER bills, rather than the IRS. It’s simply cheaper to catch up on rent, utilities, vendors, and other business bills, rather than paying the IRS’ extortion-level penalties.

If your business is experiencing a longer term cash crunch than just one month, than you need to take a serious examination of your business. Cut costs wherever you can. If you have insufficient revenue coming in to cover the complete costs of maintaining an employee (their salary, benefits, worker’s comp, payroll taxes, etc.), then you need to start cutting hours, considering temporary layoffs, and letting some employees go entirely. Yes, it sucks to cut somebody’s hours or lay them off, but you’re running a business, so run it like one.

You should also look at ways to increase revenue. I do not discuss business growth and marketing on this particular blog, as it is not the place for it, but I do substantial marketing consulting and coaching for a number of businesses in various industries, and the most fundamental thing I tell each and every business I work with is this: As a business owner, you are first and foremost a marketing and sales professional, and a contractor, trucker, baker, childcare provider, or chef second. If you don’t embrace this concept, your business won’t survive, pure and simple, so invest the time and money into better marketing your products and services, and you will make more money.

If you take a proactive approach to tax planning, you will never have an unexpected tax liability. Discuss with your professional tax advisor any potential consequences of a life event. Business owners, keep your books up to date and be sure to review your financial statements every month. The vast majority of businesses that I have helped resolve tax problems for over the past four years kept their business records in a drawer, if at all, and failed to properly maintain accounting records (which is required by law, just for the record).

If you need assistance getting your books in order, setting up QuickBooks, selecting a payroll service, or need advice about the tax consequences of a personal life event, please contact me.

Categories
Taxpayer Representation

How the IRS views your cost of living

In general, the IRS appears to take a cynical view at people’s cost of living, and can be fairly judgmental about how we spend our money. This cynicism obviously increases dramatically the moment you have an outstanding tax debt.

Before delving into specifics, I’d like to make two points regarding the IRS personnel you’d normally be discussing your personal finances with. First, IRS field personnel such as Revenue Officers and Settlement (Appeals) Officers typically have higher salaries than the IRS National Standards for the areas in which they are assigned. In other words, even as public servants, they make more money than their own standards set for a middle class lifestyle.

Second, keep in mind that these people are public servants. In fact, most senior IRS personnel are lifetime bureaucrats, meaning that they have never had to work in the private sector. Some senior Revenue Officers, Revenue Agents (Auditors), and Settlement Officers have actually never worked a day in their lives outside of the government, and don’t even have finance or accounting backgrounds.

Combining these two things, you can see that it’s very possible that the IRS person you are explaining your finances to has an interesting view on the world: They’ve always made an above average salary, and lack any personal experience running a business or dealing with the reality of private sector employment. This skewed perspective becomes readily apparent in talking to senior IRS personnel if you’re a middle class taxpayer or “mom and pop” small business owner.

Now, with that said, let’s talk about the IRS National Standards. The government uses national and local cost of living data to establish norms for the cost of living across various categories. Some cost of living standards are the same for everybody, while others, such as housing and transportation, are adjusted by region.

These standards are based entirely on the government’s definition of a middle class existence. In other words, for purposes of determining how much of your income the IRS expects you to fork over in monthly payments on a tax debt, they only allow you to claim a middle class lifestyle.

It is not uncommon for me to have a conversation with a client where I’m explaining this, and they get frustrated. When you’re in IRS collections, they don’t like seeing that you’re making $1500 per month car payments on a Hummer and a Corvette, or have two people living in a 4200 square foot home. If you are used to a certain lifestyle, you may not quite understand why these things would piss off the government when you owe back taxes.

The main thing to remember is that the IRS National Standards are calculated from a middle class lifestyle standard. While you may consider yourself middle class, statistically you may in fact be upper-middle or even upper class. Keep in mind that the median household income in the US is about $52,000 per year. This means half of households make more, half of households make less. This number, by definition, represents middle class America, and is what the IRS National Standards are based on.

If you owe the IRS a substantial amount of money, and are living above the IRS National Standards, it is possible to negotiate up to a 12-month “stay of execution” against you with IRS Collections. This time period is designed to allow you to reduce your lifestyle to a middle class existence. This would include downsizing to a smaller home, selling cars, boats, and recreational vehicles, etc.

It wasn’t until March 2012 that the IRS finally allowed taxpayers to claim their minimum credit card and student loan payments as allowable expenses. At the same time, the IRS made a major change in how an Offer in Compromise is calculated, drastically reducing the amount they expect you to fork over in a reduced settlement situation. These changes have made literally hundreds of thousands of tax debtors now eligible for the OIC program that previously were not, so it’s worth looking into.

When it comes to discussing your standard of living and associated expenses with an IRS field agent, understand that you are both going to be frustrated, and for very different reasons. If you live a higher than middle class lifestyle, I would definitely suggest having a representative work on your behalf with the IRS, not only to avoid you frustration with these types of conversations, but also because a representative is going to be more knowledgeable regarding what expenses can be negotiated for inclusion with the IRS.