Will Congress — new or old — do anything about expiring tax breaks?

The election is over, the people in their infinite wisdom have spoken…but here we are in mid-November and we still don’t know for sure what the tax laws are going to be for this year.

The problem is that a bunch of tax breaks and benefits have not been extended to 2014. These include:
–The $4,000 deduction for higher education tuition & fees.
–Deductions for state and local sales taxes.
–The ability to donate up to $100,000 from your IRA to a charity instead of taking a taxable required minimum distribution.
–The $250 deduction for classroom expenses for teachers in grades K-12.
–Credits of up to $500 for energy-efficient home improvements.
–The ability of businesses to write off more than $25,000 in new asset purchases.

The Wall Street Journal summarized
tax breaks it thought Congress should address. A lame-duck session might do something about all of this. Or it might do nothing. But either way, until we know for sure what the tax laws are for 2014, the IRS can’t finish programming its computers, which means that this is likely to be another tax season in which taxpayers will be unable to file their returns in early or even late January.

Watch this space for an update.

Paying for college when you can’t pay for college

Every year I consult with clients who have children applying to college and who don’t have enough saved–or don’t have anything saved–to cover the costs of a higher education.

In The New York Times, Ron Lieber has a good piece guiding parents–savers and non-savers alike–to figuring out how much a school might actually cost you and how you might pay for it.

People wanting to get a handle on both the cost of schools and the financial aid process can get started by going to the College Board and learning how to calculate how much you might be expected to pay for college.

The initial sticker shock guaranteed when you first see the cost for a year of studying and living at one of our finer institutions (I’m looking at you, $61,920-per-year Bennington!) shouldn’t stop you from learning more and having your child apply to schools. As Lynn O’Shaughnessy, a college consultant and friend of JoeTheTaxGuy, points out, the average grant to freshmen receiving aid now tops 50% of the cost of tuition & fees.

Another good site, from the National Center for Educational Statistics, is loaded with information on not just how much schools cost, but also what percentage of their students receive aid. Seeing that more than 85% of students at a school your child likes get at least some aid may help put a slightly rosier frame on this exercise.

A winning tax picture for money-losing artists

You are an artist, or a photographer, or a writer who is trying to make money from your venture but usually don’t succeed. Can you still claim losses on your tax returns?

I’ve often told clients that the answer is yes, if you are conducting yourself in a businesslike manner, attempting to make a profit, and document, document, document your profit-oriented activities. I also warn that an IRS auditor’s skepticism about whether someone has a business tends to rise in direct proportion to the number of years the taxpayer loses money in that venture.

Now, in a case picked up by The New York Times, a Tax Court judge has come down on the side of an artist who lost money in 18 of the past 20 years.

In Tax Court Memo 2014-202, Susan Crile, whose work is in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Guggenheim and other museums, successfully defended herself against the IRS’s contention that her work as an artist was a hobby, and also succeeded in showing the court that her work as an artist was a separate activity from her job as a university professor.

While Tax Court Memos cannot be cited as precedent, this is still a big deal for creative professionals and for educators with sideline activities in the same field in which they are experts. The IRS has often gone after those activities as being either hobbies (in which losses cannot be deducted) or un-reimbursed business expenses (in which case the losses that can be taken on a return may be significantly reduced.)

As Peter J. Reilly pointed out on Forbes.com, the court sided with Crile that her art qualifies as a business activity, but she may find herself on the short side of an examination as to what expenses she can actually deduct.

The Tax Court put off to a future date the IRS’s challenge of her expenses. However, it noted that, “Petitioner’s theory for claiming deductions seems to have been that most experiences an artist has may contribute to her art and that most people with whom an artist socializes may become customers or otherwise advance her career. The trial established that a significant number of the deductions she claimed were not, within the meaning of section 162(a), “ordinary and necessary expenses” of conducting her art business but were “personal, living, or family expenses” non-deductible under section 262(a). The latter expenses appear to have included telephone and cable television bills, newspaper and magazine subscriptions, gratuities to doormen in her apartment building, taxicabs to the opera, museums, and social events, restaurant meals with friends and acquaintances, and international travel to gain inspiration from paintings in European museums.”

I’d call that a foreshadowing of bad news coming for Ms. Crile. Watch this space for an update.

How screwed-up are the banks? Even Ben Bernanke can’t get a loan!

Ever have a problem getting a home loan despite having good credit? Ever have the bank say it’s unhappy with the appraisal, or ask why did you miss a credit card payment three years ago, or tell you (as Bank of America told me) that its records show a lien on your property for a parking ticket that you paid seven years ago?

Well, you’re not alone. These days, even the former chairman of the Federal Reserve is looked at as a questionable credit risk.

As The New York Times noted, Ben Bernanke, who pulls in six-figure sums for giving a speech now that he’s stepped down as chairman of the Federal Reserve, told a conference of the National Investment Center for Seniors Housing and Care in Chicago, “I recently tried to refinance my mortgage and I was unsuccessful in doing so.”

Bloomberg News reports that when the audience laughed, Bernanke followed up. “I’m not making that up,” he said.

The problem in this case is probably that the lenders’ so-called underwriters–sometimes nothing more than computerized credit reports and glorified box-checkers of forms–ding borrowers if they’ve recently switched jobs or, like Bernanke, gone from a wage position to being self-employed.

To the box-checkers, it doesn’t matter that he can command $200,000 for a speech. Can’t you just hear some functionary on the other end of the line? “But, Mr. Bernanke, could you please present the bank with letters from organizations attesting that they will pay you that much in the coming years?

Welcome to the real world of small businesspeople and the self-employed, Mr. Bernanke.

“The Situation” is in a not-so-good tax situation

Did you know that “Jersey Shore” reality show personality Michael Sorrentino, aka “The Situation”, and his brother Marc, grossed almost $9 million in a variety of ventures over four years? Me neither, until I read the U.S. District Court indictment, reported inThe New York Times,charging the brothers with conspiracy and filing false tax returns. Michael was also charged with failing to file a tax return for 2011.

The full amount that the government might try to collect isn’t clear, because the indictment charges the brothers with failing to report all of their income and, as the press release from the US Attorney’s Office puts it , “fraudulently claim[ing] millions of dollars in personal expenses as business expenses, including payments for high-end vehicles and clothing, personal grooming expenses, and distributions – or direct payments – from the businesses to personal bank accounts.”

The brothers face potential penalties of up to five years in prison and a $250,000 fine on the conspiracy charge, and up to three years in prison and a $250,000 fine for each filing of a false tax return. Failing to file a tax return could cost Michael as much as a year in prison and a $100,000 fine.

These are, of course, merely accusations, and the brothers are considered innocent unless and until proven guilty. But this is surely not A Situation that The Situation planned on being featured in.