Final Worker Classification Rules

Lawsuits about worker classification weren’t front-page news before Uber and Lyft started fighting traditional interpretations of the law by treating workers as independent contractors. What used to be boring hiring details are big headlines about big-name court cases fighting over whether workers are employees or independent contractors. And, as you can imagine, worker classification issues have gotten bigger as the gig economy has exploded.

Uber, Lyft, and other businesses that provide apps for gig workers fought and won legal battles to classify those workers as independent contractors, not employees. Using the independent contractor classification saves businesses money in employer payroll taxes and other employee-related expenses. Workers classified as independent contractors assume more responsibility and cost, like paying self-employment taxes and making quarterly tax payments.

Recent court rulings about worker classification have created some confusion among employers. The U.S. Department of Labor (DOL) stepped in to help businesses and workers comply with applicable tax law. DOL recently issued a final rule that takes effect on March 8, 2021, to clarify the standards for determining whether a worker should be considered an employee or an independent contractor.

Three aspects of the final DOL rules that businesses and workers should know:

  • An “economic reality” test is used to determine whether a worker is an independent contractor or is “economically dependent on an employer for work” (i.e., an employee). The rule defines two “core factors” to help businesses determine whether a worker is economically dependent on someone else’s business or is in business for her- or himself.
  • The first of the two core factors isn’t just one thing; it relates to a series of conditions. These include the degree of control of the employer over the work, the amount of skill required to perform the work, and the degree of permanence of the working relationship. For example, an independent contractor is free from the control and direction of the hirer, is sufficiently skilled to work autonomously, and is providing services that are temporary or intermittent.
  • The second core factor relates to whether the work being performed is integrated with or separate from the overall business. An independent contractor performs work that is outside the usual course of the hiring entity’s business, either a specialized skill or temporary need for additional resources.

Worker classification issues have gotten bigger, along with the expansion of the gig economy. Determining whether a worker is considered an independent contractor or an employee can be complicated, which is why DOL issued clarifying rules. Worker classification decisions assign responsibilities and costs to the employer or the worker, so it’s important to get it right.

Need more information? The IRS addresses worker classification at https://www.irs.gov/businesses/small-businesses-self-employed/independent-contractor-self-employed-or-employee.

2021 Tax Filing Starts February 12

Tax filing season officially starts for individuals on Friday, February 12th, when the IRS begins accepting and processing 2020 income tax returns. Ordinarily, tax filing starts in the third week of January. However, with all the last-minute tax changes in 2020, including a second round of Economic Impact Payments, the IRS needed extra time to update its systems.  

The IRS has already started begun accepting business returns and individual returns from taxpayers who are eligible to use IRS Free File partners (https://www.irs.gov/filing/free-file-do-your-federal-taxes-for-free). The IRS anticipates that nine out of ten taxpayers will receive their refund within 21 days of filing electronically if there are no issues with the tax return.

The IRS has five tips to avoid having issues with your return:

  • There is no extension of the April 15 tax filing deadline. If you need more time to file, you can extend filing until October 15, by filing Form 4868, Application for Automatic Extension of Time to File U.S. Individual Income Tax Return. But remember, it’s an extension of time to file, not to pay. Pay any taxes due with the extension request, no later than April 15.
  • Taxpayers are urged to file returns electronically as soon as they have the 2020 tax documentation that they need. Filing early is a good idea for several reasons. First, processing volumes are lower at the IRS and state tax agencies, resulting in faster refunds. Filing early also gets ahead of potential scammers filing a fraudulent tax return with a valid tax ID. 
  • Returns involving the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) or Additional Child Tax Credit (ACTC) need additional processing time to help the IRS stop fraudulent refunds and claims from being issued to identity thieves. By law, refunds for EITC and ACTC taxpayers cannot be issued before mid-February. Because the IRS isn’t processing returns until February 12, their refunds should start arriving in the first week of March.
  • Electronic tax refunds and payments are the safest and fastest method for financial transactions with federal and state tax agencies. Your tax preparer can usually set them up using authorized tax software. Tax agency websites include links for payments via bank account or credit card. However, these sites don’t have a refund option.
  • Advance stimulus payments, a.k.a. Economic Impact Payments, do not reduce a taxpayer’s refund or payment due for 2020. Eligible taxpayers who received less than the maximum stimulus payment amount could claim the Recovery Rebate Credit and increase her or his 2020 federal income tax refund. Anyone who received the maximum amount does not need to include any information about the payment when filing.

The IRS begins accepting and processing 2020 income tax returns on February 12, about three weeks later than usual because of last-minute tax law changes passed in December. Taxpayers who want a smooth tax filing experience should follow these five IRS tips.

Finding a Tax Pro

Finding the right tax professional to “fix” your taxes is a lot like finding the right plumber or to fix your kitchen sink. There are many to choose from, but it’s a challenge to make sure you find someone who is knowledgeable, experienced, and dependable. With a tax pro, you also want someone with whom you feel comfortable confiding your financial details.

So, how do you find that elusive experienced and dependable confidant to prepare and file your income tax returns? Well, you can ask friends, hit the Internet, or head to the local tax preparation office. That can get you a few tax pros to interview. Yes, interview. Plan to interview two or three recommended tax pros to feel confident that she or he is qualified and that you feel comfortable interacting with her or him.

These three interview questions are a “must” for finding the right tax pro:

  • How Do You Keep Up with Tax Law Changes?

Tax laws are constantly changing. Some changes are major, as we saw three years ago with the 2017 Tax Cuts and Jobs Act. It’s important to work with a tax preparer who keeps up with all those changes, so you don’t have to. A qualified tax preparer will describe attending conferences, webinars, or other methods to stay current.

  • What Experience and Credentials Do You Have?

Tax preparation is an unregulated industry where anyone can participate, so asking about years of experience, training and education is essential. Preparers with professional credentials, such as a CPA or Enrolled Agent (EA), are required to complete annual continuing education requirements and follow ethical and professional standards. 

  • How Do You Communicate with your Clients?

Does the tax preparer meet regularly with clients? Is she or he available to you if a tax-related question or issue comes up? Make sure you feel comfortable with the tax preparer’s style, manner, and process. If not, keep looking. You’ll be sharing a lot of personal information so you must be comfortable.

Plan to interview two or three tax pros referred by friends or online reviews to find a tax professional who is knowledgeable, experienced, and with whom you feel comfortable confiding your financial details. Need help getting started? The IRS has a website for you with tips and tools – https://www.irs.gov/tax-professionals/choosing-a-tax-professional.

Form 1099 Tax Filing Deadline

It’s barely the middle of January and the first tax filing deadline is already upon us at the end of this month. Businesses, nonprofits, and other entities may make payments that must be reported on IRS Form 1099. In general, Form 1099 must be completed and filed for each person to whom $600 or more was paid during the year for rents, non-employee income payments, prizes and awards, and other payments defined by the IRS at https://www.irs.gov/forms-pubs/about-form-1099-misc

Here are four tips to meet the Form 1099 Tax Filing Deadline:

  • Payments are reported on either Form 1099-MISC (miscellaneous), or on the new Form 1099-NEC (non-employee compensation) that was implemented beginning with the 2020 tax year. Which form to use depends on the type of payment recipient. For more information about Forms 1099-MISC and 1099-NEC and their instructions, go to IRS.gov/Form1099MISC or IRS.gov/Form1099NEC.
  • The due date for filing Form 1099 1099-MISC and 1099-NEC is January 31st for the calendar year ending December 31st. The former 30-day automated extended filing deadline was eliminated in 2016.
  • Form 1099 reporting does not apply to personal payments, only payments made as part of a business, nonprofit, trusts of qualified pension or profit-sharing plans of employers. One exception to this is payments of legal fees to attorneys. 
  • Some payments do not have to be reported on Form 1099, although they may be taxable to the recipient. For example, in general, payments to a C or S corporation, payments of rent to real estate agents or property managers, and business travel allowances paid to employees are not reportable on Form 1099. 

If you make payments as part of your business, nonprofit, trusts of qualified pension or profit-sharing plans of employers, your first tax filing deadline for 2021 could be coming up. Use these four tips to see if payments that you made in 2020 need to be reported to the IRS by January 31st. Need more details? The IRS has them for you at https://www.irs.gov/businesses/small-businesses-self-employed/am-i-required-to-file-a-form-1099-or-other-information-return

Unintended Consequences of Working from Home

Working from home quickly became the “norm” back in March or April for many workers who had traditionally worked from their employer’s location. In some cases, working from home means working from a different state than the employer. This situation could result in the unintended consequence of an unwelcome “surprise” at tax-filing time. While this could be an unusual situation, it won’t seem so rare if it happens to you.

In general, a state imposes income tax on the worldwide income of its residents, regardless of where the income is earned. Each state has its own rules to define a resident, but it’s usually someone who is lives in that state. If a worker earns income in a state other than where she or he lives, the worker files a Nonresident Tax Return and is taxed only on her or his income earned in that state. The worker would then claim a tax credit on her or his home state’s Resident Tax Return for taxes paid to the nonresident state. 

It can get even more complicated, depending on the states involved. For instance, in addition to the credit for taxes paid to another state, many states also have a Second Residency rule. In that case, taxpayers who are a resident in one state, owns a home in another state, and are physically present in that other state for 183 days or more, are considered a resident and subject to income tax in that state. This could result in some income being taxed in more than one state.

Confused? I am, and I’m writing this! An example might help:

Brad is a resident of Wisconsin, living just across the border with Minnesota. He normally commutes daily into St. Paul for work and pays state income tax to Minnesota on his W-2 wages that are earned at his employer’s location. He then claims a tax credit on his Wisconsin income tax return for income taxes paid to Minnesota. That prevents Brad from paying state tax in two different jurisdictions.

Brad also owns a second home on a lake near Bemidji, Minnesota, where he and his family vacation for several weeks each year. In March 2020, Brad’s employer required him to telecommute rather than drive to his St. Paul office because of COVID-19 stay-at-home orders. Brad and his family decide to head up to his lake home to live and work during the pandemic. Brad spends most of the rest of the year living and telecommuting from Bemidji. 

In this example, Brad is physically present in his secondary home in Bemidji for at least 183 days during 2020. Therefore, Minnesota will consider Brad to be a resident and tax him on his worldwide income. Wisconsin will also tax Brad on his world-wide income because he owns a home and considered to be domiciled (aka a resident)) of Wisconsin. That’s the unwelcome “surprise” at tax filing time.

Doing your homework before filing your 2020 state tax return is more important than ever, thanks to the COVID-19 pandemic. Depending upon the states involved and their respective state tax laws, as well as your work situation, now is the time to do all that you can to avoid any unintended consequence of working at home.

Deductible Donations for Non-Itemizers in 2020

A tax deduction is not the only reason to donate to the charity of your choice. Many people are happy to give to charity, even if no tax savings is involved. Donating to charity and paying less in taxes would make those people extra happy. So, the special provision of the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act for non-itemizers to make deductible charitable donations of up to $300 will make those generous people ecstatic.

Non-itemizers are taxpayers who take the standard deduction instead of itemizing deductions on their federal income tax return. Nearly nine in ten taxpayers take the standard deduction because it results in lower taxable income and lower income tax. However, only taxpayers who itemize their deductions can typically deduct donations to a qualified charity.

Under one of the CARES Act provisions, individual taxpayers who take the standard deduction can claim a deduction of up to $300 for cash donations made to a qualified charity during 2020. Unless it’s extended, the deduction disappears in 2021. “Cash donations” means those made by check, credit card or debit card. Donations of securities, household items, or other property are not included.

Not all donations to organizations that do good work in the community are tax deductible. The organization must be considered a qualified tax-exempt entity by the IRS. Before making a donation, check the Tax Exempt Organization Search (TEOS) tool on IRS.gov to make sure that the organization is a qualified tax-exempt entity, and that donations are eligible for a tax deduction.

Check Publication 526, Charitable Contributions, and the TEOS tool for more information about qualified charities, donation limits, and how to report donations on your federal income tax return. More information about the special tax deduction for cash donations up to $300 in 2020 is at https://www.irs.gov/newsroom/special-300-tax-deduction-helps-most-people-give-to-charity-this-year-even-if-they-dont-itemize. That site also has the special recordkeeping rules for claiming a tax deduction for a charitable donation.

The CARES Act, passed by Congress last spring, included several temporary tax provisions that may not be well known. One was designed especially for people who do not itemize deductions on their income tax return and who donate to a qualified charity. The deduction of up to $300 for cash donations made to a qualified charity is only available during 2020, unless extended by Congress. Non-itemizers will want to jump on this one-time opportunity to donate to charity and pay less in taxes.

Taxes are Part of Getting Married

Taxes are not romantic, even to me. However, taxes are part of getting married. A conversation about income taxes should be part of every engaged couples’ wedding plans. Marriage, like many other life events, impacts how a person’s income taxes are filed. 

Before marriage, taxes are usually filed under the “single” filing status. After those wedding bells chime and the “I Dos” are said, each spouse’s income tax filing status changes to “married.” Engaged couples who are newly married, or about to get married, should be aware of these four points before filing their next income tax return:

  • Taxpayers are required to file income tax returns based on their marital status on December 31st, the last day of the tax year. Couples who get married on New Year’s Eve are considered married for the entire year for tax purposes.
  • Married couples can select the “married filing jointly” (MFJ) or “married filing separately” (MFS) filing status, depending on which option means a lower tax bill. Couples can assess their tax situation annually to select the filing status that results in the lower overall tax liability.
  • Filing MFJ or MFS is a choice. However, it’s important to be aware that different tax rules apply for couples selecting the MFS option. Examples include rules related to itemized deductions, the standard deduction, the capital loss limit, and some refundable and non-refundable tax credits.
  • To plan for filing next year’s income tax return, couples can refer to information from their prior-year tax returns to help determine whether using the MFJ or MFS filing status might result in a lower overall tax liability. Hint – MFJ often results in a lower overall income tax bill.

Newly-married couples can reduce tax stress by learning about how the filing status rules apply to them before filing their next income tax return. Want to know more? Check out the IRS’ webpage with the details about income tax filing status and links to more information https://www.irs.gov/newsroom/correct-filing-status

Taxes aren’t romantic, but they are part of getting married. And the IRS has the perfect wedding gift, a helpful checklist for newly married couples – https://www.irs.gov/newsroom/a-tax-checklist-for-newly-married-couples. No thank you note required.

Your Chances of an IRS Audit

Few words strike fear in the hearts of taxpayers like “IRS audit.” People would rather do almost anything other than get an audit notice from the IRS. But what does an IRS audit really mean? What are your chances of an IRS audit? What happens after you are selected for an audit?

An IRS audit can indicate a problem, or not. Basically, an IRS audit is a review of a taxpayer’s tax return and financial documents to determine that income and deductions are reported correctly according to the tax laws. The IRS Deputy Commissioner for Services and Enforcement recently issued the full report of audit actions by income levels. If you’re not up for all the details, here are a few basics about your chances of an IRS audit and what happens if you are selected: 

  • Why is a taxpayer selected for an audit?

Selection for an audit does not always suggest a problem. It can mean that something on a return does not fit a “norm” for similar returns. The IRS also audits returns where information on a return does not match what is reported by a third party, such as interest from a bank account. The IRS could also select a return when performing a “related examination” of business partners or investors whose returns were selected for audit.

  • How does the IRS notify taxpayers of an audit?

Taxpayers are contacted initially by regular mail from the IRS that she or he has been selected for an audit. The IRS notice provides all contact information and instructions, as well as an explanation of the items on the return that do not match or that require additional documentation. All IRS notices include a deadline to reply. Opening and replying on time is an important part of the audit process.

  • How does the IRS conduct an audit?

The IRS manages audits either by mail or through an in-person interview to review the related financial records. In-person interviews could be virtual during COVID-19. Usually, interviews are conducted at an IRS office or at the taxpayer’s home, place of business, or accountant’s office. Mail audit notices will request additional information about certain items shown on the tax return such as income, expenses, and itemized deductions.

  • How far back can the IRS go to audit my return?

Generally, the IRS can include returns filed within the last three years in an audit. If they identify a substantial error, they could add additional years, but not usually more than the last six years. The IRS tries to audit tax returns as soon as possible after they are filed. Accordingly, most audits will be of returns filed within the last two years.

Your chances of an IRS audit are not easy to determine. An IRS audit can indicate a problem, or not. Either way, it’s good to know why you were selected, what could happen next, and how the audit is conducted. No matter what, make sure that you open the IRS notice when it arrives, read all the instructions, and reply by the due date.