Monday, April 20, 2015

Guaranteed Loser

You've bought a lottery ticket or two in your time, right? The Powerball jackpot hits a kajillion dollars, and you realize you really can't win if you don't play. So you buy a ticket or two just to nurse that fantasy of champagne wishes and caviar dreams. Forget the reality that most lottery players never win, and even the ones who do make headlines usually seem to go bankrupt faster than a professional footballer who tears his ACL two games into his rookie season.
Most people who buy lottery tickets really do want to win. In fact, a 2006 study revealed that 21% of Americans believe playing the lottery was their best bet for financing retirement! (Really? That's not the same thing as counting on the lottery to retire, but it still doesn't say much about our financial planning smarts.) But would you believe there's a small group of Americans who pay top dollar for losing tickets? Why on earth would anyone ever do that? The answer, not surprisingly, lies in that financial cancer that we lovingly refer to as the Internal Revenue Code.
Start with the premise that gambling winnings are taxable income. That makes perfect sense, of course; the IRS doesn't really care how you make your living as long as they get their share. (Even illegal income is taxable — remember who finally nailed Al Capone?) And that stinks. Sure, winning a hundred million sounds like a lot, but you're lucky to be left with half of that after you take care of your Uncle Sam and all the rest of those greedy relatives who show up with their hands out as soon as they hear you've won.
The good news is, you can deduct your gambling losses from gambling winnings before the IRS takes their cut. You don't even have to net out your totals by contest — you can deduct casino losses against lottery wins, and vice versa. But deducting gambling losses creates its own problem. The lottery commission, casinos, and racetracks where you do your best "work" are happy to send the IRS a Form W2-G reporting your wins. So how do you show an auditor how much you lost?
That's where the losing lottery tickets come in. Just hop onto a website like Craigslist or Ebay, and look for folks with losing tickets to buy or rent! The sellers might try to disguise them as "memorabilia." But just between us, we know what they're really for. The Daily Beast even found one bold seller getting rid of $1,100 in losing tickets, for the bargain price of $500, "so ya don't look like a xxxxx :) come tax time"!
Wanna know what sort of financial genius cooked up such a great scheme? He was an accountant named Henry Daneault, and he used to work for the IRS! In 1985, his client Phillip Cappella won $2.7 million, paid out over 20 years, in the Massachusetts Megabucks. When tax time rolled around, Daneault and his client made up $65,000 in gambling losses to erase $20,000 in tax. Then his old employer the IRS came sniffing around. Uh oh, what now? He paid $500 to rent $200,000 worth of losing tickets for a month. It might have been a great idea if it had worked. Sadly, it did not, and Daneault and his client both wound up pleading guilty to fraud and serving time in jail.
So now you know how to be a guaranteed loser. Want to know how to guarantee a win? Call us for a plan to pay less tax, the right way. Our strategies are all court-tested and IRS-approved. You won't have to win the lottery — you'll just feel like you did!

Monday, April 13, 2015

Smoke 'Em If You Got 'Em

Every year, the IRS Criminal Investigations unit (IRS-CI) releases a surprisingly entertaining report detailing their efforts to protect the Treasury from scammers, fraudsters, and cheats. This year's edition reveals that, due to budget cuts, activity is actually down. In 2014, IRS special agents initiated 4,297 criminal investigations (down 19.1% from 5,314 in 2013) and recommended 3,478 prosecutions (down 20.4% from 4,364 in 2013). There were 3,272 indictments and 3,110 convictions, which shows the IRS won't take you to criminal court unless they're pretty sure they can really nail you to the wall. And 80% of those who were convicted won themselves an all-expense paid trip to a federal penitentiary.
IRS-CI targets all sorts of misbehavior and shenanigans: Swiss banks, corrupt politicians, identity thieves, and crooked tax preparers. They also cooperate with other federal agencies, helping the Drug Enforcement Administration catch drug smugglers and the Department of Homeland Security block funding for terrorists. But some of the most entertaining stories fall under the "general tax fraud" category. Here are four to brighten your April 15:
  • Smoke 'em if you got 'em: Billy Gene Jefferson claimed over $12 million in federal and state historic tax credits for rehabilitating a former Philip Morris tobacco factory and ten other buildings, then sold the credits to investors. Turns out he lied about how much he paid for the renovations. After Jefferson 'fessed up to his fraud, the court released him on bond to sell properties to pay restitution. But he used his freedom to bury up to $2.5 million in cash in a PVC pipe behind his house, blow $2.15 million on trips to Vegas, and steal his brother's identity to book a one-way charter flight out of the country! For his efforts, Jefferson will spend the next 20 years in an unrenovated facility where residents use cigarettes as currency.
  • God hears all prayers? Archie Larue Evans was pastor of the Tilly Swamp Baptist Church and owned a gold and silver business in Florence, South Carolina. Evans sold his parishioners "investment contracts" paying higher interest than the piddly amounts they were earning at the local banks. The banks may not have been paying much interest — but they also weren't running Ponzi schemes. Now, while we don't know if the pastor confessed his sins to God, we know he didn't report anything to the IRS. Now Evans will get to spend the next seven years ministering behind bars.
  • Death and taxes: They say that nothing in life is certain except death and taxes. A group of six defendants in St. Louis, led by a disbarred attorney, found a way to roll both of those burdens into a single con. For 15 years, the group sold prepaid funeral contracts to 97,000 customers — promising to keep their money in a secure trust or insurance policy as required by state law. Instead, they "made use of funds paid by customers in ways that were inconsistent both with its prior and continuing representations and with the applicable state laws and regulations." (That's what prosecutors call it when you use your customers' money to pay for a $16 million mansion in Nantucket, a charter yacht, and family vacations.) And because you'll ask: no, they didn't pay tax on the loot. The conspirators will spend up to 115 months behind bars, and owe their victims a cool $435 million. (Let's see, now . . . that's 11 cents/hour stamping license plates times how many hours?)
  • Practicing "law" without a license: Diane Niehaus managed a bank in Centerville, Ohio, where her elderly customers entrusted their money. Despite that trust, she forged all sorts of documents, including fictitious gift letters and fraudulent powers of attorney, to steal over a million dollars from their accounts. She used the money to buy a $460,000 house and a different car for every day of the week. And of course, she forgot to tell the IRS about her new side venture. Oops! Now she's spending five years at a prison camp in West Virginia, where she'll get to discover if orange is really the new black.
Look, we know paying tax bites. But you don't have to cheat to bite back. You just need a plan. There's no shortage of court-tested, IRS-approved strategies for saving. So if you haven't asked us about our planning service, what are you waiting for? 

    Monday, April 6, 2015

    The Tax Man Runneth

    The 2016 presidential election is 20 months away. Sadly, for those of us who don't watch C-SPAN for fun, that basically means it's right around the corner. (Keep a sharp eye out for negative campaign ads, coming soon to a TV near you!) Candidates are already lining up donors and hustling voters in early primary states like Iowa and New Hampshire. If it seems like some of them have been running since the end of the lastelection, it's probably because they have.
    Americans like promoting military heroes to the White House. George Washington won the Revolutionary War and became the "father of his country" before assuming the Presidency. Ulysses S. Grant won the Civil War, and did it with a cocktail permanently occupying a space in his hand, too. Dwight D. Eisenhower defeated the Nazis. (Of course, generals who aim to become Commander-in-Chief usually do need to win a war first, as Alexander Haig found out the hard way in 1988.)
    Now there's a candidate who's ready to wage war on an enemy we can all unite against — America's crazy and convoluted tax system. On March 5, Mark Everson announced he was throwing his green eyeshade into the ring and running for the Republican nomination. Not familiar with the name? Well, from 2003 to 2007, Everson served as 46th Commissioner of Internal Revenue. Oh yeah . . . that Mark Everson!
    Everson, 60, graduated from Yale University before launching a career that has taken him from business to government and back to business again. In 2003, George W. Bush nominated him for the IRS position, which he held for four years. He left to become President and CEO of the American Red Cross, and now he's vice-chairman for a tax consulting company.
    Why is Everson running? He says he wants to make federal tax laws more consistent and less complex. (Where have we heard that before?) He would replace that tax for lower-income earners with a value-added tax. "He also says he wants to restructure entitlement programs, including Social Security; set a military draft and system of national service; and break up banks that are poorly managed," the Associated Press reports.
    And what does America's former top tax collector think of his chances? He candidly admits he has less name recognition than the senators and governors eyeing a race. But he appears entirely serious about his run and plans to pour $250,000 of his own money into the race. "They're raising serious money, but we're going to raise serious issues," he says. "I wouldn't be doing this if I didn't believe I've got a chance. I think that who becomes president is not up to Wall Street and the fat cats across the country. It's up to the voters."
    Everson does have one stumble on his resume. In 2007, after six months helming the Red Cross, the board demanded his resignation after he confessed to an affair with a staffer. Everson divorced his wife and, while he hasn't married his new love, the two are raising their six-year-old son together. "I've made mistakes, and I don't think that that precludes one from going forward and trying to contribute," he says. We'll just have to see how closely the voters audit his behavior.
    Time will tell whether Everson knows how to translate his IRS experience into a shot at the most powerful job in the world. But here's one thing he knows for sure — if you want to pay less, you need a plan. So call us when you're ready for your plan. We're sure you'll enjoy your savings, whether you're a Democrat, a Republican, or anything in between! 

    Monday, March 30, 2015

    Big News from Washington

    Americans have been complaining about income taxes since the IRS unleashed the first Form 1040 on us back in 1913. Sure, we all hate paying them. But as the tax code has ballooned to twice the length of the Bible (with none of the good news), preparing them has become just as big a problem. As Albert Einstein once put it, "the hardest thing in the world to understand is the income tax." And if Einstein couldn't wrap his enormous brain around those ridiculous Alternative Minimum Tax depreciation rules, what chance do the rest of us have?
    Today, House Ways and Means Committee chair Paul Ryan (R-WI), along with Ranking Minority Member Sander Levin (D-MI), introduced their attempt to kill both of those birds with one stone: House Resolution 1040, the "Revenue Reform and Restructuring Act of 2015." As its name implies, the bill is a rare bipartisan effort to repeal the current income tax system completely — and even eliminate the dreaded Internal Revenue Service.
    "We know that everyone hates paying taxes," Chairman Ryan said at a press conference announcing the bill. "But the way we calculate and collect them just adds insult to injury. Former President Jimmy Carter once called our tax code 'a disgrace to the human race.' I'm hardly a Jimmy Carter fan," the Chairman added. "But he was sure right about that."
    "Look, folks, we're not stupid," said Representative Levin (as the assembled press corps snickered). "We've all seen the polls showing Congress is less popular than hemorrhoids, potholes, and dog poop. But can you guess what Americans hate even more? Just kidding — you'll totally guess, because it's the tax code. And we're the ones who wrote it! So we asked ourselves, what can we do to solve the tax problem and restore our good name?"
    The answer, of course, is to scrap the bloated income tax that so many Americans detest, and replace it with something completely new and different. But how to claw back that $2.2 trillion in revenue? The Committee debated various flat tax proposals, but those didn't go far enough. They considered a sales tax or value-added tax, but that would fall most heavily on the poor. They even considered a carbon tax to discourage burning fossil fuels. Then the Texas delegation remembered that the Department of the Interior manages 155 million acres of public land for animal grazing. And those acres are filled with millions and millions of cows. Their idea: trade a few of those cows for some magic beans, and watch the beanstalks grow to the sky!
    "Americans are hungry for something to unite around. They're crying out for something they can all believe in," said Ryan. "We're hoping 'Beanstalks to the Sky' can join a 'New Deal,' 'a Chicken in Every Pot,' and 'Give 'em Hell, Harry' in America's hearts and minds."
    IRS officials had no comment on the proposed legislation. However, one senior staffer, speaking off the record, said "We're just as happy to get rid of those stupid tax forms as you are. But once we've transitioned to a beanstalk-based revenue system, they'll need us all at the Department of Agriculture." Across town at the White House, presidential spokesman Josh Earnest had even less to say — reports say that he stared blankly at a copy of Ryan's speech and asked "Is this some sort of joke?"
    What do you think? Are Ryan and Levin on to something? Is the "B.S." (Bean Stalk) bill as credible as anything else coming out of Washington? Or are we just trolling you with an April Fools' Day gag?
    Either way, you know what's really foolish? Paying more tax than you're legally required! But until we really can pay our bills with magic beans, there's only one way to pay less — and that's to create a plan. So call us if you're ready to pay less — and you're not willing to wait for Washington anymore! 

    Monday, March 23, 2015

    Shocking News

    This time of year, taxpayers across America are scrambling to put together their last year's mileage records. First you've got to total up how many miles you drove for your trade or business. Then you've got to add up all the costs of operating your vehicle — depreciation, interest or lease payments, gasoline, maintenance and repairs, registration, and even your satellite radio bill. Then you'll multiply those expenses by your "business use percentage" to calculate your actual deduction. (Are we having fun yet?) Alternatively, you can just take the IRS standard mileage allowance, which stands at 57.5 cents per mile for 2015. Problem: it's the same amount for every car on the road, from gas-sipping Priuses to road-hogging SUVs. And you still have to track your miles. But at least it avoids the hassle of tracking all those receipts!
    Keeping good mileage records can be important even if you're not just looking for more tax deductions. Illinois Representative Aaron Schock learned that lesson the hard way last week. The Congressman was already under fire for dropping $40,000 to decorate his office, Downton Abbey-style, and for accepting favors like private plane trips from well-heeled donors. Then we learned his mileage didn't add up. From 2010 through 2014, he billed Uncle Sam and his campaign for 170,520 miles he put on his Chevy Tahoe. But when he traded in the truck last year, there were only 81,860 miles on the odometer. Oops! Schock resigned his seat just hours after the story broke, which means he'll get to spend more "quality time" with his attorneys. (Yeah, another Illinois politician looking at a ride on the Incarceration Express — we were stunned, too.)
    Schock is hardly the first politician to find himself in hot water over expense reimbursements. So who was the first? (No, not Martin Van Buren, but that's an awfully good guess.) Back in 1816, Congress began reimbursing members 40 cents per mile for travel between home and Washington "by the usually traveled route." And how did Congress arrive at that rate? Did they carefully calculate the cost of depreciating the buggies, boarding and feeding the horses, and oiling all that antique brass hardware? Well, not exactly. Congressmen made $8 per day back then. Apparently some enterprising clerk in the post-colonial equivalent of a windowless cubicle acknowledged the conventional wisdom that a Congressman could travel 20 miles a day. Then he took a quill pen to foolscap, divided those 20 miles into $8, and came up with 40 cents per mile.
    By 1848, though, steamships plied the waters and railroads were fast replacing canals. The 40 cent rate was a relic. And Horace Greeley, editor of the New York Tribune and a Congressman himself, was outraged. On December 22, 1848, he released an expose blowing the whistle on those who claimed more miles than they really traveled. And who should we find on that list? Sandwiched between future Vice-Presidents Hannibal Hamlin and Andrew Johnson, was a one-term Whig from Aaron Schock's old district named Abraham Lincoln, who claimed $677 in excess reimbursement. That may not sound like much, but it works out to about $18,700 in today's dollars.
    The "mileage swindle" scandal, as Greeley dubbed it, would have made a great story on House of Cards. Congressman after Congressman took to the floor to denounce Greeley in colorfully florid nineteenth-century style. (This was the era of "the caning of Charles Sumner," after all.) The House passed a bill limiting miles to "the shortest continuous mail route," and Congress lowered the rate to 20 cents. But even today, members of Congress still get a pretty generous travel allowance. Current rates range from 96 cents to $1.32 per mile — pretty sweet, compared to what our friends at the IRS give us.
    What do you think? Should young Representative Lincoln have resigned his seat over his inflated expenses? Or was his future bright enough to justify giving him a second chance?
    Ironically, once "Honest Abe" eliminated his own mileage entirely (by moving into a big white house with a convenient home office), he signed the first federal income tax into law. But if Lincoln hadn't done it, someone else would have. Either way, you'd still want to pay less, if you could, and we'd still be here to give you the plan to do just that. So call us when you're ready for that plan. And don't forget to deduct the miles you drive to get here!

    Monday, March 16, 2015

    007 for a Day

    Who hasn't wanted to be a spy at some point or another? Boys see their first James Bond movie, and they don't want to be like 007 — they want to be 007. Girls learn how Mata Hari put her charms to work as a lethal double agent and think they can show the boys a thing or two. But sooner or later, most of us abandon that dream. And sadly, those job aptitude tests your high school guidance counselor makes you take rarely recommend "International Man of Mystery" as a career path.
    But now, you've got the chance to finally realize that childhood fantasy. You don't even have to hide out in some third-world danger zone to do it. You can be a spy in a sun-splashed Mediterranean paradise full of friendly, welcoming people. What's not to love about that?
    When you think of Greece, you probably think of Alexander the Great, the Acropolis, or the birthplace of democracy. But Greece is the national equivalent of the kid who peaked in high school, and Greek finances are a steaming pile of debt masquerading as a modern economy. Imagine an entire government that rushes down to the payday loan office right before closing every Friday, praying this week's installment won't get eaten up by last week's fees, and that's Greece. Seriously, don't be surprised if you fire up the news tomorrow and see they're trying to pawn the Parthenon.
    Tax collections are a big part of Greece's problem. Greeks hate paying taxes, even more than we do. In fact, some Greek banks admit using "adaption formulas" to estimate how much their self-employed borrowers can really afford, simply because so few of them tell their government how much they really make. The average self-employed Greek spends 82% of their monthly reported income repaying their loans. But some groups, including doctors, lawyers, and even accountants (!) actually spend more on their mortgage payments than they admit making!
    So Greece is desperate to avoid going broke. The government wants to start narrowing the "tax gap" between what they should be getting and what they really get. Last week, finance minister Yanis Varoufakis begged Greeks to start finally paying their taxes, pretty please, because it's their patriotic duty. But just in case that doesn't work, he's planning to recruit "casual" tax spies, like tourists, students, housekeepers, and other nonprofessionals, "to pose, after some basic training, as customers, on behalf of the tax authorities, while wired for sound and video."
    We're not sure what sort of training you need to be a tax spy. The old-school techniques like "brush passes" and "dead drops" they teach at the CIA probably won't help as much as cyber-sleuthing and "social engineering." We also don't know how much the gig pays. (Our IRS cuts whistle-blowers in for up to 30% of what they help collect.) Still, it's a chance to play 007 for a day — who really cares what it pays?

    So, Greeks who want to pay less have a simple plan — not telling the government how much they make! Here in the United States, that works, too — except it doesn't. (It's also against the law.) So if you feel like you're bailing out Uncle Sam with more than your fair share, call us for a plan. Let's see if we can save you enough for a Greek vacation that you don't have to spy for!

    Monday, March 9, 2015

    Crossing the Finnish Line

    You know that sinking feeling. You're driving down the road, minding your own business, when you see a cop's "cherries and berries" flashing in your mirror. Then you look down at your speedometer, and realize he's gunning for you. Sure, it's a bummer. But it's not that big a deal. The cop checks your license, registration, and proof of insurance. He runs your name through the computer to make sure there aren't any outstanding warrants. Then he sends you on your way, a few bucks lighter and a few miles per hour slower.
    Well, they do things a little differently in Finland. What else would you expect from a country where reindeer sausage is a delicacy and wife-carrying is a thing? (No kidding — whoever crosses the Finnish line first wins his wife's weight in beer!) In Finland, when the police pull you over, they check your license, your registration, and your tax return. They want that ticket to hurt, even if you're loaded — so the more you make, the more you pay.
    Lots of Americans would be surprised to learn that Finland even has rich people. It's socialist Scandinavia, right? But neighboring Sweden is actually home to more billionaires per capita than we are, and Scandinavian entrepreneurs are responsible for cash cows like Skype, Spotify, and even Angry Birds. So those fines can get pretty heavy.
    Reima Kuisla is a Finnish investor, hotelier, and racehorse owner. One day he was driving to the airport, and the polissi clocked him doing 64 mph in a 50-mph zone. They checked his taxes, saw that he had made about $7.15 million the previous year, and fined him the equivalent of$60,000! (The BBC, which originally broke the story, doesn't tell us what kind car Kuisla was driving. But we can probably assume it comes fully equipped with the latest heads-up navigation display, active suspension, and special charcoal scrubbers to filter out the smell of poverty.)
    Kuisla's supercharged fine works out to the same as $415 for someone making $50,000 per year. Painful, but not fatal. Still, that's not stopping him from being a crybaby. "Ten years ago I wouldn't have believed that I would seriously consider moving abroad," he whined on his Facebook page. "Finland is impossible to live in for certain kinds of people who have high income and wealth." Not surprisingly, he's not getting a whole lot of sympathy. He isn't even the first Finn to wind up on the exhaust end of a big speeding fine. In 2002, a Nokia executive named Annsi Vanjoki was fined $103,600 for riding his Harley-Davidson a lousy 47 mph through a Helsinki suburb. He appealed the fine, arguing that his income had dropped, and successfully reduced it to "just" $5,245. Such a bargain!
    Here in the United States, of course, we don't have to worry about traffic cops snooping through our taxes. But if we did, it would just be another good reason to have a plan to pay less. So call us when you're ready for your plan. Set up a time to come see us. And watch your speed on your way over — we wouldn't want you wasting your tax savings on a ticket!