February 21

Even the most honest of taxpayers can be left trembling at the thought of an IRS audit. Let’s face it–it’s right up there with public speaking. To survive an audit, you’ve got to arm yourself with information. You should understand what the audit process is all about, why your return was audited, what your rights and responsibilities are, and how you can appeal the findings.

An audit is not an accusation of wrongdoing

An IRS audit is an impartial review of your tax return to determine its accuracy–it’s not an accusation of wrongdoing. However, you must demonstrate to the IRS that you reported all of your income and were entitled to any credits, deductions, and exemptions in question.

The IRS generally must complete an audit within three years of the time the tax return is filed, unless tax fraud or a substantial under reporting of income is involved.

Certain returns run a greater risk of audit

Several factors can lead the IRS to single out your return for an audit. For instance, taxpayers who are self-employed, receive much of their income in tips, or run cash-intensive businesses historically have faced a greater likelihood of audits. The IRS may also pay more attention to professionals such as doctors, lawyers, and accountants (who often run their own businesses and do their own bookkeeping). In addition, if your itemized deductions in several major categories–e.g., medical and dental expenses, taxes, charitable contributions, and miscellaneous deductions–are greater than the statistical average, you’ll generally have an increased chance of being audited.

Other things that may lead to an audit could include:

  • A return that is missing required schedules or forms
  • A return signed by a preparer associated with problems in the past
  • A return reporting income of at least $200,000 (in general, higher income may lead to an increased chance of audit)

There are three types of audits

If you are to be audited, the IRS will inform you by telephone or letter. If contacted by telephone, the IRS will also send a letter confirming the audit. E-mail notification is not used by the IRS.

There are three types of audits:

  1. A Correspondence Audit: This is typically for minor issues and requires only that you mail certain information to the IRS. For example, maybe you forgot to attach a Schedule C to your income tax return. The matter will be closed if the IRS is satisfied with your paperwork.
  2. An Office Audit: Here, you’d typically bring your tax-related records to an IRS office for examination. For example, if you claimed an unusually high deduction for medical expenses, the IRS may want to see your medical bills and canceled checks, among other things.
  3. A Field Audit: Here, the auditor generally visits your home or business to verify the accuracy of your tax return. It may be possible for the auditor to visit the office of your representative, instead.

Know your rights regarding the audit

You have several rights when you’re involved in an audit. These include:

  • The right to professional and courteous treatment
  • The right to an explanation of the audit process
  • The right to representation
  • The right to know why the IRS is asking for information, how the information will be used, and what will happen if the information is not provided
  • The right to appeal decisions

Consider the following when you are audited:

  • Request a postponement (whenever you need it) to gather your records and put them in order
  • Be sure to read IRS Publication 1 (Taxpayers’ Bill of Rights) before your audit
  • Before your initial interview with the IRS agent, meet with your representative to discuss strategies and expected results
  • Bring to the audit only the documents that are requested in the IRS notice
  • Be thoroughly prepared–if your records clearly substantiate the items claimed on your return, the agent won’t waste time conducting a more in-depth audit
  • Be professional and courteous (and expect the same treatment in return)
  • Do not volunteer information to the IRS agent; if you have a representative, he or she should respond to the agent’s questions
  • Don’t lie
  • Keep detailed records of any materials that you submit to the agent and of any questions asked by the agent
  • Ask to speak to the auditor’s supervisor if you think that the agent is treating you unfairly
  • When you get the examination report, call the auditor if you don’t understand or agree with it
  • If you don’t agree with the audit results, request a conference with a manager, and know your appeal rights

You can appeal if you disagree with the audit result

You can either agree or disagree with the auditor’s findings. If you agree, you’ll complete some paperwork and pay what’s owed. If you disagree with the auditor, the issues in question can be reviewed informally with the auditor’s supervisor. Or, you can appeal to the IRS Appeals Office, which is independent of the local office that conducted the audit. You can appeal the auditor’s findings by sending a protest letter to the IRS within 30 days of receiving the audit report. If you do not reach an agreement with the appeals officer (or you do not wish to use the appeals office), you may be able to take your case to the U.S. Tax Court, U.S. Court of Federal Claims, or U.S. District Court where you live.

February 21

The right answer for you will depend on your situation. First of all, don’t underestimate the psychological impact of early retirement. The adjustment from full-time work to a more leisurely pace may be difficult. So consider whether you’re ready to retire yet. Next, look at what you’re being offered. Most early-retirement offers share certain basic features that need to be evaluated. To determine whether your employer’s offer is worth taking, you’ll want to break it down.

Does the offer include a severance package? If so, how does the package compare with your projected job earnings (including future salary increases and bonuses) if you remain employed? Can you live on that amount (and for how long) without tapping into your retirement savings? If not, is your retirement fund large enough that you can start drawing it down early? Will you be penalized for withdrawing from your retirement savings?

Does the offer include post-retirement medical insurance? If so, make sure it’s affordable and provides adequate coverage. Also, since Medicare doesn’t start until you’re 65, make sure your employer’s coverage lasts until you reach that age. If your employer’s offer doesn’t include medical insurance, you may have to look into COBRA or a private individual policy.

How will accepting the offer affect your retirement plan benefits? If your employer has a traditional pension plan, leaving the company before normal retirement age (usually 65) may greatly reduce the final payout you receive from the plan. If you participate in a 401(k) plan, what price will you pay for retiring early? You could end up forfeiting employer contributions if you’re not fully vested. You’ll also be missing out on the opportunity to make additional contributions to the plan.

Finally, will you need to start Social Security benefits early if you accept the offer? For example, at age 62 each monthly benefit check will be 25% to 30% less than it would be at full retirement age (66 to 67 , depending on your year of birth). Conversely, you receive a higher payout by delaying the start of benefits past your full retirement age–your benefit would increase by about 8% for each year you delay benefits, up to age 70.

February 21

If you’re eligible for an early-retirement package from your employer, determine whether post-retirement medical coverage is included.

These packages sometimes provide medical coverage until you reach age 65 and become eligible for Medicare. Given the high cost of medical care, you might find it hard to turn down an early-retirement package that includes such coverage.

If your package doesn’t include post-retirement medical coverage, or you’re not eligible for an early-retirement package at all, you’ll need to look into alternative sources of health insurance, such as COBRA continuation coverage or an individual health insurance policy, to carry you through to Medicare eligibility.

Under the Consolidated Omnibus Budget Reconciliation Act (COBRA), most employer-provided health plans (typically employers with 20 or more employees) must offer temporary continuation coverage for employees (and their dependents) upon termination of employment. Coverage can last for up to 18 months, or 36 months in some cases. You’ll generally have to pay the full cost of coverage–employers aren’t required to continue their contribution toward coverage, and most do not. Employers can also charge an additional 2% administrative fee.

Individual health insurance is available directly from various insurance carriers or, as a result of the Affordable Care Act, through state-based or federal health insurance marketplaces. One advantage of purchasing coverage through a marketplace plan is that you may be entitled to a premium tax credit if your post-retirement income falls between 100% and 400% of the federal poverty level (additional income-based subsidies may also be available).

Some factors to consider when comparing various health options are (1) the total cost of coverage, taking into account premiums, deductibles, copayments, out-of-pocket maximums, and (for marketplace plans) tax credits and subsidies; (2) the ability to continue using your existing health-care providers (and whether those providers will be in-network or out-of-network); and (3) the benefits provided under each option and whether you’re likely to need and use those benefits.

February 21

Many differences exist among baby boomers, Generation Xers, and millennials. But one thing that brings all three generations together is a concern about their financial situations.

According to an April 2016 employee financial wellness survey, 38% of boomers, 46% of Gen Xers, and 51% of millennials said that financial matters are the top cause of stress in their lives. In fact, baby boomers (50%), Gen Xers (56%), and millennials (60%) share the same top financial concern about not having enough emergency savings for unexpected expenses. Following are additional financial concerns for each group and some tips on how to address them.

Baby Boomers

Baby boomers cite retirement as a top concern, with 45% of the group saying they worry about not being able to retire when they want to. Although 79% of the baby boomers said they are currently saving for retirement, 52% of the same group believe they will have to delay retirement. Health issues (30%) and health-care costs (38%) are some of the biggest retirement concerns cited by baby boomers. As a result, many baby boomers (23%) are delaying retirement in order to retain their current health-care benefits.

Other reasons reported by baby boomers for delaying retirement include not having enough money saved to retire (48%), not wanting to retire (27%), and having too much debt (23%).

Generation X

While baby boomers are concerned about retiring when they want to, Gen Xers are more specifically worried about running out of money in retirement, with 50% of the surveyed group citing this as a top concern. More Gen Xers (26%) than baby boomers (25%) or millennials (21%) have already withdrawn money held in their retirement plans to pay for expenses other than retirement.

Besides worrying about retirement, 25% of Gen Xers are concerned about meeting monthly expenses. Forty-four percent find it difficult to meet household expenses on time each month, and 53% consistently carry balances on their credit cards.

Being laid off from work is another financial worry among Gen Xers, cited by 22% of those surveyed–more than cited by baby boomers or millennials.

Gen Xers (26%) report that better job security would help them achieve future financial goals, which may help explain their worry about both future (retirement) and current (living) expenses.

Millennials

Unlike baby boomers and Gen Xers who worry about future financial needs, millennials seem to be more concerned about meeting current expenses. This concern has grown substantially for millennials, from 23% in the same survey conducted in 2015 to 35% in 2016. Millennials are also finding it increasingly difficult to pay their household expenses on time each month, with the number jumping from 35% in 2015 to 46% in 2016.

Considering the amount of debt that millennials owe, it’s probably not surprising that they worry about making ends meet. Specifically, 42% of the millennials surveyed have a student loan(s), with 79% saying their student loans have a moderate or significant impact on their ability to meet other financial goals.

In an attempt to make ends meet, 30% of millennials say they use credit cards to pay for monthly necessities because they can’t afford them otherwise. But 40% of those who consistently carry balances find it difficult to make their minimum credit-card payments on time each month.

How each generation can address their concerns

Focusing on some basics may help baby boomers, Gen Xers, and millennials address their financial concerns. Creating and sticking to a budget can make it easier to understand exactly how much money is needed for fixed/discretionary expenses as well as help keep track of debt. A budget may also be a useful tool for learning how to prioritize and save for financial goals, including adding to an emergency savings account and retirement.

At any age, trying to meet the competing demands of both short- and long-term financial goals can be frustrating. Fortunately, there is still time for all three generations to develop healthy money management habits and improve their finances.

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