October 22, 2016 • By Dennis Beaver
Our story will be of special interest to anyone going out on their own, and starting a new business. It’s exciting, a bit scary and can get really scary if you forget all about your “silent partner,” the IRS.
“That’s something that many people who are new to running their own business often don’t think of,” Cincinnati-based, former IRS Trial Attorney Howard Levy tells You and the Law.
Everyone knows that, if you are working for someone or in business, there is a duty to pay those taxes which are legally required. If you are employed, your employer handles deducting taxes and sending them to the IRS. But if self-employed, it’s a different world.
As we learned, without knowledge and discipline, the self-employed are one of the largest groups who frequently cause their own IRS headaches — yet can easily avoid getting into hot water.
“Unless you take the time to become very familiar with your tax obligations or hire a knowledgeable accountant, you are asking for trouble,” Levy cautions, adding, “The self-employed person who does run afoul of the IRS will typically run a restaurant, a small business, perhaps is a contractor, a house painter, electrician, the list is endless, but they all have one thing in common.
“Payment is received from their customers and clients, they pay themselves, but fail to withhold estimated self-employment taxes and send that money to the IRS. So, when it is time to file their tax returns — if they do file — they have not paid the IRS nor set aside the money to pay.
“This failure to pay estimated taxes goes on year after year,” he notes. Claiming, ” ‘I didn’t know what I should have been doing,’ gets them no relief.”
Levy’s message for the self-employed is simple: Budget for taxes as you would for anything.
If anyone has had a kitchen remodel, you know that there are responsible contractors and a lot of flakes. It’s the flakes who get themselves in trouble, as Levy explains:
“Let’s say a contractor is paid $50,000 by a home builder. As the contractor is not an employee, no taxes are deducted. Instead, the builder sends the IRS Form 1099 showing what the contractor received. IRS computers know that there is a filing requirement, that the contractor has a tax liability, but no tax has been paid.
“This failure to file and pay taxes will result, at the least, in major penalties, and at worst, possible criminal prosecution,” he observes.
As Levy explains, we do not need to live in fear of the IRS, and there are simple steps to take which will reduce chances of getting into trouble.
1. The simple thing is to work for wages and have the proper amount withheld from your paycheck.
2. But if you want to work for yourself, then you need the discipline to consider your taxes as the first thing you pay, not the last thing.
3. Unlike your utility bills which arrive monthly, the IRS doesn’t send you a bill. You pay them quarterly with estimated tax payments. For the self-employed, treat yourself like an employee, set up a separate bank account, and determine what percent of your gross income will likely be income tax, and deposit that every time you get paid.
4. Filing your own return hand written invites mistakes and will often trigger a close look by the IRS.
5. Be truthful. Your tax return is a road map and things have to make sense.
6. Things not making sense financially with a refund creates audits. For example, $10,000 of charitable deductions on $40,000 of income will cause IRS computers to send your return to the audit desk.
7. The self-employed, such as real estate agents, claiming high mileage deductions often get audited. Without supporting travel logs, the deductions are often disallowed, resulting in additional taxes and possible penalties.
There is one letter you don’t want to ever receive, but if you do, knowing how to react is critical.
“An IRS audit begins with a letter which states that you are under audit. At this time, you want to put someone between you and the IRS. This takes the emotions out of what is a very stressful situation and you could inadvertently say things that are incorrect which wind up used against you.
“An Enrolled Agent, CPA or tax attorney will work with the auditor in an even handed way, as they know how to present the facts and deal with them.”
Levy concluded our interview on a positive note: “Most people want to get right with the IRS.”
Dennis Beaver practices law in Bakersfield and enjoys hearing from his readers. Contact Dennis Beaver.