IRS Launches New Tool for Estimating Taxes

The Internal Revenue Service has launched the new Tax Withholding Estimator, an expanded, mobile-friendly online tool designed to make it easier for everyone to have the right amount of tax withheld during the year. The Tax Withholding Estimator replaces the Withholding Calculator, which offered workers a convenient online method for checking their withholding. The new Tax Withholding Estimator offers workers, as well as retirees, self-employed individuals and other taxpayers, a more user-friendly step-by-step tool for effectively tailoring the amount of income tax they have withheld from wages and pension payments.

“The new estimator takes a new approach and makes it easier for taxpayers to review their withholding,” said IRS Commissioner Chuck Rettig. “This is part of an ongoing effort by the IRS to improve quality services as we continue to pursue modernization and enhancements of our taxpayer relationships.” The IRS took the feedback and concerns of taxpayers and tax professionals to develop the Tax Withholding Estimator, which offers a variety of new user-friendly features including:

  • Plain language throughout the tool to improve comprehension.
  • The ability to more effectively target at the time of filing either a tax due amount close to zero or a refund amount.
  • A new progress tracker to help users see how much more information they need to input.
  • The ability to move back and forth through the steps, correct previous entries and skip questions that don’t apply.
  • Enhanced tips and links to help the user quickly determine if they qualify for various tax credits and deductions.
  • Self-employment tax for a user who has self-employment income in addition to wages or pensions.
  • Automatic calculation of the taxable portion of any Social Security benefits.
  • A mobile-friendly design.

In addition, the new Tax Withholding Estimator makes it easier to enter wages and withholding for each job held by the taxpayer and their spouse, as well as separately entering pensions and other sources of income. At the end of the process, the tool makes specific withholding recommendations for each job and each spouse and clearly explains what the taxpayer should do next.

The new Tax Withholding Estimator will help anyone doing tax planning for the last few months of 2019. Like last year, the IRS urges everyone to do a Paycheck Checkup and review their withholding for 2019. This is especially important for anyone who faced an unexpected tax bill or a penalty when they filed this year. It’s also an important step for those who made withholding adjustments in 2018 or had a major life change.

Those most at risk of having too little tax withheld include those who itemized in the past but now take the increased standard deduction, as well as two-wage-earner households, employees with nonwage sources of income and those with complex tax situations.

 

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Taxpayer Advocate Annual Report: Payroll is Upfront and Center in this Year’s Recommendations

The Taxpayer Advocate Service is an independent organization within the IRS.  Its purpose is to ensure that every taxpayer is treated fairly and to help taxpayers know and understand their rights.  The current Taxpayer Advocate is Nina Olson.  Each year the National Taxpayer Advocate (NTA) releases their Annual Report to Congress.  This report describes the challenges the IRS is facing. Federal law requires that the NTA’s annual report identify at least 20 of the most serious problems encountered by taxpayers and to make administrative and legislative recommendations to mitigate those problems. The following are the highlights of this year’s recommendations that affect payroll:

  1. Alternative to Form W-4: The report recommends scraping the Form W-4 altogether and analyzing the feasibility of adopting an IRS-determined withholding code. This approach is currently being utilized in the U.S. tax administration.  It also recommends that withholding be expanded at the source to encompass not only wages, but taxable interest, pensions, dividends, capital gains, IRS income, unemployment and even, potentially, certain earnings as an independent contractor.
  2. Furnishing Information Returns Electronically: Information return data to taxpayers should be furnished electronically for direct importation into tax return preparation software or to authorized tax return preparers.
  3. Lower Electronic Filing Thresholds: The report recommends requiring employers with more than five employees to file Forms W-2 electronically.
  4. Form 941 Filing: Recommends requiring Form 941 contain information about each employee’s name, address and social security number. To promote electronic filing, direct the IRS to use the fillable form currently on the IRS website and reformat so the form can be electronically filed, at no cost, directly from the website.
  5. Effects of the new tax law and the shutdown on overall IRS workloads: With all of the new tax forms needed to incorporate the changes to the tax code the IRS was overwhelmed. Add to this the shutdown and the antiquated systems (IRS has two of the oldest IT systems in the federal government) and you have a recipe for potential disaster. Because of these issues the IRS is now having to process more than five million pieces of mail and over 87,000 amended returns. All manually. IT modernization was the number one recommendation in this report.

Whether or not the recommendations are implemented is anybody’s guess.  But as the situation is becoming more intense at the IRS for meeting deadlines and handling the workload with antiquated systems it will be well remembered to monitor this report for any upcoming legislative changes.  Especially in the area of electronic filing, lowering thresholds and replacing the Form W-4.

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Paycheck Checkup May be Needed

The Tax Cuts and Jobs Act made significant changes to the tax law, including increasing the standard deduction, eliminating personal exemptions, increasing the child care tax credit, limiting or discontinuing certain deductions and changing the tax rates and brackets.  While these changes did not affect the 2017 tax returns they will affect the 2018 tax returns filed next year.  For this reason the IRS is continuing to push a “paycheck checkup” for all employees but especially seasonal or part-time employees. To assist employees the IRS unveiled several new features to help people navigate the issues affecting withholding in their paychecks. The effort includes a new series of plain language Tax Tips, a YouTube video series and other special efforts to help people understand the importance of checking their withholding as soon as possible including a withholding calculator.

Employees can use the Withholding Calculator to estimate their 2018 income tax. The Withholding Calculator compares that estimate to the employee’s current tax withholding and can help them decide if they need to change their withholding with their employer.  When using the calculator, it’s helpful to have a completed 2017 tax return available. Employees who need to adjust their withholding will need to submit a new Form W-4, Employee’s Withholding Allowance Certificate, to their employer. If an employee needs to adjust their withholding, doing so as quickly as possible means there’s more time for tax withholding to take place evenly during the rest of the year. But waiting until later in the year means there are fewer pay periods to make the tax changes – which could have a bigger impact on each paycheck.

Among the groups who should check their withholding are:

  • Two-income families.
  • People working two or more jobs or who only work for part of the year.
  • People with children who claim credits such as the Child Tax Credit.
  • People with older dependents, including children age 17 or older.
  • People who itemized deductions in 2017.
  • People with high incomes and more complex tax returns.
  • People with large tax refunds or large tax bills for 2017.

FBI Warns of Another Phishing Scam Against Employees

The FBI is now warning employers of a possible phishing scam taking place.  This one targets the employees themselves. It focuses on companies that use self-service platforms where employees can view their pay, get duplicates of W-2s and update direct deposit information.  The fraudsters are impersonating the employer’s human resources department and asking employees to update or confirm their personal information via a fake website.  The employee receives a fake email that asks the employee to click on the link provided to log into his self-service account.  The email asks the employee to logon to view a private email from HR, to view changes that have been made to their account, or to confirm that the account is still active.

By clicking on the link and entering their self-service credentials, the employee is actually giving their logon information to the fraudster. The fraudster than can go into the self-service account himself and access all of the information including W-2 and pay stub info.  He can also change the direct deposit information. In order to prevent the victim from from knowing what is going on, the fraudster will also change the email address that the self-service platform uses to send alerts when changes are made.

Payroll and human resources professionals need to be on the lookout for this type of email.  With the new tax bill causing new tax withholding decisions, many employees are making good use of these types of self-service portals.  This will be especially true when the new Form W-4 is issued by the IRS.  Employees will want to make sure they have the proper withholding under the new tax tables.  And it would not be “unusual” for payroll or HR to send out emails during this time-frame.

It is also imperative to practice what the FBI calls “good email hygiene”.  Train your employees to watch for phishing attacks and to also check the actual email address rather than just looking at the display name.  Both these items can be crucial to seeing the attack early, before the damage is done.