Going Postal: Proving You Filed Your Tax Returns On Time

Recently we were alerted by one of our clients that, after waiting in line at the post office, he was unable to get a date stamp from the postal clerk on the tax returns he was posting for mail.  Another client informed us that after waiting in line at the airport post office to drop off her tax returns in the “big blue bag” she was informed by the postal workers that even though she was dropping the returns off before midnight, they could not guarantee that the returns would be date stamped for that day, because there were so many returns, they weren’t sure if they would “get to them.” 

After much investigation, we learned that different things happen to different people depending on which post office you visit.  The USPS still offers “hand canceling” of mail, but apparently only if they are not busy and/or are in a good mood that day.  By obtaining the hand canceled date stamp on your tax return envelope, you might be able to meet one of the IRS’ criteria for proving timely filing of a tax return:  the postmark date on the envelope (assuming the envelope is saved by IRS).  The only other methods accepted by IRS are certified mail and registered mail, more expensive and more of a hassle for most people, but necessary in some cases.

While the advent of e-filing has eliminated this issue for most taxpayers, there are still occasions when one must file a paper return.  Late filing penalties are not an issue if you are filing an individual return and don’t owe any taxes.  However, if you do owe taxes and the IRS determines that you have filed late, you are on the hook for a minimum 5% penalty for each month the return is late, up to a total of 25%.  In addition, you will incur late payment penalties and interest.  So, proof of timely filing a tax return can be critical if you owe taxes.  And, S corporations and partnerships now have substantial penalties for late filing, depending on the number of K-1’s per return ($195 per month times the number of K-1s, up to 12 months total – ouch!).

In addition, you need proof of timely filing if you are close to the end of a statute of limitations period, as in the case of filing amended tax returns.  In this case, we always recommend using certified or registered mail as there could be significant tax or refund issues that necessitate proof of timely filing.  Also, if you file your returns more than 2 years after they are due, but are expecting refunds, you will forfeit those refunds, so any late filed returns within the 2 year statute should be sent certified or registered to prove that you have the right to receive your refunds.

So, if you don’t live near a rural post office, with happy-go-lucky postal employees, you should plan on using certified or registered mail for any documents where proof of the mailing date is critical.


The Postman Cometh: Responding to IRS Notices

The IRS sends out millions of taxpayer notices each year.  However, IRS notices are sent ONLY via the U.S. Postal Service, never by email or any other means of communication.  So if you receive an email purportedly from the IRS, it is bogus. (You can forward these bogus emails to your state’s attorney general for fraud investigation.  Don’t open them!)

There are more than one hundred different kinds of notices that IRS can send out.  The most important thing to do when you get an IRS notice is to IMMEDIATELY open it, read it, and then take action.  Often, you will only have 30 days to respond.

These notices can be audit notifications, requests for payment, or any one of the following more common kinds of notifications, as indicated in the upper right hand corner of the notice:

CP 102: A math error was found on certain forms (such as Forms 941, 942, 943, 944 or 945 returns) that you filed, and the IRS believes you owe more tax.

CP 138: The tax you overpaid on one tax return was applied to another return where you owed tax.

CP 165: Your check for your FTD or estimated taxes was returned. This notice asks for the payment, plus a bad check penalty of two percent (the minimum penalty is $15).

CP 205: You used the wrong taxpayer identification number on your FTD coupon.

CP 2000: Issued for verification for unreported income, payments, or credits.  These are generated when IRS computers cannot match information from 1099s, 1098s, etc. to information on your tax return.

CP 2100: To notify the payer/filer of incorrect information, and to remind them of their obligation to solicit the correct information, so they can file correctly in the future. The notice also reminds them of their responsibility to backup withhold if the information is not provided.

CP 2501: A discrepancy was found between what you reported as your income, credit or deduction and what IRS records show.

We tell our clients to forward all IRS notices to us upon receipt.  We prefer to prepare the response, and we have one CPA in our firm who is our designated “notice responder”.  In our own experience, about 80% of the notices our clients receive are incorrect.  So, definitely do not panic if the IRS says you owe them gazillions of dollars. 

Most of the notices we receive are the CP-2000 (1099 matching) notices and the CP 2400 (incorrect estimated tax payments listed on the return).  These notices are easily resolved with proper correspondence, via regular mail, of course.

What’s the Best Accounting Software?

I hear this question a lot, but it’s kind of like asking:  what’s the best car?  The answer:  it depends on your needs.  So, the first step in evaluating accounting software is to evaluate your needs.  In the old days we called this a “Needs Assessment” and even small companies used to hire CPA firms like ours to perform these needs assessments when they were considering implementing new accounting software systems or upgrading their old software systems.

Today, business owners and non-profit organizations often don’t bother to “waste” time assessing their needs.  We don’t have time for that, do we?  Instead, we prefer to go directly to a solution, not knowing whether that solution has much to do with our needs.  Basic software is so cheap now that we don’t care whether it will work well or not.

Businesses have learned to tolerate inefficiencies in the accounting function because they have allocated so few resources to it that they can afford ignore it.  But they often don’t consider the actual costs of using/misusing accounting software.  These costs are hidden in the extra fees you pay at year-end to have your CPA firm unravel the mess you have created in your accounting software (probably using QuickBooks), and in the sometimes critical mistakes you make managing your business because you are relying on inaccurate and misstated financial information.

These costs are also buried in the extra loan documentation hassles and delays that occur when you try to submit your in-house financial statements to your banker.  You might even be paying a higher interest rate than you should because of these financial inaccuracies.

So, back to the accounting software/car analogy:  think about the software in terms of what you need it for, just as you would weigh whether to buy a convertible or an SUV.  The most critical area to assess is the sales cycle:  if your accounting software doesn’t enhance your sales/revenue function, then it almost doesn’t matter what else it can do well. If you sell inventory, then you need a point of sale system that actually works and that integrates with your accounting software.  If you provide services but need to use job costing, then you need enhanced billing features that allow you to track income and expenses by job, including employee time and expenses.

The next most critical area to assess is how the software will be used and accessed by different users simultaneously, and how or whether the software’s internal controls allow for separation of duties.  If you have an accounting clerk processing purchases and recording invoices, you don’t want that person to have the same access to the entire system that your CFO has.  And, please don’t follow the practice of having one logon name and password and handing that out to everyone who will be using the system!  This happens more often than you can believe, and defeats one of the most stellar internal control applications that software can offer:  determining who did what, and when.

After these two areas have been analyzed, you can move on to other functions, but one decision you will need to make is whether or not to go the “cloud computing” route and purchase an on-line accounting software service.  Cloud versions of traditional accounting software systems have, so far, been stripped down versions of the “real” package, so be very careful when choosing.  On the other hand, some strictly cloud-based software services have been around for years and are worth investigating.   If you do go this route, you’ll be improving your productivity, reducing costs, and making life easier for all the users of the system, including the business owner.  But this is where system security, passwords and log on names must be strictly adhered to, since you are also exposing your business to greater risk.

Once you’ve identified the key features you need, you can get a lot of help using the internet and seeing how other businesses rate their experiences with various software systems.  Ask your CPA firm how they view your accounting system’s needs.  If you do take the time to evaluate your own accounting needs, even if you don’t do a formal needs assessment, you are much more likely to find the best accounting software application(s) for your business or non-profit organization.