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Still Waiting On Your Tax Refund?

By Hook Law Center

Here are a few reasons you might have received a tax notice instead of your refund…

After completing the dreaded task of filing your tax return, you may be pleasantly surprised to see that you are due a refund but received less than what you expected. Or even worse, you might have received a tax notice from the Internal Revenue Service (“IRS”) instead of your actual refund.

The Department of Treasury’s Bureau of the Fiscal Service issues Federal tax refunds and operates the Treasury Offset Program. Through this program, your refund might be offset due to the following debts you and your spouse owe:

  • Federal or State taxes for a prior year
  • Past due child support
  • Federal agency non-tax debts
  • Certain unemployment compensation debts owed to
    a state

If you and your spouse do not owe any of the debts listed above, here are several common reasons for the change or delay in your refund:

  • The IRS needs additional information to verify a credit or deduction that was claimed on your return
  • The IRS adjusted your return and believes you made an error
  • The IRS is looking into another one of your returns
  • You or your spouse were a victim of identity theft

If your refund was reduced due to an outstanding debt, you can contact the agency with which you have the debt to determine if your refund was used to offset the amount owed, or you can also contact the Treasury Offset Program at 800-304-3107. If your refund was used to offset the debt, then you will receive a notice explaining the decrease in your refund. You do not need to contact the IRS unless your refund shown on the offset notice differs from the refund reported on your tax return.

Notices from the IRS can be stressful and confusing, so it is important to review it carefully to see why your full refund was not issued. If you have questions or concerns regarding the information reported on the notice, it is always recommended to speak with a tax professional to help you understand the notice and guide you through the next steps. You can also contact the IRS at the number listed on the notice you received to receive additional information regarding your reduced refund.

Ask Kit Kat: Bald Eagles Rebound

Hook Law Center: Kit Kat, what can you tell us about bald eagles around the Chesapeake Bay?

Kit Kat: Well, there is very good news indeed about bald eagles in the Chesapeake Bay along the Atlantic Ocean Coast! The 1970s were a terrible time for them. Their numbers were significantly reduced then largely due to pesticides. Contrast that to today when 302 eagle nests were counted in this year’s survey of the James River, a major tributary of the bay. In 1980, on the other hand, only 1 nest was found. According to Bryan Watts, co-founder and director of the Center for Conservation Biology at the College of William and Mary, “We’re sort of in the golden age of fish-eating waterbirds for the bay.” Other birds, too, have rebounded—osprey and blue heron, for example. In fact, Watts believes the bay may have more water fowl now than was present in the days of Capt. John Smith and the Jamestown Settlement.

What is responsible for such a dramatic change? First of all, they are protected, so they’re not being hunted. According to Watts, “We don’t consider them competitors for muskrats or for fish, and so we’re not killing them.” Protection came about through the Endangered Species Act of 1973. The other reason is that the use of pesticides was stopped. DDT was a major culprit, and also the insecticide Kepone, which was dumped illegally in the James River. From 1975-1979, no breeding pairs of eagles were found near the James River. Then, in 1980, one pair was discovered. Use of pesticides had ceased in the early to mid-70s. It took several years for them to recover, but recover they have! In 1990, there were 18 nests; in 2000, there were 57. By 2018, the number had risen to 289, and in 2019, it had risen further to 302!

Bald eagles are monitored twice yearly. It is a mandate of the US Fish and Wildlife Service since 1977 which established the Chesapeake Bay Bald Eagle Recovery Team. They used to survey Virginia’s entire eastern coast, but since 2016, they only monitor the James River. Recovery is now obvious, so they gather information on the James as a spot check. The first check is done in late February or early March before leaves hide the nests, and then in late April to decipher the number of eggs/chicks. Scientists are not sure whether the number of bald eagles has peaked. Maryland stopped surveying in 2004 when their count revealed 400 breeding pairs. In any case, it is evident bald eagles have rebounded along the Chesapeake Bay, and that is terrific news!  (Tamara Dietrich, “Bald eagles are back, tallied in unprecedented numbers around the Chesapeake Bay,” The Virginian-Pilot, July 11, 2019, p. 1 &4)

Posted on Monday, July 29th, 2019. Filed under Senior Law News.

Using Accountable Plans to Replace Lost Miscellaneous Itemized Deductions

By Jennifer Rossettini, CFP®

Did you used to itemize your deductions before 2018?  Do you miss being able to deduct unreimbursed work-related expenses like mileage, professional dues, and education from your income?  Did your tax bill increase as a result of no longer being able to deduct these expenses? If so, there may be a solution, if your employer is willing to go along with it.

Consider a taxpayer who is in the 30% tax bracket.  In 2017, she was able to deduct $12,000 in unreimbursed employment expenses for a total tax savings of $3,000.  She couldn’t claim these deductions at all in 2018.  If the taxpayer’s employer is on board, she can reduce her taxable compensation by the amount of the unreimbursed expenses by treating them as a working condition fringe benefit.

“A ‘working condition fringe benefit’ is any property or service provided to an employee to the extent that, if the employee paid for the property or service, the amount paid would be allowable as a trade or business expense.”[1]  Working condition fringe benefits would be excluded from the employee’s gross income for income tax purposes, not subject to employment taxes, and deductible by the employer.[2]

For a cash reimbursement of work-related expenses to qualify for a working condition fringe benefit, the arrangement must be structured as an “accountable plan,” which is a plan that follows certain IRS regulations.  To comply with these regulations the plan must require: (1) a business connection; (2) adequate substantiation; and (3) the return of excess advances.

To satisfy the business connection requirement, the amounts paid or incurred by the employee must be in connection with performing services for the employer.  The employer must make sure that the reimbursements or allowances are clearly identified as such, either in a separate check from the employee’s pay check or by delineating the reimbursement or allowance on the employee’s pay stub.

To satisfy the adequate substantiation requirement, the employee must be required to submit documentation, such as an expense report, diary, log or detailed receipt, within a reasonable time period, that shows the amount and business purpose of the expense, the time and place of any travel, the date and description of any business gifts, and the business relationship to the employer of each person receiving a gift.  For travel expenses, an accountable plan is permitted to use federal per diem rates for the basis of determining reimbursement amounts.

The plan must also require employees to return any advance that exceeds substantiated business expenses.  Any unreturned excess amount is treated as additional income subject to income taxes and federal employment taxes.  However, if the employer pays a per diem travel allowance that doesn’t exceed the federal per diem rate, employees can retain the excess of the per diem over actual expenses.  This will not disqualify the accountable plan or require the excess to be treated as taxable income.

If you are an employee who regularly incurs unreimbursed business expenses and you are hoping to minimize income taxes to the greatest extent possible, talk to your employer about whether they offer working condition fringe benefits.  If you are an employer looking to improve your cash flow and/or boost morale among your employees, consider establishing an accountable plan for this purpose.

[1] Gardner, Randy, J.D., LL.M, CPA, RLP®, CFP®, and Welch, Julie A., CPA, PFS, CFP®. “Use Accountable Plans to Retain Benefits of Lost Miscellaneous Itemized Deductions.” Journal of Financial Planning. July 2019: 30. Print.

[2] Gardner & Welch at 31.

Ask Kit Kat: ASPCA/NYPD Partnership

Hook Law Center: Kit Kat, what can you tell us about the ASPCA/NYPD partnership which is now in its 5th year?

Kit Kat: Well, this is a huge success story, if there ever was one! ASPCA and the NYPD (New York Police Department) have been working together since 2013, actually. Back then, it was experimental and only involved one of NYC’s boroughs—the Bronx. When the cooperation proved to be a success, it became a city-wide effort in January 2014. This would mean a lot to abused animals since NYC with its 5 boroughs covers a lot of territory, millions of people, and 77 police precincts. That would mean a lot more attention would be given by people with the power to intervene when abuse/neglect was spotted.

ASPCA and NYPD worked hand-in-hand to make the lives of neglected animals better. Some of the things they did were: 1) establish a special center called the Animal Recovery Center (ARC) to care for the abused animals which were seized. 2) set-up a hotline on the NYPD Crime Stoppers Program to receive anonymous tips concerning animals abuse, and 3) passing laws which require the owners of abused animals with pending court cases to pay the cost of care for the animal while the case is being settled. This encourages a faster resolution of cases, and animals can be placed for adoption much more quickly than in the past.

Some of the cruelty where intervention occurred is unbelievable. One of the earliest cases involved a pit bull named Fraggle. He was found zipped inside a suitcase,  severely malnourished, and abandoned. After rehabilitation by the ASPCA, he was able to be adopted. Another of the  positive outcomes of the collaboration between the 2 departments is that people are also helped. NYPD Police Commissioner James P. O’Neill, says, “Animal cruelty is often linked to other serious crimes against people, including domestic violence. And so, by assisting animals in our neighborhoods, together we’re making our nation’s safest large city even safer.” (“A New Day for Animal Victims of Cruelty,” ASPCA Action, Issue 1, 2019, p.11-15)

Posted on Monday, July 22nd, 2019. Filed under Senior Law News.

Parents May Now Delegate Care Authority of a Child

By Shannon Laymon-Pecoraro, CELA

Many parents travel for work or otherwise send children to stay with a relative for temporary points in time, entrusting others with the care of their children. The concern has always been whether there is any authority to delegate parental decisions to such persons temporarily caring for the child. Until recently, there was no statutory authority that would permit another to step into the shoes of a parent for important care decisions.

Last week, a law permitting parents, or legal custodians, of a child to temporarily delegate care authority to another person became effective. Such delegation must be made in the form of a properly executed power of attorney, signed by both parents if they exercise joint custody, and may not exceed a period of 180 days. Service members on active duty have been exempted from the 180 day limit, but shall not be permitted to extend such time in excess of 30 days beyond the term of active duty service. The agent shall exercise parental or legal authority on a continuous basis for no less than 24 hours and without compensation for the intended duration of the power of attorney. The delegation may be revoked by any person who signed the power of attorney at any time.

The law specifically allows for the delegation of powers regarding the custody, care, and property of the child, but excludes the power to consent to marriage or adoption of the child, the performance or inducement of an abortion on or for the child, or the termination of parental rights to the child. Further, such delegation of does not modify the legal rights, obligations, or authority of a parent or legal custodian.

Another important exception to the law was implemented to prevent parents from delegating authority for the primary purpose of enrolling a child in a school outside of the child’s jurisdiction. The law specifically states that a power of attorney shall be invalid “if executed for the primary purpose of enrolling the child in a school for the sole purpose of participating in the academic or interscholastic athletics programs provided by that school or for any other unlawful purpose.” A violation of this section is punishable under the law.

As Kit Kat: Arctic Fox’s Journey

Hook Law Center: Kit Kat, was there really an Arctic fox who journeyed from Norway to Canada?

Kit Kat: Yes, amazingly, it did. The female fox was a coastal or blue fox. She had a tracking collar on, and that is how the journey was recorded. This represents a trip of more than 2,175 miles in only 76 days. She began on the Svalbard Archipelago of Norway in 2018, and was tracked to a remote island in northern Nunavut, Canada. This event was reported in Polar Research, and published by the Norwegian Polar Institute during the last week of June 2019.

How was such a trip possible? Well, this particular breed of fox is very hearty, but it is still an amazing story. It was only possible during winter, when the Arctic ice freezes over and the 2 continents are connected. At first, researchers were skeptical. How could this be? Eva Fuglei, of the Norwegian Polar Institute, said, “We didn’t think it was true. Could the fox have been found dead, the collar taken off and now aboard a boat?” That possibility was ruled out when they realized it would not be possible for a boat to travel through the ice that far north at that time of year. When tracking data was downloaded from the collar, it appears the fox left the Svalbard Archipelago on March 26, 2018 and reached Ellesmere Island in Nunavut, Canada 2.5 months later. In one day, she logged in about 96 miles! Ms. Fuglei  commented, “This is, to our knowledge, the fastest movement rate ever recorded for this species.”

Why would the fox have set out on such a journey? Researchers suspect it was motivated by lack of food in her original habitat or some threat that existed there. The fox’s migration also points to the importance of sea ice for some species. With global warming, the way of life for some species may be significantly altered. (Megan Specia, “An Arctic Fox’s Epic Journey: Norway to Canada in 76 days,” The New York Times, July 2, 2019)

Posted on Monday, July 15th, 2019. Filed under Senior Law News.

How To Be An Advocate For a Loved One In a Nursing Home

By Emily Martin, Esq.

If you have a family member or loved one who is unable to live at home any longer, you may feel anxious about leaving them alone with strangers caring for them. Not only can it be confusing and difficult for someone to move into a nursing home, but you may be worried that your loved one will not be able to speak for himself if they become a victim of abuse or neglect.

While most facilities are safe and provide a protective environment for those who cannot care for themselves, unfortunately sometimes that is not the case. For example, in January 2019, the news broke that a 29-year-old woman in a vegetative state who was living in a nursing home gave birth at the facility. At the time, staff at the facility was shocked – no one knew she was pregnant. Later, it came to light that a worker at the facility had been sexually abusing the patient for quite some time.

Although abuse to this extent is rare, the fact remains that assault, sexual or otherwise, is a crime that often goes unreported in nursing homes. Because of a cognitive impairment, those who suffer from dementia are the most likely victims of this type of assault – whether it comes from other residents, staff, and even complete strangers visiting the facility. So how can you protect your loved one from becoming a victim?

Evaluate the facility

When you begin to research nursing homes, visit them in person. Look around and ask questions. How personable is the staff? Are there enough staff members so that each resident receives adequate supervision? What is the quality of the management of the facility? Ask questions about training for the staff and whether all staff members, including volunteers and vendors, are required to have criminal background checks. If you have misgivings after receiving the answers to these questions or if you are unable to obtain answers at all, there is a good chance that it is not the right place for your loved one.

Check for signs of abuse

If a loved one has been physically abused, you may notice unexplained bruising or blood. They may withdraw from social activities and interactions and could possible react differently toward their abuser. They may begin suffering from nightmares or night terrors. Any of these are red flags that could indicate that your loved one is a victim of abuse.

Know your loved one’s rights

If a nursing home receives funds from Medicaid (which nearly all do), then it is subject to federal regulations with regard to the management of nursing homes. Under federal law, when two or more relatives of nursing homer residents meet, the facility is required to give them a place to meet. They also must respond to their recommendations or concerns within a certain time period. These “family councils” can be powerful tools. If a facility knows that family members are active advocates, they will have more incentive to provide proper care or their residents.

Reach out to your long-term care ombudsman

Each geographical area has a long-term care ombudsman whose role it is to serve as an advocate who can investigate complains for residents in long-term care facilities. If you feel that your loved one is being abused or neglected, a long-term care ombudsman can be a powerful tool in helping you get answers about your loved one’s care. They have the ability to investigate the conditions at the facility and make sure that the residents are receiving the care they need. An ombudsman can be a powerful ally for family members who live out of the area or who are unable to be physically present to advocate for their loved ones.

Call Adult Protective Services

Another possible resource for victims of abuse or neglect is Adult Protective Services (APS). APS has the ability to investigate claims of abuse and can offer a wide range of protective services, including legal intervention to protect adults who are being abused. In Virginia, APS is managed by the local Department of Social Services.

The most important thing you can do for a loved one in a nursing home is to make sure they have an advocate – someone who can recognize signs of abuse or neglect and act appropriately to remedy the situation if it does occur. While the majority of residents in nursing homes are not being abused or neglected, it is crucial to know what the signs are – and how to act if it happens to your loved one.

Ask Kit Kat: Helping Pelicans

Hook Law Center: Kit Kat, what can you tell us about how pelicans are treated when they get fishing line injuries?

Kit Kat: Well, there is such good news on this subject! There are 4 centers across the country that treat seabirds. One is in Murchsion, Texas, another in Oakland, Oregon, another in Ramona, California, and finally one in Ft.Lauderdale, Florida. The latter is the focus of today’s article. The Florida location is called the South Florida Wildlife Center. Headed by Dr. Renata Schneider, director, there have been great results in treating pelicans which have been caught up either in fishing hooks or fishing line. Since January, the center has treated 6 pelicans successfully which had serious injuries. Another 300 with minor injuries have also been treated. Pelicans have large mouths, so it is easy for them to swallow hooks or get line tangled in their beaks.  When an injury is serious enough to warrant surgery, it requires fluid therapy and pain medication for a period of time after surgery before they can be released back to nature.

Dr. Schneider recommends that to keep seabirds safe, there are some things which can be done by those who fish or who happen to come by a bird in distress. First, never leave fishing line out on a pier or dock. Dispose of it in a trash can that has a covering such as a monofilament recycling canister or bin. These now are available on many piers. Second, keep cutting tables where fish are gutted free of any debris or fish remains. This attracts pelicans/birds which can swallow the remains which may also happen to have a hook left in it. Finally, if a bird is found with a line in its mouth, don’t cut the line. Carefully reel in the bird, and contact a veterinarian or wildlife center for help. Also, never hold a pelican’s beak completely shut. They breathe through their mouths, and if it is kept shut, they won’t be able to breathe. The good thing about pelicans, says Dr. Schneider, is that “they don’t get stressed out around people.” (Kelly L. Williams, “Pelican patients get patched up,” All Animals, June/July/August 2019, p. 14)

Posted on Monday, July 8th, 2019. Filed under Senior Law News.
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Ask Kit Kat: Pet advice and wisdom as Kit Kat sees it.