6 common tax filing mistakes to avoid

(BPT) – It’s probably safe to say handing cash to Uncle Sam does not top the list of your favorite things. When it comes to filing taxes, making a small mistake can mean paying more taxes than you need to or forking over cash to cover penalties.

Fortunately, there’s an easy way to make sure your tax return is mistake-free: just take a little extra time to double check your work. Here’s a closer look at the six most common tax-filing errors and tips to help you avoid making them.

1. Mistake: Not reporting all income. Reporting your income is easy if your employer sends you a wage statement (called Form W-2) documenting what you made throughout the year. But what about the money you earned from any freelance work? Unfortunately, many people forget to report extra income from side jobs such as photography shoots, design projects and Etsy shops.

How to avoid the error: Depending on how much you earned, you may receive an “information return” called Form 1099 from the institution that paid you. There are numerous 1099 forms that report different types of income earned during the year, but in some cases you may not receive the document. For example, if you earn less than $600 as a freelance writer, the institution is not required to send you Form 1099-MISC. However, you still need to include the amount earned in your total annual income so it’s important to keep your own records of each transaction.

“To help accurately report your income, review last year’s return and match your income sources item by item,” says TaxAct Director of tax development, Mark Jaeger. “If you discover you haven’t received a 1099 for your work, last year’s return will serve as a reminder to ask about it. Keep in mind, all freelance or side-gig income is reported on Schedule C as part of your Form 1040.”

2. Mistake: Mistyping bank accounts and personal information. Believe it or not, incorrect bank account numbers or personal information – like Social Security Numbers – is one of the main reasons tax returns are rejected. Using a nickname or a shortened version of your legal name also lands near the top of the list.

How to avoid the error: Double – or triple – check any personal or bank account information before you submit your completed tax return. “If you need help figuring out account information, don’t be afraid to ask your bank for assistance,” Jaeger says.

3. Mistake: Paying too much to file your taxes. Whether you tap a tax professional or choose a DIY tax provider that charges an arm and a leg for their product, paying too much to file your return is a mistake.

How to avoid the error: Fortunately, filers have more affordable options to choose from. When looking for DIY options, do some comparison shopping. The leading tax preparation software providers offer similar features and benefits, but the price points can widely vary. In many cases, prices increase as the filing deadline nears. Look for a provider like TaxAct that not only offers a low price, but also guarantees your price won’t increase if you start your online return but wait to file later.

4. Mistake: Not e-filing. While 91 percent of tax returns were e-filed in 2016, there are still filers who file a paper return. Going the pencil and paper route often means longer tax return processing times.

How to avoid the error: Electronic filing (e-filing) is the quickest and most accurate way to file your tax return. In fact, the IRS typically processes e-filed returns within 48 hours. If you’re due a refund, you’ll get it quicker if you e-file and choose direct deposit.

5. Mistake: Incorrect calculations. When the IRS receives your tax return, one of the first steps the agency takes is to check the figures to make sure they add up. Unfortunately, it’s easy to miscalculate numbers – especially if you’re in a rush or aren’t sure what to add or subtract.

How to avoid the error: First, take your time and double check all numbers. Second, consider using DIY tax software so you don’t have to do the math on your own.

6. Mistake: Using the wrong filing status. Choosing the wrong filing status, like Head of Household instead of Single, can have a great impact on your tax rates, the number of personal exemptions you can claim, your qualifications for certain tax deductions, credits and more.

How to avoid the error: Before starting your return, review the five different filing statuses to help you select the one most appropriate for your tax situation. Carefully selecting the right one will help you feel confident you’re taking the right steps to maximize your tax outcome.

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5 steps toward improving financial well-being in the new year

(BPT) – With the start of a new year comes New Year’s resolutions. Many will focus on physical wellness, some on organization. Now is a perfect time to take stock of your financial house and work on financial wellness, which will take off a level of stress that can immediately have an effect on your physical well-being.

In fact, seven out of 10 American workers say financial concerns are their most common cause of stress; nearly half say they find dealing with their financial situation stressful.

MassMutual suggests taking five steps toward improving financial well-being which, in turn, will support your physical well-being in the new year:

1. Make a will. A MassMutual survey of Americans between ages 45 and 60 revealed three out of five respondents do not have a will. If you are one of those people, make it a priority in the new year to create a will to ensure your loved ones are protected. It is also important to update beneficiary information and review it annually.

2. Improve your credit score. Boosting your credit score is a lot like going to the gym — it can be painful at first, but is ultimately worth the (financial) effort. Late payments — one of the top “credit busters” — can impact your credit score, so make sure you pay your bills on time each month and pay off balances as quickly as possible (especially on ones with high interest rates).

3. Save more than you spend. Saving money is a time-tested way to improve your financial situation over time. A good rule-of-thumb is to save at least 10 percent of your net income each year.

4. Don’t leave your 401(k) behind. The growing use of automatic enrollment in 401(k) plans and shorter job tenures are contributing to an increasing number of inactive 401(k) accounts, according to a U.S. Government Accountability Office report. If the new year brings you a new job, or retirement, be sure to rollover your 401(k) to your new employer-sponsored account or an individual retirement account if you are leaving the workforce. And, if you’re not yet contributing to a retirement plan, do so and ensure you save at least enough to enjoy your employer’s match if there is one. Don’t leave any free money on the table.

5. Establish an emergency fund. Whether it is a job loss, health emergency, or car or home repair, an emergency fund provides a cushion to help you cover unexpected costs without interfering with your financial goals. Include backstops like disability income insurance to protect your income stream should you become seriously ill or injured, and consider life insurance with options that give you access to cash for life’s priorities, such as whole life insurance.

For more tips to help your financial well-being, visit massmutual.com.

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Where there is a will – and more – there’s peace of mind

(BPT) – What’s the state of your estate? Robert Fishbein, a vice president and corporate counsel in Prudential Financial’s Tax Department, says now’s a good time to find out.

Changes in federal estate tax law have significantly increased the amount at which federal estate tax is triggered, says Fishbein. The individual exemption is $5.49 million (2017 amount, indexed for inflation) so a couple can accumulate almost $11 million dollars of assets without federal estate tax depleting the value.

The $5.49 million will increase over time. As a result, most individuals no longer need an estate plan to minimize federal estate tax.

That said, Fishbein adds, there are compelling reasons for having an estate plan, and three core documents you’ll need to create one: a power of attorney, a living will or health care proxy, and a will. In this article, Fishbein describes these core documents and how you can use them.

Power of attorney

A power of attorney is the document designating someone to make financial decisions for you, whether you’re out of the country for a long period, have a physical injury preventing you from conducting business in person, or are mentally incapacitated.

A power of attorney can be “springing” — going into effect upon your incapacity — or “durable,” meaning it goes into effect immediately. The challenge with a springing power of attorney is it can be subject to disagreement and dispute between the holder of the power and another family member. One solution is to require the incapacity be certified by a physician, although even those findings can be disputed.

With the durable power of attorney, there’s no basis for contesting whether the holder of the power can act. The risk is the holder has the immediate right and ability to access and take action with respect to the financial assets subject to the power. One possible strategy? Limit the power to specific assets. This won’t help if the grantor if the power is totally incapacitated and the holder may need access to all of the grantor’s assets.

A durable power of attorney is arguably less problematic, provided you are comfortable with the person you’re choosing. The holder of the power has a legal obligation, as a fiduciary of the grantor, to act in the best interests of the grantor and not in his or her interests.

It makes sense to have a power of attorney so you know your financial affairs will be attended to. The alternative could be a costly judicial process and court appointment of someone to manage your assets while you are living and unable to do so yourself.

Living will and health care proxy

A “living will” ensures your health care wishes are acted upon if you are unable to make such decisions. It lets you describe the types of treatment you do or don’t want under specific circumstances. For example, if you have a terminal illness, you may not want extraordinary measures taken to save your life. The challenge is it’s almost impossible to anticipate all possible scenarios to indicate what health care treatment you’ll want.

An alternative to a pure living will is a “living will and health care proxy,” wherein you designate an individual to make health care choices for you. The living will portion describes in general terms your health care philosophy, and the health care proxy allows you to name an individual to make health care choices for you consistent with that philosophy. The choice of such an individual is important, and you should make sure you are comfortable he or she understands and will act consistent with your wishes.

You should have a living will drawn up as part of your basic estate planning. Again, the alternative is a costly legal process for someone — maybe not of your choice — to get appointed as your proxy to make health care decisions on your behalf.

Last will and testament

A “last will and testament” serves several important purposes, including determining how your assets are distributed, who’ll care for your minor children and who’ll invest and distribute property held in trust for your children, grandchildren or other beneficiaries. The basic function of a last will and testament is to ensure your assets are distributed as you’d want. Absent a will, your assets will be distributed in accordance with applicable state law.

You’ll also designate the legal guardian, and possible successors, for any minor children who survive you and your spouse. This is one of the most important and difficult decisions for parents — so difficult that it sometimes can hold up the entire estate plan. But agreement by the parents is important and avoids the possibility of someone else being court-appointed who may or may not share your child-rearing views.

With the increase of the federal estate tax exemption and an individual’s ability to use the exemption of a deceased spouse, trusts for federal estate tax planning have been made largely irrelevant for most individuals. However, if you have minor children who could take property if both you and your spouse die, or grandchildren who could take property if a child of yours dies and leaves children, you’ll probably need trusts to hold property for those beneficiaries. Such trusts will enable you to determine who’ll invest the trust property, how it’ll be used for the child’s benefit and at what age the beneficiary will receive the remaining property.

Think you don’t have a large enough estate to warrant setting up trusts for your beneficiaries? Consider even the most basic estate when you own a house, have retirement assets and maybe additional investments or property. Given the total value of these assets, you’d probably want to hold them in trust for minor heirs. If there’s life insurance, a trust for younger beneficiaries will almost certainly make sense.

Although federal estate tax is no longer a significant consideration for most individuals, you may want to consider the cost of state estate tax. The state exemption is sometimes less than the federal exemption, and state estate tax can take a meaningful bite out of what you expect to leave to your beneficiaries.

Prudential Financial, its affiliates, and its financial professionals do not render tax or legal advice. Please consult your tax and legal advisors for advice concerning your particular circumstances.

The Prudential Insurance Company of America, Newark, NJ and its affiliates.

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5 easy tactics for making your New Year’s resolution to save money a reality

(BPT) – It’s almost that time of year again – you prepare for the holidays and start thinking about what you want your New Year’s resolution to be.

According to research from Nielsen, one quarter of Americans want to spend less and save more money in the New Year. If you’re one of these people, follow these five easy tips to stay on track financially in 2017.

Automate payments into your savings account.

When payday rolls around, it can be tempting to pocket every last dollar. But realistically, it’s difficult to save money that’s right in front if you. Instead, automate payments into your savings account before it makes it to your checking account. This way, you won’t miss it from your budget, and you’ll be on the road to staying true to your New Year’s resolution all year.

Dine in.

Everyone knows eating out is more expensive than dining in, but you might not even realize how often you’re doing it. When you’re on the go, buying lunch or ordering take-out, costs quickly add up. Pre-planning and preparing meals for the week ahead will not only save money but help you eat healthier at the same time.

Rethink your wireless plan.

Do you feel like you’re paying too much for your data? In 2017, set yourself free from your overpriced wireless plan. For only $40 a month, Net10 Wireless’ no contract cell service makes this easy. You’ll get nationwide coverage on one of America’s top four networks and the first 3 GB of data at high speeds, then at 2G*. Plus, you can make the switch while keeping your current phone and number with the Net10 Wireless Bring Your Own Phone program. “Ringing” in the New Year is all about making changes for the better, and switching your plan could save you lots in the long run.

Bring the gym home.

Exercising is important, but monthly gym membership fees can make a huge dent in your savings. Instead, try working out at home for a few months by following exercise videos, running outside (weather permitting) or modifying your favorite utilizing home items. If that’s not enough, try pay-per-class offerings coupled with your own exercise outside of the gym.

Cut out your cable bill.

Similar to spending too much on a cell data contract, your monthly cable bills could also be hindering your financial goals. How often do you really watch specialty channels anyway? Opting for monthly streaming services can cost you as low as $7.99 per month while offering the same programs and movies you love. Meanwhile, the average cable bill is $99 per month. Making the switch could save you more than $1,000 per year, which just goes to show how sticking to your New Year’s resolution can pay off.

*At 2G speeds, the functionality of some data applications, such as streaming audio or video may be affected. Please refer always to the latest Terms and Conditions of Service at NET10wireless.com.

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Buying your first home? Follow this New Year’s plan to get fiscally fit

(BPT) – So buying a new home tops your list of New Year’s resolutions. As you picture the big moment — the one where you pull up to your dream home in your moving truck, sprint up and unlock your front door — you probably understand there’s something you need to do first. You need to get your finances in shape.

Just like those who make resolutions to run a marathon, making this big investment starts with a plan. Runners know that if they run a certain distance each day, it gets them closer to accomplishing their goal.

“The same is true, in many ways, when it comes to buying a home,” says Eric Hamilton, president of Vanderbilt Mortgage and Finance. “Before taking on a loan, many home buyers find they need to build their ‘financial muscles’ and establish ‘healthy’ money habits.”

By following a few tips to reach financial fitness goals, you, too can achieve the goal of home ownership.

Do those daily sprints

People who reach their fitness goals begin with a look at their current habits and then make a plan to replace them with better ones. The same is true for homebuyers. First, look at the spending choices you’ve been making, and review three to six months’ worth of bank statements. Consider what is necessary and what needs to cut back. The goal is to trim the fat in your budget so you can use the extra money to reduce your debt and increase your savings.

Crunch your debt

Take a look at your debts and consider the monthly payments you make. Are there any debts standing in the way of making a house payment affordable? Those are the ones you want to knock out with an accelerated payment plan, using the money you freed up by cutting back on unnecessary expenses. Try focusing on one debt at a time, paying close attention to the ones with the highest interest rates to pay off first.

Beef up your credit score

The good habits you exercise today will make all the difference on your interest rate later. Put in the extra work to raise your credit score. Your credit score pulls together many details from your past and current debts as well as other financial factors, and helps lenders determine your creditworthiness. Making the effort to raise your score is worthwhile because shaving off even one-quarter of a percentage point from a mortgage loan can potentially save you thousands of dollars in interest over the life of a 30-year mortgage. A credit score factors your history of on-time payments, the amount you owe on your debts, the type of credit you have, the age of that debt and any recently opened new credit lines as well as other factors. You may be able to improve your score and get the lowest possible interest rate on a home loan if you follow these “reps” every month: pay all your bills on time, don’t close old credit card accounts and don’t open new lines of credit.

Increase your intake of savings

Even when paying down debt, it’s still a good idea to start a small savings plan so you have some cash to fall back on if, say, you need to go to the doctor or get new tires for your car. Start by opening a savings account and set up automatic transfers each month. Even with $50 a month, you’ll have $600 in one year, which could bail you out of a number of small emergencies. Eventually, once your debts are paid off, you can divert those payments right into savings, which also can build your down payment for that new dream home

Prepare for the big event

All these steps lead to one main event: buying a home. Once you meet those smaller goals — following a budget, eliminating debt, raising your credit score, and saving for your down payment — you’re ready for the final push toward home ownership.

First, figure out how much home you can afford: look at home prices in your area, use an online loan calculator to estimate your payments, and go through your budget. Then gather up the financial documents you’ll need, including proof of employment, bank statements and tax statements. Finally, choose a lender that is right for you. Vanderbilt Mortgage and Finance, Inc. has many programs that can fit many kinds of buyers. Perhaps you’re getting your first mortgage, have perfect credit, and in some cases, less-than-perfect credit. All loan programs are subject to credit approval and restrictions apply. Contact Vanderbilt for details. If you are interested in learning more about Vanderbilt, visit, http://www.vmfhomeloan.com. Vanderbilt is a Berkshire Hathaway national housing lender that has been in business for more than 40 years and has helped families just like yours find the right financing program.

“Following these habits can be challenging from a motivation standpoint,” Hamilton says. “It takes patience, but once you’ve followed the steps to get financially healthy, it is a very rewarding experience.”

Vanderbilt Mortgage and Finance, Inc., 500 Alcoa Trail, Maryville, TN 37804, 865-380-3000, NMLS #1561, ( http://www.nmlsconsumeraccess.org/), AZ Lic. #BK-0902616, Loans made or arranged pursuant to a California Finance Lenders Law license, GA Residential Mortgage (Lic. #6911), Illinois Residential Mortgage Licensee, Licensed by the NH Banking Department, MT Lic. #1561, Licensed by PA Dept. of Banking.

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Rebel against rogue investing and the dark side of market forces with these 7 tips

(BPT) – There is great unrest in the financial universe. The next disturbance in The Force is anyone’s guess. Like the rebels in the forthcoming Star Wars film Rogue One, you seek a new hope. Fear not and reach for a promising investment future.

I. Look to the setting suns.

In Episode IV: A New Hope, a moisture farmer named Luke Skywalker contemplates his future as two suns set. Great challenges loom ahead. Preparations are critical. The same is true of your financial future. Do you have an emergency fund? Are you on track for retirement?

TIP: You must be looking now to see what can happen later.

II. The Force will be with you, always.

The keys to investing success lie inside you—though you shouldn’t go it alone. Envision what you’ll encounter. Create a strategy to meet those demands. Ask yourself:

* How much can I contribute
* In which areas?
* What does victory look like?
* When will objectives be met?

When fear for the future emerges, seek advice. In Star Wars, Jedi knights guide apprentices. All lean on master Yoda.
TIP: Navigate challenging times with an advisor or representative at your financial institution.

III. Rendezvous.

Before dangerous missions in Star Wars, the rebels convene. Strategy is detailed. Difficult questions are asked. Consensus is reached. Regarding your investment plan, perhaps it’s time to re-evaluate your budget and increase monthly contributions to your portfolio.

“Schedule time on a quarterly basis to review your portfolio’s performance,” says Kevin Driscoll, vice president of advisory services at Navy Federal Financial Group. “It’s a great idea to involve your financial advisor in this process. A second opinion can provide perspective and help you identify areas for improvement.”TIP: Plans tend to impact others, so be sure to communicate and collaborate.

IV. Diversify your attack.

An effective strategy in battle employs multiple fronts. In Star Wars, missions combine air and ground tactics. Investing also incorporates “divide and conquer.” Experts recommend investing in diverse assets: stocks, bonds, certificates, real estate and more.

TIP: To diversify your portfolio, invest in stocks and bonds across a variety of business sectors.

V. Stay in formation.

Your portfolio will be tested. Be mindful. In Star Wars, Jedi are trained to draw close to each other when threatened. Remember no matter how poorly an investment is performing, history shows the market corrects with time.

“When the market dips, purchase more shares with the same dollar amount. When the market spikes, your owned shares increase in value,” Driscoll explains. This investing method is called dollar-cost averaging. It lowers the average cost of shares over time.

TIP: Avoid watching the market too closely. Resist the urge to bail on an asset. Invest consistently, with the long view in mind.

VI. Don’t go rogue.

In Star Wars, The Empire has built a vast portfolio of assets on Darth Vader’s watch. He offers enticing rewards to bounty hunters who support his regime. Your mission in financial planning is to resist the ever-present temptation to go rogue. Don’t be seduced by others’ success. Don’t jump when a friend asks you to invest in his can’t-miss venture (unless his goals align with yours).

TIP: Record your investment plan in writing, which firms up the details. When tested, fall back on the document.

VII. The saga will have many episodes.

Despite your best intentions, some investments will succumb to the dark side of market forces. Remember investing takes patience and fortitude. Like most journeys, the story of your portfolio won’t be told in a single chapter.

TIP: Avoid making an investment decision when your emotions run hot or cold.

Get started.

If there’s an example in Star Wars of what not to do in investing, it’s Han Solo. He didn’t believe in market forces (at first). At times, he struggled to manage obstacles. As we saw in Episode VII: The Force Awakens (and as early as Episode IV: A New Hope), Han didn’t take debt seriously. Collectors were after him at every turn. In Episode VI: The Empire Strikes Back, his assets were frozen. Your destiny can be simpler. You don’t have to be a swash-buckling smuggler. A moisture farmer from a remote desert outpost can make sound financial decisions toward prosperity.

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4 tax changes that could impact your 2016 return

(BPT) – With tax filing season upon us, it’s a good idea to educate yourself on what’s changed since last year. While it’s been a relatively quiet year in terms of new tax laws, there are a handful of items for which you’ll want to prepare.

1. The Tax Deadline is April 18.

This year, the deadline to file returns is Tuesday, April 18, 2017, rather than the traditional April 15 date. That’s because the April 15 falls on a Saturday and Emancipation Day, the anniversary of the abolition of slavery, is recognized on Monday, April 17, 2017 and is a holiday in the District of Columbia. For tax-filing purposes, the IRS treats this day as a federal holiday.

2. Delayed refunds for some early filers.

If you claim the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) or Additional Child Tax Credit (ACTC) this year, you’ll have to wait until after mid-February to get your refund. The Protecting Americans from Tax Hikes (PATH) Act, passed in late 2015, says the IRS cannot issue credits or refunds for an overpayment before Feb. 15, 2017 to any filer who claims the EITC or ACTC.

The delay gives the IRS more time to review income tax returns — and prevent the agency from inadvertently processing fraudulent returns. Fraudsters file bogus returns before the actual filer can complete their taxes and often claim credits like the EITC and ACTC.

Both the EITC and ACTC are refundable tax credits. That means they are beneficial even after reducing your tax liability to zero. If the amount of these credits is more than the amount of taxes due, you’ll get the difference back as a refund. Savvy criminals know this — and input numbers to make it look like they should get more money back.

If you don’t file either of these credits, the IRS says your refund will likely get processed in the typical time frame of 21 days.

3. Don’t be surprised if your state asks for your driver’s license number or state ID.

Depending on the state in which you live, you may be asked to provide your driver’s license number (DLN) or state ID number when you file your 2016 state return. This is part of a broad effort by the IRS, states and the entire tax industry to lessen the risk of tax-related identity theft. Identity thieves may have personal information such as your name and Social Security number, but not your DLN. The additional information helps states verify you are who you say you are.

“Some states, such as Alabama, will ask taxpayers who e-file to provide both the DLN as well as date of issue, expiration number and issuing state,” says Mark Jaeger, director of Tax Development for TaxAct. “If you use a DIY tax solution like TaxAct, you’ll be prompted to enter the information required by your state as you prepare your return.”

Implementing additional identity verification measures, such as requesting a filer’s DLN and related information, can help curtail the number of fraudulent returns states process this year. The IRS now requests this information, but it is not required to electronically file a federal return.

4. Affordable Care Act (ACA) forms may be late this year — but don’t wait to file your return.

By now, you’re probably accustomed to receiving ACA-related forms reporting whether you and members of your household met health insurance coverage requirements established by the ACA for the prior year. What’s new this year is when you’ll receive some of those forms.

The deadline for companies and insurers to issue Forms 1095-B and 1095-C to individuals has been delayed this year. Employers and insurance providers must mail your forms by March 2, 2017 — considerably later than the original Jan. 31 deadline.

“Remember, you don’t need to file these forms with your return,” Jaeger says. “However, the forms can be helpful in identifying coverage months if the entire tax household did not have full-year health insurance coverage. Once you receive the applicable form, keep it with your other tax documents. The IRS gets their own copy so you don’t need to attach it to your return.”

Keep up to date with a little help from your friends.

Staying abreast of tax changes before you file your return can be tough. Fortunately, taxpayers can turn to a number of resources, including TaxAct, for help.

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Shopping for small business solutions? Tech talk translations for SBOs

(BPT) – As a small business owner, you do it all: the books, marketing, customer service, product, inventory and — oh yes — tech support. In fact, small and microbusiness owners are more likely to shoulder all tech tasks for their firms, according to a study by the National Small Business Association. Yet unless your business is IT, chances are you struggle to speak the language of business technology solutions.

“Small business owners need to be masters of virtually every aspect of their business, but they shouldn’t have to be translators, too,” says Nate Spilker, vice president of cloud services for Citrix. “Technology can help small businesses grow and stay ahead of the competition. Organizations of all sizes need the technology they use to be easy to adopt, improve efficiency, reduce costs and boost productivity, no matter what their industry.”

Microbusiness tech challenges

The 3.7 million microbusinesses (which the Small Business Administration defines as having fewer than nine employees) make up more than 75 percent of all private-sector employers, and provide nearly 11 percent of private sector jobs, according to the SBA. Their tech needs are significant, yet 40 percent of microbusiness owners handle all their company’s IT support, according to the National Small Business Association.

Additionally, 60 percent allow employees to telecommute, which can make sharing files and data problematic. Telecommuting employees may save documents and files on local hard drives, rather than centralized locations where others can securely access and collaborate on the documents. What’s more, 57 percent don’t use cloud computing, a technology designed to enhance collaboration, the NSBA reports.

Technology can help microbusiness owners improve efficiency, reduce and control costs, provide superior customer service and satisfaction, and focus more time on activities that help the business prosper. Stephen L. Nelson, CPA, used Citrix ShareFile to securely, quickly and easily share documents and files with his clients.

Replacing the inefficient method of physically mailing documents with file sharing technology allowed his small team to get more done in less time, reduced the need for physical storage space for paper files, and increased productivity for his firm and his clients. Lowering overhead, paper and office space costs allowed Nelson to grow his business 10 percent.

Talking about solutions

The terminology that describes common tech tools can be mystifying to small business owners. Spilker and the small business technology professionals at Citrix offer explanations of some common terms and tools:

* Digital transformation — Technology is profoundly affecting how companies of all sizes do business. They are moving away from traditional, more labor-intensive processes in favor of digital tools, activities and processes.

* Cloud computing — Instead of storing, managing and processing data on an office computer or local server, cloud computing executes the same functions by using a network of remote servers hosted on the Internet.

* File-sharing — Transferring files or documents via email or ftp servers has drawbacks, including potential security issues, version control challenges and slow speeds. File-sharing technology allows people using different devices to access, edit, change and otherwise use files, documents and other types of data stored in the cloud. Citrix ShareFile, for example, makes it easy for small business teams to securely share files and client data, collaborate on documents and obtain electronic signatures.

* Integrated document workflow — In order to keep work moving, small businesses require the ability to work with documents and move data between multiple kinds of software. For example, an accounting firm needs to be able to take data from W-2s (which might be stored in one format) and move that information to a tax form stored in a different format or “living” in a different system.

* Real time — When hardware or software does its job so quickly — in a matter of miliseconds — the user can immediately take entered data and put it to work.

* File sync — Storing files in multiple locations or having multiple users work with them on different devices can lead to discrepancies between versions. File synchronization technology basically compares these multiple versions to each other and allows users to update all versions with the most current changes, regardless of which user made the changes.

* Cyber security — Criminals who attempt to steal, manipulate, hack or otherwise illegally access a business’ proprietary computer systems and data are cyber criminals. All the steps a business takes to thwart these criminals — including anti-virus software and firewalls — are aspects of cyber security.

“ShareFile has really allowed my firm to digitally transform,” says Nelson. “The addition of automated workflows and secure file-sharing has improved efficiencies, which allows my team to focus our attention on delivering the best client service possible, while ensuring vital company and client data remains safe. Adopting a safe and secure online portal for customer engagement has been essential for delivering on the bottom line.”

To learn more about small business technology solutions, visit www.sharefile.com.

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3 ways to plan ahead for the 2017 tax season

(BPT) – With the tax season approaching, now is the time to start thinking about creating a strategy to help maximize tax refunds in the year ahead. From the passage of the Protecting Americans from Tax Hikes (PATH) Act to the increase in health insurance penalties, here are a few items to keep in mind before the IRS begins accepting tax returns.

1. Donating to charity, making an extra student loan payment or contributing to an IRA can lower your adjusted gross and taxable income.

If you are a taxpayer that itemizes your deductions, donating to a qualified charity by Dec. 31 and saving the necessary documentation can lower your taxable income. Taxpayers can also deduct up to $2,500 of interest paid on their student loans each year, even if the payment is voluntary. For those contributing to their IRA, taxpayers can deduct up to $5,000, and have until April 16, 2016 to make contributions.

2. Your health insurance penalty will increase if you are uninsured and do not sign up by Jan. 31.

The per-person flat fee penalty for not having health insurance has increased more than 630 percent since it was first implemented in 2014.

Taxpayers will now have to pay a penalty of $695 per uncovered adult, plus $347.50 per uncovered child up to a maximum of $2,085 or 2.5 percent of their household income over the filing threshold, whichever is greater. That means a family of four earning $60,000 would pay a penalty of more than $2,000.

According to H&R Block’s estimates, taxpayers without insurance in 2015 paid an average penalty of $401. This was a 125 percent increase from 2014, when the average penalty was $178.

There are some cases where an uninsured taxpayer may qualify for an exemption from the penalty, but the only way to completely avoid it in 2017 is to enroll and stay covered under a qualified insurance plan.

3. If you claim the earned income tax credit (EITC) or additional child tax credit (ACTC), your refund will be delayed until at least Feb. 15.

The passage of the PATH Act now requires the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) to hold the entire refund for returns claiming the EITC and ACTC until at least Feb. 15, depending on when the return is filed.

The IRS estimates approximately one in five EITC payments are made through fraudulent filings or confusion due to the complexity in claiming the benefit. Employers are now required to send employee W-2s to the IRS by Jan. 31 to allow the IRS additional time to help prevent identity theft and fraud.

The IRS will begin releasing funds on Feb. 15, but taxpayers may not see the funds deposited into their banking accounts immediately. This law could affect approximately up to 30 million taxpayers who claim these tax credits.

If you are one of the 30 million taxpayers who claim these credits and are worried about a delayed refund, visit a local H&R Block professional to see how they might be able to help. For more information, visit hrblock.com/PATH.

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New wrinkles in tax strategies could help smooth your year-end planning

(BPT) – As 2016 enters its final weeks, it’s a good time for year-end tax planning strategies — including some new wrinkles:

Plan for 2016-2017 together: Consider reducing your overall tax liability by shifting income and deductions across 2016 and 2017. Assuming similar income for both, you can accelerate various deduction items into 2016. For example, mail your state estimated tax payment, due in January, before year-end to make it tax deductible in 2016. Or pay your January mortgage payment now to make the interest deductible this year. You can also accelerate charitable deductions or medical expenses into 2016. The latter may be especially attractive for those 65 or older because the threshold for deductibility is scheduled to increase from 7.5 percent of adjusted gross income to 10 percent in 2017. For those under 65, the threshold is 10 percent.

Note that taxpayers subject to the Alternative Minimum Tax may not benefit from the above strategies because some deductions are eliminated under the calculation.

Minimize tax on capital assets: If you have unused capital losses from prior years, sell investments at a gain to make those losses work. You won’t be taxed on those gains, up to the amount of the losses.

If your income level is below $75,301 for married couples filing jointly, or $37,651 for singles, consider selling stock at a gain to benefit from the 0 percent tax rate. But be careful: the gain can reduce your itemized deductions or cause more of your Social Security benefit to be taxed.

You can also sell poorly performing equity investments to use the annual $3,000 ordinary income offset for capital losses and reduce your taxable income. However, remember the “wash sale rules.” If you want to harvest a loss but continue the same investment, you need to wait 31 days to reinvest or lose your loss deduction until you sell the repurchased investment.

Finally, be careful when buying a mutual fund. Make sure it will not pay a dividend after you buy it and before year-end. That would increase your taxable income and reduce the value of your investment by the same amount.

Going forward, consider steps to minimize or eliminate the 3.8 percent Medicare surcharge on investment gain for married couples filing jointly with income more than $250,000, and single filers with income more than $200,000. For example, try municipal bond investments. Tax-exempt interest doesn’t increase your income level for purposes of the above test.

You can also convert some or all of a traditional IRA to Roth IRA form. Although the conversion will create a tax liability on the underlying IRA asset in the conversion year, all future gains should be income-tax-free and future withdrawals from the Roth IRA should not count toward the income threshold that triggers the Medicare surcharge.

Required minimum distributions: If you are 70 1/2-years-old, you generally must take your RMD from each retirement asset, including 401(k)s, each year. Roth IRAs are not subject to RMD rules; Roth 401(k)s are. The amount you must withdraw is determined by an IRS table. The idea is to force out an increasing percentage each year so the retirement asset is used over your lifetime.

In the year you turn 70 1/2, you have an option to defer your first RMD to the following calendar year. Beware: this could increase your overall tax liability for the two years combined.

Charitable gift giving: For those over age 70 1/2, if you are charitably inclined, consider making your charitable gifts using RMD funds. By using some or all of your RMD amount, up to $100,000 a year, you can avoid inclusion of such otherwise taxable income. This is usually better than an outright gift to the charity, since the charitable deduction would probably not fully offset the income from the RMD due to limitations on deductions. Note that to qualify for this special rule the charitable gift must be made directly from your IRA to the charity. You cannot take the RMD amount and then write a check to the charity.

Roth IRA conversions: Is it the right time to convert some or all of a traditional IRA to a Roth IRA? Although that would trigger the gain on the traditional IRA amount being converted, there are numerous benefits from holding Roth IRA assets over the longer term. They serve as a hedge against increased tax rates, have no RMD requirement and can continue to grow without forced distributions. And, when needed, distributions from a Roth IRA don’t increase your taxable income for purposes of the 3.8 percent Medicare surcharge, calculating the taxable amount of your Social Security benefits or determining the Medicare Part B premium surcharge applicable to higher-income taxpayers.

Prudential Financial Inc. and its affiliates do not render tax or legal advice. Please consult your tax and legal advisors for advice concerning your particular circumstances.

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