Monday, 12 February 2018

Common tax mistakes to avoid in 2018


(BPT) - Life changes - getting married, having a baby, buying or selling a home, sending a child off to college or retiring - often come with changes to your tax situation. Overlooking these changes when filing your taxes can lead taxpayers to make mistakes that leave money on the table, potentially impacting their refund at a time when the average refund is about $2,800. Here is a list of common tax mistakes to avoid in the 2018 filing season to help ensure you don't miss any deductions or credits that you deserve.

Using the correct filing status

One of the most common mistakes taxpayers make is selecting the wrong filing status. A taxpayer's filing status can affect which credits and deductions they're eligible for, the value of their standard deduction and their tax bracket. One situation that can make choosing a filing status difficult is when more than one filing status seems to fit. For example, if a taxpayer with children is in the process of getting a divorce, they may not be sure if they should file as married filing jointly or married filing separately or, in some instances, whether they qualify to file as head of household. In this case, the taxpayers should run the numbers to see if filing jointly or separately is more to their advantage rather than guessing.

In addition, common clerical errors such as mixing up names, forgetting to include information reported on your W-2, 1099 or other forms, or even making mathematical errors can also affect your tax benefits.

Commonly overlooked credits and deductions

Most taxpayers file their taxes using the standard deduction, but you may be eligible for a variety of itemized deductions that could possibly save you more. Also, you may be eligible for "above-the-line" deductions and tax credits, none of which require you to itemize. And it's important to note that the newly passed tax reform generally does not impact these credits or deductions until you file your 2018 tax return in 2019.

Earned Income Tax Credit for lower-income workers:

Twenty percent of eligible taxpayers, particularly lower-income workers, do not claim the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC). Depending on their income and the number of children they have, these taxpayers may be eligible for an EITC of $503 to $6,242. Since eligibility can fluctuate based on financial, marital and parental status, taxpayers can be ineligible one year and eligible the next.

Under the PATH Act, taxpayers who claim the EITC and who file early will have their refunds delayed until mid-February. Despite the delay, taxpayers should file as they normally would to get their refund as soon as possible.

Education credits:

Depending on your academic program, what year the student is in, income and other restrictions, there are federal tax credits that can help offset the costs of higher education for yourself or your dependents. To qualify, you must pay for post-secondary tuition and fees for yourself, your spouse or your dependent. Depending on the criteria, a student may use the American Opportunity Credit of up to $2,500 or the Lifetime Learning Credit of up to $2,000.

Itemizing deductions:

Itemizing can save taxpayers hundreds of dollars, as only one third of taxpayers itemize but millions more should - especially homeowners. Owning a home is often the key that unlocks itemization, but some taxpayers with high state taxes and charitable contributions may also be able to itemize.

Itemizing enables eligible taxpayers to take deductions such as:

* Charitable donations

* Medical expenses that exceed 7.5 percent of adjusted gross income

* Personal property taxes

* State income or sales taxes

* Casualty losses such as a fire, hurricane or earthquake

* Mortgage interest payments

Not filing

On average, the IRS announces annually that approximately $1 billion goes unclaimed in federal tax refunds. Taxpayers can claim a refund for up to three years after the filing deadline. So, in addition to filing your 2017 return, keep in mind to file your 2015 return by April 17, 2018. If not, you will lose your 2015 refund. There is no late-filing penalty if a taxpayer is due a refund. Also, even if you are not required to file a return, you may be entitled to a refund.

Taxpayers who want to ensure they get the maximum refund without a delay should visit https://www.hrblock.com/offers/refund-advance/ to see if you are eligible for a Refund Advance, or you can make an appointment with a tax professional.

Here's how the tax reform plan could affect you


(BPT) - With the newly passed tax reform bill, the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act (TCJA), now is the time to start thinking about how this will affect you so that you can plan ahead for the outcomes you will start to feel in your paycheck as early as February 2018.

This tax reform affects virtually everyone; however, families, homeowners, residents of high-tax states, the medically uninsured and small businesses will be especially affected. Most taxpayers will experience changes that could reduce or increase their taxes owed. If you're not sure how this may affect you, here is a summary of possibilities.

Families

Like most taxpayers, many families will be affected by the loss of personal and dependent exemptions of $4,050 per person. However, families with income under $200,000 ($400,000 for joint filers) will be eligible for an increased child tax credit of $2,000. Those with income over that amount may be eligible for a smaller credit. This, along with larger standard deductions, may or may not make up for the loss of the personal exemption. Families with dependents over the age of 16 may also qualify for a new family tax credit of $500 for each dependent who does not qualify for the child tax credit.

Homeowners and residents of high-tax states

Homeowners and residents of high-tax states like California, New York and New Jersey, who typically itemize because they have large expenses like real estate taxes and state and local income taxes, may not be able to get the full tax benefit for these expenses, which are capped at $10,000. Some may not find it worthwhile to itemize going forward. Itemizing deductions is only worthwhile if all expenses exceed the standard deduction.

Medically uninsured

Starting in 2019, there will no longer be a penalty for those without health insurance. The penalty, which had become more and more expensive since first implemented in 2014, will not apply to taxpayers without insurance in 2019. Taxpayers who did not have insurance for all of 2017 and do not expect to be insured in 2018 need to make sure to talk to a tax professional, who can help you identify if you qualify for a penalty exemption.

Small-business owners

Some of the largest changes in the tax reform legislation apply to businesses, both large and small. These changes may also affect some rental activities. Corporations will see their top tax rate reduced to 21 percent from the current top rate of 35 percent, starting in 2018. Pass-through entities (LLCs, partnerships and S corporations) and self-employed individuals will be able to deduct 20 percent of their business income, subject to some limits (based on the type of business and income) and phase-outs (based on the partner's/shareholder's total income).

Retirement

Under the current law, taxpayers can reconvert a Roth IRA into a traditional IRA. This allows taxpayers to avoid paying high tax bills on an amount of money that had fallen in value after the conversion. Now, taxpayers will no longer be able to reconvert a Roth IRA to a traditional IRA.

The bottom line is that with this new tax legislation, you're still going to need to get your documents in order and file your taxes, as well as decide if you're going to itemize and what deductions work for your personal situation. This year, it's more important than ever to talk to a tax professional about how this affects you to ensure that your taxes are done right and that you have a clear understanding of how changes that take effect in 2018 will impact how you file in 2019.

To learn more about the tax reform, how it may affect you and what steps you can begin taking to reduce what you owe in 2018, visit www.hrblock.com or make an appointment with a tax professional.

Hitting the road? Stay connected on the go

(BPT) - Traveling but worried about being disconnected? Don't worry, you aren't alone. In fact, plenty of other road warriors are making sure their devices are packed and ready to go so they won't miss a beat.

Intel(R) recently conducted a survey with YouGov to learn more about the tips and tricks connected road warriors use to keep up with email, entertainment, news and more. According to the survey, connected road warriors (69 percent) admit they always bring their mobile computing device on vacation, and nearly 1 in 3 (32 percent) indicate it makes them nervous to travel without their device.

Regardless of where they are, road warriors continue to demand strong performance and have high expectations for consistent, reliable and accessible connectivity. Seven out of 10 road warriors (71 percent) get frustrated by lagging internet performance and poor connectivity speed. And over half (55 percent) admit that the inability to quickly load pages (emails, web pages, etc.) is a top computing-while-traveling pet peeve.

Whether going to grandma's house, a beach or a ski slope, chances are these road warriors will be looking to connect. Nearly 2 in 3 road warriors (65 percent) admit doing something extreme in order to connect their mobile computing device to the internet. Eight in 10 (81 percent) report they have connected to the internet in an unusual spot. Restaurants (60 percent) are the most commonly reported location, while nearly 4 in 10 share they have connected in a parking lot. Others report connecting at a park, beach, bar, the side of the road or at a rest stop.

While some people may still want to stay on top of work, being connected is about more than getting through your to-do list. Email may still top the list of favorite activities (90 percent) when connecting on the go, but entertainment is also popular. More than half (53 percent) say they mainly connect for entertainment like streaming and gaming.

The good news is that there are plenty of devices available today that offer great performance and great connectivity for computing on the go. The latest Intel(R)-based mobile devices are fast and responsive and come in a range of connectivity options for you to choose - Wi-Fi, tethering or always-on 4G LTE - so you can power through email or get lost in a 4K-resolution movie from a coffee shop, library, beach or grandma's house. Powered by the latest Intel processors, these devices run all of the most popular apps for work and play and connect seamlessly with other devices:

* Samsung Galaxy Book 12 - Currently available via Verizon, this 2-in-1 PC comes with an S Pen and keyboard that connect instantly and never need charging, plus lightning-fast LTE and Wi-Fi connections so you can be creative, productive and connected, no matter where you are.

* Google Pixelbook - Google's high-performance Pixelbook is its thinnest Chromebook ever. It features a built-in Google Assistant, a Pixelbook Pen, amazing battery life and Instant Tethering, which allows people to access their phone's data connection even when without Wi-Fi.

* HP Spectre x360 - The ultra-slim convertible laptop has high-end power, a digital pen, long battery life, increased security features and a 4K display in addition to Wi-Fi connectivity, offering endless versatility.

* Lenovo Yoga 920 - This Wi-Fi-enabled 2-in-1 intuitive convertible laptop offers voice-activated support, a digital pen option, top performance and speed, and a 4K screen. Its Constant Connect feature downloads emails, plays music and receives Skype calls - even in standby mode.

If you're hitting the road this season, consider an always-connected PC so you don't miss a thing!

Deeper than grassroots: Playing field surfacing decisions go beyond looks


(BPT) - Often an afterthought for spectators, the choice of playing surface - natural vs. artificial - is a major decision for sports teams and field managers that goes far beyond aesthetics.

According to Don Follett, director of fields and grounds for the Baltimore Ravens, the decision to transition M&T Bank Stadium back to natural grass at the start of the 2016 season was driven by the players. "A few of our key players asked that we entertain natural grass," said Follett. "Ultimately, we decided that real football should be played on real grass."

Why the fuss over real grass for sports fields? Venues choose one surface versus another for reasons that are highly specific to their situations. The following themes, however, consistently pop up:

Injury considerations

When first introduced, artificial turf had less cushioning and more surface hardness than it does today, affecting the probability and severity of injuries. Today, the installation of artificial turf involves a mix of sand or crumb rubber infill, which absorbs impact energy and provides cushioning. Over time, however, as infill levels decrease from being packed down or migrating, more infill must be added. Additionally, based on some of the research, an athlete's foot is more likely to snag in a synthetic system, which creates more force on the foot, ankle and knee when trying to turn or change directions. Natural grass can be more forgiving when players stop or turn quickly.

While injury rates are not statistically significant between one playing surface and another, given a choice, professional football players tend to favor natural grass fields over artificial turf. In a 2010 survey of NFL players, 69 percent preferred a natural surface.

Health and comfort issues

Natural grass fields have regular growth, watering and mowing cycles, allowing for constant rejuvenation and decomposition of various compounds. The dense root and shoot systems characteristic of healthy turfgrass support a population of soil micro-flora and -fauna. These organisms offer one of the most active biological systems for the degradation of trapped organic chemicals and pesticides. According to Tim Van Loo, president of the Sports Turf Managers Association (STMA) and a certified sports field manager, "the soil of natural turfgrass systems includes microbes that break down certain compounds, such as pesticides, potentially noxious organic chemicals and even bacteria from bodily fluids, such as blood and spit." With synthetic fields, regular maintenance - sweeping, dragging, loosening and redistribution of infill, and cleaning - is necessary to keep them in top form.

Turfgrass has the added benefit of contributing to noise and glare reductions.

Playability factors

Artificial fields are cited for enabling more continuous play than their natural counterparts, which may need time to recover between heavy use. With a little pre-planning, turf managers can mitigate most of these challenges and protect the long-term playability of their natural turf fields. "The life of a natural field can be extended by rotating activities between fields, changing the daily location of practice on a field, or moving drills and practices around the field," said Van Loo. Taking care to preserve the quality and coverage of natural turf can also reduce unpredictable ball roll and bounce that may occur with bare, patchy growth.

Likewise, modern drainage systems are mitigating much of the water concern previously associated with natural grass. When asked how the Ravens' field manages heavy rains, Follett explained, "We put in a full sand-based drainage system that percolates at 13 inches an hour; it would take a remarkable amount of rain."

In warmer regions, heat presents a different challenge. Synthetic fields dissipate radiant heat, with surface temperatures regularly exceeding that of natural grass fields by 50 to 70 degrees Fahrenheit. To ensure player safety, teams must schedule practice and game times to cooler periods of the day or run irrigation systems that cool fields.

Environmental concerns

Fertilizer and pesticides are often associated with natural turf. However, organic options are proving successful and newer environmentally friendly fertilizer applications are available. Additionally, the root and thatch layer in natural turf systems acts as a filter and removes pollutants before they enter surface or groundwater.

If water use is a concern, field managers can take conservation steps. Devices such as rain sensors can help manage irrigation efficiency. Other water-saving options include using drought-resistant species and encouraging deeper root development by allowing grass to grow taller.

With artificial turf, other environmental issues lurk below the surface. Crumb rubber infill comes from shredded tires that contain zinc and other metals. Some fear such elements could escape into the air or leach into water. Additionally, when artificial fields are replaced, the synthetic turf often ends up in landfills.

Economic impacts

The final decision on natural grass or synthetic often comes down to immediate and long-term costs. According to the STMA, a natural field can cost from $0.60 to $5 per square foot, depending on soils and drainage installation, while construction of synthetic systems can run from $4.50 to $10.25 per square foot. Annual natural turf maintenance costs vary based on the facility and climate regions, but annual expenditures average between $20,000 to $30,000 per field and are competitive with synthetic field maintenance and repairs. Based on Follett's experience, while there were initial costs to transition M&T Bank Stadium back to natural turf, "there is not a significant difference in the ongoing maintenance of well-kept artificial turf and grass."

Choosing between natural and artificial turf is not easy. It is a decision every field manager must weigh carefully, evaluating all factors including the perceptions of players and spectators to ensure long-term support for the field.

Buckle up for the new passenger economy


(BPT) - A hundred years ago, few thought that the clunky automobile that broke down so often would ever replace a horse. In the 1970s, people wondered if the personal computer that a few eccentrics were using would have any use beyond storing recipes. It's safe to say that these innovations, along with many of the technologies we now use daily, were once considered impossible dreams.

Right now, the most-talked-about piece of technological innovation that is poised to transform our lives is the autonomous or self-driving car. As self-driving cars gain widespread adoption, analysts are predicting the rise of what is known as the passenger economy - a term coined by Intel - that is expected to be worth $7 trillion by 2050 as validated in a new report by analyst firm Strategy Analytics.

Seven trillion dollars is a lot of money! A decade ago, people couldn't fully imagine the way smartphones would give rise to the app economy. Today we are at the threshold of something equally momentous - that's why entrepreneurs and investors are now beginning to imagine the economic possibilities tied in with autonomous cars.

The following are five big areas of opportunity that will unfold in the passenger economy era.

Time will be on people's side. One of the most obvious benefits of a self-driving car is the amount of time it frees up. Drivers become passengers, and so will be able to concentrate on other tasks. Not only will people be able to work or watch a movie on their way to work, but the commute itself will be shorter, since traffic congestion will become a thing of the past. With smarter analytics, it's estimated that by 2050, the widespread use of autonomous cars will free up over 250 million hours of commute time per year in the most congested cities.Apps were only the beginning. As more people use autonomous cars, companies and entrepreneurs will respond by developing innovative applications that will entertain and provide services to passengers. Just like innovators used smartphones to unlock the sharing economy, there will be opportunities for startups to discover new "car-veniences" that will be expected to generate some $200 billion in revenue.A new world of advertising. From the late '90s, we started seeing new forms of advertising emerge on the web. With self-driving cars, we are poised to see powerful new opportunities that deliver personalized messages to consumers. For instance, algorithms can compute routes and route history to hone in on passengers with specific onboard advertisements from surrounding businesses or attractions. This could be a huge boost to local businesses and will be much more effective than the primitive billboard.Mobility-as-a-service. Imagine ordering take-out, or having your groceries or a package of diapers come to your door via a driverless car. This is something that we're likely to see fairly soon. Shipping and freight companies, local delivery services and internet giants will make use of autonomous vehicles to transport goods across the country. These types of services will likely generate $3 trillion in revenues by 2050.New business models. Today, many companies offer perks such as work-from-home days or the option for people to leave the office to work in a cafe or wherever is most suitable for them. In the not-too-distant future, the workplace will further transform as the commute evolves. The self-driving car will blend with the office, turning the commute into a productive part of the workday. In turn, this will allow people to go home earlier and spend more time with their families.The advent of the passenger economy will contribute to a safer and more efficient world. Those who can imagine and anticipate the coming changes will be in the best position to get the most out of it.

Thoughtful Gifts For Colleagues: 4 Easy Steps to Create Delight

(BPT) - It's that time of year when employees are seeking meaningful and appropriate holiday gifts for their coworkers and clients.

While the process should be fun, because such gifts can inadvertently send unspoken messages to their recipients, making the right choice at the right time can be surprisingly tricky. No one wants to come across as impersonal or lacking in good taste, but it's all too easy to pick something that's too expensive or too impractical to make the statement you're intending to make.

With that thought in mind, consider these guidelines for buying or making gifts for your coworker that are memorable and appropriate.

*Consider practicality. If the present is unlikely to be used or consumed, it's a mismatch and a waste of money. For example, even the rarest or priciest bottle of wine will be unimpressive to a client who doesn't drink. Before buying, attempt to learn something about the recipient's preferences, then picture what he or she will do with the gift once he or she receives it.

*Incorporate name(s). Whenever possible, personalize your selection by adding your boss', colleague's or direct report's name to the gift. Research shows people across many demographics get excited when hearing or seeing their own monikers. Fortunately, Staples offers a wide variety of ideas for quality presents that can be easily personalized for each recipient.

*Don't scrimp on presentation. Nothing ruins a gift faster than uninspired or slipshod packaging that seems like an afterthought. Make sure all of your gifts are presented in attractive, sturdy boxes, baskets and/or bags that add to their overall effect.

Myka Meier, Founder of Beaumont Etiquette and expert authority on business etiquette says of holiday gift-giving in the workplace, "It is important to gift both colleagues and clients during the holiday season, as it is a great relationship building opportunity to establish rapport while showing respect and gratitude." Myka adds, "For colleagues or junior team members, it's typical to spend around $25. For clients or senior team members, such as a boss, often the entire team will chip in for one larger gift so it shows unity and appreciation from the entire team"

Taking care of your employees during the season of giving doesn't need to be difficult or stressful. Check out how Staples can help you find and personalize the perfect gifts and greeting cards.

Don't get hacked! Time to get serious about password safety


Top tips for locking down your online security

(BPT) - We all know hiding your house key under the doormat is a terrible idea, but we do it anyway because it's a convenient backup. When it comes to safeguarding passwords, especially in a family setting, people often choose convenience over safety.

As families manage their digital information and online accounts, many end up opting for that less secure key-under-the-doormat solution. People are already sharing passwords, and their methods of sharing are not always the best. Some 41 percent of adults with online accounts admit to sharing passwords with friends and family, according to an Americans and Cybersecurity survey by Pew Research Center. Yet, 90.8 percent of respondents say they know that having strong passwords helps them better protect their families.

Consider the number of security breaches that continue to make national news:

* In 2016, we learned the Yahoo data breach compromised 1 billion accounts.

* In that same month, we learned 167 million email addresses and passwords were stolen from LinkedIn.

* In September 2017, a security breach at Equifax was reported, exposing Social Security numbers and other personal data of 143 million users, which is nearly half the U.S. population.

Now more than ever, it's clear how important it is to protect our personal information online. According to a Verizon 2017 Data Breach Investigations Report, 81 percent of data breaches involve weak, reused or stolen credentials. That's significantly higher than the 63 percent it was in 2016.

"If you were to dig into the reasons behind these repeated, overly simple, shared passwords, it's actually pretty understandable as to how this happens," according to LastPass Senior Director of Product, Steve Schult. "The average person has some 200-plus logins. If you were to give each its own strong, unique password, that's way too many for one person to keep track of and remember, let alone all the other family members that might also use some of those accounts."

But there's no need to trade security for the convenience of digital access. With a password manager designed for individual or family use, you can create those strong passwords for all the accounts you and your family use, and store them within a secure vault that's accessed by a single master password only you know. These digital lockboxes protect your information under multiple layers of security, making it impossible for digital thieves to hack and access.

If you're debating whether to make the switch to a digital password manager, here's a few ways it can improve your family's online security and help stop the struggle with passwords.

Create rock-solid passwords: Most password managers offer a secure password generator that allows you to set and create a long, strong and unique password for every online account. You can create a password up to 100 characters long, including numbers and symbols. Another way to do it is by using the "passphrase" approach, meaning string together words that create a phrase. Be sure to steer clear of birthdays, anniversaries, street names and other specific personal details that can be found through a simple social media search.

Secure more than just passwords: There's an endless number of passwords and sensitive information you can store in your password manager, including banking logins, passport and license numbers, shopping accounts, email and social media passwords and more. By storing all of this information in your secure vault, you'll always have access to the information whenever and wherever you may need it.

Safely share passwords with family members: One benefit of a password manager that's designed for family use is that it lets you safely and conveniently store passwords and valuable documents in folders for flexible sharing with others in the family. LastPass Families includes unlimited shared folders, which means you can create multiple folders and store an endless number of passwords and share with those in your family. For example, you could put your banking account password into one folder and share access with your spouse, have another folder for your favorite streaming services and securely share access with the whole family. All the while, you can keep your personal accounts private.

Use it as a teaching moment: Have a talk with your kids about how passwords are the keys to our digital lives, and how good password habits help protect everything from personal details to finances. Show them how to build a good password, and how tools like a password manager can create a safe way to access and share accounts. It's an important life skill that will help them protect themselves for years to come.

Plan for the digital afterlife: When there's a death or serious emergency, it turns out that state and federal laws, along with service agreements, can block your family from getting access to your online accounts. With a password manager that allows emergency access, family members can get into your password vault and have access to whatever they need.

If you're interested in learning more about LastPass or LastPass Families, visit LastPass.com.