Wednesday, July 26, 2017

U.S Expat Mistakes: Part II



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I have been on many online forums; message boards; and groups for U.S citizen expats over the past few years. Most posts you see are ones with frantic U.S. citizens overwhelmed with U.S. tax rules & regulations they have to keep up with. This, in addition to keeping up with their resident country's tax laws, must drive one crazy. These forums provide quick answers; no wonder they are so popular!

However, one has to exercise caution when relying solely on answers from these sites or on the internet. Each situation is unique and only an experienced tax professional in expat matters can correctly evaluate what steps need to be taken to stay in compliance with US Tax Law. 

We started out talking about tax mistakes U.S. expats commonly make in my post here. Today's post is the second in the series on mistakes U.S. Expats make and we are going to focus on contributions to retirement accounts. 


Individual retirement accounts or IRAs are great tools for saving for retirement with a winning combination of tax-deductible contributions and tax-deferred growth. IRA rules are written purely with U.S tax code in mind and they may cause conflict with the tax codes of the countries the expats work and live in. Double taxation avoidance agreements {DTAA} may mitigate some of the burden, but most countries I know of will not allow an expat to save on local taxes by contributing to a U. S. IRA. 

Some high-income earners may still be able to contribute to a US IRA, the rules get complicated. We see a lot of self-prepared returns that have made excess IRA contributions and penalties on these are steep. Here are a few common mistakes expats make in relation to contributions into Individual Retirement Accounts (IRAs): 

1. All Income is Excluded and an IRA Contribution Is Made:

In order to make IRA {Traditional or Roth} contributions, one has to have earned income. If a taxpayer after currency conversions is able to exclude a 100% of his/ her foreign income using the Foreign Earned Income Exclusion rules  u/s § 911, then they do not have any U.S earned income to make an eligible contribution to an IRA. These excess IRA contributions are taxed at 6% annually as long as the excess contributions remain in the IRA. 

2. Not Taking Into Account Income Phase-outs for IRA Contributions:  

The flip side of point #1 is when a taxpayer has a high income and is still liable to US tax after taking advantage of the Foreign Earned Income Exclusion rules. A Roth IRA contribution is possible in this case, however the taxpayer must consider the income phase-out to make sure he/ she is eligible to make this contribution. 

This income is called the Modified Adjusted Gross Income or MAGI for short. The MAGI phase-outs for 2017 for making Roth IRA contributions are: 

Single Filers                Phase out starts at $118,000 and ineligible at $133,000.
Joint Filers                 Phase out starts at $186,000 and ineligible at $ 196,000.

3. Contributing to a Spousal IRA when filing as Head of Household:

Many times high-income earners who have a non-citizen spouse may be able to file with a Head of Household status if they have children. There might be enough taxed income left over for them to contribute to an IRA, but the most common mistake we see that a contribution is made to a spousal IRA. One can contribute to a spousal IRA only if filing as married and joint. 

4. Not factoring double taxation on deductible IRA contributions
The most common mistake expats make is making a deductible contribution into a U.S. IRA with money already taxed by the resident country. When the taxpayer takes a distribution from this IRA, he will be taxed on it again in the US. 


This is generally true if the resident country's tax rate is higher than that of the US. If the resident country's tax rate is lower, double taxation may not be substantial, but accurate projections need to be made. 

5. Opening foreign investment and retirement accounts without understanding expat tax obligations:

I have written extensively on this here.  

6. Missing Required Minimum Distributions on inherited IRAs:

Penalties for not taking required minimum distributions are very high, it can sometimes be as much as 50% of the amount that should have been withdrawn. If you have an inherited IRA from an aged parent/ relative, you need to continue to take required minimum distributions based on a certain schedule. 

A common mistake expats make is depending on the broker holding the account to make this calculation for them or being completely unaware of this requirement. 

These are complicated provisions that is difficult for a lay person to understand and keep up with. If you are an expat and find that some or all of the above apply to you, drop us an email or call us and we can take care of you. 

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As always, read my disclaimer here. Please consult a qualified tax professional for your unique tax needs. More of my contact information is on my website, www.mntaxbiz.com.

Tuesday, June 20, 2017

U.S. Expat Mistakes: Part I

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United States is one of the few countries in the world in it's Citizen-Based-Taxation format. This means that no matter where you live, you need to be current on your US tax filing if you are a US Citizen or Green Card Holder. You are known as an Expatriate or Expat (for short) if you are a US citizen or green card holder living outside the United States.  

Many such expats may have a simple tax return and accomplish their tax filing requirement with an over-the-counter software. Of late however, I have seen many expats who come to see us because they have made a mistake and overpaid taxes to the US government or have been ignorant of certain Tax Treaty provisions that would have been beneficial to them financially. 

The complexity of these rules and regulations increases if your stay abroad is longer and you have investments in your resident country such as being in business for yourself/ being in a partnership or a stock-holder/ director in a foreign company. 

I have put together some of the most common mistakes expats make and hope this list helps you avoid these pitfalls. 

Here is the first set in what will be an extensive multi-part series--SO WATCH THIS SPACE!

1. Not Filing Your Taxes: Believe it or not, many expats do not know that they have to continue file their US taxes even if they moved out of the country. The US tax rules and regulations grant the Foreign Earned Income Exclusion (FEIE) to those who earn a salary or you can claim a Foreign Tax Credit for taxes paid on income earned in the resident country. In order to be able to claim these exclusions or credits, one has to file a tax return

2. Not paying estimated taxes: After the foreign earned income exclusion and application of foreign tax credits, you may still owe taxes on the US tax return. If you do not get a W-2 and no taxes are withheld at source on your income, one must pay estimated taxes every quarter. These are usually due April 15th, June 15th, September 15th and December 31st of every year. There are penalties for non-payment of these quarterlies. One must pay 100% of your prior year taxes or 90% of your current year tax. 

3. Ignoring FATCA and FBAR Filing requirements: The Foreign Account Tax Compliance Act was enacted to prevent US citizens and green-card holders from avoiding tax income earned from foreign investments. I cannot stress enough about the importance of being aware of the income thresholds that would apply to you based on your filing status and residency. The Foreign Bank Account Report now known as FinCEN Form 114 is required if one has more than $10,000 in foreign bank and other foreign specified investments.  The FATCA is one of the most complicated set of regulations in the US tax regime and there are steep penalties for non-compliance. 

   
4. Travel dates to and from the US: If the Foreign Earned Income Exclusion is the only tax saving option for you, the most important number to remember is "330". These are the number of "full days" or 24-hour periods that one has to be present in a foreign country out of 365 days to qualify for the Physical Presence Test to claim the FEIE. An error in calculation can lead to a loss in savings, so track this with extra care. 

If you are an expat and find that some or all of the above apply to you, drop us an email or call us and we can take care of you. 

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As always, read my disclaimer here. Please consult a qualified tax professional for your unique tax needs. More of my contact information is on my website, www.mntaxbiz.com.


Sunday, May 7, 2017

Spring Cleaning? Can You Toss Those Tax Records?

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Ever stare at boxes and boxes of files in your garage or your basement and get an itch to clean up? Or are you the sort who pushes these boxes out of sight and is quite happy to let them be? Whichever personality best describes you, you will want to read this before you decide to throw those papers or cover them up with something fancy, call it art and make it a fixture in your basement!   

A question I get all the time is, "How long should I hold on to my tax records?" The answer to that questions is the ubiquitous, "It depends!" Yes, I know there are many situations that effect the length of the time you have to preserve your papers. Here's your check list, starting with the longest:  

A. Keep copies of all your tax returns indefinitely. Supporting papers to the returns filed timely can be discarded 3 years from due date of filing the returns. 

B. Keep supporting papers indefinitely if: 
  • You did not file a tax return at all. 
  • You filed a fraudulent tax return. 
  • You were a US Citizen or a US Green Card holder who surrendered your citizenship or your green card. *
C. Keep records for 7 years if you file a claim for a loss from worthless securities or a bad debt deduction. 

D. Keep records for 6 years if you did not report income that should have been reported, and such income is more than 25% of the gross income shown on your tax return. 

E. Keep employment records for at least 4 years after the due date or is paid, whichever is later. 

F. In all other cases, keep records for at least 3 years from the date you filed your original return or the date your taxes were paid whichever is later. 

Records Connected To Property: If there is purchase, records should be kept to calculate cost of property, depreciation, depletion, repairs etc, till the property is sold. If a property was sold, generally one should keep records till the statute of limitations run out on reporting the sale, which is 3 years. 

Note: One should also check with other agencies like your insurance company, health insurance company or creditors to see how long records pertaining to the information should be kept. Their requirements may be different from that of the Internal Revenue Service. 

* UPDATE added May 8th, 2017

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As always, read my disclaimer here. Please consult a qualified tax professional for your unique tax needs. More of my contact information is on my website, www.mntaxbiz.com





Sunday, April 30, 2017

Perspective: What Frustrates Me Most About Start-Ups!




One of the services my firm offers is assistance in Entity Selection for start-ups. This is usually when we talk about various options available for the Incorporator and what type of entity would be the best fit for the start-up in terms of liability exposure, record-keeping and tax filing. This meeting usually results in setting up an entity, giving the incorporators guide-lines for record-keeping and help with choosing accounting software and set up, and so on, you get the drift? 

So off they go with an Entity tucked away neatly under their arm, and the title music plays-- you think? But no wait, here's where the music stops with an ugly, teeth-tingling screech: The Incorporator comes back at tax time and you look at all the bank statements, and you see the big thou-shalt-not: "Commingling The Books". 

What is this commingling you ask? 

Commingling happens when a business owner uses their business checking account to pay for both personal and business expenses. Personal expenses become subject to payroll taxes as compensation to the business owner. 

You see, the Internal Revenue Service says that "To be deductible, a business expense must be both ordinary and necessary. An ordinary expense is one that is common and accepted in your trade or business. A necessary expense is one that is helpful and appropriate for your trade or business."  As per Reg. § 1.6001-1, the business owner needs to keep "contemporaneous" records to prove income and expenses.

It is therefore imperative that there is separation between personal & business expenses. I cannot stress enough about the need to keep diligent records, this not only makes your tax filing less stress-full but also gives you information you need to keep your business up and running profitably. 

How should one clean up the commingling?

First thing to do is to find all the personal expenses. If you had many transactions in the year, this will take a long time but thoroughness is important. The Internal Revenue Service flags expenses like that spent on travel, hotel,meals, groceries, clothes, cosmetics, entertainment and such. Anything classified as "Miscellaneous" draws IRS attention too. 

Once all the personal transactions are found, one has to be sure everything is classified as accurately as possible. The cleanest way to do this is to book these expenses as compensation and pay payroll taxes on them. Payroll taxes come at a price, and the process takes time and is complicated, especially if one has to go back & amend payroll reports. Many small business owners tend to classify these as a personal loan which is to be re-paid within a short period of time. Some tend to reduce the Capital account without regard to capital gain issues or the basis the owner has in the business. Partnerships may classify these as guaranteed payments and pay tax on it. 

Loans even if to owners/ shareholders should have proper loan agreements with interest accrued/ paid; reduction of capital beyond the owner's contribution or a negative capital account on the books is a huge red-flag; and partnerships should have proper approvals in their operating agreement regarding guaranteed payments.

 As a small business owner myself (my tax practice), I face the challenge in drawing firm lines between work and life everyday. But this is a habit one should cultivate as we go about our daily lives because fixing matters in retrospect is always more difficult. It all starts with being meticulous about one's record-keeping and strict with not using business funds for personal use. 

Quoting one of my most favorite Jungle Book characters, Colonel Hathi, "Discipline! Discipline was the thing! Builds character, and all that sort of thing, you know". Discipline, my friend is the key to a smooth, and stream-lined business process. 

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As always, read my disclaimer here. Please consult a qualified tax professional for your unique tax needs. More of my contact information is on my website, www.mntaxbiz.com. 














Sunday, April 16, 2017

Sticker Shock From The Tax You Owe: Read This!


Everywhere these days commercials are vying to get you to spend your big tax refunds on their products and services..oh yeah even that liposuction place! But you just finished preparing your taxes and you find out you OWE Uncle Sam big bucks. That is quite the sticker shock if you are short on cash or are unprepared.

There is one school of thought that it is okay owing at the end of the year as long as one does not pay penalties-- at least you did not have the government keep your money interest free! 

But if you don't like that line of thinking and owing money, here are some steps you can take to make life easier at tax time: 

1.  Check Your Withholding:   

Check the Forms W-4 you have filed with your employer to make sure you are having enough taxes taken out of your salary. The more taxes you need to be taken, the lower should your withholding number should be. It also matters if you put down if you are single or married. Many people get confused with the Form W-4--it lets you manage your cash flow from your paycheck. 

2. Paying In Quarterly If You Are A Freelancer: 

This is how I think most freelancers can reduce the pain of owing a lot at tax time or the uncertainty of not knowing how much they will pay. The freelancer has more options as far their write-offs go. They can take certain expenses such as mileage, home office, supplies etc and reduce their income. 

3.  Check if You Qualify For Contributions to IRA:

If you have the cash, and if your income limits permit, you have time until the deadline to contribute into a Traditional IRA for the previous tax year. You can contribute a maximum of $5,500 (with a catch-up of $1000 if you are over 50 years old) and defer some income from taxes. Plus if your income is within the qualifying limits, you will also earn a Retirement Credit. 

4. If You Are Married, play out the "Married Filing Separately" scenario

Almost all married couples benefit from filing jointly but it doesn't hurt to run a mock "Married Filing Separately" scenario to check if you could potentially reduce taxes. This is especially true of high-earners. Filing separately may put each of you in a lower income bracket and qualify you for some contributions and/ or deductions. Note: Do check if the state you live in is a community property state, rules here will be different for "married filing separate". 

5. Apply For An Extension: 

Okay so you are still in sticker shock, take a deep breath, apply for an extension. Get some time to figure out your finances and arrange for money. Send in as much as you can with the extension and check out the Internal Revenue Service's various resources for:


  • Installment / Payment Agreements: This can be done online or by filing Form 9465 with your tax return. You will qualify for this if you owe less than $50,000 as an individual or $25,000 as a business.
  • An Offer-In-Compromise: You can find out if there is a way to settle your debt for less than what you owe.  
  • Delay The Collection Process: The Internal Revenue Service may determine that you cannot pay your tax debt and delay action in collecting it. But penalties and interest keep accruing till the debt is paid off. 

These three suggestions above are all complicated methods of paying off your taxes and you will need professional assistance from an Enrolled Agent.

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As always, read my disclaimer here. Please consult a qualified tax professional for your unique tax needs. More of my contact information is on my website, www.mntaxbiz.com.





Sunday, March 26, 2017

Procrastinators Of The World Unite-File Your Taxes!

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Are you a straggler when it comes to filing taxes? You are not alone! There are many who dread the idea, in fact I know of many tax consultants who have someone else file their own. If you are the glass-half-empty type, then brace yourself, April 18th is right around the corner and the clock is ticking. If you are the eternal optimist, then yes, you still have time to get all your documents together and well, file an extension so you have more time to keep calm and file your taxes. 

Did you know that stalling too long increases your risk of falling prey to tax refund fraud? Not only so, you may also be slapped with hefty fines and the dreaded failure-to-file penalty. If I have scared you into action now, that's great! Let us look at what you can do to get going.

Gather your paper-work. I like to send my existing clients a tax organizer in January so they have their filing history to go off on and get started gathering their paper-work. If you do not have such an organizer, you can also look at your previous years' tax returns and put your paper-work together. 

If you have large stock sales, make sure you go through the sales and check if you have the dates of purchases and cost information of the various stocks sold. This is one of the major areas where taxpayers leave money on the table by over reporting their stock sales and not backing out the costs of such stocks sold. 

Do you have receipts for all the deductions you will have to claim? Even if you did not itemize one year, you may have enough expenses to be able to itemize in another year. The trick is to collect the information you need and check every year if the total of the itemized deductions goes over the standard deduction. Usually a large medical expense or a charitable donation might trigger you going over the standard deduction. 

If you do not feel confident enough to tackle this arduous task on your own or your situation is more complicated than the average taxpayer, you will have to find yourself a professional to file your taxes. And you just cannot go to anybody, you must go see an Enrolled Agent, especially one who is a member of the National Association of Enrolled Agents. You can find one in your area by going to this website

Don't let the fear of owing the government keep you from filing. There are options for you to pay a large tax bill. If you owe less than $50,000, you can get into an installment plan with the Internal Revenue Service. You can also pay with a credit card or take a loan but there will be interest charges.

If you think you need more time to gather your paper-work and file your taxes, you will need to file an extension via Form 4868. Most states accept the federal extension, for some you have to mail in a separate state extension. Filing an extension gives you time till October 15th to file your main return. 

Don't let Uncle Sam or Lady Liberty waving to you from the neighborhood curb make you cringe. Go find an Enrolled Agent and take care of your taxes! 

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As always, read my disclaimer here. Please consult a qualified tax professional for your unique tax needs. More of my contact information is on my website, www.mntaxbiz.com.


  





Friday, March 17, 2017

Tax Due Dates & the FBAR: Get With The NEW Program Peeps!

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Remember all that excitement around the Surface Transportation and Veterans Health Care Choice Improvement Act? Yes, I bet you do! We talked about it in this post. So it is here- the new FinCEN Form 114 (AKA FBAR) filing deadline!  

For those who are new to Foreign Bank Account Regulations {FBAR}, a quick refresher:

The Bank Secrecy Act, P.L. 91-508, and its regulations require FBAR reporting from “each United States person having a financial interest in, or signature or other authority over, a bank, securities, or other financial account in a foreign country”, if the aggregate maximum values in that person’s foreign accounts exceed $10,000 at any time during the calendar year (31 C.F.R. §1010.350(a)) and (31 C.F.R. §1010.306(c)). 


FBAR reporting applies to U.S. persons, as defined by regulations under Title 31, which along with individuals can also include certain corporations, partnerships, trusts, estates, and other entities. While this is a broader requirement than for individuals required to file Form 8938, the latter has been extended in recent regulations to include certain specified domestic entities. 

Also see my post here. And here

New FBAR Extension and Due Dates:

The Act changes the deadline for the FBAR from June 30th to the April 15th, which is the due date for an individual who is resident in the United States. In addition to this, the FBAR can be extended for a period of six months ending October 15th, just as an Individual tax return. 

For those who are not resident in the United States and have to file a US tax return, there is an automatic 2 month extension until June 15th {Under § 1.6081-5}. Under the Act now this extension is available to their FBAR filing as well. 

For those who are filing an FBAR for the first time, the Act specifically states that, "[f]or any taxpayer required to file [an FBAR] for the first time, any penalty for failure to timely request for, or file, an extension, may be waived by the Secretary." 


These due dates are applicable to those returns filed after December 31st, 2015. 

How To Extend Your FBAR?:

According to the information put out on the FinCEN Website, "FinCEN will grant filers failing to meet the FBAR annual due date of April 15 an automatic extension to October 15 each year.  Accordingly, specific requests for this extension are not required".

What Happens If You Filed Your Tax Return On Time But Not The FBAR?:

From information put out by FinCEN and experts weighing in, it has been explained that the six-month extension is automatic for each year and the taxpayers do not have to request extensions. 


Please contact your Enrolled Agent or other tax professional if you think you may be impacted by the above changes. 

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As always, read my disclaimer here. Please consult a qualified tax professional for your unique tax needs. More of my contact information is on my website, www.mntaxbiz.com.





Thursday, February 16, 2017

Tax Season is On NOW...Find Yourself An Enrolled Agent!

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Tax season officially opened January 23rd and I happened to catch an ad on television of Humpty Dumpty doing his taxes sitting on the wall using an over-the-counter tax software bundle on his phone!  Well, no surprise there but yes, Humpty Dumpty did have a great fall and yes, he did crack up! I guess there is a moral to this story...my take on that is NOT to do your taxes on the phone in the first place but then again if you are Humpty, you are not going to listen to me, are you?

It is February 16th today, unlike Humpty here, I hope you have started gathering your papers and made an appointment with your tax professional. Speaking of tax professionals,  there are only three kinds of tax professionals who have unlimited practice rights. What this means is that they are unrestricted as to which taxpayers they can represent, what types of tax matters they can handle, and which IRS offices they can represent clients before.  

An Enrolled Agent is the only federally-licensed tax practitioner who both specialize in taxation and have unlimited rights to represent taxpayers before the Internal Revenue Service. 

This is a tax professional who has earned the privilege of representing taxpayers before the Internal Revenue Service by either passing a three-part comprehensive IRS test covering individual and business tax returns, or through experience as a former IRS employee. Enrolled agent status is the highest credential the IRS awards. 

Individuals who obtain this elite status must adhere to ethical standards and complete 72 hours of continuing education courses every three years. The Enrolled Agent is governed by the rules set forth in the Treasury Department Circular No. 230 and is subject to a rigorous background check by the IRS before they are conferred a license. 

The National Association of Enrolled Agents {NAEA} is one of the premium organizations for Enrolled Agents. Members of the NAEA have to complete 90 hours of continuing education credits every three years in order to maintain their NAEA membership status. 

Navigating through tax rules and regulations is not for the faint of heart, hire an Enrolled Agent today to help guide you. Find an Enrolled Agent here.  

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As always, read my disclaimer here. Please consult a qualified tax professional  Enrolled Agent for your unique tax needs. More of my contact information is on my website, www.mntaxbiz.com





Saturday, January 14, 2017

Trust Fund Recovery: Penalties & Pitfalls

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I for one am glad that 2016 finally ended. Coming out of a contentious election with a boat load of vitriol thrown around, I don't know about you, but I was swinging between the need for relief for it all to be over and the fear of who would take over the presidency and if it would go into capable hands. I am so glad tax season started so I can get to the business of preparing returns! 

Every year I get a mix of audits my way, but in Tax Year 2016 it seemed as if I saw more than my share of Trust Fund Recovery audits fall into my lap. Some of these small businesses had a tax preparer assisting them and some were on their own. 

Trust Funds are those payroll taxes that are withheld from employees' salaries and are to be deposited into the Employer's account with the IRS on a timely basis. To help ensure that taxpayers remit these taxes properly and on time, § 6672(a) imposes a penalty on any person who is responsible for paying and willfully fails to do so. This penalty is known as the Trust Fund Recovery Penalty or TFRP for short. 

These funds are considered to be held by the business "in trust" for the government. The responsible person in the business needs to deposit these taxes on a timely basis. 

The timeliness of the deposits is determined by the amount of the withholdings. This could be every week/ semi-weekly/ monthly. Businesses are also liable to pay the Federal Unemployment Tax (FUTA) once a year. FUTA is discounted if the employer is signed up for the State Unemployment taxes (SUTA). The SUTA liability is based on the state where the employee is located. So if an employer has employees in various states, they have to keep track of the state unemployment insurance liability in each of those states. 

The failure to pay trust fund taxes and/ or the failure to deposit these taxes on time means that either the business or the responsible person is subject to very heavy penalties. Typically, The amount of the penalty is equal to the unpaid balance of the trust fund tax (e.g., Social Security, Medicare, and income taxes)

The penalty is computed based on:

  • The unpaid income taxes withheld, plus
  • The employee's portion of the withheld FICA taxes.

For collected taxes, the penalty is based on the unpaid amount of collected excise taxes.

Generally, assuming Forms 941, Employer’s Quarterly Federal Tax Return , or comparable returns were timely filed, the IRS has three years to assess the TFRP from the April 15 that succeeded the return’s due date (IRM §5.7.3.5). If the business’s return was filed after the due date, the statute of limitation begins to run from either the April 15 that succeeded the return’s due date or three years from when the return was actually filed, whichever is later. However, false or fraudulent returns or substitute returns prepared by the IRS under Sec. 6020(b)(1) do not start the running of the statute. 

Many employers outsource their payroll and related tax duties to third-party payroll service providers. They can help assure filing deadlines and deposit requirements are met and streamline business operations to a large extent. But remember, employers are ultimately responsible for the payment of income tax withheld and both the employer and employee portions of social security and Medicare taxes.

New Deadlines: The PATH Act, enacted in December 2015, includes a new requirement for employers: They have to now file their copies of Form W-2, with the Social Security Administration, by January 31st. The new January 31st filing deadline also applies to certain Forms 1099-MISC reporting non-employee compensation such as payments to independent contractors.

One 30-day extension may be filed by January 31st via Form 8809, Application of Extension to File Information Returns. 

I always recommend that a small or medium business hire an Enrolled Agent to oversee their Payroll Taxes payment and filing even if the process has been outsourced to a payroll provider. This ensures 2 sets of eyes on the trust funds. Please call your tax professional immediately if you believe that there may be mistakes on your payroll returns. 
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As always, read my disclaimer here. Please consult a qualified tax professional for your unique tax needs. More of my contact information is on my website, www.mntaxbiz.com