Gunning Daily News

Top 5 Tips for Choosing a Tax Preparer

January 23, 2013 5:16 pm

Approximately 60 percent of Americans enlist the help of a paid tax professional to file their income tax returns, as stated by the Internal Revenue Service. According to Jackson Hewitt Tax Service®, the nation's largest privately held tax preparation firm, even more consumers may turn to a tax preparer this year to determine how the passage of the American Taxpayer Relief Act of 2012 impacts their individual situations. But what are the advantages of working with a paid preparer, and what credentials should consumers look for when selecting a tax professional?

"With the sweeping last-minute tax law changes, even taxpayers who have filed their own returns in past years with do-it-yourself software should think twice this time around," says Mark Steber , chief tax officer, Jackson Hewitt Tax Service Inc. "Many taxpayers may benefit from engaging a paid professional to ensure their returns are accurate, but need to know what questions to ask and what to look for in a tax preparer. A skilled preparer who understands your tax situation, including all the tax deductions and credits available to you, can provide you with the best possible outcome, because if you miss claiming certain tax benefits on a return, they are off the table - the IRS doesn't claim them for you."

When choosing a paid tax preparer, Steber encourages consumers to consider these five tips:

Engage now — The IRS will start to accept 2012 tax returns on January 30. You may need some time to find a tax preparer who best meets your needs, so you'll want to start your search as soon as possible. It is important to ensure that your tax preparer is well-versed in all of the recent tax law changes and tax codes. The sooner you find the right preparer, the sooner you can start the filing process and ultimately get your refund, if you are owed one. Jackson Hewitt 's preparers are meeting with clients now to review documents and fill out returns in advance of the January 30 date.

Check the preparer's background — Make sure to go with someone who is qualified and credible, so check your tax preparer's history. You can conduct your own research through various sources such as the Better Business Bureau and state boards of accountancy for certified public accountants. You can also ask friends, family or co-workers for references to get a first-hand account of their experiences.

Make sure the preparer is knowledgeable — Make sure your preparer understands how tax law changes may affect you. Jackson Hewitt offers a comprehensive tax preparer training curriculum, including basic, intermediate and advanced courses, as well as ethics and ongoing update training.

Avoid preparers who ask you to sign a blank return — It is important to review your tax return completely and ask questions before signing it. Remember, you are ultimately responsible for what is reported on your tax return. Make sure you understand and are comfortable with the accuracy of the return. Check for errors such as incorrect social security numbers and addresses; these common mistakes can delay IRS processing of your return.

Use tax preparers who e-file — The majority of taxpayers today electronically file (e-file) their tax returns. E-filing is safer than filing a paper return, offers faster processing time, greater accuracy and confirmation the IRS has received your return. Jackson Hewitt offers free e-filing.

"Taxpayers who have purchased off-the-shelf tax software and plan to prepare their own returns should confirm that these products are up-to-date, as many late-breaking changes have occurred that may not have been integrated by the time of purchase. Similarly, if you are using a trained tax professional, confirm that their software is current and up-to-date as well," adds Steber.


It’s 2013 – What’s Your Real Estate Resolution?

January 23, 2013 5:16 pm

Everyone makes resolutions around this time every year - from taking up a long-delayed painting project, to finally remodeling that kitchen, or finally making up your mind about packing up and selling the place.

The web is full of real estate resolutions, so as we ease into the New Year, we'll present a punch list of the best of these 2013 pledges:

Purge - Tara-Nicole Nelson, a broker in San Francisco, Calif., says get rid of stuff you don't want buyers to see and stuff you don't want to move to your new home. It's probably too cold, wet or snowy to hold a garage sale right now, but you can donate items for a tax deduction.

Just buy - You will never get there until you take that first step. Assuming that you have the capital to work with, now is the time to buy! Choose a property that you know will profit you one way or the other. It can be through rental or equity buildup or renovation for flipping – whatever it is, take that first step.

Remodeling? - Determining your return on investment should be one of the first things you research before starting any remodeling project. If you plan on selling your home someday, keep in mind that 80 percent is the ideal return on a remodeling investment. A few suggested improvements that can bring the greatest return on investment include kitchen improvements, new siding, a bathroom addition, and replacing windows.

- Taking advantage of the current low interest rates might make refinancing a good option for you. A recent study indicates that more homeowners are switching from a 30-year fixed rate mortgage to 15-year fixed rate mortgage and bringing additional funds to closing to reduce their mortgage amount.

Finally - Chicago Tribune real estate columnists Ilyce Glink and Samuel Tamkin suggest potential homebuyers resolve to shop around when looking for a home loan. They say lenders vary, often significantly, in the fees they charge and the interest rates they levy so keep searching until you find a lender that offers both good service and good rates.

Now is the Time to Talk Money with Millennials

January 23, 2013 5:16 pm

The New Year is frequently a time to re-evaluate personal financial goals, but according to research from The Allstate Foundation and Junior Achievement USA, it’s not just your finances you need to talk about. It’s also your teen’s.

The Teens and Personal Finance Poll, conducted annually by The Allstate Foundation and Junior Achievement USA, found that the number of teens who report saving at least half of their income declined 28 percent from 2011.

"Our Teens and Personal Finance Poll continues to identify trends that need action," says Vicky Dinges , vice president of public social responsibility at Allstate. "While there's a 13 percent decline in teens saying they don't know how to use a budget, there's also a 10 percent increase in teens telling us budgets are for adults. The Allstate Foundation and Junior Achievement have built a strong series of teen programs, like JA Economics for Success® to reverse these trends and positively influence the next generation, so they can achieve their financial goals."

Since 2005, Junior Achievement USA and The Allstate Foundation have partnered to help students take the valuable information learned about careers, budgeting, personal finance, and credit in the classroom and apply it in their lives. The Junior Achievement JA Economics for Success program, created in partnership with The Allstate Foundation, has helped more than 1.2 million students to develop, plan and set personal financial goals to protect them in the future.

"Parents are the most important influence when it comes to teens and behavior with money," says Jack E. Kosakowski , president and chief executive officer of Junior Achievement USA. "Our research indicates that 86 percent of teens report their parents are the number one influence when it comes to money management, which creates a unique opportunity for family conversation. De-mystifying money and finance for this upcoming generation needs to be a priority with every New Year."

The Allstate Foundation and Junior Achievement USA offer these simple tips and facts for starting a conversation with teens about money management and saving:

  • Have age-appropriate conversations about the importance of creating and using a budget. Many parents are unsure about their own ability to effectively manage their finances, but that shouldn't stop them from talking to their teens about the basics of personal finance. Even if it is tough to broach the subject of money with your children, JA has easy to use, free downloadable tools to help you get started.
  • Work with your teen to create a savings plan for buying something they want, whether it is a major purchase like a car, or something smaller like a tablet or laptop. Getting in the habit of saving for purchases, rather than relying on credit, develops self-discipline and an understanding of the importance of financial planning and smart money management.
  • Prepare for college. Many children dream of going to college but haven't discussed with their parents who will pay for their higher education. These conversations need to begin at a young age and develop over time.


Word of the Day

January 23, 2013 5:16 pm

Equity. Value an owner has in a piece of property less the debt against it. For example, if the market value of a house is $150,000 and the owner has paid off $10,000 of a $75,000 mortgage, the owner has $85,000 equity.

Q: Where Can I Find Foreclosure Properties?

January 23, 2013 5:16 pm

A: Look in the legal notices section of your local newspaper. A notice is also usually posted on the property itself and somewhere in the city where the sale will take place.

However, real estate agents are the best source for information about foreclosures before they begin. Often a property will be listed and the agent will know if it is approaching foreclosure. Perhaps the best way to get the information is to have your agent put the word out that you are looking for properties with pending foreclosures.

Another source can be the bank or financial institution that holds the mortgage. Of course, they generally will not give you the names of those who are facing foreclosure, but they may give the property owner your card or phone number.

Buying foreclosures is not easy. Savvy investors are highly skilled at nabbing these properties.

Inexperienced buyers may find themselves surrounded by pretty stiff competition. They will need to get as much information as possible, including a "foreclosure inspection report" and an appraisal from the lender.

Lessons in Law: Tips for Safeguarding Your Wealth in 2013

January 22, 2013 5:30 pm

Litigation is America’s fastest growing business because plaintiffs have everything to gain and nothing but a few hours’ time to lose, says Hillel Presser, author of “Financial Self-Defense (Revised Edition).”

“Even if a case seems utterly ridiculous -- like the man who struck and killed a teenager with his luxury car and then sued the boy’s family for damage to his bumper -- defendants are encouraged to settle. It’s sometimes the only way to avoid potentially astronomical legal fees,” he says.

If you haven’t already taken steps to protect your assets, that’s one New Year’s resolution you’ll be glad you made and followed up on, Presser says. And while it helps to have the assistance of a lawyer who specializes in asset protection, there are many things you can do yourself.

“You shouldn’t have any non-exempt assets in your name,” Presser says. “The goal is to ‘own’ nothing but control everything.”

Presser suggests these resolutions for safeguarding your wealth in the event of a lawsuit:

• Inventory your wealth. Figure out how much assets you really have (most people have more than they think). Take stock of valuable domain names, telephone numbers, intellectual property, potential inheritances, and other liquid and non-liquid assets. That way you can then work on actions to cost effectively keep them safe.
• Set your goal. Setting your 2013 asset protection goal is your first step to becoming protected in the New Year! For instance, you could plan to execute an estate plan or set up a trust for your children in 2013. Decide what assets you want to protect in the New Year and a realistic timeline for implementation. Then -- and most importantly -- stick to your plan. Asset protection works only if you follow through.
• Protect your home. Find out how much of your home is protected by your state’s homestead laws and then encumber the remaining equity. Encumbering a home’s equity can be accomplished by recording a mortgage against it, re-financing a current mortgage or even taking out a lien of credit using your home as collateral! Another great strategy to protect your home is to transfer its title to a protective entity such as a limited liability company (LLC), trust, limited partnership, etc.
• Get everything out of your name. The worst thing you can do as far as exposure is titling all of your assets to your personal name. That doesn’t mean you have to lose control of them – the goal of asset protection is to “own nothing, but control everything.” In 2013, work on moving your assets out of your personal name and into the name of protective entities such as limited liability companies (LLC’s), trusts, limited partnerships, etc.
• Buy adequate insurance. Protect your loved ones. Make sure you have adequate insurance coverage in the event a job loss, natural disaster, or even a tragic loss of life. Those include -- but are not limited to -- your car, home, and other valuables.

Hillel L. Presser’s law firm, The Presser Law Firm, P.A., represents individuals and businesses in establishing comprehensive asset protection plans. He is a graduate of Syracuse University’s School of Management and Nova Southeastern University’s law school, and serves on Nova’s President’s Advisory Council.

For more information, visit

The Beauty of Upcycling

January 22, 2013 5:30 pm

(BPT) - Everything old is new again. At least that's a simplistic take on the tenets of upcycling, which translates to giving renewed purpose to something others send to landfills. For consumers with a passion for do-it-yourself projects, and the boards on Pinterest to prove it, upcycling has taken root. Some ideas are as simple as investing in a set of sharpies to transform ordinary cabinetry knobs into one-of-a-kind home accessories. Others require more time, as in creating a working chandelier from white plastic spoons. It's a small step considering that Americans throw out enough disposable dinnerware to circle the equator 300 times, according to

The Internet is littered with statistics estimating when our landfills will reach a tipping point. Other stats concentrate on the fact that trash must travel farther to meet its fate, which contributes to greenhouse gas emissions. In addition, individual states continue to consider putting in place stricter regulations for commercial businesses in order to save landfill space.

In answer to the call for smarter manufacturing practices, many brands have found ways to reduce their contribution to landfills. For instance, fashion brand H&M recently announced its partnership with I:Collect. H&M customers may donate any article of clothing from any brand to any H&M retailer worldwide in exchange for a store voucher.

I:Collect then repurposes the donated clothing. Since The Council of Textile Recycling reports that the average American throws away 70 pounds of clothing each year, this is yet another small dent in keeping usable materials out of landfills.

Another example is upcycling pioneer, Nike. Its Reuse-a-Shoe program launched in 1990, with more than 1.5 million pairs of post-consumer shoes now collected annually. Today, the company transforms those recycled shoes into Nike Grind, an ingredient used in making rubber flooring for gyms and weight rooms, along with running tracks and playground surfaces.

For some, finding meaning in waste, especially when it comes to manufacturing, may be a new idea. However, many companies have been out in front of this trend long before it became fashionable. For instance, ECORE is North America's largest consumer of recycled scrap-tire rubber, reusing over 80 million pounds of material each year. Rubber is engineered to never degrade, decompose or deteriorate. This is a great quality, except when tires are left to decompose in a landfill. The company partners with Nike and uses Nike Grind as an ingredient in its recycled rubber flooring.

"At ECORE, we don't just follow best practices - instead we develop smarter processes and systems to make best practices better," says ECORE chairman and CEO, Arthur Dodge III. "It's how we produce 2.6 million pounds of waste a year, but send only 1.3 percent of it to the landfill."

Recycling rubber might be too high of a commitment when at home, but there are a few easy steps people can take to keep reusable waste out of landfills:

Separate trash: If you don't already, separate your trash over the course of a week or two. In doing so, you'll gain an understanding for exactly what you throw away. Once you know what you have, find the right recycling centers in your community. And when it comes to food, consider composting.
Research alternatives: A certain segment of do-it-yourselfers already appreciate that one man's garbage is another man's treasure. Think about all the ways you can use, and reuse, materials in your home.
Buy smart: A little consideration in advance can go a long way in making your purchasing decisions. That may mean investing in products that are higher in quality, but enjoy a longer lifespan.


Education for Less: 10 Top Values in Public Colleges

January 22, 2013 5:30 pm

If your high schooler is considering options for higher education, many factors come into play; a college’s geographic location, reputation for excellence in a chosen field, and financial viability among them.

Kiplinger’s, which annually rates colleges nationwide on the basis of educational quality and affordability, has released its top ten picks for 2013:
  • University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill –Credited with stellar academics, reasonable sticker price and generous financial aid. The student-faculty ratio is 14-1, and the cost is about $18,000 for in-state and $39,000 for out-of-state students.
  • University of Virginia – A Kiplinger pick since 2008, UVA has an undergraduate enrollment of less than 16,000. It is said to meet 100 percent of financial need and has a four-year graduation rate of 87 percent.
  • University of Florida – Although a big school with 16 colleges, UF scores high on academics and cost, with an average annual rate of $16,500 for in-staters and $38,800 for out-of-state students.
  • College of William and Mary – Small and highly competitive, the Virginia school is considered by many a ‘public Ivy.’ Annual cost is on the higher side, but the school boasts an 87 percent four-year graduation rate, which could save an extra year’s tuition.
  • University of Maryland, College Park – With an average debt at graduation rate of just over $24,000, the school will join the Big Ten in the 2014-1015 year – a boon to athletes and still highly rated and fairly reasonable in cost.
  • UCLA – Despite tuition increases in California, UCLA remains competitive thanks to generous financial aid. Known for rigorous academics, the school meets 84 percent of need for in- and out-of-state students.
  • New College of Florida – This tiny school boasts solid academics and outstanding affordability, with an average debt at graduation cost of just over $14,000.
  • UC Berkeley – Berkeley admits only 22 percent of applicants, making it the most selective school in these top ten. Out-of-state cost is high, but average debt at graduation is $17,116, the third lowest in these ratings.
  • SUNY Geneseo – With the lowest cost for out-of-state students in the top ten, the New York school rates high in academics and excellent student to faculty ratio.
  • UC San Diego – Delivers on academics and generous financial aid, with the lowest total cost of any California college. Average debt at graduation rate of just under $20,000.

Word of the Day

January 22, 2013 5:30 pm

Encroachment.  A building or other improvement that extends beyond its boundary and intrudes upon the property of another.

Q: My Budget Won’t Allow for Expensive Add-Ons; Is There Another Way to Find and Make Space?

January 22, 2013 5:30 pm

A: That space may be as close as the next room, particularly if there is unused or under-utilized areas in your home.  A garage, attic, side porch, large closet, or basement can all be converted to fit the use you have in mind.  Or, maybe, a small area can be carved from a larger area like a kitchen or living room to create, say, a powder room.  This concept of “stealing” space from a neighboring room is called space reconfiguration and it is much cheaper than a major remodeling job.