Friday, November 14, 2008

Taxpayers Get Second Chance at Stimulus

Taxpayers Get Second Chance at Stimulus

Like many other people, Colleen Kilbreath of Westminster, Colo., thought eligibility for the program was based solely on what she had reported on her tax return for 2007 -- and assumed she wouldn't get anything because her income for that year was too high. Ms. Kilbreath, a construction-project manager, was laid off in June "and could really use the assistance," she wrote in a recent email.

For 2008, she says, her adjusted gross income will be about $50,000, well below the law's threshold, which means she should qualify for a recovery rebate credit when she files her 2008 return next year. "I did not know" that the law worked that way, she says. "I'm sure there are a ton of us out there that are in the dark."

Under the economic-stimulus law, which was enacted in February, eligibility for this tax break is based on your income and other factors, such as family size, as reported on your federal income-tax return for either 2007 or 2008, says Mark Luscombe, principal tax analyst at CCH, a Wolters Kluwers business.

Thus, if you weren't eligible based on your 2007 return or received less than the maximum amount, you still might qualify for a "recovery rebate credit" on your 2008 return, to be filed in 2009, Internal Revenue Service officials say. Other people, such as a family with a child born in 2008, may also be eligible for a credit on their 2008 return, Mr. Luscombe says.

Huge amounts of money are involved. About $10 billion will be distributed next year in rebate credits, says Treasury Department spokesman Andrew DeSouza. The Treasury won't send out separate economic-stimulus payments, as it did this year. Instead, those eligible will claim the rebate credit on their 2008 returns. That will affect how much of a refund they'll get or how much they'll owe Uncle Sam.

With the economic slump deepening, the extra help will come in handy in many households. According to the latest government figures, employment has dropped by about 1.2 million in the first 10 months of this year -- with over half the decrease coming in the past three months. The Labor Department reported that the unemployment rate rose to 6.5% in October from 6.1% the previous month, and many forecasters expect it to climb above 8% by the end of next year.

Pressure is growing in Congress for additional economic-stimulus measures, either this year during a lame-duck session or next year after Barack Obama is sworn in as president, or both.

Under the law enacted in February, most people who paid federal income taxes were eligible to receive as much as $600 for an individual, or as much as $1,200 for a married couple filing a joint return, with an additional $300 for each eligible child. The amounts phase out for individuals whose incomes exceed $75,000, or joint filers with income above $150,000. Under the formula, you lose 5% of the dollar amount above the applicable threshold -- such as $50 for each $1,000 above the cap. (Separately, many low-income people who paid little or no federal income tax were entitled to some payment, too.)

Through last month, the Treasury had distributed about 117.4 million economic-stimulus payments totaling more than $95 billion. During October alone, the government distributed about 1.4 million payments totaling about $976.6 million.

The IRS will post tools on its Web site to help people figure the recovery rebate credit, says Eric Smith, an IRS spokesman. There will also be a worksheet to help figure out the amount in the 2008 tax packages, he says. A draft has been posted on the IRS site.

For those do-it-yourselfers who don't want to risk losing their sanity doing the number-crunching, consider buying tax-preparation software. Intuit Inc.'s TurboTax, the top-selling consumer software, will automatically notify customers about this issue when they're working on their 2008 tax returns next year, and will also calculate any additional rebate amount, says Julie Miller, an Intuit spokeswoman.

Some people who were eligible for a payment this year haven't received it yet because of a wrong address. The IRS said recently that it's searching for people who are missing more than 279,000 economic stimulus checks totaling about $163 million -- and more than 104,000 regular refund checks totaling about $103 million -- that were returned by the U.S. Postal Service due to mailing address errors.

"All a taxpayer has to do is update his or her address once," the IRS said. The government "will then send out all checks due."

If you're worried about a missing stimulus check and want it this year, don't procrastinate. "It is crucial that taxpayers who may be due a stimulus check update their addresses with the IRS by Nov. 28," the IRS said. The reason: By law, those stimulus checks must be sent out by Dec. 31 this year, the IRS said. To check the status of a stimulus check and get instructions on how to update an address, go to the IRS Web site and click on "Where's My Stimulus Payment?" or call 866-234-2942.

The IRS said the regular refund checks that were returned averaged $988 apiece. These checks will be re-sent as soon as taxpayers update their addresses. You can do that with the "Where's My Refund" tool on the IRS Web site, or call 800-829-1954.

Estate-tax returns fell in 2007.

Only about 38,000 federal estate-tax returns were filed in 2007, down from 49,050 in 2006, according to the IRS. Of those 38,000 returns, about 17,400 were taxable, down from nearly 23,000 taxable returns in 2006.

Among the 2007 taxable returns, there were 2,860 estates valued between $3.5 million and less than $5 million, the IRS said. There were 2,906 estates valued between $5 million and less than $10 million, 1,104 estates valued between $10 million and less than $20 million -- and only 654 estates valued at $20 million or more.

Further declines in the number of filings are likely again next year, when the basic federal estate-tax exclusion, now $2 million, is set to increase to $3.5 million.

The top federal estate-tax rate, now 45%, is set to remain unchanged in 2009.

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