Give tax records a mid-year tune-up

submitted by Martin H. Abo, CPA/ABV/CVA/CFF, Abo and Company, LLC

Here are some tips on tax recordkeeping.

  • Keep copies of your filed tax returns as part of your tax records. They can help you prepare future tax returns. You’ll also need them if you need to file an amended return.
  • You must keep records to support items reported on your tax return. You should keep basic records that prove your income and expenses that relate to your federal tax return for at least three years. This includes income information such as Forms W-2 and 1099. It also includes information that supports tax credits or deductions you claimed. This might include sales slips, credit card receipts and other proofs of payment, invoices, cancelled checks, bank statements and mileage logs.
  • If you own a home or investment property, you should keep records of your purchases and other records related to those items. You should typically keep these records, including home improvements, at least three years after you have sold or disposed of the property. Actually, because the statute of limitations runs for six years if they find there is a “material omission of income or excess deductions,” it is suggested retaining such records for seven years to be on the safe side.
  • If you own a business, you should keep records that show total receipts, proof of purchases of business expenses and assets. These may include cash register tapes, bank deposit slips, receipt books, purchase and sales invoices. Also include credit card receipts, sales slips, canceled checks, account statements and petty cash slips. Electronic records can include databases, saved files, emails, instant messages, faxes and voice messages.
  • If you own a business with employees, you should generally keep all employment-related tax records for at least four years after the tax is due, or after the tax is paid, whichever is later.
  • The IRS doesn’t require any special method to keep records, but it’s a good idea to keep them organized and in one place. This will make it easier for you to prepare and file a complete and accurate return. You’ll also be better able to respond if there are questions about your tax return after you file.
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Getting a bigger bang with employee reimbursement bucks

submitted by Martin H. Abo, CPA/ABV/CVA/CFF, Abo and Company, LLC

An employer can operate an accountable plan that reimburses employees for the actual amount of their business-related expenses. Alternatively, an accountable plan can pay predetermined allowances for designated expenses. Either approach is okay with the IRS, as long as the applicable rules are followed.

-       Tax Impact of Accountable Plan. When the Company’s expense reimbursement or allowance arrangement qualifies as an accountable plan, the business can deduct the payments made under the plan for federal income tax purposes (meals and entertainment reimbursements still subject to the 50% disallowance). Thus, the payments under an accountable plan are basically treated the same as tax-free employee fringe benefits. This is beneficial for employers and employees alike. Everybody’s happy!

-       Tax Impact of Non-Accountable Plan. The accountable plan rules must be met on a employee-by-employee basis. If reimbursements or allowances paid to an employee fail to meet the accountable plan rules, the payments should be treated as wages. This non-accountable plan treatment generally results in 100% deductibility for the firm because the 50% disallowance rule for meal and entertainment expenses doesn’t apply to the employer for amounts reported as wage compensation to an employee. Even so, employer clients may still come out on the short-end because it must pay the employer’s half of the FICA tax and the FUTA tax on amounts treated as wages.

-       For the employee, wage treatment is clearly disadvantageous because wages are subject to: (1) federal income tax (including FIT withholding) and (2) withholding for the employee’s half of the FICA tax. Assuming the employee can document that he or she incurred legitimate expenses, the only hope for any tax benefit is to claim a Schedule A itemized deduction for unreimbursed employee business expenses—after subtracting the 50% disallowance for meals and entertainment. Unfortunately, unreimbursed employee business expenses can only be written off to the extent they exceed 2% of the employee’s Adjusted Gross Income (AGI) when lumped together with other miscellaneous itemized deductions.

-       Typically only the tax collector is happy with the results under a non-accountable plan. That’s why meeting the accountable plan rules is so important.

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Finding the value of a business in a divorce

submitted by Martin H. Abo, CPA/ABV/CVA/CFF, Abo and Company, LLC 

On top of all the other complex, difficult processes involved in a divorce, if one or both spouses own a business, you should add a valuation. A divorce valuation goes by special rules. For example, one aspect of finding value for a divorce settlement is that you are not seeking the investment value of the business. Because the business usually isn’t going to be sold, its value to a specific buyer isn’t particularly relevant. For this reason, the value decided on for a divorce is different. Many of the considerations are the same as for determining the sale value, but there are some substantial differences.

If the divorce goes to court, the valuator must persuade the court that his or her figure is the most accurate. Whatever method the valuator uses, it must be supportable. Unsubstantiated numbers don’t hold up in court.

There’s widespread difficulty in discovering a business’s true worth for divorce valuations. Business owners who refuse to provide documentation to their spouses’ financial advisors can be penalized by the courts, but this doesn’t guarantee total honesty. Valuators respond by coming up with creative methods of uncovering information.

Some business owners may deliberately try to undervalue their companies to minimize their spouses’ settlements. Deliberately minimizing or even dissipating the value of a business can be hazardous, even if the financial expert can’t prove the profits were larger than stated.

Some divorcing spouses attempt to use the amounts of key person insurance on the spouse involved in the business or the terms of a buy-sell agreement as indications of the worth of the business. The agreements and insurance policies could have been set up years before, though. They don’t necessarily indicate the business’s worth at the time of the divorce. Nonetheless, the courts consider buy-sell agreements a factor.

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Good tax planning begins now

submitted by Martin H. Abo, CPA/ABV/CVA/CFF, Abo and Company, LLC

As we approach year-end, it’s again time to focus on last-minute moves you can make to save taxes – both on your 2013 return and in future years. To get you started, we’ve included a few money-saving ideas here that you may want to put in action before the end of the year.

For 2013, the standard deduction is $12,200 for married taxpayers filing joint returns. For single taxpayers, the amount is $6,100. Currently, it looks like these amounts will be about the same for 2014.

If your total itemized deductions each year is normally close to these amounts, you may be able to leverage the benefit of your deductions by bunching deductions in every other year. This allows you to time your itemized deductions so they are high in one year and low in the next.

For instance, if you’re temporarily short on cash, charge Tax (AMT – Alternative Minimum Tax), as these taxes are not deductible for AMT purposes.

Higher-income individuals will likely see their taxes go up this year. This makes it more important than ever to do the calculations to see where you stand before the end of the year.

If it looks like you are going to owe income taxes for 2013, consider bumping up the federal income taxes withheld from your paychecks now through the end of the year. When you file your return, you will still have to pay any taxes due less the amount paid in.

However, as long as your total tax payments (estimated payments plus withholdings) equal at least 90% of your 2013 liability or, if smaller, 100% of your 2012 liability (110% if your 2012 adjusted gross income exceeded $150,000; $75,000 for married individuals who filed separate returns), penalties will be minimized, if not eliminated.

Finally, watch out for the AMT in all of your planning. What may be a great move for regular tax purposes may create or increase an AMT problem.

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Cooking Chinese with Man Wong, Concerto Fusion Cuisine: Southern Cantonese Style Beef with Oyster Sauce

This is our third lesson in a year-long series on cooking home-style Chinese food and so far we have learned some important secrets to all Chinese cooking;  1) Preparation before cooking is absolutely key when fast cooking  2)  Knowing the proper heat of your wok is essential in proper cooking  3) There are universal base flavors.  4)  Following the steps are important… Salt, Sugar, Powders (for order of seasonings) Stirring well after the addition of each ingredient. 5)  Overcooking kills the food, makes it tough.

New to this series is our “Insider Contest.”  We will be choosing a lucky reader to join us in the kitchen of Concerto Fusion to watch the action (tasting, questions and discussion at the end of the lesson). Visit our website at www.timespub.com and click on the “Insider Contest” button on the left to submit and entry.  You can also submit recipe requests or questions about recipes we’ve already provided.

“Southern Cantonese Style Beef with Oyster Sauce is a good “base” recipe to learn techniques and timing and from this you can add and change flavorings for more gourmet creations,” said Man Wong. “It has thin gravy and can be served with rice, noodles, or steamed buns.”

Note:  One of the most common ingredients in Chinese Cuisine is Oyster Sauce. In ancient China, it was originally made from a base of oysters but the modern version is created with a bean base. It is safe for people who have allergies to seafood or who are vegetarians.

One Serving of Beef with Oyster Sauce

10 oz.  Flank Steak

2 handfuls fresh White Mushrooms

14 to 16 Snow Peas

1 stick of Ginger

¼ Sliced Onion

 

Meat Seasonings:

¼ tsp. Meat Tenderizer

2 OZ water

Pinch of Salt

1/2 tsp. Sugar

Pinch of White Pepper

2 table sp. Oyster Sauce

2 table sp. Cornstarch

1 OZ oil

 

Sauce Seasonings:

2 tbsp. Oyster Sauce

2  tbs. Soy Sauce

2 tbs. sugar

Water

 

Cooking Ingredients for the wok:

2 tbs corn oil

Rice Wine

3-5 cloves garlic crushed with a knife

A few ps. of slice diamond cut ginger

2 large scallions also crushed and sliced in 2 inch pieces on a diagonal

Cornstarch

 

Prepare all food prior to cooking. “Cooking takes about 2 minutes all together. This is a great meal to cook for house guests if you have it all prepared beforehand,” said Man Wong.  “Pour them their drinks and before they are finished, the food will be steaming hot in front of them on the table.”  A mini party food preparation takes about 20 to 30 minutes.

First prepare the meat.  If you have one large flank steak (approximately 12 inches long by 8 inches wide and 1.5 inches thick) slice it long ways (with the grain) to make three long strips about 2 inches wide by 12 inches wide.

“Slicing it properly is very important,” said Man Wong. “It makes the difference between tender and enjoyable. or a tough, chewy experience.”

Next, “on a diagonal, slice 1/6 inch slices against the grain,” he continued. “They should all be the same size so they cook at the same rate.” The final pieces of steak should be about 1 inch wide by about 2 inches long by 1/6 inch thick.

In a bowl place the sliced meat and ad ¼ tsp. of meat tenderizer. Mix well and add about 2 OZ of water. Set aside.

Prepare the vegetables. Cut the stems off the mushrooms and use the caps only for this recipe. Cut the ends off the snow peas and de-vain. Slice the onion in half from end to end and slice about ¼ of the onion in ¼ inch pieces long ways so that they are like half-moons. The ginger is peeled and cored to the shape of a cylindrical diamond and sliced in tiny 1/16 inch slices.

Prepare the sauce by mixing all the sauce ingredients in a bowl and set aside for later.  Finally, begin to heat the wok and then season the meat. It should look very moist from the water and meat tenderizer. Add each ingredient in this order, stirring after each addition:  Salt, Sugar, White Pepper, Oyster Sauce, and cornstarch. If it looks dry, add a little more water. Then the oil.

“Now that everything is ready,” said Man, “it only takes about 1.5 minutes to cook.

“Don’t forget to check with your hand – about 1 foot from the wok.” Man Wong said. “If you can feel the heat, you are ready. It goes fast so have everything available to put in the pan.”

The oil and crushed garlic go into the wok next for about 15 seconds.  Then the vegetables and rice wine. Cover for about 60 seconds. “You can add a pinch of salt water and stir,” he said. “Then put in a plate.” The ginger and a little oil goes in next for about 15 seconds, then the seasoned strips of meat.

“Keep the meat moving,” said Man Wong. “Flip it over a few times but only cook it about 50%.”

Next he adds the vegetables stirring for about 15 seconds. Then the scallions stirring for about 10 seconds. Finally pour in the sauce for about another 15 seconds – stirring constantly.

“That is it,” he says smiling. “Now we sit down and enjoy with rice, noodles or steamed buns.

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Good tax planning begins with good recordkeeping

submitted by Martin H. Abo, CPA/ABV/CVA/CFF, Abo and Company, LLC

Record keeping is not just for businesses. The IRS recommends that individuals keep the following records:

  • Copies of Tax Returns. Old tax returns are useful in preparing current returns and are necessary when filing an amended return.
  • Employee Expenses. Travel, entertainment and gift expenses must be substantiated through appropriate proof. Receipts should be retained and a log may be kept for items for which there is no receipt. Similarly, written records should be maintained for business mileage driven, business purpose of the trip and car expenses for business use of a car.
  • Capital Gains and Losses. Records must be kept showing the cost of acquiring a capital asset, when the asset was acquired, how the asset was used, and, if sold, the date of sale, the selling price and the expenses of the sale.
  • Basis of Property. Homeowners must keep records of the purchase price, any purchase expenses, the cost of home improvements and any basis adjustments, such as depreciation and deductible casualty losses.
  • Basis of Property Received as a Gift. A donee must have a record of the donor’s adjusted basis in the property and the property’s fair market value when it is given as a gift. The donee must also have a record of any gift tax the donor paid.
  • Service Performed for Charitable Organizations. The taxpayer should keep records of out-of-pocket expenses in performing work for charitable organizations to claim a deduction for such expenses.

In addition, the IRS recommends that the following receipts be kept:

  • Proof of medical and dental expenses;
  • Form W-2, Wage and Tax Statement, and canceled checks showing the amount of estimated tax payments;
  • Statements, notes, canceled checks and, if applicable, Form 1098, Mortgage Interest Statement, showing interest paid on a mortgage;
  • Canceled checks or receipts showing charitable contributions, and for contributions of $250 or more, an acknowledgment of the contribution from the charity;
  • Receipts, canceled checks and other documentary evidence that evidence miscellaneous itemized deductions; and
  • Pay statements that show the amount of union dues paid.
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Cooking Chinese Dumplings (Jiaozi) with Man Wong

Second in a culinary series by Bucks County native, Donna Allen; The teachings of Concerto Fusion Cuisine’s Master Chef, Man Wong.

One of the most traditional of Chinese staple foods is the Dumpling or Jiaozi, which originated in Northern China. Basically it is a noodle wrapper stuffed with meat (most commonly pork) or any combination of meat and/or vegetables – much like the Italian Ravioli or the Polish Pierogi. The custom of eating Jiaozi at midnight on Chinese New Year has been a joyful practice for over 3000 years.

Dumplings are made as a family activity. They are shaped like ancient Chinese money and one lucky person in the family will find a hidden gold or silver coin in their dumpling.

“Variety is the spice of life and dumplings can be stuffed with anything,” says Man, “but first let’s get the basics. The traditional meat-stuffed Cantonese Style dumpling can be boiled, fried, or added to a soup broth to make the popular Wonton Soup.”

“There are two different types of noodle wrappers,” he began, “a round dumpling wrapper or a square wanton wrapper.”  The wonton wrapper is a heavier, egg-based noodle. The wrappers can be purchased pre-made at an Asian market. “Making them from scratch is another story,” he laughed.

Prep-time for a family of four, is about an hour and includes making the filling, stuffing the wrappers, and cooking. 

“First, choose a piece of pork butt that has about 85% lean meat and 15% fat,” says Man. “If you don’t have any fat the meat stuffing will be too stiff and not much flavor.”

You can purchase ground pork but Man takes about 10 minutes and chops a piece of pork butt by hand with chopping knives.

“Grinding the meat breaks the cells and there is a loss of flavor and nutrients,” he explains. “It is much healthier and tastier to chop it by hand.”

Once the meat is fully chopped (see the video on our website, www.timespub.com, in the “Focus on Food” section) add the spices, herbs, and vegetables.

“Here is the secret to making Jiaozi,” Man smiled. “Wet a paper towel with water and place the wrapper, stuffing side down on the wet towel. It wets the wrapper perfectly for getting a good seal.”

Wontons are sealed by spreading a beaten egg along the edges of the wrapper. Traditional Cantonese recipes call for a fingertip size piece of raw, fully cleaned shrimp to be added into the filling mix along with chopped black mushrooms.

Man demonstrated how to take the filling and pinch the Jiaozi closed (also on website video). “If you don’t seal it tightly it will open while cooking,” he explained.

The round Jiaozi are sealed with a finger motion that leaves it looking like a folded ribbon, while the square wontons are folded in triangles.

“The next step is to boil the Jiaozi or wontons, otherwise the pork may not cook evenly.”

Place the dumplings or wontons in a pot of boiling water (they must be submerged).

“You know they are done,” says Man Wong, “when they float. Now you can either serve the dumplings ‘as-is’ with some vegetable sides or pan fry them in a wok in some vegetable oil until they are browned on two sides. You can also deep-fry the dumplings.

“If you choose to deep fry the Jiaozi, put about half as much filling into them because the outside will cook too soon and the inside will be raw.”

Dumplings are always served with some type of dipping sauce, sweet and sour or a mix of oyster sauce and soy sauce.

Garnish the boiled Jiaozi with thinly sliced scallions. Sprinkle chopped parsley on the fried Jiaozi.

The wontons go into a chicken soup broth. To prepare the broth, heat to a boil some chicken stock with a few small leaves of bokchoy. Drop in the wontons in and cover for a couple minutes.

I decide it’s not so hard and when I cooked it at home for my family, they were all very impressed. Here is the flow of the recipe: select the meat, chop the vegetables, season the meat, add the vegetables, make the dumplings or wontons, and finally, boil, fry, or add wontons to soup.

Dumplings or Jiaozi Filling

10 oz. of pork butt, chopped or ground

SEASONINGS FOR THE MEAT

Sugar                 ½ teaspoon

Salt                    1/3 teaspoon

White Pepper     some

Chicken Paste   ½ teaspoon

Oyster Sauce     2 teaspoon

Soy Sauce         1 teaspoon

Corn Starch       ½ tea spoon

VEGETABLES TO BE ADDED TO MEAT

Napa

Water Chestnuts

Chopped Ginger

Scallions

ADDITIONAL FILLING FOR WONTONS

Shrimp (peeled, devained, and cut into a fingertip size – one piece for each wonton)

Black Mushrooms (soaked in water overnight and head off, slightly cook with water and some oyster sauce, then chopped).

 

Reminder: If you made quantity, you can cover with plastic bag and freeze them. When you’re ready to consume, just put directly into boiling water.

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Where’s my tax refund?

submitted by Martin H. Abo, CPA/ABV/CVA/CFF, Abo and Company, LLC

Oy, another IRS notice?

But wait. What if you get a letter from the IRS informing you that they are holding the tax refund you were expecting?

Certain financial debts from your past may affect your current federal tax refund. The law allows the use of part or all of your federal tax refund to pay other federal or state debts that you owe.

Here are six facts that we (and even the IRS) believe that you should know about tax refund ‘offsets.’

  1. A tax refund offset generally means the U.S. Treasury has reduced your federal tax refund to pay for certain unpaid debts.
  2. The Treasury Department’s Financial Management Service (FMS) is the agency that issues tax refunds and conducts the Treasury Offset Program.
  3. If you have unpaid debts, such as overdue child support, state income tax or student loans, FMS may apply part or all of your tax refund to pay that debt.
  4. You will receive a notice from FMS if an offset occurs. The notice will include the original tax refund amount and your offset amount. It will also include the agency receiving the offset payment and that agency’s contact information.
  5. If you believe you do not owe the debt or you want to dispute the amount taken from your refund, you should contact the agency that received the offset amount, not the IRS or FMS.
  6. If you filed a joint tax return, you may be entitled to part or all of the refund offset. This rule applies if your spouse is solely responsible for the debt. To request your part of the refund federal Form 8379, Injured Spouse Allocation, needs to be filed.
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Adventures in the culinary pleasures of the East

by Donna Allen

My experience with food as an average American girl and woman has evolved over my lifetime from mac ‘n’ cheese and fast food, to the stir-fry, to learning to eat sushi and make the Old Italian family recipes. A constant companion has always been Chinese food; I’ve been trying to make it at home for years…without much success.

Man Wong, owner of Concerto Fusion Cuisine in Morrisville, would like to share his easy home-style cooking secrets with all our readers and will do so each month by teaching me, and I will write about that experience.

My first lesson is that the actual cooking portion of the process happens very quickly. Timing is everything.

Secondly, preparation is key. All ingredients should be assembled beforehand.

Man suggests that a spice container may be prepared for your home with separate sections for each ingredient and refilled as needed. “This way,” he explains, “when you are ready to begin, it should all happen in about 10 minutes.”

Wow, dinner in 10 minutes! Once you know what you’re doing, that is.

Thirdly, how you cut the meat is key and makes the difference between cooking all the pieces evenly. “If you don’t cut them all the same,” says Man, “some pieces will be over-cooked and others under-cooked.”

So I watch as he shows me how to cut.  He takes the fully cleaned boneless chicken breast and slices it in thirds against the grain. Then he slices 1/8-inch slabs along the grain. Then from the spices he mixes one spice at a time with the cut chicken and finally adds a little bit of water. “If you don’t add the water, it will be dry and tough. The water keeps the meat moist.”

Now we are onto the supporting cast of vegetables; decoratively cut carrots (larger quantities may be cut beforehand and stored in the refrigerator), mushrooms, and of course the star of the show, a fresh head of broccoli.

Again, the slicing is key. “Sometimes I like to slice the carrots in different shapes with special knives,” Man smiled. “This is where you can show your individuality and artistic flair.”

The secret to cutting the broccoli spears is that you cut only the stem and pull the shoots apart by hand. Amazing and simple!

Meanwhile, Man has put the wok on the stove to preheat (you can use any type of pan).  “Every stove is different,” he explained but you can tell when it is ready by placing your hand one foot from the pan. Not too close.”

I learned that the vegetables cook first on a higher temperature and then the meat at a lower temperature. “Each temperature has a different feel to the palm of your hand,” says Man. I felt the difference and was excited to see it all happen in a flash.

Once heated, the oil goes in followed about 10 seconds later by the crushed garlic cloves (to be removed before serving). The vegetables go in after another 15 seconds.

“Before you cook the vegetables, run the chopped mix under very hot water,” he said as he landed them sizzling into his wok. He flips them a few times, tosses in a little salt, a shot of sake and covers for just a couple minutes. Soon the veggies are retired to the awaiting serving plate.

“This fast, high heat locks in the natural flavors and nutrients of the vegetables without making them too soft.”

I noticed that he made sure the wok was clear of any remaining vegetables, which was easy because it was so fast nothing had time to stick. Then more oil, and in goes the meat.

“The wok is at a slightly lower temperature,” says Man as he continually keeps the meat moving by flipping and stirring. “Only cook it until it is about 75% or 80% done, then add the sauce.” He continued to stir it with the sauce until the meat was done. This all happened in about three or four minutes.

He delivered the meat from the wok directly on top of the anxiously awaiting, still steaming vegetables. Timing is everything. The amazing combination of tender and tasty chicken with crisp and juicy veggies and broccoli is irresistible.

 

Chicken Broccoli ingredients: one serving

10 oz. chicken breast

½ head of broccoli

½ handful carrots, ½ handful mushrooms

 

Meat spices added one by one in this order:

½ tsp. powdered chicken broth

3 shakes white pepper

½ tsp. oyster sauce

3 tbs. water

1/3 tsp. corn starch, followed by more water, stir well

2 tbs. corn oil

 

Final sauce:

¼ tsp. sugar

½ tsp. corn starch

1/3 tsp. oyster sauce

½ tsp. soy sauce

2 oz. water

 

PHOTO CAP: Man Wong prepares to slice the chicken

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Flea season is coming

submitted by Jackie, Go Doggie LLC, Pet Sitter

It’s almost that time of year again, flea season!

In my search for all-natural prevention and remediation alternatives, I was surprised to find so many choices. To prevent the fleas from living in your pet’s coat, give your pet brewer’s yeast biscuits.

To make a natural flea collar, knot a bandanna so that it can slip over your pet’s head and on the knot, dab on a blend of essential oils, such as orange, citronella, eucalyptus, lemon, cedar, peppermint, rosemary or lavender.

You can also make a spray solution to douse your pet’s bed, or place eucalyptus leaves in or around the bed to repel the fleas.

If you have fleas already, at night place a bowl of soapy water under a light on the floor. The fleas will hop in but they will be unable to exit. Flush away the next morning.

Also, sprinkle your carpet with salt and vacuum for a period of nine days, this will kill the new flea eggs.

Being diligent will keep your home and your pet flea-free and happy.

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