Local government decisions and actions generally impact citizens most directly in our day to day lives. Frequently a local government board or council will meet every other week and, when they do, they take up matters ranging from land use decisions, to ordinances or local laws, to contracts with solid waste vendors and other public contractors. Citizen participation in the process, by attending meetings, speaking at meetings, and offering input and solutions, is a critical component of an effectively functioning local government. But such interaction on the part of elected officials and citizens must be civil in order for the interaction to be fair and productive.
Each May, the City, County and Local Government Law Section of the Florida Bar asks all local governments in Florida to adopt a pledge of civility for the elected officials and citizens. Civility is important in government because, without it, we witness the democratic process becoming mired down in anger, rudeness, ridicule, impatience, and disrespect. Behavior that is not civil detracts from the open exchange of ideas and may discourage people from participating in the governmental process at all.
Citizen behavior is an important component of civility but the significance of an effective presiding official in maintaining a civil and orderly process cannot be understated. Citizens should bear in mind that all comment should be directed to the presiding official and observers should refrain from applause, catcalls, or other disruptive outbursts during public meetings. To that end, conveyance of a different opinion or position on an issue can be very productive to the democratic process when expressed in a persuasive and cogent manner that is heard by a respectful audience. A recent change to Florida’s Sunshine Law ensures that citizens have the right to be heard at public meetings; however, this right to be heard may be limited in time so citizens should be prepared to make the most efficient and productive use of the time they are given to speak by organizing their thoughts and avoiding repetitious comments.
In closing, many city, county, and local government board rooms display a plaque commending Civility. The text of the Civility plaque summarizes the goals of civility far better than this author can. The plaque reads as follows: “We will be respectful of one another even when we disagree. We will direct all comments to the issues. We will avoid personal attacks.”
Over the past four years the IRS has blocked more than 19 million suspicious tax returns from being processed. Unfortunately, not all of the fraudulent returns filed under taxpayer’s stolen tax identification numbers have been blocked and, last year alone, 1400 criminals were prosecuted for receiving funds by filing fabricated returns and refund claims.
The IRS has been aggressively pursuing these individuals and informing the public of the risk to it of these false returns. Not only does it impact the individual whose return is involved, but it hurts all taxpayers because the government is losing money when it pays these false refunds.
To help combat these criminals, the IRS has released Publication 5027 “Identity Theft Information for Taxpayers”. It sets out the warning signs that you may be a victim, steps to follow if you become a victim and tips on how to reduce your risk of becoming a victim. The later includes:
- Don’t carry your Social Security card or papers bearing your SSN on them.
- Don’t provide a business your SSN just because they ask.
- Take steps to protect your financial information at home and on your computers.
- Check your credit report at least annually.
- Check your Social Security Administration earnings statement annually
- Don’t give personal information over the phone, through the mail or the internet unless you initiated the contact and you know for sure who is asking for it. Note the IRS does not contact taxpayers by email, text messages or social media channels to request this type of information.
For further information, please see the above Publication or visit www.irs.gov/identitytheft and the FTC’s www.identitytheft.gov. The government has just announced another resource to help protect your identity. Please visit: Taxes. Security. Together.
In an ever evolving environment of professional liability, some recent conversations with tax preparers have raised the question of what is the duty of a tax preparer in discussing with spouses the pros and cons of filing jointly or separately. Historically, a brief statement to the taxpayers that the tax will be lower if you file jointly was all that was stated and usually proved to be all that they wanted to know.
However, things have changed. The legal definition of spouse has recently changed in light of court rulings saying that gay marriage is legal. Also, more and more women work and many are professionals or have their own businesses and assets. These may generate income and losses. They may also generate non-dischargeable trust fund penalties for non-payment of withholding tax that, in addition to any income tax liabilities, will create liens resulting in any tax refunds being seized by the IRS and encumbering those separately held assets. Many individuals are coming forward to disclose foreign bank accounts and foreign assets that generate income tax issues and other significant penalties for not filing a host of different information returns related to those foreign assets. Frequently, only one spouse owns the account, but the other may be aware of it. Sometimes the other spouse is in the dark.
The tradeoff for filing jointly and receiving a lower tax bill is that, if any adjustments are made by the IRS or if the tax is not paid, then both spouses are liable. While there are innocent spouse and separation of liability provisions available in post filing proceedings, the former requires lack of knowledge and no benefit from any unreported income, while the latter requires some disintegration of the spousal relationship, whether divorce, legal separation and or physical separation of the parties. They also require time and, frequently, money for professional assistance. While the IRS has greatly expanded these relief provisions, there is no guarantee they will succeed in a given fact situation.
In this environment, some practitioners are suggesting that more than just a passing statement that you will save by filing jointly is required. Their recommendations? Prepare both separate and joint returns. Then meet with the taxpayers and explain the differences between and the consequences of the two returns. Explain that if a joint return is filed, both will be liable to pay the amount on the return, but, just as importantly, any future additions in taxes, penalties, and interest due. These may come from places not contemplated by either the taxpayers or the preparer at the time of preparation of a return. Definitely, food for thought.