Has my identity been hacked? What should I do?

The Equifax hack on top of all the others has many of us anxious.  As the internet meme goes “They had one job.”  (They failed.)  Equifax, as a credit reporting agency, held what I call the “ID theft kit,” name, date of birth, Social Security Number, birthdate, driver’s license, addresses current & prior, and credit account numbers.  I have pretty much the same quality of data.  That’s why I’m so careful with my security procedures!

People are asking how to find out if they were affected.  You can ask Equifax on their website or phone, but they’re making up the answers (see media reports).  If it’s 143,000,000+ people, I think it’s reasonable to assume that we all were.  The US population of 300 million includes children, seniors and folks who have no credit records.  The Equifax hack could cover pretty much everybody else.

So, what now?  All your information is out there for sale on the dark web.  A Yahoo! Finance story indicates there’s proof of an uptick in fraud attempts already.

My suggestions:

  • The key step to take now is to put a CREDIT FREEZE on your accounts with Equifax, Experian, TransUnion and CBC Innovis.
    • It’s not free, except at Equifax (for the next 30 days). Expect to pay $5-10 each unless you’re already an ID theft victim or 62+.
    • Keep the PIN you’re assigned in order to remove the freeze or “thaw” it.
    • You will need to thaw in order to apply for credit – a car, a house, a credit card — but it just takes a few minutes. So if you’re shopping right now, hold off, but get back & do it soon.

Equifax: 1-800-685-1111 (3) or www.freeze.equifax.com

TransUnion: 1-888-909-8872 or TransUnion.com/securityfreeze

Experian: 1-888-397-3742 Experian.com/freeze

Innovis: 1-800-540-2505 www.innovis.com/securityFreeze/index

 

  • Equifax has offered “free” ID theft protection for one year, but is taking credit cards for auto renewal. I don’t see a reason to pay them – or to trust them.  I’m skipping it.  You can buy ID theft monitoring from Lifelock or one of the other players, but count me unconvinced. (http://www.reviews.com/identity-theft-protection-services/)
  • Check your credit report free at https://www.annualcreditreport.com/index.action. Under federal law, you’re entitled to a report every year from each of the 3 major bureaus.  If you cycle them one every 4 months, you can be on top of it.
  • Then, don’t make it any worse. Practice safe habits yourself:
    • Password protect your computers, cellphones & tablets. Treat them like cash in public; don’t turn your back.  Then take care disposing of them and their stored data when they die.
    • Enable auto update to keep all software updated – especially operating system (eg. Windows) & browsers.
    • Password protect your modem & routers. Don’t use public wi-fi to access secure sites.
    • Use strong (long, complex, random) passwords and use them once. (Try a PW manager:  https://www.pcmag.com/article2/0,2817,2407168,00.asp)
    • Maintain anti-virus & anti-malware programs on all devices. (Yes, you might need to pay for that: https://www.pcmag.com/article2/0,2817,2372364,00.asp.)
    • Set your browser to advise you of risky sites & then don’t visit them. Don’t click on pop-ups.
    • Don’t use unsecured email for sensitive information like SS numbers!
    • Never open email attachments unless you know exactly what they are and you’re expecting them from that person. Learn how to check the sender (http://www.phishing.org/what-is-phishing).
    • Use 2-factor authentication (which requires a texted or emailed code) on bank & investment accounts & anything really critical.
    • Back up your files periodically somewhere secure: on an encrypted drive or online.

The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) has lots of good info:

https://www.consumer.ftc.gov/features/feature-0014-identity-theft

Please feel free to query me about my security procedures. And ask at your doctor’s office and *anywhere* anybody asks for your SS number or anything else sensitive!  I’ve seen incredibly sloppy procedures in the medical and banking fields  — and they have the “ID Theft kit” too.

Be careful out there.

 

 

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FAFSA Season is Here Again! It’s a good time to think about college if you have kids.

For those of you with children in college or approaching college, the season for filing the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA®) is here.  They’ve eliminated the last-minute scramble to file your tax return!  The 2017-2018 FAFSA will use information from your 2015 tax return.

If 1TaxFinancial prepared your 2015 return, we can provide a worksheet that makes completing the form a snap.  If you need one — or help filling out the FAFSA, please call.  The worksheet can also be completed for new clients with your 2015 return.

Note that if your income has changed significantly from the 2015 tax year, we can assist with an appeal for a professional judgment review in the financial aid department.

But even before you need to fill out the FAFSA, there are things to think about in getting financially ready for your child to attend college.  These issues are complicated:  college choice, income, and assets are all factors that determine how much you and your child will be expected to pay.  Now 1TaxFinancial can help with this process.  We have software that can estimate your expected contribution to your student’s education, and provide detailed college-specific information on the colleges your student is considering.  Reports start with the “sticker price” of attending each college and the need-based aid you can expect PLUS college-specific merit scholarships, tuition discounts, and other incentives offered.  These awards and discounts can be substantial and the information difficult for you to collect.  Having the full picture can help you make a better decision on the affordability of the college or colleges you are considering.

If you are a little further away from your student entering college, we can help then, too.  We can help you look at the potential costs and the best ways to save to help pay those costs.  The sooner you start putting money aside, the better your savings can put a dent in those expenses when your child is ready to start college.

Our basic college consulting service starts at $200, including the analysis of one college as discussed above.  Come work with us if your child is 2, 12, 16 or 20, but prime time for the detailed analysis is probably junior year of high school.

Jim Iverson CFA®
1TaxFinancial
Cincinnati, OH 45213
513-794-1829 (o)
513-378-2203 (c)

 

Yes, you need an “Estate Plan”

What is an estate plan?

You say, “I don’t have an estate.  I just have a house the bank owns, a car the credit union owns, a bunch of furniture, oh, and a spouse and 3 kids, none of whom listen when I plan anything but maybe vacations!”

An estate plan isn’t just for rich people; it’s the overall design for what happens to your stuff  — and the people who depend upon you – when  you die or can no longer manage your own affairs.  Included are:

  • Beneficiary Designations
  • A Will;
  • A Power of Attorney;
  • A Living Will and Health Care Proxy (Durable Power of Attorney for Healthcare); and
  • Maybe a Trust

Retirement plans and life insurance pass to heirs outside the estate process.  Bank accounts titled with Right of Survivorship or Payable On Death also don’t need probate.  Make certain that your beneficiaries are up-to-date; avoid leaving assets to an ex-spouse, or a previously deceased person.  All professionals have stories of too much tax paid or less-than-ideal designations.  For most people, pension plans are their largest assets.  There are multiple ways to plan beneficiaries to optimize tax benefits, and a professional can help.

If you don’t leave a will, your state of residence will allocate your stuff  by law.  Maybe that’s fine, but maybe not.  If you have an unmarried partner, they will not receive anything.  Your spouse might have to split what you leave with your children; maybe some of it will go to distant relatives.  Clearly this is not a thing to leave to chance.  Even if you’re single, you have some cool stuff; you want to decide who gets to enjoy it when you can’t.

Your will also needs to designate guardian(s) for your minor children or other dependents.  If you don’t, local Children’s Services and the courts will.  If you had a bad experience in your family of origin, that’s what you’re consigning your children to.  Think this one through, and put it in writing.  Many of us have informal agreements with siblings or friends, but if it’s not in your will, there’s no certainty the courts will observe your wishes.  Also, if you are leaving substantial assets (like life insurance proceeds) for dependent support, you need to decide if the guardian(s) you’ve selected are the best managers of the money.  You may need a Trust.  Especially if the children are going out of state, a judge might otherwise impose ongoing financial reporting and/or permissions. You want to avoid court involvement; it’s a hassle and costly.  A standard trust for minor children can be included in your will.

A Power of Attorney authorizes a designated person to manage your financial affairs while you are alive.   Choose someone you can trust to pay your bills and do whatever’s needed when you can’t – up to and including selling your house and investments, and entering into contracts for your care.

Over the years there have been horror stories about people who haven’t made their wishes clear about end-of-life issues.  Many of us have lived with them in our own families.  As we live longer and are more dependent upon medical care at the end of life, we all need to think about these issues.  While intensely personal and involving our religious beliefs, we cannot afford to recognize that in fact, the doctors can “play God,” in letting us die or keeping us alive. There may be a time when we cannot control for ourselves what is done for and with us.  We need someone we trust and with whom we have discussed our feelings.  Don’t put it off.

Living Trusts to avoid probate and limit estate tax have been very popular for several decades.  Contrary to popular belief, trusts don’t eliminate tax, they’re just vehicles to structure financial relationships in ways that might reduce tax – if there is any to pay.  With the federal estate tax eliminated on those who die with less than $5million and most state taxes repealed, very few of us need to worry about the tax.  Probate may be an issue for you because you want privacy or because your state’s requirements are onerous.  Otherwise, you probably don’t need a trust.

There may be other reasons you need a trust – like a Special Needs dependent.  These are very specialized instruments which require an experienced attorney.

Please feel free to contact me anytime to discuss these issues.  If you don’t have an attorney, I have several excellent recommendations.

Are You Married?

Today the IRS released the ruling on “Same-Sex Marriage,” or as we like to call it around here, “Marriage.”   LGBT families & financial professionals have been waiting for months to see what IRS will do with the Supreme Court’s June decision in Windsor v. U.S., the so-called DOMA decision.

They said “…same-sex couples, legally married in jurisdictions that recognize their marriages, will be treated as married for federal tax purposes.”   Unlike the Social Security Administration, which is so far holding to its Domicile rule, this would include both marriages where you formerly lived, and vacation marriages in the U.S., Canada, or elsewhere.   However, it does not include civil unions, registered domestic partnerships or similar state-recognized relationships.  (More information here:  tinyurl.com/IRS-Marriage)

So, if you are legally married, let me be the first to congratulate you on IRS’ (belated) recognition!  And you need to contact your tax & financial advisors immediately to discuss the implications.   You will be required to file a 2013 federal income tax return as “Married” – either jointly or separately.  Some of you will save taxes.  Many of you will pay more, and you need to correct your withholding now to avoid an unpleasant April surprise.

Also, you will have the opportunity to amend returns back to 2010 (or perhaps 2009 if you contact me immediately), if the change to married status will result in a refund.

Of course, barring some unlikely event in the next few months, your marital status in Ohio, Kentucky, or Indiana will not change, so planning is multi-tiered.

This is a huge planning opportunity – for good or ill!  Feel free to share this message with your friends, who may need professional preparation & planning advice now more than ever.

As always, contact me at 1TaxFinancial anytime via email or phone with your tax & financial questions and concerns.

 

Update on Affordable Care

I’ve been working on Continuing Education in recent weeks, including the Affordable Care Act implementation.  All of you who don’t have access to affordable employer coverage need to be paying attention!  There’s a link below to a newsletter from the National Association of Tax Professionals which includes the basics.

The federal exchanges (online insurance markets) will be up in the next 6 weeks for Ohio & Indiana; Kentucky will have its own state exchange.

Current implementation glitches you’ll want to watch:

  • The employer mandate (over 50 employees) has been postponed until January 2015.
  • Ohio & Kentucky haven’t made final decisions about Medicaid expansion, which affects the availability for singles with incomes below about $15,000 families of 4 below $30,000.  Indiana will not expand.   NOTE:  You may not have *any* access to subsidy if your income is in the Medicaid range, because the PPACA anticipated that all states would expand Medicaid to cover you.

Remember, if you’re satisfied with your employer coverage, no need to change.  If not, you may be able to buy on the exchange & receive a subsidy.

Call if you have questions.

HealthcareReformNewsletter-August

How ’bout that Edie Windsor?!

So what does the end of DOMA mean to your tax & financial circumstances?

 If you’re gay & married and live in a state where your marriage is recognized, you will now be married under federal law too.  The rights & responsibilities of marriage will be yours, including:

  • potential income tax benefits (&/or a marriage penalty)
  • estate planning benefits, including inheritance rights
  • government benefits, including receiving Social Security, Medicare, and disability benefits for your spouse
  • employment benefits, such as obtaining health insurance through your spouse’s employer (without additional tax) and the right to take medical leave to care for a spouse who becomes ill
  • decision-making benefits, including the right to make medical decisions if your spouse is incapacitated
  • sharing income and property acquired during the marriage
  • liability for family expenses and financial support, including support of any children of the marriage, and in the case of divorce, equitable property division & potential financial responsibility for your spouse
  • consumer benefits, such as family rates for health, homeowners’, auto, and other types of insurance.

There are 1,138 federal “benefits” allowed to married couples at last count.  Some are potentially very significant to your tax and financial planning – like how to file your income tax return, and how to structure Social Security claims to maximize benefits.

 I believe that, in the long-term, gay marriage will be legal everywhere.  “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”– Parker/MLK.  Or if you prefer numbers to theology, the statistician & blogger Nate Silver of fivethirtyeight.com projects majority public support of gay marriage in 44 states by 2020.

But between now & then, there will be much confusion and litigation.  If you are living in a state which does not recognize your marriage, either because you married out-of-state, or you moved since getting married, your relationship is now evolving with state law and federal rulemaking.  Section 2 of DOMA, which permits states not to recognize gay marriages from other states, was not overturned.  Federal agency rules vary as to whether state of marriage or resident state controls.

If you are in a long-term relationship and not married, you should still be aware of the changing environment so that you can make wise tax and planning decisions.

In either event until you have marital protection, you should consult with an attorney who specializes in LGBT estate planning.  You need to ensure that you and your partner – and your relationship – are legally protected, including powers of attorney, wills, living wills, correct ownership vesting of assets and debts, and coparenting agreements for any children.

At 1TaxFinancial, we’re knowledgeable and do tax prep and planning in this environment, and pledge to maintain currency as the law evolves – to save you time, expense and grief later.  You’ll have a personal relationship with your tax professional, and you’ll get year-round access!  Professional preparation also typically costs less than you fear – and will save you that much in tax &/or trauma!  A typical return might run $200; more with a small business, complex investments or rental property – and be sure to ask about our 50% Partner Discount!