(This article appeared previously on MarketWatch.)
American adults appear to be confused — very confused — by the U.S. tax code
The average U.S. adult scored just 51 percent on 10 multiple-choice personal finance questions about federal income tax returns as they relate to retirement, college savings and health care, based on a survey of 1,000 adults given by personal finance site NerdWallet
. That is a fail by academic standards.
Most respondents, for instance, didn't know the tax implications of popular financial products such as Roth Individual Retirement Accounts, flexible spending accounts and 529 education plans.
(MORE: Don't Miss Out on These Tax Breaks)
“The majority of folks were good at knowing about tax withholdings from their paycheck, but they struggled with questions about Roth IRA and Individual Retirement Accounts,” says Alex McAdams, personal finance editor at NerdWallet.
People shouldn’t be too quick to celebrate an income tax refund, which averaged $2,700 in 2014. “You are essentially giving the government a free loan as opposed to having control of that money all year long and putting it in a savings account or maybe even investing it,” he says.
“Some of the questions were easy, but others I wouldn’t expect people to know,” says Ian Gillespie, founder of IGG Software and creator of iBank, an online personal finance manager. “American tax law is extremely complicated and a lot of these feel like they could be trick questions.” He found No. 2 (“Can married couples file taxes separately?”) easy, but wouldn’t expect a lot of people to know the answer to No. 7 (“If you lend money to a friend and she doesn’t pay you back, can you write it off?”).
(MORE: How to Save for College)
For many questions, tax software does the job. “It is pretty impressive these days,” Gillespie says. “They help you find deductions and make sure you’re reporting the right things.” People should really be putting their energy to tracking and knowing the details of their finances.
For example, when you’re filing taxes, it is easy to make a mistake and guess and underestimate your charitable donations. “Most people are honest and would rather underestimate their donations, but it is best to be accurate.”
Here are the 10 questions (with the answers below).
1. Is the money you put in a Roth IRA pre-tax or post-tax?
C) None of the above
(42 percent got the right answer.)
2. Can married couples file taxes separately?
3. When can you adjust your withholdings and exemptions on your W-4 with your employer?
A) Any time of the year
B) Any time before Jan. 1 of each year
C) After you receive your W-2 from the previous year’s earnings
D) On April 15
(67 percent got the right answer.)
4. A 529 plan is:
A) A way to make tax-deductible contributions for college savings
B) A college investment plan that earns tax-free income as it grows
C) A plan that allows qualified users to defer their tax payments
(42 percent got the right answer.)
5. What is a flexible spending account?
A) A tax-exempt savings account exclusively for health benefits
B) A tax-exempt savings account that allows you to make home improvements
C) A tax-exempt account for medical purposes or child care
(47 percent got the right answer.)
6. If you foster a pet from a nonprofit charitable organization, can you claim a tax deduction?
A) Yes, but you can only write off certain items like food, shelter and medical expenses.
B) Yes, you can write off all expenses.
C) No, you can’t write this off.
(45 percent got the right answer.)
7. If you lend money to a friend and she doesn’t pay you back, can you write it off?
A) Yes, you can write off the entire loan.
B) Under certain circumstances, it can be deducted under capital loss rules.
C) No, you can’t write it off.
(42 percent got the right answer.)
8. Which of the following is tax-deductible?
A) Gambling losses
B) Sex-reassignment surgery
C) Babysitting (if you’re a parent doing charity work)
D) All of the above
E) None of the above
(39 percent got the right answer.)
9. Which of these is the worst mistake?
A) If you owe, not filing your taxes by April 15
B) Filing but not paying your taxes by April 15
C) You are owed a refund, but you file late.
D) You are owed a refund, but you don’t file at all.
(36 percent got the right answer.)
10. If your exemptions and withholdings are correct, your tax refund should be:
A) $2,500, or more
B) $1,500 to $2,500
C) $500 to $1,500
D) As close to $0 as possible
(56 percent got the right answer.)
Here are the answers:
1. Answer: B. Roth contributions are never deductible, but all growth and earnings are tax-free. Another benefit to funding a Roth IRA is that you can withdraw your original contributions at any time, no matter your age.
2. Answer: A. Nine times out of 10, it is better for married couples to file taxes jointly, but there are some circumstances where it makes better financial sense to file separately.
3. Answer: A. Life happens: You get married, get divorced, buy a house or have a child. Any number of events can impact tax exemptions and withholdings from your income. You can amend those exemptions at any time during the year.
4. Answer: B. 529 plan contributions aren't tax-deductible on federal returns, but the income and use of the account are tax-free “as long as they are used to pay qualified higher education expenses for a designated beneficiary,” according to the IRS. However, some states do offer a tax break for 529 plans.
5. Answer: C. A flexible spending account allows you to reduce your taxable income by saving for planned medical expenses or child-care costs. It is largely a “use or lose” savings account, as only $500 of unused cash can be rolled over into the next year.
6. Answer: A. If you fostered a pet from a charitable organization, you can deduct expenses such as food, shelter, medical bills and even gas mileage if you took the pet to the veterinarian. If the expenses are more than $250, additional documentation may be required.
7. Answer: B. The loan becomes a capital loss. You must be able to prove that the loan has become worthless and that you had not intended to make a gift. Issuing a 1099-C, the cancellation of debt form, is also a good idea.
8. Answer: D. All three categories are tax-deductible. However, there are rules. For instance, with gambling losses, they cannot exceed gambling winnings. As for a sex-reassignment surgery, it cannot be purely cosmetic. And finally, parents are allowed to deduct the cost of babysitting if they volunteer at a charitable organization.
9. Answer: D. Whether you owe cash to the government or are due a refund, you should always file paperwork with the government. The worst mistake isn't filing at all. There is no penalty for missing the April 15 deadline if you are owed a refund, but you’ll get your cash back even later. And if you are more than three years late, you will lose any tax refunds you were entitled to for those years.
10. Answer: D. While Americans on average got a refund of around $2,700 in 2014, according to the U.S. Treasury Audit, if your exemptions and withholdings are correct, the amount should be close to zero. Otherwise, you are giving the U.S. government an interest-free loan during the year. However, this can always vary by case.
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