New Year, Time to File Income Tax Returns

As January comes to a close, Americans are beginning to think about tax season and filing taxes. For many, documents marked as “Important Tax Documents” have already started arriving. This week the IRS announced that individual tax returns can be filed beginning on February 12. Along with the filing date, the IRS has also announced some tips in order to speed up any refund. The IRS is strongly encouraging everyone to e-file returns and to have refunds directly deposited into an account or amounts due directly debited from accounts.  In addition to encouraging all filers to electronically file their returns, the IRS is also encouraging everyone who files and has questions about the status to check the status using the IRS.gov website instead of calling.

In March of 2020, more than 50% of IRS employees were ordered to work remotely and many have still not returned. This has led to a huge backlog of unopened mail, including returns, notices, responses to notices, payments, etc. In addition, it has resulted in fewer individuals who are able to answer telephone calls and delays in information being logged into the system. At one point, routine forms were being processed in approximately two weeks. Now, those same forms are taking 8-12 weeks to process. This is all during the “quiet” time at the IRS between the last filings deadline of October 15, 2020 and when new returns will be accepted by the IRS in February of 2021.

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The delay in processing and requirement to access information electronically can be frustrating for older adults and people with disabilities who are not internet savvy. The IRS has developed IRS free file which is a partnership between the IRS and private companies which allow certain taxpayers to file for free using the private company’s software. In past years, the IRS has also offered services through its Volunteer Income Tax Assistance (“VITA”) program or Tax Counseling for the Elderly (“TCE”) program. While the IRS website indicates the programs are still operational, it does not appear that there are any operational centers within 100 miles of Hampton Roads or North Eastern North Carolina. However, in the past many non-profit organizations have partnered to help provide assistance with tax preparation for those unable to do so on their own. Of course, individuals also have the opportunity to work with their own tax preparer who will assist in electronically filing.

For those individuals who are ready to file their own return, this year, more than ever, it will be important to file electronically and pay or receive their refund the same way. Contact either your tax preparer or work with an IRS Free File partner to file electronically. It is also critical to be prepared with all information. Be sure to provide your preparer with copies of any W-2s, 1099s (from interest, dividends, retirement funds, or capital transactions), 1098s, 1095-B, as well as documents regarding any out of pocket medical expenses you have paid, and documentation regarding charitable contributions you have made, or contributions to retirement plans. In addition, this year, your tax preparer will want to know if you received any stimulus payments. If the answer is yes, they’ll want to know how much you received and when.

For those who may be looking for information regarding a prior year return, notices received, responses provided based on an IRS notice, an update on paper filings, or other information, the wait continues. It does not appear that IRS employees have caught up with the backlog of paperwork that existed and it is unclear how the services plans to handle the backlog of documents that existed in addition to a new influx of paperwork which comes with every new tax year.

Ask Dan: What are the new restrictions on traveling with emotional support animals?

Hook Law Center: Hi Dan – My owners recently travelled by plane and heard that some new regulations now exist regarding emotional support animals on airplanes, do you know what they mean?

Dan: Hi Reader! It’s true, on December 2, 2020, the Department of Transportation issued final revisions of the Air Carrier Access Act (ACAA). Among other things, the ACAA does the following:

  • Defines a service animal as a dog that is individually trained to do work or perform tasks for the benefit of a person with a disability;
  • No longer considers an emotional support animal to be a service animal but requires airlines to treat psychiatric service animals the same as other service animals;
  • Allows airlines to require forms developed by DOT attesting to a service animal’s health, behavior and training, and if taking a long flight attesting that the service animal can either not relieve itself, or can relieve itself in a sanitary manner;
  • Allows airlines to limit the number of service animals traveling with a single passenger with a disability to two service animals;
  • Allows airlines to require a service animal to fit within its handler’s foot space on the aircraft;
  • Continues to prohibit airlines from refusing to transport a service animal solely based on breed.

While there was some hot debate about the act, emotional support animals are not service animals protected by the Americans with Disabilities Act. People in the airline industry reported seeing not just dogs and cats as emotional support animals but also, miniature horses, monkeys, birds, rabbits, ducks and even a peacock all be claimed as emotional support animals which should be allowed to board the plane. Unfortunately, some airline workers have been injured and cabin safety has been compromised by untrained loose animals in the flight’s main cabin. The ACAA attempts to protect both trained service animals and airline passengers. It is important to remember that service animals can also be emotional support animals. Examples of such are Psychiatric Service Dogs which are dogs trained to perform tasks that assist individuals with disabilities to detect the onset of psychiatric episodes and lessen their effects, SSigDOG (sensory signal dogs or social signal dog) which are dogs trained to assist a person with autism, and seizure response dogs.

For now it’s important to remember that trained service animals can “sit back, relax, and enjoy the flight” but emotional support animals need a little more training and to go through a few extra steps before they can join service animals in the cabin.

Posted in Senior Law News