April Newsletter, 2009

Employers should be ready for the Making Work Pay credit by Wednesday. That means some extra take-home pay. Here's what you need to know.

By Jeanne Sahadi, CNNMoney.com senior writer, March 31, 2009

You're likely to see some more green in the next couple of weeks. Not only on the trees. Very possibly in your wallet, too.

President Obama has asked that all employers adjust their payroll systems by Wednesday so eligible workers can start receiving the new Making Work Pay tax credit through their paychecks. The credit, available for 2009 and 2010, was a part of the economic recovery package lawmakers passed in February.

Just how much extra cash you will see depends on your marital status, your salary and how many allowances -- or exemptions -- you normally take.

As a rough guide, singles eligible for the credit might get between $10 to $15 per paycheck if paid weekly; for those married filing jointly, they're likely to see an extra $15 to $20.

Who is eligible?

The credit is available to those with earned income. It's worth up to $400 a year for single filers and $800 for joint filers.

The full credit will be paid to people with modified adjusted gross incomes of $75,000 or less ($150,000 per couple). A partial credit would be paid to those making above those amounts but no more than $95,000 ($190,000 for couples).

What is modified adjusted gross income?

It's your adjusted gross income but with some exclusions added back in. In the case of this credit, the only exclusion that would need to be added back is any income earned in a foreign country, in Puerto Rico or in American Somoa.

"For most people, their modified adjusted gross income will be the same as their adjusted gross income, which is on the bottom of the front page of their return," said enrolled agent David Mellem of Ashwaubenon Tax Professionals, who is certified to represent taxpayers before the IRS.

The credit is also refundable, which means that even very low-income families who don't make enough to owe income tax would be able to claim it.

Who is not eligible?

Even if someone works, he won't qualify for the Making Work Pay credit if he is claimed as a dependent on someone else's tax return.

Also, adults who are eligible for Social Security, Railroad Retirement, veteran's compensation or pension benefits will not receive the credit. But if they were eligible for those benefits sometime between November 2008 and January 2009, they will receive a one-time, $250 emergency payment no later than mid-June.

That emergency payment is not subject to income tax, Mellem said.

How does it work?

Using new withholding tables from the IRS, employers are supposed to pay out the Making Work Pay credit by reducing how much tax is withheld from eligible workers' paychecks.

"Changing withholding tables is a routine task. It's not difficult," said Scott Mezistrano, senior manager of government relations at the American Payroll Association.

In fact, many employers likely have already done so, said Pete Isberg, the head of the National Payroll Reporting Consortium. That means their employees should already have started to see more cash in their paychecks.

For example, Ron Moser, a human resources director for a school district in western New York, said his district included the credit in paychecks starting in early March.

Lower-income workers may not make enough money to have taxes withheld once their exemptions are taken into account. So they won't see any extra cash in their paychecks. But they may claim their full credit when they file their 2009 tax returns next year.

Is there anything I need to watch out for?

Possibly. Some people could end up getting a larger credit than they're entitled to. That means they'd have to pay back the excess amount when they file their 2009 taxes -- or, if they're getting a refund, their refund would be reduced by the amount they were overpaid.

If that situation is unappealing, a tax filer could act now to reduce the number of withholding allowances he takes on his W4 at work. The fewer allowances he takes, the more tax that is withheld.

The IRS has a calculator online that you can use to figure out how many allowances you should take if you're eligible to receive the credit and don't want to be overpaid -- or to put it another way, don't want to have too little tax withheld.

Those most likely to be overpaid are:

Anyone who holds more than one job. You will get paid the Making Work Pay Credit twice, up to $400 ($800 for a joint filer) from your first employer and up to $400 ($800 for a joint filer) from your second employer.

Joint filers whose spouses work. Each spouse will end up being paid the credit for married couples by each of their employers.

There's a twist, too. Because of the way the withholding tables were set up, each working spouse may be paid up to $600 this year -- instead of up to the $800, Mezistrano said.

In other words, the husband would receive $600 at his job and the wife $600 at her job, for a total of $1,200. Since they're only entitled to $800 total as a couple, that means they would have to pay $400 back to the IRS -- or see their refund reduced by that amount.

Anyone who receives income from a rental property or investment, such as interest and dividends. Your employer only knows about the income you earn at the company. If you receive other income that increases your modified adjusted gross income -- or even pushes you past the income limits for the credit -- you may end up owing the IRS some or all of the credit you received in your paycheck.

Anyone who started receiving their credit at the end of February or anytime in March. The withholding tables are structured so that payments starting in April will add up to $400 for single filers and $800 for joint filers by year end. If payments start sooner than that a tax filer may actually receive a bit more than he's due by Dec. 31.

Conversely, if your employer doesn't start your payments until the end of April or in May -- there's no penalty if an employer doesn't meet the April 1 deadline -- you may end up getting a little less of a credit than you're entitled to, in which case you can claim the rest when you file your 2009 tax return.

Finding a safe place for your money sounds easy enough. But you can do better by picking the right cash accounts for your goals.

By Sarah Max, Money, April 2, 2009

Suddenly, cash is king again. With more and more Americans worried about their job security, the personal savings rate has climbed to 3.6%, up from next to nothing two years ago. Investors, meanwhile, have parked billions of dollars on the sidelines while they wait for better days. But with interest rates on savings near record lows, it pays to be savvy about where you stockpile your rainy-day funds. Here's what you should keep in mind.

1. Don't keep all your cash in the same place. There are four ways to use cash, and an ideal account for each. Grocery money goes in checking. Your emergency fund - cash you'll need if you lose a job - must be in a bank account that's 100% safe but needn't be so convenient; if you get a good yield, don't worry if it takes a day or two to transfer the money. Money for a specific purpose, like a wedding, can get a higher yield if locked in a certificate of deposit set to mature when you need it. Your investment portfolio's cash might belong in a money-market fund, but not always (see No. 3).

2. It's safe to shop around. Uncle Sam has your back. For your emergency and special-purpose money, there's no need to settle for low rates at your local bank. You can trust your money to any account insured by the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp., which guarantees up to $250,000 in deposits per depositor per bank (individual, joint, IRA, and trust accounts are insured separately). You can go to Bankrate.com to check the financial health of any bank. Plenty of top-rated online banks now offer 2% yields.

3. Money-market mutual funds aren't a no-brainer anymore. These funds are not FDIC-insured. (Banks' money-market deposit accounts typically are - just be sure the bank says so.) Money-market funds almost never lose a penny, but the crisis has changed the rules: After one fund lost principal last fall, the feds had to step in with a temporary rescue plan. Meanwhile, yields on many funds are now under 2%. If you'll keep part of your portfolio in cash for a while, an insured bank account may be the better deal. But money funds can still be useful. They may be the safest option in a 401(k) plan, and can be convenient when linked to a brokerage account. (Some brokers now offer FDIC-insured accounts too.) Just stick with the big, solid firms. And if a fund promises an unusually high yield, it's probably courting too much risk to be considered cash, says Peter Crane of Crane Data, which tracks the industry.

4. A 2% yield is better than it looks. Low interest rates are bad news if you live off your investment income. But if you are just worried about your savings keeping ahead of rising prices, a 2% yield isn't bad at all with inflation running close to zero, notes Greg McBride of Bankrate.com.

5. You might be better off with "almost cash." There's a whole spectrum of risk between money markets and the typical bond fund. So if the market has you spooked and you want to trim your portfolio's risk, consider some higher-yielding options, advises Evelyn MacIntyre, a Bloomfield Hills, Mich., financial planner. High-quality short-term bond funds may lose money - they fell 4% in 2008 - but they yield over 4%. Stable-value funds also hold bonds but add some insurance on top. They are available only within 401(k) plans and some other tax-advantaged accounts.

Home Modification Plan: Who Really Qualifies?

By: Mark Koba, Senior Editor, CNBC, 04 Mar 2009

For homeowners looking to make sense of the Obama administration's new mortgage rescue plan, the program can be basically broken down into two sections.
One part is for homeowners facing foreclosure due to missed payments and are at risk of defaulting on their loans. For them, the government will give the lender financial incentives to "modify" the existing mortgage, reducing the monthly payments so that the homeowner can stay current on the loan and keep their home.

The other part is for homeowners who are keeping up with their mortgage payments but can't refinance with their lender because the value of their home has fallen below the amount of the mortgage.

For these "under water" homeowners, the rescue plan will help refinance the mortgage to lower the monthly payments. There are several restrictions, however, so relatively few homeowners in this category will actually qualify.

That's the simple explanation. But both plans have a lot of moving parts, so here's what you need to know if you want to take advantage of them.

Mortgage Modification

If you're facing foreclosure and want to "modify" your mortgage to keep your home, you must meet the following criteria:

  • Have secured your mortgage before Jan. 1, 2009
  • Have a primary mortgage of less than $729,500
  • You must live on the property
  • Must fully document income with tax returns and pay stubs
  • Sign a financial hardship statement
  • Go for counseling if your total household debt totals more than 55 percent of income.
  • "Homeowners must be late on their payments to qualify," says Trish Summers, a private mortgage banker with Luxury Mortgage company in Stamford, Connecticut.

(Correction: Homeowners do not have to be late with their payments to qualify)

If you meet all those qualifications, your lender will then determine how much to lower your monthly payment so it's about 31% of your gross monthly income. The interest rate could be as low as 2%.

Homeowners pay no fees for the modification. However, homeowners could face a balloon payment at the end if your lender reduced your monthly principal payment during the modification. So if your lender reduced your total payments $20,000, you could owe that amount when paid off your loan, refinanced or sold your house.

But there is some financial benefit for the homeowner in the plan. For every month a homeowner makes a payment on time, the Treasury will pay an incentive that reduces the principal balance on a loan. Over five years the total principal reduction could add up to $5,000.

There's also a trial period for the modification.

"The loan servicer gets paid by Fannie (Mae) or Freddie (Mac) after three months," says Summers. "If the homeowner pays the mortgage on time, the servicer gets $1,000 from the government each year for the next three years. If the mortgage is not paid on time in those three months, the deal is over."

And the new loan rate can go up after 5 years. It's only a low in the beginning to help the homeowner dig themselves out.

The plan is in effect until the end of 2012 and can only be used once.

Refinancing Option

If your current on your mortgage but your bank won't let you refinance because your mortgage is "under water," here's how you qualify for the government refinancing program:

  • Your home must be the primary residence
  • Your loan must be owned by Fannie Mae or Freddie Mac
  • You must have sufficient income to support the new mortgage debt
  • You can’t take cash out of the new loan to pay other debt
    There's another big restriction, however, that will make many homeowners ineligible for the program: the value of your house can't have fallen much below the amount of the mortgage.

"The ceiling of eligibility is 105 percent of current market value of the property—so that's not going to help homeowners who have suffered home price declines," says Greg McBride, senior financial analyst at Bankrate.com. "Say you bought a house for $320,000. Your mortgage balance is now $300,000 But the house is now worth only $225,000. You are stuck, you can't refinance, even if you made your payments on time."

McBride says the loan to value ceiling should be raised. "It should be something in the neighborhood of 150 percent," says McBride. It's too low to help people in Florida, California, Nevada and Arizona. Those markets are at the epicenter of the foreclosure crisis."
Still, if you do qualify, here's what you get:

  • Your mortgage will be refinanced to 30 or 15 years with a fixed interest rate.
  • The rate will be based on market rates in effect at the time of the refinance and any associated points and fees quoted by the lender
  • Interest payments but be reduced but not principal