Q: How can a taxpayer find out if all the Social Security contributions that have been taken out of her paycheck have been paid to the government, and that the government has accurate records of these payments?
A: It is worthwhile to find out every few years whether your Social Security account is at the level it should be, and believe it or not, there is a fairly easy way to check. The same procedure will also tell you how much you can expect to receive from Social Security upon retirement. Simply call 1 (800) 937-2000. This toll-free number has been set aside exclusively for telephone requests for Social Security Form SSA-7004, "Personal Earnings and Benefit Estimate." If you have difficulty getting through on the line, try the general Social Security request line, 1 (800) 234-5SSA, and ask for the same form.When you get the form, which asks your birth date, Social Security number and a few other questions, complete it and mail it back to the address that accompanies the form. The Social Security Administration will then send you a listing of your Social Security-qualified employment earnings and expected retirement benefits.
If you think there is an error in the information, contact your local Social Security office. Be prepared to show agency officials appropriate tax returns or earnings statements to support your position.
Q: We are a bit confused about tax-deferred exchanges of real estate. How do these procedures work, and how much time do we have to complete one of these transactions? We have tried to read as much as we can about these exchanges, but all of this is still pretty mystifying. For example, these transactions seem to go by a lot of different names. If you could clarify this, we would be grateful.
A: We will try to clear matters up for you, but, please understand, tax-deferred exchanges are a complicated subject and you will probably want to consult an expert - specifically an "accommodator" - before proceeding.
First of all, tax-deferred exchanges, also known as Starker exchanges because of a famous legal case on the subject, are available only for similar types of property. You may exchange a piece of investment real estate for another investment property, but you may not engage in a tax-deferred exchange of a principal residence for a piece of income property. The law outlining the requirements is contained in Section 1031 of the Internal Revenue Code, which is why these transactions are sometimes referred to as "1031 exchanges."
Under legislation passed in 1984, a seller has 45 days after the close of escrow on the sale of his initial property to identify the real estate he wishes to acquire through a tax-deferred exchange. He must complete the acquisition of that property within 180 days of the escrow closing. Pay attention: The government allows a maximum of 180 days from the close of escrow on this first property for the completion of a tax-deferred exchange. You do not have 45 days to select the property and an additional 180 days in which to complete the purchase.
When you enter escrow for the sale of your initial property, you should advise your real estate broker as well as your escrow officer that you intend the proceeds of the sale to go into a tax-deferred exchange. This is a very important matter, and a statement of your intentions should be included in the official escrow instructions. Equally important is the requirement that you never take possession of the proceeds from the sale of the initial property. If you do, the tax-deferred advantage of the transaction is forfeited.
Because of the strict regulations surrounding tax-deferred exchanges, you should get help from a qualified third-party "accommodator" before attempting one of these transactions. Your real estate broker, escrow officer or family attorney should be able to steer you to an accountant or lawyer who has been trained as an accommodator. But be careful. The area is ripe for abuse, and you could be out of luck if you select an unskilled or unqualified accommodator.
For additional information, see Internal Revenue Service publications No. 17, "Your Federal Income Tax," or No. 544, "Sales and Other Dispositions of Property."