Social Security Benefits to Increase in 2019

man and woman on balcony outside smiling Each year we announce the annual cost-of-living adjustment (COLA). Usually there is an increase in the Social Security and Supplemental Security Income (SSI) benefit amount people receive each month, starting the following January. By law, federal benefits increase when the cost of living rises, as measured by the Department of Labor’s Consumer Price Index for Urban Wage Earners and Clerical Workers (CPI-W).

The CPI-W rises when prices increase for the things the average consumer buys. This means that when prices for goods and services we purchase become more expensive, on average, the COLA increases monthly benefit levels and helps you keep up with the changing cost of living.

As a result, more than 67 million Americans will see a 2.8 percent increase in their Social Security and SSI benefits in 2019.

January 2019 marks other changes that will happen based on the increase in the national average wage index. For example, the maximum amount of earnings subject to Social Security payroll tax, as well as the retirement earnings test exempt amount, will change in 2019.

Want to know your new benefit amount as soon as possible? In December 2018, we will post Social Security COLA notices online for retirement, survivors, and disability beneficiaries who have a my Social Security account. You will be able to view and save these COLA notices securely via the Message Center inside mySocial Security.

Be the first to know! Sign up for or log in to your personal my Social Security account today and choose email or text under “Message Center Preferences” to receive courtesy notifications so you won’t miss your electronic COLA notice!

This year, you will still receive your COLA notice by mail. In the future, you will be able to choose whether you receive your notice online instead of on paper. Online notices will not be available to representative payees, individuals with foreign mailing addresses, or those who pay higher Medicare premiums due to their income. We plan to expand the availability of COLA notices to additional online customers in the future.

You can find more information about the 2019 COLA here.

Get Ready for Taxes: Learn how the new tax law affects tax returns next year

WASHINGTON –The Internal Revenue Service today advised taxpayers about steps they can take now to ensure smooth processing of their 2018 tax return and avoid surprises when they file next year.

This is the first in a series of reminders to help taxpayers get ready for the upcoming tax filing season. Additionally, the IRS has recently updated a special page on its website with steps to take now for the 2019 tax filing season.

New IRS Publication 5307 helps individuals understand Tax Cuts and Jobs Act

Major tax reform that affects both individuals and businesses was approved by Congress and signed by the President on Dec. 22, 2017. It’s commonly referred to as the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act, or TCJA, or tax reform. Throughout 2018, the IRS has been working closely with partners in the tax return preparation and tax software industries to implement the new law and ensure taxpayers can count on the IRS, tax professionals and tax software programs when it’s time to file their returns. Now there is a new publication that will help taxpayers learn how tax reform affects their taxes. IRS Publication 5307, Tax Reform Basics for Individuals and Families, is now available on IRS.gov/getready. While the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act law includes tax changes for individuals and businesses, this publication breaks down what’s new for the 2018 federal tax return individual taxpayers will be filing in 2019.

This new publication provides important information about:

  • increasing the standard deduction,
  • suspending personal exemptions,
  • increasing the child tax credit,
  • adding a new credit for other dependents and
  • limiting or discontinuing certain deductions.

Taxpayers can access Publication 5307 at IRS.gov/getready, along with other important information about steps taxpayers can take now to ensure smooth processing of their 2018 tax return and avoid surprises when they file next year.

Because of the many changes in the tax law, refunds may be different than prior years for some taxpayers. Some may even owe an unexpected tax bill when they file their 2018 tax return next year. To avoid these kind of surprises, taxpayers should perform a Paycheck Checkup to help determine if they need to adjust their withholding or make estimated or additional tax payments now.

Gather documents

The IRS urges all taxpayers to file a complete and accurate tax return by making sure they have all the needed documents before they file their return, including their 2017 tax return. This includes year-end Forms W-2 from employers, Forms 1099 from banks and other payers, and Forms 1095-A from the Marketplace for those claiming the Premium Tax Credit. Confirm that each employer, bank or other payer has a current mailing address for you. Typically, these forms start arriving by mail in January. Check them over carefully, and if any of the information shown is inaccurate, contact the payer right away for a correction.

To avoid refund delays, taxpayers should avoid using incomplete records and instead wait to file until they have gathered all year-end income documentation. This will minimize the chances they will need to file an amended return later which is extra work for taxpayers and can take up to 16 weeks to process once the IRS receives it.

Taxpayers should keep a copy of any filed tax return and all supporting documents for a minimum of three years. Having your prior year return will make it easier to fill out your 2018 tax return next year. In addition, taxpayers using a software product for the first time may need the Adjusted Gross Income (AGI) amount from their 2017 return to properly e-file their 2018 return. Learn more about verifying identity and electronically signing a return at Validating Your Electronically Filed Tax Return.

For a faster refund, choose e-file

Electronically filing a tax return is the most accurate way to prepare and file. Errors delay refunds and the easiest way to avoid them is to e-file. Using tax preparation software is the best and simplest way to file a complete and accurate tax return. The software guides taxpayers through the process and does all the math. The IRS is working with the tax community to incorporate the tax law changes and form updates. Nearly 90 percent of all returns are electronically filed.

There are several e-file options:

Use Direct Deposit

Combining Direct Deposit with electronic filing is the fastest way for a taxpayer to get their refund. With Direct Deposit, a refund goes directly into a taxpayer’s bank account. There’s no reason to worry about a lost, stolen or undeliverable refund check. This is the same electronic transfer system now used to deposit nearly 98 percent of all Social Security and Veterans Affairs benefits. Nearly four out of five federal tax refunds are Direct Deposited.

Direct Deposit also saves taxpayer dollars. It costs the nation’s taxpayers more than $1 for every paper refund check issued but only a dime for each Direct Deposit.

Renew expiring ITINs

Some people with an Individual Taxpayer Identification Number (ITIN) may need to renew it before the end of the year. Doing so promptly will avoid a refund delay and possible loss of key tax benefits.

Any ITIN not used on a federal tax return in the past three years will expire on Dec. 31, 2018. Similarly, any ITIN with middle digits 73, 74, 75, 76, 77, 81 or 82 will also expire at the end of the year. Anyone with an expiring ITIN who plans to file a return in 2019 will need to renew it using Form W-7.

Once a completed form is filed, it typically takes about seven weeks to receive an ITIN assignment letter from the IRS. But it can take longer — nine to 11 weeks — if an applicant waits until the peak of the filing season to submit this form or sends it from overseas. Taxpayers should take action now to avoid delays.

Taxpayers who fail to renew an ITIN before filing a tax return next year could face a delayed refund and may be ineligible for certain tax credits. For more information, visit the ITIN information page on IRS.gov.

Refunds held for those claiming EITC or ACTC until mid-February

By law, the IRS cannot issue refunds for people claiming the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) or Additional Child Tax Credit (ACTC) before mid-February. The law requires the IRS to hold the entire refund — even the portion not associated with EITC or ACTC. This law change, which took effect at the beginning of 2017, helps ensure that taxpayers receive the refund they’re due by giving the IRS more time to detect and prevent fraud.

As always, the IRS cautions taxpayers not to rely on getting a refund by a certain date, especially when making major purchases or paying bills. Be aware that some returns may require additional review for a variety of reasons and may take longer. For example, the IRS, along with its partners in the state’s and the nation’s tax industry, continue to strengthen security reviews to help protect against identity theft and refund fraud.

Best Practices for Design Patents

By Debby Winters

The first examination to undertake is to understand what a design patent is and how it differs from a utility patent.

U.S. design patents cover the ornamental design of an object having practical utility. The subject matter claimed is the design embodied in or applied to the article and not the article itself.  In other words, the subject matter of a design patent application may relate to the configuration or shape of an article, to the surface ornamentation applied to an article, or to the combination of configuration and surface ornamentation. In contrast to a utility patent that protects the way an article is used and works,  a design patent protects the way an article looks.

I am often asked whether a client should seek a design or a utility patent. While it depends on the invention, a U.S. design patent provides a number of advantages when compared to a U.S. utility patent. First, design patents have a higher allowance rate. Second, design patents have a faster time to final resolution. Finally, design applications are typically less than half the cost of utility applications due to their expedited prosecution and the limited specification required in design patent applications.

The five areas for our discussion on best practices will focus around the following:

  1. Know the Subject Matter Qualifications
  2. Drawing Quality is Key
  3. Figure Views Should be Consistent
  4. Use of Solid vs. Broken (Phantom) Lines
  5. Include Additional Embodiments

We will discuss each in a separate blog post starting with the first so keep reading!

What is the Hatch–Goodlatte Music Modernization Act?

By Debby Winters

The complete name of “the Act” is the Orrin G. Hatch–Bob Goodlatte Music Modernization Act. The intended purpose is to modernize copyright law to account for the digital delivery of content. The bill was signed into law on Oct 11, 2018,  and it aims to revise the Copyright Act (17 U.S.C. § 115) in three major ways. The three titles to the Act will be discussed below.

Title I of the Act -streamlines mechanical royalties for digitally distributed music by allowing streaming services to pay a mechanical licensing collective (“MLC”) for a blanket license to stream copyrighted material. The MLC has a board of directors of 14 voting members and 3 non-voting members, with 10 voting members being representatives of music publishers, while 4 voting members being professional songwriters. The MLC is responsible for a number of activities under the Act, including:

  • the administration of blanket licenses;
  • the collection and distribution of royalties from digital music providers to songwriters and publishers;
  • the identification of copyrighted material embodied in sound recordings, locating the copyright owners of such material, and administration of a process by which copyright owners can claim such ownership; and
  • assisting with setting the royalty rates and terms.

Helpful to copyright holders, the Act provides a mechanism for royalty rates to be raised so that they reflect fair market rates and terms. This allows the rate to account for changes in the market. Helpful to streaming services, the Act protects streaming services from infringement lawsuits for past infringements.

Title II of the Act– attempts to provide owners of pre-1972 sound recordings with copyright protection. Before the Act, pre-1972 sound recordings were not covered under U.S. copyright law. Owners instead needed to rely on state and/or common law for protection. The Act brings pre-1972 sound recordings partially within federal copyright law by (i) providing federal remedies for unauthorized use of pre-1972 sound recordings for 95 or more years after first publication (which time may be extended depending on the year of first publication), (ii) providing a statutory licensing scheme for some digital streaming services, and (iii) providing a means of lawful, fair use of such recordings.

Title III of the Act– provides a means by which music producers can receive a portion of royalties distributed under the statutory license provided under section 114 of the Copyright Act.