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Tax Advice for the Pandemic Era

Expert Explains How the Novel Coronavirus Could Affect What You Owe

By Karen Johnson

Gloved hands fill out tax form

Photo by Shutterstock

In a time of great economic and societal uncertainties brought on by the global pandemic, it’s important to focus on what’s actually known during tax season, says Samuel Handwerger, a practicing accountant and full-time lecturer in the department of accounting and information assurance.

If you admire your CPA for that unflappable aura of calm at the height of tax season—even this unique tax season—there’s something you should know.

“That’s just a facade,” said Samuel Handwerger, a practicing accountant and full-time lecturer in the department of accounting and information assurance at the University of Maryland’s Robert H. Smith School of Business. “When you put the fear of the virus, the economy and the future all together in one moment in time, it’s a formula for something not at all reposeful.”

In a time of great economic and societal uncertainties brought on by the global pandemic, Handwerger says it’s important to focus on what’s actually known. Here’s the advice he’s giving to clients, and anyone else who needs to hear it.

Watch out for cybercrime. “Even at times like this, there is an evil element waiting to take advantage of people,” he said. Bogus charities already exist, promising cures or to help people in need. Do yourself and your money a favor, and give only to registered charities found on or the IRS website.

Understand what’s tax-deductible. While a legitimate charity can raise money for a particular individual or family, such donations are not tax-deductible, he said. Rather, they’re considered gifts to individuals—and charities seeking such gifts should inform you of that. 

Prepare for jobless benefit taxes. With many companies laying off employees, more workers will be eligible for unemployment compensation. But they should remember that these monies are taxable. No withholding tax will be taken out initially, but taxes may be owed next filing season. Budget accordingly, if you can.

Be careful tapping into savings. In a financial crisis, you may look to your retirement account for money. If you are under age 59 and a half, pulling money from retirement might be not only taxable, but also subject to a 10% penalty. There are possible exceptions to the penalty, depending on the kind of retirement account you have and the reason why you require the money. “Understand that needing the money just to pay the rent might not avoid the penalty, no matter how desperate that sounds,” Handwerger said. Take money first from a Roth IRA that has been funded for at least five years or from non-retirement savings.

Know the costs, and benefits, of working from home. Prior to the tax law changes of 2017, costs incurred working from home—as so many of us are now—may have been tax-deductible. Not anymore (although the self-employed can more easily deduct home office costs). If you are an employee and can convince your employer to reimburse you for a portion of your utility costs, internet fees, cell phone use, supplies and so on, the employer need only establish what is called an "accountable" plan, and it will be tax-deductible to the employer and not taxable to you. “This could be a great way to create a little happiness within the dark cloud. The types of costs eligible for this often do not add up to much, but, hey, every little bit helps,” he said.

Factor in child care costs. If you need to hire someone care for kids while you work from home, these costs are eligible for the child care credit or for reimbursement from a child care program at work, if your employer has one. Eligible caregiving employees can include certain family members, such as grandparents; but, Handwerger added, “given the health risks to the elderly—like me!—this is probably not the right thing to do to those grandparents just for a tax break!” 

Breathe a little easier. The IRS last week announced that tax returns are not due on the infamous tax day of April 15; the deadline for returns and payments (including  first-quarter 2020 estimates) has een pushed back to July 15. “Hopefully, it will ease some stress in an otherwise stressful period, and help us all appear a bit more serene—if only from the outside,” he said.

Maryland Today is produced by the Office of Strategic Communications for the University of Maryland community weekdays during the academic year, except for university holidays.