Monday, November 25, 2013

The ‘New’ HOPE

The HOPE scholarship, funded by the Georgia Lottery, has been around since the mid-90s and has allowed many high school graduates to continue their education when other means may not have been possible.  Originally, any student graduating high school with a GPA of 3.0 - 4.0 did not have to worry about how they would fund a college education. The HOPE would take care of the tuition and fees and provide a stipend to cover the cost for books.  I would think most people would agree that this program has been an overwhelming success.  However, there have been some changes to the program within the past few years.  Essentially, the scholarship has been separated into the HOPE Scholarship and the Zell Miller Scholarship, with award amounts determined by the student’s GPA and academic performance. 

What is still referred to as the HOPE Scholarship has academic requirements that mirror those of the ‘old’ HOPE Scholarship; however the amount of tuition coverage has changed.  Any student graduating with a GPA of 3.0 to 3.64 is eligible for a portion of college tuition to be paid for by the program.  While the entire amount of the tuition is not covered like before, it’s still a big chunk – between 75% and 85% depending on the school.  If the student can maintain at least a 3.0 GPA for college-level coursework, which is evaluated at 30, 60 and 90 attempted semester hours (45, 90 and 135 quarter hours), the scholarship will continue to cover the tuition.  Under the ‘new’ HOPE provisions, the student is now responsible for books and mandatory fees – costs that were covered before.  There is a table that details the amounts of tuition covered by HOPE for public and private postsecondary colleges and universities at 

The remaining part that made up the old HOPE scholarship program is now called the Zell Miller Scholarship, named for the former Georgia governor.  Any student who graduates with a GPA of 3.7 or higher and scores at least a 1200 on the SAT or 26 on the ACT will have 100% of their tuition to a Georgia public college or university covered.   In order to keep the scholarship, the student must maintain a GPA of 3.30 for college level courses, which, again, is evaluated at 30, 60 and 90 attempted semester hours (45, 90 and 135 quarter hours).  As is the case with the HOPE scholarship, books and additional fees are not covered.

Both the HOPE and Zell Miller scholarships can be used to cover tuition at a private college or university.  The educational requirements are still the same, but the award amounts are different.  For fiscal year 2013-2014, the Zell Miller scholarship covers a maximum of $4,000 of tuition per academic year for full-time students while the Hope scholarship covers a maximum of $3,708.  Tuition coverage for students taking less than twelve semester hours is 50% of the full-time amount.

The information summarized in this blog is by no means meant to be comprehensive.  There is more information about these scholarships, as well as others at
Brad Williamson

Monday, November 18, 2013

Cyber security tips

Below are some very good cyber security tips.  The list originated in an email from the Better Business Bureau.  I am unable to locate a good link, but I wanted to give proper credit.
  1. Delete any online communication that looks suspicious, even if you think you know the source. Be careful about following links – especially links sent to you via email.
  2. Create strong passwords by using a mix of upper and lower case letters, numbers, and symbols. Do not use one password for all your accounts!!
  3. Make copies of your pictures, videos, and other digital documents by routinely backing up your systems.
  4. Assume that the email you received from your bank is fraudulent. Do not reply to it. Instead, go directly to your bank's website and log in to your account or contact them via telephone to clarify matters. The same advice is good to follow whenever personal information is being solicited and there is even a little doubt to the authenticity of the email. Better safe than sorry, right?
  5. Know that there are people out there who earn their livelihood by scamming people via the Internet or email. Be wary, they can be devious and clever.
  6. Use the Internet to check it out! If you receive a communication that you are not sure of, it is often helpful to put the first sentence or the subject line of the email into a search engine. That is because there is a good chance that the scammers use the same verbiage over and over again and that someone has already reported it. This can also be useful with phone numbers and addresses.

Craig Rhinehart
Director of Information Technology

Monday, November 11, 2013

Are you covered? Understanding the individual health insurance mandate.

As you may or may not be aware, all individuals are required by the new Affordable Care Act regulations to purchase a minimum standard of health insurance beginning Jan. 1, 2014. The state exchanges that offer various plans opened for enrollment on October 1st, 2013.  You can also keep any policy you have under your employer, or that you have already purchased for yourself or your family, as long as it meets the minimum essential coverage standards. However, there are exceptions to this requirement if you do not meet minimum income levels, or if the premiums you would have to pay are too expensive. So what does all this mean for you?

If your employer provides insurance coverage that meets the minimum requirements of the new “Obamacare” plan, you don’t have to do anything. Ditto if your current self-employed policy or individual or family coverage meets those requirements. However, if you do not have coverage through your employer or otherwise, or have been denied coverage in the past, then you need to make sure you are covered to avoid the steep penalties that take effect starting in 2014.

As I said above, there are some exceptions. If you are eligible for coverage from your employer, but your share of the premiums is more than 8% of your household’s AGI, the penalty doesn’t apply. Also, if you are not eligible for employer coverage but the cost of the bronze-level plan through an exchange, less any federal subsidies, exceeds 8% of your household’s AGI, the penalty is waived. Same for those whose income is below the filing threshold, those who are not covered for less than 3 months, and those who can show a hardship or religious reason for not having coverage.

The penalty for 2014 is the higher of $95 per adult ($47.50 per child), capped at $285 per family, or 1% of the excess of the taxpayer’s household AGI over the filing threshold ($10,000 for individuals, $20,000 for families in 2013). These taxes are reduced for any months the taxpayer had coverage, and cannot exceed the cost of a bronze-level exchange plan. The tax is paid annually on your Form 1040. This penalty increases to $325 or 2% of income in 2015, and $695 or 2.5% of income in 2016.

You may choose to purchase an insurance plan through a state exchange or directly from an insurance company. There are generally three levels of plans – bronze, silver, and gold – that provide different levels of coverage, and therefore have different premium costs. There are Federal subsidies available for taxpayers whose income is less than 400% of the poverty level (about $90,000 for a family of four). So you may qualify for some assistance to pay for insurance premiums. And you cannot be turned down due to a pre-existing condition.

Whatever your situation, make sure you have the minimum essential coverage in place for 2014, or be prepared to pay the penalty.

Melissa Gregg

Monday, November 4, 2013

Taxpayer guide to identity theft


We know identity theft is a frustrating process for victims. We take this issue very seriously and continue to expand on our robust screening process in order to stop fraudulent returns.

What is identity theft?
Identity theft occurs when someone uses your personal information such as your name, Social Security number (SSN) or other identifying information, without your permission, to commit fraud or other crimes.

How do you know if your tax records have been affected?
Usually, an identity thief uses a legitimate taxpayer’s identity to fraudulently file a tax return and claim a refund. Generally, the identity thief will use a stolen SSN to file a forged tax return and attempt to get a fraudulent refund early in the filing season.
You may be unaware that this has happened until you file your return later in the filing season and discover that two returns have been filed using the same SSN.  Be alert to possible identity theft if you receive an IRS notice or letter that states that:

  • More than one tax return for you was filed,
  • You have a balance due, refund offset or have had collection actions taken against you for a year you did not file a tax return, or
  • IRS records indicate you received wages from an employer unknown to you.

What to do if your tax records were affected by identity theft?
If you receive a notice from IRS, respond immediately. If you believe someone may have used your SSN fraudulently, please notify IRS immediately by responding to the name and number printed on the notice or letter. You will need to fill out the IRS Identity Theft Affidavit, Form 14039.

For victims of identity theft who have previously been in contact with the IRS and have not achieved a resolution, please contact the IRS Identity Protection Specialized Unit, toll-free, at 1-800-908-4490.

How can you protect your tax records?
If your tax records are not currently affected by identity theft, but you believe you may be at risk due to a lost/stolen purse or wallet, questionable credit card activity or credit report, etc., contact the IRS Identity Protection Specialized Unit at 1-800-908-4490.

How can you minimize the chance of becoming a victim?
  • Don’t carry your Social Security card or any document(s) with your SSN on it.
  • Don’t give a business your SSN just because they ask. Give it only when required.
  • Protect your financial information.
  • Check your credit report every 12 months.
  • Secure personal information in your home.
  • Protect your personal computers by using firewalls, anti-spam/virus software, update security patches, and change passwords for Internet accounts.
  • Don’t give personal information over the phone, through the mail or on the Internet unless you have initiated the contact or you are sure you know who you are dealing with.

The IRS does not initiate contact with taxpayers by email to request personal or financial information. This includes any type of electronic communication, such as text messages and social media channels.

Kristine P. Braxton, CPA