Celebrity Tax Blunders: What You Can Learn from How Fame Mishandles Fortune

Nicholas CageWe all wish we could follow in the successful footsteps of our favorite celebrities. But sometimes, you can learn from their mistakes as well.

For whatever reason, celebrities often end up crossing paths with the IRS. You might assume that most of the problems stars have with the tax man don't really apply to average everyday folks. But though the dollar amounts might be smaller, many ordinary people get snared by the same traps that catch Hollywood's best and brightest.

Let's take a look at some common mistakes and what you can do to avoid them.

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Celebrity Tax Blunders: What You Can Learn from How Fame Mishandles Fortune

Many celebrities have gotten smacked down for failing to paying taxes. Wesley Snipes actually landed in prison for his $17 million unpaid tax bill, while Nicolas Cage owed a seven-figure amount to the IRS. A host of others, including Lindsay Lohan, Pamela Anderson, and Christina Ricci, have faced liens or tax bills for more modest -- yet still sizable -- sums.

The two main reasons for us ordinary folks getting stuck with a big tax bill are that your paycheck withholding needs changing or that you have outside income that comes without having taxes withheld. In either case, even if you can't afford to pay when the bill comes due, ignoring the problem will eventually land you in an even bigger heap of trouble. Instead, take advantage of IRS programs that let you make affordable installment payments over time.

Part of what put Wesley Snipes behind bars was his conviction on three counts of failing to file tax returns by their filing date. In part, he relied on a bogus theory that all income taxes are unconstitutional as justification for his actions.

But a much more common problem many people run into is that they can't afford to pay their tax bill right away. The mistake they often make is to assume that they shouldn't file a return at all if they can't pay. In reality, the penalties for not filing your taxes are much more severe than if you file but can't pay your taxes all at once. So even if you don't have the money to send with your return, go ahead and file. It'll save you a ton of money -- and possibly jail time -- in the long run.

AccountingWEB recently took a look at some of the great swag that celebrities received at the Academy Awards. With sponsors handing out goodies including everything from jewelry to exotic safaris, the gift packages added up to as much as $75,000 in value. But the recipients have to report it all as taxable income.

You may never be so lucky, but even more modest prizes often get reported to the IRS. If you get a Form 1099 reporting the value of something you received as a prize or award, not including it on your tax form could trigger a red flag at the IRS.

One allegation that Nicolas Cage raised regarding his tax problems was that his business manager mishandled his funds and caused big losses that destroyed his finances. Similarly, Martin Scorsese and Al Pacino both blamed convicted adviser Kenneth Starr for their tax woes. Starr went to prison for fraud and theft from clients.

Still, no matter where you go or how much you spend for tax preparation, you bear final responsibility for making sure your tax returns are accurate. Reputable accountants will reimburse you for any penalties and interest that result from mistakes they make, but don't count on them. Instead, make sure you understand the positions your tax pro takes so that you can defend them if a question arises.

As you look at the hijinks of your favorite celebrities, be sure not to make the same tax mistakes they made. With a little common sense and some planning, you can learn from celebrity mishaps the easy way.

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For more smart tax moves:

If Motley Fool contributor Dan Caplinger ever becomes a celebrity, he'll do his best to avoid those tax mishaps. You can follow him on Twitter here.


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