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Individual Year-end Tax Planning

The current federal income tax environment remains favorable through December 31st. Here are some tax planning ideas to consider as we approach year-end.

Leverage Standard Deduction by Bunching Deductible Expenditures.

Are your 2012 itemized deductions likely to be just under or just over the standard deduction amount? If so, consider bunching expenditures for itemized deduction items every other year, while claiming the standard deduction in the intervening years. The 2012 standard deduction for married joint filers is $11,900; $5,950 for single and married filing separate filers; and $8,700 for heads of households.

For example, say you’re a joint filer whose only itemized deductions are $4,000 of annual property taxes and $8,000 of home mortgage interest. If you prepay your 2013 property taxes by December 31st, you could claim $16,000 of itemized deductions on your 2012 return ($4,000 of 2012 property taxes, plus an-other $4,000 for the 2013 property tax bill, plus the $8,000 of mortgage interest). Next year, you would only have the $8,000 of interest, but you could claim the standard deduction. Following this strategy will cut your taxable income by a meaningful amount over the two-year period (this year and next). You can repeat the drill again in future years. Finally, check for any negative AMT implications before implementing this strategy.

Examples of other deductible items that can be bunched together every other year to lower your taxes include charitable donations and state income tax payments.

Caution: If you think you’ll be in a higher tax bracket next year, you may want to claim the standard deduction this year and bunch your itemized deductions into 2013 when they can offset the higher taxed in-come. This will boost your overall tax savings for the two years combined.

Take Advantage of the 0% Rate on Investment Income. For 2012, the federal income tax rate on long-term capital gains and qualified dividends is 0% when they fall within the 10% or 15% federal income tax rate brackets. This will be the case to the extent your taxable income (including long-term capital gains and qualified dividends) does not exceed $70,700 if you are married and file jointly ($35,350 if you are single). While your income may be too high to benefit from the 0% rate, you may have children, grandchildren, or other loved ones who will be in one of the bottom two brackets. If so, consider giving them some appreciated stock or mutual fund shares that they can then sell and pay 0% tax on the resulting long-term gains. Gains will be long-term as long as your ownership period plus the gift recipient’s ownership period (before he or she sells) equals at least a year and a day.

Giving away stocks that pay dividends is another tax-smart idea. As long as the dividends fall within the gift recipient’s 10% or 15% rate bracket, they will be federal-income-tax-free.

Caution: The Kiddie Tax rules could cause capital gains and dividends to be taxed at the parent’s tax rate. Also, the gift tax exclusion is $13,000 in 2012.

Time Investment Gains and Losses.

As you evaluate investments held in your taxable accounts, con-sider the impact of selling appreciated securities this year. The maximum federal income tax rate on long-term capital gains in 2012 is 15%. Therefore, it often makes sense to hold appreciated securities for at least a year and a day before selling. On the other hand, now may be a good time to cash in some long-term winners to benefit from today’s historically low capital gains tax rates.

Biting the bullet and selling some loser securities (currently worth less than you paid for them) before year-end can also be a good idea. The resulting capital losses will offset capital gains from other sales this year, including short-term gains from securities owned for one year or less that would otherwise be taxed at ordinary income tax rates. The bottom line is that you don’t have to worry about paying a higher tax rate on short-term gains if you have enough capital losses to shelter those short-term gains.

If capital losses for this year exceed capital gains, you will have a net capital loss for 2012. You can use that loss to shelter up to $3,000 of this year’s ordinary income from salaries, bonuses, self-employment, and so forth ($1,500 if you’re married and file separately). Any excess net capital loss is carried forward to next year.

For the Charitably Inclined.

Say you want to make some gifts to favorite relatives (who may be hurting financially) and/or favorite charities. You can make gifts in conjunction with an overall revamping of your stock and equity mutual fund portfolio. Here’s how to get the best tax results from your generosity:

Gifts to Relatives (nondeductible). Do not give away loser shares. Instead sell the shares, and take ad-vantage of the resulting capital losses. Then give the cash sales proceeds to the relative. Do give away winner shares to relatives. Most likely, they will pay less tax than you would pay if you sold the same shares. In fact, relatives who are in the 10% or 15% federal income tax brackets will generally pay a 0% federal tax rate on long-term gains from shares that were held for over a year before being sold in 2012. (For purposes of meeting the more-than-one-year rule for gifted shares, you get to count your ownership period plus the recipient relative’s ownership period, however brief.) Even if the shares are held for one year or less before being sold, your relative will probably pay a lower tax rate than you would (typically only 10% or 15%). However, be aware that gains recognized by a relative who is under age 24 may be taxed at his or her parents’ higher rates under the so-called Kiddie Tax rules.

Gifts to Charities (deductible). The strategies for gifts to relatives work equally well for gifts to IRS-approved charities. Sell loser shares and claim the resulting tax-saving capital loss on your return. Then, give the sales proceeds to the charity and claim the resulting charitable write-off (assuming you itemize deductions). This strategy results in a double tax benefit (tax-saving capital loss plus tax-saving charitable contribution deduction). Give away winner shares to charity instead of giving cash. Here’s why. For publicly traded shares that you’ve owned over a year, your charitable deduction equals the full current market value at the time of the gift. Plus, when you give winner shares away, you walk away from the related capital gains tax. This idea is another double tax-saver (you avoid capital gains tax on the winner shares, and you get a tax-saving charitable contribution write-off). Because the charitable organization is tax-exempt, it can sell your donated shares without owing anything to the IRS.

This article should get you started thinking about tax planning moves for the rest of this year. Please don’t hesitate to contact us if you want more details or would like to schedule a tax planning strategy session.



Recent Graduates’ Job Search and Moving Expenses

With many college and high school graduates still looking for jobs, we thought it would be a good time for a refresher on which expenses are and are not deductible in connection with landing that first post-graduation job.

Job Search Expenses

Expenses incurred by taxpayers when searching for new employment in the same trade or business are deductible as a miscellaneous itemized deduction. Therefore, they are deductible for regular tax purposes and only to the extent they and other miscellaneous itemized deductions exceed 2% of adjusted gross income (AGI). Examples of deductible job search expenses include employment agency fees, resume preparation expenses, and travel and transportation expenses. Additional expenses that may be deductible include employment counseling fees, postage, typing and printing, and advertising.

However, the costs of finding first-time employment are not deductible, since first-time employment by definition cannot be in the taxpayer’s same trade or business. Therefore, recent college and high school graduates seeking first-time employment cannot deduct any of their job search expenses.

Moving Expenses

While the costs of finding first-time employment are not deductible, moving expenses associated with first-time employment are deductible if the time and distance tests are met (see below). Moving expenses (for both foreign and domestic moves) are generally deductible above the line in computing AGI. These expenses include the cost of transporting household goods and personal effects from the former residence to the new residence. This includes the cost to pack and crate, store, and insure household goods and personal effects within any period of 30 days in a row after they were moved from the taxpayer’s old home and before they were delivered to the new home. Moving costs also include the cost of traveling from the former residence to the new residence. (Traveling expenses include lodging, but not meals.) Automobile expenses can be calculated per mile in lieu of actual expenses. For 2012, the standard mileage rate is 23 cents per mile.

In most cases, moving expenses incurred within one year from the date the individual first reports to work at the new location meet the time test. It is not necessary that the individual has a job before moving to a new location, as long as he or she actually goes to work in that location. And in the case of an individual without a former principal place of work (for example, recent high school or college graduates), the distance test is met if the distance between the individual’s former residence and the new principal place of work is at least 50 miles (as long as the distance from the new home to the new job location is not more than the distance from the former home to the new job location).



Substantiating Charitable Contributions

One of the most popular tax deductions for individuals is the one allowed for donations to charitable organizations—from the local church or synagogue to the Red Cross and various other national organizations. Unfortunately, this deduction has also been among the most abused. Thus, perhaps it is not surprising that Congress has responded to the problem by regularly enacting more rules around documenting donations.

What we’re left with is a confusing array of rules that you must comply with in order to claim a deduction. For example, donors must obtain a written acknowledgment from the charity if the value of the contribution (cash or other property) is $250 or more—a canceled check is not sufficient proof. A recent court case illustrates how easy it is to run afoul of the documentation requirements.

In the case, the taxpayers donated $22,517 to their church during the tax year. Several individual donations were made by check, each of which was in excess of $250. Although the donations were made by check and the taxpayer provided canceled checks to document the gift, the IRS disallowed the deduction because the taxpayers failed to obtain a timely receipt from their church to support the donations. Such receipt (or receipts) must be received by the time you file your return for the year of the donation (or, if earlier, by when the return is due). In addition, it must include all of the following:

1. The name and address of the charity.

2. The date of the contribution.

3. The amount of cash or a description (but not an estimate of value) of any property contributed.

4. A list of any significant goods or services received in return for the donation (other than intangible religious benefits) or a specific statement that the donor received no goods or services from the charity.

In the case at hand, the taxpayers had a receipt from their church, but it did not contain the required statement regarding whether goods or services were provided. They tried to correct this omission by getting a new receipt from their church after the IRS challenged the deduction. By then, of course, it was too late.

While this gives you a glimpse at the substantiation requirements for charitable donations, the rules can get much more complicated, especially when you make charitable donations of property rather than cash. Please contact us to discuss the requirements for specific types of donations or with questions on other tax compliance or planning issues.




IRS Announces 2013 Pension Plan Limitations; Taxpayers May Contribute Up to $17,500 to Their 401(k) Plans in 2013

The Internal Revenue Service announced cost-of-living adjustments affecting dollar limitations for pension plans and other retirement-related items for tax year 2013. In general, many of the pension plan limitations will change for 2013 because the increase in the cost-of-living index met the statutory thresholds that trigger their adjustment. However, other limitations will remain unchanged because the increase in the index did not meet the statutory thresholds that trigger their adjustment.



Four Ways to KNOW Your Customer: How Effective Planning Guarantees Higher Sales
By Stacey Hanke

Sales is a tough industry in which to compete and even tougher to stay on top. To maintain your hold against your competitors, it is important to stay fresh, learn new techniques and employ regular research and analysis. Without this, you will stagnate and stand still.

Many sales people become far too comfortable once they have been in a long-term relationship with a customer. This can lead to laziness and lack of research before what might be regular meetings with a client. This can make all the difference in keeping the customer happy or losing it to a competitor.

I suggest taking five minutes out of your time before a meeting. This can take place in the parking lot outside the customer's building or even at your desk minutes before the customer arrives. All you need to do is focus on the acronym KNOW.

KNOW will ensure you conduct powerful analyses in order to tailor your presentation to each specific client meeting, and therefore, enhance your chances of success.


Here’s what KNOW stands for:

Know:  What do your customers know about your product and/or service? - What do your customers know about your company? - What do they know about you?  Make a quick point of marking out everything that your customers already know about you, your products and your company. Time management is the key when it comes to a successful presentation or sales pitch. You have to convey your knowledge, but that does not mean cramming everything into a small time frame. Pick out the important points and leave out any fillers or information they know.


Need: What do your customers need to know in order to take the action you want them to take in the time frame you need them to take it?  How many times have you arranged a meeting with a customer to last for 30 minutes, yet when you have arrived at your destination the customer is running behind and can only give you 10 minutes?   What should you do in this situation?  It is tempting to try to cram your planned 30-minute meeting into only 10 minutes. You’ll feel good about communicating all of your knowledge, but where will it leave the customer? Most likely confused and unable to fully understand the key points that you wanted to get across.  Two of the biggest mistakes we make as communicators and sales professionals are—

  1. Confusing our listeners with too much information we want to give them and not information they truly need to know.
  2. Going over our allotted time. The worst thing you can do is to be known as the person who asks for 30 minutes and end up taking 45 minutes. The minute you go over time you are telling your customers that their time is not important.


Opinion:  What is your customer’s opinion about your topic?If you are unsure of the answer before your presentation or meeting, there are ways to gather this vital information. Ask open-ended questions at the beginning of the conversation in order to find out exactly what the customer knows about your company, your products and services. What does the customer like about your competition, and most important, what areas of improvement is it hoping to see? This line of questioning can help you choose your opening words carefully. Within 30 seconds or less your customer should know what it is you want it to do and exactly what the benefit is. You should be giving the customer full expectations within 30 seconds.
A bad example is as follows:

“Thank you for your time here today. I know you’re really busy. I am here today to talk about….’’These words have no purpose to your sales pitch. When you start, you are telling your customer that there is not much point to listening to the first 60 seconds, but after that tune in for some interesting points!Also, never acknowledge that the customer is too busy. It gives the impression that he or she does not have the time to see you, and that you are not important.

Who: Who are they?  You should keep any information that might be important at the forefront of your mind to help you tailor your pitch during the presentation or conversation. Think about your customer’s needs, and use words and terminology that will resonate.  This can often be tough for seasoned sales professionals. The longer you have been in the industry, the more comfortable you become. It is very easy to drop into “script mode” when you know your products, services and message like the back of your hand. It leads to complacency and the chance of missing out on opportunities to take your career, communications and relationship with customers to the next level.

KNOW will only take five minutes to walk through it in your mind before you embark on a sales pitch or meeting. When meeting a potential customer, it would be wise to expand W into what in order to dig a little bit deeper to tailor your behavior and plan to communicate and sell.

- What pre-conceived notions does the customer have of you?

- What has been the customer’s experience with your product or  competition?

- What does the customer want to change?

Taking the analysis to the next level will force you to think clearly about your customers’ wants. Even though you are selling the same product, every pitch should be different in order to suit a specific target.  Taking the time to walk through KNOW can make all the difference — whether it is with regards to presentations, sales pitches, or even the way you reply to e-mails. Put it into practice and watch your positive response rate increase.

About the Author

Stacey Hanke is the founder of Chicago-based 1st Impression Consulting, Inc. As a communication expert, author and speaker, she reveals how to develop verbal skills to influence and persuade others. Stacey helps individuals eliminate the static that plagues communicative delivery-to persuade, sell, influence or simply effectively communicate face-to-face with a clear message. Interested readers may contact Stacey at



Five Ways to Keep Your Business Upbeat in a Down Economy

By Dr. Jason Selk

Optimistic people are happier and more successful than their pessimistic counterparts. So says the highly respected University of Pennsylvania professor, Dr. Martin Seligman, known as the "father of positive psychology." For example, in one of his studies, he found that salespeople with the highest optimism scores outsold their pessimistic counterparts by 20 to 40 percent.

But if you're a small business owner or manager, it's not always easy to stay upbeat when you've got a scaled-down, overworked, worried workforce — and sluggish sales to boot.

It reminds me of the downtrodden 2006 St. Louis Cardinals. When they brought me onboard as their first-ever Director of Mental Training, I coached them on the fundamentals of being positive, optimistic, and resilient in the face of challenges. They went on to win their first World Series in 24 years. Now I show businesspeople how to use these same techniques and get equally winning results.

Mental Toughness Strategies

Here are five of my Mental Toughness strategies that will boost optimism at your company and make you a better manager, performance coach, and role model to your employees.

  1. Create a culture of self-evaluation. Encourage everyone at your company to answer three questions every day:
    1. What am I doing well?
    2. What do I need to improve?
    3. How will I make this improvement?

Check in with a different worker each day. Talking to your people about their successes and their challenges—as well as your own—gives everyone a sense of forward movement, possibility, and camaraderie.

2. Brainstorm and develop a team vision. Call a vision session. What do you all want for the company? Where do you expect it to be in a year? The more detailed the vision, the better. For example, you want sales to increase by 50 percent, build a new in-house IT department, and create a brand makeover. Post these goals where everyone can see them daily. Expectancy theory says: that which we focus on expands.

3. Develop a relentless solution focus. This is a technique that takes practice, but once you and your employees get the hang of it, it will have a dramatic effect on people's moods and your company's success. RSF is one's ability to quickly transform every problem-focused thought into a solution-focused thought. Whenever someone points out a problem, train your people to promptly ask, "What's needed?"

4. Strive for any improvement, no matter how small. The tortoise won the race one small step at a time. Companies tend to forget this when their bottom lines are flat, sales are flagging, and morale is low. One of your jobs as a business leader is to see even a tiny improvement in any situation as a win and part of the solution. It's a positive mental technique that you can share and teach to others as well.

5. Teach them to "get it done." Staying upbeat is more than just a set of thought processes. It's also linked to discipline. Permeate your company culture with the practice of finding a way to "get it done." Employees gain optimism by knowing that they can control outcomes. They do this by tirelessly translating hope and confidence into success through disciplined action. Make discipline a core value.

About the Author

Dr. Jason Selk trains companies and organizations, including professional athletes, sports teams, coaches, and business leaders on how to achieve optimal performance. He's the bestselling author of 10-Minute Toughness and Executive Toughness, both published by McGraw-Hill. He's a regular television and radio contributor to ABC, CBS, ESPN, and NBC, and has appeared widely in print. Learn more at


From 18 to 12: Michigan Improves Tax Ranking

Wyoming, Florida, and Texas rank among the ten best states for taxes on business, while companies in states like New York, New Jersey and California have a far less pleasant tax climate to deal with, according to a new report by the Tax Foundation. Michigan made a sizable leap of six places by replacing the gross receipts tax (the Michigan Business Tax) with a flat six percent corporate income tax. This improved Michigan’s overall rank from 18th to 12th best, and the state’s corporate sub-rank from 49th to 7th best. The Tax Foundation’s State Business Tax Climate Index, now in its 9th edition, collects data on over a hundred tax provisions for each state and synthesizes them into a single easy-to-use score. The states are then compared against each other, so that each state’s ranking is relative to actual policies in place in other states around the country. Download the full report




Bartering and Trading? Each Transaction is Taxable to Both Parties

Sometimes, when the right opportunity presents itself, you may be able to pay for goods and services that you need or want by trading goods that you own, or providing a service that you can perform in return. An example of this is if you own a lawn maintenance company and receive legal services from an attorney and pay for those services by providing an agreed upon amount of mowing and maintenance services at the attorney’s home or place of business. In this scenario, the fair market value of the legal services provided is taxable to you as the lawn maintenance company owner. At the same time, the fair market value of the lawn and maintenance services you provide is taxable to the attorney or his firm.

This type of transaction - bartering or trading - can prove to be useful when cash-flow problems would otherwise prevent you from securing needed goods or services. And while there is no exchange of cash or credit, the fair market value of the goods or services that were exchanged is taxable to both parties and must be claimed as other income on an individual or business income tax return.

Remember, just like with payments by money, if a business makes payments of bartered services to another business (except a corporation) of $600 or more in the course of the year, these payments are to be reported on Form 1099-MISC.

When considering record keeping requirements, barter and trade transactions should be treated just like any other financial transaction or exchange. Original cost of goods being bartered or traded, transaction dates, fair market value at the time of the transaction, and other pertinent details should be recorded to assist in the preparation of your income tax return and held, in general, for a period of 3 years in accordance with other documents and receipts used to substantiate income and expenses.

For more details on barter and trade transactions, please visit the IRS’ Bartering Tax Center or view the Do You Barter? video.


Five Important Tips on Gambling Income and Losses

It’s a common misconception that unless you receive a Form W-2G, Certain Gambling Winnings, at a casino, your gambling winnings don’t have to be reported on your federal tax return. However gambling winnings, like any other income not specifically exempted from law, are taxable and must be reported on your federal tax return, regardless of whether or not documentation was provided at the time the money was earned (or won).  Fortunately, if you itemize your deductions, there are ways to offset your gambling winnings with any losses that you may have incurred up to the amount of your winnings. Below are five tips that every taxpayer who gambles should know:

1. Gambling income includes, but is not limited to, winnings from lotteries, raffles, horse races, and casinos. It includes cash winnings and the fair market value of prizes such as cars and trips.

2. If you receive a certain amount of gambling winnings or if you have any winnings that are subject to federal tax withholding, the payer is required to issue you a Form W-2G. The payer must give you this form if you receive:

            $1,200 or more in gambling winnings from bingo or slot machines;

            $1,500 or more in proceeds (the amount of winnings minus the amount of the wager) from keno;

            More than $5,000 in winnings (reduced by the wager or buy-in) from a poker tournament;

            $600 or more in gambling winnings (except winnings from bingo, keno, slot machines, and poker tournaments) and the payout is at least 300 times the amount of the wager; or

            Any other gambling winnings subject to federal income tax withholding.

                  3. Generally, you report all gambling winnings on the Other income line (line 21) of Form 1040, U.S. Federal Income Tax Return.

4. You can claim your gambling losses up to the amount of your winnings on Form 1040, Schedule A, Itemized Deductions, under Other Miscellaneous Deductions. You must report the full amount of your winnings as income and claim your allowable losses separately. You cannot deduct gambling losses that are more than your winnings. You cannot reduce your gambling winnings by your gambling losses and report the difference.

5. Keep accurate records. If you are going to deduct gambling losses, you must have receipts, tickets, statements, and documentation such as a diary or similar record of your losses and winnings. Your records should show your winnings separately from your losses. Refer to IRS Publication 529, Miscellaneous Deductions, for more details about the type of information you should write in your diary and what kinds of proof you should retain in your records.


Understand Your Employer’s Retirement Plan The first step in taking full advantage of your retirement plan at work is to understand the plan. Your employer must give you plan disclosure documents that provide a brief overview of the following basic concepts:

Eligibility to participate

Your plan’s disclosure documents will state the conditions you must meet to participate in the plan. Employers can set participation requirements, within limits, depending on the type of retirement plan. Your plan may allow you to participate immediately, or you may have to work for a specific amount of time before you can participate.


Your plan’s disclosure documents will also explain about contributions to your plan. Contributions made to retirement plans are subject to various annual limits, depending on the type of plan. Some plans may only allow employer contributions, others only employee contributions and some may allow both. If you’re allowed to contribute to the plan, you may even have a choice as to the type of contributions you can make (for example, pre-tax salary deferrals or designated Roth contributions).


Your plan’s disclosure documents will state the plan’s vesting schedule. Vesting means ownership. You always own 100% of any contributions you make to your retirement plan, even if you leave your employer. However, depending on your type of retirement plan, vesting of employer contributions may be immediate or take up to seven years.


Normally you can only take money out of your employer’s retirement plan, except for IRA-based plans, when you retire or leave your job. However, depending on the type of plan you have, you may be able to get money earlier from your plan for specific events such as hardship or disability. The plan’s disclosure documents will explain if and under what conditions you can get early distributions from the plan.

In IRA-based plans (SEP and SIMPLE IRA plans), you can take money out at any time but you have to pay taxes on any previously untaxed amount and may have to pay additional taxes for distributions you take before age 59½ unless you qualify for an exception.

Take the time to understand your plan’s disclosure documents and use the plan to save as much as possible for your retirement!


How to Get a Transcript or Copy of a Prior Year’s Tax Return from the IRS

Taxpayers should keep copies of their tax returns, but if they cannot be located or have been destroyed during natural disasters or by fire, the IRS can help. Whether you need your prior year’s tax return to apply for a loan or for legal reasons, you can obtain copies or transcripts from the IRS.

Here are 10 things to know if you need federal tax return information from a previously filed tax return.

1. Get copies of your federal tax return via the web, phone or by mail.

2. Transcripts are free and are available for the current and past three tax years.

3. A tax return transcript shows most line items from your tax return as it was originally filed, including any accompanying forms and schedules. It does not reflect any changes made after the return was filed.

4. A tax account transcript shows any later adjustments either you or the IRS made after you filed your tax return. This transcript shows basic data including marital status, type of return filed, adjusted gross income and taxable income.

5. To request either type of transcript online, go to and use the online tool called Order A Transcript. To order by phone, call 800-908-9946 and follow the prompts in the recorded message.

6. To request a 1040, 1040A or 1040EZ tax return transcript through the mail, complete IRS Form 4506T-EZ, Short Form Request for Individual Tax Return Transcript. Businesses, partnerships and individuals who need transcript information from other forms or need a tax account transcript must use Form 4506-T, Request for Transcript of Tax Return.

7. If you order online or by phone, you should receive your tax return transcript within five to 10 days from the time the IRS receives your request. Allow 30 calendar days for delivery of a tax account transcript if you order by mail.

8. If you need an actual copy of a previously filed and processed tax return, it will cost $57 for each tax year you order. Complete Form 4506, Request for Copy of Tax Return, and mail it to the IRS address listed on the form for your area.  Copies are generally available for the current year and past six years. Please allow 60 days for delivery. 

9. The fee for copies of tax returns may be waived if you are in an area that is declared a federal disaster by the President. Visit, keyword “disaster,” for more guidance on disaster relief.

10. Forms 4506, 4506-T and 4506T-EZ are available at or by calling 800-TAX-FORM (800-829-3676).


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Disclaimer: This article is for general information purposes only, and is not intended to provide professional tax, legal, or financial advice. To determine how this or other information in this newsletter might apply to your specific situation, contact us for more details and counsel.


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