Have you recently started a new business? Or are you contemplating starting one? Launching a new venture is a hectic, exciting time. And as you know, before you even open the doors, you generally have to spend a lot of money. You may have to train workers and pay for rent, utilities, marketing and more.

Entrepreneurs are often unaware that many expenses incurred by start-ups can’t be deducted right away. You should be aware that the way you handle some of your initial expenses can make a large difference in your tax bill.

Key points on how expenses are handled

When starting or planning a new enterprise, keep these factors in mind:

  1. Start-up costs include those incurred or paid while creating an active trade or business — or investigating the creation or acquisition of one.
  2. Under the federal tax code, taxpayers can elect to deduct up to $5,000 of business start-up and $5,000 of organizational costs in the year the business begins. We don’t need to tell you that $5,000 doesn’t go far these days! And the $5,000 deduction is reduced dollar-for-dollar by the amount by which your total start-up or organizational costs exceed $50,000. Any remaining costs must be amortized over 180 months on a straight-line basis.
  3. No deductions or amortization write-offs are allowed until the year when “active conduct” of your new business commences. That usually means the year when the enterprise has all the pieces in place to begin earning revenue. To determine if a taxpayer meets this test, the IRS and courts generally ask questions such as: Did the taxpayer undertake the activity intending to earn a profit? Was the taxpayer regularly and actively involved? Has the activity actually begun?

Examples of expenses

Start-up expenses generally include all expenses that are incurred to:

  • Investigate the creation or acquisition of a business,
  • Create a business, or
  • Engage in a for-profit activity in anticipation of that activity becoming an active business.

To be eligible for the election, an expense also must be one that would be deductible if it were incurred after a business began. One example would be the money you spend analyzing potential markets for a new product or service.

To qualify as an “organization expense,” the outlay must be related to the creation of a corporation or partnership. Some examples of organization expenses are legal and accounting fees for services related to organizing the new business and filing fees paid to the state of incorporation.

An important decision

Time may be of the essence if you have start-up expenses that you’d like to deduct this year. You need to decide whether to take the elections described above. Recordkeeping is important. Contact us about your business start-up plans. We can help with the tax and other aspects of your new venture. 205-345-9898 and info@covenantcpa.com.

© 2019 CovenantCPA

To prevent occupational fraud from cutting into your auto dealership’s profits and generating negative publicity, you need a strong internal controls system. And effective controls start with current and accurate financial statements.

It starts in accounting

One sign of weak internal controls is an accounting department that fails to generate a balance sheet and income statement until two or more weeks after month’s end. Accounting should post transactions daily, including new and used vehicle sales, repair orders, invoice payments, payroll and cash receipts.

By 1 p.m. on any given day, you should have access to real-time checkbook balances and other accounting information effective as of 5 p.m. the day before. That way, you might be able to catch the first signs of fraud and use the data to catch the perpetrator.

Tried and true methods

Complex computer passwords, background checks and security cameras are essential to preventing fraud. But sometimes these protections fall by the wayside. Periodically review your safeguards and ensure they’re being used. For example, require employees to change their passwords quarterly, conduct regular inventory counts, engage outside CPAs to perform audits and segregate accounting duties.

As a rule of thumb, employees who record and reconcile transactions should never have access to those assets (including being a signer on bank accounts). Give the segregation of duties a starring role in your internal controls program.

Real life examples

To see how such controls can reduce losses, consider this real-life scam. A parts manager stole $70,000 by selling his employer’s parts and pocketing the cash. The loss could have been reduced if the owner had performed random inventory counts throughout the year, rather than waiting for his CPA to physically verify inventories at year end.

In another case, a dealership caught its cashier stealing by voiding service orders and falsifying deposit slips. The cashier’s responsibilities included collecting cash, issuing receipts to customers, preparing the daily deposit slip and reconciling the daily cash report. A loss of $16,000 might have been prevented if the dealership had segregated these duties.

Another dealer learned that his general manager was wholesaling used cars at a loss to the dealership because he owned a 50% interest in the wholesaler. A better pre-employment screening process might have helped detect such conflicts of interest as well as any criminal history.

Be involved

We can help you bolster your dealership’s internal controls. But your involvement is essential to preventing fraud. Let employees know that you personally review bank statements, order test counts of inventory and examine adjusted journal entries. Knowing that you’re paying attention will discourage most thieves. Contact us for more at 205-345-9898 and info@covenantcpa.com.

© 2019 CovenantCPA

The staggering cost of college makes it critical for families to plan carefully for this major expense, and in many cases grandparents want to play a role. As you examine the many financing options for your grandchildren, be sure to consider their impact on your estate plan.

Make direct payments

A simple, but effective, technique is to make tuition payments on behalf of your grandchild. So long as you make the payments directly to the college, they avoid gift and generation-skipping transfer (GST) tax without using up any of your $11.4 million gift or GST tax exemptions or your $15,000 annual gift tax exclusion.

A disadvantage of direct payments is that, if your grandchild is young, you have to wait until the student has tuition bills to pay. So there’s a risk that you’ll die before the funds are removed from your estate.

Draft a grantor trust

Trusts offer several important benefits. For example, a trust can be established for one grandchild or for multiple beneficiaries, and assets contributed to one, together with future appreciation, are removed from your taxable estate. In addition, the funds can be used for college expenses or for other purposes. Also, if the trust is structured as a “grantor trust” for income tax purposes, its income will be taxable to you, allowing the assets to grow tax-free for the benefit of the beneficiaries.

On the downside, for financial aid purposes a trust is considered the child’s asset, potentially reducing or eliminating the amount of aid available to him or her. So keep this in mind if your grandchild is hoping to qualify for financial aid.

Explore all of your options

Other college financing options include Sec. 529 college savings and prepaid tuition plans, savings bonds, retirement plan loans, Coverdell Education Savings Accounts, and various other tax-advantaged accounts. If you’d like to learn more about your options to help fund your grandchild’s education expenses, please contact us at 205-345-9898 or info@covenantcpa.com.

© 2019 CovenantCPA

Once your 2018 tax return has been successfully filed with the IRS, you may still have some questions. Here are brief answers to three questions that we’re frequently asked at this time of year.

Question #1: What tax records can I throw away now? 

At a minimum, keep tax records related to your return for as long as the IRS can audit your return or assess additional taxes. In general, the statute of limitations is three years after you file your return. So you can generally get rid of most records related to tax returns for 2015 and earlier years. (If you filed an extension for your 2015 return, hold on to your records until at least three years from when you filed the extended return.)

However, the statute of limitations extends to six years for taxpayers who understate their gross income by more than 25%.

You’ll need to hang on to certain tax-related records longer. For example, keep the actual tax returns indefinitely, so you can prove to the IRS that you filed a legitimate return. (There’s no statute of limitations for an audit if you didn’t file a return or you filed a fraudulent one.)

When it comes to retirement accounts, keep records associated with them until you’ve depleted the account and reported the last withdrawal on your tax return, plus three (or six) years. And retain records related to real estate or investments for as long as you own the asset, plus at least three years after you sell it and report the sale on your tax return. (You can keep these records for six years if you want to be extra safe.)

Question #2: Where’s my refund?

The IRS has an online tool that can tell you the status of your refund. Go to irs.gov and click on “Refund Status” to find out about yours. You’ll need your Social Security number, filing status and the exact refund amount.

Question #3: Can I still collect a refund if I forgot to report something?

In general, you can file an amended tax return and claim a refund within three years after the date you filed your original return or within two years of the date you paid the tax, whichever is later. So for a 2018 tax return that you filed on April 15 of 2019, you can generally file an amended return until April 15, 2022.

However, there are a few opportunities when you have longer to file an amended return. For example, the statute of limitations for bad debts is longer than the usual three-year time limit for most items on your tax return. In general, you can amend your tax return to claim a bad debt for seven years from the due date of the tax return for the year that the debt became worthless.

We can help

Contact us if you have questions about tax record retention, your refund or filing an amended return. We’re available all year long — not just at tax filing time! 205-345-9898 and info@covenantcpa.com.

© 2019 CovenantCPA

In its 2018 Report to the Nations on Occupational Fraud and Abuse, the Association of Certified Fraud Examiners (ACFE) reported that owners and executives accounted for only 19% of all fraud cases. Yet they caused a median loss of $850,000, vs. a median of $100,000 for rank-and-file employees.

Executive thieves get away with more because they have greater access to assets and can more easily override internal controls. Their schemes also tend to continue for longer periods before detection — an average of two years vs. one year for nonmanager employee schemes. So it’s critical to spot the signs of executive fraud and nab these high-placed thieves.

Greater authority = greater damage

Traditional preventive measures, such as background checks, may be ineffective when it comes to executive fraud because many of these perpetrators are first-time offenders. Fortunately, their schemes tend to raise red flags. Crooked executives often are reluctant to cooperate with internal investigations and outside auditors and may show disrespect for regulators. Sometimes, they offer unreasonable responses to reasonable questions or become agitated or annoyed when probed about financial discrepancies.

Often, their lifestyles betray them. A thieving executive may begin spending extravagantly on expensive cars and vacations. Or a formerly fiscally healthy individual may appear to be mired in debt and have credit problems. In some cases, the motivation for fraud is a substance abuse or gambling problem.

Vulnerabilities create opportunities

Weak internal controls make fraud easier for executives to perpetrate. Vulnerable organizations may have minimal or no segregation of duties, little external audit oversight, a lax or inexperienced accounting staff and excessive trust in key executives. Environments where all decisions are made by an individual or small group are also at higher risk. And companies in financial distress provide particularly fertile ground for fraud perpetrators.

Some executives commit fraud for what they believe is the benefit of the company. Financial weakness, out-of-control expenses, tax adjustments by the IRS, credit difficulties and pressure to meet budgets and earnings projections can all motivate an executive to do “whatever it takes” to prop up the company. When bottom-line results seem too good to be true, that just may be the case.

Tone at the top

Executive fraud can have devastating financial consequences and harm your company’s reputation with shareholders and the public. Also, it sets the ethical tone for the entire organization. Employees who know or suspect their superiors are dishonest are more likely to cut corners — or steal — themselves. So if you suspect fraud in your organization or need to bolster your internal controls, contact us at 205-345-9898 or info@covenantcpa.com.

© 2019 CovenantCPA

In the course of operating your business, you probably spend time and money “wining and dining” current or potential customers, vendors and employees. What can you deduct on your tax return for these expenses? The rules changed under the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act (TCJA), but you can still claim some valuable write-offs.

No more entertainment deductions

One of the biggest changes is that you can no longer deduct most business-related entertainment expenses. Beginning in 2018, the TCJA disallows deductions for entertainment expenses, including those for sports events, theater productions, golf outings and fishing trips.

Meal deductions still allowed

You can still deduct 50% of the cost of food and beverages for meals conducted with business associates. However, you need to follow three basic rules in order to prove that your expenses are business related:

  1. The expenses must be “ordinary and necessary” in carrying on your business. This means your food and beverage costs are customary and appropriate. They shouldn’t be lavish or extravagant.
  2. The expenses must be directly related or associated with your business. This means that you expect to receive a concrete business benefit from them. The principal purpose for the meal must be business. You can’t go out with a group of friends for the evening, discuss business with one of them for a few minutes, and then write off the check.
  3. You must be able to substantiate the expenses. There are requirements for proving that meal and beverage expenses qualify for a deduction. You must be able to establish the amount spent, the date and place where the meals took place, the business purpose and the business relationship of the people involved.

Set up detailed recordkeeping procedures to keep track of business meal costs. That way, you can prove them and the business connection in the event of an IRS audit.

Other considerations

What if you spend money on food and beverages at an entertainment event? The IRS clarified in guidance (Notice 2018-76) that taxpayers can still deduct 50% of food and drink expenses incurred at entertainment events, but only if business was conducted during the event or shortly before or after. The food-and-drink expenses should also be “stated separately from the cost of the entertainment on one or more bills, invoices or receipts,” according to the guidance.

Another related tax law change involves meals provided to employees on the business premises. Before the TCJA, these meals provided to an employee for the convenience of the employer were 100% deductible by the employer. Beginning in 2018, meals provided for the convenience of an employer in an on-premises cafeteria or elsewhere on the business property are only 50% deductible. After 2025, these meals won’t be deductible at all.

Plan ahead

As you can see, the treatment of meal and entertainment expenses became more complicated after the TCJA. Your tax advisor can keep you up to speed on the issues and suggest strategies to get the biggest tax-saving bang for your business meal bucks. Contact us at 205-345-9898 and info@covenantcpa.com.

© 2019 CovenantCPA

Protecting assets from creditors is a critical aspect of estate planning, but you need to think about more than just your own creditors: You also need to consider your heirs’ creditors. Adding spendthrift language to a trust benefiting your heirs can help safeguard assets.

Spendthrift language explained

Despite its name, the purpose of a spendthrift trust isn’t just to protect profligate heirs from themselves. Although that’s one use for this trust type, even the most financially responsible heirs can be exposed to frivolous lawsuits, dishonest business partners or unscrupulous creditors. A properly designed spendthrift trust can protect assets against such attacks.

It can also protect your loved ones in the event of relationship changes. If one of your children divorces, your child’s spouse generally can’t claim a share of the trust property in the divorce settlement.

Also, if your child predeceases his or her spouse, the spouse generally is entitled by law to a significant portion of your child’s estate, including property you left the child outright. In some cases, that may be a desirable outcome. But in others, such as second marriages when there are children from a prior marriage, a spendthrift trust can prevent your child’s inheritance from ending up in the hands of his or her spouse rather than in those of your grandchildren.

A variety of trusts can be spendthrift trusts. It’s just a matter of including a spendthrift clause, which restricts a beneficiary’s ability to assign or transfer his or her interest in the trust and restricts the rights of creditors to reach the trust assets.

Additional considerations

It’s important to recognize that the protection offered by a spendthrift trust isn’t absolute. Depending on applicable law, it may be possible for government agencies to reach the trust assets — to satisfy a tax obligation, for example.

Generally, the more discretion you give the trustee over distributions from the trust, the greater the protection against creditors’ claims. If the trust requires the trustee to make distributions for a beneficiary’s support, for example, a court may rule that a creditor can reach the trust assets to satisfy support-related debts. For increased protection, it’s preferable to give the trustee full discretion over whether and when to make distributions.

Protect wealth after transfer

Protecting your wealth after you’ve transferred it to your family is just as important as other estate planning strategies such as reducing tax liability on the transfer. One way to do this is to include spendthrift language in a trust. Contact us to learn whether a spendthrift trust is right for your estate plan at 205-345-9898 or info@covenantcpa.com.

© 2019 CovenantCPA

It’s every business owner’s nightmare. Should hackers gain access to your customers’ or employees’ sensitive data, the very reputation of your company could be compromised. And lawsuits might soon follow.

No business owner wants to think about such a crisis, yet it’s imperative that you do. Suffering a data breach without an emergency response plan leaves you vulnerable to not only the damage of the attack itself, but also the potential fallout from your own panicked decisions.

5 steps to take

A comprehensive plan generally follows five steps once a data breach occurs:

1. Call your attorney. He or she should be able to advise you on the potential legal ramifications of the incident and what you should do or not do (or say) in response. Involve your attorney in the creation of your response plan, so all this won’t come out of the blue.

2. Engage a digital forensics investigator. Contact us for help identifying a forensic investigator that you can turn to in the event of a data breach. The preliminary goal will be to answer two fundamental questions: How were the systems breached? What data did the hackers access? Once these questions have been answered, experts can evaluate the extent of the damage.

3. Fortify your IT systems. While investigative and response procedures are underway, you need to proactively prevent another breach and strengthen controls. Doing so will obviously involve changing passwords, but you may also need to add firewalls, create deeper layers of user authentication or restrict some employees from certain systems.

4. Communicate strategically. No matter the size of the company, the communications goal following a data breach is essentially the same: Provide accurate information about the incident in a reasonably timely manner that preserves the trust of customers, employees, investors, creditors and other stakeholders.

Note that “in a reasonably timely manner” doesn’t mean “immediately.” Often, it’s best to acknowledge an incident occurred but hold off on a detailed statement until you know precisely what happened and can reassure those affected that you’re taking specific measures to control the damage.

5. Activate or adjust credit and IT monitoring services. You may want to initiate an early warning system against future breaches by setting up a credit monitoring service and engaging an IT consultant to periodically check your systems for unauthorized or suspicious activity. Of course, you don’t have to wait for a breach to do these things, but you could increase their intensity or frequency following an incident.

Inevitable risk

Data breaches are an inevitable risk of running a business in today’s networked, technology-driven world. Should this nightmare become a reality, a well-conceived emergency response plan can preserve your company’s goodwill and minimize the negative impact on profitability. We can help you budget for such a plan and establish internal controls to prevent and detect fraud related to (and not related to) data breaches. Call or email us today at 205-345-9898 or info@covenantcpa.com.

© 2019 CovenantCPA

Americans who are 65 and older qualify for basic Medicare insurance, and they may need to pay additional premiums to get the level of coverage they desire. The premiums can be expensive, especially if you’re married and both you and your spouse are paying them. But one aspect of paying premiums might be positive: If you qualify, they may help lower your tax bill.

Medicare premium tax deductions

Premiums for Medicare health insurance can be combined with other qualifying health care expenses for purposes of claiming an itemized deduction for medical expenses on your individual tax return. This includes amounts for “Medigap” insurance and Medicare Advantage plans. Some people buy Medigap policies because Medicare Parts A and B don’t cover all their health care expenses. Coverage gaps include co-payments, co-insurance, deductibles and other costs. Medigap is private supplemental insurance that’s intended to cover some or all gaps.

Fewer people now itemize

Qualifying for a medical expense deduction can be difficult for a couple of reasons. For 2019, you can deduct medical expenses only if you itemize deductions and only to the extent that total qualifying expenses exceeded 10% of AGI. (This threshold was 7.5% for the 2018 tax year.)

The Tax Cuts and Jobs Act nearly doubled the standard deduction amounts for 2018 through 2025. For 2019, the standard deduction amounts are $12,200 for single filers, $24,400 for married joint-filing couples and $18,350 for heads of households. So, fewer individuals are claiming itemized deductions.

However, if you have significant medical expenses (including Medicare health insurance premiums), you may itemize and collect some tax savings.

Important note: Self-employed people and shareholder-employees of S corporations can generally claim an above-the-line deduction for their health insurance premiums, including Medicare premiums. So, they don’t need to itemize to get the tax savings from their premiums.

Other deductible medical expenses

In addition to Medicare premiums, you can deduct a variety of medical expenses, including those for ambulance services, dental treatment, dentures, eyeglasses and contacts, hospital services, lab tests, qualified long-term care services, prescription medicines and others.

Keep in mind that many items that Medicare doesn’t cover can be written off for tax purposes, if you qualify. You can also deduct transportation expenses to get to medical appointments. If you go by car, you can deduct a flat 20-cents-per-mile rate for 2019, or you can keep track of your actual out-of-pocket expenses for gas, oil and repairs.

Need more information?

Contact us if you have additional questions about Medicare coverage options or claiming medical expense deductions on your personal tax return. Your advisor can help determine the optimal overall tax-planning strategy based on your personal circumstances. 205-345-9898 or info@covenantcpa.com.

© 2019 CovenantCPA

If you’re getting a divorce, you know it’s a highly stressful time. But if you’re a business owner, tax issues can complicate matters even more. Your business ownership interest is one of your biggest personal assets and your marital property will include all or part of it.

Transferring property tax-free 

You can generally divide most assets, including cash and business ownership interests, between you and your soon-to-be ex-spouse without any federal income or gift tax consequences. When an asset falls under this tax-free transfer rule, the spouse who receives the asset takes over its existing tax basis (for tax gain or loss purposes) and its existing holding period (for short-term or long-term holding period purposes).

For example, let’s say that, under the terms of your divorce agreement, you give your house to your spouse in exchange for keeping 100% of the stock in your business. That asset swap would be tax-free. And the existing basis and holding periods for the home and the stock would carry over to the person who receives them.

Tax-free transfers can occur before the divorce or at the time it becomes final. Tax-free treatment also applies to postdivorce transfers so long as they’re made “incident to divorce.” This means transfers that occur within:

  • A year after the date the marriage ends, or
  • Six years after the date the marriage ends if the transfers are made pursuant to your divorce agreement.

Future tax implications

Eventually, there will be tax implications for assets received tax-free in a divorce settlement. The ex-spouse who winds up owning an appreciated asset — when the fair market value exceeds the tax basis — generally must recognize taxable gain when it’s sold (unless an exception applies).

What if your ex-spouse receives 49% of your highly appreciated small business stock? Thanks to the tax-free transfer rule, there’s no tax impact when the shares are transferred. Your ex will continue to apply the same tax rules as if you had continued to own the shares, including carryover basis and carryover holding period. When your ex-spouse ultimately sells the shares, he or she will owe any capital gains taxes. You will owe nothing.

Note that the person who winds up owning appreciated assets must pay the built-in tax liability that comes with them. From a net-of-tax perspective, appreciated assets are worth less than an equal amount of cash or other assets that haven’t appreciated. That’s why you should always take taxes into account when negotiating your divorce agreement.

In addition, the IRS now extends the beneficial tax-free transfer rule to ordinary-income assets, not just to capital-gains assets. For example, if you transfer business receivables or inventory to your ex-spouse in divorce, these types of ordinary-income assets can also be transferred tax-free. When the asset is later sold, converted to cash or exercised (in the case of nonqualified stock options), the person who owns the asset at that time must recognize the income and pay the tax liability.

Avoid adverse tax consequences

Like many major life events, divorce can have major tax implications. For example, you may receive an unexpected tax bill if you don’t carefully handle the splitting up of qualified retirement plan accounts (such as a 401(k) plan) and IRAs. And if you own a business, the stakes are higher. Your tax advisor can help you minimize the adverse tax consequences of settling your divorce under today’s laws. Contact us at 205-345-9898 or info@covenantcpa.com for more info.

© 2019 CovenantCPA