Section 529 plans are a popular education-funding tool because of tax and other benefits. Two types are available: 1) prepaid tuition plans, and 2) savings plans. And one of these plans got even better under the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act (TCJA).

Enjoy valuable benefits

529 plans provide a tax-advantaged way to help pay for qualifying education expenses. First and foremost, although contributions aren’t deductible for federal purposes, plan assets can grow tax-deferred. In addition, some states offer tax incentives for contributing in the form of deductions or credits.

But that’s not all. 529 plans also usually offer high contribution limits. And there are no income limits for contributing.

Lock in current tuition rates

With a 529 prepaid tuition plan, if your contract is for four years of tuition, tuition is guaranteed regardless of its cost at the time the beneficiary actually attends the school. This can provide substantial savings if you invest when the child is still very young.

One downside is that there’s uncertainty in how benefits will be applied if the beneficiary attends a different school. Another is that the plan doesn’t cover costs other than tuition, such as room and board.

Fund more than just college tuition

A 529 savings plan can be used to pay a student’s expenses at most postsecondary educational institutions. Distributions used to pay qualified expenses (such as tuition, mandatory fees, books, supplies, computer equipment, software, Internet service and, generally, room and board) are income-tax-free for federal purposes and typically for state purposes as well, thus making the tax deferral a permanent savings.

In addition, the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act expands the definition of qualified expenses to generally include elementary and secondary school tuition. However, tax-free distributions used for such tuition are limited to $10,000 per year.

The biggest downside may be that you don’t have direct control over investment decisions; you’re limited to the options the plan offers. Additionally, for funds already in the plan, you can make changes to your investment options only twice during the year or when you change beneficiaries.

But each time you make a contribution to a 529 savings plan, you can select a different option for that contribution, regardless of how many times you contribute throughout the year. And every 12 months you can make a tax-free rollover to a different 529 plan for the same child.

Picking your plan

Both prepaid tuition plans and savings plans offer attractive benefits. We can help you determine which one is a better fit for you or explore other tax-advantaged education-funding options. Contact us at 205-345-9898.

© 2018 Covenant CPA

Your company has landed a lucrative new account, and the customer has already placed several small orders, paying in full, on time. Now the customer wants to place a larger order, but has requested that you first expand its credit account. Warning! There’s a chance that you could become a victim of bankruptcy fraud. Your new customer may be planning a “bust-out” — a common bankruptcy-related scam.

Bust-out scams

In a bust-out, fraudsters create a bogus company — often with a name similar to that of an established, reliable business — to order goods they have no intention of paying for. In fact, they plan to sell the products for fast cash, file for bankruptcy and leave you, the supplier, holding the empty bag.

In a variation of the scheme, bogus operators buy an existing company and use its good credit to order the goods. Either way, they sell the products they order below cost, for cash, and then file for bankruptcy, writing off the amounts of the supplier’s bill.

You can avoid becoming a bust-out victim by carefully vetting businesses that were formed only recently. Also be wary of established companies with new ownership — particularly if the new owners seem to want to keep their involvement under wraps. And pay particular attention to customers that have:

  • Warehouses stuffed with high-volume, low-cost items,
  • Disproportionate liabilities to assets,
  • No corporate bank account, and
  • Principals previously involved with failed companies.

Fraudulent conveyance schemes

Bust-outs are far from the only bankruptcy-related scams. In fact, the most common type of bankruptcy fraud is concealing assets — or fraudulent conveyance. This scheme involves hiding or moving assets in anticipation of a bankruptcy. The owner of a business on the brink of collapse may, for example, transfer property to a third party — most commonly, a spouse — for little or no compensation. The third party holds the property until bankruptcy proceedings have concluded, and then transfers it back to the business owner.

Alternatively, the business owner files for bankruptcy and then, with the court’s approval, sells property below value to a straw buyer. The owner’s relationship with the buyer isn’t disclosed, but the buyer holds the property until the owner is ready to reclaim it at an agreed-upon price.

In either case, the goal is the same: to keep property and monetary compensation out of the hands of creditors.

Prevention first

Fighting bankruptcy fraud typically requires professional legal and financial help. The best protection is prevention, but if you suspect one of your customers is trying to pull a fast one, contact us at 205-345-9898.

© 2018 Covenant CPA

To head off employee theft, businesses need to know what crooked employees are most likely to steal. The number one preference is cash. But if that’s off limits, the next choice is something expensive that they can use outside work. And, of course, the most costly and useful items in most offices are laptop and desktop computers and other technological devices.

Mark equipment

How can your company protect its technology assets from theft? First, consider adding security plates and indelible markings. These additions can help you track stolen equipment, inhibit resale and discourage thieves from ever trying to steal.

Security software also can track a stolen computer online. As soon as the thief connects to the Internet, its software contacts the security firm’s monitoring system, which traces the machine’s current IP address. To locate a physical address, firms use GPS and Wi-Fi tracking. However, there can be legal obstacles to obtaining the actual address of a thief.

Most computers and mobile devices can also be tracked by sites and apps such as Google, Facebook and Dropbox, which capture the IP addresses of users when they log into their accounts. Apple products can be tracked using iCloud.

Fasten it down

To keep laptop and desktop computers where they belong, you can lock them down with cables and attach motion sensor alarms. If you store numerous laptops on your premises, consider locking them in heavy-duty cabinets or carts when not in use.

To deter desktop computer theft, consider a locked steel case bolted to the desktop. If you prefer not to drill holes in furniture, you can attach super-strength adhesive security pads to desks or other furniture to prevent thieves from lifting the equipment off the surface.

Keep it safe

It’s worth the effort to add extra security and keep your company’s assets where they belong. Also make sure that your business insurance provides adequate coverage for computer losses. Contact us for more information at 205-345-9898.

© 2018 Covenant CPA

If you’ve worked a lifetime to build a large estate, you undoubtedly would like to leave a lasting legacy to your children and future generations. Educating your children about saving, investing and other money management skills can help keep your legacy alive.

Teaching techniques

There’s no one right way to teach your children about money. The best way depends on your circumstances, their personalities and your comfort level.

If your kids are old enough, consider sending them to a money management class. For younger children, you might start by simply giving them an allowance in exchange for doing household chores. This helps teach them the value of work. Opening a savings account or a CD, or buying bonds, can help teach kids about investing and the power of compounding.

For families that are charitably inclined, a private foundation may be a great vehicle for teaching children about the joys of giving and the impact that wealth can make beyond one’s family. For this strategy to be effective, older children should have some input into the foundation’s activities. When the time comes, this can also be a great way to get your grandchildren involved at a young age.

Timing and amount of distributions

Many parents take an all-or-nothing approach when it comes to the timing and amounts of distributions to their children — either transferring substantial amounts of wealth all at once or making gifts that are too small to provide meaningful lessons.

Consider making distributions large enough so that your kids have something significant to lose, but not so large that their entire inheritance is at risk.

Introduce incentives, but remain flexible

An incentive trust is a trust that rewards children for doing things that they might not otherwise do. Such a trust can be an effective estate planning tool, but there’s a fine line between encouraging positive behavior and controlling your children’s life choices. A trust that’s too restrictive may incite rebellion or invite lawsuits.

Incentives can be valuable, however, if the trust is flexible enough to allow a child to chart his or her own course. A so-called “principle trust,” for example, gives the trustee discretion to make distributions based on certain guiding principles or values without limiting beneficiaries to narrowly defined goals. But no matter how carefully designed, an incentive trust won’t teach your children critical money skills.

Communication is key

To maintain family harmony when leaving a large portion of your estate to your children, clearly communicate the reason for your decisions. Contact us for more information at 205-345-9898.

© 2018 Covenant CPA

It’s easy to understand why more and more businesses are taking a “bring your own device” (BYOD) approach to the smartphones, tablets and laptops many employees rely on to do their jobs. BYOD can boost employee efficiency and satisfaction, often while reducing a company’s IT costs. But the approach isn’t without risk for both you and your staff. So, it’s highly advisable to create a strong formal policy that combines convenience with security.

Primary concerns

As an employer, your primary concern with BYOD is no doubt the inevitable security risks that arise when your networks are accessible to personal devices that could be stolen, lost or hacked. But you also must think about various legal compliance issues, such as electronic document retention for litigation purposes or liability for overtime pay when nonexempt employees use their devices to work outside of normal hours.

For employees, the main worry comes down to privacy. Will you, their employer, have access to personal information, photos and other non-work-related data on the device? Could an employee lose all of that if you’re forced to “wipe” the device because it’s been lost or stolen, or when the employee leaves your company?

Important obligations

A BYOD policy must address these and other issues. Each company’s individual circumstances will determine the final details, but most employers should, at minimum, require employees to sign an acknowledgment of their obligations to:

  • Use strong passwords and automatic lock-outs after periods of inactivity,
  • Immediately report lost or stolen devices,
  • Install mandated antivirus software and other protective measures,
  • Regularly back up their devices,
  • Keep apps and operating systems up to date, and
  • Encrypt their devices.

The policy also should prohibit the use of public wi-fi networks or require employees to log in through a secure virtual private network when connecting via public wi-fi. You may want to forbid certain apps, too.

In addition, you need to spell out your rights to access, monitor and delete data on employees’ devices — including the types of data you can access and under which conditions. In particular, explain your wiping procedures and the steps employees can take to protect their personal information from permanent erasure.

Protection now

Nearly everyone who works for your company likely has a smartphone at this point. As such devices integrate themselves ever more deeply into our daily lives, it’s only natural that they’ll affect our jobs. Establishing a BYOD policy now can help prevent costly mistakes and potential litigation down the road. We can provide further information, so call us at 205-345-9898.

© 2018 Covenant CPA

If you’re age 70½ or older, you can make direct contributions — up to $100,000 annually — from your IRA to qualified charitable organizations without owing any income tax on the distributions. This break may be especially beneficial now because of Tax Cuts and Jobs Act (TCJA) changes that affect who can benefit from the itemized deduction for charitable donations.

Counts toward your RMD

A charitable IRA rollover can be used to satisfy required minimum distributions (RMDs). You must begin to take annual RMDs from your traditional IRAs in the year you reach age 70½. If you don’t comply, you can owe a penalty equal to 50% of the amount you should have withdrawn but didn’t. (Deferral is allowed for the initial year, but you’ll have to take two RMDs the next year.)

So if you don’t need the RMD for your living expenses, a charitable IRA rollover can be a great way to comply with the RMD requirement without triggering the tax liability that would occur if the RMD were paid to you.

Doesn’t require itemizing

You might be able to achieve a similar tax result from taking the RMD and then contributing that amount to charity. But it’s more complex because you must report the RMD as income and then take an itemized deduction for the donation.

And, with the TCJA’s near doubling of the standard deduction, fewer taxpayers will benefit from itemizing. Itemizing saves tax only when itemized deductions exceed the standard deduction. For 2018, the standard deduction is $12,000 for singles, $18,000 for heads of households, and $24,000 for married couples filing jointly.

Doesn’t have other deduction downsides

Even if you have enough other itemized deductions to exceed your standard deduction, taking your RMD and contributing that amount to charity has two more possible downsides.

First, the reported RMD income might increase your income to the point that you’re pushed into a higher tax bracket, certain additional taxes are triggered and/or the benefits of certain tax breaks are reduced or eliminated. It could even cause Social Security payments to become taxable or increase income-based Medicare premiums and prescription drug charges.

Second, if your donation would equal a large portion of your income for the year, your deduction might be reduced due to the percentage-of-income limit. You generally can’t deduct cash donations that exceed 60% of your adjusted gross income for the year. (The TCJA raised this limit from 50%, but if the cash donation is to a private nonoperating foundation, the limit is only 30%.) You can carry forward the excess up to five years, but if you make large donations every year, that won’t help you.

A charitable IRA rollover avoids these potential negative tax consequences.

Have questions?

The considerations involved in deciding whether to make a direct IRA rollover have changed in light of the TCJA. So contact us at 205-345-9898 to go over your particular situation and determine what’s right for you.

© 2018 Covenant CPA

Businesses that acquire, construct or substantially improve a building — or did so in previous years — should consider a cost segregation study. It may allow you to accelerate depreciation deductions, thus reducing taxes and boosting cash flow. And the potential benefits are now even greater due to enhancements to certain depreciation-related breaks under the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act (TCJA).

Real property vs. tangible personal property

IRS rules generally allow you to depreciate commercial buildings over 39 years (27½ years for residential properties). Most times, you’ll depreciate a building’s structural components — such as walls, windows, HVAC systems, elevators, plumbing and wiring — along with the building. Personal property — such as equipment, machinery, furniture and fixtures — is eligible for accelerated depreciation, usually over five or seven years. And land improvements — fences, outdoor lighting and parking lots, for example — are depreciable over 15 years.

Too often, businesses allocate all or most of a building’s acquisition or construction costs to real property, overlooking opportunities to allocate costs to shorter-lived personal property or land improvements. In some cases — computers or furniture, for instance — the distinction between real and personal property is obvious. But often the line between the two is less clear. Items that appear to be part of a building may in fact be personal property, like removable wall and floor coverings, removable partitions, awnings and canopies, window treatments, signs and decorative lighting.

In addition, certain items that otherwise would be treated as real property may qualify as personal property if they serve more of a business function than a structural purpose. This includes reinforced flooring to support heavy manufacturing equipment, electrical or plumbing installations required to operate specialized equipment, or dedicated cooling systems for data processing rooms.

A cost segregation study combines accounting and engineering techniques to identify building costs that are properly allocable to tangible personal property rather than real property. Although the relative costs and benefits of a cost segregation study depend on your particular facts and circumstances, it can be a valuable investment.

Depreciation break enhancements

Last year’s TCJA enhances certain depreciation-related tax breaks, which may also enhance the benefits of a cost segregation study. Among other things, the act permanently increased limits on Section 179 expensing. Sec. 179 allows you to immediately deduct the entire cost of qualifying equipment or other fixed assets up to specified thresholds.

The TCJA also expanded 15-year-property treatment to apply to qualified improvement property. Previously this break was limited to qualified leasehold-improvement, retail-improvement and restaurant property. And it temporarily increased first-year bonus depreciation to 100% (from 50%).

Assess the potential savings

Cost segregation studies may yield substantial benefits, but they’re not right for every business. To find out whether a study would be worthwhile for yours, contact us  at 205-345-9898 for help assessing the potential tax savings.

© 2018 Covenant CPA

No matter how much effort you’ve invested in designing your estate plan, your will, trusts and other official documents aren’t enough. You should also create a “road map” — an informal letter or other document that guides your family in understanding and executing your plan and ensuring that your wishes are carried out. Your road map should include, among other things:

  • A list of important contacts, including your estate planning attorney, accountant, insurance agent and financial advisors,
  • The location of your will, living and other trusts, tax returns and records, powers of attorney, insurance policies, deeds, automobile titles, and other important documents,
  • A personal financial statement that lists stocks, bonds, real estate, bank accounts, retirement plans, vehicles and other assets, as well as information about mortgages, credit cards, and other debts,
  • An inventory of digital assets — such as email accounts, online bank and brokerage accounts, online photo galleries, digital music and book collections, and social media accounts — including login credentials or a description of arrangements made to provide your representative with access,
  • Computer passwords and home security system codes,
  • Safe combinations and the location of any safety deposit boxes and keys,
  • The location of family heirlooms or other valuable personal property, and
  • Information about funeral arrangements or burial wishes.

The road map can also be a good place to explain to your loved ones the reasoning behind certain estate planning decisions. Perhaps you’re distributing your assets unequally, distributing specific assets to specific heirs or placing certain restrictions on an heir’s entitlement to trust distributions. There are many good reasons for these strategies, but it’s important for your family to understand your motives to avoid hurt feelings or disputes.

Finally, like other estate planning documents, your road map won’t be effective unless your family knows where to find it, so it’s a good idea to leave it with a trusted advisor. Contact us at 205-345-9898 to start your road map.

© 2018 Covenant CPA

If you dream of spending your golden years in a tropical paradise, a culture-rich European city or another foreign locale, it’s important to understand the potential tax and estate planning implications. If you don’t, you could be hit with some unpleasant surprises.

Avoiding the pitfalls

If you’re a citizen of the United States, U.S. taxes will apply even after you move to another country. So if your estate is large, you might be subject to gift and estate taxes in your new country and in the United States (possibly including state taxes if you maintain a residence in a U.S. state). You also could be subject to estate taxes abroad even if your estate isn’t large enough to be subject to U.S. estate taxes. In some cases, you can claim a credit against U.S. taxes for taxes you pay to another country, but these credits aren’t always available.

One option for avoiding U.S. taxes is to relinquish your U.S. citizenship. But this strategy raises a host of legal and tax issues of its own, including potential liability for a one-time “expatriation tax.”

If you wish to purchase a home in a foreign country, you may discover that your ability to acquire property is restricted. Some countries, for example, prohibit foreigners from owning real estate that’s within a certain distance from the coast or even throughout the country. It may be possible to bypass these restrictions by using a corporation or trust to hold property, but this can create burdensome tax issues for U.S. citizens.

Finally, if you own real estate or other property in a foreign country, you may run up against unusual inheritance rules. In some countries, for example, your children have priority over your spouse, regardless of the terms of your will.

We’re here to help

If you’re considering a move overseas after you retire, discuss your plans with us before making a move. We can review your estate plan and make recommendations to help avoid tax pitfalls after you relocate. Call us at 205-345-9898 for more information.

© 2018 Covenant CPA

Like many business owners, you probably created a business plan when you launched your company. But, as is also often the case, you may not have looked at it much since then. Now that fall has arrived and year end is coming soon, why not dig it out? Reviewing and revising a business plan can be a great way to plan for the year ahead.

6 sections to scrutinize

Comprehensive business plans traditionally are composed of six sections. When revisiting yours, look for insights in each one:

1. Executive summary. This should read like an “elevator pitch” regarding your company’s purpose, its financial position and requirements, its state of competitiveness, and its strategic goals. If your business plan is out of date, the executive summary won’t quite jibe with what you do today. Don’t worry: You can rewrite it after you revise the other five sections.

2. Business description. A company’s key features are described here. These include its name, entity type, number of employees, key assets, core competencies, and product or service menu. Look at whether anything has changed and, if so, what. Maybe your workforce has grown or you’ve added products or services.

3. Industry and marketing analysis. This section analyzes the state of a company’s industry and explicates how the business will market itself. Your industry may have changed since your business plan’s original writing. What are the current challenges? Where do opportunities lie? How will you market your company’s strengths to take advantage of these opportunities?

4. Management team description. The business plan needs to recognize the company’s current leadership. Verify the accuracy of who’s identified as an owner and, if necessary, revise the list of management-level employees, providing brief bios of each. As you look over your management team, ask yourself: Are there gaps or weak links? Is one person handling too much?

5. Operational plan. This section explains how a business functions on a day-to-day basis. Scrutinize your operating cycle — that is, the process by which a product or service is delivered to customers and, in turn, how revenue is brought in and expenses are paid. Is it still accurate? The process of revising this description may reveal inefficiencies or redundancies of which you weren’t even aware.

6. Financials. The last section serves as a reasonable estimate of how your company intends to manage its finances in the near future. So, you should review and revise it annually. Key projections to generate are forecasts of your profits and losses, as well as your cash flow, in the coming year. Many business plans also include a balance sheet summarizing current assets, liabilities and equity.

Keep it fresh

The precise structure of business plans can vary but, when regularly revisited, they all have one thing in common: a wealth of up-to-date information about the company described. Don’t leave this valuable document somewhere to gather dust — keep it fresh. Our firm can help you review your business plan and generate accurate financials that allow you to take on the coming year with confidence. Call us now at 205-345-9898.

© 2018 Covenant CPA