There are many ways for employers to conduct annual performance reviews. So many, in fact, that owners of small to midsize businesses may find the prospect of implementing a state-of-the-art review process overwhelming.

The simple truth is that smaller companies may not need to exert a lot of effort on a complex approach. Sometimes a simple conversation between supervisor and employee — or even owner and employee — can do the job, as long as mutual understanding is achieved and clear objectives are set.

Remember why it matters

If your commitment to this often-stressful ritual ever starts to falter, remind yourself of why it matters. A well-designed performance review process is valuable because it can:

  • Provide feedback and counseling to employees about how the company perceives their respective job performances,
  • Set objectives for the upcoming year and assist in determining any developmental needs, and
  • Create a written record of performance and assist in allocating rewards and opportunities, as well as justifying disciplinary actions or termination.

Conversely, giving annual reviews short shrift by only orally praising or reprimanding an employee leaves a big gap in that worker’s written history. The most secure companies, legally speaking, document employees’ shortcomings — and achievements — as they occur. They fully discuss performance at least once annually.

Don’t do this!

To ensure your company’s annual reviews are as productive as possible, make sure your supervisors aren’t:

Winging it. Establish clear standards and procedures for annual reviews. For example, supervisors should prepare for the meetings by filling out the same documentation for every employee.

Failing to consult others. If a team member works regularly with other departments or outside vendors, his or her supervisor should contact individuals in those other areas for feedback before the review. You can learn some surprising things this way, both good and bad.

Keeping employees in the dark. Nothing in a performance review should come as a major surprise to an employee. Be sure supervisors are communicating with workers about their performance throughout the year. An employee should know in advance what will be discussed, how much time to set aside for the meeting and how to prepare for it.

Failing to follow through. Make sure supervisors identify key objectives for each employee for the coming year. It’s also a good idea to establish checkpoints in the months ahead to assess the employee’s progress toward the goals in question.

Put something in place

As a business grows, it may very well need to upgrade and expand its performance evaluation process. But the bottom line is that every company needs to have something in place, no matter how basic, to evaluate and document how well employees are performing. Our firm can help determine how your employees’ performance is affecting profitability and suggest ways to cost-effectively improve productivity. 205-345-9898 and info@covenantcpa.com.

© 2019 CovenantCPA

Spring and summer are the optimum seasons for selling a home. And interest rates are currently attractive, so buyers may be out in full force in your area. Freddie Mac reports that the average 30-year fixed mortgage rate was 4.14% during the week of May 2, 2019, while the 15-year mortgage rate was 3.6%. This is down 0.41 and 0.43%, respectively, from a year earlier.

But before you contact a realtor to sell your home, you should review the tax considerations.

Sellers can exclude some gain

If you’re selling your principal residence, and you meet certain requirements, you can exclude up to $250,000 ($500,000 for joint filers) of gain. Gain that qualifies for the exclusion is also excluded from the 3.8% net investment income tax.

To qualify for the exclusion, you must meet these tests:

  1. The ownership test. You must have owned the property for at least two years during the five-year period ending on the sale date.
  2. The use test. You must have used the property as a principal residence for at least two years during the same five-year period. (Periods of ownership and use don’t need to overlap.)

In addition, you can’t use the exclusion more than once every two years.

Handling bigger gains 

What if you’re fortunate enough to have more than $250,000/$500,000 of profit when selling your home? Any gain that doesn’t qualify for the exclusion generally will be taxed at your long-term capital gains rate, provided you owned the home for at least a year. If you didn’t, the gain will be considered short term and subject to your ordinary-income rate, which could be more than double your long-term rate.

Other tax issues

Here are some additional tax considerations when selling a home:

Keep track of your basis. To support an accurate tax basis, be sure to maintain thorough records, including information on your original cost and subsequent improvements, reduced by any casualty losses and depreciation claimed based on business use.

Be aware that you can’t deduct a loss. If you sell your principal residence at a loss, it generally isn’t deductible. But if part of your home is rented out or used exclusively for your business, the loss attributable to that portion may be deductible.

If you’re selling a second home (for example, a vacation home), be aware that it won’t be eligible for the gain exclusion. But if it qualifies as a rental property, it can be considered a business asset, and you may be able to defer tax on any gains through an installment sale or a Section 1031 exchange. Or you may be able to deduct a loss.

Your home is probably your largest investment. So before selling it, make sure you understand the tax implications. We can help you plan ahead to minimize taxes and answer any questions you have about your situation. Call or email us- 205-345-9898, info@covenantcpa.com.

© 2019 CovenantCPA

Roth 401(k) accounts have been around for 13 years now. Studies show that more employers are offering them each year. A recent study by the Plan Sponsor Council of America (PSCA) found that Roth 401(k)s are now available at 70% of employer plans, up from 55.6% of plans in 2016.

However, despite the prevalence of employers offering Roth 401(k)s, most employees aren’t choosing to contribute to them. The PSCA found that only 20% of participants who have access to a Roth 401(k) made contributions to one in 2017. Perhaps it’s because they don’t understand them.

If you offer a Roth 401(k) or you’re considering one, educate your employees about the accounts to boost participation.

A 401(k) with a twist

As the name implies, these plans are a hybrid — taking some characteristics from Roth IRAs and some from employer-sponsored 401(k)s.

An employer with a 401(k), 403(b) or governmental 457(b) plan can offer designated Roth 401(k) accounts.

As with traditional 401(k)s, eligible employees can elect to defer part of their salaries to Roth 401(k)s, subject to annual limits. The employer may choose to provide matching contributions. For 2019, a participating employee can contribute up to $19,000 ($25,000 if he or she is age 50 or older) to a Roth 401(k). The most you can contribute to a Roth IRA for 2019 is $6,000 ($7,000 for those age 50 or older).

Note: The ability to contribute to a Roth IRA is phased out for upper-income taxpayers, but there’s no such restriction for a Roth 401(k).

The pros and cons

Unlike with traditional 401(k)s, contributions to employees’ accounts are made with after-tax dollars, instead of pretax dollars. Therefore, employees forfeit a key 401(k) tax benefit. On the plus side, after an initial period of five years, “qualified distributions” are 100% exempt from federal income tax, just like qualified distributions from a Roth IRA. In contrast, regular 401(k) distributions are taxed at ordinary-income rates, which are currently up to 37%.

In general, qualified distributions are those:

  • Made after a participant reaches age 59½, or
  • Made due to death or disability.

Therefore, you can take qualified Roth 401(k) distributions in retirement after age 59½ and pay no tax, as opposed to the hefty tax bill that may be due from traditional 401(k) payouts. And unlike traditional 401(k)s, which currently require retirees to begin taking required minimum distributions after age 70½, Roth 401(k)s have no mandate to take withdrawals.

Not for everyone

A Roth 401(k) is more beneficial than a traditional 401(k) for some participants, but not all. For example, it may be valuable for employees who expect to be in higher federal and state tax brackets in retirement. Contact us if you have questions about adding a Roth 401(k) to your benefits lineup at 205-345-9898 and info@covenantcpa.com.

© 2019 CovenantCPA

To increase brand awareness and influence consumer behavior, businesses of all sizes spend vast amounts on social media marketing. Social media “influencers” can help companies reach and engage customers. But not all influencers operate above board. Here’s how to avoid hiring or associating with a dishonest influencer.

The more, the better

There’s no commonly accepted definition of how many followers an influencer must have to claim such status. But in general, the more, the better. After all, clients want access to as many eyes as possible.

Knowing how important followers, likes and shares are, some influencers find it hard to resist the temptation to inflate their numbers. In general, they can command higher fees and attract bigger brands if their social media accounts appear to be hubs of activity.

Red flags

Fortunately, there are several red flags associated with influencer fraud. Pay attention to influencers that seem to have many followers with skimpy accounts. When you click on them, the accounts may lack bios and other personal details. These accounts may also have few followers and accounts that they follow (other than, of course, that of your influencer). In other words, the accounts don’t look authentic. In such cases, the influencer may have purchased or created followers.

Another potentially suspicious sign is that the influencer’s comments, likes, and shares exceed expectations. Higher than expected levels of engagement may sound like a good thing. However, it may also indicate that the influencer arranged for engagement via a “bot farm.” This automated application can be used to make accounts look more popular than they actually are. Or, the influencer may participate in communities of influencers with reciprocal agreements to like and share each other’s posts.

Check before you commit

Before you enter an agreement with an influencer, scrutinize the service provider’s social media accounts and activity. Also call business references to learn if the influencer’s claims about engagement results are accurate — or exaggerated. If you don’t feel comfortable with what you find, look elsewhere. Contact us for more at 205-345-9898 and info@covenantcpa.com.

© 2019 CovenantCPA

Estate planning isn’t just about what happens to your assets after you die. It’s also about protecting yourself and your loved ones. This includes having a plan for making critical medical decisions in the event you’re unable to make them yourself. And, as with other aspects of your estate plan, the time to act is now, while you’re healthy. If an illness or injury renders you unconscious or otherwise incapacitated, it will be too late.

Without a plan that expresses your wishes, your family may have to make medical decisions on your behalf or petition a court for a conservatorship. Either way, there’s no guarantee that these decisions will be made the way you would want, or by the person you would choose.

2 documents, 2 purposes

To ensure that your wishes are carried out, and that your family is spared the burden of guessing — or arguing over — what you would decide, put those wishes in writing. Generally, that means executing two documents: 1) a living will and 2) a health care power of attorney (HCPA).

Unfortunately, these documents are known by many different names, which can lead to confusion. Living wills are sometimes called “advance directives,” “health care directives” or “directives to physicians.” And HCPAs may also be known as “durable medical powers of attorney,” “durable powers of attorney for health care” or “health care proxies.” In some states, “advance directive” refers to a single document that contains both a living will and an HCPA.

For the sake of convenience, we’ll use the terms “living will” and “HCPA.” Regardless of terminology, these documents basically serve two important purposes: 1) to guide health care providers in the event you become unable to communicate or are unconscious, and 2) to appoint someone you trust to make medical decisions on your behalf.

Living will

A living will expresses your preferences for the use of life-sustaining medical procedures, such as artificial feeding and breathing, surgery, invasive diagnostic tests, and pain medication. It also specifies the situations in which these procedures should be used or withheld.

Living wills often contain a do not resuscitate order (DNR), which instructs medical personnel to not perform CPR in the event of cardiac arrest.

HCPA

An HCPA authorizes a surrogate — your spouse, child or another trusted representative — to make medical decisions or consent to medical treatment on your behalf if you’re unable to do so. It’s broader than a living will, which generally is limited to end-of-life situations, although there may be some overlap.

An HCPA might authorize your surrogate to make medical decisions that don’t conflict with your living will, including consenting to medical treatment, placing you in a nursing home or other facility, or even implementing or discontinuing life-prolonging measures.

It’s a good idea to have both a living will and an HCPA or, if allowed by state law, a single document that combines the two. Contact us if you have questions regarding either document 205-345-9898 and info@covenantcpa.com.

© 2019 CovenantCPA

Life presents us with many choices: paper or plastic, chocolate or vanilla, regular or decaf. For businesses, a common conundrum is buy or lease. You’ve probably faced this decision when considering office space or a location for your company’s production facilities. But the buy vs. lease quandary also comes into play with equipment.

Pride of ownership

Some business owners approach buying equipment like purchasing a car: “It’s mine; I’m committed to it and I’m going to do everything I can to familiarize myself with this asset and keep it in tip-top shape.” Yes, pride of ownership is still a thing.

If this is your philosophy, work to pass along that pride to employees. When you get staff members to buy in to the idea that this is your equipment and the success of the company depends on using and maintaining each asset properly, the business can obtain a great deal of long-term value from assets that are bought and paid for.

Of course, no “buy vs. lease” discussion is complete without mentioning taxes. The Tax Cuts and Jobs Act dramatically enhanced Section 179 expensing and first-year bonus depreciation for asset purchases. In fact, many businesses may be able to write off the full cost of most equipment in the year it’s purchased. On the downside, you’ll take a cash flow hit when buying an asset, and the tax benefits may be mitigated somewhat if you finance.

Fine things about flexibility

Many businesses lease their equipment for one simple reason: flexibility. From a cash flow perspective, you’re not laying down a major purchase amount or even a substantial down payment in most cases. And you’re not committed to an asset for an indefinite period — if you don’t like it, at least there’s an end date in sight.

Leasing also may be the better option if your company uses technologically advanced equipment that will get outdated relatively quickly. Think about the future of your business, too. If you’re planning to explore an expansion, merger or business transformation, you may be better off leasing equipment so you’ll have the flexibility to adapt it to your changing circumstances.

Last, leasing does have some tax breaks. Lease payments generally are tax deductible as “ordinary and necessary” business expenses, though annual deduction limits may apply.

Pros and cons

On a parting note, if you do lease assets this year and your company follows Generally Accepted Accounting Principles (GAAP), new accounting rules for leases take effect in 2020 for calendar-year private companies. Contact us for further information, as well as for any assistance you might need in weighing the pros and cons of buying vs. leasing business equipment. 205-345-9898, info@covenantcpa.com.

© 2019 CovenantCPA

It’s that time of year when many people who filed their tax returns in April are checking their mail or bank accounts to see if their refunds have landed. According to the IRS, most refunds are issued in less than 21 calendar days. However, it may take longer — and in rare cases, refunds might not come at all.

Your refund status

If you’re curious about when your refund will arrive, you can use the IRS “Where’s My Refund?” tool. Go to https://bit.ly/2cl5MZo and click “Check My Refund Status.” You’ll need your Social Security number, your filing status (single, married joint filer, etc.) and your exact refund amount.

In some cases, taxpayers who are expecting a refund may be notified that all or part of their refunds aren’t going to be paid. A number of situations can cause this to happen.

Refunds settle debts

The Treasury Offset Program can use all, or part, of a refund to settle certain debts, including:

  • Past-due federal tax debts,
  • State income tax obligations,
  • Past-due child and spousal support,
  • Federal agency debts such as a delinquent student loan, and
  • Certain unemployment compensation owed to a state.

If the federal government is going to “offset” a refund to pay past-due debts, a letter is sent to the taxpayer listing the original refund, the offset amount and the agency that received the payment. If the taxpayer wants to dispute the offset, he or she should contact the relevant federal agency.

Spousal relief

If you file a joint tax return and your tax refund is applied to the past-due debts of your spouse, you may be able to get back your share of the joint refund. For example, let’s say a husband has back child support debt from before he was married. After he and his new spouse file a joint tax return, their joint refund is applied to his child support. His wife can apply for injured spouse relief to get her portion of the refund. This is done by filing Form 8379, “Injured Spouse Allocation.”

No passports in significant cases

Beyond having a refund taken by the government, owing a significant amount of back federal taxes can now also cause a taxpayer to have passport problems. Last year, the IRS began enforcing a tax law provision that gives the IRS the authority to notify the State Department about individuals who have “seriously delinquent tax debts.” The State Department is then tasked with denying the individuals new passports or revoking existing passports.

For these purposes, a seriously delinquent tax debt is defined as an inflation-adjusted $50,000 or more. For 2019, the threshold is $52,000.

Refund questions?

In most cases, refunds are routinely sent to taxpayers within a few weeks. However, there may be some delays, or, in worst-case scenarios, refunds may be applied to debts owed to the federal or state governments. If you have questions about your refund, contact us at 205-345-9898 or info@covenantcpa.com.

© 2019 CovenantCPA

Job applicants aren’t always honest on their resumés. And if you don’t investigate suspicious claims, you might end up hiring an unqualified and unethical employee — which could lead to financial, productivity and legal liability issues. The resumé fibber might also be more likely to commit occupational fraud.

Here’s how to unearth the three most common resumé falsifications.

1. Deceptive dates

Whether to gloss over a termination, a period of job hopping or time spent out of the workforce, some job seekers “adjust” dates to make their employment history seem more consistent. Look closely at resumés that state employment dates in years, not months. Say an applicant claims she worked at her last job between 2017 and 2018. Her tenure may only have lasted two months — December 2017 until January 2018 — instead of the implied two years.

Confirm an applicant’s precise employment dates with all previous employers. Also make sure that candidates complete your entire job application, informing them that, although a resumé isn’t a legal document, a job application is. Lying on it is cause for immediate dismissal.

2. Fake degrees and shifting majors

Workers applying for a position that requires a specific degree are more likely to lie about their education than other applicants are. If a resumé lists an unfamiliar school, or coursework and years but no degree, dig deeper. A school you’ve never heard of could be a diploma mill. A resumé that simply lists Chemistry, State College, 2002, may indicate that the job seeker completed classes in that subject but didn’t actually receive a degree.

Always check applicants’ educational claims by contacting the degree-granting institution. If you’re suspicious of a school, verify its accreditation with the U.S. Department of Education.

3. Embellished titles, skills and accomplishments

Everyone tries to look their best on a resumé. Some, however, embellish their experience, titles, skill proficiencies or grade point averages with outright lies. There’s no such thing as a perfect job candidate: You may want to flag any resumé that exactly matches all of a position’s qualifications.

You should contact all personal references and speak with previous supervisors or HR staffers, notpeers, to confirm titles and job responsibilities. To elicit the best information, ask open-ended questions, followed by more probing, detailed ones. But be aware that some past employers will give only limited information, such as dates of employment.

Time and money well spent

If you’re quickly checking resumés and conducting interviews, you’re less likely to separate the candidates with real potential from those sporting fake credentials. If time is scarce, outsource this process. It’s money well spent if you can save your company from public embarrassment, legal woes or financial losses due to fraud. Contact us with questions at 205-345-9898 and info@covenantcpa.com.

© 2019 CovenantCPA

If you read the Internal Revenue Code (and you probably don’t want to!), you may be surprised to find that most business deductions aren’t specifically listed. It doesn’t explicitly state that you can deduct office supplies and certain other expenses.

Some expenses are detailed in the tax code, but the general rule is contained in the first sentence of Section 162, which states you can write off “all the ordinary and necessary expenses paid or incurred during the taxable year in carrying on any trade or business.”

Basic definitions

In general, an expense is ordinary if it’s considered common or customary in the particular trade or business. For example, insurance premiums to protect a store would be an ordinary business expense in the retail industry.

necessary expense is defined as one that’s helpful or appropriate. For example, let’s say a car dealership purchases an automatic defibrillator. It may not be necessary for the operation of the business, but it might be helpful and appropriate if an employee or customer suffers a heart attack.

It’s possible for an ordinary expense to be unnecessary — but, in order to be deductible, an expense must be ordinary and necessary.

In addition, a deductible amount must be reasonable in relation to the benefit expected. For example, if you’re attempting to land a $3,000 deal, a $65 lunch with a potential client should be OK with the IRS. (Keep in mind that the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act eliminated most deductions for entertainment expenses but retains the 50% deduction for business meals.)

Examples of not ordinary and unnecessary

Not surprisingly, the IRS and courts don’t always agree with taxpayers about what qualifies as ordinary and necessary expenditures.

In one case, a man engaged in a business with his brother was denied deductions for his private airplane expenses. The U.S. Tax Court noted that the taxpayer had failed to prove the expenses were ordinary and necessary to the business. In addition, only one brother used the plane and the flights were to places that the taxpayer could have driven to or flown to on a commercial airline. And, in any event, the stated expenses including depreciation expenses, weren’t adequately substantiated, the court added. (TC Memo 2018-108)

In another case, the Tax Court ruled that a business owner wasn’t entitled to deduct legal and professional fees he’d incurred in divorce proceedings defending his ex-wife’s claims to his interest in, or portion of, distributions he received from his LLC. The IRS and the court ruled the divorce legal fees were nondeductible personal expenses and weren’t ordinary and necessary. (TC Memo 2018-80)

Proceed with caution

The deductibility of some expenses is clear. But for other expenses, it can get more complicated. Generally, if an expense seems like it’s not normal in your industry — or if it could be considered fun, personal or extravagant in nature — you should proceed with caution. And keep records to substantiate the expenses you’re deducting. Consult with us for guidance at 205-345-9898 and info@covenantcpa.com.

© 2019 CovenantCPA

The gift and estate tax exemption is higher than it’s ever been, thanks to the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act (TCJA), which temporarily doubled the exemption to an inflation-adjusted $10 million ($20 million for married couples who design their estate plans properly). This year, the exemption amount is $11.4 million ($22.8 million for married couples).

If you’re married and you executed your estate planning documents years ago, when the exemption was substantially lower, review your plan to ensure that the increased exemption doesn’t trigger unintended results. It’s not unusual for older estate planning documents to include a “formula funding clause,” which splits assets between a credit shelter trust and the surviving spouse — either outright or in a marital trust.

Formula funding clause in action

Although the precise language may vary, a typical clause funds the credit shelter trust with “the greatest amount of property that may pass to others free of federal estate tax,” with the balance going to the surviving spouse or marital trust. Generally, credit shelter trusts are designed to preserve wealth for one’s children (from an existing or previous marriage), with limited benefits for the surviving spouse.

A formula clause works well when an estate is substantially larger than the exemption amount — but, if that’s no longer the case, it can lead to undesirable results, including inadvertent disinheritance of one’s spouse.

For example, Ciara and Mike, a married couple, each own $10 million in assets, and their estate plan contains a formula funding clause. If Ciara died in 2017, when the estate tax exemption was $5.49 million, that amount would have gone into a credit shelter trust and the remaining $4.51 million would have gone to a marital trust for Mike’s benefit. But if Ciara dies in 2019, when the exemption has increased to $11.4 million, her entire estate will pass to the credit shelter trust, leaving nothing for the marital trust.

Exemption amount heading up and then down

With the TCJA temporarily doubling the gift and estate tax exemption amount, unexpected results may occur if you don’t review and revise your plan accordingly. This is especially true if your plan includes a formula funding clause.

Also, be aware that, even though the exemption amount will continue to be adjusted annually for inflation, it expires after 2025. Without further legislation, the exemption will return to an inflation-adjusted $5 million in 2026. We’d be pleased to help review your plan and determine if changes are needed. 205-345-9898 and info@covenantcpa.com.

© 2019 CovenantCPA