The record-high exemption amount currently in effect means that fewer families are affected by gift and estate taxes. As a result, the estate planning focus for many people has shifted from transfer taxes to income taxes. A nongrantor trust can be an effective option to reduce income taxes, and it offers a way around the itemized deduction limitations imposed by the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act (TCJA).

What’s a nongrantor trust?

A nongrantor trust is simply a trust that’s a separate taxable entity. The trust owns the assets it holds and is responsible for taxes on any income those assets generate. A grantor trust, in contrast, is one in which the grantor retains certain powers and, therefore, is treated as the owner for income tax purposes.

Both grantor and nongrantor trusts can be structured so that contributions are considered “completed gifts” for transfer tax purposes (thereby removing contributed assets from the grantor’s taxable estate). But traditionally, grantor trusts have been the estate planning tool of choice. Why? It’s because the trust’s income is taxed to the grantor, reducing the size of the grantor’s estate and allowing the trust assets to grow tax-free, leaving more wealth for beneficiaries. Essentially, the grantor’s tax payments serve as an additional tax-free gift.

With less emphasis today on gift and estate tax savings, nongrantor trusts offer some significant benefits.

How can nongrantor trusts reduce income taxes?

The TCJA places limits on itemized deductions, but nongrantor trusts may offer a way to avoid those limitations. The law nearly doubled the standard deduction to $12,000 for individuals and $24,000 for married couples. (Indexed annually for inflation, the 2019 standard deduction amounts are $12,200 for individuals and $24,400 for married couples.) The TCJA also limits deductions for state and local taxes (SALT) to $10,000.

These changes reduce or eliminate the benefits of itemized deductions for many taxpayers, especially those in high-SALT states. By placing assets in nongrantor trusts, it may be possible to increase your deductions, because each trust enjoys its own $10,000 SALT deduction.

For example, Andy and Kate, a married couple filing jointly, pay well over $10,000 per year in state income taxes. They also own two homes, each of which generates $20,000 per year in property taxes. Under the TCJA, the couple’s SALT deduction is limited to $10,000, which covers a portion of their state income taxes, but they receive no tax benefit for the $40,000 they pay in property taxes.

To avoid this limitation, Andy and Kate transfer the two homes to an LLC, together with assets that earn approximately $40,000 per year in income. Next, they give 25% LLC interests to four nongrantor trusts. Each trust earns around $10,000 per year, which is offset by its $10,000 property tax deduction. Essentially, this strategy allows the couple to deduct their entire $40,000 property tax bill.

Beware the multiple trust rule

If you’re considering this strategy, be aware that the tax code contains a provision that treats multiple trusts with substantially the same grantors and beneficiaries as a single trust if their purpose is tax avoidance.

To ensure that this rule doesn’t erase the benefits of the nongrantor trust strategy, designate a different beneficiary for each trust. Contact us for more information at 205-345-9898 and info@covenantcpa.com.

© 2019 CovenantCPA

Can your business become more profitable without venturing out of its comfort zone? Of course! However, adding new products or services may not be the best way for your business — or any company — to boost profits. Bottom-line potential may lie undiscovered in your existing operations. How can you find these “hidden” profits? Dig into every facet of your organization.

Develop a profit plan

You’ve probably written and perhaps even recently revised a business plan. And you’ve no doubt developed sales and marketing plans to present to investors and bankers. But have you taken the extra step of developing a profit plan?

A profit plan outlines your company’s profit potential and sets objectives for realizing those bottom-line improvements. Following traditional profit projections based on a previous quarter’s or previous year’s performance can limit you. Why? Because when your company reaches its budgeted sales goals or exceeds them, you may feel inclined to ease up for the rest of the year. Don’t just coast past your sales goals — roar past them and keep going.

Uncover hidden profit potential by developing a profit plan that includes a continuous incentive to improve. Set your sales goals high. Even if you don’t reach them, you’ll have the incentive to continue pushing for more sales right through year end.

Ask the right questions

Among the most effective techniques for creating such a plan is to consider three critical questions. Answer them with, if necessary, brutal honesty to increase your chances of success. And pose the questions to your employees for their input, too. Their answers may reveal options you never considered. Here are the questions:

1. What does our company do best? Involve top management and brainstorm to answer this question. Identifying your core competencies should result in strategies that boost operations and uncover hidden profits.

2. What products or services should we eliminate? Nearly everyone in management has an answer to this question, but usually no one asks for it. When you lay out the tough answers on the table, you can often eliminate unprofitable activities and improve profits by adding or improving profitable ones.

3. Exactly who are our customers? You may be wasting time and money on marketing that doesn’t reach your most profitable customers. Analyzing your customers and prospects to better focus your marketing activities is a powerful way to cut waste and increase profits.

Get that shovel ready

Every business owner wishes his or her company could be more profitable, but how many undertake a concerted effort to uncover hidden profits? By pulling out that figurative shovel and digging into every aspect of your company, you may very well unearth profit opportunities your competitors are missing. We can help you conduct this self-examination, gather the data and crunch the resulting numbers. 205-345-9898 and info@covenantcpa.com.

© 2019 CovenantCPA

You’ve probably seen or heard ads urging you to donate your car to charity. “Make a difference and receive tax savings,” one organization states. But donating a vehicle may not result in a big tax deduction — or any deduction at all.

Trade in, sell or donate?

Let’s say you’re buying a new car and want to get rid of your old one. Among your options are trading in the vehicle to the dealer, selling it yourself or donating it to charity.

If you donate, the tax deduction depends on whether you itemize and what the charity does with the vehicle. For cars worth more than $500, the deduction is the amount for which the charity actually sells the car, if it sells without materially improving it. (This limit includes vans, trucks, boats and airplanes.)

Because many charities wind up selling the cars they receive, your donation will probably be limited to the sale price. Furthermore, these sales are often at auction, or even salvage, and typically result in sales below the Kelley Blue Book® value. To further complicate matters, you won’t know the amount of your deduction until the charity sells the car and reports the sale proceeds to you.

If the charity uses the car in its operations or materially improves it before selling, your deduction will be based on the car’s fair market value at the time of the donation. In that case, fair market value is usually set according to the Blue Book listings.

In these cases, the IRS will accept the Blue Book value or another established used car pricing guide for a car that’s the same make, model, and year, sold in the same area and in the same condition, as the car you donated. In some cases, this value may exceed the amount you could get on a sale.

However, if the car is in poor condition, needs substantial repairs or is unsafe to drive, and the pricing guide only lists prices for cars in average or better condition, the guide won’t set the car’s value for tax purposes. Instead, you must establish the car’s market value by any reasonable method. Many used car guides show how to adjust value for items such as accessories or mileage.

You must itemize

In any case, you must itemize your deductions to get the tax benefit. You can’t take a deduction for a car donation if you take the standard deduction. Under the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act, fewer people are itemizing because the law significantly increased the standard deduction amounts. So even if you donate a car to charity, you may not get any tax benefit, because you don’t have enough itemized deductions.

If you do donate a vehicle and itemize, be careful to substantiate your deduction. Make sure the charity qualifies for tax deductions. If it sells the car, you’ll need a written acknowledgment from the organization with your name, tax ID number, vehicle ID number, gross proceeds of sale and other information. The charity should provide you with this acknowledgment within 30 days of the sale.

If, instead, the charity uses (or materially improves) the car, the acknowledgment needs to certify the intended use (or improvement), along with other information. This acknowledgment should be provided within 30 days of the donation.

Consider all factors

Of course, a tax deduction isn’t the only reason for donating a vehicle to charity. You may want to support a worthwhile organization. Or you may like the convenience of having a charity pick up a car at your home on short notice. But if you’re donating in order to claim a tax deduction, make sure you understand all the ramifications. Contact us if you have questions at 205-345-9898 and info@covenantcpa.com.

© 2019 CovenantCPA

Is your business hiring this summer? If the employees come from certain “targeted groups,” you may be eligible for the Work Opportunity Tax Credit (WOTC). This includes youth whom you bring in this summer for two or three months. The maximum credit employers can claim is $2,400 to $9,600 for each eligible employee.

10 targeted groups

An employer is generally eligible for the credit only for qualified wages paid to members of 10 targeted groups:

  • Qualified members of families receiving assistance under the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program,
  • Qualified veterans,
  • Designated community residents who live in Empowerment Zones or rural renewal counties,
  • Qualified ex-felons,
  • Vocational rehabilitation referrals,
  • Qualified summer youth employees,
  • Qualified members of families in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program,
  • Qualified Supplemental Security Income recipients,
  • Long-term family assistance recipients, and
  • Qualified individuals who have been unemployed for 27 weeks or longer.

For each employee, there’s also a minimum requirement that the employee have completed at least 120 hours of service for the employer, and that employment begin before January 1, 2020.

Also, the credit isn’t available for certain employees who are related to the employer or work more than 50% of the time outside of a trade or business of the employer (for example, working as a house cleaner in the employer’s home). And it generally isn’t available for employees who have previously worked for the employer.

Calculate the savings

For employees other than summer youth employees, the credit amount is calculated under the following rules. The employer can take into account up to $6,000 of first-year wages per employee ($10,000 for “long-term family assistance recipients” and/or $12,000, $14,000 or $24,000 for certain veterans). If the employee completed at least 120 hours but less than 400 hours of service for the employer, the wages taken into account are multiplied by 25%. If the employee completed 400 or more hours, all of the wages taken into account are multiplied by 40%.

Therefore, the maximum credit available for the first-year wages is $2,400 ($6,000 × 40%) per employee. It is $4,000 [$10,000 × 40%] for “long-term family assistance recipients”; $4,800, $5,600 or $9,600 [$12,000, $14,000 or $24,000 × 40%] for certain veterans. In order to claim a $9,600 credit, a veteran must be certified as being entitled to compensation for a service-connected disability and be unemployed for at least six months during the one-year period ending on the hiring date.

Additionally, for “long-term family assistance recipients,” there’s a 50% credit for up to $10,000 of second-year wages, resulting in a total maximum credit, over two years, of $9,000 [$10,000 × 40% plus $10,000 × 50%].

The “first year” described above is the year-long period which begins with the employee’s first day of work. The “second year” is the year that immediately follows.

For summer youth employees, the rules described above apply, except that you can only take into account up to $3,000 of wages, and the wages must be paid for services performed during any 90-day period between May 1 and September 15. That means that, for summer youth employees, the maximum credit available is $1,200 ($3,000 × 40%) per employee. Summer youth employees are defined as those who are at least 16 years old, but under 18 on the hiring date or May 1 (whichever is later), and reside in an Empowerment Zone, enterprise community or renewal community.

We can help

The WOTC can offset the cost of hiring qualified new employees. There are some additional rules that, in limited circumstances, prohibit the credit or require an allocation of the credit. And you must fill out and submit paperwork to the government. Contact us for assistance or more information about your situation at 205-345-9898 and info@covenantcpa.com.

© 2019 CovenantCPA

Kickbacks return a portion of the money exchanged in a business transaction as compensation for favorable treatment. They’re illegal in the United States and many other countries. But because kickbacks are often disguised as gifts, travel and entertainment, they can be hard to identify.

Intention of the gift-giver

Gifts, gratuities or courtesies of modest value associated with ordinary business practices are usually acceptable. The key consideration is the intention of the giver. Your employees shouldn’t accept any gift offered with the intent to improperly influence business decisions — or that would give the impression of compromising the employee’s ability to act in the best interests of the company.

The same integrity test should be applied in deciding whether to offer a gift to a customer or any other third party. You must take care to avoid not only an actual impropriety, but also the appearance of impropriety.

But defining what is proper or improper with a specific dollar amount can be difficult. Common sense often determines when a gift becomes extravagant or excessive. Professional organizations may provide their members with gift standards, and your employee handbook should set guidelines and spell out your policy.

Detection methods

Kickback schemes in progress often are uncovered when an employee or vendor reports it. So make sure your company operates a confidential fraud hotline. Without an eyewitness, you might look for a pattern of lavish business entertainment or irregular purchasing behavior. Watch for repeated instances of ordering materials at a time other than the optimal reorder point and consistently placing orders with the same vendor.

Failure to follow general bidding policies also signals the need for a closer look. And if costs of materials seem out of line, the cause may be kickbacks in general purchasing.

Bidding irregularities

Kickbacks sometimes sneak into the bidding process when employees accept money in return for advance information about bids. Irregularities in the bid solicitation and submission process — for example, tailoring requirements in solicitation documents to fit the products or capabilities of a single contractor — may be signs of a kickback scheme.

Other signals of possible trouble include prequalification procedures restricting competition and bypassing necessary review procedures. A foreshortened bid submission schedule might allow only those with advance information time to prepare proposals.

Spell out your policy

The line between an acceptable gift offered with integrity and a kickback given as an illegal inducement for favorable treatment can be thin. Contact us for assistance in detecting and preventing kickbacks. 205-345-9898, info@covenantcpa.com.

© 2019 CovenantCPA

Like most businesses, yours probably has a variety of physical assets, such as production equipment, office furnishings and a plethora of technological devices. But the largest physical asset in your portfolio may be your real estate holdings — that is, the building and the land it sits on.

Under such circumstances, many business owners choose to separate ownership of the real estate from the company itself. A typical purpose of this strategy is to shield these assets from claims by creditors if the business ever files for bankruptcy (assuming the property isn’t pledged as loan collateral). In addition, the property is better protected against claims that may arise if a customer is injured on the property and sues the business.

But there’s another reason to consider separating your business interests from your real estate holdings: to benefit your succession plan.

Ownership transition

A common and generally effective way to separate the ownership of real estate from a company is to form a distinct entity, such as a limited liability company (LLC) or a limited liability partnership (LLP), to hold legal title to the property. Your business will then rent the property from the entity in a tenant-landlord relationship.

Using this strategy can help you transition ownership of your company to one or more chosen successors, or to reward employees for strong performance. By holding real estate in a separate entity, you can sell shares in the company to the successors or employees without transferring ownership of the real estate.

In addition, retaining title to the property will allow you to collect rent from the new owners. Doing so can be a valuable source of cash flow during retirement.

You could also realize estate planning benefits. When real estate is held in a separate legal entity, you can gift business interests to your heirs without giving up interest in the property.

Complex strategy

The details involved in separating the title to your real estate from your business can be complex. Our firm can help you determine whether this strategy would suit your company and succession plan, including a close examination of the potential tax benefits or risks. Call or email us today- 205-345-9898, info@covenantcpa.com.

© 2019 Covenant CPA

Despite the National Do Not Call registry and features such as caller ID, phone fraud is thriving in the mobile phone era. Using spoofed numbers — which appear to be connected to legitimate government offices and businesses or that resemble your own number — fraud perpetrators say anything and everything to try to steal your money.

Recently, scammers have posed as Social Security officials to steal from unsuspecting consumers. Since January 2018, the Federal Trade Commission has received more than 63,000 reports about this scam. Only 3% of reporting call recipients lost money, but the losses total $16.6 million.

Anatomy of a crime

Here’s how the Social Security scheme works: Criminals call from spoofed phone numbers and tell consumers that their Social Security number has been linked to a crime and has been “suspended.” The callers claim that the consumer’s bank accounts will be seized by the government unless they withdraw money and transfer the amount to gift cards. While the thief remains on the line, the consumer purchases the gift cards. Then the caller asks for the gift card numbers and PINs, supposedly for “safekeeping.” With that information, the fraudster uses the cards or sells them on the black market.

The same callers also usually ask consumers for their Social Security number for confirmation purposes. With this critical piece of personal information, crooks can steal someone’s identity.

Truth of the matter

The truth is that the Social Security Administration doesn’t suspend Social Security numbers, nor does it ask people for their numbers over the phone. And no government entity would ask for payment in gift cards. Criminals hope that you aren’t aware of these facts. They also use fear — of arrest, loss of savings and, in some cases, deportation — and a sense of urgency to get what they want.

Fortunately, you can avoid becoming snared in a Social Security phone scam by following some simple guidelines:

  • If you don’t recognize the number appearing on your caller ID, don’t answer the phone.
  • Install a spam call blocker (available in mobile app stores) and use it for any calls that seem suspicious.
  • If you inadvertently answer a spam call, hang up immediately.
  • Never provide personal information, including bank account or Social Security numbers, to anyone over the phone.
  • Report suspicious calls to ftccomplaintassistant.gov.

Businesses beware, too

Note that it’s not just consumers who might fall victim to phone fraud schemes. Fraudsters also target businesses to secure sensitive information such as bank account numbers, routing numbers and passwords. If you’re a business owner, educate employees about phone scams and implement fraud controls. Contact us for more information at 205-345-9898 and info@covenantcpa.com.

© 2019 Covenant CPA

Companies tend to spend considerable time and resources training and upskilling their sales staff on how to handle existing customers. And this is, no doubt, a critical task. But don’t overlook the vast pool of individuals or entities that want to buy from you but just don’t know it yet. We’re talking about prospects.

Identifying and winning over a steady flow of new buyers can safeguard your business against sudden sales drops or, better yet, push its profitability to new heights. Here are some ideas for better targeting and converting your company’s sales prospects:

Continually improve lead generation. Does your marketing department help you generate leads by doing things such as creating customer profiles for your products or services? If not, it’s probably time to create a database of prospects who may benefit from your products or services. Customer relationship management software can be of great help. When salespeople have a clear picture of a likely buyer, they’ll be able to better focus their efforts.

Use qualifications to avoid wasted sales calls. The most valuable nonrecurring asset that any company possesses is time. Effective salespeople spend their time with prospects who are the most likely to buy from them. Four aspects of a worthy prospect include having:

  • Clearly discernible and fulfillable needs,
  • A readily available decision maker,
  • Definitively assured creditworthiness, and
  • A timely desire to buy.

Apply these qualifications, and perhaps others that you develop, to any person or entity with whom you’re considering doing business. If a sale appears highly unlikely, move on.

Develop effective questions. When talking with prospects, your sales staff must know what draws buyers to your company. Sales staffers who make great presentations but don’t ask effective questions to find out about prospects’ needs are doomed to mediocrity.

They say the most effective salespeople spend 20% of their time talking and 80% listening. Whether these percentages are completely accurate is hard to say but, after making their initial pitch, good salespeople use their talking time to ask intelligent, insightful questions based on solid research into the prospect. Otherwise, they listen.

Devise solutions. It may seem next to impossible to solve the challenges of someone you’ve never met. But that’s the ultimate challenge of targeting and winning over prospects. Your sales staff needs the ability to know — going in — how your product or service can solve a prospect’s problem or help him, her or that organization accomplish a goal. Without a clear offer of a solution, what motivation does a prospect have to spend money?

Customers are important — and it would be foolish to suggest they’re not. But remember, at one time, every one of your customers was a prospect that you won over. You’ve got to keep that up. Contact us for help quantifying your sales process so you can get a better idea of how to improve it at 205-345-9898 and info@covenantcpa.com.

© 2019 CovenantCPA

The IRS just released its audit statistics for the 2018 fiscal year, and fewer taxpayers had their returns examined as compared with prior years. However, even though a small percentage of tax returns are being chosen for audit these days, that will be little consolation if yours is one of them.

Latest statistics

Overall, just 0.59% of individual tax returns were audited in 2018, as compared with 0.62% in 2017. This was the lowest percentage of audits conducted since 2002.

However, as in the past, those with very high incomes face greater odds. For example, in 2018, 2.21% of taxpayers with adjusted gross incomes (AGIs) of between $1 million and $5 million were audited (down from 3.52% in 2017).

The richest taxpayers, those with AGIs of $10 million and more, experienced a steep decline in audits. In 2018, 6.66% of their returns were audited, compared with 14.52% in 2017.

Surviving an audit 

Even though fewer audits are being performed, the IRS will still examine thousands of returns this year. With proper planning, you should fare well even if you’re one of the unlucky ones.

The easiest way to survive an IRS examination is to prepare in advance. On an ongoing basis, you should systematically maintain documentation — invoices, bills, canceled checks, receipts, or other proof — for all items reported on your tax returns.

Just because a return is selected for audit doesn’t mean that an error was made. Some returns are randomly selected based on statistical formulas. For example, IRS computers compare income and deductions on returns with what other taxpayers report. If an individual deducts a charitable contribution that’s significantly higher than what others with similar incomes report, the IRS may want to know why.

Returns can also be selected when they involve issues or transactions with other taxpayers who were previously selected for audit, such as business partners or investors.

The government generally has three years within which to conduct an audit, and often the exam won’t begin until a year or more after you file your return.

More audit details

The scope of an audit depends on the tax return’s complexity. A return reflecting business or real estate income and expenses is likely to take longer to examine than a return with only salary income.

An audit can be conducted by mail or through an in-person interview and review of records. The interview may be conducted at an IRS office or may be a “field audit” at the taxpayer’s home, business, or accountant’s office.

Important:  Even if your return is audited, an IRS examination may be nothing to lose sleep over. In many cases, the IRS asks for proof of certain items and routinely “closes” the audit after the documentation is presented.

Representation 

It’s advisable to have a tax professional represent you at an audit. A tax pro knows what issues the IRS is likely to scrutinize and can prepare accordingly. In addition, a professional knows that in many instances IRS auditors will take a position (for example, to disallow deduction of a certain expense) even though courts and other guidance have expressed a contrary opinion on the issue. Because pros can point to the proper authority, the IRS may be forced to throw in the towel.

If you receive an IRS audit letter or simply want to improve your recordkeeping, we’re here to assist you. Contact us to discuss this or any other aspect of your taxes at 205-345-9898 and info@covenantcpa.com.

© 2019 CovenantCPA

Summer is just around the corner, so you might be thinking about getting some vacation time. If you’re self-employed or a business owner, you have a golden opportunity to combine a business trip with a few extra days of vacation and offset some of the cost with a tax deduction. But be careful, or you might not qualify for the write-offs you’re expecting.

Basic rules 

Business travel expenses can potentially be deducted if the travel is within the United States and the expenses are:

  • “Ordinary and necessary” and
  • Directly related to the business.

Note: The tax rules for foreign business travel are different from those for domestic travel.

Business owners and the self-employed are generally eligible to deduct business travel expenses if they meet the tests described above. However, under the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act, employees can no longer deduct such expenses. The potential deductions discussed in this article assume that you’re a business owner or self-employed.

A business-vacation trip

Transportation costs to and from the location of your business activity may be 100% deductible if the primary reason for the trip is business rather than pleasure. But if vacation is the primary reason for your travel, generally no transportation costs are deductible. These costs include plane or train tickets, the cost of getting to and from the airport, luggage handling tips and car expenses if you drive. Costs for driving your personal car are also eligible.

The key factor in determining whether the primary reason for domestic travel is business is the number of days you spend conducting business vs. enjoying vacation days. Any day principally devoted to business activities during normal business hours counts as a business day. In addition:

  • Your travel days count as business days, as do weekends and holidays — if they fall between days devoted to business and it wouldn’t be practical to return home.
  • Standby days (days when your physical presence might be required) also count as business days, even if you aren’t ultimately called upon to work on those days.

Bottom line: If your business days exceed your personal days, you should be able to claim business was the primary reason for a domestic trip and deduct your transportation costs.

What else can you deduct?

Once at the destination, your out-of-pocket expenses for business days are fully deductible. Examples of these expenses include lodging, meals (subject to the 50% disallowance rule), seminar and convention fees, and cab fare. Expenses for personal days aren’t deductible.

Keep in mind that only expenses for yourself are deductible. You can’t deduct expenses for family members traveling with you, including your spouse — unless they’re employees of your business and traveling for a bona fide business purpose.

Keep good records

Be sure to retain proof of the business nature of your trip. You must properly substantiate all of the expenses you’re deducting. If you get audited, the IRS will want to see records during travel you claim was for business. Good records are your best defense. Additional rules and limits apply to travel expense deductions. Please contact us if you have questions at 205-345-9898 and info@covenantcpa.com.

© 2019 CovenantCPA