Ask many entrepreneurs and small business owners to show you their financial statements and they’ll likely open a laptop and show you their bookkeeping software. Although tracking financial transactions is critical, spreadsheets aren’t financial statements.

In short, financial statements are detailed and carefully organized reports about the financial activities and overall position of a business. As any company evolves, it will likely encounter an increasing need to properly generate these reports to build credibility with outside parties, such as investors and lenders, and to make well-informed strategic decisions.

These are the typical components of financial statements:

Income statement. Also known as a profit and loss statement, the income statement shows revenues and expenses for a specified period. To help show which parts of the business are profitable (or not), it should carefully match revenues and expenses.

Balance sheet. This provides a snapshot of a company’s assets and liabilities. Assets are items of value, such as cash, accounts receivable, equipment and intellectual property. Liabilities are debts, such as accounts payable, payroll and lines of credit. The balance sheet also states the company’s net worth, which is calculated by subtracting total liabilities from total assets.

Cash flow statement. This shows how much cash a company generates for a particular period, which is a good indicator of how easily it can pay its bills. The statement details the net increase or decrease in cash as a result of operations, investment activities (such as property or equipment sales or purchases) and financing activities (such as taking out or repaying a loan).

Retained earnings/equity statement. Not always included, this statement shows how much a company’s net worth grew during a specified period. If the business is a corporation, the statement details what percentage of profits for that period the company distributed as dividends to its shareholders and what percentage it retained internally.

Notes to financial statements. Many if not most financial statements contain a supplementary report to provide additional details about the other sections. Some of these notes may take the form of disclosures that are required under Generally Accepted Accounting Principles — the most widely used set of accounting rules and standards. Others might include supporting calculations or written clarifications.

Financial statements tell the ongoing narrative of your company’s finances and profitability. Without them, you really can’t tell anyone — including yourself — precisely how well you’re doing. We can help you generate these reports to the highest standards and then use them to your best advantage. Call us today at 205-345-9898.

© 2019 Covenant CPA

The IRS opened the 2018 income tax return filing season on January 28. Even if you typically don’t file until much closer to the April 15 deadline, this year consider filing as soon as you can. Why? You can potentially protect yourself from tax identity theft — and reap other benefits, too.

What is tax identity theft?

In a tax identity theft scheme, a thief uses your personal information to file a fraudulent tax return early in the filing season and claim a bogus refund.

You discover the fraud when you file your return and are informed by the IRS that the return has been rejected because one with your Social Security number has already been filed for the same tax year. While you should ultimately be able to prove that your return is the legitimate one, tax identity theft can cause major headaches to straighten out and significantly delay your refund.

Filing early may be your best defense: If you file first, it will be the tax return filed by a would-be thief that will be rejected — not yours.

What if you haven’t received your W-2s and 1099s?

To file your tax return, you must have received all of your W-2s and 1099s. January 31 was the deadline for employers to issue 2018 Form W-2 to employees and, generally, for businesses to issue Form 1099 to recipients of any 2018 interest, dividend or reportable miscellaneous income payments.

If you haven’t received a W-2 or 1099, first contact the entity that should have issued it. If that doesn’t work, you can contact the IRS for help.

What are other benefits of filing early? 

Besides protecting yourself from tax identity theft, the most obvious benefit of filing early is that, if you’re getting a refund, you’ll get that refund sooner. The IRS expects more than nine out of ten refunds to be issued within 21 days.

But even if you owe tax, filing early can be beneficial. You still won’t need to pay your tax bill until April 15, but you’ll know sooner how much you owe and can plan accordingly. Keep in mind that some taxpayers who typically have gotten refunds in the past could find themselves owing tax when they file their 2018 return due to tax law changes under the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act (TCJA) and reduced withholding from 2018 paychecks.

Need help?

If you have questions about tax identity theft or would like help filing your 2018 return early, please contact us. While the new Form 1040 essentially does fit on a postcard, many taxpayers will also have to complete multiple schedules along with the form. And the TCJA has changed many tax breaks. We can help you ensure you file an accurate return that takes advantage of all of the breaks available to you. Call us at 205-345-9898 for more.

© 2019 Covenant CPA

Mergers and acquisitions are filled with risks, some of them unavoidable. But buyers can avoid risks associated with cooked books and other forms of deceptive accounting used by a seller to distort the value of its company. Before closing an acquisition, engage a forensic accounting expert to look for fake performance figures and hidden liabilities that might turn your deal into a disaster.

Something fishy

When reviewing a seller’s financial statements, forensic experts look for subtle warning signs of fraud. These include:

  • Excess inventory,
  • Increased accounts payable and receivable combined with dropping or stagnant revenues and income,
  • An unusually high number of voided discounts for returns,
  • Lack of sufficient documentation in sales records,
  • A large number of account write-offs, and
  • Increased purchases from new vendors.

Fishy revenue, cash flow and expense numbers and unreasonable-seeming growth projections warrant further investigation to determine whether financial statements represent fraud or they’re evidence of unintentional errors or mismanagement. The latter is common in smaller companies that don’t have their statements audited by outside experts or that may not have adequate internal financial expertise.

Systematic manipulation

To determine whether unusual income numbers indicate systematic manipulation, experts often consider whether owners or executives had the opportunity to commit fraud. A lack of solid internal controls makes financial statement fraud more likely. Regulatory disapproval, customer complaints and suspicious supplier relationships can also raise red flags. If warranted, a forensic expert may perform background checks on the target company’s principals.

It’s important to note that some accounting practices adopted to present a company in the best light may be perfectly legal. However, if your expert finds evidence of intentional fraud, you’ll probably want to rescind your acquisition offer. In less serious cases, you may simply need to make purchase price adjustments or even change the deal’s structure — such as offering to buy only part of the company or only certain assets.

True story

Even when a target company attempts to conceal weak performance or questionable business activities, a forensic accountant can reveal the true financial story. Contact us for help evaluating your potential business acquisition at 205-345-9898.

© 2019 Covenant CPA

The flat 21% federal income tax rate for C corporations under the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act (TCJA) has been great news for these entities and their owners. But some fundamental tax truths for C corporations largely remain the same:

C corporations are subject to double taxation. Double taxation occurs when corporate income is taxed once at the corporate level and again at the shareholder level as dividends are paid out. The cost of double taxation, however, is now generally less because of the 21% corporate rate.

And double taxation isn’t a problem when a C corporation needs to retain all its earnings to finance growth and capital investments. Because all the earnings stay “inside” the corporation, no dividends are paid to shareholders, and, therefore, there’s no double taxation.

Double taxation also isn’t an issue when a C corporation’s taxable income levels are low. This can often be achieved by paying reasonable salaries and bonuses to shareholder-employees and providing them with tax-favored fringe benefits (deductible by the corporation and tax-free to the recipient shareholder-employees).

C corporation status isn’t generally advisable for ventures with appreciating assets or certain depreciable assets. If assets such as real estate are eventually sold for substantial gains, it may be impossible to extract the profits from the corporation without being subject to double taxation. In contrast, if appreciating assets are held by a pass-through entity (such as an S corporation, partnership or limited liability company treated as a partnership for tax purposes), gains on such sales will be taxed only once, at the owner level.

But assets held by a C corporation don’t necessarily have to appreciate in value for double taxation to occur. Depreciation lowers the tax basis of the property, so a taxable gain results whenever the sale price exceeds the depreciated basis. In effect, appreciation can be caused by depreciation when depreciable assets hold their value.

To avoid this double-taxation issue, you might consider using a pass-through entity to lease to your C corporation appreciating assets or depreciable assets that will hold their value.

C corporation status isn’t generally advisable for ventures that will incur ongoing tax losses. When a venture is set up as a C corporation, losses aren’t passed through to the owners (the shareholders) like they would be in a pass-through entity. Instead, they create corporate net operating losses (NOLs) that can be carried over to future tax years and then used to offset any corporate taxable income.

This was already a potential downside of C corporations, because it can take many years for a start-up to be profitable. Now, under the TCJA, NOLs that arise in tax years beginning after 2017 can’t offset more than 80% of taxable income in the NOL carryover year. So it may take even longer to fully absorb tax losses.

Do you have questions about C corporation tax issues post-TCJA? Contact us at 205-345-9898.

© 2019 Covenant CPA

Employee stock ownership plans (ESOPs) offer closely held business owners an exit strategy and a tax-efficient technique for sharing equity with employees. But did you know that an ESOP can be a powerful estate planning tool? It can help you address several planning challenges, including lack of liquidity and the need to provide for children outside the business.

An ESOP in action

An ESOP is a qualified retirement plan, similar to a 401(k) plan. But instead of investing in a selection of stocks, bonds and mutual funds, an ESOP invests primarily in the company’s own stock. ESOPs are subject to the same rules and restrictions as qualified plans, including contribution limits and minimum coverage requirements.

Typically, companies make tax-deductible cash contributions to the ESOP, which uses the funds to acquire stock from the current owners. This doesn’t necessarily mean giving up control, though. The owners’ shares are held in a trust, and the trustees vote the shares.

An ESOP’s earnings are tax-deferred: Participants don’t recognize taxable income until they receive benefits — in the form of stock or cash — when they leave the company, die or become disabled.

Retirement and estate planning benefits

If a large portion of your wealth is tied up in a closely held business, lack of liquidity can create challenges as you approach retirement. Short of selling the business, how do you fund your retirement and provide for your family?

An ESOP may provide a solution. By selling some or all of your shares to an ESOP, you convert your shares into liquid assets. Plus, if the ESOP owns 30% or more of the company’s outstanding common stock immediately after the sale, and certain other requirements are met, you can defer or even eliminate capital gains taxes. How? By reinvesting the proceeds in qualified replacement property (QRP) — which includes most securities issued by U.S. public companies — within one year.

QRP provides a source of retirement income and allows you to defer your gain until you sell or otherwise dispose of the QRP. From an estate planning perspective, a simple but effective strategy is to hold the QRP for life. Your heirs receive a stepped-up basis in the assets, eliminating capital gains permanently.

If you want more investment flexibility, you can pay the capital gains tax upfront and invest the proceeds as you see fit. Or you can invest the proceeds in qualifying floating-rate long-term bonds as QRP. You avoid capital gains, but can borrow against the bonds and invest the loan proceeds in other assets.

If estate taxes are a concern, you can remove QRP from your estate, without triggering capital gains, by giving it to your children or other family members. These gifts may be subject to gift and generation-skipping transfer taxes, but you can minimize those taxes using traditional estate planning tools.

Weigh the pros and cons

ESOPs offer significant benefits, but they aren’t without their disadvantages. Contact us to help determine if an ESOP is right for you at 205-345-9898.

© 2019 Covenant CPA

With the year underway, your business probably has a strategic plan in place for the months ahead. Or maybe you’ve created a general outline but haven’t quite put the finishing touches on it yet. In either case, there’s a time-tested approach to refining your strategic plan that you should consider: a SWOT analysis. Let’s take a closer look at what each of the letters in that abbreviation stands for:

Strengths. A SWOT analysis starts by identifying your company’s core competencies and competitive advantages. These are how you can boost revenues and build value. Examples may include an easily identifiable brand, a loyal customer base or exceptional customer service.

Unearth the source of each strength. A loyal customer base, for instance, may be tied to a star employee or executive — say a CEO with a high regional profile and multitude of community contacts. In such a case, it’s important to consider what you’d do if that person suddenly left the business.

Weaknesses. Next the analysis looks at the opposite of strengths: potential risks to profitability and long-term viability. These might include high employee turnover, weak internal controls, unreliable quality or a location that’s no longer advantageous.

You can evaluate weaknesses relative to your competitors as well. Let’s say metrics indicate customer recognition of your brand is increasing, but you’re still up against a name-brand competitor. Is that a battle you can win? Every business has its Achilles’ heel — some have several. Identify yours so you can correct them.

Opportunities. From here, a SWOT analysis looks externally at what’s happening in your industry, local economy or regulatory environment. Opportunities are favorable external conditions that could allow you to build your bottom line if your company acts on them before competitors do.

For example, imagine a transportation service that notices a growing demand for food deliveries in its operational area. The company could allocate vehicles and hire drivers to deliver food, thereby gaining an entirely new revenue stream.

Threats. The last step in the analysis is spotting unfavorable conditions that might prevent your business from achieving its goals. Threats might come from a decline in the economy, adverse technological changes, increased competition or tougher regulation.

Going back to our previous example, that transportation service would have to consider whether its technological infrastructure could support the rigorous demands of the app-based food-delivery industry. It would also need to assess the risk of regulatory challenges of engaging independent contractors to serve as drivers.

Typically presented as a matrix (see accompanying image), a SWOT analysis provides a logical framework for better understanding how your business runs and for improving (or formulating) a strategic plan for the year ahead. Our firm can help you gather and assess the financial data associated with the analysis. Call us at 205-345-9898.

© 2019 Covenant CPA

As you likely know by now, the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act (TCJA) reduced or eliminated many deductions for individuals. One itemized deduction the TCJA kept intact is for investment interest expense. This is interest on debt used to buy assets held for investment, such as margin debt used to buy securities. But if you have investment interest expense, you can’t count on benefiting from the deduction.

3 hurdles

There are a few hurdles you must pass to benefit from the investment interest deduction even if you have investment interest expense:

  1. You must itemize deductions. In the past this might not have been a hurdle, because you may have typically had enough itemized deductions to easily exceed the standard deduction. But the TCJA nearly doubled the standard deduction, to $24,000 (married couples filing jointly), $18,000 (heads of households) and $12,000 (singles and married couples filing separately) for 2018. Plus, some of your other itemized deductions, such as your state and local tax deduction, might be smaller on your 2018 return because of TCJA changes. So you might not have enough itemized deductions to exceed your standard deduction and benefit from itemizing.
  2. You can’t have incurred the interest to produce tax-exempt income. For example, if you borrow money to invest in municipal bonds, which are exempt from federal income tax, you can’t deduct the interest.
  3. You must have sufficient “net investment income.” The investment interest deduction is limited to your net investment income. For the purposes of this deduction, net investment income generally includes taxable interest, nonqualified dividends and net short-term capital gains, reduced by other investment expenses. In other words, long-term capital gains and qualified dividends aren’t included. However, any disallowed interest is carried forward. You can then deduct the disallowed interest in a later year if you have excess net investment income.

You may elect to treat net long-term capital gains or qualified dividends as investment income in order to deduct more of your investment interest. But if you do, that portion of the long-term capital gain or dividend will be taxed at ordinary-income rates.

Will interest expense save you tax?

As you can see, the answer to the question depends on multiple factors. We can review your situation and help you determine whether you can benefit from the investment interest expense deduction on your 2018 tax return. Call us today at 205-345-9898.

© 2019 Covenant CPA

Forensic accountants are best qualified to unearth the “hows and whys” of occupational fraud. But it’s up to employers to know when it’s time to call for professional help in the first place. The signs of fraud can be easy to miss, but they’re usually there.

Something doesn’t belong

Dishonest employees may use anything from fictitious vendors to false invoices to cover up theft. To ferret out potential fraud, look for such signs as:

  • Duplicate payments,
  • Out-of-sequence entries,
  • Entries by employees who don’t usually make them,
  • Unusual inventory adjustments,
  • Accounts that don’t properly balance, and
  • Transactions for amounts that appear too large or too small, or transactions that occur too often or too rarely.

An increase in the number of complaints your company receives is another warning sign. An investigation may lead to a relatively innocent explanation, such as a glitch in your shipping system — or it may lead to a fraudulent billing scheme. Pay equally close attention to declines in product quality. They could just stem from a faulty batch of paint or indicate that a thief is working in purchasing.

Living it up

Changes in an employee’s lifestyle can be evidence of fraud. Although such changes usually are difficult to spot initially, a pattern is likely to emerge over time.

For example, one piece of expensive jewelry could be a gift, and a good investment return may pay for an exotic vacation. But if your warehouse manager brags about his new state-of-the-art home theater, buys an expensive car and decides to install a backyard pool, you should question how that’s possible on the salary you’re paying.

Multiple personalities

When employees steal, especially if they’re first-time offenders, they may no longer be on their best behavior. In fact, you may not even recognize them. People who have always been cooperative may become argumentative. Or, alternatively, someone who typically is difficult to work with may suddenly become everyone’s friend.

If an employee starts drinking to excess or takes up smoking, ask what’s wrong. If they can’t sleep, or if they worry obsessively about the possible consequences of actions and resent other employees’ participation in “their” projects, be concerned. They may be wrestling with a family problem — or stealing you blind.

Don’t jump to conclusions

The signs of fraud are easy to overlook, in part because they aren’t necessarily signs of fraud. There may be explanations for suspicious behavior that have nothing to do with fraud, but you won’t know unless you investigate further. If you begin to suspect fraud, contact us at 205-345-9898.

© 2019 Covenant CPA

Choosing the right executor — sometimes known as a “personal representative” — is critical to the smooth administration of an estate. Yet many people treat this decision as an afterthought. Given an executor’s many responsibilities and complex tasks, it pays to put some thought into the selection.

Job description

An executor’s duties may include:

  • Collecting, protecting and taking inventory of the estate’s assets,
  • Filing the estate’s tax returns and paying its taxes,
  • Handling creditors’ claims and the estate’s claims against others,
  • Making investment decisions,
  • Distributing property to beneficiaries, and
  • Liquidating assets if necessary.

You don’t necessarily have to choose a professional executor or someone with legal or financial expertise. Often, lay people can handle the job, hiring professionals as needed (at the estate’s expense) to handle matters beyond their expertise.

Candidate considerations

Many people choose a family member or close friend for the job, but this can be a mistake for two reasons. First, a person who’s close to you may be too grief-stricken to function effectively. Second, if your executor stands to gain from the will, he or she may have a conflict of interest — real or perceived — which can lead to will contests or other disputes by disgruntled family members.

If either of these issues is a concern, consider choosing an independent outsider as executor. Some people appoint co-executors — one trusted friend who knows the family and understands its dynamics, and one independent executor with business, financial or legal expertise.

Designate a backup

Regardless of whom you choose, be sure to designate at least one backup executor to serve in the event that your first choice dies or becomes incapacitated before it’s time to settle your estate — or turns down the job. Contact us for answers to your questions about choosing the right executor at 205-345-9898.

© 2019 Covenant CPA

A good marketing plan should be like a network of well-paved, clearly marked roads shooting out into the world and leading back to your company. But, all too easily, a business can get stuck in the mud while trying to build these thoroughfares, leaving its marketing message ineffective and, well, muddled. Here are a few indications that you might be spinning your wheels.

Still the same

If you’ve been using the same marketing materials for years, it’s probably time for an update. Customers’ demographics, perspectives and expectations change over time. If your materials appear old and outdated, your products or services may seem that way too.

Check out the marketing and advertising of competitors, as well as perhaps a few companies that you admire. What about their efforts grabs you? Discuss it with your team and come up with a strategy for refreshing your look. You might need to do something as drastic as a total rebranding, or a few relatively minor tweaks might be sufficient.

Overreliance on one approach

While a marketing plan should take many avenues, sometimes when a business finds success via a certain route, it gets overly reliant on that one approach. Think of a company that has advertised in its local phonebook for years and doesn’t notice when a competitor starts pulling in customers via social media.

This is where data becomes key. Use metrics to track response rates to your various initiatives and regularly reassess the balance of your marketing approach. Unlike the business in our example, many companies today become too focused on social media and ignore other options. So, watch out for that.

Inconsistent message

Ask yourself whether your various marketing efforts complement — or conflict with — one another. For example, is it obvious that an online ad and a print brochure came from the same business? Are you communicating a consistent, easy-to-remember message to customers and prospects throughout your messaging?

In addition, be careful about tone and taking unnecessary risks — particularly when using social media. It’s a difficult challenge: You want to get noticed, and sometimes that means pushing the envelope, but you don’t want to end up being offensive. Generally, you shouldn’t run the risk of alienating customers with controversial material. If you do come up with an edgy idea that you believe will likely pay off, gather plenty of feedback from objective parties before launching.

Reconstruction work

A marketing plan going nowhere will likely leave your sales team lost and your bottom line suffering. Maybe it’s time to do some reconstruction work on yours. Contact us at 205-345-9898 for more information and further suggestions.

© 2019 Covenant CPA