With the lifetime gift and estate tax exemption at $11.40 million for 2019 ($11.58 million for 2020), you may think you don’t have to worry about gift and estate taxes.

However, there are no guarantees that estate tax law won’t be revised in the future or that your accumulated assets won’t eventually exceed the available exemption (which is scheduled to drop significantly in 2026). Thus, there’s a need to investigate other tax-saving possibilities.

Beyond annual exclusion gifts

Under the annual gift tax exclusion, you can reduce your taxable estate without using up any of your lifetime exemption by giving each recipient gifts valued up to $15,000 a year. For example, if you have three children and seven grandchildren, you can give each one $15,000 tax free, for a total of $150,000 in 2019. If your spouse joins in the gifts, the tax-free total is doubled to $300,000.

But what if you want to give away more without dipping into your lifetime exemption? Then direct payments of medical expenses or tuition may be right for you.

Ins and outs of direct payments

If you pay medical expenses on behalf of someone directly to a health care provider, those payments are exempt from gift tax above and beyond any amount covered by the annual gift tax exclusion. The same is true for paying the tuition expenses of a student directly to the school.

For example, if you give your granddaughter $15,000 in 2019 and then pay her $35,000 tuition bill at an elite private college, the entire $50,000 is sheltered from gift tax. But remember that the gift must be made directly to the educational institution (or health care provider). If you give the money to your granddaughter and she uses it to pay the tuition, the amount won’t be eligible for the direct payment exemption.

On the other hand, direct payments of tuition can reduce a student’s eligibility for financial aid on a dollar-for-dollar basis, while with gifts made directly to the student, only 20% of the gifted assets would be counted as assets of the student for financial aid purposes. Accordingly, careful analysis of the trade-offs between the potential tax savings and impairment of financial aid eligibility should be considered. Contact us with any questions.

© 2019 Covenant CPA

Business owners are urged to create succession plans for the good of their families and their employees. But there’s someone else who holds a key interest in the longevity of your company: Your lender.

If you want to maintain a clear path to acquiring the working capital your business may need after you’ve stepped down, it’s important to keep your lender apprised of your progress in putting a carefully considered succession plan in place.

A viable successor

One key operational issue that lenders look for in a succession plan to address is, simply, who will lead the enterprise after you? For family-owned businesses, finding a successor can be difficult. Children or other relatives may be qualified but have no interest in taking the reins. Or they may want to be involved but have insufficient experience.

To reassure your lender about issues such as these, take the time to identify and nurture future leaders. As early as possible, select someone who you believe holds leadership potential and educate the prospective successor in all aspects of running the business. This way, when control formally transfers, your lender will have confidence that the new leader is truly the boss and fully capable of making executive decisions.

None of this should happen overnight. You need to lay out a well-defined path for the successor under the assurance that his or her hard work during the transition period will eventually be rewarded with the leadership role, as well as ownership interests. Ideally, you’ll want to set a specific timeframe for the transfer of control and ownership to officially occur — all while keeping your lender in the loop.

Family communication

Most business owners have more than one heir to factor into succession planning. So, it’s important for lenders to know that the planning process involves the entire family, regardless of whether the individuals involved are active in the business’s day-to-day operations. This enables everyone to understand their roles — and the financial and personal consequences of an unsuccessful succession plan (which can adversely affect loan arrangements in place).

A common issue is how to equitably divide assets among heirs when only some of them will have control of or receive ownership interests in the business. If there are sufficient liquid assets, you can buy life insurance to provide for any children who won’t be involved in the business and give ownership interests only to those who will be involved. Or you might establish a family trust to own and operate the business, so that the entire family shares the risks and benefits.

Good standing

Your lender may not be top of mind as you ponder the many details of a succession plan. But it’s important to cover all the bases, including keeping your company in good standing for future loans. We can help you with all the tax, accounting and financial aspects of a good succession plan — including effective communication with your lender.

© 2019 Covenant CPA

If you’re starting to fret about your 2019 tax bill, there’s good news — you may still have time to reduce your liability. Three strategies are available that may help you cut your taxes before year-end, including:

1. Accelerate deductions/defer income. Certain tax deductions are claimed for the year of payment, such as the mortgage interest deduction. So, if you make your January 2020 payment this month, you can deduct the interest portion on your 2019 tax return (assuming you itemize).

Pushing income into the new year also will reduce your taxable income. If you’re expecting a bonus at work, for example, and you don’t want the income this year, ask if your employer can hold off on paying it until January. If you’re self-employed, you can delay your invoices until late in December to divert the revenue to 2020.

You shouldn’t pursue this approach if you expect to land in a higher tax bracket next year. Also, if you’re eligible for the qualified business income deduction for pass-through entities, you might reduce the amount of that deduction if you reduce your income.

2. Maximize your retirement contributions. What could be better than paying yourself instead of Uncle Sam? Federal tax law encourages individual taxpayers to make the maximum allowable contributions for the year to their retirement accounts, including traditional IRAs and SEP plans, 401(k)s and deferred annuities.

For 2019, you generally can contribute as much as $19,000 to 401(k)s and $6,000 for traditional IRAs. Self-employed individuals can contribute up to 25% of your net income (but no more than $56,000) to a SEP IRA.

3. Harvest your investment losses. Losing money on your investments has a bit of an upside — it gives you the opportunity to offset taxable gains. If you sell underperforming investments before the end of the year, you can offset gains realized this year on a dollar-for-dollar basis.

If you have more losses than gains, you generally can apply up to $3,000 of the excess to reduce your ordinary income. Any remaining losses are carried forward to future tax years.

We can help

The strategies described above are only a sampling of strategies that may be available. Contact us if you have questions about these or other methods for minimizing your tax liability for 2019.

© 2019 Covenant CPA

With Thanksgiving behind us, the holiday season is in full swing. At this time of year, your business may want to show its gratitude to employees and customers by giving them gifts or hosting holiday parties. It’s a good idea to understand the tax rules associated with these expenses. Are they tax deductible by your business and is the value taxable to the recipients?

Customer and client gifts

If you make gifts to customers and clients, the gifts are deductible up to $25 per recipient per year. For purposes of the $25 limit, you don’t need to include “incidental” costs that don’t substantially add to the gift’s value, such as engraving, gift wrapping, packaging or shipping. Also excluded from the $25 limit is branded marketing collateral — such as small items imprinted with your company’s name and logo — provided they’re widely distributed and cost less than $4.

The $25 limit is for gifts to individuals. There’s no set limit on gifts to a company (for example, a gift basket for all team members of a customer to share) as long as they’re “reasonable.”

Employee gifts

In general, anything of value that you transfer to an employee is included in his or her taxable income (and, therefore, subject to income and payroll taxes) and deductible by your business. But there’s an exception for noncash gifts that constitute a “de minimis” fringe benefit.

These are items small in value and given infrequently that are administratively impracticable to account for. Common examples include holiday turkeys or hams, gift baskets, occasional sports or theater tickets (but not season tickets), and other low-cost merchandise.

De minimis fringe benefits aren’t included in your employee’s taxable income yet they’re still deductible by your business. Unlike gifts to customers, there’s no specific dollar threshold for de minimis gifts. However, many businesses use an informal cutoff of $75.

Important: Cash gifts — as well as cash equivalents, such as gift cards — are included in an employee’s income and subject to payroll tax withholding regardless of how small and infrequent.

Throwing a holiday party

Under the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act, certain deductions for business-related meals were reduced and the deduction for business entertainment was eliminated. However, there’s an exception for certain recreational activities, including holiday parties.

Holiday parties are fully deductible (and excludible from recipients’ income) so long as they’re primarily for the benefit of non-highly-compensated employees and their families. If customers, and others also attend, holiday parties may be partially deductible.

Spread good cheer

Contact us if you have questions about giving holiday gifts to employees or customers or throwing a holiday party. We can explain the tax rules.

© 2019 Covenant CPA

Don’t be afraid of probate

The word “probate” may conjure images of lengthy delays waiting for wealth to be transferred and bitter disputes among family members. Plus, probate records are open to the public, so all your “dirty linen” may be aired. The reality is that probate doesn’t have to be so terrible, and often isn’t, but both asset owners and their heirs should know what’s in store.

Defining probate

In basic terms, probate is the process of settling an estate and passing legal title of ownership of assets to heirs. If the deceased person has a valid will, probate begins when the executor named in the will presents the document in the county courthouse. If there’s no will — the deceased has died “intestate” in legal parlance — the court will appoint someone to administer the estate. Thereafter, this person becomes the estate’s legal representative.

Probate is predicated on state law, so the exact process varies from state to state. This has led to numerous misconceptions about the length of probate. On average, the process takes six to nine months, but it can run longer for complex situations in certain states.

Planning to avoid probate

Certain assets are automatically exempt from probate. But you also may be able to avoid the process with additional planning. The easiest way to do this is through the initial form of ownership or use of a living trust.

By using joint ownership with rights of survivorship, you acquire the property with another party, such as your spouse. The property then automatically passes to the surviving joint tenant on the death of the deceased joint tenant. This form of ownership typically is used when a married couple buys a home or other real estate. Similarly, with a tenancy by entirety, which is limited to married couples, the property goes to the surviving spouse without being probated.

A revocable living trust is often used to avoid probate and protect privacy. The assets transferred to the trust, managed by a trustee, pass to the designated beneficiaries on your death. Thus, you may coordinate your will with a living trust, providing a quick transfer of wealth for some assets. You can act as the trustee and retain control over these assets during your lifetime.

Achieving all estate planning goals

When it comes to probate planning, discuss your options with family members to develop the best approach for your personal situation. Also, bear in mind that avoiding probate should be only one goal of your estate plan. We can help you develop a strategy that minimizes probate while reducing taxes and achieving your other goals.

© 2019 Covenant CPA

“Company culture” is a buzzword that’s been around for a while, but your culture may never have mattered as much as it does in today’s transparency-driven business arena. Customers, potential partners and investors, and job candidates are paying more attention to company culture when deciding whether to buy from a business or otherwise involve themselves with it.

To determine whether yours is optimal for your long-term goals, you must look in the mirror and identify what type of culture you have. University of Michigan professors Robert Quinn and Kim Cameron have developed the Organizational Culture Assessment Instrument, which defines four common types:

1. Clan. These are generally friendly environments where employees feel like family. Clan cultures emphasize teamwork, participation and consensus. Such companies often have a horizontal structure with few barriers between staff and leaders, who act as mentors. As a result, employees tend to be highly engaged and loyal. Success involves addressing client needs while caring for staff. Clan culture frequently is seen in start-ups and small companies with employees who have been there from the beginning.

2. Adhocracy. Adhocracies are dynamic, entrepreneurial and creative places where employees are encouraged to take risks, and founders are often seen as innovators. They’re committed to experimentation and encourage individual initiative and freedom — with the long-term goal of growing and acquiring new resources. Success, therefore, is defined by the availability of new products or services. Think Facebook and similar technology companies that anticipate needs and establish new standards.

3. Market. These cultures are results-driven and competitive, with an emphasis on achieving measurable goals and targets. They value reputation and success foremost. Employees are goal-oriented while leaders tend to be hard drivers, producers and rivals simultaneously. Market share and penetration are the hallmarks of success, and competitive pricing and industry domination are important. Examples include Amazon and Apple.

4. Hierarchy. Hierarchical businesses have formal, structured work environments where processes and procedures dictate what employees do. Smooth functioning is critical. Companies strive for stability and efficient execution of tasks, as well as low costs. Leaders seek to achieve maximum efficiency and consistency in their respective departments. Hierarchical culture is common in government agencies and old-school businesses such as the Ford Motor Company.

Bear in mind that most companies exhibit a mixture of the four styles, with one type dominant. If you fear your culture is inhibiting you from achieving strategic objectives, there’s good news — cultures can evolve.

Although making widespread changes won’t be easy, no business should accept a culture that’s hindering productivity or possibly even creating liability risks. We can assist you in assessing your operations and profitability to help you gain insights into the impact of your company culture.

© 2019 Covenant CPA

As we all know, medical services and prescription drugs are expensive. You may be able to deduct some of your expenses on your tax return but the rules make it difficult for many people to qualify. However, with proper planning, you may be able to time discretionary medical expenses to your advantage for tax purposes.

The basic rules

For 2019, the medical expense deduction can only be claimed to the extent your unreimbursed costs exceed 10% of your adjusted gross income (AGI). You also must itemize deductions on your return.

If your total itemized deductions for 2019 will exceed your standard deduction, moving or “bunching” nonurgent medical procedures and other controllable expenses into 2019 may allow you to exceed the 10% floor and benefit from the medical expense deduction. Controllable expenses include refilling prescription drugs, buying eyeglasses and contact lenses, going to the dentist and getting elective surgery.

In addition to hospital and doctor expenses, here are some items to take into account when determining your allowable costs:

1. Health insurance premiums. This item can total thousands of dollars a year. Even if your employer provides health coverage, you can deduct the portion of the premiums that you pay. Long-term care insurance premiums are also included as medical expenses, subject to limits based on age.

2. Transportation. The cost of getting to and from medical treatments counts as a medical expense. This includes taxi fares, public transportation, or using your own car. Car costs can be calculated at 20¢ a mile for miles driven in 2019, plus tolls and parking. Alternatively, you can deduct certain actual costs, such as for gas and oil.

3. Eyeglasses, hearing aids, dental work, prescription drugs and professional fees. Deductible expenses include the cost of glasses, hearing aids, dental work, psychiatric counseling and other ongoing expenses in connection with medical needs. Purely cosmetic expenses don’t qualify. Prescription drugs (including insulin) qualify, but over-the-counter aspirin and vitamins don’t. Neither do amounts paid for treatments that are illegal under federal law (such as marijuana), even if state law permits them. The services of therapists and nurses can qualify as long as they relate to a medical condition and aren’t for general health. Amounts paid for certain long-term care services required by a chronically ill individual also qualify.

4. Smoking-cessation and weight-loss programs. Amounts paid for participating in smoking-cessation programs and for prescribed drugs designed to alleviate nicotine withdrawal are deductible. However, nonprescription nicotine gum and patches aren’t. A weight-loss program is deductible if undertaken as treatment for a disease diagnosed by a physician. Deductible expenses include fees paid to join a program and attend periodic meetings. However, the cost of food isn’t deductible.

Dependent expenses

You can deduct the medical costs that you pay for dependents, such as your children. Additionally, you may be able to deduct medical costs you pay for other individuals, such as an elderly parent. If you have questions about medical expense deductions, contact us.

© 2019 Covenant CPA

At this time of year, many business owners ask if there’s anything they can do to save tax for the year. Under current tax law, there are two valuable depreciation-related tax breaks that may help your business reduce its 2019 tax liability. To benefit from these deductions, you must buy eligible machinery, equipment, furniture or other assets and place them into service by the end of the tax year. In other words, you can claim a full deduction for 2019 even if you acquire assets and place them in service during the last days of the year.

The Section 179 deduction

Under Section 179, you can deduct (or expense) up to 100% of the cost of qualifying assets in Year 1 instead of depreciating the cost over a number of years. For tax years beginning in 2019, the expensing limit is $1,020,000. The deduction begins to phase out on a dollar-for-dollar basis for 2019 when total asset acquisitions for the year exceed $2,550,000.

Sec. 179 expensing is generally available for most depreciable property (other than buildings) and off-the-shelf computer software. It’s also available for:

  • Qualified improvement property (generally, any interior improvement to a building’s interior, but not for the internal structural framework, for enlarging a building, or for elevators or escalators),
  • Roofs, and
  • HVAC, fire protection, alarm, and security systems.

The Sec. 179 deduction amount and the ceiling limit are significantly higher than they were a few years ago. In 2017, for example, the deduction limit was $510,000, and it began to phase out when total asset acquisitions for the tax year exceeded $2.03 million.

The generous dollar ceiling that applies this year means that many small and medium sized businesses that make purchases will be able to currently deduct most, if not all, of their outlays for machinery, equipment and other assets. What’s more, the fact that the deduction isn’t prorated for the time that the asset is in service during the year makes it a valuable tool for year-end tax planning.

Bonus depreciation

Businesses can claim a 100% bonus first year depreciation deduction for machinery and equipment bought new or used (with some exceptions) if purchased and placed in service this year. The 100% deduction is also permitted without any proration based on the length of time that an asset is in service during the tax year.

Business vehicles

It’s important to note that Sec. 179 expensing and bonus depreciation may also be used for business vehicles. So buying one or more vehicles before December 31 may reduce your 2019 tax liability. But, depending on the type of vehicle, additional limits may apply.

Businesses should consider buying assets now that qualify for the liberalized depreciation deductions. Please contact us if you have questions about depreciation or other tax breaks.

© 2019 Covenant CPA

For tax purposes, December 31 means more than New Year’s Eve celebrations. It affects the filing status box that will be checked on your tax return for the year. When you file your return, you do so with one of five filing statuses, which depend in part on whether you’re married or unmarried on December 31.

More than one filing status may apply, and you can use the one that saves the most tax. It’s also possible that your status options could change during the year.

Here are the filing statuses and who can claim them:

  1. Single. This status is generally used if you’re unmarried, divorced or legally separated under a divorce or separate maintenance decree governed by state law.
  2. Married filing jointly. If you’re married, you can file a joint tax return with your spouse. If your spouse passes away, you can generally file a joint return for that year.
  3. Married filing separately. As an alternative to filing jointly, married couples can choose to file separate tax returns. In some cases, this may result in less tax owed.
  4. Head of household. Certain unmarried taxpayers may qualify to use this status and potentially pay less tax. The special rules that apply are described below.
  5. Qualifying widow(er) with a dependent child. This may be used if your spouse died during one of the previous two years and you have a dependent child. Other conditions also apply.

Head of household status

Head of household status is generally more favorable than filing as a single taxpayer. To qualify, you must “maintain a household” that, for more than half the year, is the principal home of a “qualifying child” or other relative that you can claim as your dependent.

A “qualifying child” is defined as someone who:

  • Lives in your home for more than half the year,
  • Is your child, stepchild, foster child, sibling, stepsibling or a descendant of any of these,
  • Is under 19 years old or a student under age 24, and
  • Doesn’t provide over half of his or her own support for the year.

Different rules may apply if a child’s parents are divorced. Also, a child isn’t a “qualifying child” if he or she is married and files jointly or isn’t a U.S. citizen or resident.

Maintaining a household

For head of household filing status, you’re considered to maintain a household if you live in it for the tax year and pay more than half the cost of running it. This includes property taxes, mortgage interest, rent, utilities, property insurance, repairs, upkeep, and food consumed in the home. Don’t include medical care, clothing, education, life insurance or transportation.

Under a special rule, you can qualify as head of household if you maintain a home for a parent of yours even if you don’t live with the parent. To qualify, you must be able to claim the parent as your dependent.

Marital status

You must generally be unmarried to claim head of household status. If you’re married, you must generally file as either married filing jointly or married filing separately, not as head of household. However, if you’ve lived apart from your spouse for the last six months of the year and a qualifying child lives with you and you “maintain” the household, you’re treated as unmarried. In this case, you may be able to qualify as head of household.

If you have questions about your filing status, contact us.

© 2019 Covenant CPA

You can reduce taxes and save for retirement by contributing to a tax-advantaged retirement plan. If your employer offers a 401(k) or Roth 401(k) plan, contributing to it is a taxwise way to build a nest egg.

If you’re not already contributing the maximum allowed, consider increasing your contribution rate between now and year end. Because of tax-deferred compounding (tax-free in the case of Roth accounts), boosting contributions sooner rather than later can have a significant impact on the size of your nest egg at retirement.

With a 401(k), an employee elects to have a certain amount of pay deferred and contributed by an employer on his or her behalf to the plan. The contribution limit for 2019 is $19,000. Employees age 50 or older by year end are also permitted to make additional “catch-up” contributions of $6,000, for a total limit of $25,000 in 2019.

The IRS just announced that the 401(k) contribution limit for 2020 will increase to $19,500 (plus the $6,000 catch-up contribution).

A traditional 401(k)

A traditional 401(k) offers many benefits, including these:

  • Contributions are pretax, reducing your modified adjusted gross income (MAGI), which can also help you reduce or avoid exposure to the 3.8% net investment income tax.
  • Plan assets can grow tax-deferred — meaning you pay no income tax until you take distributions.
  • Your employer may match some or all of your contributions pretax.

Take a look at your contributions for this year. If your current contribution rate will leave you short of the limit, try to increase your contribution rate through the end of the year to get as close to that limit as you can afford. Keep in mind that your paycheck will be reduced by less than the dollar amount of the contribution, because the contributions are pretax — so, income tax isn’t withheld.

Roth 401(k)

Employers may also include a Roth option in their 401(k) plans. If your employer offers this, you can designate some or all of your contributions as Roth contributions. While such contributions don’t reduce your current MAGI, qualified distributions will be tax-free.

Roth 401(k) contributions may be especially beneficial for higher-income earners, because they don’t have the option to contribute to a Roth IRA. Your ability to make a Roth IRA contribution in 2019 will be reduced if your adjusted gross income (AGI) in 2019 exceeds:

  • $193,000 and your filing status in 2019 is married-filing jointly, or
  • $122,000, and your filing status in 2019 is that of a single taxpayer.

Your ability to contribute to a Roth IRA in 2019 will be eliminated entirely if you’re a married-filing-jointly filer and your 2019 AGI equals or exceeds $203,000. The cutoff for single filers is $137,000 or more.

How much and which type

Do you have questions about how much to contribute or the best mix between regular and Roth 401(k) contributions? Contact us. We can discuss the tax and retirement-saving considerations in your situation.

© 2019 Covenant CPA