This year, the optional standard mileage rate used to calculate the deductible costs of operating an automobile for business decreased by one-half cent, to 57.5 cents per mile. As a result, you might claim a lower deduction for vehicle-related expense for 2020 than you can for 2019.

Calculating your deduction

Businesses can generally deduct the actual expenses attributable to business use of vehicles. This includes gas, oil, tires, insurance, repairs, licenses and vehicle registration fees. In addition, you can claim a depreciation allowance for the vehicle. However, in many cases depreciation write-offs on vehicles are subject to certain limits that don’t apply to other types of business assets.

The cents-per-mile rate comes into play if you don’t want to keep track of actual vehicle-related expenses. With this approach, you don’t have to account for all your actual expenses, although you still must record certain information, such as the mileage for each business trip, the date and the destination.

Using the mileage rate is also popular with businesses that reimburse employees for business use of their personal vehicles. Such reimbursements can help attract and retain employees who drive their personal vehicles extensively for business purposes. Why? Under the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act, employees can no longer deduct unreimbursed employee business expenses, such as business mileage, on their own income tax returns.

If you do use the cents-per-mile rate, be aware that you must comply with various rules. If you don’t, the reimbursements could be considered taxable wages to the employees.

The rate for 2020

Beginning on January 1, 2020, the standard mileage rate for the business use of a car (van, pickup or panel truck) is 57.5 cents per mile. It was 58 cents for 2019 and 54.5 cents for 2018.

The business cents-per-mile rate is adjusted annually. It’s based on an annual study commissioned by the IRS about the fixed and variable costs of operating a vehicle, such as gas, maintenance, repair and depreciation. Occasionally, if there’s a substantial change in average gas prices, the IRS will change the mileage rate midyear.

Factors to consider

There are some situations when you can’t use the cents-per-mile rate. In some cases, it partly depends on how you’ve claimed deductions for the same vehicle in the past. In other cases, it depends on if the vehicle is new to your business this year or whether you want to take advantage of certain first-year depreciation tax breaks on it.

As you can see, there are many factors to consider in deciding whether to use the mileage rate to deduct vehicle expenses. We can help if you have questions about tracking and claiming such expenses in 2020 — or claiming them on your 2019 income tax return.

© 2019 Covenant CPA

Many taxpayers make charitable gifts — because they’re generous and they want to save money on their federal tax bills. But with the tax law changes that went into effect a couple years ago and the many rules that apply to charitable deductions, you may no longer get a tax break for your generosity.

Are you going to itemize?

The Tax Cuts and Jobs Act (TCJA), signed into law in 2017, didn’t put new limits on or suspend the charitable deduction, like it did with many other itemized deductions. Nevertheless, it reduces or eliminates the tax benefits of charitable giving for many taxpayers.

Itemizing saves tax only if itemized deductions exceed the standard deduction. Through 2025, the TCJA significantly increases the standard deduction. For 2020, it is $24,800 for married couples filing jointly (up from $24,400 for 2019), $18,650 for heads of households (up from $18,350 for 2019), and $12,400 for singles and married couples filing separately (up from $12,200 for 2019).

Back in 2017, these amounts were $12,700, $9,350, $6,350 respectively. The much higher standard deduction combined with limits or suspensions on some common itemized deductions means you may no longer have enough itemized deductions to exceed the standard deduction. And if that’s the case, your charitable donations won’t save you tax.

To find out if you get a tax break for your generosity, add up potential itemized deductions for the year. If the total is less than your standard deduction, your charitable donations won’t provide a tax benefit.

You might, however, be able to preserve your charitable deduction by “bunching” donations into alternating years. This can allow you to exceed the standard deduction and claim a charitable deduction (and other itemized deductions) every other year.

What is the donation deadline?

To be deductible on your 2019 return, a charitable gift must have been made by December 31, 2019. According to the IRS, a donation generally is “made” at the time of its “unconditional delivery.” The delivery date depends in part on what you donate and how you donate it. For example, for a check, the delivery date is the date you mailed it. For a credit card donation, it’s the date you make the charge.

Are there other requirements?

If you do meet the rules for itemizing, there are still other requirements. To be deductible, a donation must be made to a “qualified charity” — one that’s eligible to receive tax-deductible contributions.

And there are substantiation rules to prove you made a charitable gift. For a contribution of cash, check, or other monetary gift, regardless of amount, you must maintain a bank record or a written communication from the organization you donated to that shows its name, plus the date and amount of the contribution. If you make a charitable contribution by text message, a bill from your cell provider containing the required information is an acceptable substantiation. Any other type of written record, such as a log of contributions, isn’t sufficient.

Do you have questions?

We can answer any questions you may have about the deductibility of charitable gifts or changes to the standard deduction and itemized deductions.

© 2020 Covenant CPA

You may think your business has enough insurance already. But if it’s vulnerable to employee theft and fraud — and most businesses are — you may want to consider adding more coverage. Some insurance companies offer policies to protect against loss of money and property due to criminal acts by employees. Here’s how to decide whether your business needs one.

Specialty coverage

Employee dishonesty insurance can cover not only theft of money, property and securities, but also willful damage to property. If, for example, an employee smashes a computer or kicks a hole in a wall, it’s likely covered. And this type of policy covers losses from all employees. However, coverage generally is based on occurrences. So if more than one employee is involved in a single theft, the payout will be based on that single occurrence.

Rates and deductibles typically depend on a business’s level of risk. But separate employee dishonesty insurance policies are likely to have higher loss limits and more customized coverage than is available with coverage offered as part of a business insurance package.

Policy limitations

Employee dishonesty insurance covers only property your business owns, holds for others or is legally liable for. It usually doesn’t cover theft or damages caused by employees of businesses that provide services to your company. (For coverage related to third parties, such as contract workers, you may need to add “endorsements” or buy a broader business crime policy.)

Employee dishonesty insurance also generally won’t cover loss of:

  • Intangible assets such as trade secrets or electronic data,
  • Loss of employees’ property,
  • Damage covered by another insurance policy, or
  • The unexplained disappearance of property.

The burden of proof for employee dishonesty claims is solely on the policy owner. Insurance companies will pay claims only if there is conclusive proof that an employee caused the loss.

Finally, employee dishonesty insurance isn’t a substitute for a fidelity bond if a bond is required by a funding source or other contractual agreement. And such bonds can offer advantages. For example, Federal Bonding Program bonds, intended to encourage employers to hire hard-to-place applicants, reimburse employers with no deductible for loss due to employee theft.

Consider your options

Before buying employee dishonesty insurance, look closely at what your general liability or business owner’s policy covers so that you don’t pay for the same coverage twice. And keep in mind that some businesses — such as restaurants and retail stores, where employees often handle cash — may benefit from it more than others. For help determining what your company needs and finding affordable coverage, contact us.

© 2020 Covenant CPA

Virtually everyone needs an estate plan, but it isn’t a one-size-fits-all proposition. Even though each person’s situation is unique, general guidelines can be drawn depending on your current stage of life.

The early years

If you’ve recently embarked on a career, gotten married or both, now is the time to build the foundation for your estate plan. And, if you’ve recently started a family, estate planning is even more critical.

Your will is at the forefront. Essentially, this document divides up your accumulated wealth upon death by deciding who gets what, where, when and how. With a basic will, you may, for instance, leave all your possessions to your spouse. If you have children, you might bequeath some assets to them through a trust managed by a designated party.

A will also designates the guardian of your children if you and your spouse should die prematurely. Make sure to include a successor in case your first choice is unable to meet the responsibilities.

During your early years, your will may be supplemented by other documents, including trusts, if it makes sense personally. In addition, you may have a durable power of attorney that authorizes someone to manage your financial affairs if you’re incapacitated. Frequently, the agent will be your spouse. Also, obtain insurance protection appropriate for your lifestyle.

The middle years

If you’re a middle-aged parent, your main financial goals might be to acquire a home, or perhaps a larger home, and to set aside enough money to cover retirement goals and put your children through college. So you should modify your existing estate planning documents to meet your changing needs.

For instance, if you have a will in place, you should periodically review and revise it to reflect your current circumstances. Typically, minor revisions to a will can be achieved through a codicil. If significant changes are required, your attorney can rewrite the will entirely.

If you and your spouse decide to divorce, it’s critical to review and revise your estate plan to avoid unwanted outcomes.

The later years

Once you’ve reached retirement, you can usually relax somewhat, assuming you’re in good financial shape. But that doesn’t mean estate planning ends. It’s just time for the next chapter.

If you haven’t already done so, have your attorney draft a living will to complement a health care power of attorney. This document provides guidance in life-ending situations and can ease the stress for loved ones.

Finally, create or fine-tune, if you already have one written, a letter of instructions. Although not legally binding, it can provide an inventory of assets and offer directions concerning your financial affairs.

Revisit your plan periodically

Regardless of the stage of life you’re currently in, it’s important to bear in mind that your estate plan isn’t a static document. We can help review and revise your plan as needed.

© 2020 Covenant CPA

What can AI do for my business?

You’ve no doubt read articles or heard stories about how artificial intelligence (AI) is bringing sweeping change to a wide variety of industries. But it’s one thing to learn about how this remarkable technology is changing someone else’s company and quite another to apply it to your own. Here’s a primer on what AI might be able to do for your business.

3 technology types

AI generally refers to using computers to perform complex tasks usually thought to require human intelligence — such as image perception, voice recognition, decision making and problem solving. Three primary types of technologies fall under the AI umbrella:

1. Machine learning. This involves an iterative process whereby machines improve their performance in a specific task over time with little or no programming or human intervention. It can, for example, improve your forecasting models for determining which products or services will be in high demand with customers.

2. Natural language processing (NLP). This uses algorithms to analyze unstructured human language in documents, emails, texts, conversation or otherwise. Language translation apps are among the most common and dramatic examples of NLP. Communicating with business partners, customers and prospects in other countries — or simply people whose first languages are other than English — has become much easier as this type of software has improved.

3. Robotic process automation (RPA). Using rules and structured inputs, RPA automates time-consuming repetitive manual tasks that don’t require decision making. For instance, an RPA system can collect data from vendor invoices, enter it into a company’s accounting system, and generate an email confirming receipt and requesting additional information if needed. This functionality can help you better time vendor payments to optimize cash flow.

Chat boxes, data sensors

A couple of the most common on-ramps into AI for businesses are chatbots and data sensors. Chatbots are those AI-based instant messaging or voice-based systems that allow users to ask relatively simple questions and get instant answers.

Today’s customers expect to find information quickly and chatbots can provide this speed. However, it’s important to implement a system that enables users to speedily connect to a human customer service rep if their questions or issues are complex or urgent.

Data sensors generally don’t have anything to do with customers, but they can be quite valuable when it comes to your offices or facilities. AI-enhanced building systems allow for real-time monitoring and adjustment of temperature, lighting and other controls. This data can drive predictive analytics that improve decisions about the maintenance and replacement of systems, lowering energy and repair costs.

Upgrade prudently

Precisely how AI might help you run your business more efficiently and profitably depends on the size of your company and the nature of its work. You don’t want to throw dollars at an AI solution just to keep up with the competition. Then again, this technology may offer enticing ways to sharpen your competitive edge. We can help you perform a cost-benefit analysis of any technological upgrade you’re considering.

© 2020 Covenant CPA

The IRS announced it is opening the 2019 individual income tax return filing season on January 27. Even if you typically don’t file until much closer to the April 15 deadline (or you file for an extension), consider filing as soon as you can this year. The reason: You can potentially protect yourself from tax identity theft — and you may obtain other benefits, too.

Tax identity theft explained

In a tax identity theft scam, a thief uses another individual’s personal information to file a fraudulent tax return early in the filing season and claim a bogus refund.

The legitimate taxpayer discovers the fraud when he or she files a return and is informed by the IRS that the return has been rejected because one with the same Social Security number has already been filed for the tax year. While the taxpayer should ultimately be able to prove that his or her return is the valid one, tax identity theft can cause major headaches to straighten out and significantly delay a 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, rather than yours.

Note: You can get your individual tax return prepared by us before January 27 if you have all the required documents. It’s just that processing of the return will begin after IRS systems open on that date.

Your W-2s and 1099s

To file your tax return, you must have received all of your W-2s and 1099s. January 31 is the deadline for employers to issue 2019 Form W-2 to employees and, generally, for businesses to issue Form 1099 to recipients of any 2019 interest, dividend or reportable miscellaneous income payments (including those made to independent contractors).

If you haven’t received a W-2 or 1099 by February 1, first contact the entity that should have issued it. If that doesn’t work, you can contact the IRS for help.

Other advantages of filing early

Besides protecting yourself from tax identity theft, another benefit of early filing is that, if you’re getting a refund, you’ll get it faster. The IRS expects most refunds to be issued within 21 days. The time is typically shorter if you file electronically and receive a refund by direct deposit into a bank account.

Direct deposit also avoids the possibility that a refund check could be lost or stolen or returned to the IRS as undeliverable. And by using direct deposit, you can split your refund into up to three financial accounts, including a bank account or IRA. Part of the refund can also be used to buy up to $5,000 in U.S. Series I Savings Bonds.

What if you owe tax? Filing early may still be beneficial. You won’t need to pay your tax bill until April 15, but you’ll know sooner how much you owe and can plan accordingly.

Be an early-bird filer

If you have questions about tax identity theft or would like help filing your 2019 return early, please contact us. We can help you ensure you file an accurate return that takes advantage of all of the breaks available to you.

© 2020 Covenant CPA

A Small Business Administration (SBA) loan can make big things happen for your small company. But the agency’s loan program is sometimes abused by con artists who know that many small business owners have little experience applying for financing and are, therefore, vulnerable to scams. Here’s what you should know.

Background on SBA products

The SBA provides various financing options with favorable terms and greater flexibility to small businesses and start-ups. It doesn’t disburse loans directly but gives lenders federal guarantees and backing to reduce lending risk. Individual businesses must themselves make arrangements with financial institutions that make loans.

Three key SBA programs are:

1. SBA 7(a) loans. This is the flagship product. It typically frees up working capital needed to acquire equipment, real estate or inventory.

2. Microloans. This program is more targeted. Smaller amounts are disbursed quickly to address short-term needs.

3. SBA 504 loans. This program is commonly used for commercial real estate purposes, such as the cost of buildings, land, equipment and renovations.

Look for red flags

If you’re applying for one of these types of loans, how can you avoid becoming a fraud victim? The government warns small business owners to be wary of companies offering to help them secure money from an SBA program. In particular, watch out for services that charge exorbitant fees or that guarantee you’ll get a loan if you work with them. In general, legitimate services don’t charge upfront fees to broker loans, perform credit checks or “process” applications. So if you’re asked to pay, walk away.

Fraud perpetrators also might claim that your business will be issued a forfeiture letter making it ineligible for any SBA funding if you don’t use their services. High-pressure sales tactics, such as threats or limited-time offers, are reliable indicators that you’re dealing with a fraudster. One way to verify suspicious claims is to call the SBA yourself.

Other bad actors may not ask for money at all. They’re simply after personal information that will enable them to steal your identity or access financial accounts. Don’t provide your Social Security number, bank account information or credit card information to any unsolicited caller or emailer.

Choose assistance carefully

Of course, many reputable businesses help companies apply for SBA loans — and they can make the process easier. But be sure to investigate the reputation of any business that contacts you. Better yet, ask trusted advisors or other small business owners for referrals.

© 2020 Covenant CPA

As you’ve probably heard, a new law was recently passed with a wide range of retirement plan changes for employers and individuals. One of the provisions of the SECURE Act involves a new requirement for employers that sponsor tax-favored defined contribution retirement plans that are subject to ERISA.

Specifically, the law will require that the benefit statements sent to plan participants include a lifetime income disclosure at least once during any 12-month period. The disclosure will need to illustrate the monthly payments that an employee would receive if the total account balance were used to provide lifetime income streams, including a single life annuity and a qualified joint and survivor annuity for the participant and the participant’s surviving spouse.

Background information

Under ERISA, a defined contribution plan administrator is required to provide benefit statements to participants. Depending on the situation, these statements must be provided quarterly, annually or upon written request. In 2013, the U.S. Department of Labor (DOL) issued an advance notice of proposed rulemaking providing rules that would have required benefit statements provided to defined contribution plan participants to include an estimated lifetime income stream of payments based on the participant’s account balance.

Some employers began providing this information in these statements — even though it wasn’t required.

But in the near future, employers will have to begin providing information to their employees about lifetime income streams.

Effective date

Fortunately, the effective date of the requirement has been delayed until after the DOL issues guidance. It won’t go into effect until 12 months after the DOL issues a final rule. The law also directs the DOL to develop a model disclosure.

Plan fiduciaries, plan sponsors, or others won’t have liability under ERISA solely because they provided the lifetime income stream equivalents, so long as the equivalents are derived in accordance with the assumptions and guidance and that they include the explanations contained in the model disclosure.

Stay tuned

Critics of the new rules argue the required disclosures will lead to confusion among participants and they question how employers will arrive at the income projections. For now, employers have to wait for the DOL to act. We’ll update you when that happens. Contact us if you have questions about this requirement or other provisions in the SECURE Act.

© 2019 Covenant CPA

If you reside in a high-tax state, you may want to consider using nongrantor trusts to soften the blow of the $10,000 federal limit on state and local tax (SALT) deductions. The limit can significantly reduce itemized deductions if your state income and property taxes are well over $10,000. A potential strategy for avoiding the limit is to transfer interests in real estate to several nongrantor trusts, each of which enjoys its own $10,000 SALT deduction.

Grantor vs. nongrantor trusts

The main difference between a grantor and nongrantor trust is that a grantor trust is treated as your alter ego for tax purposes, while a nongrantor trust is treated as a separate entity. Traditionally, grantor trusts have been the vehicle of choice for estate planning purposes because the trust’s income is passed through to you, as grantor, and reported on your tax return.

That’s an advantage, because it allows the trust assets to grow tax-free, leaving more for your heirs. By paying the tax, you essentially provide an additional, tax-free gift to your loved ones that’s not limited by your gift tax exemption or annual gift tax exclusion. In addition, because the trust is an extension of you for tax purposes, you have the flexibility to sell property to the trust without triggering taxable gain.

Now that fewer families are subject to gift taxes, grantor trusts enjoy less of an advantage over nongrantor trusts. This creates an opportunity to employ nongrantor trusts to boost income tax deductions.

Nongrantor trusts in action

A nongrantor trust is a discrete legal entity, which files its own tax returns and claims its own deductions. The idea behind the strategy is to divide real estate that’s subject to more than $10,000 in property taxes among several trusts, each of which has its own SALT deduction up to $10,000. Each trust must also generate sufficient income against which to offset the deduction.

Before you attempt this strategy, beware of the multiple trust rule of Internal Revenue Code Section 643(f). That section provides that, under regulations prescribed by the U.S. Treasury Department, multiple trusts may be treated as a single trust if they have “substantially the same grantor or grantors and substantially the same primary beneficiary or beneficiaries” and a principal purpose of the arrangement is tax avoidance.

Bear in mind that to preserve the benefits of multiple trusts, it’s important to designate a different beneficiary for each trust.

Pass the SALT

If you’re losing valuable tax deductions because of the SALT limit, consider passing those deductions on to one or more nongrantor trusts. Consult with us before taking action, because these trusts must be structured carefully to ensure that they qualify as nongrantor trusts and don’t run afoul of the multiple trust rule.

© 2020 Covenant CPA

If you save for retirement with an IRA or other plan, you’ll be interested to know that Congress recently passed a law that makes significant modifications to these accounts. The SECURE Act, which was signed into law on December 20, 2019, made these four changes.

Change #1: The maximum age for making traditional IRA contributions is repealed. Before 2020, traditional IRA contributions weren’t allowed once you reached age 70½. Starting in 2020, an individual of any age can make contributions to a traditional IRA, as long he or she has compensation, which generally means earned income from wages or self-employment.

Change #2: The required minimum distribution (RMD) age was raised from 70½ to 72. Before 2020, retirement plan participants and IRA owners were generally required to begin taking RMDs from their plans by April 1 of the year following the year they reached age 70½. The age 70½ requirement was first applied in the early 1960s and, until recently, hadn’t been adjusted to account for increased life expectancies.

For distributions required to be made after December 31, 2019, for individuals who attain age 70½ after that date, the age at which individuals must begin taking distributions from their retirement plans or IRAs is increased from 70½ to 72.

Change #3: “Stretch IRAs” were partially eliminated. If a plan participant or IRA owner died before 2020, their beneficiaries (spouses and non-spouses) were generally allowed to stretch out the tax-deferral advantages of the plan or IRA by taking distributions over the beneficiary’s life or life expectancy. This is sometimes called a “stretch IRA.”

However, for deaths of plan participants or IRA owners beginning in 2020 (later for some participants in collectively bargained plans and governmental plans), distributions to most non-spouse beneficiaries are generally required to be distributed within 10 years following a plan participant’s or IRA owner’s death. That means the “stretch” strategy is no longer allowed for those beneficiaries.

There are some exceptions to the 10-year rule. For example, it’s still allowed for: the surviving spouse of a plan participant or IRA owner; a child of a plan participant or IRA owner who hasn’t reached the age of majority; a chronically ill individual; and any other individual who isn’t more than 10 years younger than a plan participant or IRA owner. Those beneficiaries who qualify under this exception may generally still take their distributions over their life expectancies.

Change #4: Penalty-free withdrawals are now allowed for birth or adoption expenses. A distribution from a retirement plan must generally be included in income. And, unless an exception applies, a distribution before the age of 59½ is subject to a 10% early withdrawal penalty on the amount includible in income.

Starting in 2020, plan distributions (up to $5,000) that are used to pay for expenses related to the birth or adoption of a child are penalty-free. The $5,000 amount applies on an individual basis. Therefore, each spouse in a married couple may receive a penalty-free distribution up to $5,000 for a qualified birth or adoption.

Questions?

These are only some of the changes included in the new law. If you have questions about your situation, don’t hesitate to contact us.

© 2020 Covenant CPA