Restaurants and entertainment venues have been hard hit by the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic. One of the tax breaks that President Trump has proposed to help them is an increase in the amount that can be deducted for business meals and entertainment.

It’s unclear whether Congress would go along with enhanced business meal and entertainment deductions. But in the meantime, let’s review the current rules.

Before the pandemic hit, many businesses spent money “wining and dining” current or potential customers, vendors and employees. The rules for deducting these expenses changed under the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act (TCJA), but you can still claim some valuable write-offs. And keep in mind that deductions are available for business meal takeout and delivery.

One of the biggest changes is that you can no longer deduct most business-related entertainment expenses. Beginning in 2018, the TCJA disallows deductions for entertainment expenses, including those for sports events, theater productions, golf outings and fishing trips.

50% meal deductions

Currently, you can deduct 50% of the cost of food and beverages for meals conducted with business associates. However, you need to follow three basic rules in order to prove that your expenses are business related:

  1. The expenses must be “ordinary and necessary” in carrying on your business. This means your food and beverage costs are customary and appropriate. They shouldn’t be lavish or extravagant.
  2. The expenses must be directly related or associated with your business. This means that you expect to receive a concrete business benefit from them. The principal purpose for the meal must be business. You can’t go out with a group of friends for the evening, discuss business with one of them for a few minutes, and then write off the check.
  3. You must be able to substantiate the expenses. There are requirements for proving that meal and beverage expenses qualify for a deduction. You must be able to establish the amount spent, the date and place where the meals took place, the business purpose and the business relationship of the people involved.

It’s a good idea to set up detailed recordkeeping procedures to keep track of business meal costs. That way, you can prove them and the business connection in the event of an IRS audit.

Other considerations

What if you spend money on food and beverages at an entertainment event? The IRS has clarified that taxpayers can still deduct 50% of food and drink expenses incurred at entertainment events, but only if business was conducted during the event or shortly before or after. The food-and-drink expenses should also be “stated separately from the cost of the entertainment on one or more bills, invoices or receipts,” according to the guidance.

Another related tax law change involves meals provided to employees on the business premises. Before the TCJA, these meals provided to an employee for the convenience of the employer were 100% deductible by the employer. Beginning in 2018, meals provided for the convenience of an employer in an on-premises cafeteria or elsewhere on the business property are only 50% deductible. After 2025, these meals won’t be deductible at all.

Plan ahead

As you can see, the treatment of meal and entertainment expenses became more complicated after the TCJA. It’s possible the deductions could increase substantially under a new stimulus law, if Congress passes one. We’ll keep you updated. In the meantime, we can answer any questions you may have concerning business meal and entertainment deductions.

© 2020 Covenant CPA

Economists will look back on 2020 as a year with a distinct before and after. In early March, most companies’ sales projections looked a certain way. Just a few weeks later, those projections had changed significantly — and not for the better.

Because of the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic, businesses across a variety of industries are revising their sales compensation models. Nonprofit workforce researchers WorldatWork released a report in late April indicating that 36% of organizations had begun addressing sales compensation in light of the crisis, and another 49% were developing plans to do so.

If your company is considering changes to how it compensates sales staff in a drastically changed economy, here are three of the most common actions being implemented according to the survey:

1. Adjusting sales quotas. Of the organizations surveyed, 46% were adjusting their quotas to account for the pandemic’s impact. For many businesses, this means providing “quota relief” to salespeople who find themselves in a reluctant buying environment. Of course, any adjustment should be based on a realistic and detailed forecast of what your sales will likely look like for the current period and upcoming ones.

2. Modifying performance measures. The report indicates that 44% of organizations will modify how they measure the performance of their sales staffs. Whereas a sales quota is a time-bound target assigned to an individual, performance measures encompass much wider metrics.

For example, you might want to amend your average deal size to account for more conservative buying during the pandemic. This metric is typically calculated by dividing your total number of deals by the total dollar amount of those deals. Also look at conversion rate (or win rate), which measures what percentage of leads ultimately become customers. Scarcer leads will likely lead to a lower rate.

3. Lowering plan thresholds. Survey results showed 36% of organizations intend to lower the plan thresholds for their sales teams. From a compensation plan perspective, a threshold describes what performance level qualifies the employee for a specified payout. This includes a max threshold to identify outstanding sales performances during a given period.

The pandemic-triggered economic downturn serves as a prime, even extreme, example of the kinds of external, macroeconomic factors that can alter the effectiveness of a plan threshold. When looking into corrective action, it’s critical to go beyond the usual adjustments and conduct analyses specific to your company’s size, market and industry outlook.

Setting sales compensation has never been a particularly straightforward endeavor. Businesses often tweak their approaches over time or even implement completely new ways when competitively necessary — and this is during normal times. Our firm can help you assess your sales figures since the pandemic hit, forecast upcoming ones and design a compensation model that’s right for you.

© 2020 Covenant CPA

Social media for business: Your time has come. That’s not to say it wasn’t important before but, during the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic, connecting with customers and prospects via a popular platform is essential to maintaining visibility, building goodwill and perhaps even generating a bit of revenue.

What’s challenging is that the social media strategy you deployed before the crisis may no longer be effective or appropriate. Now that businesses have had a couple of months to adjust, some best practices are emerging:

Review your approach. Assuming your company already has an active social media presence, take a measured, objective look at what you do and how you do it. Gather feedback from managers and key employees. If feasible, ask trusted customers if they feel your posts have been in tune with the times. While you recalibrate, don’t hesitate to slow down or even pause your social media efforts.

Look to help, not sell. The drastic economic slowdown has ratcheted up the pressure on everyone. When revenue starts falling off, it’s only natural to want to market aggressively and push sales as hard as possible.

But, on social media, this tactic generally doesn’t play well. Many people are dealing with job losses and financial hardship. They may view hard-sell tactics as insensitive or, worse yet, exploitive of the crisis. Create posts that offer positive messages of empathy and encouragement while also letting friends and followers know that you’re open for business.

Deliver consistency. Although you may need to tweak the content of your posts to avoid appearing out of touch, a national crisis probably isn’t the time to drastically change the look and style of your posts. Customers value brand consistency and may even draw comfort from seeing your business soldier on in a familiar fashion.

Engage with customers. Unlike traditional marketing, social media is designed to be interactive. So, seek out viable opportunities to increase engagement with those who follow your accounts. Many people are feeling isolated and would welcome conversation starters, coping tips, authentic replies to questions and gratitude for compliments.

As always, however, interaction with the public on social media can be fraught with danger. Choose discussion topics carefully, exercise restraint in dealing with criticism, and be on guard for “trolling” or conversations that could get into politics, religion or other sensitive topics.

Social media was once a brave new world for businesses to navigate. For the time being, it may be the only world in which many companies can interact directly with a large number of customers and prospects. Manage your message carefully. We can help you assess the costs and results of your marketing efforts, including on social media, and devise sensible strategies.

© 2020 Covenant CPA

The IRS has issued guidance clarifying that certain deductions aren’t allowed if a business has received a Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) loan. Specifically, an expense isn’t deductible if both:

  • The payment of the expense results in forgiveness of a loan made under the PPP, and
  • The income associated with the forgiveness is excluded from gross income under the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act.

PPP basics

The CARES Act allows a recipient of a PPP loan to use the proceeds to pay payroll costs, certain employee healthcare benefits, mortgage interest, rent, utilities and interest on other existing debt obligations.

A recipient of a covered loan can receive forgiveness of the loan in an amount equal to the sum of payments made for the following expenses during the 8-week “covered period” beginning on the loan’s origination date: 1) payroll costs, 2) interest on any covered mortgage obligation, 3) payment on any covered rent, and 4) covered utility payments.

The law provides that any forgiven loan amount “shall be excluded from gross income.”

Deductible expenses

So the question arises: If you pay for the above expenses with PPP funds, can you then deduct the expenses on your tax return?

The tax code generally provides for a deduction for all ordinary and necessary expenses paid or incurred during the taxable year in carrying on a trade or business. Covered rent obligations, covered utility payments, and payroll costs consisting of wages and benefits paid to employees comprise typical trade or business expenses for which a deduction generally is appropriate. The tax code also provides a deduction for certain interest paid or accrued during the taxable year on indebtedness, including interest paid or incurred on a mortgage obligation of a trade or business.

No double tax benefit

In IRS Notice 2020-32, the IRS clarifies that no deduction is allowed for an expense that is otherwise deductible if payment of the expense results in forgiveness of a covered loan pursuant to the CARES Act and the income associated with the forgiveness is excluded from gross income under the law. The Notice states that “this treatment prevents a double tax benefit.”

More possibly to come

Two members of Congress say they’re opposed to the IRS stand on this issue. Senate Finance Committee Chair Chuck Grassley (R-IA) and his counterpart in the House, Ways and Means Committee Chair Richard E. Neal (D-MA), oppose the tax treatment. Neal said it doesn’t follow congressional intent and that he’ll seek legislation to make certain expenses deductible. Stay tuned.

© 2020 Covenant CPA

Thanks to affordable technology, more and more companies have been allowing employees to work remotely in recent years. It’s become feasible to procure laptops, set up security protocols, use cloud servers and rely on employees’ home Wi-Fi connections to create functional virtual workspaces. In turn, many of these businesses have lowered overhead costs such as office rent and utilities.

Of course, with the onset of the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic, many companies have had to mandate that any employees who can work from home do so. As a result, virtual team building has become more important than ever.

Ensure consistency of processes and expectations

When employees work from home, many of the processes they use to complete tasks and fulfill duties may change slightly — or even drastically — to fit the technology used to execute them. This can cause confusion and lead to mistakes or conflicts that affect employee morale.

Make sure every virtual team develops and follows processes that produce results consistent with those generated on your physical premises. Doing so may require a concerted effort that slows productivity temporarily while everyone gets on the same page.

Meanwhile, reinforce with workers that your expectations of them are the same whether they work on-site or remotely. They shouldn’t feel as if they must work extra hard from home to “prove themselves,” but they do need to demonstrate that they’re getting things done.

Hold regular meetings — and “irregular” ones

Among the biggest challenges for work-from-home employees is feeling disconnected from their fellow team members. Brief, regularly scheduled Web-based meetings are a good way to address this dilemma. These gatherings allow everyone to see or hear one another (or both) and provide employees with the opportunity to voice concerns and contribute ideas.

If a given team is relatively new at working remotely, or you just want to bring any group of employees closer together, you could also hold special meetings specifically geared toward team building. There’s a wide variety of icebreakers, games and activities that teams can use to learn more about each other and to gain comfort in communicating.

For example, you can invite participants to share stories and photos of their pets, hold trivia contests or even sing karaoke. Just be sure to tailor such team-building efforts to your company’s culture and be wary of pushing remote workers too far out of their comfort zones.

Find a way

Whether your business has had employees working remotely for years or just recently had to ask workers to stay home because of COVID-19, there are plenty of ways to help them communicate better and enhance their performance as a team. We offer assistance in measuring productivity and making smart investments in the right team-building technology.

© 2020 Covenant CPA

A natural place to turn when disaster strikes is insurance. The very reason you pay premiums and deal with the paperwork is to have these risk management policies in place when necessary. But, when it comes to business interruption coverage, you may have to adjust your expectations if you intend to file a claim because of the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic.

Differing views

Business interruption insurance generally provides cash flow to cover revenues lost and expenses incurred while normal operations are suspended because of an applicable event. So, many business owners are now asking an unavoidable question: Is the COVID-19 pandemic an applicable event?

Many insurers are saying no, claiming the “force majeure” legal defense. This refers to situations in which unexpected external circumstances prevent a party to a contract — in this case, the insurance company — from meeting its obligations.

Insurers are also citing policy language that stipulates coverage applies only when a policyholder suffers a loss of income as a result of physical loss or damage to covered property. COVID-19 doesn’t qualify as a physical loss, they argue. In addition, insurers contend their policies don’t cover loss of income because of market conditions or an economic slowdown.

Lawsuits have already been filed challenging the insurance companies. Attorneys, representing business owners, are arguing that the recent rise of SARS, MERS and the Avian flu have given insurance companies ample opportunity to anticipate a global pandemic.

Attorneys have additionally pointed out that the virus can attach itself to physical surfaces. Thus, they contend, it does result in a physical loss as businesses are losing revenue and incurring expenses for disinfection and prevention.

Preparatory steps

As these lawsuits play out, you may wonder whether it’s worth your time to file a business interruption claim related to the pandemic. The answer depends on your policy’s language, as well as the facts and circumstances of your company’s situation.

To decide whether and how to proceed, review your policy carefully. Look at the type of losses covered, as well as exclusions and limitations. You may want to consult an attorney, as insurance policy language and structure can be confusing.

If you decide to move ahead with a claim, you’ll need to document the adverse financial impact of the pandemic, including:

  • Loss of income, as defined under your policy,
  • Customer attrition rates, and
  • Incremental expenses incurred, such as site security or cleaning services.

Many policies require policyholders to notify the insurer of a loss within a certain period, so you may need to move quickly.

No easier

Even before the COVID-19 crisis, receiving a payout for a business interruption claim was typically not a cut-and-dried affair. Suffice to say, doing so hasn’t gotten any easier. We can help you assess and document financial losses and expenses before deciding whether to file a claim.

© 2020 Covenant CPA

As a result of the coronavirus (COVID-19) crisis, your business may be using independent contractors to keep costs low. But you should be careful that these workers are properly classified for federal tax purposes. If the IRS reclassifies them as employees, it can be an expensive mistake.

The question of whether a worker is an independent contractor or an employee for federal income and employment tax purposes is a complex one. If a worker is an employee, your company must withhold federal income and payroll taxes, pay the employer’s share of FICA taxes on the wages, plus FUTA tax. Often, a business must also provide the worker with the fringe benefits that it makes available to other employees. And there may be state tax obligations as well.

These obligations don’t apply if a worker is an independent contractor. In that case, the business simply sends the contractor a Form 1099-MISC for the year showing the amount paid (if the amount is $600 or more).

No uniform definition

Who is an “employee?” Unfortunately, there’s no uniform definition of the term.

The IRS and courts have generally ruled that individuals are employees if the organization they work for has the right to control and direct them in the jobs they’re performing. Otherwise, the individuals are generally independent contractors. But other factors are also taken into account.

Some employers that have misclassified workers as independent contractors may get some relief from employment tax liabilities under Section 530. In general, this protection applies only if an employer:

  • Filed all federal returns consistent with its treatment of a worker as a contractor,
  • Treated all similarly situated workers as contractors, and
  • Had a “reasonable basis” for not treating the worker as an employee. For example, a “reasonable basis” exists if a significant segment of the employer’s industry traditionally treats similar workers as contractors.

Note: Section 530 doesn’t apply to certain types of technical services workers. And some categories of individuals are subject to special rules because of their occupations or identities.

Asking for a determination

Under certain circumstances, you may want to ask the IRS (on Form SS-8) to rule on whether a worker is an independent contractor or employee. However, be aware that the IRS has a history of classifying workers as employees rather than independent contractors.

Businesses should consult with us before filing Form SS-8 because it may alert the IRS that your business has worker classification issues — and inadvertently trigger an employment tax audit.

It may be better to properly treat a worker as an independent contractor so that the relationship complies with the tax rules.

Be aware that workers who want an official determination of their status can also file Form SS-8. Disgruntled independent contractors may do so because they feel entitled to employee benefits and want to eliminate self-employment tax liabilities.

If a worker files Form SS-8, the IRS will send a letter to the business. It identifies the worker and includes a blank Form SS-8. The business is asked to complete and return the form to the IRS, which will render a classification decision.

Contact us if you receive such a letter or if you’d like to discuss how these complex rules apply to your business. We can help ensure that none of your workers are misclassified.

© 2020 Covenant CPA

Many businesses were unprepared when the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic required them to close their physical offices and shift to remote operations. Your company, for example, may have had to scramble to set up a virtual private network (VPN) or move files to the cloud. And while adapting to working from home, employees may have let your usual security procedures slide.

From a cybercrime perspective, working from home generally isn’t as safe as working in the office. So you need to look for ways to protect your disbursed workforce and prevent criminals from gaining access to your digital assets.

Here are five ideas:

  1. Invest in education. Require remote employees to participate in security-related training that covers “old-school” phishing scams as well as new COVID-19 variations. As schemes emerge (check the Federal Trade Commission’s website at ftc.gov for the latest), notify employees and remind them what to do if they think they’ve fallen victim to a scam.
  1. Enable automatic updates. To keep the operating systems of employee computers safely patched, remind workers to enable automatic software updates. Also, double-check that every employee-assigned device is fortified with current malware and antivirus software. 
  1. Revisit access privileges. To maintain productivity, most employees need access to the same systems at home as they had in the office. However, consider reviewing which workers have access to certain files, network controls and cloud accounts — and whether they really need access now. Remember that when employees work from home, their partners, children and visitors may have easy access to their computers. To protect your company, ensure systems generate user audit trails that can be followed in the event of a breach.
  1. Protect WiFi connections. While working from home, employees use their personal WiFi connections to access your company’s IT environment. Unfortunately, many people use the default WiFi password or a simple password that hackers can easily break. To foil fraud perpetrators, employees should change it to a complex combination of letters and other characters. If possible, require them to use a VPN with two-factor authentication.
  1. Secure your videoconferences. Most videoconferencing services employ multiple layers of security. But some platforms offer greater protection than others. Before choosing one, perform a simple Google search to read user reviews and security bug reports. Once you’ve selected a service, communicate security protocols before allowing employees to use it for company business.

Finally, provide employees with access to a technical support desk so they can report problems — and get solutions — as quickly as possible. Working from home may be new for a lot of Americans, but fraud is a familiar foe for most. If can be defeated with appropriate knowledge and tools.

© 2020 Covenant CPA

The IRS recently issued Notice 2020-23, expanding on previously issued guidance extending certain tax filing and payment deadlines in response to the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) crisis. This guidance applies to specified filing obligations and other “specified actions” that would otherwise be due on or after April 1, 2020, and before July 15, 2020. It extends the due date for specified actions to July 15, 2020.

Specified actions include any “specified time-sensitive action” listed in Revenue Procedure 2018-58, including many relating to employee benefit plans. The relief applies to any person required to perform specified actions within the relief window, and it’s automatic — your business doesn’t need to file any form, letter or other request with the IRS.

Filing extensions beyond July 15, 2020, may be sought using the appropriate extension form, but the extension won’t go beyond the original statutory or regulatory extension date. Here are some highlights of Notice 2020-23 specifically related to employee benefit plans:

Form 5500. The relief window covers Form 5500 filings for plan years that ended in September, October or November 2019, as well as Form 5500 deadlines within the window as a result of a previously filed extension request. These filings are now due by July 15, 2020. Notably, the relief window does not include the July 31, 2020 due date for 2019 Form 5500 filings for calendar-year plans. Those plans may seek a regular extension using Form 5558.

Retirement plans. The extended deadlines apply to correcting excess contributions and excess aggregate contributions (based on nondiscrimination testing) and excess deferrals. They also apply to:

  • Plan loan repayments,
  • The 60-day timeframe for rollover completion, and
  • The deadline for filing Form 8955-SSA to report information on separated plan participants with undistributed vested benefits.

The relief for excess deferrals is a change from previous guidance indicating that 2019 excess deferrals still needed to be corrected by April 15, 2020. In addition, while loan relief is already available to certain individuals for specified reasons related to COVID-19, this relief appears to apply more broadly — albeit for a shorter period. The Form 8955-SSA due date is the same as for the plan’s Form 5500, so the extension applies in the same manner.

Health Savings Accounts (HSAs). The notice extends the 60-day timeframe for completing HSA or Archer Medical Savings Account (MSA) rollovers. It also extends the deadline to report HSA or Archer MSA contribution information by filing Form 5498-SA and furnishing the information to account holders. The regular deadline for the 2019 Form 5498-SA would be June 1, 2020, placing it squarely within this relief period.

Business owners and their plan administrators should carefully review Notice 2020-23 in conjunction with Revenue Procedure 2018-58 to determine exactly what relief may be available. For example, the revenue procedure covers various cafeteria plan items, but many deadlines may fall outside the notice’s window. We can provide you with further information about this or other forms of federal relief.

© 2020 Covenant CPA

The law providing relief due to the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic contains a beneficial change in the tax rules for many improvements to interior parts of nonresidential buildings. This is referred to as qualified improvement property (QIP). You may recall that under the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act (TCJA), any QIP placed in service after December 31, 2017 wasn’t considered to be eligible for 100% bonus depreciation. Therefore, the cost of QIP had to be deducted over a 39-year period rather than entirely in the year the QIP was placed in service. This was due to an inadvertent drafting mistake made by Congress.

But the error is now fixed. The Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act was signed into law on March 27, 2020. It now allows most businesses to claim 100% bonus depreciation for QIP, as long as certain other requirements are met. What’s also helpful is that the correction is retroactive and it goes back to apply to any QIP placed in service after December 31, 2017. Unfortunately, improvements related to the enlargement of a building, any elevator or escalator, or the internal structural framework continue to not qualify under the definition of QIP. 

In the current business climate, you may not be in a position to undertake new capital expenditures — even if they’re needed as a practical matter and even if the substitution of 100% bonus depreciation for a 39-year depreciation period significantly lowers the true cost of QIP. But it’s good to know that when you’re ready to undertake qualifying improvements that 100% bonus depreciation will be available.

And, the retroactive nature of the CARES Act provision presents favorable opportunities for qualifying expenditures you’ve already made. We can revisit and add to documentation that you’ve already provided to identify QIP expenditures.

For not-yet-filed tax returns, we can simply reflect the favorable treatment for QIP on the return.

If you’ve already filed returns that didn’t claim 100% bonus depreciation for what might be QIP, we can investigate based on available documentation as discussed above. If there’s QIP that was eligible for 100% bonus depreciation, note that the IRS has, for past retroactive favorable depreciation changes, provided taxpayers with detailed guidance for how the benefit is claimed. Specifically, the IRS clarified how much flexibility taxpayers have in choosing between a one-time downward adjustment to income on their current returns or an amendment to the return for the year the QIP was placed in service. We will evaluate what your options are as anticipated IRS guidance for the QIP correction is released. 

If you have any questions about how you can take advantage of the QIP provision, don’t hesitate to contact us.

© 2020 Covenant CPA