As the old saying goes, “Knowledge is power.” This certainly rings true in business, as those who best understand their industries and markets tend to have a knack for staying on top. If that person is a company’s owner, however, great knowledge can turn into a vulnerability when he or she decides to retire or otherwise leave the business.

As you develop your succession plan, consider how to mitigate the loss of pure know-how that will occur when you step down. One way to tackle this risk is to implement a knowledge management strategy.

Two types of knowledge

Knowledge management is a formal process of recognizing and treating knowledge as an asset that your company can identify, maintain and share. Generally, a business can subdivide knowledge into two types:

1. Explicit knowledge. This exists in the tangible world and typically includes company reports, financial statements and databases. These items are usually easy to access, extrapolate from and append. For your succession plan, however, you may need to dig deeper into your own confidential files, memos or emails.

2. Tacit knowledge. This is information that resides solely between the ears of a business’s leadership, employees and perhaps even service providers. As such, it’s not easily retrievable. In terms of succession planning, this may be the stuff that you haven’t written down or even talked about much.

Typical categories

Typical knowledge management categories include:

  • Taxes and accounting,
  • Financial management,
  • Strategic planning,
  • HR, payroll and employment practices,
  • Sales and marketing,
  • Customers,
  • Production, and
  • Technology.

In addition, knowledge management should account for your company’s intellectual property — trade secrets, for example. Many business owners keep such details close to their vests and even managers may not know the full value of the company’s intellectual property. This could put your business at risk following your departure.

A comprehensive knowledge management effort related to your succession plan will call on you to undertake a full inventory of every category listed above and perhaps others. Gathering your explicit knowledge may entail compiling years’, even decades’, worth of documents, files and writings. This may not be an easy task, but it’s still a matter of straight research.

You’ll likely find capturing your tacit knowledge somewhat more challenging. One idea is to ask a suitable employee or engage an outside consultant to interview you regarding all the pertinent categories. Many business owners find these conversations arduous at first but eventually enlightening and enjoyable.

A legacy preserved

A solid succession plan is imperative to maintaining the future stability and success of your company. Knowledge management can strengthen that plan and help preserve the legacy you’ve worked so hard to build. Contact us for further information and for help identifying knowledge related to your tax filings, accounting methods and other financial matters. 205-345-9898 or info@covenantcpa.com.

© 2019 CovenantCPA

It’s not just businesses that can deduct vehicle-related expenses. Individuals also can deduct them in certain circumstances. Unfortunately, the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act (TCJA) might reduce your deduction compared to what you claimed on your 2017 return.

For 2017, miles driven for business, moving, medical and charitable purposes were potentially deductible. For 2018 through 2025, business and moving miles are deductible only in much more limited circumstances. TCJA changes could also affect your tax benefit from medical and charitable miles.

Current limits vs. 2017

Before 2018, if you were an employee, you potentially could deduct business mileage not reimbursed by your employer as a miscellaneous itemized deduction. But the deduction was subject to a 2% of adjusted gross income (AGI) floor, which meant that mileage was deductible only to the extent that your total miscellaneous itemized deductions for the year exceeded 2% of your AGI. For 2018 through 2025, you can’t deduct the mileage regardless of your AGI. Why? The TCJA suspends miscellaneous itemized deductions subject to the 2% floor.

If you’re self-employed, business mileage is deducted from self-employment income. Therefore, it’s not subject to the 2% floor and is still deductible for 2018 through 2025, as long as it otherwise qualifies.

Miles driven for a work-related move in 2017 were generally deductible “above the line” (that is, itemizing isn’t required to claim the deduction). But for 2018 through 2025, under the TCJA, moving expenses are deductible only for certain military families.

Miles driven for health-care-related purposes are deductible as part of the medical expense itemized deduction. Under the TCJA, for 2017 and 2018, medical expenses are deductible to the extent they exceed 7.5% of your AGI. For 2019, the floor returns to 10%, unless Congress extends the 7.5% floor.

The limits for deducting expenses for charitable miles driven haven’t changed, but keep in mind that it’s an itemized deduction. So, you can claim the deduction only if you itemize. For 2018 through 2025, the standard deduction has been nearly doubled. Depending on your total itemized deductions, you might be better off claiming the standard deduction, in which case you’ll get no tax benefit from your charitable miles (or from your medical miles, even if you exceed the AGI floor).

Differing mileage rates

Rather than keeping track of your actual vehicle expenses, you can use a standard mileage rate to compute your deductions. The rates vary depending on the purpose and the year:

  • Business: 54.5 cents (2018), 58 cents (2019)
  • Medical: 18 cents (2018), 20 cents (2019)
  • Moving: 18 cents (2018), 20 cents (2019)
  • Charitable: 14 cents (2018 and 2019)

In addition to deductions based on the standard mileage rate, you may deduct related parking fees and tolls. There are also substantiation requirements, which include tracking miles driven.

Get help 

Do you have questions about deducting vehicle-related expenses? Contact us at 205-345-9898 or info@covenantcpa.com. We can help you with your 2018 return and 2019 tax planning.

© 2019 CovenantCPA

Your board’s audit committee is a first line of defense against fraud. But to be effective, committee members need to do more than simply review financial statements and audit results.

Members should also adopt the following best practices:

Conduct risk assessments. Identify the types of risks faced by your company and their likelihood of occurrence. These assessments should include an evaluation of existing internal controls.

Be knowledgeable. Become familiar with relevant accounting issues and recent developments. Also ask questions and challenge management on the accounting for complex transactions. If your company’s industry has specialized accounting rules, consider consulting outside specialists.

Communicate with external auditors. Regularly touch base with outside auditors, because the external audit team performs many fraud prevention functions. Schedule formal meetings before the audit to elicit input on issues auditors should examine and after the audit is complete to follow up on those issues.

Verify compliance. Confirm that management is performing annual reviews of your company’s compliance programs and reporting systems. Also become familiar with ethics requirements, such as those in the Dodd-Frank Act, the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act and any applicable whistleblower laws.

Set the tone. Employees can’t reasonably be expected to abide by antifraud standards and processes if they don’t see proper behavior modeled and reinforced from the top of the organizational chart. Your committee can help foster a culture of accountability and integrity by establishing anonymous reporting mechanisms and requiring prompt investigation of, and follow-up on, whistleblower complaints.

Reach out. Don’t restrict internal communications to upper management or the CFO. Reach out to lower-level employees, too, so those employees feel comfortable reporting concerns and suspicions.

Audit committee members have a fiduciary duty to protect investors, lenders and other stakeholders from fraud. Contact us if you have questions about following best practices. We can also help you stay on top of fraud trends and compliance requirements. 205-345-9898 info@covenantcpa.com.

© 2019 CovenantCPA

Recent changes to federal tax law and accounting rules could affect whether you decide to lease or buy equipment or other fixed assets. Although there’s no universal “right” choice, many businesses that formerly leased assets are now deciding to buy them.

Pros and cons of leasing

From a cash flow perspective, leasing can be more attractive than buying. And leasing does provide some tax benefits: Lease payments generally are tax deductible as “ordinary and necessary” business expenses. (Annual deduction limits may apply.)

Leasing used to be advantageous from a financial reporting standpoint. But new accounting rules that bring leases to the lessee’s balance sheet go into effect in 2020 for calendar-year private companies. So, lease obligations will show up as liabilities, similar to purchased assets that are financed with traditional bank loans.

Leasing also has some potential drawbacks. Over the long run, leasing an asset may cost you more than buying it, and leasing doesn’t provide any buildup of equity. What’s more, you’re generally locked in for the entire lease term. So, you’re obligated to keep making lease payments even if you stop using the equipment. If the lease allows you to opt out before the term expires, you may have to pay an early-termination fee.

Pros and cons of buying

Historically, the primary advantage of buying over leasing has been that you’re free to use the assets as you see fit. But an advantage that has now come to the forefront is that Section 179 expensing and first-year bonus depreciation can provide big tax savings in the first year an asset is placed in service.

These two tax breaks were dramatically enhanced by the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act (TCJA) — enough so that you may be convinced to buy assets that your business might have leased in the past. Many businesses will be able to write off the full cost of most equipment in the year it’s purchased. Any remainder is eligible for regular depreciation deductions over IRS-prescribed schedules.

The primary downside of buying fixed assets is that you’re generally required to pay the full cost upfront or in installments, although the Sec. 179 and bonus depreciation tax benefits are still available for property that’s financed. If you finance a purchase through a bank, a down payment of at least 20% of the cost is usually required. This could tie up funds and affect your credit rating. If you decide to finance fixed asset purchases, be aware that the TCJA limits interest expense deductions (for businesses with more than $25 million in average annual gross receipts) to 30% of adjusted taxable income.

Decision time

When deciding whether to lease or buy a fixed asset, there are a multitude of factors to consider, including tax implications. We can help you determine the approach that best suits your circumstances. Call or email us today- 205-345-9898, info@covenantcpa.com.

© 2019 CovenantCPA

An unexpected outcome of the recent death of designer Karl Lagerfeld is that the topic of estate planning for pets has been highlighted. Lagerfeld’s beloved cat, Choupette, played a major role in his brand. The feline was the subject of a coffee table book and has a large Instagram following. Before his death, Lagerfeld publicly expressed his wishes to have his ashes, and those of his cat if she had died before him, to be scattered with those of his mother’s. It’s unknown if Lagerfeld accounted for his beloved Choupette in his estate plan, but one vehicle he could have used to do so is a pet trust.

Another celebrity who famously set up a pet trust for her dog was hotel heiress Leona Helmsley. She left $12 million in a trust for her white Maltese, Trouble. (A judge later reduced the trust to $2 million and ordered the remainder to go to Helmsley’s charitable foundation.) Thanks to the pet trust, Trouble lived a luxurious life until she died in 2011, four years after Helmsley’s death.

ABCs of a pet trust

A pet trust is a legally sanctioned arrangement in all 50 states that allows you to set aside funds for your pet’s care in the event you die or become disabled. After the pet dies, any remaining funds are distributed among your heirs as directed by the trust’s terms.

The basic guidelines are comparable to trusts for people. The “grantor” — called a settlor or trustor in some states — creates the trust to take effect during his or her lifetime or at death. Typically, a trustee will hold property for the benefit of the grantor’s pet. Payments to a designated caregiver are made on a regular basis.

Depending on the state in which the trust is established, it terminates upon the death of the pet or after 21 years, whichever occurs first. Some states allow a pet trust to continue past the 21-year term if the animal remains alive. This can be beneficial for pets that have longer life expectancies than cats or dogs, such as parrots or turtles.

Specify your wishes

Because you know your pet better than anyone else, you may provide specific instructions for its care and maintenance (for example, a specific veterinarian or brand of food). The trust can also mandate periodic visits to the vet and other obligations. Feel more secure knowing that your pet’s care is forever ensured — legally. Contact us for additional details at 205-345-9898 or info@covenantcpa.com.

© 2019 CovenantCPA

For many businesses, offering employees a 401(k) plan is no longer an option — it’s a competitive necessity. But employees often grow so accustomed to having a 401(k) that they don’t pay much attention to it.

It’s in your best interest as a business owner to buck this trend. Keeping your employees engaged with their 401(k)s will increase the likelihood that they’ll appreciate this benefit and get the most from it. In turn, they’ll value you more as an employer, which can pay dividends in productivity and retention.

Promote positive awareness

Throughout the year, remind employees that a 401(k) remains one of the most tax-efficient ways to save for retirement. Regardless of investment results, the pretax advantage and any employer match make a 401(k) plan an ideal way to save.

For example, point out that, for every $100 of pay they defer to the 401(k), the entire $100 is invested in the plan — not reduced for taxes as it would be if it were paid directly to them. And any employer match increases investment potential.

At the same time, make sure employees know that your 401(k) plan operates under federal regulations. Although the value of their accounts may go up and down, it isn’t affected by the performance of your business, because plan assets aren’t commingled with company funds.

Encourage patience, involvement

The fluctuations and complexities of the stock market may cause some participants to worry about their 401(k)s — or to try not to think about them. Regularly reinforce that their accounts are part of a long-term retirement savings and investment strategy. Explain that both the economy and stock market are cyclical. If employees are invested appropriately for their respective ages, their accounts will likely rebound from most losses.

If a change occurs in the investment environment, such as a sudden drop in the stock market, present it as an opportunity for them to reassess their investment strategy and asset allocation. Market shifts have a significant impact on many individuals’ asset allocations, resulting in portfolios that may be inappropriate for their ages, retirement horizons and risk tolerance. Suggest that employees conduct annual rebalancing to maintain appropriate investment risk.

Offer help

As part of their benefits package, some businesses provide financial counseling services to employees. If you’re one of them, now is a good time to remind them of this resource. Employee assistance programs sometimes offer financial counseling as well.

Another option is to occasionally engage investment advisors to come in and meet with your employees. Your plan vendor may offer this service. Of course, you should never directly give financial advice to employees through anyone who works for your company.

Advocate appreciation

A 401(k) plan is a substantial investment for any company in time, money and resources. Encourage employees to appreciate your efforts — for their benefit and yours. We can help you assess and express the financial advantages of your plan. Call us at 205-345-9898 or email us at info@covenantcpa.com.

© 2019 CovenantCPA

Incentive stock options (ISOs) are a popular form of compensation for executives and other employees of corporations. They allow you to buy company stock in the future at a fixed price equal to or greater than the stock’s fair market value on the ISO grant date. If the stock appreciates, you can buy shares at a price below what they’re then trading for. But careful tax planning is required because of the complex rules that apply.

Tax advantages abound

Although ISOs must comply with many rules, they receive tax-favored treatment. You owe no tax when ISOs are granted. You also owe no regular income tax when you exercise ISOs. There could be alternative minimum tax (AMT) consequences, but the AMT is less of a risk now because of the high AMT exemption under the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act.

There are regular income tax consequences when you sell the stock. If you sell the stock after holding it at least one year from the exercise date and two years from the grant date, you pay tax on the sale at your long-term capital gains rate. You also may owe the 3.8% net investment income tax (NIIT).

If you sell the stock before long-term capital gains treatment applies, a “disqualifying disposition” occurs and any gain is taxed as compensation at ordinary-income rates.

Impact on your 2018 return

If you were granted ISOs in 2018, there likely isn’t any impact on your 2018 income tax return. But if in 2018 you exercised ISOs or you sold stock you’d acquired via exercising ISOs, then it could affect your 2018 tax liability.

It’s important to properly report the exercise or sale on your 2018 return to avoid potential interest and penalties for underpayment of tax.

Planning for the future 

If you receive ISOs in 2019 or already hold ISOs that you haven’t yet exercised, plan carefully when to exercise them. Waiting to exercise ISOs until just before the expiration date (when the stock value may be the highest, assuming the stock is appreciating) may make sense. But exercising ISOs earlier can be advantageous in some situations.

Once you’ve exercised ISOs, the question is whether to immediately sell the shares received or to hold on to them long enough to garner long-term capital gains treatment. The latter strategy often is beneficial from a tax perspective, but there’s also market risk to consider. For example, it may be better to sell the stock in a disqualifying disposition and pay the higher ordinary-income rate if it would avoid AMT on potentially disappearing appreciation.

The timing of the sale of stock acquired via an exercise could also positively or negatively affect your liability for higher ordinary-income tax rates, the top long-term capital gains rate and the NIIT.

If you need help tax planning for your ISOs, please contact us at 205-345-9898 or info@covenantcpa.com.

© 2019 CovenantCPA

Bankruptcy (or liquidation) can be a valid business tool when used properly. Unfortunately, it can also enable less-than-honest business owners to profit at the expense of their creditors. Such is often the case with “phoenix” companies.

Rising from the ashes

Phoenix companies earn their name because they rise from the ashes of failed companies, trading on the goodwill of the original businesses. Here’s how a phoenix company scheme might work: A company’s owner buys goods on credit, purposely drives the business into the ground and then buys its assets back from liquidators at knockdown prices. The owner then returns to the same line of business. Some operators repeat the process multiple times — as often as they can get away with it.

These shady companies usually are undercapitalized from the start, and they almost always leave a trail of unpaid debts to mark the end of their short life spans. Unfortunately, unsuspecting creditors may sell goods to the new company (that retains the old name) under the impression they’re dealing with the original business. Meanwhile, creditors of the original company remain unpaid.

Legitimate or not

It’s perfectly legal for an insolvent company to sell its assets to another party at market value. It’s also legal to sell a business to existing management. How, then, do you know whether a company’s decision to sell assets is made in good faith or is an effort to avoid liability? And how can you prove that a bankrupt company unable to satisfy creditors has actually funneled assets into a new business?

Forensic accounting experts investigate the owner’s background and the company’s history, taking industry into consideration. (Phoenix companies are more common in such sectors as construction and hospitality.) And they look for red flags — for example, evidence that the owner of the defunct company deliberately ran up debts before declaring bankruptcy or made selective payments to creditors that later went on to supply the new entity.

Don’t become a victim

To avoid becoming a creditor of a fraudulently bankrupt company, watch whom you do business with. Before extending credit, ask for references and verify that the customer has a record of paying its bills. Contact us for advice and help at 205-345-9898 or info@covenantcpa.com.

© 2019 CovenantCPA

Shakespeare’s words don’t apply just to Julius Caesar; they also apply to calendar-year partnerships, S corporations and limited liability companies (LLCs) treated as partnerships or S corporations for tax purposes. Why? The Ides of March, more commonly known as March 15, is the federal income tax filing deadline for these “pass-through” entities.

Not-so-ancient history

Until the 2016 tax year, the filing deadline for partnerships was the same as that for individual taxpayers: April 15 (or shortly thereafter if April 15 fell on a weekend or holiday). One of the primary reasons for moving up the partnership filing deadline was to make it easier for owners to file their personal returns by the April filing deadline. After all, partnership (and S corporation) income passes through to the owners. The earlier date allows owners to use the information contained in the pass-through entity forms to file their personal returns.

For partnerships with fiscal year ends, tax returns are now due the 15th day of the third month after the close of the tax year. The same deadline applies to fiscal-year S corporations. Under prior law, returns for fiscal-year partnerships were due the 15th day of the fourth month after the close of the fiscal tax year.

Avoiding a tragedy

If you haven’t filed your calendar-year partnership or S corporation return yet and are worried about having sufficient time to complete it, you can avoid the tragedy of a late return by filing for an extension. Under the current law, the maximum extension for calendar-year partnerships is six months (until September 16, 2019, for 2018 returns). This is up from five months under the old law. So the extension deadline is the same — only the length of the extension has changed. The extension deadline for calendar-year S corporations also is September 16, 2019, for 2018 returns.

Whether you’ll be filing a partnership or an S corporation return, you must file for the extension by March 15 if it’s a calendar-year entity.

Extending the drama

Filing for an extension can be tax-smart if you’re missing critical documents or you face unexpected life events that prevent you from devoting sufficient time to your return right now.

But to avoid potential interest and penalties, you still must (with a few exceptions) pay any tax due by the unextended deadline. There probably won’t be any tax liability from the partnership or S corporation return. But, if filing for an extension for the entity return causes you to also have to file an extension for your personal return, it could cause you to owe interest and penalties in relation to your personal return.

We can help you file your tax returns on a timely basis or determine whether filing for an extension is appropriate. Contact us today at 205-345-9898 or info@covenantcpa.com.

© 2019 CovenantCPA

Donating to charity is a key estate planning strategy for many people. It reduces the size of your taxable estate and it can help you leave a lasting legacy with organizations you care about.

The benefit of making such gifts during life rather than at death is that you may be eligible for an income tax deduction. Qualifying for a charitable deduction is, in some respects, a matter of form over substance. The IRS could disallow a deduction, even if it’s otherwise legitimate, if you fail to follow the substantiation requirements to the letter.

If you’ve made charitable donations in 2018, it’s wise to review the substantiation rules as you file your 2018 tax return. Here’s a quick summary of the rules:

Cash gifts under $250: Use a canceled check, receipt from the charity or “other reliable written record” showing the charity’s name and the date and amount of the gift.

Cash gifts of $250 or more: Obtain a contemporaneous written acknowledgment from the charity stating the amount of the gift, whether you received any goods or services in exchange for it and, if so, a good-faith estimate of their value. An acknowledgment is “contemporaneous” if you receive it before the earlier of your tax return due date (including extensions) or the date you actually file your return. Also, there’s no need to combine separate gifts of less than $250 to the same charity (monthly contributions, for example) to determine if you’ve hit the $250 threshold for the contemporaneous written acknowledgment requirement.

Noncash gifts under $250: Get a receipt showing the charity’s name, the date and location of the donation, and a description of the property.

Noncash gifts of $250 or more: Obtain a contemporaneous written acknowledgment from the charity that contains the information required for cash gifts plus a description of the property. File Form 8283 if total noncash gifts exceed $500.

Noncash gifts of more than $500: In addition to the above, keep records showing the date you acquired the property, how you acquired it and your adjusted basis in it.

Noncash gifts of more than $5,000 ($10,000 for closely held stock): In addition to the above, obtain a qualified appraisal and include an appraisal summary, signed by the appraiser and the charity, with your return. (No appraisal is required for publicly traded securities.)

Noncash gifts of more than $500,000 ($20,000 for art): In addition to the above, include a copy of the signed appraisal (not the summary) with your return.

Failure to follow the substantiation rules can mean the loss of valuable tax deductions. We can help determine if you’ve properly substantiated your 2018 charitable donations. Call us today at 205-345-9898.

© 2019 Covenant CPA