There continues to be much uncertainty about the Affordable Care Act and how such uncertainty will impact health care costs. So it’s critical to leverage all tax-advantaged ways to fund these expenses, including HSAs, FSAs and HRAs. Here’s how to make sense of this alphabet soup of health care accounts.

HSAs

If you’re covered by a qualified high-deductible health plan (HDHP), you can contribute pretax income to an employer-sponsored Health Savings Account — or make deductible contributions to an HSA you set up yourself — up to $3,450 for self-only coverage and $6,900 for family coverage for 2018. Plus, if you’re age 55 or older, you may contribute an additional $1,000.

You own the account, which can bear interest or be invested, growing tax-deferred similar to an IRA. Withdrawals for qualified medical expenses are tax-free, and you can carry over a balance from year to year.

FSAs

Regardless of whether you have an HDHP, you can redirect pretax income to an employer-sponsored Flexible Spending Account up to an employer-determined limit — not to exceed $2,650 in 2018. The plan pays or reimburses you for qualified medical expenses.

What you don’t use by the plan year’s end, you generally lose — though your plan might allow you to roll over up to $500 to the next year. Or it might give you a grace period of two and a half months to incur expenses to use up the previous year’s contribution. If you have an HSA, your FSA is limited to funding certain “permitted” expenses.

HRAs

A Health Reimbursement Account is an employer-sponsored account that reimburses you for medical expenses. Unlike an HSA, no HDHP is required. Unlike an FSA, any unused portion typically can be carried forward to the next year.

There’s no government-set limit on HRA contributions. But only your employer can contribute to an HRA; employees aren’t allowed to contribute.

Maximize the benefit

If you have one of these health care accounts, it’s important to understand the applicable rules so you can get the maximum benefit from it. But tax-advantaged accounts aren’t the only way to save taxes in relation to health care. If you have questions about tax planning and health care expenses, please contact us at 205-345-9898.

© 2018 Covenant Consulting CPA

Choosing the best business entity structure post-TCJA

For tax years beginning in 2018 and beyond, the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act (TCJA) created a flat 21% federal income tax rate for C corporations. Under prior law, C corporations were taxed at rates as high as 35%. The TCJA also reduced individual income tax rates, which apply to sole proprietorships and pass-through entities, including partnerships, S corporations, and, typically, limited liability companies (LLCs). The top rate, however, dropped only slightly, from 39.6% to 37%.

On the surface, that may make choosing C corporation structure seem like a no-brainer. But there are many other considerations involved.

Conventional wisdom

Under prior tax law, conventional wisdom was that most small businesses should be set up as sole proprietorships or pass-through entities to avoid the double taxation of C corporations: A C corporation pays entity-level income tax and then shareholders pay tax on dividends — and on capital gains when they sell the stock. For pass-through entities, there’s no federal income tax at the entity level.

Although C corporations are still potentially subject to double taxation under the TCJA, their new 21% tax rate helps make up for it. This issue is further complicated, however, by another provision of the TCJA that allows noncorporate owners of pass-through entities to take a deduction equal to as much as 20% of qualified business income (QBI), subject to various limits. But, unless Congress extends it, the break is available only for tax years beginning in 2018 through 2025.

There’s no one-size-fits-all answer when deciding how to structure a business. The best choice depends on your business’s unique situation and your situation as an owner.

3 common scenarios

Here are three common scenarios and the entity-choice implications:

1. Business generates tax losses. For a business that consistently generates losses, there’s no tax advantage to operating as a C corporation. Losses from C corporations can’t be deducted by their owners. A pass-through entity will generally make more sense because losses pass through to the owners’ personal tax returns.

2. Business distributes all profits to owners. For a profitable business that pays out all income to the owners, operating as a pass-through entity generally will be better if significant QBI deductions are available. If not, it’s probably a toss-up in terms of tax liability.

3. Business retains all profits to finance growth. For a business that’s profitable but holds on to its profits to fund future growth strategies, operating as a C corporation generally will be advantageous if the corporation is a qualified small business (QSB). Why? A 100% gain exclusion may be available for QSB stock sale gains. If QSB status is unavailable, operating as a C corporation is still probably preferred — unless significant QBI deductions would be available at the owner level.

Many considerations

These are only some of the issues to consider when making the C corporation vs. pass-through entity choice. We can help you evaluate your options. Call us at 205-345-9898

© 2018 Covenant Consulting CPA

The most effective estate planning strategies often involve the use of irrevocable trusts. But what if you’re uncomfortable placing your assets beyond your control? What happens if your financial fortunes take a turn for the worse after you’ve irrevocably transferred a sizable portion of your wealth?

If your marriage is strong, a spousal lifetime access trust (SLAT) can be a viable strategy to obtain the benefits of an irrevocable trust while creating a financial backup plan.

Indirect access

A SLAT is an irrevocable trust that authorizes the trustee to make distributions to your spouse if a need arises. Like other irrevocable trusts, a SLAT can be designed to benefit your children, grandchildren or future generations. You can use your lifetime gift tax and generation-skipping transfer tax exemptions (currently, $11.18 million each) to shield contributions to the trust, as well as future appreciation, from transfer taxes. And the trust assets also receive some protection against claims by your beneficiaries’ creditors, including any former spouses.

The key benefit of a SLAT is that, by naming your spouse as a lifetime beneficiary, you retain indirect access to the trust assets. You can set up the trust to make distributions based on an “ascertainable standard” — such as your spouse’s health, education, maintenance or support — or you can give the trustee full discretion to distribute income or principal to your spouse.

To keep the trust assets out of your taxable estate, you must not act as trustee. You can appoint your spouse as trustee, but only if distributions are limited to an ascertainable standard. If you desire greater flexibility over distributions to your spouse, appoint an independent trustee. Also, the trust document must prohibit distributions in satisfaction of your legal support obligations.

Another critical requirement is to fund the trust with your separate property. If you use marital or community property, there’s a risk that the trust assets will end up in your spouse’s estate.

Risks

There’s a significant risk inherent in the SLAT strategy: If your spouse predeceases you, or if you and your spouse divorce, you’ll lose your indirect access to the trust assets. But there may be ways to mitigate this risk.

If you’re considering using a SLAT, contact us at 205-345-9898 to learn more about the benefits and risks of this type of trust.

© 2018 Covenant Consulting CPA

Funny thing about customers: They can keep you in business — but they can also put you out of it. The latter circumstance often arises when a company overly relies on a few customers that abuse their credit to the point where the company’s cash flow is dramatically impacted.

To guard against this, you need to diligently assess every customer’s creditworthiness before getting too deeply involved. And this includes running the numbers on entities you do business with, just as lenders and investors do with you.

Information, please

A first step is to ask new customers to complete a credit application. The application should request the company’s:

  • Name, address, phone number and website address,
  • Tax identification number,
  • General history (number of years in existence),
  • Legal entity type and parent company (if one exists), and
  • A bank reference and several trade references.

Depending on which industry or industries you serve, there may be other important data points to gather, as well. If you haven’t updated your credit application form in a while, consider doing so — especially if you’ve gotten burned on the same type of credit failure multiple times.

Financial data

When dealing with private companies, consider asking for an income statement and balance sheet. You’ll want to analyze financial data such as profit margin, or net income divided by net sales. Ideally, this will have remained steady or increased during the past few years. The profit margin also should be like those of other companies in the customer’s industry.

From the balance sheet, you can calculate the current ratio, or the customer’s current assets divided by its current liabilities. The higher this is, the more likely the customer will be able to cover its bills. Generally, a current ratio of 2:1 is considered acceptable. Again, there may be other metrics that are particularly important for the types of businesses you work with.

An evolving challenge

Reviewing financials is only one key step in determining whether a customer is creditworthy. It’s also important to contact the references the customer provided, and you may want to purchase a credit report. Finally, be sure to look at coverage of the customer both by traditional media and on social media. Doing so could reveal information that will impact your decision on whether to extend credit.

When competing to win and keep customers, it’s easy to get carried away with credit. Approach this task carefully and bear in mind that, for most businesses, extending customer credit is a learning process and an evolving challenge. For further help and info on assessing customers’ creditworthiness, please contact our firm at 205-345-9898

@2018 Covenant Consulting CPA

If you have a child or other family member with a disabling condition that requires long-term care or prevents (or will prevent) him or her from being able to support him- or herself, consider establishing a special needs trust (SNT). Also known as a supplemental needs trust, an SNT allows you to enhance a family member’s quality of life without jeopardizing his or her eligibility for government benefits, such as Medicaid or Supplemental Security Income (SSI).

SNT primer

An SNT is an irrevocable trust designed to supplement, rather than replace, government assistance. Generally, the trust is funded by someone other than the beneficiary, though in certain instances a beneficiary’s assets may be used to fund the trust.

To preserve eligibility for government benefits, the beneficiary can’t have access to the funds, and the trust must be prohibited from providing for the beneficiary’s “support.” That means it can’t be used to pay for medical care, food, clothing, shelter or anything else covered by Medicaid or SSI, such as the basic medical care provided by those programs.

But an SNT can be used to pay for virtually anything government benefits don’t cover, such as unreimbursed medical expenses, education and training, transportation (including wheelchair-accessible vehicles), insurance, computers, and modifications to the beneficiary’s home. It can also pay for “quality-of-life” needs, such as travel, entertainment, recreation and hobbies.

Careful drafting required

To ensure that an SNT doesn’t disqualify the beneficiary from government benefits, it should prohibit distributions directly to the beneficiary and prohibit the trustee from paying for any support items covered by Medicaid or SSI. Some SNTs specify the types of supplemental expenses the trust should pay; others give the trustee sole discretion over nonsupport items.

Like many trusts, most SNTs contain spendthrift language to protect the trust assets against creditors’ claims. Also, in some states, it may be necessary to include specific language providing that the trust is an SNT, that the funds are intended for only nonsupport purposes and that your intention is to preserve the beneficiary’s eligibility for government benefits. In other states, simply designing the trust as a discretionary trust may be sufficient, but it can’t hurt to include SNT spendthrift language just to be safe.

Communication is key

If you establish an SNT, communicate your plans to everyone concerned. Otherwise, well-meaning relatives or friends might inadvertently undermine your strategy by making gifts or bequests directly to the special needs person. Contact us at 205-345-9898with questions regarding an SNT.

© 2018 Covenant Consulting CPA

Of course, you expect the declarations in your will to be carried out, as required by law. Usually, that’s exactly what happens with wills. However, it’s possible your will could be contested and your true intentions defeated if someone is found to have exerted “undue influence” over your decisions.

Undue influence defined

Undue influence is an act of persuasion that overcomes the free will and judgment of another person. It may include exhortations, insinuations, flattery, trickery and deception.

Frequently, undue influence happens when an elderly individual, who may or may not have all of his or her bearings, is convinced to change provisions in a will or otherwise suddenly rewards another person, such as a caregiver.

Conversely, not all influence is “undue.” For instance, it’s perfectly reasonable for a child or close friend to advise an elderly person. It’s usually up to a court to decide if the “suggestion” constitutes undue influence.

Elements of undue influence

Generally, an interested party lodges a claim for undue influence when a deceased person’s will is being probated. To be successful, he or she typically must prove the following elements:

  • The will distributes assets in a way that wouldn’t be reasonably anticipated,
  • The deceased relied on the person who allegedly exerted undue influence,
  • The deceased’s physical or mental condition made him or her susceptible to undue influence, and
  • The accused person benefits from changes in the will or some other suspicious transaction.

Protect against claims

If your will distributes assets in a way your family might not expect, it’s possible that an undue influence claim could be successful — even if your will reflects your true intentions. Circumstances could still give the appearance of undue influence.

There are, however, steps you can take while you’re of sound mind and body to protect your estate against undue influence claims:

Establish competency. The best way to do this is to draft your will while you’re still in reasonably good health. Arrange for a physical examination around the time your will is executed. This is equivalent to a physician “signing off” that you’re competent.

Communicate clearly with family. Claims of undue influence may arise when relatives are blindsided after you’re gone. Let them know your intentions as soon as possible and explain your reasoning.

Taking these two steps may help avoid confrontations and place interested parties on notice that you’ve addressed the situation. The mere fact that you’ve taken action will be recognized in your favor. Contact us at 205-345-9898 if you’re concerned that your will may someday come under an undue influence claim.

© 2018 Covenant Consulting CPA  

Every year is a journey for a business. You begin with a set of objectives for the months ahead, probably encounter a few bumps along the way and, hopefully, reach your destination with some success and a few lessons learned.

The middle of the year is the perfect time to stop for a breather. A midyear review can help you and your management team determine which objectives are still “meetable” and which ones may need tweaking or perhaps even elimination.

Naturally, this will involve looking at your financials. There are various metrics that can tell you whether your cash flow is strong and debt load manageable, and if your profitability goals are within reach. But don’t stop there.

3 key areas

Here are three other key areas of your business to review at midyear:

1. HR. Your people are your most valuable asset. So, how is your employee turnover rate trending compared with last year or previous years? High employee turnover could be a sign of underlying problems, such as poor training, lax management or low employee morale.

2. Sales and marketing. Are you meeting your monthly goals for new sales, in terms of both sales volume and number of new customers? Are you generating an adequate return on investment (ROI) for your marketing dollars? If you can’t answer this last question, enhance your tracking of existing marketing efforts so you can gauge marketing ROI going forward.

3. Production. If you manufacture products, what’s your unit reject rate so far this year? Or if yours is a service business, how satisfied are your customers with the level of service being provided? Again, you may need to tighten up your methods of tracking product quality or measuring customer satisfaction to meet this year’s strategic goals.

Necessary adjustments

Don’t wait until the end of the year to assess the progress of your 2018 strategic plan. Conduct a midyear review and get the information you need to make any adjustments necessary to help ensure success. Let us know how we can help. Call 205-345-9898.

© 2018  Covenant CPA

The massive changes the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act (TCJA) made to income taxes have garnered the most attention. But the new law also made major changes to gift and estate taxes. While the TCJA didn’t repeal these taxes, it did significantly reduce the number of taxpayers who’ll be subject to them, at least for the next several years. Nevertheless, factoring taxes into your estate planning is still important.

Exemption increases

The TCJA more than doubles the combined gift and estate tax exemption and the generation-skipping transfer (GST) tax exemption, from $5.49 million for 2017 to $11.18 million for 2018.

This amount will continue to be annually adjusted for inflation through 2025. Absent further congressional action, however, the exemptions will revert to their 2017 levels (adjusted for inflation) for 2026 and beyond.

The rate for all three taxes remains at 40% — only three percentage points higher than the top income tax rate.

The impact

Even before the TCJA, the vast majority of taxpayers didn’t have to worry about federal gift and estate taxes. While the TCJA protects even more taxpayers from these taxes, those with estates in the roughly $6 million to $11 million range (twice that for married couples) still need to keep potential post-2025 estate tax liability in mind in their estate planning. Although their estates would escape estate taxes if they were to die while the doubled exemption is in effect, they could face such taxes if they live beyond 2025.

Any taxpayer who could be subject to gift and estate taxes after 2025 may want to consider making gifts now to take advantage of the higher exemptions while they’re available.

Factoring taxes into your estate planning is also still important if you live in a state with an estate tax. Even before the TCJA, many states imposed estate tax at a lower threshold than the federal government did. Now the differences in some states will be even greater.

Finally, income tax planning, which became more important in estate planning back when exemptions rose to $5 million more than 15 years ago, is now an even more important part of estate planning.

For example, holding assets until death may be advantageous if estate taxes aren’t a concern. When you give away an appreciated asset, the recipient takes over your tax basis in the asset, triggering capital gains tax should he or she turn around and sell it. When an appreciated asset is inherited, on the other hand, the recipient’s basis is “stepped up” to the asset’s fair market value on the date of death, erasing the built-in capital gain. So retaining appreciating assets until death can save significant income tax.

Review your estate plan

Whether or not you need to be concerned about federal gift and estate taxes, having an estate plan in place and reviewing it regularly is important. Contact us to discuss the potential tax impact of the TCJA on your estate plan.

© 2018

“Going green” at home — whether it’s your principal residence or a second home — can reduce your tax bill in addition to your energy bill, all while helping the environment, too. The catch is that, to reap all three benefits, you need to buy and install certain types of renewable energy equipment in the home.

Invest in green and save green

For 2018 and 2019, you may be eligible for a tax credit of 30% of expenditures (including costs for site preparation, assembly, installation, piping, and wiring) for installing the following types of renewable energy equipment:

  • Qualified solar electricity generating equipment and solar water heating equipment,Qualified wind energy equipment,
  • Qualified geothermal heat pump equipment, and
  • Qualified fuel cell electricity generating equipment (limited to $500 for each half kilowatt of fuel cell capacity

Because these items can be expensive, the credits can be substantial. To qualify, the equipment must be installed at your U.S. residence, including a vacation home — except for fuel cell equipment, which must be installed at your principal residence. You can’t claim credits for equipment installed at a property that’s used exclusively as a rental.

To qualify for the credit for solar water heating equipment, at least 50% of the energy used to heat water for the property must be generated by the solar equipment. And no credit is allowed for solar water heating equipment unless it’s certified for performance by the nonprofit Solar Rating & Certification Corporation or a comparable entity endorsed by the state in which your residence is located. (Keep this certification with your tax records.)

The credit rate for these expenditures is scheduled to drop to 26% in 2020 and then to 22% in 2021. After that, the credits are scheduled to expire.

Document and explore

As with all tax breaks, documentation is key when claiming credits for green investments in your home. Keep proof of how much you spend on qualifying equipment, including any extra amounts for site preparation, assembly and installation. Also keep a record of when the installation is completed, because you can claim the credit only for the year when that occurs.

Be sure to look beyond the federal tax credits and explore other ways to save by going green. Your green home investments might also be eligible for state and local tax benefits, subsidized state and local financing deals, and utility company rebates.

To learn more about federal, state and local tax breaks available for green home investments, contact us at 205.345-9898 or at www.covenantcpa.com.

© 2018

When you think about recent tax law changes and your business, you’re probably thinking about the new 20% pass-through deduction for qualified business income or the enhancements to depreciation-related breaks. Or you may be contemplating the reduction or elimination of certain business expense deductions. But there are also a couple of recent tax law changes that you need to be aware of if your business sponsors a 401(k) plan.

1. Plan loan repayment extension

The Tax Cuts and Jobs Act (TCJA) gives a break to 401(k) plan participants with outstanding loan balances when they leave their employers. While plan sponsors aren’t required to allow loans, many do.

Before 2018, if an employee with an outstanding plan loan left the company sponsoring the plan, he or she would have to repay the loan (or contribute the outstanding balance to an IRA or his or her new employer’s plan) within 60 days to avoid having the loan balance deemed a taxable distribution (and be subject to a 10% early distribution penalty if the employee was under age 59½).

Under the TCJA, beginning in 2018, former employees in this situation have until their tax return filing due date — including extensions — to repay the loan (or contribute the outstanding balance to an IRA or qualified retirement plan) and avoid taxes and penalties.

2. Hardship withdrawal limit increase

Beginning in 2019, the Bipartisan Budget Act (BBA) eases restrictions on employee 401(k) hardship withdrawals. Most 401(k) plans permit hardship withdrawals, though plan sponsors aren’t required to allow them. Hardship withdrawals are subject to income tax and the 10% early distribution tax penalty.

Currently, hardship withdrawals are limited to the funds employees contributed to the accounts. (Such withdrawals are allowed only if the employee has first taken a loan from the same account.)

Under the BBA, the withdrawal limit will also include accumulated employer matching contributions plus earnings on contributions. If an employee has been participating in your 401(k) for several years, this modification could add substantially to the amount of funds available for withdrawal.

Nest egg harm

These changes might sound beneficial to employees, but in the long run they could actually hurt those who take advantage of them. Most Americans aren’t saving enough for retirement, and taking longer to pay back a plan loan (and thus missing out on potential tax-deferred growth during that time) or taking larger hardship withdrawals can result in a smaller, perhaps much smaller, nest egg at retirement.

So consider educating your employees on the importance of letting their 401(k) accounts grow undisturbed and the potential negative tax consequences of loans and early withdrawals. Please contact us  at 205-345-9898 if you have questions.

© 2018