Have you recently started a new business? Or are you contemplating starting one? Launching a new venture is a hectic, exciting time. And as you know, before you even open the doors, you generally have to spend a lot of money. You may have to train workers and pay for rent, utilities, marketing and more.

Entrepreneurs are often unaware that many expenses incurred by start-ups can’t be deducted right away. You should be aware that the way you handle some of your initial expenses can make a large difference in your tax bill.

Key points on how expenses are handled

When starting or planning a new enterprise, keep these factors in mind:

  1. Start-up costs include those incurred or paid while creating an active trade or business — or investigating the creation or acquisition of one.
  2. Under the federal tax code, taxpayers can elect to deduct up to $5,000 of business start-up and $5,000 of organizational costs in the year the business begins. We don’t need to tell you that $5,000 doesn’t go far these days! And the $5,000 deduction is reduced dollar-for-dollar by the amount by which your total start-up or organizational costs exceed $50,000. Any remaining costs must be amortized over 180 months on a straight-line basis.
  3. No deductions or amortization write-offs are allowed until the year when “active conduct” of your new business commences. That usually means the year when the enterprise has all the pieces in place to begin earning revenue. To determine if a taxpayer meets this test, the IRS and courts generally ask questions such as: Did the taxpayer undertake the activity intending to earn a profit? Was the taxpayer regularly and actively involved? Has the activity actually begun?

Examples of expenses

Start-up expenses generally include all expenses that are incurred to:

  • Investigate the creation or acquisition of a business,
  • Create a business, or
  • Engage in a for-profit activity in anticipation of that activity becoming an active business.

To be eligible for the election, an expense also must be one that would be deductible if it were incurred after a business began. One example would be the money you spend analyzing potential markets for a new product or service.

To qualify as an “organization expense,” the outlay must be related to the creation of a corporation or partnership. Some examples of organization expenses are legal and accounting fees for services related to organizing the new business and filing fees paid to the state of incorporation.

An important decision

Time may be of the essence if you have start-up expenses that you’d like to deduct this year. You need to decide whether to take the elections described above. Recordkeeping is important. Contact us about your business start-up plans. We can help with the tax and other aspects of your new venture. 205-345-9898 and info@covenantcpa.com.

© 2019 CovenantCPA

In the course of operating your business, you probably spend time and money “wining and dining” current or potential customers, vendors and employees. What can you deduct on your tax return for these expenses? The rules changed under the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act (TCJA), but you can still claim some valuable write-offs.

No more entertainment deductions

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.

Meal deductions still allowed

You can still 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.

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 clarified in guidance (Notice 2018-76) 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. Your tax advisor can keep you up to speed on the issues and suggest strategies to get the biggest tax-saving bang for your business meal bucks. Contact us at 205-345-9898 and info@covenantcpa.com.

© 2019 CovenantCPA

If you’re getting a divorce, you know it’s a highly stressful time. But if you’re a business owner, tax issues can complicate matters even more. Your business ownership interest is one of your biggest personal assets and your marital property will include all or part of it.

Transferring property tax-free 

You can generally divide most assets, including cash and business ownership interests, between you and your soon-to-be ex-spouse without any federal income or gift tax consequences. When an asset falls under this tax-free transfer rule, the spouse who receives the asset takes over its existing tax basis (for tax gain or loss purposes) and its existing holding period (for short-term or long-term holding period purposes).

For example, let’s say that, under the terms of your divorce agreement, you give your house to your spouse in exchange for keeping 100% of the stock in your business. That asset swap would be tax-free. And the existing basis and holding periods for the home and the stock would carry over to the person who receives them.

Tax-free transfers can occur before the divorce or at the time it becomes final. Tax-free treatment also applies to postdivorce transfers so long as they’re made “incident to divorce.” This means transfers that occur within:

  • A year after the date the marriage ends, or
  • Six years after the date the marriage ends if the transfers are made pursuant to your divorce agreement.

Future tax implications

Eventually, there will be tax implications for assets received tax-free in a divorce settlement. The ex-spouse who winds up owning an appreciated asset — when the fair market value exceeds the tax basis — generally must recognize taxable gain when it’s sold (unless an exception applies).

What if your ex-spouse receives 49% of your highly appreciated small business stock? Thanks to the tax-free transfer rule, there’s no tax impact when the shares are transferred. Your ex will continue to apply the same tax rules as if you had continued to own the shares, including carryover basis and carryover holding period. When your ex-spouse ultimately sells the shares, he or she will owe any capital gains taxes. You will owe nothing.

Note that the person who winds up owning appreciated assets must pay the built-in tax liability that comes with them. From a net-of-tax perspective, appreciated assets are worth less than an equal amount of cash or other assets that haven’t appreciated. That’s why you should always take taxes into account when negotiating your divorce agreement.

In addition, the IRS now extends the beneficial tax-free transfer rule to ordinary-income assets, not just to capital-gains assets. For example, if you transfer business receivables or inventory to your ex-spouse in divorce, these types of ordinary-income assets can also be transferred tax-free. When the asset is later sold, converted to cash or exercised (in the case of nonqualified stock options), the person who owns the asset at that time must recognize the income and pay the tax liability.

Avoid adverse tax consequences

Like many major life events, divorce can have major tax implications. For example, you may receive an unexpected tax bill if you don’t carefully handle the splitting up of qualified retirement plan accounts (such as a 401(k) plan) and IRAs. And if you own a business, the stakes are higher. Your tax advisor can help you minimize the adverse tax consequences of settling your divorce under today’s laws. Contact us at 205-345-9898 or info@covenantcpa.com for more info.

© 2019 CovenantCPA

Absenteeism has typically been a thorn in the side of many companies. But there’s a flip side to employees failing to show up to work: “presenteeism.” This is when employees come in to work unwell or put in excessive overtime.

Now you probably appreciate and respect workers who are team players and go the extra mile. But employees who come to work when they aren’t operating at full physical or mental capacity may make mistakes, cause accidents, create confusion and ultimately hurt productivity. In other words, presenteeism can slowly and silently erode your bottom line unless you recognize and deal with it.

Address mental health

A common response to presenteeism is, “But we offer paid sick days.” Although paid sick days do generally help resolve incidences of a physical ailment or injury, they may not adequately address struggles with mental illness or extreme personal stress (such as a divorce or financial crisis). Some managers may raise an eyebrow at those taking a “mental health day,” so sufferers end up coming in to work when they really may need the day off.

How can you help? If you sponsor a health care plan, it likely offers coverage for mental health and substance use disorder services, including behavioral health treatment. Be sure employees are aware of this. Also, reinforce with employees that you’ll honor the sick-day provisions spelled out in your employee manual for all types of ailments (physical, mental and psychological). Train supervisors to support employees’ well-being and encourage those who need to take time off to do so if they need it.

Discourage excessive overtime

Another common cause of presenteeism is the perceived notion among many workers that they must work excessive overtime to prove themselves. Many companies still operate under an “old school” culture that says putting in extra overtime will make the boss happy and lead to quicker raises and promotions.

Generally, many managers assume that, if an employee is absent, his or her productivity must be suffering. Conversely, if that same employee is putting in extra time and skipping vacations, he or she must be highly productive. But these assumptions aren’t always true — they must be supported by a thorough, objective and analytical performance evaluation process.

You can prevent this type of presenteeism by strongly encouraging, if not strictly enforcing, vacation time. Communicate to employees your concerns about overworking and remind them to take advantage of the time off that they’ve earned. (Doing so can also deter fraud.)

Find the balance

Having a workforce full of dedicated, hard-working employees is still a goal that every business should strive for. But, at the same time, work-life balance is a concept that benefits both employers and employees. Our firm can help you analyze the numbers related to productivity that can help you make optimal decisions regarding staffing and workflow. Call us or email us today at 205-345-9898/ info@covenantcpa.com.

© 2019CovenantCPA

Merger and acquisition activity has been brisk in recent years. If your business is considering merging with or acquiring another business, it’s important to understand how the transaction will be taxed under current law.

Stocks vs. assets

From a tax standpoint, a transaction can basically be structured in two ways:

1. Stock (or ownership interest). A buyer can directly purchase a seller’s ownership interest if the target business is operated as a C or S corporation, a partnership, or a limited liability company (LLC) that’s treated as a partnership for tax purposes.

The now-permanent 21% corporate federal income tax rate under the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act (TCJA) makes buying the stock of a C corporation somewhat more attractive. Reasons: The corporation will pay less tax and generate more after-tax income. Plus, any built-in gains from appreciated corporate assets will be taxed at a lower rate when they’re eventually sold.

The TCJA’s reduced individual federal tax rates may also make ownership interests in S corporations, partnerships and LLCs more attractive. Reason: The passed-through income from these entities also will be taxed at lower rates on a buyer’s personal tax return. However, the TCJA’s individual rate cuts are scheduled to expire at the end of 2025, and, depending on future changes in Washington, they could be eliminated earlier or extended.

2. Assets. A buyer can also purchase the assets of a business. This may happen if a buyer only wants specific assets or product lines. And it’s the only option if the target business is a sole proprietorship or a single-member LLC that’s treated as a sole proprietorship for tax purposes.

Note: In some circumstances, a corporate stock purchase can be treated as an asset purchase by making a “Section 338 election.” Ask your tax advisor for details.

Buyer vs. seller preferences 

For several reasons, buyers usually prefer to purchase assets rather than ownership interests. Generally, a buyer’s main objective is to generate enough cash flow from an acquired business to pay any acquisition debt and provide an acceptable return on the investment. Therefore, buyers are concerned about limiting exposure to undisclosed and unknown liabilities and minimizing taxes after the deal closes.

A buyer can step up (increase) the tax basis of purchased assets to reflect the purchase price. Stepped-up basis lowers taxable gains when certain assets, such as receivables and inventory, are sold or converted into cash. It also increases depreciation and amortization deductions for qualifying assets.

Meanwhile, sellers generally prefer stock sales for tax and nontax reasons. One of their main objectives is to minimize the tax bill from a sale. That can usually be achieved by selling their ownership interests in a business (corporate stock or partnership or LLC interests) as opposed to selling business assets.

With a sale of stock or other ownership interest, liabilities generally transfer to the buyer and any gain on sale is generally treated as lower-taxed long-term capital gain (assuming the ownership interest has been held for more than one year).

Keep in mind that other issues, such as employee benefits, can also cause unexpected tax issues when merging with, or acquiring, a business.

Professional advice is critical

Buying or selling a business may be the most important transaction you make during your lifetime, so it’s important to seek professional tax advice as you negotiate. After a deal is done, it may be too late to get the best tax results. Contact us for the best way to proceed in your situation. 205-345-9898 or info@covenantcpa.com.

© 2019 CovenantCPA

As an individual, you’ve no doubt been urged to regularly check your credit score. Most people nowadays know that, with a subpar personal credit score, they’ll have trouble buying a home or car, or just getting a reasonable-rate credit card.

But how about your business credit score? It’s important for much the same reason — you’ll have difficulty obtaining financing or procuring the assets you need to operate competitively without a solid score. So, you’ve got to be vigilant about it.

Algorithms and data

Business credit scores come from various reporting agencies, such as Experian, Equifax and Dun & Bradstreet. Each agency has its own algorithm for calculating credit scores. Like personal credit scores, higher business credit scores equate with lower risk (and vice versa).

Credit agencies track your business by its employer identification number (EIN). They compile data from your EIN, including the company’s address, phone number, owners’ names and industry classification code. Agencies may also search the Internet and public records for bankruptcies, judgments and tax liens. Suppliers, landlords, leasing companies and other creditors may also report payment experiences with the company to credit agencies.

Important factors

Timely bill payment is the biggest factor affecting your business credit score. But other important ones include:

Level of success. Higher net worth or annual revenues generally increase your credit score.

Structure. Corporations and limited liability companies tend to receive higher scores than sole proprietorships and partnerships because these entities’ financial identities are separate from those of their owners.

Industry. Some agencies keep track of the percentage of companies under the company’s industry classification code that have filed for bankruptcy. Participation in high-risk industries tends to lower a business credit score.

Track record. Credit agencies also look at the length and frequency of your company’s credit history. Once you establish credit, your business should periodically borrow additional money and then repay it on time to avoid the risk of being downgraded.

Best practices

Business credit scores help lenders decide whether to approve your loan request, as well as the loan’s interest rate, duration and other terms. Unfortunately, some small businesses and start-ups may have little to no credit history.

Build your company’s credit history by applying for a company credit card and paying the balance off each month. Also put utilities and leases in your company’s name, so the business is on the radar of the credit reporting agencies.

Sometimes, credit agencies base their ratings on incomplete, false or outdated information. Monitor your credit score regularly and note any downgrades. In some cases, the agency may be willing to change your score if you contact them and successfully prove that a rating is inaccurate.

Central role

Maintaining a healthy business credit score should play a central role in how you manage your company’s finances. Contact us for help in using credit to help maintain your cash flow and build the bottom line. 205-345-9898 or info@covenantcpa.com.

© 2019 CovenantCPA

Because they foster a collegial, trusting environment, law firms can be more vulnerable to fraud than many other types of businesses. Enforcing internal controls may simply seem unnecessary in an office of professionals dedicated to the law. Unfortunately, occupational thieves can take advantage of such complacency.

A law firm’s accounting department — payroll and accounts payable and receivable — may be particularly vulnerable. To protect against financial losses and possible public embarrassment, implement and enforce five basic controls:

1. Screen employees. Require all prospective employees, regardless of level, to complete an employment application with written authorization permitting your firm to verify information provided. Then, call references and conduct background checks (or hire a service to do it). These checks search criminal and court records, pull applicants’ credit reports and driving records, and verify their Social Security numbers.

2. Use fraud-resistant documents. The design of financial documents can help ensure proper authorization of transactions, completeness of transaction histories and adherence to other control elements. For example, use prenumbered payment vouchers that a designated partner must approve.

3. Require authorization. Authorization procedures can help prevent transactions from occurring without proper approval. In the example above, the designated partner is the authorizing party. This control is effective because the partner is in a position to know what the transactions are and how they pertain to your firm’s clients. Similarly, restrict access by maintaining current signature cards at your bank and by protecting accounting and billing systems with difficult passwords.

4. Segregate duties. Some smaller firms assign the same person to open mail, make bank deposits, record book entries and reconcile monthly bank statements. In this environment, fraud’s not only possible — it’s likely. It’s critical that your firm distribute these tasks to two or more people.

5. Provide independent oversight. A designated partner should open all bank statements. Even if the partner doesn’t review every item individually, employees will get the message that transactions will be verified. Someone outside the accounting department, such as your firm’s CPA, might also review transactions as they’re processed and financial statements at the close of accounting cycle reconciliations.

Even if your firm is like family — especially if your firm is like family — you need to reduce fraud opportunities by strengthening internal controls. If you aren’t sure if your policies are adequate, or if you’ve experienced a fraud incident, contact us at 205-345-9898 or info@covenantcpa.com.

© 2019 CovenantCPA

“I could sell water to a whale.”

Indeed, most salespeople possess an abundance of confidence. One could say it’s a prerequisite for the job. Because of their remarkable self-assurance, sales staffers might appear to be largely autonomous. Hand them something to sell, tell them a bit about it and let them do their thing — right?

Not necessarily. The sales department needs support just like any other part of a company. And we’re not just talking about office supplies and working phone lines. Here are five ways that your business can give its sales staff the support they really need:

1. Show them the data. Virtually every aspect of business is driven by analytics these days, but sales has been all about the data for decades. To keep up with the competition, provide your sales team with the most cutting-edge metrics. The right ones vary depending on your industry and customer base, but consider analytics such as lead conversion rate and quote-to-close.

2. Invest in sales training and upskilling. If you don’t train salespeople properly, they’ll face an uphill climb to success and may not stick around to get there with you. (This is often partly why sales staffs tend to have high turnover.) Once a salesperson is trained, offer continuing education — now commonly referred to as “upskilling” — to continue to enhance his or her talents.

3. Effectively evaluate employee performance. For sales staff, annual job reviews can boil down to a numbers game whereby it was either a good year or a bad one. Make sure your performance evaluations for salespeople are as comprehensive and productive as they are for any other type of employee. Sales goals should obviously play a role, but look for other professional development objectives as well.

4. Promote positivity, ethics and high morale. Sales is often a frustrating grind. It’s not uncommon for sales staff members to fall prey to negativity. This can manifest itself in various ways: bad interactions with customers, plummeting morale and, in worst cases, even unethical or fraudulent activities. Urge your supervisors to interact regularly with salespeople to combat pessimism and find ways to keep spirits high.

5. Regularly re-evaluate your compensation model. Finding the right way to compensate sales staff has challenged, if not perplexed, companies for years. Some businesses opt for commission only, others provide a salary plus commission. There are additional options as well, such as profit margin plans that compensate salespeople based on how well the company is doing.

If your compensation model is working well, you may not want to rock the boat. But re-evaluate its efficacy at least annually and don’t hesitate to explore other approaches. Our firm can help you analyze the numbers related to compensation as well as the metrics you’re using to track and assess sales. Call or email us! 205-345-9898 or info@covenantcpa.com.

© 2019 CovenantCPA

If you own a business and don’t have a tax-advantaged retirement plan, it’s not too late to establish one and reduce your 2018 tax bill. A Simplified Employee Pension (SEP) can still be set up for 2018, and you can make contributions to it that you can deduct on your 2018 income tax return.

Contribution deadlines

A SEP can be set up as late as the due date (including extensions) of your income tax return for the tax year for which the SEP is to first apply. That means you can establish a SEP for 2018 in 2019 as long as you do it before your 2018 return filing deadline. You have until the same deadline to make 2018 contributions and still claim a potentially substantial deduction on your 2018 return.

Generally, other types of retirement plans would have to have been established by December 31, 2018, in order for 2018 contributions to be made (though many of these plans do allow 2018 contributions to be made in 2019).

Discretionary contributions

With a SEP, you can decide how much to contribute each year. You aren’t obligated to make any certain minimum contributions annually.

But, if your business has employees other than you:

  1. Contributions must be made for all eligible employees using the same percentage of compensation as for yourself, and
  2. Employee accounts must be immediately 100% vested.

The contributions go into SEP-IRAs established for each eligible employee.

For 2018, the maximum contribution that can be made to a SEP-IRA is 25% of compensation (or 20% of self-employed income net of the self-employment tax deduction), subject to a contribution cap of $55,000. (The 2019 cap is $56,000.)

Next steps

To set up a SEP, you just need to complete and sign the very simple Form 5305-SEP (“Simplified Employee Pension — Individual Retirement Accounts Contribution Agreement”). You don’t need to file Form 5305-SEP with the IRS, but you should keep it as part of your permanent tax records. A copy of Form 5305-SEP must be given to each employee covered by the SEP, along with a disclosure statement.Although there are rules and limits that apply to SEPs beyond what we’ve discussed here, SEPs generally are much simpler to administer than other retirement plans. Contact us with any questions you have about SEPs and to discuss whether it makes sense for you to set one up for 2018 (or 2019). 205-345-9898 or info@covenantcpa.com.

© 2019 CovenantCPA

You’ve spent years building your company and now are ready to move on to something else, whether launching a new business, taking advantage of another career opportunity or retiring. Whatever your plans, you want to get the return from your business that you’ve earned from all of the time and money you’ve put into it.

That means not only getting a good price, but also minimizing the tax hit on the proceeds. One option that can help you defer tax and perhaps even reduce it is an installment sale.

Tax benefits

With an installment sale, you don’t receive a lump sum payment when the deal closes. Instead, you receive installment payments over a period of time, spreading the gain over a number of years.

This generally defers tax, because you pay most of the tax liability as you receive the payments. Usually tax deferral is beneficial, but it could be especially beneficial if it would allow you to stay under the thresholds for triggering the 3.8% net investment income tax (NIIT) or the 20% long-term capital gains rate.

For 2018, taxpayers with modified adjusted gross income (MAGI) over $200,000 per year ($250,000 for married filing jointly and $125,000 for married filing separately) will owe NIIT on some or all of their investment income. And the 20% long-term capital gains rate kicks in when 2018 taxable income exceeds $425,800 for singles, $452,400 for heads of households and $479,000 for joint filers (half that for separate filers).

Other benefits

An installment sale also might help you close a deal or get a better price for your business. For instance, an installment sale might appeal to a buyer that lacks sufficient cash to pay the price you’re looking for in a lump sum.

Or a buyer might be concerned about the ongoing success of your business without you at the helm or because of changing market or other economic factors. An installment sale that includes a contingent amount based on the business’s performance might be the solution.

Tax risks

An installment sale isn’t without tax risk for sellers. For example, depreciation recapture must be reported as gain in the year of sale, no matter how much cash you receive. So you could owe tax that year without receiving enough cash proceeds from the sale to pay the tax. If depreciation recapture is an issue, be sure you have cash from another source to pay the tax.

It’s also important to keep in mind that, if tax rates increase, the overall tax could end up being more. With tax rates currently quite low historically, there might be a greater chance that they could rise in the future. Weigh this risk carefully against the potential benefits of an installment sale.

Pluses and minuses

As you can see, installment sales have both pluses and minuses. To determine whether one is right for you and your business — and find out about other tax-smart options — please contact us at 205-345-9898.

© 2018 Covenant CPA