Many business owners — particularly those who own smaller companies — spend so much time trying to eliminate weaknesses that they never fully capitalize on their strengths. One way to do so is to identify and explicate your unique selling proposition (USP).

Give it some thought

In a nutshell, a USP states why customers should buy your product or service rather than a similar one offered by a competitor. A USP might be rather obvious if you offer a type of state-of-the-art technology or specialize in a certain kind of service that’s not widely available. Many businesses, however, will need to dedicate some serious thought and discussion to identifying their USP — and they may need to do so every year or two to adapt to market changes.

Ask the right questions

Involve employees from every level of your company in brainstorming sessions to develop your USP. During these meetings, consider the answers to questions such as:

  • What makes our products or services distinctive?
  • What aspect of our business is most important to its growth?
  • Which elements of what we do are the most difficult for competitors to copy?
  • Why should customers buy from us instead of the competition?

As you might have noticed, knowledge of your competitors is critical to developing a strong USP. You can’t differentiate your business from theirs unless you’re familiar with what competitors are selling, how they sell their products or services, and how they support those sales in terms of customer service. To this end, you may need to undertake some “competitive intelligence” efforts to gather needed information.

Integrate it into the sales process

Your USP should be a powerful, concise statement that customers and prospects will immediately understand and recognize as fulfilling their wants or needs. Among the most commonly cited examples is package delivery giant FedEx’s “When it absolutely, positively has to be there overnight.” Although the company doesn’t use this slogan anymore, it remains a perfect example of a USP that’s clear and memorable.

Of course, your USP must be more than just words. Once established, it should serve as a sort of “mantra” for your sales team. That is, after identifying your customers’ needs during the sales process, they should use the USP (or an iteration of it) to explain to customers why your product or service is the right choice. Just be careful not to overuse your USP in sales and marketing materials, including on your website.

Now may be the time

Given the monumental changes that have occurred in the U.S. economy and in many industries because of the COVID-19 pandemic, now may be an imperative time to reconsider and relaunch your USP. We can help you evaluate your sales numbers, as well as return on investment in marketing efforts, to carefully craft the right approach.

© 2020 Covenant CPA

There’s a new IRS form for business taxpayers that pay or receive nonemployee compensation.

Beginning with tax year 2020, payers must complete Form 1099-NEC, Nonemployee Compensation, to report any payment of $600 or more to a payee.

Why the new form?

Prior to 2020, Form 1099-MISC was filed to report payments totaling at least $600 in a calendar year for services performed in a trade or business by someone who isn’t treated as an employee. These payments are referred to as nonemployee compensation (NEC) and the payment amount was reported in box 7.

Form 1099-NEC was reintroduced to alleviate the confusion caused by separate deadlines for Form 1099-MISC that report NEC in box 7 and all other Form 1099-MISC for paper filers and electronic filers. The IRS announced in July 2019 that, for 2020 and thereafter, it will reintroduce the previously retired Form 1099-NEC, which was last used in the 1980s.

What businesses will file?

Payers of nonemployee compensation will now use Form 1099-NEC to report those payments.

Generally, payers must file Form 1099-NEC by January 31. For 2020 tax returns, the due date will be February 1, 2021, because January 31, 2021, is on a Sunday. There’s no automatic 30-day extension to file Form 1099-NEC. However, an extension to file may be available under certain hardship conditions.

Can a business get an extension?

Form 8809 is used to file for an extension for all types of Forms 1099, as well as for other forms. The IRS recently released a draft of Form 8809. The instructions note that there are no automatic extension requests for Form 1099-NEC. Instead, the IRS will grant only one 30-day extension, and only for certain reasons.

Requests must be submitted on paper. Line 7 lists reasons for requesting an extension. The reasons that an extension to file a Form 1099-NEC (and also a Form W-2, Wage and Tax Statement) will be granted are:

  • The filer suffered a catastrophic event in a federally declared disaster area that made the filer unable to resume operations or made necessary records unavailable.
  • A filer’s operation was affected by the death, serious illness or unavoidable absence of the individual responsible for filing information returns.
  • The operation of the filer was affected by fire, casualty or natural disaster.
  • The filer was “in the first year of establishment.”
  • The filer didn’t receive data on a payee statement such as Schedule K-1, Form 1042-S, or the statement of sick pay required under IRS regulations in time to prepare an accurate information return.

Need help?

If you have questions about filing Form 1099-NEC or any tax forms, contact us. We can assist you in staying in compliance with all rules.

© 2020 Covenant CPA

The sudden shutdown of the economy in March because of the COVID-19 pandemic forced many businesses to rely more heavily on technology. Some companies fared better than others.

Many businesses that had been taking an informal approach to IT strategy discovered their systems weren’t as robust and scalable as they’d hoped. Some may have lost ground competitively as fires were put out and employees got back up to speed in an altered working environment.

To keep your approach to technology relevant, you’ve got to regularly reassess processes and assets. Doing so is even more important in the new normal. Here are six key questions to ask:

1. What are our users saying? Every successful IT strategy is built on a foundation of plentiful user feedback. Talk with (or survey) your employees about what’s happened over the last few months from a technology perspective. Find out what’s working, what isn’t and why.

2. Do we have information silos? Most companies today use multiple applications. If these solutions can’t “talk” to each other, you may suffer from information silos — when different people and teams keep data to themselves. Shifting to a more remote workforce may have worsened this problem or made it more obvious. If it’s happening, determine how to integrate critical systems.

3. Do we have a digital file-sharing policy? Businesses used to generate tremendous amounts of paperwork. Sharing documents electronically is much more common now but, without a formal approach to file sharing, things can still get lost or various versions of files can cause confusion. Implement (or improve) a digital file-sharing policy to better manage system access, network procedures and version control.

4. Has our technology become outdated? Along with being an incredible tragedy and ongoing problem, the pandemic is accelerating change. Technology that may have been at least passable before the crisis may now be falling far short of optimal functionality. Look closely at whether your business may need to upgrade hardware, software or platforms sooner than you previously anticipated.

5. Do employees need more training? You may have implemented IT changes over the past few months that employees haven’t fully understood or have adjusted to in problematic ways. Consider mandatory training and ongoing refresher sessions to ensure users are taking full advantage of available technology and following proper procedures.

6. Are your security protocols being followed? Changes made to facilitate working during the pandemic may have exposed your systems and data to threats from disgruntled employees, outside hackers and ever-present viruses. Make sure you have a closely followed policy for critical actions such as regularly changing passwords, removing inactive users and installing security updates.

Technology has played a critical role in enabling businesses to stay connected internally, communicate with customers and remain operational during the COVID-19 crisis. Our firm can help you assess your IT strategy in today’s economy and identify cost-effective process changes and budget-conscious asset upgrades.

© 2020 Covenant CPA

If you own or manage a business with employees, you may be at risk for a severe tax penalty. It’s called the “Trust Fund Recovery Penalty” because it applies to the Social Security and income taxes required to be withheld by a business from its employees’ wages.

Because the taxes are considered property of the government, the employer holds them in “trust” on the government’s behalf until they’re paid over. The penalty is also sometimes called the “100% penalty” because the person liable and responsible for the taxes will be penalized 100% of the taxes due. Accordingly, the amounts IRS seeks when the penalty is applied are usually substantial, and IRS is very aggressive in enforcing the penalty.

Far-reaching penalty

The Trust Fund Recovery Penalty is among the more dangerous tax penalties because it applies to a broad range of actions and to a wide range of people involved in a business.

Here are some answers to questions about the penalty so you can safely stay clear of it.

Which actions are penalized? The Trust Fund Recovery Penalty applies to any willful failure to collect, or truthfully account for, and pay over Social Security and income taxes required to be withheld from employees’ wages.

Who is at risk? The penalty can be imposed on anyone “responsible” for collection and payment of the tax. This has been broadly defined to include a corporation’s officers, directors and shareholders under a duty to collect and pay the tax as well as a partnership’s partners, or any employee of the business with such a duty. Even voluntary board members of tax-exempt organizations, who are generally excepted from responsibility, can be subject to this penalty under certain circumstances. In addition, in some cases, responsibility has been extended to family members close to the business, and to attorneys and accountants.

IRS says responsibility is a matter of status, duty and authority. Anyone with the power to see that the taxes are (or aren’t) paid may be responsible. There’s often more than one responsible person in a business, but each is at risk for the entire penalty. Although a taxpayer held liable can sue other responsible people for contribution, this is an action he or she must take entirely on his or her own after he or she pays the penalty. It isn’t part of the IRS collection process.

Here’s how broadly the net can be cast: You may not be directly involved with the payroll tax withholding process in your business. But if you learn of a failure to pay over withheld taxes and have the power to pay them but instead make payments to creditors and others, you become a responsible person.

What’s considered “willful?” For actions to be willful, they don’t have to include an overt intent to evade taxes. Simply bending to business pressures and paying bills or obtaining supplies instead of paying over withheld taxes that are due the government is willful behavior. And just because you delegate responsibilities to someone else doesn’t necessarily mean you’re off the hook. Your failure to take care of the job yourself can be treated as the willful element.

Avoiding the penalty

You should never allow any failure to withhold and any “borrowing” from withheld amounts — regardless of the circumstances. All funds withheld must also be paid over to the government. Contact us for information about the penalty and making tax payments.

© 2020 Covenant CPA

The COVID-19 crisis is affecting not only the way many businesses operate, but also how they assess productivity. How can you tell whether you’re getting enough done when so much has changed? There’s no easy, one-size-fits-all answer, but business owners should ask the question so you can adjust expectations and objectives accordingly.

Impact of remote work

Heading into the crisis, concerns about productivity were certainly on the minds of many in leadership positions. In March, research firm Gartner conducted a snap poll that found 76% of HR leaders reported their organizations’ managers were concerned about “productivity or engagement of their teams when remote.”

Many of these fears may well have been alleviated after a month or two. News provider USA Today collaborated with researchers YouGov and social media platform LinkedIn to conduct a poll in April that found 54% of respondents (professionals ages 18-74) said that working remotely has positively affected their productivity. They cited factors such as time saved by not having to commute and fewer distractions from co-workers.

The bottom line is that allowing — or, in recent months, requiring — employees to work remotely shouldn’t drastically alter your expectations of their productivity. Every employee must continue to fulfill his or her job duties and meet annual performance management objectives (as perhaps adjusted in light of the pandemic and altered economy).

However, it’s unrealistic to expect anyone to accomplish markedly more just because he or she is no longer subject to a long commute and regular office hours. In fact, when assessing productivity, business owners should bear in mind the dual challenge of work-life balance while working remotely (childcare obligations, etc.) and the mental health component of living through a pandemic.

Solid metrics

If remote work isn’t a major concern for your company — either because your employees were already doing it, adapted to it readily or simply cannot work from home — there remain some tried-and-true ways to evaluate productivity. Metrics can be useful.

For example, one broad measurement of productivity is revenue per employee. To calculate it, you’ll need to check your financial statements to see how much revenue your business brought in during a defined period. Then, you divide that dollar figure by your total number of employees. The idea is that every worker should generally bring in enough revenue to rationalize his or her paycheck.

It’s not a “be all, end all” metric by any means, but revenue per employee can help accurately shape your understanding of productivity and cash flow. And, as mentioned, you’ll need to think about how this year’s economic conditions have altered your productivity needs and what employees can reasonably accomplish.

Careful calibration

When the subject of productivity arises, many business owners’ instinctive answer is “more, more, more!” Carefully calibrating your expectations and goals, however, can lead to more sustainable results. We can help you choose and calculate the right metrics and set realistic productivity objectives.

© 2020 Covenant CPA

The extended federal income tax deadline is coming up fast. As you know, the IRS postponed until July 15 the payment and filing deadlines that otherwise would have fallen on or after April 1, 2020, and before July 15.

Retroactive COVID-19 business relief

The Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act, which passed earlier in 2020, includes some retroactive tax relief for business taxpayers. The following four provisions may affect a still-unfiled tax return — or you may be able to take advantage of them on an amended return if you already filed.

Liberalized net operating losses (NOLs). The CARES Act allows a five-year carryback for a business NOL that arises in a tax year beginning in 2018 through 2020. Claiming 100% first-year bonus depreciation on an affected year’s return can potentially create or increase an NOL for that year. If so, the NOL can be carried back, and you can recover some or all of the income tax paid for the carryback year. This factor could cause you to favor claiming 100% first-year bonus depreciation on an unfiled return.

Since NOLs that arise in tax years beginning in 2018 through 2020 can be carried back five years, an NOL that’s reported on a still-unfiled return can be carried back to an earlier tax year and allow you to recover income tax paid in the carry-back year. Because federal income tax rates were generally higher in years before the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act (TCJA) took effect, NOLs carried back to those years can be especially beneficial.

Qualified improvement property (QIP) technical corrections. QIP is generally defined as an improvement to an interior portion of a nonresidential building that’s placed in service after the date the building was first placed in service. The CARES Act includes a retroactive correction to the TCJA. The correction allows much faster depreciation for real estate QIP that’s placed in service after the TCJA became law.

Specifically, the correction allows 100% first-year bonus depreciation for QIP that’s placed in service in 2018 through 2022. Alternatively, you can depreciate QIP placed in service in 2018 and beyond over 15 years using the straight-line method.

Suspension of excess business loss disallowance. An “excess business loss” is a loss that exceeds $250,000 or $500,000 for a married couple filing a joint tax return. An unfavorable TCJA provision disallowed current deductions for excess business losses incurred by individuals in tax years beginning in 2018 through 2025. The CARES Act suspends the excess business loss disallowance rule for losses that arise in tax years beginning in 2018 through 2020.

Liberalized business interest deductions. Another unfavorable TCJA provision generally limited a taxpayer’s deduction for business interest expense to 30% of adjusted taxable income (ATI) for tax years beginning in 2018 and later. Business interest expense that’s disallowed under this limitation is carried over to the following tax year.

In general, the CARES Act temporarily and retroactively increases the limitation from 30% to 50% of ATI for tax years beginning in 2019 and 2020. (Special rules apply to partnerships and LLCs that are treated as partnerships for tax purposes.)  

Assessing the opportunities

These are just some of the possible tax opportunities that may be available if you haven’t yet filed your 2019 tax return. Other rules and limitations may apply. Contact us for help determining how to proceed in your situation.

© 2020 Covenant CPA

While the COVID-19 crisis has devastated many existing businesses, the pandemic has also created opportunities for entrepreneurs to launch new businesses. For example, some businesses are being launched online to provide products and services to people staying at home.

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

How expenses must be handled

If you’re starting or planning a new enterprise, keep these key points in mind:

  • Start-up costs include those incurred or paid while creating an active trade or business — or investigating the creation or acquisition of one.
  • Under the Internal Revenue 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. As you know, $5,000 doesn’t get you very far today! 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.
  • No deductions or amortization deductions are allowed until the year when “active conduct” of your new business begins. Generally, that means the year when the business 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? Did the activity actually begin?

Expenses that qualify

In general, start-up expenses include all amounts you spend 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 is money you spend analyzing potential markets for a new product or service.

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

Thinking ahead 

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 critical. Contact us about your start-up plans. We can help with the tax and other aspects of your new business.

© 2020 Covenant CPA

If you operate a small business, or you’re starting a new one, you probably know you need to keep records of your income and expenses. In particular, you should carefully record your expenses in order to claim the full amount of the tax deductions to which you’re entitled. And you want to make sure you can defend the amounts reported on your tax returns if you’re ever audited by the IRS or state tax agencies.

Certain types of expenses, such as automobile, travel, meals and office-at-home expenses, require special attention because they’re subject to special recordkeeping requirements or limitations on deductibility.

It’s interesting to note that there’s not one way to keep business records. In its publication “Starting a Business and Keeping Records,” the IRS states: “Except in a few cases, the law does not require any specific kind of records. You can choose any recordkeeping system suited to your business that clearly shows your income and expenses.”

That being said, many taxpayers don’t make the grade when it comes to recordkeeping. Here are three court cases to illustrate some of the issues.

Case 1: Without records, the IRS can reconstruct your income

If a taxpayer is audited and doesn’t have good records, the IRS can perform a “bank-deposits analysis” to reconstruct income. It assumes that all money deposited in accounts during a given period is taxable income. That’s what happened in the case of the business owner of a coin shop and precious metals business. The owner didn’t agree with the amount of income the IRS attributed to him after it conducted a bank-deposits analysis.

But the U.S. Tax Court noted that if the taxpayer kept adequate records, “he could have avoided the bank-deposits analysis altogether.” Because he didn’t, the court found the bank analysis was appropriate and the owner underreported his business income for the year. (TC Memo 2020-4)

Case 2: Expenses must be business related

In another case, an independent insurance agent’s claims for a variety of business deductions were largely denied. The Tax Court found that he had documentation in the form of cancelled checks and credit card statements that showed expenses were paid. But there was no proof of a business purpose.

For example, he made utility payments for natural gas, electricity, water and sewer, but the records didn’t show whether the services were for his business or his home. (TC Memo 2020-25)

Case number 3: No records could mean no deductions

In this case, married taxpayers were partners in a travel agency and owners of a marketing company. The IRS denied their deductions involving auto expenses, gifts, meals and travel because of insufficient documentation. The couple produced no evidence about the business purpose of gifts they had given. In addition, their credit card statements and other information didn’t detail the time, place, and business relationship for meal expenses or indicate that travel was conducted for business purposes.

“The disallowed deductions in this case are directly attributable to (the taxpayer’s) failure to maintain adequate records,“ the court stated. (TC Memo 2020-7)

We can help

Contact us if you need assistance retaining adequate business records. Taking a meticulous, proactive approach to how you keep records can protect your deductions and help make an audit much less painful.

© 2020 Covenant CPA

The recent riots around the country have resulted in many storefronts, office buildings and business properties being destroyed. In the case of stores or other businesses with inventory, some of these businesses lost products after looters ransacked their property. Windows were smashed, property was vandalized, and some buildings were burned to the ground. This damage was especially devastating because businesses were reopening after the COVID-19 pandemic eased.

A commercial insurance property policy should generally cover some, or all, of the losses. (You may also have a business interruption policy that covers losses for the time you need to close or limit hours due to rioting and vandalism.) But a business may also be able to claim casualty property loss or theft deductions on its tax return. Here’s how a loss is figured for tax purposes:

Your adjusted basis in the property
MINUS
Any salvage value
MINUS
Any insurance or other reimbursement you receive (or expect to receive).

Losses that qualify

A casualty is the damage, destruction or loss of property resulting from an identifiable event that is sudden, unexpected or unusual. It includes natural disasters, such as hurricanes and earthquakes, and man-made events, such as vandalism and terrorist attacks. It does not include events that are gradual or progressive, such as a drought.

For insurance and tax purposes, it’s important to have proof of losses. You’ll need to provide information including a description, the cost or adjusted basis as well as the fair market value before and after the casualty. It’s a good time to gather documentation of any losses including receipts, photos, videos, sales records and police reports.

Finally, be aware that the tax code imposes limits on casualty loss deductions for personal property that are not imposed on business property. Contact us for more information about your situation.

© 2020 Covenant CPA

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