If you’re putting aside money for college or other educational expenses, consider a tax-advantaged 529 savings plan. Also known as “college savings plans,” 529 plans were expanded by the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act (TCJA) to cover elementary and secondary school expenses as well. And while these plans are best known as an educational funding vehicle, they also offer estate planning benefits.

What do 529 plans cover?

529 plans allow you to contribute a substantial amount of cash (lifetime contribution limits can reach as high as $350,000 or more, depending on the plan) to a tax-advantaged investment account. Like a Roth IRA, contributions are nondeductible, but funds grow tax-deferred and earnings may be withdrawn tax-free provided they’re used for “qualified education expenses.”

Qualified expenses include tuition, fees, books, supplies, equipment, room and board and, under the TCJA, up to $10,000 per year in elementary or secondary school expenses. Earnings used for other purposes are subject to income tax and a 10% penalty.

What are the estate planning benefits?

These plans are unique among estate planning vehicles. Ordinarily, to shield assets from estate taxes, you must permanently relinquish all control over them. But contributions to a 529 plan are considered “completed gifts” — which means the assets are removed from your taxable estate, together with all future earnings on those assets — even though you retain considerable control over the money. For example, unlike most other estate planning vehicles, you can control the timing of distributions, change beneficiaries, move the funds into another 529 plan, or even cancel the plan and get your money back (subject to taxes and penalties).

As a completed gift, a 529 plan contribution is eligible for the annual gift tax exclusion (currently $15,000). But unlike other vehicles, you can bunch up to five years’ worth of annual exclusions into one year. This allows you to contribute up to $75,000 in one year, without triggering gift or generation-skipping transfer (GST) taxes and without using up any of your lifetime exemption. There are implications, however, if you don’t survive the five years.

Why does it matter?

You might think that these benefits are of little value now that the TCJA has temporarily doubled the lifetime gift and estate tax exemption to an inflation-adjusted $10 million ($20 million for married couples who design their estate plans properly). This year, the exemption amount is $11.4 million ($22.8 million for married couples).

After all, few families are currently affected by these taxes. But it’s still a good idea to shield wealth from potential estate taxes and to make the most of your annual exclusion. This is because the new exemptions are scheduled to return to their previous levels after 2025 and there’s nothing to stop lawmakers from reducing the exemption in the future. 529 plans and other traditional estate planning tools provide some insurance against future estate tax changes.

Contact us to learn more about how a 529 plan can help achieve your estate planning and education goals.

© 2019 Covenant CPA

Among the fastest ways for a business to fail is because of mismanagement or malfeasance by ownership. On the other hand, among the slowest ways is an ineffective or dysfunctional sales department.

Companies suffering from this malady may maintain just enough sales to stay afloat for a while, but eventually they go under because they lose one big customer or a tough new competitor arrives on the scene. To ensure your sales department is contributing to business growth, not just survival, you’ve got to ask some tough questions. Here are four to consider:

1. Does our sales department communicate customers’ needs to the rest of the company? Your sales staff works on the front lines of your industry. They’re typically the first ones to hear of changes in customers’ needs and desires. Make sure your sales people are sharing this information in both meetings and written communications (sales reports, emails and the like).

It’s particularly important for them to share insights with the marketing department. But everyone in your business should be laser-focused on what customers really want.

2. Does the sales department handle customer complaints promptly and satisfactorily? This is related to our first point but critical enough to investigate on its own. Unhappy customers can destroy a business — especially these days, when everyone shares everything on social media.

Your sales staff should have a specific protocol for immediately responding to a customer complaint, gathering as much information as possible and offering a fair resolution. Track complaints carefully and in detail, looking for trends that may indicate deeper problems with your products or services.

3. Do our salespeople create difficulties for employees in other departments? If a sales department is getting the job done, many business owners look the other way when sales staff play by their own rules or don’t treat their co-workers with the utmost professionalism. Confronting a problem like this isn’t easy; you may unearth some tricky issues involving personalities and philosophies.

Nonetheless, your salespeople should interact positively and productively with other departments. For example, do they correctly and timely complete all necessary sales documents? If not, they could be causing major headaches for other departments.

4. Are we taking our sales staff for granted? Salespeople tend to spend much of their time “outside” a company — either literally out on the road making sales calls or on the phone communicating with customers. As such, they may work “out of sight and out of mind.”

Keep a close eye on your sales staff, both so you can congratulate them on jobs well done and fix any problems that may arise. Our firm can help you analyze your sales numbers to help identify ways this department can provide greater value to the company.

© 2019 Covenant CPA

If you’re like many people, you’ve worked hard to accumulate a large nest egg in your traditional IRA (including a SEP-IRA). It’s even more critical to carefully plan for withdrawals from these retirement-savings vehicles.

Knowing the fine points of the IRA distribution rules can make a significant difference in how much you and your family will get to keep after taxes. Here are three IRA areas to understand:

  1. Taking early distributions. If you need to take money out of your traditional IRA before age 59½, any distribution to you will be generally taxable (unless nondeductible contributions were made, in which case part of each payout will be tax-free). In addition, distributions before age 59½ may be subject to a 10% penalty tax.

    However, there are several ways that the penalty tax (but not the regular income tax) can be avoided. These exceptions include paying for unreimbursed medical expenses, paying for qualified educational expenses and buying a first home (up to $10,000).
  2. Naming your beneficiary (or beneficiaries). This decision affects the minimum amounts you must withdraw from the IRA when you reach age 70½; who will get what remains in the account at your death; and how that IRA balance can be paid out. What’s more, a periodic review of the individuals you’ve named as IRA beneficiaries is critical to assure that your overall estate planning objectives will be achieved. Review them when circumstances change in your personal life, finances and family.
  3. Taking required distributions. Once you reach age 70½, distributions from your traditional IRAs must begin. It doesn’t matter if you haven’t retired. If you don’t withdraw the minimum amount each year, you may have to pay a 50% penalty tax on what should have been taken — but wasn’t. In planning for required minimum distributions, your income needs must be weighed against the desirable goal of keeping the tax shelter of the IRA going for as long as possible for both yourself and your beneficiaries.

Keep more of your money

Prudently planning how to take money out of your traditional IRA can mean more money for you and your heirs. Keep in mind that Roth IRAs operate under a different set of rules than traditional IRAs. Contact us to review your traditional and Roth IRAs, and to analyze other aspects of your retirement planning.

© 2019 Covenant CPA

Operating a business as an S corporation may provide many advantages, including limited liability for owners and no double taxation (at least at the federal level). Self-employed people may also be able to lower their exposure to Social Security and Medicare taxes if they structure their businesses as S corps for federal tax purposes. But not all businesses are eligible — and with changes under the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act, S corps may not be as appealing as they once were.

Compare and contrast

The main reason why businesses elect S corp status is to obtain the limited liability of a corporation and the ability to pass corporate income, losses, deductions and credits through to shareholders. In other words, S corps generally avoid double taxation of corporate income — once at the corporate level and again when it’s distributed to shareholders. Instead, tax items pass through to the shareholders’ personal returns, and they pay tax at their individual income tax rates.

But double taxation may be less of a concern today due to the 21% flat income tax rate that now applies to C corporations. Meanwhile, the top individual income tax rate is 37%. S corp owners may be able to take advantage of the qualified business income (QBI) deduction, which can be equal to as much as 20% of QBI.

In order to assess S corp status, you have to run the numbers with your tax advisor, and factor in state taxes to determine which structure will be the most beneficial for you and your business.

S corp qualifications

If you decide to go the S corp route, make sure you qualify and will stay qualified. To be eligible to elect to be an S corp or to convert, your business must:

  • Be a domestic corporation,
  • Have only one class of stock,
  • Have no more than 100 shareholders, and
  • Have only “allowable” shareholders, including individuals, certain trusts and estates. Shareholders can’t include partnerships, corporations and nonresident alien shareholders.

In addition, certain businesses are ineligible, such as financial institutions and insurance companies.

Base compensation on what’s reasonable

Another important consideration when electing S status is shareholder compensation. One strategy for paying less in Social Security and Medicare employment taxes is to pay modest salaries to yourself and any other S corp shareholder-employees. Then, pay out the remaining corporate cash flow (after you’ve retained enough in the company’s accounts to sustain normal business operations) as federal-employment-tax-free cash distributions.

However, the IRS is on the lookout for S corps that pay shareholder-employees unreasonably low salaries to avoid paying employment taxes and then make distributions that aren’t subject to those taxes.

Paying yourself a modest salary will work if you can prove that your salary is reasonable based on market levels for similar jobs. Otherwise, you run the risk of the IRS auditing your business and imposing back employment taxes, interest and penalties. We can help you decide on a salary and gather proof that it’s reasonable.

Consider all angles

Contact us if you think being an S corporation might help reduce your tax bill while still providing liability protection. We can help with the mechanics of making an election or making a conversion, under applicable state law, and then handling the post-conversion tax issues.

© 2019 Covenant CPA

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