Virtually everyone needs an estate plan, but it isn’t a one-size-fits-all proposition. Even though each person’s situation is unique, general guidelines can be drawn depending on your current stage of life.

The early years

If you’ve recently embarked on a career, gotten married or both, now is the time to build the foundation for your estate plan. And, if you’ve recently started a family, estate planning is even more critical.

Your will is at the forefront. Essentially, this document divides up your accumulated wealth upon death by deciding who gets what, where, when and how. With a basic will, you may, for instance, leave all your possessions to your spouse. If you have children, you might bequeath some assets to them through a trust managed by a designated party.

A will also designates the guardian of your children if you and your spouse should die prematurely. Make sure to include a successor in case your first choice is unable to meet the responsibilities.

During your early years, your will may be supplemented by other documents, including trusts, if it makes sense personally. In addition, you may have a durable power of attorney that authorizes someone to manage your financial affairs if you’re incapacitated. Frequently, the agent will be your spouse. Also, obtain insurance protection appropriate for your lifestyle.

The middle years

If you’re a middle-aged parent, your main financial goals might be to acquire a home, or perhaps a larger home, and to set aside enough money to cover retirement goals and put your children through college. So you should modify your existing estate planning documents to meet your changing needs.

For instance, if you have a will in place, you should periodically review and revise it to reflect your current circumstances. Typically, minor revisions to a will can be achieved through a codicil. If significant changes are required, your attorney can rewrite the will entirely.

If you and your spouse decide to divorce, it’s critical to review and revise your estate plan to avoid unwanted outcomes.

The later years

Once you’ve reached retirement, you can usually relax somewhat, assuming you’re in good financial shape. But that doesn’t mean estate planning ends. It’s just time for the next chapter.

If you haven’t already done so, have your attorney draft a living will to complement a health care power of attorney. This document provides guidance in life-ending situations and can ease the stress for loved ones.

Finally, create or fine-tune, if you already have one written, a letter of instructions. Although not legally binding, it can provide an inventory of assets and offer directions concerning your financial affairs.

Revisit your plan periodically

Regardless of the stage of life you’re currently in, it’s important to bear in mind that your estate plan isn’t a static document. We can help review and revise your plan as needed.

© 2020 Covenant CPA

What can AI do for my business?

You’ve no doubt read articles or heard stories about how artificial intelligence (AI) is bringing sweeping change to a wide variety of industries. But it’s one thing to learn about how this remarkable technology is changing someone else’s company and quite another to apply it to your own. Here’s a primer on what AI might be able to do for your business.

3 technology types

AI generally refers to using computers to perform complex tasks usually thought to require human intelligence — such as image perception, voice recognition, decision making and problem solving. Three primary types of technologies fall under the AI umbrella:

1. Machine learning. This involves an iterative process whereby machines improve their performance in a specific task over time with little or no programming or human intervention. It can, for example, improve your forecasting models for determining which products or services will be in high demand with customers.

2. Natural language processing (NLP). This uses algorithms to analyze unstructured human language in documents, emails, texts, conversation or otherwise. Language translation apps are among the most common and dramatic examples of NLP. Communicating with business partners, customers and prospects in other countries — or simply people whose first languages are other than English — has become much easier as this type of software has improved.

3. Robotic process automation (RPA). Using rules and structured inputs, RPA automates time-consuming repetitive manual tasks that don’t require decision making. For instance, an RPA system can collect data from vendor invoices, enter it into a company’s accounting system, and generate an email confirming receipt and requesting additional information if needed. This functionality can help you better time vendor payments to optimize cash flow.

Chat boxes, data sensors

A couple of the most common on-ramps into AI for businesses are chatbots and data sensors. Chatbots are those AI-based instant messaging or voice-based systems that allow users to ask relatively simple questions and get instant answers.

Today’s customers expect to find information quickly and chatbots can provide this speed. However, it’s important to implement a system that enables users to speedily connect to a human customer service rep if their questions or issues are complex or urgent.

Data sensors generally don’t have anything to do with customers, but they can be quite valuable when it comes to your offices or facilities. AI-enhanced building systems allow for real-time monitoring and adjustment of temperature, lighting and other controls. This data can drive predictive analytics that improve decisions about the maintenance and replacement of systems, lowering energy and repair costs.

Upgrade prudently

Precisely how AI might help you run your business more efficiently and profitably depends on the size of your company and the nature of its work. You don’t want to throw dollars at an AI solution just to keep up with the competition. Then again, this technology may offer enticing ways to sharpen your competitive edge. We can help you perform a cost-benefit analysis of any technological upgrade you’re considering.

© 2020 Covenant CPA

The IRS announced it is opening the 2019 individual income tax return filing season on January 27. Even if you typically don’t file until much closer to the April 15 deadline (or you file for an extension), consider filing as soon as you can this year. The reason: You can potentially protect yourself from tax identity theft — and you may obtain other benefits, too.

Tax identity theft explained

In a tax identity theft scam, a thief uses another individual’s personal information to file a fraudulent tax return early in the filing season and claim a bogus refund.

The legitimate taxpayer discovers the fraud when he or she files a return and is informed by the IRS that the return has been rejected because one with the same Social Security number has already been filed for the tax year. While the taxpayer should ultimately be able to prove that his or her return is the valid one, tax identity theft can cause major headaches to straighten out and significantly delay a refund.

Filing early may be your best defense: If you file first, it will be the tax return filed by a would-be thief that will be rejected, rather than yours.

Note: You can get your individual tax return prepared by us before January 27 if you have all the required documents. It’s just that processing of the return will begin after IRS systems open on that date.

Your W-2s and 1099s

To file your tax return, you must have received all of your W-2s and 1099s. January 31 is the deadline for employers to issue 2019 Form W-2 to employees and, generally, for businesses to issue Form 1099 to recipients of any 2019 interest, dividend or reportable miscellaneous income payments (including those made to independent contractors).

If you haven’t received a W-2 or 1099 by February 1, first contact the entity that should have issued it. If that doesn’t work, you can contact the IRS for help.

Other advantages of filing early

Besides protecting yourself from tax identity theft, another benefit of early filing is that, if you’re getting a refund, you’ll get it faster. The IRS expects most refunds to be issued within 21 days. The time is typically shorter if you file electronically and receive a refund by direct deposit into a bank account.

Direct deposit also avoids the possibility that a refund check could be lost or stolen or returned to the IRS as undeliverable. And by using direct deposit, you can split your refund into up to three financial accounts, including a bank account or IRA. Part of the refund can also be used to buy up to $5,000 in U.S. Series I Savings Bonds.

What if you owe tax? Filing early may still be beneficial. You won’t need to pay your tax bill until April 15, but you’ll know sooner how much you owe and can plan accordingly.

Be an early-bird filer

If you have questions about tax identity theft or would like help filing your 2019 return early, please contact us. We can help you ensure you file an accurate return that takes advantage of all of the breaks available to you.

© 2020 Covenant CPA

A Small Business Administration (SBA) loan can make big things happen for your small company. But the agency’s loan program is sometimes abused by con artists who know that many small business owners have little experience applying for financing and are, therefore, vulnerable to scams. Here’s what you should know.

Background on SBA products

The SBA provides various financing options with favorable terms and greater flexibility to small businesses and start-ups. It doesn’t disburse loans directly but gives lenders federal guarantees and backing to reduce lending risk. Individual businesses must themselves make arrangements with financial institutions that make loans.

Three key SBA programs are:

1. SBA 7(a) loans. This is the flagship product. It typically frees up working capital needed to acquire equipment, real estate or inventory.

2. Microloans. This program is more targeted. Smaller amounts are disbursed quickly to address short-term needs.

3. SBA 504 loans. This program is commonly used for commercial real estate purposes, such as the cost of buildings, land, equipment and renovations.

Look for red flags

If you’re applying for one of these types of loans, how can you avoid becoming a fraud victim? The government warns small business owners to be wary of companies offering to help them secure money from an SBA program. In particular, watch out for services that charge exorbitant fees or that guarantee you’ll get a loan if you work with them. In general, legitimate services don’t charge upfront fees to broker loans, perform credit checks or “process” applications. So if you’re asked to pay, walk away.

Fraud perpetrators also might claim that your business will be issued a forfeiture letter making it ineligible for any SBA funding if you don’t use their services. High-pressure sales tactics, such as threats or limited-time offers, are reliable indicators that you’re dealing with a fraudster. One way to verify suspicious claims is to call the SBA yourself.

Other bad actors may not ask for money at all. They’re simply after personal information that will enable them to steal your identity or access financial accounts. Don’t provide your Social Security number, bank account information or credit card information to any unsolicited caller or emailer.

Choose assistance carefully

Of course, many reputable businesses help companies apply for SBA loans — and they can make the process easier. But be sure to investigate the reputation of any business that contacts you. Better yet, ask trusted advisors or other small business owners for referrals.

© 2020 Covenant CPA

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