Don’t be afraid of probate

The word “probate” may conjure images of lengthy delays waiting for wealth to be transferred and bitter disputes among family members. Plus, probate records are open to the public, so all your “dirty linen” may be aired. The reality is that probate doesn’t have to be so terrible, and often isn’t, but both asset owners and their heirs should know what’s in store.

Defining probate

In basic terms, probate is the process of settling an estate and passing legal title of ownership of assets to heirs. If the deceased person has a valid will, probate begins when the executor named in the will presents the document in the county courthouse. If there’s no will — the deceased has died “intestate” in legal parlance — the court will appoint someone to administer the estate. Thereafter, this person becomes the estate’s legal representative.

Probate is predicated on state law, so the exact process varies from state to state. This has led to numerous misconceptions about the length of probate. On average, the process takes six to nine months, but it can run longer for complex situations in certain states.

Planning to avoid probate

Certain assets are automatically exempt from probate. But you also may be able to avoid the process with additional planning. The easiest way to do this is through the initial form of ownership or use of a living trust.

By using joint ownership with rights of survivorship, you acquire the property with another party, such as your spouse. The property then automatically passes to the surviving joint tenant on the death of the deceased joint tenant. This form of ownership typically is used when a married couple buys a home or other real estate. Similarly, with a tenancy by entirety, which is limited to married couples, the property goes to the surviving spouse without being probated.

A revocable living trust is often used to avoid probate and protect privacy. The assets transferred to the trust, managed by a trustee, pass to the designated beneficiaries on your death. Thus, you may coordinate your will with a living trust, providing a quick transfer of wealth for some assets. You can act as the trustee and retain control over these assets during your lifetime.

Achieving all estate planning goals

When it comes to probate planning, discuss your options with family members to develop the best approach for your personal situation. Also, bear in mind that avoiding probate should be only one goal of your estate plan. We can help you develop a strategy that minimizes probate while reducing taxes and achieving your other goals.

© 2019 Covenant CPA

“Company culture” is a buzzword that’s been around for a while, but your culture may never have mattered as much as it does in today’s transparency-driven business arena. Customers, potential partners and investors, and job candidates are paying more attention to company culture when deciding whether to buy from a business or otherwise involve themselves with it.

To determine whether yours is optimal for your long-term goals, you must look in the mirror and identify what type of culture you have. University of Michigan professors Robert Quinn and Kim Cameron have developed the Organizational Culture Assessment Instrument, which defines four common types:

1. Clan. These are generally friendly environments where employees feel like family. Clan cultures emphasize teamwork, participation and consensus. Such companies often have a horizontal structure with few barriers between staff and leaders, who act as mentors. As a result, employees tend to be highly engaged and loyal. Success involves addressing client needs while caring for staff. Clan culture frequently is seen in start-ups and small companies with employees who have been there from the beginning.

2. Adhocracy. Adhocracies are dynamic, entrepreneurial and creative places where employees are encouraged to take risks, and founders are often seen as innovators. They’re committed to experimentation and encourage individual initiative and freedom — with the long-term goal of growing and acquiring new resources. Success, therefore, is defined by the availability of new products or services. Think Facebook and similar technology companies that anticipate needs and establish new standards.

3. Market. These cultures are results-driven and competitive, with an emphasis on achieving measurable goals and targets. They value reputation and success foremost. Employees are goal-oriented while leaders tend to be hard drivers, producers and rivals simultaneously. Market share and penetration are the hallmarks of success, and competitive pricing and industry domination are important. Examples include Amazon and Apple.

4. Hierarchy. Hierarchical businesses have formal, structured work environments where processes and procedures dictate what employees do. Smooth functioning is critical. Companies strive for stability and efficient execution of tasks, as well as low costs. Leaders seek to achieve maximum efficiency and consistency in their respective departments. Hierarchical culture is common in government agencies and old-school businesses such as the Ford Motor Company.

Bear in mind that most companies exhibit a mixture of the four styles, with one type dominant. If you fear your culture is inhibiting you from achieving strategic objectives, there’s good news — cultures can evolve.

Although making widespread changes won’t be easy, no business should accept a culture that’s hindering productivity or possibly even creating liability risks. We can assist you in assessing your operations and profitability to help you gain insights into the impact of your company culture.

© 2019 Covenant CPA

As we all know, medical services and prescription drugs are expensive. You may be able to deduct some of your expenses on your tax return but the rules make it difficult for many people to qualify. However, with proper planning, you may be able to time discretionary medical expenses to your advantage for tax purposes.

The basic rules

For 2019, the medical expense deduction can only be claimed to the extent your unreimbursed costs exceed 10% of your adjusted gross income (AGI). You also must itemize deductions on your return.

If your total itemized deductions for 2019 will exceed your standard deduction, moving or “bunching” nonurgent medical procedures and other controllable expenses into 2019 may allow you to exceed the 10% floor and benefit from the medical expense deduction. Controllable expenses include refilling prescription drugs, buying eyeglasses and contact lenses, going to the dentist and getting elective surgery.

In addition to hospital and doctor expenses, here are some items to take into account when determining your allowable costs:

1. Health insurance premiums. This item can total thousands of dollars a year. Even if your employer provides health coverage, you can deduct the portion of the premiums that you pay. Long-term care insurance premiums are also included as medical expenses, subject to limits based on age.

2. Transportation. The cost of getting to and from medical treatments counts as a medical expense. This includes taxi fares, public transportation, or using your own car. Car costs can be calculated at 20¢ a mile for miles driven in 2019, plus tolls and parking. Alternatively, you can deduct certain actual costs, such as for gas and oil.

3. Eyeglasses, hearing aids, dental work, prescription drugs and professional fees. Deductible expenses include the cost of glasses, hearing aids, dental work, psychiatric counseling and other ongoing expenses in connection with medical needs. Purely cosmetic expenses don’t qualify. Prescription drugs (including insulin) qualify, but over-the-counter aspirin and vitamins don’t. Neither do amounts paid for treatments that are illegal under federal law (such as marijuana), even if state law permits them. The services of therapists and nurses can qualify as long as they relate to a medical condition and aren’t for general health. Amounts paid for certain long-term care services required by a chronically ill individual also qualify.

4. Smoking-cessation and weight-loss programs. Amounts paid for participating in smoking-cessation programs and for prescribed drugs designed to alleviate nicotine withdrawal are deductible. However, nonprescription nicotine gum and patches aren’t. A weight-loss program is deductible if undertaken as treatment for a disease diagnosed by a physician. Deductible expenses include fees paid to join a program and attend periodic meetings. However, the cost of food isn’t deductible.

Dependent expenses

You can deduct the medical costs that you pay for dependents, such as your children. Additionally, you may be able to deduct medical costs you pay for other individuals, such as an elderly parent. If you have questions about medical expense deductions, contact us.

© 2019 Covenant CPA

At this time of year, many business owners ask if there’s anything they can do to save tax for the year. Under current tax law, there are two valuable depreciation-related tax breaks that may help your business reduce its 2019 tax liability. To benefit from these deductions, you must buy eligible machinery, equipment, furniture or other assets and place them into service by the end of the tax year. In other words, you can claim a full deduction for 2019 even if you acquire assets and place them in service during the last days of the year.

The Section 179 deduction

Under Section 179, you can deduct (or expense) up to 100% of the cost of qualifying assets in Year 1 instead of depreciating the cost over a number of years. For tax years beginning in 2019, the expensing limit is $1,020,000. The deduction begins to phase out on a dollar-for-dollar basis for 2019 when total asset acquisitions for the year exceed $2,550,000.

Sec. 179 expensing is generally available for most depreciable property (other than buildings) and off-the-shelf computer software. It’s also available for:

  • Qualified improvement property (generally, any interior improvement to a building’s interior, but not for the internal structural framework, for enlarging a building, or for elevators or escalators),
  • Roofs, and
  • HVAC, fire protection, alarm, and security systems.

The Sec. 179 deduction amount and the ceiling limit are significantly higher than they were a few years ago. In 2017, for example, the deduction limit was $510,000, and it began to phase out when total asset acquisitions for the tax year exceeded $2.03 million.

The generous dollar ceiling that applies this year means that many small and medium sized businesses that make purchases will be able to currently deduct most, if not all, of their outlays for machinery, equipment and other assets. What’s more, the fact that the deduction isn’t prorated for the time that the asset is in service during the year makes it a valuable tool for year-end tax planning.

Bonus depreciation

Businesses can claim a 100% bonus first year depreciation deduction for machinery and equipment bought new or used (with some exceptions) if purchased and placed in service this year. The 100% deduction is also permitted without any proration based on the length of time that an asset is in service during the tax year.

Business vehicles

It’s important to note that Sec. 179 expensing and bonus depreciation may also be used for business vehicles. So buying one or more vehicles before December 31 may reduce your 2019 tax liability. But, depending on the type of vehicle, additional limits may apply.

Businesses should consider buying assets now that qualify for the liberalized depreciation deductions. Please contact us if you have questions about depreciation or other tax breaks.

© 2019 Covenant CPA

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