As the year comes to a close, many businesses look for ways to save on taxes. Purveyors of abusive tax shelters know this and are ready to take advantage of unwitting owners.

Abusive tax shelters are complex transactions that have no legitimate business purpose and are used solely to reduce or eliminate tax liability. However tempting the tax savings may seem, you should avoid such tax shelters or you may face serious financial consequences.

Witting and unwitting victims

Unfortunately, abusive tax shelters aren’t always easy to identify. Even reputable companies may unwittingly market tax shelters the IRS deems abusive.

Some appear less innocent, though. For example, one company marketed products that functioned as loss generators, allowing buyers to offset paper losses against other income, sheltering that income from taxes. In such cases, not only is the seller of the products liable for penalties, but the taxpayers who use them generally are required to pay back taxes, interest and penalties.

As part of a comprehensive strategy to combat abusive tax shelters, the IRS requires that certain tax shelters be registered and that lists of investors be maintained by those who organize them. Individuals who participate in a “listed transaction” also must disclose their participation on their tax return. The list of transactions is available at irs.gov.

Avoid messy entanglements

How can you avoid becoming entangled in an abusive tax shelter? First apply the age-old rule that, if it seems too good to be true, it probably is. These products usually are unsolicited. So if someone approaches you with a proposal to make money through tax write-offs, it’s probably not a legitimate business investment.

Second, understand that legitimate tax advantages aren’t available as one-size-fits-all products. Tax liabilities vary according to a business’s financial situation, and no tax shelter is appropriate for every company.

Finally, look carefully at shelters that involve third parties such as foreign corporations, tax-exempt entities or entities with significant tax losses. If there’s no legitimate business purpose for entering into a transaction, there’s no legitimate tax shelter.

Shun the unknown

In short, if you receive an unsolicited offer to help you reduce your tax burden, look long and hard at the proposal, purveyor and participants. Contact us at 205-345-9898. We can help investigate any offer and steer you toward reliable and responsible tax-minimizing strategies.

© 2018 Covenant CPA

Estate planning typically focuses on what happens to your children and your assets when you die. But it’s equally important to have a plan for making critical financial and medical decisions if you’re unable to make those decisions yourself. A crucial component of this plan is the power of attorney (POA) • specifically, a nonspringing POA.

POA defined

A POA is a document under which you, as “principal,” authorize a representative to be your “agent” or “attorney-in-fact” to act on your behalf. Typically, separate POAs are executed for health care and property.

A POA for health care authorizes your agent — often, a spouse, child or other family member — to make medical decisions on your behalf or consent to or discontinue medical treatment when you’re unable to do so.

A POA for property appoints an agent to manage your investments, pay your bills, file tax returns, continue your practice of making annual charitable and family gifts, and otherwise handle your finances, subject to limitations you establish.

Benefits of a nonspringing POA

A nonspringing or “durable” POA is effective immediately, regardless of the circumstances. Because it’s effective immediately, it allows your agent to act on your behalf for your convenience, not just when you’re incapacitated. A springing POA, on the other hand, becomes effective only when certain conditions are met.

In addition, a nonspringing POA avoids the need for a determination that you’ve become incapacitated, which can result in delays, disputes or even litigation. This allows your agents to act quickly in an emergency, making critical medical decisions or handling urgent financial matters without having to wait, for example, for one or more treating physicians to examine you and certify that you’re incapacitated.

Disadvantage of a nonspringing POA

A potential disadvantage of a nonspringing POA — and the main reason some people opt for a springing POA — is the concern that your agent may be tempted to abuse his or her authority or commit fraud. But consider this: If you don’t trust your agent enough to give him or her a POA that takes effect immediately, how does delaying its effect until you’re deemed incapacitated solve the problem? Arguably, the risk of fraud or abuse is even greater at that time because you’re unable to protect yourself.

Given the advantages of a nonspringing POA, and the potential delays associated with a springing POA, it’s usually preferable to use a nonspringing POA and to make sure the person you name as agent is someone you trust unconditionally.

If you’re still uncomfortable handing over a POA that takes effect immediately, consider signing a nonspringing POA but have your attorney or other trusted advisor hold it and deliver it to your agent when needed.

Contact us if you have questions regarding the use of POAs in your estate plan at 205-345-9898.

© 2018 Covenant CPA

As the year winds down, business owners can be thankful for the gift of perspective (among other things, we hope). Assuming you created a budget for the calendar year, you should now be able to accurately assess that budget by comparing its estimates to actual results. Your objective is to determine whether your budget was reasonable, and, if not, how to adjust it to be more accurate for 2019.

Identify notable changes

Your estimates, like those of many companies, probably start with historical financial statements. From there, you may simply apply an expected growth rate to annual revenues and let it flow through the remaining income statement and balance sheet items. For some businesses, this simplified approach works well. But future performance can’t always be expected to mirror historical results.

For example, suppose you renegotiated a contract with a major supplier during the year. The new contract may have affected direct costs and profit margins. So, what was reasonable at the beginning of the year may be less so now and require adjustments when you draft your 2019 budget.

Often, a business can’t maintain its current growth rate indefinitely without investing in additional assets or incurring further fixed costs. As you compare your 2018 estimates to actuals, and look at 2019, consider whether your company is planning to:

  • Build a new plant,
  • Buy a major piece of equipment,
  • Hire more workers, or
  • Rent additional space.

External and internal factors — such as regulatory changes, product obsolescence, and in-process research and development — also may require specialized adjustments to your 2019 budget to keep it reasonable.

Find the best way to track

The most analytical way to gauge reasonableness is to generate year-end financials and then compare the results to what was previously budgeted. Are you on track to meet those estimates? If not, identify the causes and factor them into a revised budget for next year.

If you discover that your actuals are significantly different from your estimates — and if this takes you by surprise — you should consider producing interim financials next year. Some businesses feel overwhelmed trying to prepare a complete set of financials every month. So, you might opt for short-term cash reports, which highlight the sources and uses of cash during the period. These cash forecasts can serve as an early warning system for “budget killers,” such as unexpected increases in direct costs or delinquent accounts.

Alternatively, many companies create 12-month rolling budgets — which typically mirror historical financial statements — and update them monthly to reflect the latest market conditions.

Do it all

The budgeting process is rarely easy, but it’s incredibly important. And that process doesn’t end when you create the budget; checking it regularly and performing a year-end assessment are key. We can help you not only generate a workable budget, but also identify the best ways to monitor your financials throughout the year. Call us today at 205-345-9898.

© 2018 Covenant CPA

Charities typically receive most of their donations during the holidays and at year end. It’s critical for these organizations to be on the lookout for fraud throughout the year, but even more so during the busy season. Here are some fraud schemes nonprofits should watch out for and how they can use internal controls to protect against financial losses.

Culture of trust

Charities generally are staffed by people who believe strongly in their missions, which contributes to a culture of trust. Unfortunately, such trust makes nonprofits vulnerable to certain types of fraud. For example, if managers don’t supervise staffers who accept cash donations, it provides an opportunity for them to skim cash. Skimming is even more likely to occur if a nonprofit doesn’t perform background checks on employees and volunteers who’ll be handling money.

However, skimming isn’t the most common type of fraud scheme in the nonprofit sector. According to the Association of Certified Fraud Examiners, religious, charitable and social services organizations are most likely to fall prey to billing schemes. Falsified expense reports and credit card abuse are also common in nonprofits.

Internal controls matter

Even small nonprofits that consider their employees and volunteers “family” need to establish and enforce internal controls. Such procedures must be followed regardless of how busy staffers are processing donations and completing year-end duties.

Possibly the most important control to prevent occupational fraud is segregation of duties. To reduce opportunities for any one person to steal, multiple employees should be involved in processing payables and receivables. For example, every incoming invoice should be reviewed by the staffer who instigated it to confirm the amount and that the goods or services were received. A different employee should be responsible for writing the check.

And don’t forget to protect electronic records that include data on donors, vendors and employees. Staff members should be given access only to the information and programs required for their job. And all sensitive information should be password-protected.

Caution with special events

Many nonprofits depend on money raised from a big annual gala or other special event at year end. During crowded, chaotic fundraisers, you’ll want to discourage supporters from making cash payments. Instead, presell or preregister event participants to limit access to cash on the day of the event. If you decide to accept cash at the door, try to assign cash-related duties to paid employees or board members, rather than unsupervised volunteers.

For more tips on preventing fraud in your nonprofit, contact us. We can help you reinforce internal controls, as well as investigate suspected theft. Call us today at 205-345-9898.

© 2018 Covenant CPA

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