Business opportunity or scam?

The investment “opportunity” could be anything from a new nutritional supplement to a foolproof method for “flipping” houses. But if the investment or product is advertised as “easy money” or promises immediate high earnings, beware. Although there are plenty of legitimate business opportunities out there, there are also plenty of fraudulent schemes that exist for no other reason than to steal your money.

Simple or complicated

These schemes can be relatively straightforward. For example, one New York state man was convicted of enticing investors to sink $10,000 each into a vending machine distribution business he promised would be profitable — even though it was set up to fail.

But they can also take the form of complicated pyramid schemes that generally offer no actual product or service and are sustained by constantly recruiting new participants. Often, these schemes are couched as “clubs” or “gift programs” and promoted through social networks. Whatever they’re called, they usually end the same way: When the pyramid collapses, only the “founders” walk away with any money.

FTC safeguards

To assist potential investors, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) has established a Business Opportunity Rule. Among other things, the rule requires sellers to produce a disclosure document and to detail any earnings claims in a separate statement.

Sellers also must disclose prior civil or criminal litigation involving claims of misrepresentation, fraud, securities law violations, or unfair or deceptive business practices; outline any cancellation or refund policy; and provide references nearest to the potential buyer’s location. Furthermore, the disclosure document must be written in the language in which the buyer and seller discussed the opportunity. For more about the rule, visit ftc.gov.

Practical tips

In practical terms, you can protect yourself by studying the disclosure document, earnings claim statement and proposed contract, looking for potential loopholes that might benefit the seller at your expense. For example, are start-up costs particularly high? Is the seller required to buy back inventory you’re unable to sell or would you be out-of-pocket?

Other tips to protect your money:

  • Research the seller’s history and reputation online and check for complaints with the Better Business Bureau. (Note that the absence of complaints doesn’t necessarily mean the seller is aboveboard.)
  • Find out if there’s an actual market for the business’s products or services.
  • Talk to current investors or participants and ask tough questions.
  • Ask your legal and financial advisors to review any documents you don’t understand, including the contract.

When to walk away

If you suspect a business opportunity is fake, turn it down. Then report it to your state attorney general’s office, your county or state consumer protection agency, and the FTC. But if you’re unsure about the legitimacy of an offer, contact us. We can help you evaluate it.

© 2020 Covenant CPA

Do you own a business but haven’t gotten around to setting up a tax-advantaged retirement plan? Fortunately, it’s not too late to establish one and reduce your 2019 tax bill. A Simplified Employee Pension (SEP) can still be set up for 2019, and you can make contributions to it that you can deduct on your 2019 income tax return. Even better, SEPs keep administrative costs low.

Deadlines for contributions

A SEP can be set up as late as the due date (including extensions) of your income tax return for the tax year for which the SEP first applies. That means you can establish a SEP for 2019 in 2020 as long as you do it before your 2019 return filing deadline. You have until the same deadline to make 2019 contributions and still claim a potentially substantial deduction on your 2019 return.

Generally, most other types of retirement plans would have to have been established by December 31, 2019, in order for 2019 contributions to be made (though many of these plans do allow 2019 contributions to be made in 2020).

Contributions are optional

With a SEP, you can decide how much to contribute each year. You aren’t required to make any certain minimum contributions annually.

However, if your business has employees other than you:

  • Contributions must be made for all eligible employees using the same percentage of compensation as for yourself, and
  • Employee accounts must be immediately 100% vested.

The contributions go into SEP-IRAs established for each eligible employee. As the employer, you’ll get a current income tax deduction for contributions you make on behalf of your employees. Your employees won’t be taxed when the contributions are made, but at a later date when distributions are made — usually in retirement.

For 2019, the maximum contribution that can be made to a SEP-IRA is 25% of compensation (or 20% of self-employed income net of the self-employment tax deduction), subject to a contribution cap of $56,000. (The 2020 cap is $57,000.)

How to proceed

To set up a SEP, you complete and sign the simple Form 5305-SEP (“Simplified Employee Pension — Individual Retirement Accounts Contribution Agreement”). You don’t need to file Form 5305-SEP with the IRS, but you should keep it as part of your permanent tax records. A copy of Form 5305-SEP must be given to each employee covered by the SEP, along with a disclosure statement.

Although there are rules and limits that apply to SEPs beyond what we’ve discussed here, SEPs generally are much simpler to administer than other retirement plans. Contact us with any questions you have about SEPs and to discuss whether it makes sense for you to set one up for 2019 (or 2020).

© 2020 Covenant CPA

Payable-on-death (POD) accounts provide a quick, simple and inexpensive way to transfer assets outside of probate. They can be used for bank accounts, certificates of deposit or even brokerage accounts. Setting one up is as easy as providing the bank with a signed POD beneficiary designation form. When you die, your beneficiaries just need to present a certified copy of the death certificate and their identification to the bank, and the money or securities are theirs.

Beware of pitfalls

POD accounts can backfire if they’re not coordinated carefully with the rest of your estate plan. Too often, people designate an account as POD as an afterthought without considering whether it may conflict with their wills, trusts or other estate planning documents.

Suppose, for example, that Sam dies with a will that divides his property equally among his three children. He also has a $50,000 bank account that’s payable on death to his oldest child. If the other two children want to fight over it, the conflict between the will and POD designation must be resolved in court, which delays the distribution of Sam’s estate and can generate substantial attorneys’ fees.

Another potential problem with POD accounts is that if you use them for most of your assets, the assets left in your estate may be insufficient to pay debts, taxes or other expenses. Your executor would then have to initiate a proceeding to bring assets back into the estate.

POD best practices

Generally, POD accounts are best used to hold a modest amount of funds that are available immediately to your executor or other representative to pay funeral expenses or other pressing cash needs while your estate is being administered. Using these accounts for more substantial assets could lead to intrafamily disputes or costly litigation.

If you use POD accounts as part of your estate plan, be sure to review the rest of your plan carefully to avoid potential conflicts. Contact us with any questions.

© 2020 Covenant CPA

Most companies wouldn’t go into business without some basic types of insurance in place, such as property coverage and a liability policy. For a company with more than one owner, there’s an additional type of risk-management arrangement that needs to be established: a buy-sell agreement.

If your business has yet to create one, you should start the process as soon as possible. A conflict over ownership change can distract a company at the very least — and devastate it at worst. But, even if you have a buy-sell in place, there are a couple key elements to regularly review: funding and valuation.

Evaluate your funding

For many businesses, payouts for a buy-sell agreement are funded with a cash-value life insurance policy or a disability buyout insurance policy. There are two main types of life insurance-funded buy-sell agreements:

1. Cross-purchase agreement. Co-owners buy insurance policies on each other, using the proceeds to buy a deceased or disabled party’s ownership shares. They receive a step-up in cost basis that may reduce taxes if the business is later sold. This option is usually preferable if there are three or fewer business co-owners.

2. Entity purchase agreement. The business entity buys insurance policies on each co-owner and uses the proceeds to buy a deceased or disabled owner’s shares, which are divided among the remaining parties. Co-owners receive no step-up in cost basis with an entity purchase agreement. This option is usually preferable if there are four or more owners, because it eliminates the need for each one to buy so many insurance policies.

Engage a valuator

It’s usually wise to hire a professional appraiser to perform a business valuation when drafting a buy-sell agreement. The valuation should then be updated periodically as circumstances that could affect the value of the company change. In fact, the buy-sell agreement itself should be reviewed by each co-owner from time to time to make sure it still reflects everyone’s intentions.

One specific issue to consider is how the “standard” of value is defined. A business valuation expert can provide definitions for a variety of relevant standards — including fair market value, fair value, book value and investment value. Different triggering events or departing shareholders may require different levels or standards of value.

Customize your agreement

Having a standard, boilerplate buy-sell agreement can be just as dangerous as not having one at all because its provisions may cause confusion or trigger disputes. Yours should be a customized, living document that provides a clear mechanism for equitable ownership change. Our firm can help you review the agreement you have in place or create one if you have yet to do so.

© 2020 Covenant CPA

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