When Congress authorized an additional $600 in monthly unemployment benefits as part of the CARES Act, out-of-work Americans weren’t the only ones it helped. Criminals have descended like locusts on state unemployment insurance agencies, using stolen identities to fraudulently claim both standard benefits and the additional funds administered by the Pandemic Unemployment Assistance (PUA) program. States have lost hundreds of millions of dollars. Individuals have also suffered, as government efforts to control fraud have clogged up benefit systems and delayed payments to the jobless.

States struggle

Washington state was the first to experience a COVID-19 outbreak and has since estimated losses of $650 million to unemployment insurance fraud. According to the Secret Service, a scam was detected when someone noticed that multiple direct deposits of benefits had been made to individuals residing out of state. These deposits were subsequently transferred overseas — likely by organized crime gangs.

But Washington is hardly alone. Many other states have discovered fraud. In May, Rhode Island’s labor agency reported that it had almost as many illegitimate unemployment insurance claims as legitimate ones. And widescale fraud in Michigan forced that state to stop payment on nearly 20% of unemployment claims pending review.

Fighting back

If you’re currently employed and receive an unemployment benefit check or debit card or a letter confirming an application for unemployment benefits, immediately contact your state. If you can’t get ahold of your state agency (a problem encountered by thousands of potential fraud victims), report your suspicions to police and the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) at identitytheft.gov. Your identity has likely been stolen and sold to criminals on the dark web. Be sure to request copies of your credit reports and review them for illegitimate activity.

Businesses can help fight unemployment insurance fraud, too. The FTC suggests that companies:

  • Ask employees to speak up if they suspect their identities are being used to perpetrate unemployment insurance fraud, 
  • Direct HR to flag state unemployment agency notices about currently employed workers,
  • Report suspected fraud to a state agency — preferably via its website,
  • Provide a copy of the documentation to affected employees and let them know if the state requires them to also make a report,
  • Bolster cybersecurity to prevent the loss of personal data that could be used to commit fraud.

This last tip is particularly important if your employees currently are working from home.

An easy target

The pandemic has probably unleashed more fraud activity than any other recent event. Even though PUA program payments were due to expire on July 25, state unemployment benefits are too easy and lucrative a target for fraudsters to pass up. But you can do your part to help disrupt these schemes.

© 2020 Covenant CPA

Many business owners — particularly those who own smaller companies — spend so much time trying to eliminate weaknesses that they never fully capitalize on their strengths. One way to do so is to identify and explicate your unique selling proposition (USP).

Give it some thought

In a nutshell, a USP states why customers should buy your product or service rather than a similar one offered by a competitor. A USP might be rather obvious if you offer a type of state-of-the-art technology or specialize in a certain kind of service that’s not widely available. Many businesses, however, will need to dedicate some serious thought and discussion to identifying their USP — and they may need to do so every year or two to adapt to market changes.

Ask the right questions

Involve employees from every level of your company in brainstorming sessions to develop your USP. During these meetings, consider the answers to questions such as:

  • What makes our products or services distinctive?
  • What aspect of our business is most important to its growth?
  • Which elements of what we do are the most difficult for competitors to copy?
  • Why should customers buy from us instead of the competition?

As you might have noticed, knowledge of your competitors is critical to developing a strong USP. You can’t differentiate your business from theirs unless you’re familiar with what competitors are selling, how they sell their products or services, and how they support those sales in terms of customer service. To this end, you may need to undertake some “competitive intelligence” efforts to gather needed information.

Integrate it into the sales process

Your USP should be a powerful, concise statement that customers and prospects will immediately understand and recognize as fulfilling their wants or needs. Among the most commonly cited examples is package delivery giant FedEx’s “When it absolutely, positively has to be there overnight.” Although the company doesn’t use this slogan anymore, it remains a perfect example of a USP that’s clear and memorable.

Of course, your USP must be more than just words. Once established, it should serve as a sort of “mantra” for your sales team. That is, after identifying your customers’ needs during the sales process, they should use the USP (or an iteration of it) to explain to customers why your product or service is the right choice. Just be careful not to overuse your USP in sales and marketing materials, including on your website.

Now may be the time

Given the monumental changes that have occurred in the U.S. economy and in many industries because of the COVID-19 pandemic, now may be an imperative time to reconsider and relaunch your USP. We can help you evaluate your sales numbers, as well as return on investment in marketing efforts, to carefully craft the right approach.

© 2020 Covenant CPA

The sudden shutdown of the economy in March because of the COVID-19 pandemic forced many businesses to rely more heavily on technology. Some companies fared better than others.

Many businesses that had been taking an informal approach to IT strategy discovered their systems weren’t as robust and scalable as they’d hoped. Some may have lost ground competitively as fires were put out and employees got back up to speed in an altered working environment.

To keep your approach to technology relevant, you’ve got to regularly reassess processes and assets. Doing so is even more important in the new normal. Here are six key questions to ask:

1. What are our users saying? Every successful IT strategy is built on a foundation of plentiful user feedback. Talk with (or survey) your employees about what’s happened over the last few months from a technology perspective. Find out what’s working, what isn’t and why.

2. Do we have information silos? Most companies today use multiple applications. If these solutions can’t “talk” to each other, you may suffer from information silos — when different people and teams keep data to themselves. Shifting to a more remote workforce may have worsened this problem or made it more obvious. If it’s happening, determine how to integrate critical systems.

3. Do we have a digital file-sharing policy? Businesses used to generate tremendous amounts of paperwork. Sharing documents electronically is much more common now but, without a formal approach to file sharing, things can still get lost or various versions of files can cause confusion. Implement (or improve) a digital file-sharing policy to better manage system access, network procedures and version control.

4. Has our technology become outdated? Along with being an incredible tragedy and ongoing problem, the pandemic is accelerating change. Technology that may have been at least passable before the crisis may now be falling far short of optimal functionality. Look closely at whether your business may need to upgrade hardware, software or platforms sooner than you previously anticipated.

5. Do employees need more training? You may have implemented IT changes over the past few months that employees haven’t fully understood or have adjusted to in problematic ways. Consider mandatory training and ongoing refresher sessions to ensure users are taking full advantage of available technology and following proper procedures.

6. Are your security protocols being followed? Changes made to facilitate working during the pandemic may have exposed your systems and data to threats from disgruntled employees, outside hackers and ever-present viruses. Make sure you have a closely followed policy for critical actions such as regularly changing passwords, removing inactive users and installing security updates.

Technology has played a critical role in enabling businesses to stay connected internally, communicate with customers and remain operational during the COVID-19 crisis. Our firm can help you assess your IT strategy in today’s economy and identify cost-effective process changes and budget-conscious asset upgrades.

© 2020 Covenant CPA

The tax filing deadline for 2019 tax returns has been extended until July 15 this year, due to the COVID-19 pandemic. After your 2019 tax return has been successfully filed with the IRS, there may still be some issues to bear in mind. Here are three considerations.

1. Some tax records can now be thrown away

You should keep tax records related to your return for as long as the IRS can audit your return or assess additional taxes. In general, the statute of limitations is three years after you file your return. So you can generally get rid of most records related to tax returns for 2016 and earlier years. (If you filed an extension for your 2016 return, hold on to your records until at least three years from when you filed the extended return.)

However, the statute of limitations extends to six years for taxpayers who understate their gross income by more than 25%.

You’ll need to hang on to certain tax-related records longer. For example, keep the actual tax returns indefinitely, so you can prove to the IRS that you filed a legitimate return. (There’s no statute of limitations for an audit if you didn’t file a return or you filed a fraudulent one.)

When it comes to retirement accounts, keep records associated with them until you’ve depleted the account and reported the last withdrawal on your tax return, plus three (or six) years. And retain records related to real estate or investments for as long as you own the asset, plus at least three years after you sell it and report the sale on your tax return. (You can keep these records for six years if you want to be extra safe.)

2. You can check up on your refund

The IRS has an online tool that can tell you the status of your refund. Go to irs.gov and click on “Get Your Refund Status” to find out about yours. You’ll need your Social Security number, filing status and the exact refund amount.

3. You can file an amended return if you forgot to report something

In general, you can file an amended tax return and claim a refund within three years after the date you filed your original return or within two years of the date you paid the tax, whichever is later. So for a 2019 tax return that you file on July 15, 2020, you can generally file an amended return until July 15, 2023.

However, there are a few opportunities when you have longer to file an amended return. For example, the statute of limitations for bad debts is longer than the usual three-year time limit for most items on your tax return. In general, you can amend your tax return to claim a bad debt for seven years from the due date of the tax return for the year that the debt became worthless.

We can help

Contact us if you have questions about tax record retention, your refund or filing an amended return. We’re not just available at tax filing time — we’re here all year!

© 2020 Covenant CPA

The COVID-19 crisis is affecting not only the way many businesses operate, but also how they assess productivity. How can you tell whether you’re getting enough done when so much has changed? There’s no easy, one-size-fits-all answer, but business owners should ask the question so you can adjust expectations and objectives accordingly.

Impact of remote work

Heading into the crisis, concerns about productivity were certainly on the minds of many in leadership positions. In March, research firm Gartner conducted a snap poll that found 76% of HR leaders reported their organizations’ managers were concerned about “productivity or engagement of their teams when remote.”

Many of these fears may well have been alleviated after a month or two. News provider USA Today collaborated with researchers YouGov and social media platform LinkedIn to conduct a poll in April that found 54% of respondents (professionals ages 18-74) said that working remotely has positively affected their productivity. They cited factors such as time saved by not having to commute and fewer distractions from co-workers.

The bottom line is that allowing — or, in recent months, requiring — employees to work remotely shouldn’t drastically alter your expectations of their productivity. Every employee must continue to fulfill his or her job duties and meet annual performance management objectives (as perhaps adjusted in light of the pandemic and altered economy).

However, it’s unrealistic to expect anyone to accomplish markedly more just because he or she is no longer subject to a long commute and regular office hours. In fact, when assessing productivity, business owners should bear in mind the dual challenge of work-life balance while working remotely (childcare obligations, etc.) and the mental health component of living through a pandemic.

Solid metrics

If remote work isn’t a major concern for your company — either because your employees were already doing it, adapted to it readily or simply cannot work from home — there remain some tried-and-true ways to evaluate productivity. Metrics can be useful.

For example, one broad measurement of productivity is revenue per employee. To calculate it, you’ll need to check your financial statements to see how much revenue your business brought in during a defined period. Then, you divide that dollar figure by your total number of employees. The idea is that every worker should generally bring in enough revenue to rationalize his or her paycheck.

It’s not a “be all, end all” metric by any means, but revenue per employee can help accurately shape your understanding of productivity and cash flow. And, as mentioned, you’ll need to think about how this year’s economic conditions have altered your productivity needs and what employees can reasonably accomplish.

Careful calibration

When the subject of productivity arises, many business owners’ instinctive answer is “more, more, more!” Carefully calibrating your expectations and goals, however, can lead to more sustainable results. We can help you choose and calculate the right metrics and set realistic productivity objectives.

© 2020 Covenant CPA

The IRS and the U.S. Treasury had disbursed 160.4 million Economic Impact Payments (EIPs) as of May 31, 2020, according to a new report. These are the payments being sent to eligible individuals in response to the economic threats caused by COVID-19. The U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) reports that $269.3 billion of EIPs have already been sent through a combination of electronic transfers to bank accounts, paper checks and prepaid debit cards.

Eligible individuals receive $1,200 or $2,400 for a married couple filing a joint return. Individuals may also receive up to an additional $500 for each qualifying child. Those with adjusted gross income over a threshold receive a reduced amount.

Deceased individuals

However, the IRS says some payments were sent erroneously and should be returned. For example, the tax agency says an EIP made to someone who died before receipt of the payment should be returned. Instructions for returning the payment can be found here: https://bit.ly/31ioZ8W

The entire EIP should be returned unless it was made to joint filers and one spouse hadn’t died before receipt. In that case, you only need to return the EIP portion made to the decedent. This amount is $1,200 unless your adjusted gross income exceeded $150,000. If you cannot deposit the payment because it was issued to both spouses and one spouse is deceased, return the check as described in the link above. Once the IRS receives and processes your returned payment, an EIP will be reissued.

The GAO report states that almost 1.1 million payments totaling nearly $1.4 billion had been sent to deceased individuals, as of April 30, 2020. However, these figures don’t “reflect returned checks or rejected direct deposits, the amount of which IRS and the Treasury are still determining.”

In addition, the IRS states that EIPs sent to incarcerated individuals should be returned.

Payments that don’t have to be returned

The IRS notes on its website that some people receiving an erroneous payment don’t have to return it. For example, if a child’s parents who aren’t married to each other both get an additional $500 for the same qualifying child, one of them isn’t required to pay it back.

But each parent should keep Notice 1444, which the IRS will mail to them within 15 days after the EIP is made, with their 2020 tax records.

Some individuals still waiting

Be aware that the government is still sending out EIPs. If you believe you’re eligible for one but haven’t received it, you will be able to claim your payment when you file your 2020 tax return.

If you need the payment sooner, you can call the IRS EIP line at 800-919-9835 but the Treasury Department notes that “call volumes are high, so call times may be longer than anticipated.”

© 2020 Covenant CPA

The extended federal income tax deadline is coming up fast. As you know, the IRS postponed until July 15 the payment and filing deadlines that otherwise would have fallen on or after April 1, 2020, and before July 15.

Retroactive COVID-19 business relief

The Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act, which passed earlier in 2020, includes some retroactive tax relief for business taxpayers. The following four provisions may affect a still-unfiled tax return — or you may be able to take advantage of them on an amended return if you already filed.

Liberalized net operating losses (NOLs). The CARES Act allows a five-year carryback for a business NOL that arises in a tax year beginning in 2018 through 2020. Claiming 100% first-year bonus depreciation on an affected year’s return can potentially create or increase an NOL for that year. If so, the NOL can be carried back, and you can recover some or all of the income tax paid for the carryback year. This factor could cause you to favor claiming 100% first-year bonus depreciation on an unfiled return.

Since NOLs that arise in tax years beginning in 2018 through 2020 can be carried back five years, an NOL that’s reported on a still-unfiled return can be carried back to an earlier tax year and allow you to recover income tax paid in the carry-back year. Because federal income tax rates were generally higher in years before the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act (TCJA) took effect, NOLs carried back to those years can be especially beneficial.

Qualified improvement property (QIP) technical corrections. QIP is generally defined as an improvement to an interior portion of a nonresidential building that’s placed in service after the date the building was first placed in service. The CARES Act includes a retroactive correction to the TCJA. The correction allows much faster depreciation for real estate QIP that’s placed in service after the TCJA became law.

Specifically, the correction allows 100% first-year bonus depreciation for QIP that’s placed in service in 2018 through 2022. Alternatively, you can depreciate QIP placed in service in 2018 and beyond over 15 years using the straight-line method.

Suspension of excess business loss disallowance. An “excess business loss” is a loss that exceeds $250,000 or $500,000 for a married couple filing a joint tax return. An unfavorable TCJA provision disallowed current deductions for excess business losses incurred by individuals in tax years beginning in 2018 through 2025. The CARES Act suspends the excess business loss disallowance rule for losses that arise in tax years beginning in 2018 through 2020.

Liberalized business interest deductions. Another unfavorable TCJA provision generally limited a taxpayer’s deduction for business interest expense to 30% of adjusted taxable income (ATI) for tax years beginning in 2018 and later. Business interest expense that’s disallowed under this limitation is carried over to the following tax year.

In general, the CARES Act temporarily and retroactively increases the limitation from 30% to 50% of ATI for tax years beginning in 2019 and 2020. (Special rules apply to partnerships and LLCs that are treated as partnerships for tax purposes.)  

Assessing the opportunities

These are just some of the possible tax opportunities that may be available if you haven’t yet filed your 2019 tax return. Other rules and limitations may apply. Contact us for help determining how to proceed in your situation.

© 2020 Covenant CPA

While the COVID-19 crisis has devastated many existing businesses, the pandemic has also created opportunities for entrepreneurs to launch new businesses. For example, some businesses are being launched online to provide products and services to people staying at home.

Entrepreneurs often don’t know that many expenses incurred by start-ups can’t be currently deducted. You should be aware that the way you handle some of your initial expenses can make a large difference in your tax bill.

How expenses must be handled

If you’re starting or planning a new enterprise, keep these key points in mind:

  • Start-up costs include those incurred or paid while creating an active trade or business — or investigating the creation or acquisition of one.
  • Under the Internal Revenue Code, taxpayers can elect to deduct up to $5,000 of business start-up and $5,000 of organizational costs in the year the business begins. As you know, $5,000 doesn’t get you very far today! And the $5,000 deduction is reduced dollar-for-dollar by the amount by which your total start-up or organizational costs exceed $50,000. Any remaining costs must be amortized over 180 months on a straight-line basis.
  • No deductions or amortization deductions are allowed until the year when “active conduct” of your new business begins. Generally, that means the year when the business has all the pieces in place to begin earning revenue. To determine if a taxpayer meets this test, the IRS and courts generally ask questions such as: Did the taxpayer undertake the activity intending to earn a profit? Was the taxpayer regularly and actively involved? Did the activity actually begin?

Expenses that qualify

In general, start-up expenses include all amounts you spend to:

  • Investigate the creation or acquisition of a business,
  • Create a business, or
  • Engage in a for-profit activity in anticipation of that activity becoming an active business.

To be eligible for the election, an expense also must be one that would be deductible if it were incurred after a business began. One example is money you spend analyzing potential markets for a new product or service.

To qualify as an “organization expense,” the expenditure must be related to creating a corporation or partnership. Some examples of organization expenses are legal and accounting fees for services related to organizing a new business and filing fees paid to the state of incorporation.

Thinking ahead 

If you have start-up expenses that you’d like to deduct this year, you need to decide whether to take the elections described above. Recordkeeping is critical. Contact us about your start-up plans. We can help with the tax and other aspects of your new business.

© 2020 Covenant CPA

Restaurants and entertainment venues have been hard hit by the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic. One of the tax breaks that President Trump has proposed to help them is an increase in the amount that can be deducted for business meals and entertainment.

It’s unclear whether Congress would go along with enhanced business meal and entertainment deductions. But in the meantime, let’s review the current rules.

Before the pandemic hit, many businesses spent money “wining and dining” current or potential customers, vendors and employees. The rules for deducting these expenses changed under the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act (TCJA), but you can still claim some valuable write-offs. And keep in mind that deductions are available for business meal takeout and delivery.

One of the biggest changes is that you can no longer deduct most business-related entertainment expenses. Beginning in 2018, the TCJA disallows deductions for entertainment expenses, including those for sports events, theater productions, golf outings and fishing trips.

50% meal deductions

Currently, you can deduct 50% of the cost of food and beverages for meals conducted with business associates. However, you need to follow three basic rules in order to prove that your expenses are business related:

  1. The expenses must be “ordinary and necessary” in carrying on your business. This means your food and beverage costs are customary and appropriate. They shouldn’t be lavish or extravagant.
  2. The expenses must be directly related or associated with your business. This means that you expect to receive a concrete business benefit from them. The principal purpose for the meal must be business. You can’t go out with a group of friends for the evening, discuss business with one of them for a few minutes, and then write off the check.
  3. You must be able to substantiate the expenses. There are requirements for proving that meal and beverage expenses qualify for a deduction. You must be able to establish the amount spent, the date and place where the meals took place, the business purpose and the business relationship of the people involved.

It’s a good idea to set up detailed recordkeeping procedures to keep track of business meal costs. That way, you can prove them and the business connection in the event of an IRS audit.

Other considerations

What if you spend money on food and beverages at an entertainment event? The IRS has clarified that taxpayers can still deduct 50% of food and drink expenses incurred at entertainment events, but only if business was conducted during the event or shortly before or after. The food-and-drink expenses should also be “stated separately from the cost of the entertainment on one or more bills, invoices or receipts,” according to the guidance.

Another related tax law change involves meals provided to employees on the business premises. Before the TCJA, these meals provided to an employee for the convenience of the employer were 100% deductible by the employer. Beginning in 2018, meals provided for the convenience of an employer in an on-premises cafeteria or elsewhere on the business property are only 50% deductible. After 2025, these meals won’t be deductible at all.

Plan ahead

As you can see, the treatment of meal and entertainment expenses became more complicated after the TCJA. It’s possible the deductions could increase substantially under a new stimulus law, if Congress passes one. We’ll keep you updated. In the meantime, we can answer any questions you may have concerning business meal and entertainment deductions.

© 2020 Covenant CPA

The novel coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic has caused some people to contemplate their own mortality or that of a family member. For those whose life expectancies are short — because of COVID-19 or for other reasons — estate planning can be difficult. But while money matters may be the last thing you want to think about when time is limited, a little planning can offer you and your family financial peace of mind.

Action steps to take

Here are some (but by no means all) of the steps you should take if you have a short life expectancy. These steps are also helpful if a loved one has been told that time is limited.

Gather documents. Review all estate planning documents, including your:

  • Will,
  • Revocable or “living” trust,
  • Other trusts,
  • General power of attorney, and
  • Advance medical directive, such as a “living will” or health care power of attorney.

Make sure these documents are up-to-date and continue to meet your estate planning objectives. Modify them as appropriate.

Take inventory. Catalog all your assets and liabilities, estimate their value, and determine how assets are titled to ensure that they’ll pass to their intended recipients. For example, do you own assets jointly with your ex-spouse? If so, title will pass to your ex-spouse on your death. There may be steps you can take to separate your interest in the property and dispose of it as you see fit.

If you have a safe deposit box, make sure someone is authorized to open it. If you have a personal safe, be sure that someone you trust knows its location and combination.

Review beneficiary designations. Take another look at beneficiary designations in your IRAs, pension plans, 401(k) plans and other retirement accounts, insurance policies, annuities, deferred compensation plans and other assets. Make sure a beneficiary is named and that the designation continues to meet your wishes. For example, a divorced individual may find that an ex-spouse is still named as beneficiary of a life insurance policy.

Review digital assets. Ensure that your family or representatives will have access to digital assets, such as email accounts, online bank and brokerage accounts, online photo galleries, digital music and book collections, social media accounts, websites, domain names, and cloud-based documents. You can do this by creating a list of usernames and passwords or by making arrangements with the custodians of these assets to provide access to your authorized representatives.

Gaining peace of mind

Although facing your own mortality can be difficult, great peace of mind can come from ensuring that your estate plan fulfills your wishes and minimizes the tax burden on your family. Contact us with any questions regarding your estate plan.

© 2020 Covenant CPA