Many startup companies require access to large sums of investment capital to take on well-established competitors. The need to raise such funding may encourage a startup’s founder to paint an overly optimistic picture of the business and exaggerate its ability to succeed. In some extreme circumstances, founders may resort to deception to convince investors to back their ventures. That’s fraud.
Silicon Valley warning
A medical testing startup provides a cautionary tale of what can happen when an aggressive entrepreneur plays fast and loose with the truth. Based on the extravagant claims of the Silicon Valley company’s founder, the startup raised more than $700 million and secured a $10 billion valuation. When evidence emerged that it couldn’t conduct extensive medical tests on tiny amounts of blood as it had claimed, the company collapsed.
Its founder has denied allegations that she made false claims. She and the startup’s former president currently are defending themselves against criminal charges leveled by the U.S. Attorney’s Office (a trial is scheduled for this spring). The founder has already settled a lawsuit alleging fraud filed by the Securities and Exchange Commission.
Getting adequate information
So how can you avoid fraudulent investments? The simple answer is that you must investigate any claims that sound too good to be true and closely scrutinize new investment opportunities — and the entrepreneurs behind them.
The founder of the medical testing company deflected requests for information about its inner workings. She often cited the need to protect intellectual property. Protecting proprietary information is a valid concern. But before investors inject capital into a project, they need to have an intimate understanding of the company and its products and services. If a startup refuses to provide adequate information, you’re better off walking away.
The startup also lacked an audited set of financial statements. This is another glaring red flag that investors should have heeded. According to MarketWatch, none of its investors requested access to the company’s financial statements.
In addition to developing a detailed understanding of a company’s operations, set aside time to conduct background checks on its founders and key executives. A founder’s so-called stellar business track record may not jive with public records that show a history of failed ventures. Or you may find that a programming “prodigy” enjoys little respect or confidence in the tech community. Ask direct questions of the business’s owner to resolve issues.
Reduce your risk
Startups have a strong incentive to provide potential investors with overly optimistic financials and hyperbolic growth claims. Most startup founders aren’t involved in promulgating fraud. Nevertheless, you should work with experienced financial advisors when investing in a new company.
© 2021 Covenant CPA
If you have a family member who’s disabled, you likely know that financial and estate planning can be tricky. You don’t want to jeopardize his or her eligibility for means-tested government benefits such as Medicaid or Supplemental Security Income (SSI). A special needs trust (SNT) is one option to consider. Another is to open a Section 520A account, often referred to as an ABLE account, because it was created by the Achieving a Better Life Experience (ABLE) Act.
ABCs of an ABLE account
The ABLE Act allows family members and others to make nondeductible cash contributions to a qualified beneficiary’s ABLE account, with total annual contributions limited to the federal gift tax annual exclusion amount (currently, $15,000). To qualify, a beneficiary must have become blind or disabled before age 26.
The account grows tax-free, and earnings may be withdrawn tax-free provided they’re used to pay “qualified disability expenses.” These include health care, education, housing, transportation, employment training, assistive technology, personal support services, financial management and legal expenses.
An ABLE account generally won’t affect the beneficiary’s eligibility for Medicaid and SSI — which limits a recipient’s “countable assets” to $2,000 — with a couple of exceptions. First, distributions from an ABLE account used to pay housing expenses are countable assets. Second, if an ABLE account’s balance grows beyond $100,000, the beneficiary’s eligibility for SSI is suspended until the balance is brought below that threshold.
ABLE vs. SNT
Here’s a quick review of the relative advantages and disadvantages of ABLE accounts and SNTs:
Availability. Anyone can establish an SNT, but ABLE accounts are available only if your home state offers them, or contracts with another state to make them available. Also, as previously noted, ABLE account beneficiaries must have become blind or disabled before age 26. There’s no age limit for SNTs.
Qualified expenses. ABLE accounts may be used to pay only specified types of expenses. SNTs may be used for any expenses the government doesn’t pay for, including “quality-of-life” expenses, such as travel, recreation, hobbies and entertainment.
Tax treatment. An ABLE account’s earnings and qualified distributions are tax-free. An SNT’s earnings are taxable.
Contribution limits. Annual contributions to ABLE accounts currently are limited to $15,000, and total contributions are effectively limited to $100,000 to avoid suspension of SSI benefits. There are no limits on contributions to SNTs, although contributions that exceed $15,000 per year may have gift tax implications.
Investments. Contributions to ABLE accounts are limited to cash, and the beneficiary (or his or her representative) may direct the investment of the account funds twice a year. With an SNT, you can contribute a variety of assets, including cash, stock or real estate. And the trustee — preferably an experienced professional fiduciary — has complete flexibility to direct the trust’s investments.
Examine the differences
When considering which option is best for your family (or whether you should have both), remember the key differences: An ABLE account may offer greater tax advantages, while an SNT may offer greater flexibility. We can help answer any questions.
© 2020 Covenant CPA
Because the average investment account boasts a much larger balance that a typical checking or savings account, cybercriminals are particularly interested in hacking them. Financial institutions are largely responsible for ensuring the security of these accounts, but business customers and consumers also should adopt defensive measures. Here are five recommendations.
- Select two-step authentication. Most financial service providers give customers the option of using a two-step verification process to prevent unauthorized access to their accounts. A two-step approach requires you both to log in to your account with a password and to verify your identity with, for example, a one-time code sent to your mobile phone.
- Choose complex and unique passwords. Criminals often gain access to bank and investment accounts thanks to weak passwords — or because an accountholder uses the same password for multiple accounts. Make sure you use complex, unique passwords with upper- and lower-case letters, special characters and numbers for every investment account you maintain.
- Establish account alerts. In addition to reviewing your monthly account statement for unauthorized transactions, request that your investment institution notifies you via email or text of all account activity. For example, the financial company should confirm buy or sell orders or transfer requests. If you receive a message regarding a transaction or transfer you didn’t authorize, contact your investment company immediately.
- Consider biometrics. Certain devices, including many mobile phones and some laptops, support the use of biometrics, such as face recognition or fingerprint scans. Using biometrics can seem inconvenient at first, but criminals find it almost impossible to foil this unique form of verification.
- Exercise caution with emails. To prevent the installation of malware that can steal account passwords, open emails with caution. If you receive an email from a business or service provider, don’t click on any links. Instead, type in the business’s website address and log in to your account that way. If the spelling, grammar and structure of an email appears unprofessional or suspicious, delete the email and remove it from your deleted email folder. Finally, keep antivirus and malware detection software updated.
Protecting investment accounts takes a multi-layered approach — and constant vigilance. Although your financial service provider likely uses state-of-the-art security to fend off cybercriminals, you also must do your part.
© 2020 Covenant CPA
In many industries, offering a 401(k) plan is a competitive necessity. If you don’t offer one and a competitor does, it could mean the difference in a job candidate’s decision to accept their offer over yours. It could even send employees heading for the door.
Assuming you do offer a 401(k), the challenge then becomes plan maintenance and compliance. Just as you presumably visit your doctor annually for a checkup, you should review the administrative processes and fiduciary procedures associated with your plan at least once a year. Let’s look at some important areas of consideration:
Investments. Study your plan’s investment choices to determine whether the selections available to participants are appropriate. Does the lineup offer options along the risk-and-return spectrum for all ages of participants? Are any pre-mixed funds, which are based on age or expected retirement date, appropriate for your employee population?
If the plan includes a default investment for participants who have failed to direct investment contributions, check the option to ensure that it continues to be appropriate. If your company plan doesn’t have a written investment policy in place or doesn’t use an independent outside consultant to assist in selecting and monitoring investments, consider incorporating these into your investment procedures.
Fees. 401(k) plan fees often come under criticism in the media and can aggravate employees who follow their accounts closely. Calculate the amount of current participant fees associated with your plan’s investments and benchmark them against industry standards.
Investment managers. Have you documented in writing the processes your plan has in place for the selection and monitoring of investment managers? If not, doing so in consultation with an attorney is highly advisable. If you have, reread the documents to ensure they’re still accurate and comprehensive.
Administrator. Solicit and monitor participant feedback on the administrator so that you know about grumblings before they grow into heated complaints. Further, put criteria in place to assess the plan administrator’s performance on an ongoing basis and to benchmark performance against industry standards.
Compliance. Are your plan’s administrative procedures in compliance with current regulations? If you intend your plan to be a participant-directed individual account plan, are all the provisions of ERISA Section 404(c) being followed? Have there been any major changes to 401(k) regulations over the last year? These are just a few critical questions to ask and answer.
A 401(k) is usually among the most valued benefits a business can offer its employees, but you’ve got to keep a close and constant eye on its details. We’d be happy to help you assess the costs and other financial details of your company’s plan.
© 2020 Covenant CPA
Do you have investments outside of tax-advantaged retirement plans? If so, you might still have time to shrink your 2018 tax bill by selling some investments • you just need to carefully select whichinvestments you sell.
Try balancing gains and losses
If you’ve sold investments at a gain this year, consider selling some losing investments to absorb the gains. This is commonly referred to as “harvesting” losses.
If, however, you’ve sold investments at a loss this year, consider selling other investments in your portfolio that have appreciated, to the extent the gains will be absorbed by the losses. If you believe those appreciated investments have peaked in value, essentially you’ll lock in the peak value and avoid tax on your gains.
Review your potential tax rates
At the federal level, long-term capital gains (on investments held more than one year) are taxed at lower rates than short-term capital gains (on investments held one year or less). The Tax Cuts and Jobs Act (TCJA) retains the 0%, 15% and 20% rates on long-term capital gains. But, for 2018 through 2025, these rates have their own brackets, instead of aligning with various ordinary-income brackets.
For example, these are the thresholds for the top long-term gains rate for 2018:
- Singles: $425,800
- Heads of households: $452,400
- Married couples filing jointly: $479,000
But the top ordinary-income rate of 37%, which also applies to short-term capital gains, doesn’t go into effect until income exceeds $500,000 for singles and heads of households or $600,000 for joint filers. The TCJA also retains the 3.8% net investment income tax (NIIT) and its $200,000 and $250,000 thresholds.
Don’t forget the netting rules
Before selling investments, consider the netting rules for gains and losses, which depend on whether gains and losses are long term or short term. To determine your net gain or loss for the year, long-term capital losses offset long-term capital gains before they offset short-term capital gains. In the same way, short-term capital losses offset short-term capital gains before they offset long-term capital gains.
You may use up to $3,000 of total capital losses in excess of total capital gains as a deduction against ordinary income in computing your adjusted gross income. Any remaining net losses are carried forward to future years.
Time is running out
By reviewing your investment activity year-to-date and selling certain investments by year end, you may be able to substantially reduce your 2018 taxes. But act soon, because time is running out.
Keep in mind that tax considerations shouldn’t drive your investment decisions. You also need to consider other factors, such as your risk tolerance and investment goals.
We can help you determine what makes sense for you. Please contact us at 205-345-9898.
© 2018 Covenant CPA
When investing for retirement or other long-term goals, people usually prefer tax-advantaged accounts, such as IRAs, 401(k)s or 403(b)s. Certain assets are well suited to these accounts, but it may make more sense to hold other investments in traditional taxable accounts.
Know the rules
Some investments, such as fast-growing stocks, can generate substantial capital gains, which may occur when you sell a security for more than you paid for it.
If you’ve owned that position for over a year, you face long-term gains, taxed at a maximum rate of 20%. In contrast, short-term gains, assessed on holding periods of a year or less, are taxed at your ordinary-income tax rate — maxing out at 37%. (Note: These rates don’t account for the possibility of the 3.8% net investment income tax.)
Choose tax efficiency
Generally, the more tax efficient an investment, the more benefit you’ll get from owning it in a taxable account. Conversely, investments that lack tax efficiency normally are best suited to tax-advantaged vehicles.
Consider municipal bonds (“munis”), either held individually or through mutual funds. Munis are attractive to tax-sensitive investors because their income is exempt from federal income taxes and sometimes state and local income taxes. Because you don’t get a double benefit when you own an already tax-advantaged security in a tax-advantaged account, holding munis in your 401(k) or IRA would result in a lost opportunity.
Similarly, tax-efficient investments such as passively managed index mutual funds or exchange-traded funds, or long-term stock holdings, are generally appropriate for taxable accounts. These securities are more likely to generate long-term capital gains, which have more favorable tax treatment. Securities that generate more of their total return via capital appreciation or that pay qualified dividends are also better taxable account options.
Take advantage of income
What investments work best for tax-advantaged accounts? Taxable investments that tend to produce much of their return in income. This category includes corporate bonds, especially high-yield bonds, as well as real estate investment trusts (REITs), which are required to pass through most of their earnings as shareholder income. Most REIT dividends are nonqualified and therefore taxed at your ordinary-income rate.
Another tax-advantaged-appropriate investment may be an actively managed mutual fund. Funds with significant turnover — meaning their portfolio managers are actively buying and selling securities — have increased potential to generate short-term gains that ultimately get passed through to you. Because short-term gains are taxed at a higher rate than long-term gains, these funds would be less desirable in a taxable account.
Get specific advice
The above concepts are only general suggestions. Please contact our firm for specific advice on what may be best for you.
Sidebar: Doing due diligence on dividends
If you own a lot of income-generating investments, you’ll need to pay attention to the tax rules for dividends, which belong to one of two categories:
- Qualified.These dividends are paid by U.S. corporations or qualified foreign corporations. Qualified dividends are, like long-term gains, subject to a maximum tax rate of 20%, though many people are eligible for a 15% rate. (Note: These rates don’t account for the possibility of the 3.8% net investment income tax.)
- Nonqualified.These dividends — which include most distributions from real estate investment trusts and master limited partnerships — receive a less favorable tax treatment. Like short-term gains, nonqualified dividends are taxed at your ordinary-income tax rate.
© 2018 Covenant CPA
For investors, fall is a good time to review year-to-date gains and losses. Not only can it help you assess your financial health, but it also can help you determine whether to buy or sell investments before year end to save taxes. This year, you also need to keep in mind the impact of the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act (TCJA). While the TCJA didn’t change long-term capital gains rates, it did change the tax brackets for long-term capital gains and qualified dividends.
For 2018 through 2025, these brackets are no longer linked to the ordinary-income tax brackets for individuals. So, for example, you could be subject to the top long-term capital gains rate even if you aren’t subject to the top ordinary-income tax rate.
For the last several years, individual taxpayers faced three federal income tax rates on long-term capital gains and qualified dividends: 0%, 15% and 20%. The rate brackets were tied to the ordinary-income rate brackets.
Specifically, if the long-term capital gains and/or dividends fell within the 10% or 15% ordinary-income brackets, no federal income tax was owed. If they fell within the 25%, 28%, 33% or 35% ordinary-income brackets, they were taxed at 15%. And, if they fell within the maximum 39.6% ordinary-income bracket, they were taxed at the maximum 20% rate.
In addition, higher-income individuals with long-term capital gains and dividends were also hit with the 3.8% net investment income tax (NIIT). It kicked in when modified adjusted gross income exceeded $200,000 for singles and heads of households and $250,000 for married couples filing jointly. So, many people actually paid 18.8% (15% + 3.8%) or 23.8% (20% + 3.8%) on their long-term capital gains and qualified dividends.
The TCJA retains the 0%, 15% and 20% rates on long-term capital gains and qualified dividends for individual taxpayers. However, for 2018 through 2025, these rates have their own brackets. Here are the 2018 brackets:
- 0%: $0 – $38,600
- 15%: $38,601 – $425,800
- 20%: $425,801 and up
- Heads of households:
- 0%: $0 – $51,700
- 15%: $51,701 – $452,400
- 20%: $452,401 and up
- Married couples filing jointly:
- 0%: $0 – $77,200
- 15%: $77,201 – $479,000
- 20%: $479,001 and up
For 2018, the top ordinary-income rate of 37%, which also applies to short-term capital gains and nonqualified dividends, doesn’t go into effect until income exceeds $500,000 for singles and heads of households or $600,000 for joint filers. (Both the long-term capital gains brackets and the ordinary-income brackets will be indexed for inflation for 2019 through 2025.) The new tax law also retains the 3.8% NIIT and its $200,000 and $250,000 thresholds.
More thresholds, more complexity
With more tax rate thresholds to keep in mind, year-end tax planning for investments is especially complicated in 2018. If you have questions, please contact us at 205-345-9898.
© 2018 Covenant CPA