One of the most laborious tasks for small businesses is managing payroll. But it’s critical that you not only withhold the right amount of taxes from employees’ paychecks but also that you pay them over to the federal government on time.

If you willfully fail to do so, you could personally be hit with the Trust Fund Recovery Penalty, also known as the 100% penalty. The penalty applies to the Social Security and income taxes required to be withheld by a business from its employees’ wages. Since the taxes are considered property of the government, the employer holds them in “trust” on the government’s behalf until they’re paid over.

The reason the penalty is sometimes called the “100% penalty” is because the person liable for the taxes (called the “responsible person”) can be personally penalized 100% of the taxes due. Accordingly, the amounts the IRS seeks when the penalty is applied are usually substantial, and the IRS is aggressive in enforcing it.

Responsible persons

The penalty can be imposed on any person “responsible” for the collection and payment of the taxes. This has been broadly defined to include a corporation’s officers, directors, and shareholders under a duty to collect and pay the tax, as well as a partnership’s partners or any employee of the business under such a duty. Even voluntary board members of tax-exempt organizations, who are generally exempt from responsibility, can be subject to this penalty under certain circumstances. Responsibility has even been extended in some cases to professional advisors.

According to the IRS, being a responsible person is a matter of status, duty and authority. Anyone with the power to see that the taxes are paid may be responsible. There is often more than one responsible person in a business, but each is at risk for the entire penalty. Although taxpayers held liable may sue other responsible persons for their contributions, this is an action they must take entirely on their own after they pay the penalty. It isn’t part of the IRS collection process.

The net can be broadly cast. You may not be directly involved with the withholding process in your business. But let’s say you learn of a failure to pay over withheld taxes and you have the power to have them paid. Instead, you make payments to creditors and others. You have now become a responsible person.

How the IRS defines “willfulness”

For actions to be willful, they don’t have to include an overt intent to evade taxes. Simply bowing to business pressures and paying bills or obtaining supplies instead of paying over withheld taxes due to the government is willful behavior for these purposes. And just because you delegate responsibilities to someone else doesn’t necessarily mean you’re off the hook.

In addition, the corporate veil won’t shield corporate owners from the 100% penalty. The liability protections that owners of corporations — and limited liability companies — typically have don’t apply to payroll tax debts.

If the IRS assesses the penalty, it can file a lien or take levy or seizure action against the personal assets of a responsible person.

Avoiding the penalty

You should never allow any failure to withhold taxes from employees, and no “borrowing” from withheld amounts should ever be allowed in your business — regardless of the circumstances. All funds withheld must be paid over on time.

If you aren’t already using a payroll service, consider hiring one. This can relieve you of the burden of withholding and paying the proper amounts, as well as handling the recordkeeping. Contact us for more information.

© 2019 Covenant CPA

Many business owners ask: How can I avoid an IRS audit? The good news is that the odds against being audited are in your favor. In fiscal year 2018, the IRS audited approximately 0.6% of individuals. Businesses, large corporations and high-income individuals are more likely to be audited but, overall, audit rates are historically low.

There’s no 100% guarantee that you won’t be picked for an audit, because some tax returns are chosen randomly. However, completing your returns in a timely and accurate fashion with our firm certainly works in your favor. And it helps to know what might catch the attention of the IRS.

Audit red flags

A variety of tax-return entries may raise red flags with the IRS and may lead to an audit. Here are a few examples:

  • Significant inconsistencies between previous years’ filings and your most current filing,
  • Gross profit margin or expenses markedly different from those of other businesses in your industry, and
  • Miscalculated or unusually high deductions.

Certain types of deductions may be questioned by the IRS because there are strict recordkeeping requirements for them • for example, auto and travel expense deductions. In addition, an owner-employee salary that’s inordinately higher or lower than those in similar companies in his or her location can catch the IRS’s eye, especially if the business is structured as a corporation.

How to respond

If you’re selected for an audit, you’ll be notified by letter. Generally, the IRS won’t make initial contact by phone. But if there’s no response to the letter, the agency may follow up with a call.

Many audits simply request that you mail in documentation to support certain deductions you’ve taken. Others may ask you to take receipts and other documents to a local IRS office. Only the harshest version, the field audit, requires meeting with one or more IRS auditors. (Note: Ignore unsolicited email messages about an audit. The IRS doesn’t contact people in this manner. These are scams.)

Keep in mind that the tax agency won’t demand an immediate response to a mailed notice. You’ll be informed of the discrepancies in question and given time to prepare. You’ll need to collect and organize all relevant income and expense records. If any records are missing, you’ll have to reconstruct the information as accurately as possible based on other documentation.

If the IRS chooses you for an audit, our firm can help you:

  • Understand what the IRS is disputing (it’s not always crystal clear),
  • Gather the specific documents and information needed, and
  • •Respond to the auditor’s inquiries in the most expedient and effective manner.

Don’t panic if you’re contacted by the IRS. Many audits are routine. By taking a meticulous, proactive approach to how you track, document and file your company’s tax-related information, you’ll make an audit much less painful and even decrease the chances that one will happen in the first place.

© 2019 Covenant CPA

Operating a business as an S corporation may provide many advantages, including limited liability for owners and no double taxation (at least at the federal level). Self-employed people may also be able to lower their exposure to Social Security and Medicare taxes if they structure their businesses as S corps for federal tax purposes. But not all businesses are eligible — and with changes under the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act, S corps may not be as appealing as they once were.

Compare and contrast

The main reason why businesses elect S corp status is to obtain the limited liability of a corporation and the ability to pass corporate income, losses, deductions and credits through to shareholders. In other words, S corps generally avoid double taxation of corporate income — once at the corporate level and again when it’s distributed to shareholders. Instead, tax items pass through to the shareholders’ personal returns, and they pay tax at their individual income tax rates.

But double taxation may be less of a concern today due to the 21% flat income tax rate that now applies to C corporations. Meanwhile, the top individual income tax rate is 37%. S corp owners may be able to take advantage of the qualified business income (QBI) deduction, which can be equal to as much as 20% of QBI.

In order to assess S corp status, you have to run the numbers with your tax advisor, and factor in state taxes to determine which structure will be the most beneficial for you and your business.

S corp qualifications

If you decide to go the S corp route, make sure you qualify and will stay qualified. To be eligible to elect to be an S corp or to convert, your business must:

  • Be a domestic corporation,
  • Have only one class of stock,
  • Have no more than 100 shareholders, and
  • Have only “allowable” shareholders, including individuals, certain trusts and estates. Shareholders can’t include partnerships, corporations and nonresident alien shareholders.

In addition, certain businesses are ineligible, such as financial institutions and insurance companies.

Base compensation on what’s reasonable

Another important consideration when electing S status is shareholder compensation. One strategy for paying less in Social Security and Medicare employment taxes is to pay modest salaries to yourself and any other S corp shareholder-employees. Then, pay out the remaining corporate cash flow (after you’ve retained enough in the company’s accounts to sustain normal business operations) as federal-employment-tax-free cash distributions.

However, the IRS is on the lookout for S corps that pay shareholder-employees unreasonably low salaries to avoid paying employment taxes and then make distributions that aren’t subject to those taxes.

Paying yourself a modest salary will work if you can prove that your salary is reasonable based on market levels for similar jobs. Otherwise, you run the risk of the IRS auditing your business and imposing back employment taxes, interest and penalties. We can help you decide on a salary and gather proof that it’s reasonable.

Consider all angles

Contact us if you think being an S corporation might help reduce your tax bill while still providing liability protection. We can help with the mechanics of making an election or making a conversion, under applicable state law, and then handling the post-conversion tax issues.

© 2019 Covenant CPA

In the past few months, many businesses and employers nationwide have received “no-match” letters from the Social Security Administration (SSA). The purpose of these letters is to alert employers if there’s a discrepancy between the agency’s files and data reported on W-2 forms, which are given to employees and filed with the IRS. Specifically, they point out that an employee’s name and Social Security number (SSN) don’t match the government’s records.

According to the SSA, the purpose of the letters is to “advise employers that corrections are needed in order for us to properly post” employees’ earnings to the correct records. If a person’s earnings are missing, the worker may not qualify for all of the Social Security benefits he or she is entitled to, or the benefit received may be incorrect. The no-match letters began going out in the spring of 2019.

Why discrepancies occur

There are a number of reasons why names and SSNs don’t match. They include typographical errors when inputting numbers and name changes due to marriage or divorce. And, of course, employees could intentionally give the wrong information to employers, as is sometimes the case with undocumented workers.

Some lawmakers, including Democrats on the U.S. House Ways and Means Committee, have expressed opposition to no-match letters. In a letter to the SSA Commissioner, they wrote that, under “the current immigration enforcement climate,” employers might “mistakenly believe that the no-match letter indicates that workers lack immigration status and will fire these workers — even those who can legally work in the United States.”

How to proceed

If you receive a no-match letter telling you that an employee’s name and SSN don’t match IRS records, the SSA gives the following advice:

  • Check to see if your information matches the name and SSN on the employee’s Social Security card. If it doesn’t, ask the employee to provide you with the exact information as it is shown on the card.
  • If the information matches the employee’s card, ask your employee to check with the local Social Security office to resolve the issue.
  • Once resolved, the employee should inform you of any changes.

The SSA notes that the IRS is responsible for any penalties associated with W-2 forms that have incorrect information. If you have questions, contact us or check out these frequently asked questions from the SSA: https://bit.ly/2Yv87M6

© 2019 Covenant CPA

Bitcoin and other forms of virtual currency are gaining popularity. But many businesses, consumers, employees and investors are still confused about how they work and how to report transactions on their federal tax returns. And the IRS just announced that it is targeting virtual currency users in a new “educational letter” campaign.

The nuts and bolts

Unlike cash or credit cards, small businesses generally don’t accept bitcoin payments for routine transactions. However, a growing number of larger retailers — and online businesses — now accept payments. Businesses can also pay employees or independent contractors with virtual currency. The trend is expected to continue, so more small businesses may soon get on board.

Bitcoin has an equivalent value in real currency. It can be digitally traded between users. You can also purchase and exchange bitcoin with real currencies (such as U.S. dollars). The most common ways to obtain bitcoin are through virtual currency ATMs or online exchanges, which typically charge nominal transaction fees.

Once you (or your customers) obtain bitcoin, it can be used to pay for goods or services using “bitcoin wallet” software installed on your computer or mobile device. Some merchants accept bitcoin to avoid transaction fees charged by credit card companies and online payment providers (such as PayPal).

Tax reporting

Virtual currency has triggered many tax-related questions. The IRS has issued limited guidance to address them. In a 2014 guidance, the IRS established that virtual currency should be treated as property, not currency, for federal tax purposes.

As a result, businesses that accept bitcoin payments for goods and services must report gross income based on the fair market value of the virtual currency when it was received. This is measured in equivalent U.S. dollars.

From the buyer’s perspective, purchases made using bitcoin result in a taxable gain if the fair market value of the property received exceeds the buyer’s adjusted basis in the currency exchanged. Conversely, a tax loss is incurred if the fair market value of the property received is less than its adjusted tax basis.

Wages paid using virtual currency are taxable to employees and must be reported by employers on W-2 forms. They’re subject to federal income tax withholding and payroll taxes, based on the fair market value of the virtual currency on the date of receipt.

Virtual currency payments made to independent contractors and other service providers are also taxable. In general, the rules for self-employment tax apply and payers must issue 1099-MISC forms.

IRS campaign

The IRS announced it is sending letters to taxpayers who potentially failed to report income and pay tax on virtual currency transactions or didn’t report them properly. The letters urge taxpayers to review their tax filings and, if appropriate, amend past returns to pay back taxes, interest and penalties.

By the end of August, more than 10,000 taxpayers will receive these letters. The names of the taxpayers were obtained through compliance efforts undertaken by the IRS. The IRS Commissioner warned, “The IRS is expanding our efforts involving virtual currency, including increased use of data analytics.”

Last year, the tax agency also began an audit initiative to address virtual currency noncompliance and has stated that it’s an ongoing focus area for criminal cases.

Implications of going virtual

Contact us if you have questions about the tax considerations of accepting virtual currency or using it to make payments for your business. And if you receive a letter from the IRS about possible noncompliance, consult with us before responding.

© 2019 Covenant CPA

The IRS uses Audit Techniques Guides (ATGs) to help IRS examiners get ready for audits. Your business can use the same guides to gain insight into what the IRS is looking for in terms of compliance with tax laws and regulations.

Many ATGs target specific industries or businesses, such as construction, aerospace, art galleries, child care providers and veterinary medicine. Others address issues that frequently arise in audits, such as executive compensation, passive activity losses and capitalization of tangible property.

How they’re used

IRS auditors need to examine all types of businesses, as well as individual taxpayers and tax-exempt organizations. Each type of return might have unique industry issues, business practices and terminology. Before meeting with taxpayers and their advisors, auditors do their homework to understand various industries or issues, the accounting methods commonly used, how income is received, and areas where taxpayers may not be in compliance.

By using a specific ATG, an auditor may be able to reconcile discrepancies when reported income or expenses aren’t consistent with what’s normal for the industry or to identify anomalies within the geographic area in which the business is located.

For example, one ATG focuses specifically on businesses that deal in cash, such as auto repair shops, car washes, check-cashing operations, gas stations, laundromats, liquor stores, restaurants., bars, and salons. The “Cash Intensive Businesses” ATG tells auditors “a financial status analysis including both business and personal financial activities should be done.” It explains techniques such as:

  • How to examine businesses with and without cash registers,
  • What a company’s books and records may reveal,
  • How to analyze bank deposits and checks written from known bank accounts,
  • What to look for when touring a business,
  • Ways to uncover hidden family transactions,
  • How cash invoices found in an audit of one business may lead to another business trying to hide income by dealing mainly in cash.

Auditors are obviously looking for cash-intensive businesses that underreport their cash receipts but how this is uncovered varies. For example, when examining a restaurants or bar, auditors are told to ask about net profits compared to the industry average, spillage, pouring averages and tipping.

Learn the red flags

Although ATGs were created to help IRS examiners ferret out common methods of hiding income and inflating deductions, they also can help businesses ensure they aren’t engaging in practices that could raise audit red flags. Contact us if you have questions about your business. For a complete list of ATGs, visit the IRS website here: https://bit.ly/2rh7umD

© 2019 Covenant CPA

The IRS just released its audit statistics for the 2018 fiscal year, and fewer taxpayers had their returns examined as compared with prior years. However, even though a small percentage of tax returns are being chosen for audit these days, that will be little consolation if yours is one of them.

Latest statistics

Overall, just 0.59% of individual tax returns were audited in 2018, as compared with 0.62% in 2017. This was the lowest percentage of audits conducted since 2002.

However, as in the past, those with very high incomes face greater odds. For example, in 2018, 2.21% of taxpayers with adjusted gross incomes (AGIs) of between $1 million and $5 million were audited (down from 3.52% in 2017).

The richest taxpayers, those with AGIs of $10 million and more, experienced a steep decline in audits. In 2018, 6.66% of their returns were audited, compared with 14.52% in 2017.

Surviving an audit 

Even though fewer audits are being performed, the IRS will still examine thousands of returns this year. With proper planning, you should fare well even if you’re one of the unlucky ones.

The easiest way to survive an IRS examination is to prepare in advance. On an ongoing basis, you should systematically maintain documentation — invoices, bills, canceled checks, receipts, or other proof — for all items reported on your tax returns.

Just because a return is selected for audit doesn’t mean that an error was made. Some returns are randomly selected based on statistical formulas. For example, IRS computers compare income and deductions on returns with what other taxpayers report. If an individual deducts a charitable contribution that’s significantly higher than what others with similar incomes report, the IRS may want to know why.

Returns can also be selected when they involve issues or transactions with other taxpayers who were previously selected for audit, such as business partners or investors.

The government generally has three years within which to conduct an audit, and often the exam won’t begin until a year or more after you file your return.

More audit details

The scope of an audit depends on the tax return’s complexity. A return reflecting business or real estate income and expenses is likely to take longer to examine than a return with only salary income.

An audit can be conducted by mail or through an in-person interview and review of records. The interview may be conducted at an IRS office or may be a “field audit” at the taxpayer’s home, business, or accountant’s office.

Important:  Even if your return is audited, an IRS examination may be nothing to lose sleep over. In many cases, the IRS asks for proof of certain items and routinely “closes” the audit after the documentation is presented.

Representation 

It’s advisable to have a tax professional represent you at an audit. A tax pro knows what issues the IRS is likely to scrutinize and can prepare accordingly. In addition, a professional knows that in many instances IRS auditors will take a position (for example, to disallow deduction of a certain expense) even though courts and other guidance have expressed a contrary opinion on the issue. Because pros can point to the proper authority, the IRS may be forced to throw in the towel.

If you receive an IRS audit letter or simply want to improve your recordkeeping, we’re here to assist you. Contact us to discuss this or any other aspect of your taxes at 205-345-9898 and info@covenantcpa.com.

© 2019 CovenantCPA

Due to the massive changes in the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act (TCJA), the 2019 filing season resulted in surprises. Some filers who have gotten a refund in past years wound up owing money. The IRS reports that the number of refunds paid this year is down from last year — and the average refund is lower. As of May 10, 2019, the IRS paid out 101,590,000 refunds averaging $2,868. This compares with 102,582,000 refunds paid out in 2018 with an average amount of $2,940.

Of course, receiving a tax refund shouldn’t necessarily be your goal. It essentially means you’re giving the government an interest-free loan.

Law changes and withholding

Last year, the IRS updated the withholding tables that indicate how much employers should hold back from their employees’ paychecks. In general, the amount withheld was reduced. This was done to reflect changes under the TCJA — including the increase in the standard deduction, suspension of personal exemptions and changes in tax rates.

The new tables may have provided the correct amount of tax withholding for some individuals, but they might have caused other taxpayers to not have enough money withheld to pay their ultimate tax liabilities.

Conduct a “paycheck checkup”

The IRS is cautioning taxpayers to review their tax situations for this year and adjust withholding, if appropriate.

The tax agency has a withholding calculator to assist you in conducting a paycheck checkup. The calculator reflects tax law changes in areas such as available itemized deductions, the increased child credit, the new dependent credit and the repeal of dependent exemptions. You can access the IRS calculator at https://bit.ly/2aLxK0A.

Situations where changes are needed

There are a number of situations when you should check your withholding. In addition to tax law changes, the IRS recommends that you perform a checkup if you:

  • Adjusted your withholding in 2018, especially in the middle or later part of the year,
  • Owed additional tax when you filed your 2018 return,
  • Received a refund that was smaller or larger than expected,
  • Got married or divorced, had a child or adopted one,
  • Purchased a home, or
  • Had changes in income.

You can modify your withholding at any time during the year, or even multiple times within a year. To do so, you simply submit a new Form W-4 to your employer. Changes typically go into effect several weeks after a new Form W-4 is submitted. (For estimated tax payments, you can make adjustments each time quarterly estimated payments are due. The next payment is due on Monday, June 17.)

We can help

Contact us to discuss your specific situation and what you can do to remedy any shortfalls to minimize taxes due, as well as any penalties and interest. We can help you sort through whether or not you need to adjust your withholding. 205-345-9898 and info@covenantcpa.com.

© 2019 CovenantCPA

Does your business reimburse employees’ work-related travel expenses? If you do, you know that it can help you attract and retain employees. If you don’t, you might want to start, because changes under the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act (TCJA) make such reimbursements even more attractive to employees. Travel reimbursements also come with tax benefits, but only if you follow a method that passes muster with the IRS.

The TCJA’s impact

Before the TCJA, unreimbursed work-related travel expenses generally were deductible on an employee’s individual tax return (subject to a 50% limit for meals and entertainment) as a miscellaneous itemized deduction. However, many employees weren’t able to benefit from the deduction because either they didn’t itemize deductions or they didn’t have enough miscellaneous itemized expenses to exceed the 2% of adjusted gross income (AGI) floor that applied.

For 2018 through 2025, the TCJA suspends miscellaneous itemized deductions subject to the 2% of AGI floor. That means even employees who itemize deductions and have enough expenses that they would exceed the floor won’t be able to enjoy a tax deduction for business travel. Therefore, business travel expense reimbursements are now more important to employees.

The potential tax benefits

Your business can deduct qualifying reimbursements, and they’re excluded from the employee’s taxable income. The deduction is subject to a 50% limit for meals. But, under the TCJA, entertainment expenses are no longer deductible.

To be deductible and excludable, travel expenses must be legitimate business expenses and the reimbursements must comply with IRS rules. You can use either an accountable plan or the per diem method to ensure compliance.

Reimbursing actual expenses

An accountable plan is a formal arrangement to advance, reimburse or provide allowances for business expenses. To qualify as “accountable,” your plan must meet the following criteria:

  • Payments must be for “ordinary and necessary” business expenses.
  • Employees must substantiate these expenses — including amounts, times and places — ideally at least monthly.
  • Employees must return any advances or allowances they can’t substantiate within a reasonable time, typically 120 days.

The IRS will treat plans that fail to meet these conditions as nonaccountable, transforming all reimbursements into wages taxable to the employee, subject to income taxes (employee) and employment taxes (employer and employee).

Keeping it simple

With the per diem method, instead of tracking actual expenses, you use IRS tables to determine reimbursements for lodging, meals and incidental expenses, or just for meals and incidental expenses, based on location. (If you don’t go with the per diem method for lodging, you’ll need receipts to substantiate those expenses.)

Be sure you don’t pay employees more than the appropriate per diem amount. The IRS imposes heavy penalties on businesses that routinely overpay per diems.

What’s right for your business?

To learn more about business travel expense deductions and reimbursements post-TCJA, contact us at 205-345-9898. We can help you determine whether you should reimburse such expenses and which reimbursement option is better for you.

© 2018 Covenant CPA