If you own or manage a business with employees, you may be at risk for a severe tax penalty. It’s called the “Trust Fund Recovery Penalty” because it applies to the Social Security and income taxes required to be withheld by a business from its employees’ wages.

Because 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 penalty is also sometimes called the “100% penalty” because the person liable and responsible for the taxes will be penalized 100% of the taxes due. Accordingly, the amounts IRS seeks when the penalty is applied are usually substantial, and IRS is very aggressive in enforcing the penalty.

Far-reaching penalty

The Trust Fund Recovery Penalty is among the more dangerous tax penalties because it applies to a broad range of actions and to a wide range of people involved in a business.

Here are some answers to questions about the penalty so you can safely stay clear of it.

Which actions are penalized? The Trust Fund Recovery Penalty applies to any willful failure to collect, or truthfully account for, and pay over Social Security and income taxes required to be withheld from employees’ wages.

Who is at risk? The penalty can be imposed on anyone “responsible” for collection and payment of the tax. 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 with such a duty. Even voluntary board members of tax-exempt organizations, who are generally excepted from responsibility, can be subject to this penalty under certain circumstances. In addition, in some cases, responsibility has been extended to family members close to the business, and to attorneys and accountants.

IRS says responsibility is a matter of status, duty and authority. Anyone with the power to see that the taxes are (or aren’t) paid may be responsible. There’s often more than one responsible person in a business, but each is at risk for the entire penalty. Although a taxpayer held liable can sue other responsible people for contribution, this is an action he or she must take entirely on his or her own after he or she pays the penalty. It isn’t part of the IRS collection process.

Here’s how broadly the net can be cast: You may not be directly involved with the payroll tax withholding process in your business. But if you learn of a failure to pay over withheld taxes and have the power to pay them but instead make payments to creditors and others, you become a responsible person.

What’s considered “willful?” For actions to be willful, they don’t have to include an overt intent to evade taxes. Simply bending to business pressures and paying bills or obtaining supplies instead of paying over withheld taxes that are due the government is willful behavior. And just because you delegate responsibilities to someone else doesn’t necessarily mean you’re off the hook. Your failure to take care of the job yourself can be treated as the willful element.

Avoiding the penalty

You should never allow any failure to withhold and any “borrowing” from withheld amounts — regardless of the circumstances. All funds withheld must also be paid over to the government. Contact us for information about the penalty and making tax payments.

© 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

If you operate a small business, or you’re starting a new one, you probably know you need to keep records of your income and expenses. In particular, you should carefully record your expenses in order to claim the full amount of the tax deductions to which you’re entitled. And you want to make sure you can defend the amounts reported on your tax returns if you’re ever audited by the IRS or state tax agencies.

Certain types of expenses, such as automobile, travel, meals and office-at-home expenses, require special attention because they’re subject to special recordkeeping requirements or limitations on deductibility.

It’s interesting to note that there’s not one way to keep business records. In its publication “Starting a Business and Keeping Records,” the IRS states: “Except in a few cases, the law does not require any specific kind of records. You can choose any recordkeeping system suited to your business that clearly shows your income and expenses.”

That being said, many taxpayers don’t make the grade when it comes to recordkeeping. Here are three court cases to illustrate some of the issues.

Case 1: Without records, the IRS can reconstruct your income

If a taxpayer is audited and doesn’t have good records, the IRS can perform a “bank-deposits analysis” to reconstruct income. It assumes that all money deposited in accounts during a given period is taxable income. That’s what happened in the case of the business owner of a coin shop and precious metals business. The owner didn’t agree with the amount of income the IRS attributed to him after it conducted a bank-deposits analysis.

But the U.S. Tax Court noted that if the taxpayer kept adequate records, “he could have avoided the bank-deposits analysis altogether.” Because he didn’t, the court found the bank analysis was appropriate and the owner underreported his business income for the year. (TC Memo 2020-4)

Case 2: Expenses must be business related

In another case, an independent insurance agent’s claims for a variety of business deductions were largely denied. The Tax Court found that he had documentation in the form of cancelled checks and credit card statements that showed expenses were paid. But there was no proof of a business purpose.

For example, he made utility payments for natural gas, electricity, water and sewer, but the records didn’t show whether the services were for his business or his home. (TC Memo 2020-25)

Case number 3: No records could mean no deductions

In this case, married taxpayers were partners in a travel agency and owners of a marketing company. The IRS denied their deductions involving auto expenses, gifts, meals and travel because of insufficient documentation. The couple produced no evidence about the business purpose of gifts they had given. In addition, their credit card statements and other information didn’t detail the time, place, and business relationship for meal expenses or indicate that travel was conducted for business purposes.

“The disallowed deductions in this case are directly attributable to (the taxpayer’s) failure to maintain adequate records,“ the court stated. (TC Memo 2020-7)

We can help

Contact us if you need assistance retaining adequate business records. Taking a meticulous, proactive approach to how you keep records can protect your deductions and help make an audit much less painful.

© 2020 Covenant CPA

The IRS recently released the 2021 inflation-adjusted amounts for Health Savings Accounts (HSAs). 

HSA basics

An HSA is a trust created or organized exclusively for the purpose of paying the “qualified medical expenses” of an “account beneficiary.” An HSA can only be established for the benefit of an “eligible individual” who is covered under a “high deductible health plan.” In addition, a participant can’t be enrolled in Medicare or have other health coverage (exceptions include dental, vision, long-term care, accident and specific disease insurance).

In general, a high deductible health plan (HDHP) is a plan that has an annual deductible that isn’t less than $1,000 for self-only coverage and $2,000 for family coverage. In addition, the sum of the annual deductible and other annual out-of-pocket expenses required to be paid under the plan for covered benefits (but not for premiums) cannot exceed $5,000 for self-only coverage, and $10,000 for family coverage.

Within specified dollar limits, an above-the-line tax deduction is allowed for an individual’s contribution to an HSA. This annual contribution limitation and the annual deductible and out-of-pocket expenses under the tax code are adjusted annually for inflation.

Inflation adjustments for 2021 contributions

In Revenue Procedure 2020-32, the IRS released the 2021 inflation-adjusted figures for contributions to HSAs, which are as follows:

Annual contribution limitation. For calendar year 2021, the annual contribution limitation for an individual with self-only coverage under a HDHP is $3,600. For an individual with family coverage, the amount is $7,200. This is up from $3,550 and $7,100, respectively, for 2020.

High deductible health plan defined. For calendar year 2021, an HDHP is a health plan with an annual deductible that isn’t less than $1,400 for self-only coverage or $2,800 for family coverage (these amounts are unchanged from 2020). In addition, annual out-of-pocket expenses (deductibles, co-payments, and other amounts, but not premiums) can’t exceed $7,000 for self-only coverage or $14,000 for family coverage (up from $6,900 and $13,800, respectively, for 2020).

A variety of benefits

There are many advantages to HSAs. Contributions to the accounts are made on a pre-tax basis. The money can accumulate year after year tax free and be withdrawn tax free to pay for a variety of medical expenses such as doctor visits, prescriptions, chiropractic care and premiums for long-term-care insurance. In addition, an HSA is “portable.” It stays with an account holder if he or she changes employers or leaves the work force. For more information about HSAs, contact your employee benefits and tax advisor.

© 2020 Covenant CPA

As a result of the coronavirus (COVID-19) crisis, your business may be using independent contractors to keep costs low. But you should be careful that these workers are properly classified for federal tax purposes. If the IRS reclassifies them as employees, it can be an expensive mistake.

The question of whether a worker is an independent contractor or an employee for federal income and employment tax purposes is a complex one. If a worker is an employee, your company must withhold federal income and payroll taxes, pay the employer’s share of FICA taxes on the wages, plus FUTA tax. Often, a business must also provide the worker with the fringe benefits that it makes available to other employees. And there may be state tax obligations as well.

These obligations don’t apply if a worker is an independent contractor. In that case, the business simply sends the contractor a Form 1099-MISC for the year showing the amount paid (if the amount is $600 or more).

No uniform definition

Who is an “employee?” Unfortunately, there’s no uniform definition of the term.

The IRS and courts have generally ruled that individuals are employees if the organization they work for has the right to control and direct them in the jobs they’re performing. Otherwise, the individuals are generally independent contractors. But other factors are also taken into account.

Some employers that have misclassified workers as independent contractors may get some relief from employment tax liabilities under Section 530. In general, this protection applies only if an employer:

  • Filed all federal returns consistent with its treatment of a worker as a contractor,
  • Treated all similarly situated workers as contractors, and
  • Had a “reasonable basis” for not treating the worker as an employee. For example, a “reasonable basis” exists if a significant segment of the employer’s industry traditionally treats similar workers as contractors.

Note: Section 530 doesn’t apply to certain types of technical services workers. And some categories of individuals are subject to special rules because of their occupations or identities.

Asking for a determination

Under certain circumstances, you may want to ask the IRS (on Form SS-8) to rule on whether a worker is an independent contractor or employee. However, be aware that the IRS has a history of classifying workers as employees rather than independent contractors.

Businesses should consult with us before filing Form SS-8 because it may alert the IRS that your business has worker classification issues — and inadvertently trigger an employment tax audit.

It may be better to properly treat a worker as an independent contractor so that the relationship complies with the tax rules.

Be aware that workers who want an official determination of their status can also file Form SS-8. Disgruntled independent contractors may do so because they feel entitled to employee benefits and want to eliminate self-employment tax liabilities.

If a worker files Form SS-8, the IRS will send a letter to the business. It identifies the worker and includes a blank Form SS-8. The business is asked to complete and return the form to the IRS, which will render a classification decision.

Contact us if you receive such a letter or if you’d like to discuss how these complex rules apply to your business. We can help ensure that none of your workers are misclassified.

© 2020 Covenant CPA

In the midst of the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic, Americans are focusing on their health and financial well-being. To help with the impact facing many people, the government has provided a range of relief. Here are some new announcements made by the IRS.

More deadlines extended

As you probably know, the IRS postponed the due dates for certain federal income tax payments — but not all of them. New guidance now expands on the filing and payment relief for individuals, estates, corporations and others.

Under IRS Notice 2020-23, nearly all tax payments and filings that would otherwise be due between April 1 and July 15, 2020, are now postponed to July 15, 2020. Most importantly, this would include any fiscal year tax returns due between those dates and any estimated tax payments due between those dates, such as the June 15 estimated tax payment deadline for individual taxpayers.

Economic Impact Payments for nonfilers

You have also likely heard about the cash payments the federal government is making to individuals under certain income thresholds. The Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act will provide an eligible individual with a cash payment equal to the sum of: $1,200 ($2,400 for eligible married couples filing jointly) plus $500 for each qualifying child. Eligibility is based on adjusted gross income (AGI).

On its Twitter account, the IRS announced that it deposited the first Economic Impact Payments into taxpayers’ bank accounts on April 11. “We know many people are anxious to get their payments; we’ll continue issuing them as fast as we can,” the tax agency added.

The IRS has announced additional details about these payments:

  • “Eligible taxpayers who filed tax returns for 2019 or 2018 will receive the payments automatically,” the IRS stated. Automatic payments will also go out to those people receiving Social Security retirement, survivors or disability benefits and Railroad Retirement benefits.
  • There’s a new online tool on the IRS website for people who didn’t file a 2018 or 2019 federal tax return because they didn’t have enough income or otherwise weren’t required to file. These people can provide the IRS with basic information (Social Security number, name, address and dependents) so they can receive their payments. You can access the tool here: https://bit.ly/2JXBOvM

This only describes new details in a couple of the COVID-19 assistance provisions. Members of Congress are discussing another relief package so additional help may be on the way. We’ll keep you updated. Contact us if you have tax or financial questions during this challenging time.

© 2020 Covenant CPA

The IRS has issued guidance providing relief from failure to make employment tax deposits for employers that are entitled to the refundable tax credits provided under two laws passed in response to the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic. The two laws are the Families First Coronavirus Response Act, which was signed on March 18, 2020, and the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act (CARES) Act, which was signed on March 27, 2020.

Employment tax penalty basics

The tax code imposes a penalty for any failure to deposit amounts as required on the date prescribed, unless such failure is due to reasonable cause rather than willful neglect.

An employer’s failure to deposit certain federal employment taxes, including deposits of withheld income taxes and taxes under the Federal Insurance Contributions Act (FICA) is generally subject to a penalty.

COVID-19 relief credits

Employers paying qualified sick leave wages and qualified family leave wages required by the Families First Act, as well as qualified health plan expenses allocable to qualified leave wages, are eligible for refundable tax credits under the Families First Act.

Specifically, provisions of the Families First Act provide a refundable tax credit against an employer’s share of the Social Security portion of FICA tax for each calendar quarter, in an amount equal to 100% of qualified leave wages paid by the employer (plus qualified health plan expenses with respect to that calendar quarter).

Additionally, under the CARES Act, certain employers are also allowed a refundable tax credit under the CARES Act of up to 50% of the qualified wages, including allocable qualified health expenses if they are experiencing:

  • A full or partial business suspension due to orders from governmental authorities due to COVID-19, or
  • A specified decline in business.

This credit is limited to $10,000 per employee over all calendar quarters combined.

An employer paying qualified leave wages or qualified retention wages can seek an advance payment of the related tax credits by filing Form 7200, Advance Payment of Employer Credits Due to COVID-19.

Available relief

The Families First Act and the CARES Act waive the penalty for failure to deposit the employer share of Social Security tax in anticipation of the allowance of the refundable tax credits allowed under the two laws.

IRS Notice 2020-22 provides that an employer won’t be subject to a penalty for failing to deposit employment taxes related to qualified leave wages or qualified retention wages in a calendar quarter if certain requirements are met. Contact us for more information about whether you can take advantage of this relief.

More breaking news

Be aware the IRS also just extended more federal tax deadlines. The extension, detailed in Notice 2020-23, involves a variety of tax form filings and payment obligations due between April 1 and July 15. It includes estimated tax payments due June 15 and the deadline to claim refunds from 2016. The extended deadlines cover individuals, estates, corporations and others. In addition, the guidance suspends associated interest, additions to tax, and penalties for late filing or late payments until July 15, 2020. Previously, the IRS postponed the due dates for certain federal income tax payments. The new guidance expands on the filing and payment relief. Contact us if you have questions.

© 2020 Covenant CPA

The IRS has issued final regulations that should provide comfort to taxpayers interested in making large gifts under the current gift and estate tax regime. The final regs generally adopt, with some revisions, proposed regs that the IRS released in November 2018.

The need for clarification

The Tax Cuts and Jobs Act (TCJA) temporarily doubled the gift and estate tax exemption from $5 million to $10 million for gifts made or estates of decedents dying after Dec. 31, 2017, and before Jan. 1, 2026. The exemption is adjusted annually for inflation ($11.40 million for 2019 and $11.58 million for 2020). After 2025, though, the exemption is scheduled to drop back to pre-2018 levels.

With the estate tax a flat 40%, the higher threshold for tax-free transfers of wealth would seem to be great news, but some taxpayers became worried about a so-called “clawback” if they die after 2025. Specifically, they wondered if they would lose the tax benefit of the higher exemption amount if they didn’t die before the exemption returned to the lower amount.

The concern was that a taxpayer would make gifts during his or her lifetime based on the higher exemption, only to have their credit calculated based on the amount in effect at the time of death. To address this fear, the final regs provide a special rule for such circumstances that allows the estate to compute its estate tax credit using the higher of the exemption amount applicable to gifts made during life or the amount applicable on the date of death.

Examples

Let’s say that you made $9 million in taxable gifts in 2019, while the exemption amount of $11.40 million is in effect. But you die after 2025, when the exemption drops to $6.8 million ($5 million adjusted for inflation).

Under the new regs, the credit applied to compute the estate tax is based on the $9 million of the $11.4 million exemption used to compute the gift tax credit. In other words, your estate won’t have to pay tax on the $2.2 million in gifts that exceeds the exemption amount at death ($9 million less $6.8 million), and the credit to the estate tax will reflect the $2.4 million of the amount remaining after the gifts were made ($11.4 million less $9 million).

If, however, you made taxable gifts of only $4 million, the new regs won’t apply. The total amounts allowable as a credit when calculating the gift tax ($4 million) is less than the credit based on the $6.8 million exemption amount at death. So, the estate tax credit is based on the exemption amount at death, rather than the amount under the TCJA.

Act now

Even though the TCJA and the final regs provide a strong tax incentive to transfer assets, it’s important to remember that the offer is “use it or lose it.” The new regs apply only to gifts made during the 2018-2025 period, so contact us now to formalize your gifting strategies.

© 2019 Covenant CPA

The number of people engaged in the “gig” or sharing economy has grown in recent years, according to a 2019 IRS report. And there are tax consequences for the people who perform these jobs, such as providing car rides, renting spare bedrooms, delivering food, walking dogs or providing other services.

Basically, if you receive income from one of the online platforms offering goods and services, it’s generally taxable. That’s true even if the income comes from a side job and even if you don’t receive an income statement reporting the amount of money you made.

IRS report details

The IRS recently released a report examining two decades of tax returns and titled “Is Gig Work Replacing Traditional Employment?” It found that “alternative, non-employee work arrangements” grew by 1.9% from 2000 to 2016 and more than half of the increase from 2013 to 2016 could be attributed to gig work mediated through online labor platforms.

The tax agency concluded that “traditional” work arrangements are not being supplanted by independent contract arrangements reported on 1099s. Most gig work is done by individuals as side jobs that supplement their traditional jobs. In addition, the report found that the people doing gig work via online platforms tend to be male, single, younger than other self-employed people and have experienced unemployment in that year.

Gig worker characteristics

The IRS considers gig workers as those who are independent contractors and conduct their jobs through online platforms. Examples include Uber, Lyft, Airbnb and DoorDash.

Unlike traditional employees, independent contractors don’t receive benefits associated with employment or employer-sponsored health insurance. They also aren’t covered by the minimum wage or other protections of federal laws, aren’t part of states’ unemployment insurance systems, and are on their own when it comes to training, retirement savings and taxes.

Tax responsibilities

If you’re part of the gig or sharing economy, here are some considerations.

  1. You may need to make quarterly estimated tax payments because your income isn’t subject to withholding. These payments are generally due on April 15, June 15, September 15 and January 15 of the following year.
  2. You should receive a Form 1099-MISC, Miscellaneous Income, a Form 1099-K or other income statement from the online platform.
  3. Some or all of your business expenses may be deductible on your tax return, subject to the normal tax limitations and rules. For example, if you provide rides with your own car, you may be able to deduct depreciation for wear and tear and deterioration of the vehicle. Be aware that if you rent a room in your main home or vacation home, the rules for deducting expenses can be complex.

Recordkeeping

It’s critical to keep good records tracking income and expenses in case you are audited. Contact us if you have questions about your tax obligations as a gig worker or the deductions you can claim. You don’t want to get an unwelcome surprise when you file your tax return next year.

© 2019 Covenant CPA

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