With the federal gift and estate tax exemption now at a record high $11.58 million for 2020, most estates aren’t taxable. But that doesn’t mean making lifetime gifts isn’t without significant benefits — even if your estate isn’t taxable under the current rules. Let’s examine reasons why gifting remains an important part of estate planning.
Lifetime gifts reduce estate taxes
If your estate exceeds the exemption amount — or you believe it will in the future — regular lifetime gifts can substantially reduce your estate tax bill. The annual gift tax exclusion allows you to give up to $15,000 per recipient annually tax-free without using up any of your gift and estate tax exemption. In addition, direct payments of tuition or medical expenses on behalf of your loved ones are excluded from gift tax.
Taxable gifts — meaning gifts beyond the annual exclusion amount and not eligible for the tuition and medical expense exclusion — can also reduce estate tax liability by removing future appreciation from your taxable estate. You may be better off paying gift tax on an asset’s current value rather than estate tax on its appreciated value down the road.
When gifting appreciable assets, however, be sure to consider the potential income tax implications. Property transferred at death receives a “stepped-up basis” equal to its date-of-death fair market value, which means the recipient can turn around and sell the property free of capital gains taxes. Property transferred during life retains your tax basis, so it’s important to weigh the estate tax savings against the potential income tax costs.
Tax laws aren’t permanent
Even if your estate is within the exemption amount now, it pays to make regular gifts. Why? Because even though the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act doubled the exemption amount, and that amount will be adjusted annually for inflation, the doubling expires after 2025. Without further legislation, the exemption will return to an inflation-adjusted $5 million in 2026.
The good news is that the IRS issued final regulations in late 2019 that should provide comfort to taxpayers interested in making large gifts under the current gift and estate tax regime. 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.
Gifts provide nontax benefits
Tax planning aside, there are other reasons to make lifetime gifts. For example, perhaps you wish to use gifting to shape your family members’ behavior — for example, by providing gifts to those who attend college.
Regardless of the amount of your wealth, consider a program of regular lifetime giving. We can help you devise and incorporate a gifting program as part of your estate plan.
© 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
If your marketing budget is limited, there may be ways to make that money go further. Smart strategies abound for small to midsize businesses. Let’s look at a few ideas for stretching your marketing dollars a bit further.
Check out the big guys
Look to larger companies for ideas on how to improve and amp up your marketing tactics. Big businesses use many different types of campaigns and sometimes their big-budget approaches can be distilled down to lower-cost alternatives. Think of it as a “competitive intelligence” effort with the emphasis more on “intelligence” than “competitive.”
Maybe you can’t develop an app with a robust rewards system like coffee giant Starbucks. But you could still come up with a loyalty reward campaign using punch cards or some other mechanism.
If your company is one that depends on local customers or clients, make sure you’re doing everything possible to target that audience. Get hyperlocal! This approach tends to be particularly well-suited to businesses that rely on foot traffic, but it can work for any company capable of leveraging the distinctive aspects of its local community.
Don’t neglect the value of location-driven advertising, such as signage on vehicles that travel locally. Increase your presence on social media apps or pages focused on local communities. You may not want to blatantly advertise there, but you could participate in discussions, answer questions, and respond quickly to complaints or misinformation.
This is perhaps the most creative way to engage in low-cost marketing efforts. In short, guerilla marketing is putting your company’s brand in the public eye in an unconventional way. It doesn’t always work but, when it does, people will recognize and remember you for quite a while.
One example is using vacant space, generally in urban areas, to put up marketing “graffiti.” (Obviously we’re talking about doing so legally.) You might engage a budding art student to create an eye-catching display featuring your logo and perhaps one of your products to draw attention. There are also ways to execute digital guerilla marketing, such as creating a viral video or humorous social media account. Just be careful: such campaigns can often misfire and result in embarrassing public relations incidents. Get plenty of outside advice, including legal counsel.
Try some variety
Many businesses get so focused on one marketing approach that they miss out on many other ways to attract the attention of new customers and maintain visibility among existing ones. Remember, variety is the spice of life — and it may not be as expensive as you think. We can assist you in assessing the potential costs and likely success of any marketing effort you’re considering.
© 2019 Covenant CPA
Many businesses have a life cycle that, as life cycles tend to do, concludes with a period of decline and failure. Often, the demise of a company is driven by internal factors — such as weak financial oversight, lack of management consensus or one-person rule.
External factors typically contribute, as well. These may include disruptive competitors; local, national or global economic changes; or a more restrictive regulatory environment.
But just because bad things happen doesn’t mean they have to happen to your company. To prepare for the worst, identify a business turnaround strategy that you can implement if a severe decline suddenly becomes imminent.
When a company is drifting toward serious trouble, there are usually warning signs. Examples include:
- Serious deterioration in the accuracy or usage of financial measurements,
- Poor results of key performance indicators — including working capital to assets, sales and retained earnings to assets, and book value to debt,
- Adverse trends, such as lower margins, market share or working capital,
- Rapid increase in debt and employee turnover, and
- Drastic reduction in assessed business value.
Not every predicament that arises will threaten the very existence of your business. But when missteps and misfortune build up, the only thing that may save the company is a well-planned turnaround strategy.
5 stages of a turnaround
No two turnarounds are exactly alike, but they generally occur in five basic stages:
- Rapid assessment of the decline by external advisors,
- Re-evaluation of management and staffing,
- Emergency intervention to stabilize the business,
- Operational restoration to pursue or achieve profitability, and
- Full recovery and growth.
Each of these stages calls for a detailed action plan. Identify the advisors or even a dedicated turnaround consultant who can help you assess the damage and execute immediate moves. Prepare for the possibility that you’ll need to replace some managers and even lay off staff to reduce employment costs.
In the emergency intervention stage, a business does whatever is necessary to survive — including consolidating debt, closing locations and selling off assets. Next, restoring operations and pursuing profitability usually means scaling back to only those business segments that have achieved, or can achieve, decent gross margins.
Last, you’ll need to establish a baseline of profitability that equates to full recovery. From there, you can choose reasonable growth strategies that will move the company forward without leading it over another cliff.
In case of emergency
If your business is doing fine, there’s no need to create a minutely detailed turnaround plan. But, as part of your strategic planning efforts, it’s still a good idea to outline a general turnaround strategy to keep on hand in case of emergency. Our firm can help you devise either strategy. We can also assist you in generating financial statements and monitoring key performance indicators that help enable you to avoid crises altogether. 205-345-9898, email@example.com.
© 2019 CovenantCPA
In the broadest sense, strategic planning comprises two primary tasks: establishing goals and achieving them. Many business owners would probably say the first part, coming up with objectives, is relatively easy. It’s that second part — accomplishing those goals — that can really challenge a company. The key to turning your strategic objectives into a reality is a solid implementation plan.
Start with people
After clearly identifying short- and long-range goals under a viable strategic planning process, you need to establish a formal plan for carrying it out. The most important aspect of this plan is getting the right people involved.
First, appoint an implementation leader and give him or her the authority, responsibility and accountability to communicate and champion your stated objectives. (If yours is a smaller business, you could oversee implementation yourself.)
Next, establish teams of carefully selected employees with specific duties and timelines under which to complete goal-related projects. Choose employees with the experience, will and energy to implement the plan. These teams should deliver regular progress reports to you and the implementation leader.
Watch out for roadblocks
On the surface, these steps may seem logical and foolproof. But let’s delve into what could go wrong with such a clearly defined process.
One typical problem arises when an implementation team is composed of employees wholly or largely from one department. Often, they’ll (inadvertently or intentionally) execute an objective in such a way that mostly benefits their department but ultimately hinders the company from meeting the intended goal.
To avoid this, create teams with a diversity of employees from across various departments. For example, an objective related to expanding your company’s customer base will naturally need to include members of the sales and marketing departments. But also invite administrative, production and IT staff to ensure the team’s actions are operationally practical and sustainable.
Another common roadblock is running into money problems. Ensure your implementation plan is feasible based on your company’s budget, revenue projections, and local and national economic forecasts. Ask teams to include expense reports and financial projections in their regular reports. If you determine that you can’t (or shouldn’t) implement the plan as written, don’t hesitate to revise or eliminate some goals.
Succeed at the important part
Strategic planning may seem to be “all about the ideas,” but implementing the specific goals related to your strategic plan is really the most important part of the process. Of course, it’s also the most difficult and most affected by outside forces. We can help you assess the financial feasibility of your objectives and design an implementation plan with the highest odds of success. Call or email us today 205-345-9898, firstname.lastname@example.org.
© 2019 CovenantCPA
The promise of the new year lies ahead. One way to help ensure it’s a profitable one is to re-evaluate your company’s pricing strategy. You need to devise an approach that considers more than just what it cost you to produce a product or deliver a service; it also must factor in what customers want and value — and how much money they’re willing to spend. Then you need to evaluate how competitors price and position their offerings.
Doing your homework
Optimal pricing decisions don’t occur in a vacuum; they require market research. Examples of economical ways smaller businesses can research their customers and competitors include:
- Conducting informal focus groups with top customers,
- Sending online surveys to prospective, existing and defecting customers,
- Monitoring social media reviews, and
- Sending free trials in exchange for customer feedback.
It’s also smart to investigate your competitors’ pricing strategies using ethical means. For example, the owner of a restaurant might eat a meal at each of her local competitors to evaluate the menu, decor and service. Or a manufacturer might visit competitors’ websites and purchase comparable products to evaluate quality, timeliness and customer service.
Charging a premium
Remember, low-cost pricing isn’t the only way to compete — in fact, it can be disastrous for small players in an industry dominated by large conglomerates. Your business can charge higher prices than competitors do if customers think your products and services offer enhanced value.
Suppose you survey customers and discover that they associate your brand with high quality and superior features. If your target market is more image conscious than budget conscious, you can set a premium price to differentiate your offerings. You’ll probably sell fewer units than your low-cost competitors but earn a higher margin on each unit sold. Premium prices also work for novel or exclusive products that are currently available from few competitors — or, if customers are drawn to the reputation, unique skills or charisma that specific owners or employees possess.
Going in low
Sometimes setting a low price, at least temporarily, does make sense. It can drive competitors out of the market and build your market share — or help you survive adverse market conditions. Being a low-cost leader enables your business to capture market share and possibly lower costs through economies of scale. But you’ll earn a lower margin on each unit sold.
Another approach is to discount some loss leader products to draw in buyers and establish brand loyalty in the hope that customers will subsequently buy complementary products and services at higher margins. You also may decide to offer discounts when seasonal demand is low or when you want to get rid of less popular models to lower inventory carrying costs.
Evolving over time
Do your prices really reflect customer demand and market conditions? Pricing shouldn’t be static — it should evolve with your business and its industry. Whether you’re pricing a new product or service for the first time or reviewing your existing pricing strategy, we can help you analyze the pertinent factors and make an optimal decision. Call us today at 205-345-9898.
© 2018 Covenant CPA