If you file a joint tax return with your spouse, you should be aware of your individual liability. And if you’re getting divorced, you should know that there may be relief available if the IRS comes after you for certain past-due taxes.

What’s “joint and several” liability?

When a married couple files a joint tax return, each spouse is “jointly and severally” liable for the full tax amount on the couple’s combined income. That means the IRS can come after either spouse to collect the entire tax — not just the part that’s attributed to one spouse or the other. Liability includes any tax deficiency that the IRS assesses after an audit, as well as penalties and interest. (However, the civil fraud penalty can be imposed only on spouses who’ve actually committed fraud.)

When are spouses “innocent?”

In some cases, spouses are eligible for “innocent spouse relief.” This generally involves individuals who didn’t know about a tax understatement that was attributable to the other spouse.

To be eligible, you must show that you were unaware of the understatement and there was nothing that should have made you suspicious. In addition, the circumstances must make it inequitable to hold you liable for the tax. This relief may be available even if you’re still married and living with your spouse.

In addition, spouses may be able to limit liability for a tax deficiency on a joint return if they’re widowed, divorced, legally separated or have lived apart for at least one year.

How can liability be limited?

In some cases, a spouse can elect to limit liability for a deficiency on a joint return to just his or her allocable portion of the deficiency. If you make this election, the tax items that gave rise to the deficiency will be allocated between you and your spouse as if you’d filed separate returns.

The election won’t provide relief from your spouse’s tax items if the IRS proves that you knew about the items when you signed the tax return — unless you can show that you signed it under duress. Also, liability will be increased by the value of any assets that your spouse transferred to you in order to avoid the tax.

What is an “injured” spouse?

In addition to innocent spouse relief, there’s also relief for “injured” spouses. What’s the difference? An injured spouse claim asks the IRS to allocate part of a joint tax refund to one spouse. In these cases, one spouse has all or part of a refund from a joint return applied against certain past-due taxes, child or spousal support, or federal nontax debts (such as student loans) owed by the other spouse. If you’re an injured spouse, you may be entitled to recoup your refund share.

Whether, and to what extent, you can take advantage of the above relief depends on your situation. If you’re interested in trying to obtain relief, there’s paperwork that must be filed and deadlines that must be met. We can assist you with the details.

Also, keep “joint and several liability” in mind when filing future tax returns. Even if a joint return results in less tax, you may want to file a separate return if you want to be responsible only for your own tax.

© 2020 Covenant CPA

Do you own a business but haven’t gotten around to setting up a tax-advantaged retirement plan? Fortunately, it’s not too late to establish one and reduce your 2019 tax bill. A Simplified Employee Pension (SEP) can still be set up for 2019, and you can make contributions to it that you can deduct on your 2019 income tax return. Even better, SEPs keep administrative costs low.

Deadlines for contributions

A SEP can be set up as late as the due date (including extensions) of your income tax return for the tax year for which the SEP first applies. That means you can establish a SEP for 2019 in 2020 as long as you do it before your 2019 return filing deadline. You have until the same deadline to make 2019 contributions and still claim a potentially substantial deduction on your 2019 return.

Generally, most other types of retirement plans would have to have been established by December 31, 2019, in order for 2019 contributions to be made (though many of these plans do allow 2019 contributions to be made in 2020).

Contributions are optional

With a SEP, you can decide how much to contribute each year. You aren’t required to make any certain minimum contributions annually.

However, if your business has employees other than you:

  • Contributions must be made for all eligible employees using the same percentage of compensation as for yourself, and
  • Employee accounts must be immediately 100% vested.

The contributions go into SEP-IRAs established for each eligible employee. As the employer, you’ll get a current income tax deduction for contributions you make on behalf of your employees. Your employees won’t be taxed when the contributions are made, but at a later date when distributions are made — usually in retirement.

For 2019, the maximum contribution that can be made to a SEP-IRA is 25% of compensation (or 20% of self-employed income net of the self-employment tax deduction), subject to a contribution cap of $56,000. (The 2020 cap is $57,000.)

How to proceed

To set up a SEP, you complete and sign the simple Form 5305-SEP (“Simplified Employee Pension — Individual Retirement Accounts Contribution Agreement”). You don’t need to file Form 5305-SEP with the IRS, but you should keep it as part of your permanent tax records. A copy of Form 5305-SEP must be given to each employee covered by the SEP, along with a disclosure statement.

Although there are rules and limits that apply to SEPs beyond what we’ve discussed here, SEPs generally are much simpler to administer than other retirement plans. Contact us with any questions you have about SEPs and to discuss whether it makes sense for you to set one up for 2019 (or 2020).

© 2020 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

Once your 2018 tax return has been successfully filed with the IRS, you may still have some questions. Here are brief answers to three questions that we’re frequently asked at this time of year.

Question #1: What tax records can I throw away now? 

At a minimum, keep tax records related to your return for as long as the IRS can audit your return or assess additional taxes. In general, the statute of limitations is three years after you file your return. So you can generally get rid of most records related to tax returns for 2015 and earlier years. (If you filed an extension for your 2015 return, hold on to your records until at least three years from when you filed the extended return.)

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

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

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

Question #2: Where’s my refund?

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

Question #3: Can I still collect a refund if I forgot to report something?

In general, you can file an amended tax return and claim a refund within three years after the date you filed your original return or within two years of the date you paid the tax, whichever is later. So for a 2018 tax return that you filed on April 15 of 2019, you can generally file an amended return until April 15, 2022.

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

We can help

Contact us if you have questions about tax record retention, your refund or filing an amended return. We’re available all year long — not just at tax filing time! 205-345-9898 and info@covenantcpa.com.

© 2019 CovenantCPA

For brick-and-mortar retailers, return fraud can be a serious financial threat. There are several types of schemes. But when they’re successful, they all end the same way: Stores issue refunds that they shouldn’t have. Here’s what to look for and how to limit losses.

Myriad schemes

Return fraud perpetrators could be customers, employees or even a criminal gang working with employee accomplices. In perhaps the most common scheme, an individual steals merchandise, and then returns it and insists on a cash refund, despite the lack of a receipt. Or a criminal steals merchandise from one retailer and then returns it to another for a cash refund.

Some thieves do supply receipts — but they’re fake. The “customer” hands over an altered or completely counterfeit receipt that the original payment was made in cash. The retailer then issues a full cash refund.

Other return fraud schemes might involve:

Stolen cards. The thief makes a purchase using a stolen credit card. He or she then returns the merchandise, usually on the same day (before the actual cardholder disputes the charge). The goal is a full cash refund.

Damaged goods. Instead of returning merchandise in new, as-sold condition, customers return items that are worn, damaged or broken. They distract the employee processing the refund from closely scrutinizing the merchandise with conversation or other diversions.

Crooked workers. An employee discounts merchandise and sells it to an accomplice who subsequently returns it to the same employee for a refund at full price. Workers might also steal merchandise and then instruct their accomplices to return it without a receipt for a cash refund.

Reducing crime

You can reduce the incidence of return fraud by making it hard for thieves to get their hands on cash. Issue refunds only when they’re accompanied by an original receipt and only to credit cards. Scan receipts into your point of sale system to ensure they were produced by your store’s registers. If a purchase wasn’t made with a credit card — or if the customer doesn’t have the card on hand — refund it with a store credit. You may also want to ask the customer to produce identification.

To help limit employee-perpetrated return fraud, install security cameras, ensure strong management oversight and provide a confidential fraud reporting hotline. In addition, monitor the frequency and value of returns processed by individual cashiers and investigate employees with higher-than-average return numbers.

Walking a thin line

Although you don’t want to encourage crooks, you may think a generous return policy is essential to providing superior customer service. So that you don’t alienate legitimate customers, state your return policies clearly at every cash register and on every receipt. And contact us for help writing a policy that balances all your priorities. 205-345-9898 or info@covenantcpa.com.

© 2019 CovenantCPA