The Chances of an IRS Audit are Low, but Business Owners Should Be Prepared

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

Measuring Fair Value for Financial Reporting

Two hands holding a caliper, measuring the word “Improvement”.

Business assets are generally reported at the lower of cost or market value. Under this accounting principle, certain assets are reported at fair value, such as asset retirement obligations and derivatives.

Fair value also comes into play in M&A transactions. That is, if one company acquires another, the buyer must allocate the purchase price of the target company to its assets and liabilities. This allocation requires the valuation of identifiable intangible assets that weren’t on the target company’s balance sheet, such as brands, patents, customer lists and goodwill.

What is fair value?

Under U.S. Generally Accepted Accounting Principles (GAAP), fair value is “the price that would be received to sell an asset or paid to transfer a liability in an orderly transaction between market participants at the measurement date.” Though this term is similar to “fair market value,” which is defined in IRS Revenue Ruling 59-60, the terms aren’t synonymous.

The FASB chose the term “fair value” to prevent companies from applying IRS regulations or guidance and U.S. Tax Court precedent when valuing assets and liabilities for financial reporting purposes.

The FASB’s use of the term “market participants” refers to buyers and sellers in the item’s principal market. This market is entity specific and may vary among companies.

What goes into a fair value estimate?

When valuing an asset, there are three general valuation approaches: cost, income and market. For financial reporting purposes, fair value should first be based on quoted prices in active markets for identical assets and liabilities. When that information isn’t available, fair value should be based on observable market data, such as quoted prices for similar items in active markets.

In the absence of observable market data, fair value should be based on unobservable inputs. Examples include cash-flow projections prepared by management or other internal financial data.

While a CFO or controller can enlist the help of outside valuation specialists to estimate fair value, a company’s management is ultimately responsible for fair value estimates. So, it’s important to understand the assumptions, methods and models underlying a fair value estimate. Management also must implement adequate internal controls over fair value measurements, impairment charges and disclosures.

Valuation pros needed

Asset valuations are typically outside the comfort zone of in-house accounting personnel, so it pays to hire an outside specialist who will get it right. We can help you evaluate subjective inputs and methods, as well as recommend additional controls over the process to ensure that you’re meeting your financial reporting responsibilities.

© 2019

How to Treat Your Business Website Costs for Tax Purposes

Young architects working on project in office together

These days, most businesses need a website to remain competitive. It’s an easy decision to set one up and maintain it. But determining the proper tax treatment for the costs involved in developing a website isn’t so easy.

That’s because the IRS hasn’t released any official guidance on these costs yet. Consequently, you must apply existing guidance on other costs to the issue of website development costs.

Hardware and software

First, let’s look at the hardware you may need to operate a website. The costs involved fall under the standard rules for depreciable equipment. Specifically, once these assets are up and running, you can deduct 100% of the cost in the first year they’re placed in service (before 2023). This favorable treatment is allowed under the 100% first-year bonus depreciation break.

In later years, you can probably deduct 100% of these costs in the year the assets are placed in service under the Section 179 first-year depreciation deduction privilege. However, Sec. 179 deductions are subject to several limitations.

For tax years beginning in 2019, the maximum Sec. 179 deduction is $1.02 million, subject to a phaseout rule. Under the rule, the deduction is phased out if more than a specified amount of qualified property is placed in service during the year. The threshold amount for 2019 is $2.55 million.

There’s also a taxable income limit. Under it, your Sec. 179 deduction can’t exceed your business taxable income. In other words, Sec. 179 deductions can’t create or increase an overall tax loss. However, any Sec. 179 deduction amount that you can’t immediately deduct is carried forward and can be deducted in later years (to the extent permitted by the applicable limits).

Similar rules apply to purchased off-the-shelf software. However, software license fees are treated differently from purchased software costs for tax purposes. Payments for leased or licensed software used for your website are currently deductible as ordinary and necessary business expenses.

Software developed internally

If your website is primarily for advertising, you can also currently deduct internal website software development costs as ordinary and necessary business expenses.

An alternative position is that your software development costs represent currently deductible research and development costs under the tax code. To qualify for this treatment, the costs must be paid or incurred by December 31, 2022.

A more conservative approach would be to capitalize the costs of internally developed software. Then you would depreciate them over 36 months.

Third party payments

Some companies hire third parties to set up and run their websites. In general, payments to third parties are currently deductible as ordinary and necessary business expenses.

Before business begins

Start-up expenses can include website development costs. Up to $5,000 of otherwise deductible expenses that are incurred before your business commences can generally be deducted in the year business commences. However, if your start-up expenses exceed $50,000, the $5,000 current deduction limit starts to be chipped away. Above this amount, you must capitalize some, or all, of your start-up expenses and amortize them over 60 months, starting with the month that business commences.

We can help

We can determine the appropriate treatment for these costs for federal income tax purposes. Contact us if you have questions or want more information.

© 2019

Management Letters: Have You Implemented Any Changes?

boost business concept, process from idea to result

Audited financial statements come with a special bonus: a “management letter” that recommends ways to improve your business. That’s free advice from financial pros who’ve seen hundreds of businesses at their best (and worst) and who know which strategies work (and which don’t). If you haven’t already implemented changes based on last year’s management letter, there’s no time like the present to improve your business operations.

Reporting deficiencies

Auditing standards require auditors to communicate in writing about “material weaknesses or significant deficiencies” that are discovered during audit fieldwork.

The AICPA defines material weakness as “a deficiency, or combination of deficiencies, in internal control, such that there is a reasonable possibility that a material misstatement of the entity’s financial statements will not be prevented, or detected and corrected on a timely basis.” Likewise, a significant deficiency is defined as “a deficiency, or a combination of deficiencies, in internal control that is … important enough to merit attention by those charged with governance.”

Auditors may unearth less-severe weaknesses and operating inefficiencies during the course of an audit. Reporting these items is optional, but they’re often included in the management letter.

Looking beyond internal controls

Auditors may observe a wide range of issues during audit fieldwork. An obvious example is internal control shortfalls. But other issues covered in a management letter may relate to:

  • Cash management,
  • Operating workflow,
  • Control of production schedules,
  • Capacity,
  • Defects and waste,
  • Employee benefits,
  • Safety,
  • Website management,
  • Technology improvements, and
  • Energy consumption.

Management letters are usually organized by functional area: production, warehouse, sales and marketing, accounting, human resources, shipping/receiving and so forth. The write-up for each deficiency includes an observation (including a cause, if observed), financial and qualitative impacts, and a recommended course of action.

Striving for continuous improvement

Too often, management letters are filed away with the financial statements — and the same issues are reported in the management letter year after year. But proactive business owners and management recognize the valuable insight contained in these letters and take corrective action soon after they’re received. Contact us to help get the ball rolling before the start of next year’s audit.

© 2019

5 Ways to Withdraw Cash From Your Corporation While Avoiding Dividend Treatment

Do you want to withdraw cash from your closely held corporation at a low tax cost? The easiest way is to distribute cash as a dividend. However, a dividend distribution isn’t tax-efficient, since it’s taxable to you to the extent of your corporation’s “earnings and profits.” But it’s not deductible by the corporation.

Different approaches

Fortunately, there are several alternative methods that may allow you to withdraw cash from a corporation while avoiding dividend treatment. Here are five ideas:

1. Capital repayments. To the extent that you’ve capitalized the corporation with debt, including amounts that you’ve advanced to the business, the corporation can repay the debt without the repayment being treated as a dividend. Additionally, interest paid on the debt can be deducted by the corporation. This assumes that the debt has been properly documented with terms that characterize debt and that the corporation doesn’t have an excessively high debt-to-equity ratio. If not, the “debt” repayment may be taxed as a dividend. If you make cash contributions to the corporation in the future, consider structuring them as debt to facilitate later withdrawals on a tax-advantaged basis.

2. Salary. Reasonable compensation that you, or family members, receive for services rendered to the corporation is deductible by the business. However, it’s also taxable to the recipient. The same rule applies to any compensation (in the form of rent) that you receive from the corporation for the use of property. In either case, the amount of compensation must be reasonable in relation to the services rendered or the value of the property provided. If it’s excessive, the excess will be nondeductible and treated as a corporate distribution.

3. Loans. You may withdraw cash from the corporation tax-free by borrowing money from it. However, to avoid having the loan characterized as a corporate distribution, it should be properly documented in a loan agreement or a note and be made on terms that are comparable to those on which an unrelated third party would lend money to you. This should include a provision for interest and principal. All interest and principal payments should be made when required under the loan terms. Also, consider the effect of the corporation’s receipt of interest income.

4. Fringe benefits. Consider obtaining the equivalent of a cash withdrawal in fringe benefits that are deductible by the corporation and not taxable to you. Examples are life insurance, certain medical benefits, disability insurance and dependent care. Most of these benefits are tax-free only if provided on a nondiscriminatory basis to other employees of the corporation. You can also establish a salary reduction plan that allows you (and other employees) to take a portion of your compensation as nontaxable benefits, rather than as taxable compensation.

5. Property sales. You can withdraw cash from the corporation by selling property to it. However, certain sales should be avoided. For example, you shouldn’t sell property to a more than 50% owned corporation at a loss, since the loss will be disallowed. And you shouldn’t sell depreciable property to a more than 50% owned corporation at a gain, since the gain will be treated as ordinary income, rather than capital gain. A sale should be on terms that are comparable to those on which an unrelated third party would purchase the property. You may need to obtain an independent appraisal to establish the property’s value.

Minimize taxes

If you’re interested in discussing any of these ideas, contact us. We can help you get the maximum out of your corporation at the minimum tax cost.

© 2019

Budgeting is Key to a Successful Start-Up

More than half of recent college graduates plan to start a business someday, according to the results of a survey published in August by the American Institute of Certified Public Accountants (AICPA). Unfortunately, the AICPA estimates that only half of new businesses survive the five-year mark, and only about one in three reach the 10-year mark.

What can you do to improve your start-up’s odds of success? Comprehensive, realistic budgets can help entrepreneurs navigate the challenges that lie ahead.

3 financial statements

Many businesses base their budgets on the prior year’s financial results. But start-ups lack historical financial statements, which can make budgeting difficult.

In your first year of operation, it’s helpful to create an annual budget that forecasts all three financial statements on a monthly basis:

1. The income statement. Start your annual budget by estimating how much you expect to sell each month. Then estimate direct costs (such as materials, labor, sales tax and shipping) based on that sales volume. Many operating costs, such as rent, salaries and insurance, will be fixed over the short run.

Once you spread overhead costs over your sales, it’s unlikely that you’ll report a net profit in your first year of operation. Profitability takes time and hard work! Once you turn a profit, however, remember to save room in your budget for income taxes.

2. The balance sheet. To start generating revenue, you’ll also need equipment and marketing materials (including a website). Other operating assets (like accounts receivable and inventory) typically move in tandem with revenue. How will you finance these assets? Entrepreneurs may invest personal funds, receive money from other investors or take out loans. These items fall under liabilities and equity on the balance sheet.

3. The statement of cash flows. This report tracks sources and uses of cash from operating, investing and financing activities. Essentially, it shows how your business will make ends meet each month. In addition to acquiring assets, start-ups need cash to cover fixed expenses each month.

By forecasting these statements on a monthly basis, you can identify when cash shortfalls, as well as seasonal peaks and troughs, are likely to occur.

Reality check

Budgeting isn’t a static process. Each month, entrepreneurs must compare actual results to the budget — and then adjust the budget based on what they’ve learned. For instance, you may have underbudgeted or overbudgeted on some items and, thus, spent more or less than you anticipated.

Some variances may be the result of macroeconomic forces. For example, increased government regulation, new competition or an economic downturn can adversely affect your budget. Although these items may be outside of an entrepreneur’s control, it’s important to identify them early and develop a contingency plan before variances spiral out of control.

Outside input

An accounting professional can help your start-up put together a realistic budget based on industry benchmarks and demand for your products and services in the marketplace. A CPA-prepared budget can serve as more than just a management tool — it also can be presented to lenders and investors who want to know more about your start-up’s operations.

The Key to Retirement Security is Picking the Right Plan for Your Business

If you’re a small business owner or you’re involved in a start-up, you may want to set up a tax-favored retirement plan for yourself and any employees. Several types of plans are eligible for tax advantages.

401(k) plan

One of the best-known retirement plan options is the 401(k) plan. It provides for employer contributions made at the direction of employees. Specifically, the employee elects to have a certain amount of pay deferred and contributed by the employer on his or her behalf to an individual account. Employee contributions can be made on a pretax basis, saving employees current income tax on the amount contributed.

Employers may, or may not, provide matching contributions on behalf of employees who make elective deferrals to 401(k) plans. Establishing and operating a 401(k) plan means some up-front paperwork and ongoing administrative effort. Matching contributions may be subject to a vesting schedule. 401(k) plans are subject to testing requirements, so that highly compensated employees don’t contribute too much more than non-highly compensated employees. However, these tests can be avoided if you adopt a “safe harbor” 401(k) plan.

Within limits, participants can borrow from a 401(k) account (assuming the plan document permits it).

For 2019, the maximum amount you can contribute to a 401(k) is $19,000, plus a $6,000 “catch-up” amount for those age 50 or older as of December 31, 2019.

Other tax-favored plans

Of course, a 401(k) isn’t your only option. Here’s a quick rundown of two other alternatives that are simpler to set up and administer:

1. A Simplified Employee Pension (SEP) IRA. For 2019, the maximum amount of deductible contributions that you can make to an employee’s SEP plan, and that he or she can exclude from income, is the lesser of 25% of compensation or $56,000. Your employees control their individual IRAs and IRA investments.

2. A SIMPLE IRA. SIMPLE stands for “savings incentive match plan for employees.” A business with 100 or fewer employees can establish a SIMPLE. Under one, an IRA is established for each employee, and the employer makes matching contributions based on contributions elected by participating employees under a qualified salary reduction arrangement. The maximum amount you can contribute to a SIMPLE in 2019 is $13,000, plus a $3,000 “catch-up” amount if you’re age 50 or older as of December 31, 2019.

Annual contributions to a SEP plan and a SIMPLE are controlled by special rules and aren’t tied to the normal IRA contribution limits. Neither type of plan requires annual filings or discrimination testing. You can’t borrow from a SEP plan or a SIMPLE.

Many choices

These are only some of the retirement savings options that may be available to your business. We can discuss the alternatives and help find the best option for your situation.

© 2019

Auditing Grant Compliance

A business situation.

Has your organization received any public or private grants to fund its growth? Grants sometimes require an independent audit by a qualified accounting firm. Here’s what grant recipients should know to help facilitate matters and ensure compliance at all levels.

Federal compliance

Federal awards require compliance with the Uniform Administrative Requirements, Cost Principles, and Audit Requirements for Federal Awards (also known as 2 CFR Part 200). This guidance requires any entity that expends $750,000 or more of federal assistance received for its operations to undergo a “single audit,” which is a rigorous, organizationwide examination.

To provide grant recipients with the latest guidance on compliance, the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) releases an annual compliance supplement. It covers compliance requirements for a dozen areas when performing a single audit:

  1. Activities allowed or unallowed,
  2. Allowable costs/cost principles,
  3. Cash management,
  4. Eligibility,
  5. Equipment and real property management,
  6. Matching, level of effort and earmarking,
  7. Period of performance,
  8. Procurement, suspension and debarment,
  9. Program income,
  10. Reporting,
  11. Subrecipient monitoring, and
  12. Special tests and provisions.

The supplement also includes sections dedicated to agency program requirements, including clusters of programs that share common compliance requirements.

Your auditor will assess whether your organization has sufficient internal controls in each of the 12 areas. To help ensure compliance, your organization should clearly document decisions and processes, as well as provide a clear audit trail of activity.

Other levels of compliance

The requirements for state, local and private sector grants vary significantly. But compliance generally hinges on the following, regardless of the source providing the funding:

  • A detailed understanding of the grant’s compliance and reporting requirements,
  • A mapping of requirements to individual controls and processes,
  • A documented set of grant management policies and procedures that your organization publicizes and follows,
  • A robust set of internal controls and mechanisms to prevent fraud, waste, and abuse,
  • Training programs designed to promote grant compliance,
  • Frequent risk assessments to map your organization’s policies and procedures against evolving requirements for each grant, and
  • Periodic auditing in compliance with relevant guidance and statutes.

In addition, your auditor will evaluate whether your organization is willing to adapt to regulatory changes. For example, has it adopted new grant controls to accommodate best practices or legislative changes?

We can help

If juggling multiple levels of grant compliance seems overwhelming, contact us to learn how to streamline your approach. We can help your organization improve its ability to satisfy grant requirements at multiple levels.

© 2019

The Tax Implications of a Company Car

The use of a company vehicle is a valuable fringe benefit for owners and employees of small businesses. This benefit results in tax deductions for the employer as well as tax breaks for the owners and employees using the cars. (And of course, they get the nontax benefits of driving the cars!) Even better, recent tax law changes and IRS rules make the perk more valuable than before.

Here’s an example

Let’s say you’re the owner-employee of a corporation that’s going to provide you with a company car. You need the car to visit customers, meet with vendors and check on suppliers. You expect to drive the car 8,500 miles a year for business. You also expect to use the car for about 7,000 miles of personal driving, including commuting, running errands and weekend trips with your family. Therefore, your usage of the vehicle will be approximately 55% for business and 45% for personal purposes. You want a nice car to reflect positively on your business, so the corporation buys a new luxury $50,000 sedan.

Your cost for personal use of the vehicle will be equal to the tax you pay on the fringe benefit value of your 45% personal mileage. By contrast, if you bought the car yourself to be able to drive the personal miles, you’d be out-of-pocket for the entire purchase cost of the car.

Your personal use will be treated as fringe benefit income. For tax purposes, your corporation will treat the car much the same way it would any other business asset, subject to depreciation deduction restrictions if the auto is purchased. Out-of-pocket expenses related to the car (including insurance, gas, oil and maintenance) are deductible, including the portion that relates to your personal use. If the corporation finances the car, the interest it pays on the loan would be deductible as a business expense (unless the business is subject to business-interest limitation under the tax code).

In contrast, if you bought the auto yourself, you wouldn’t be entitled to any deductions. Your outlays for the business-related portion of your driving would be unreimbursed employee business expenses that are nondeductible from 2018 to 2025 due to the suspension of miscellaneous itemized deductions under the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act. And if you financed the car yourself, the interest payments would be nondeductible.

And finally, the purchase of the car by your corporation will have no effect on your credit rating.

Administrative tasks

Providing an auto for an owner’s or key employee’s business and personal use comes with complications and paperwork. Personal use will have to be tracked and valued under the fringe benefit tax rules and treated as income. This article only explains the basics.

Despite the necessary valuation and paperwork, a company-provided car is still a valuable fringe benefit for business owners and key employees. It can provide them with the use of a vehicle at a low tax cost while generating tax deductions for their businesses. We can help you stay in compliance with the rules and explain more about this prized perk.

© 2019

Corporate Governance in the 21st Century

Colleagues discussing with recycling sign on white board in the office

What’s the purpose of a corporation? For the last 50 years, the answer was “to maximize shareholder value.” But, on August 19, CEOs of 181 leading U.S. businesses, including Amazon, Apple, General Motors and Walmart, pledged to broaden the scope.

Beyond shareholder value

Putting shareholders first was the doctrine of University of Chicago economist Milton Friedman. In 1970, he famously wrote that “the social responsibility of business is to increase its profits.” While this mindset has enriched large shareholders, it’s also had negative consequences, including pay disparities between executives and frontline workers, layoffs and pollution.

Last year, Chairman of the Business Roundtable Jamie Dimon launched a project to update its principles. The new version of its Principles of Corporate Governance looks beyond delivering value to shareholders. It also recognizes the importance of:

  • Investing in employees through training and education, as well as providing fair compensation and benefits,
  • Fostering diversity, inclusion, dignity and respect in the workplace,
  • Dealing fairly and ethically with suppliers,
  • Supporting local communities,
  • Protecting the environment through sustainable business practices, and
  • Providing transparent and effective communications with shareholders and lenders.

For many business leaders who signed the new statement of purpose, these objectives represent a fundamental change in longstanding business principles. “Major employers are investing in their workers and communities because they know it is the only way to be successful over the long term. These modernized principles reflect the business community’s unwavering commitment to continue to push for an economy that serves all Americans,” said Chairman Dimon.

What you can do

Translating the statement’s lofty principles into concrete business practices will be challenging, especially if the changes cause earnings to fall over the short run. The key will be getting investor and lender buy-in by effectively communicating the link between adopting so-called “sustainable” business practices and building long-term shareholder value.

For example, identifying and successfully navigating sustainability issues can add value by building trust with stakeholders, providing improved access to capital and reduced borrowing costs, and enhancing customer and employee loyalty. Tracking sustainability also helps companies identify ways to reduce their energy consumption, streamline their supply chains, eliminate waste and operate more efficiently.

Conversely, aggressive tax strategies and regulatory violations can lead to fines, remedial costs and reputational damage. And the sale of toxic or unsafe products can result in product liability lawsuits, recalls and boycotts.

Disclosing the changes

Do your company’s financial statements include sustainability disclosures? Though they’re currently voluntary under U.S. Generally Accepted Accounting Principles (GAAP) and the financial reporting rules of the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC), they can be worthwhile. These disclosures provide insight into various nonfinancial issues, such as:

  • Pollution and carbon emissions,
  • Union relations,
  • Political spending,
  • Tax strategies,
  • Training and diversity practices,
  • Health and safety matters, and
  • Human rights policies.

Our auditors can help you draft disclosures that explain your sustainability efforts to stakeholders in a clear, objective manner and establish links to financial performance. Contact us for more information.

© 2019