Small businesses: Stay clear of a severe payroll tax penalty


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

How to keep track of small tools and equipment

Barcode with red light ray and binary code in background

Whether it’s hard hats and drills on a jobsite, iPads in an office or RFID readers in a warehouse, small tools and equipment have a tendency to disappear at many companies. The cost of lost, damaged and stolen items can quickly add up, consuming profits and cash flow. What can you do to manage these items more effectively and create accountability among workers?

Technology to the rescue

Electronic bar-code technology that’s used to track inventory can also be used to label, coordinate, trace and catalog fixed assets in real time. These systems usually involve bar codes displayed on polyurethane labels on each tool or machine. The labels are designed to hold up under repeated on-the-job wear and tear.

These systems come with handheld devices that you can use to scan the bar codes when assigning tools and accepting returns. Tracking software sends the pertinent information to a database that can also be used for browsing, billing and running reports. In addition, the program records repair histories and maintenance schedules.

The cost of bar-code technology varies, depending on the number of features included in the system configuration. How complex a system you’ll need will depend on the number of items you’re looking to track. But if you’re already using this technology to manage inventory, there may be economies of scale by choosing a system that can handle both types of assets.

Improving efficiency

Bar-code technology also has the power to improve management efficiency. How? You can let employees know that, if the system shows that the tools they’ve checked out haven’t been returned, the employee or the job they’re working on could be charged for the missing item. Thus, employees will more closely monitor and protect these items to avoid paying for lost items or having a project go over budget.

The right system may also reduce your legal liability. In some industries, federal regulations or union rules may require workers to wear safety gear, such as goggles, hard hats and respirators. A formal tracking system allows you to show that you issued employees the proper equipment, which could in turn limit your accident liability.

Creating accountability

To take bar-code tracking to the next level, integrate it into your accounting system. For example, you might assign tools by employee name, job code, project number, date, time, location or other criteria. Then you can generate a report of employees or projects where specific tools are being used.

In turn, you’ll foster an atmosphere of accountability by making managers and employees more responsible for these assets. There’s no better way to drive home a point about wasted assets or money than to sit down with employees and show them, in dollars and cents, how a tool is being misused.

Bottom line

Bar-code technology isn’t new, but it’s become more cost effective and robust. Even if you’ve been working with this technology for several years, it’s time to consider upgrades that you might have missed — or new vendors with tighter security measures or innovative features.

For help evaluating your current system or investing in a new one, contact your CPA. He or she has helped other companies implement this technology and knows industry best practices and potential pitfalls to avoid.

© 2019

Thinking About Converting from a C Corporation to an S Corporation?

The right entity choice can make a difference in the tax bill you owe for your business. Although S corporations can provide substantial tax advantages over C corporations in some circumstances, there are plenty of potentially expensive tax problems that you should assess before making the decision to convert from a C corporation to an S corporation.

Here’s a quick rundown of four issues to consider:

LIFO inventories. C corporations that use last-in, first-out (LIFO) inventories must pay tax on the benefits they derived by using LIFO if they convert to S corporations. The tax can be spread over four years. This cost must be weighed against the potential tax gains from converting to S status.

Built-in gains tax. Although S corporations generally aren’t subject to tax, those that were formerly C corporations are taxed on built-in gains (such as appreciated property) that the C corporation has when the S election becomes effective, if those gains are recognized within five years after the conversion. This is generally unfavorable, although there are situations where the S election still can produce a better tax result despite the built-in gains tax.

Passive income. S corporations that were formerly C corporations are subject to a special tax. That tax kicks in if their passive investment income (including dividends, interest, rents, royalties, and stock sale gains) exceeds 25% of their gross receipts, and the S corporation has accumulated earnings and profits carried over from its C corporation years. If that tax is owed for three consecutive years, the corporation’s election to be an S corporation terminates. You can avoid the tax by distributing the accumulated earnings and profits, which would be taxable to shareholders. Or you might want to avoid the tax by limiting the amount of passive income.

Unused losses. If your C corporation has unused net operating losses, they can’t be used to offset its income as an S corporation and can’t be passed through to shareholders. If the losses can’t be carried back to an earlier C corporation year, it will be necessary to weigh the cost of giving up the losses against the tax savings expected to be generated by the switch to S status.

Additional factors

These are only some of the factors to consider when a business switches from C to S status. For example, shareholder-employees of S corporations can’t get all of the tax-free fringe benefits that are available with a C corporation. And there may be issues for shareholders who have outstanding loans from their qualified plans. These factors have to be taken into account in order to understand the implications of converting from C to S status.

Contact us. We can explain how these factors will affect your company’s situation and come up with strategies to minimize taxes.

© 2019

Valuing Profits Interests in LLCs

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The use of so-called “profits interest” awards as a tool to attract and retain skilled workers has increased, as more companies are being structured as limited liability companies (LLCs), rather than as corporations. But accounting complexity has caused some private companies to shy away from these arrangements. Fortunately, relief from the Financial Accounting Standards Board (FASB) may be coming soon.

New twist on equity compensation

Corporations tend to award traditional stock options. But profits interests are used exclusively by LLCs. As the name suggests, these arrangements provide recipients with a share of the company’s future profits. Under existing U.S. Generally Accepted Accounting Principles (GAAP), these transactions may be classified as:

  • Share-based payments,
  • Profit-sharing,
  • Bonus arrangements, or
  • Deferred compensation.

The classification is determined by the specific terms and features of the profits interest. In most cases, the fair value of the award must be recorded as an income statement expense. Profits interest can also result in the recognition of a liability on the balance sheet and require footnote disclosures.

Need for simplification

Profits interest arrangements can accomplish a variety of business objectives. Though they’re most often awarded to employees, profits interests can also be given to investors, third-party service providers and other individuals.

These awards are usually issued in exchange for future services, without direct payment or financial investment. Various terms and features can be incorporated into a profits interest. For example, these awards often have contingency features, such as vesting requirements, participation thresholds, the occurrence of certain events, limited time periods, expiration dates and forfeiture provisions. In turn, this variability can cause additional complexity compared to other forms of equity compensation and require special valuation techniques.

“Profits interest continues to come up as an area private companies are struggling with,” said Candace Wright, Chair of the Private Company Council (PCC) during a meeting with the FASB earlier this year. Private companies have been clamoring for practical expedients and additional guidance from the FASB on such issues as acceptable valuation methods, audit techniques and disclosure requirements.

Work in progress

Simplification of the financial reporting guidance would be welcome news for employers, employees and other stakeholders. Contact us for help reporting these transactions under existing U.S. GAAP or for an update on the latest developments from the FASB.

© 2019

Accelerate Depreciation Deductions with a Cost Segregation Study

Is your business depreciating over a 30-year period the entire cost of constructing the building that houses your operation? If so, you should consider a cost segregation study. It may allow you to accelerate depreciation deductions on certain items, thereby reducing taxes and boosting cash flow. And under current law, the potential benefits of a cost segregation study are now even greater than they were a few years ago due to enhancements to certain depreciation-related tax breaks.

Depreciation basics

Business buildings generally have a 39-year depreciation period (27.5 years for residential rental properties). Most times, you depreciate a building’s structural components, including walls, windows, HVAC systems, elevators, plumbing and wiring, along with the building. Personal property — such as equipment, machinery, furniture and fixtures — is eligible for accelerated depreciation, usually over five or seven years. And land improvements, such as fences, outdoor lighting and parking lots, are depreciable over 15 years.

Often, businesses allocate all or most of their buildings’ acquisition or construction costs to real property, overlooking opportunities to allocate costs to shorter-lived personal property or land improvements. In some cases — computers or furniture, for example — the distinction between real and personal property is obvious. But the line between the two is frequently less clear. Items that appear to be “part of a building” may in fact be personal property, like removable wall and floor coverings, removable partitions, awnings and canopies, window treatments, signs and decorative lighting.

In addition, certain items that otherwise would be treated as real property may qualify as personal property if they serve more of a business function than a structural purpose. This includes reinforced flooring to support heavy manufacturing equipment, electrical or plumbing installations required to operate specialized equipment, or dedicated cooling systems for data processing rooms.

Identifying and substantiating costs

A cost segregation study combines accounting and engineering techniques to identify building costs that are properly allocable to tangible personal property rather than real property. Although the relative costs and benefits of a cost segregation study depend on your particular facts and circumstances, it can be a valuable investment.

Speedier depreciation tax breaks

The Tax Cuts and Jobs Act (TCJA) enhances certain depreciation-related tax breaks, which may also enhance the benefits of a cost segregation study. Among other things, the act permanently increased limits on Section 179 expensing, which allows you to immediately deduct the entire cost of qualifying equipment or other fixed assets up to specified thresholds.

The TCJA also expanded 15-year-property treatment to apply to qualified improvement property. Previously this break was limited to qualified leasehold-improvement, retail-improvement and restaurant property. And it temporarily increased first-year bonus depreciation to 100% (from 50%).

Making favorable depreciation changes

Fortunately, it isn’t too late to get the benefit of speedier depreciation for items that were incorrectly assumed to be part of your building for depreciation purposes. You don’t have to amend your past returns (or meet a deadline for claiming tax refunds) to claim the depreciation that you could have already claimed. Instead, you can claim that depreciation by following procedures, in connection with the next tax return that you file, that will result in “automatic” IRS consent to a change in your accounting for depreciation.

Cost segregation studies can yield substantial benefits, but they’re not right for every business. We must judge whether a study will result in overall tax savings greater than the costs of the study itself. To find out whether this would be worthwhile for you, contact us.

© 2019

Reasons Why Cash is King

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In financial reporting, investors and business owners tend to focus on four key metrics: 1) revenue, 2) net income, 3) total assets and 4) net worth. But, when it comes to gauging short-term financial performance and creditworthiness, the trump card is cash flow.

If a business doesn’t have enough cash on hand to pay payroll, rent and other bills, it can spell disaster — no matter how profitable the company is or how fast it’s growing. That’s why you can’t afford to cast aside the statement of cash flows and the important insight it can provide.

Monitoring cash

The statement of cash flows reveals clues about a company’s ability to manage cash. It shows changes in balance sheet items from one accounting period to the next. Special attention should be given to significant balance changes.

For example, if accounts receivable were $1 million in 2018 and $2 million in 2019, the change would be reported as a cash outflow of $1 million. That’s because more money was tied up in receivables in 2019 than in 2018. An increase in receivables is common for growing businesses, because receivables generally grow in proportion to revenue. But a mounting receivables balance also might signal cash management inefficiencies. Additional financial information — such as an aging schedule — might reveal significant write-offs.

Continually reporting negative cash flows from operations can also signal danger. There’s a limit to how much money a company can get from selling off its assets, issuing new stock or taking on more debt. A red flag should go up when operating cash outflows consistently outpace operating inflows. It can signal weaknesses, such as out-of-control growth, poor inventory management, mounting costs and weak customer demand.

Categorizing cash flows

The statement of cash flows typically consists of three sections:

1. Cash flows from operations. This section converts accrual net income to cash provided or used by operations. All income-related items flow through this part of the cash flow statement, such as net income; gains (or losses) on asset sales; depreciation and amortization; and net changes in accounts receivable, inventory, prepaid assets, accrued expenses and payables.

2. Cash flows from investing activities. If a company buys or sells property, equipment or marketable securities, the transaction shows up here. This section could reveal whether a company is divesting assets for emergency funds or whether it’s reinvesting in future operations.

3. Cash flows from financing activities. This shows transactions with investors and lenders. Examples include Treasury stock purchases, additional capital contributions, debt issuances and payoffs, and dividend payments.

Below these three categories is the schedule of noncash investing and financing transactions. This portion of the cash flow statement summarizes significant transactions in which cash did not directly change hands: for example, like-kind exchanges or assets purchased directly with loan proceeds.

Keep a watchful eye

Effective cash management can be the difference between staying afloat and filing for bankruptcy — especially in an unpredictable economy. Contact us to help identify potential problems and find solutions to shore up inefficiencies and shortfalls.

© 2019

Setting Up a Health Savings Account for Your Small Business

Healthcare and medical business concept

Given the escalating cost of employee health care benefits, your business may be interested in providing some of these benefits through an employer-sponsored Health Savings Account (HSA). For eligible individuals, HSAs offer a tax-advantaged way to set aside funds (or have their employers do so) to meet future medical needs. Here are the key tax benefits:

  • Contributions that participants make to an HSA are deductible, within limits.
  • Contributions that employers make aren’t taxed to participants.
  • Earnings on the funds within an HSA aren’t taxed, so the money can accumulate year after year tax free.
  • HSA distributions to cover qualified medical expenses aren’t taxed.
  • Employers don’t have to pay payroll taxes on HSA contributions made by employees through payroll deductions.

Who is eligible?

To be eligible for an HSA, an individual must be covered by a “high deductible health plan.” For 2019, a “high deductible health plan” is one with an annual deductible of at least $1,350 for self-only coverage, or at least $2,700 for family coverage. For self-only coverage, the 2019 limit on deductible contributions is $3,500. For family coverage, the 2019 limit on deductible contributions is $7,000. Additionally, annual out-of-pocket expenses required to be paid (other than for premiums) for covered benefits cannot exceed $6,750 for self-only coverage or $13,500 for family coverage.

An individual (and the individual’s covered spouse, as well) who has reached age 55 before the close of the tax year (and is an eligible HSA contributor) may make additional “catch-up” contributions for 2019 of up to $1,000.

Employer contributions

If an employer contributes to the HSA of an eligible individual, the employer’s contribution is treated as employer-provided coverage for medical expenses under an accident or health plan and is excludable from an employee’s gross income up to the deduction limitation. There’s no “use-it-or-lose-it” provision, so funds can be built up for years. An employer that decides to make contributions on its employees’ behalf must generally make comparable contributions to the HSAs of all comparable participating employees for that calendar year. If the employer doesn’t make comparable contributions, the employer is subject to a 35% tax on the aggregate amount contributed by the employer to HSAs for that period.

Distributions

HSA distributions can be made to pay for qualified medical expenses, which generally mean those expenses that would qualify for the medical expense itemized deduction. They include expenses such as doctors’ visits, prescriptions, chiropractic care and premiums for long-term care insurance.

If funds are withdrawn from the HSA for other reasons, the withdrawal is taxable. Additionally, an extra 20% tax will apply to the withdrawal, unless it’s made after reaching age 65, or in the event of death or disability.

As you can see, HSAs offer a flexible option for providing health care coverage, but the rules are somewhat complex. Contact us if you’d like to discuss offering this benefit to your employees.

© 2019

Nonprofits: New Alternatives for Reporting Goodwill and Other Intangibles

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Did you know that the Financial Accounting Standards Board (FASB) recently extended the simplified private-company accounting alternatives to not-for-profit organizations? Many merging nonprofits, including educational institutions and hospitals, welcome these practical expedients. Here are the details.

Alternative for goodwill

The first alternative accounting method allows for the amortization of goodwill on a straight-line basis over 10 years (or less if a shorter useful life is more appropriate). It applies only to:

  • Goodwill recognized in a business combination after initial recognition and measurement,
  • Amounts recognized as goodwill in applying the equity method of accounting, and
  • The excess reorganization value recognized by entities that adopt fresh-start reporting under U.S. Generally Accepted Accounting Principles (GAAP) for reorganizations.

Once an alternative has been elected, the organization must apply all the alternative’s subsequent measurement, derecognition, presentation and disclosure requirements to existing goodwill and all future additions to goodwill that fall within the scope of the accounting alternative.

Upon adoption of the accounting alternative, the organization must decide whether to test goodwill at either the entity level or the reporting unit level. However, annual impairment testing isn’t required under the alternative. Rather, testing for impairment is required only if a triggering event occurs that indicates that the fair value of the nonprofit entity (or the reporting unit) may be below its carrying amount.

Alternative for identifiable intangible assets

The second accounting alternative allows a nonprofit organization to bypass the separate recognition of noncompete agreements and customer-related intangible assets unless they can be sold or licensed independently from other assets of a business. In other words, such items would be considered part of goodwill. Nonprofits that elect this alternative would recognize fewer intangible assets in a business combination.

It applies to nonprofit organizations that are required to recognize or consider fair value of intangible assets when:

  • Applying the acquisition method for a business combination,
  • Evaluating the nature of a difference between an investment’s carrying amount and the underlying equity in the net asset of an investee when applying the equity method of accounting, or
  • Adopting fresh start accounting for reorganizations.

If an organization decides to elect the accounting alternative for accounting for identifiable intangible assets, it also must adopt the accounting alternative for goodwill. However, a nonprofit that elects to adopt the accounting alternative for goodwill isn’t required to adopt the accounting alternative for accounting for identifiable intangible assets.

Effective date and transition

Nonprofits can immediately elect to use these alternative reporting methods. If elected, the goodwill accounting alternative should be applied prospectively to all existing goodwill and for all new goodwill generated in acquisitions. And the alternative for accounting for identifiable intangible assets should be applied prospectively upon the occurrence of the first transaction within the scope of the alternative. Contact us for more information. Our accounting professionals can help determine if these alternatives are right for your organization.

© 2019

Understanding and Controlling the Unemployment Tax Costs of Your Business

As an employer, you must pay federal unemployment (FUTA) tax on amounts up to $7,000 paid to each employee as wages during the calendar year. The rate of tax imposed is 6% but can be reduced by a credit (described below). Most employers end up paying an effective FUTA tax rate of 0.6%. An employer taxed at a 6% rate would pay FUTA tax of $420 for each employee who earned at least $7,000 per year, while an employer taxed at 0.6% pays $42.

Tax credit

Unlike FICA taxes, only employers — and not employees — are liable for FUTA tax. Most employers pay both federal and a state unemployment tax. Unemployment tax rates for employers vary from state to state. The FUTA tax may be offset by a credit for contributions paid into state unemployment funds, effectively reducing (but not eliminating) the net FUTA tax rate.

However, the amount of the credit can be reduced — increasing the effective FUTA tax rate —for employers in states that borrowed funds from the federal government to pay unemployment benefits and defaulted on repaying the loan.

Some services performed by an employee aren’t considered employment for FUTA purposes. Even if an employee’s services are considered employment for FUTA purposes, some compensation received for those services — for example, most fringe benefits — aren’t subject to FUTA tax.

Recognizing the insurance principle of taxing according to “risk,’’ states have adopted laws permitting some employers to pay less. Your unemployment tax bill may be influenced by the number of former employees who’ve filed unemployment claims with the state, the current number of employees you have and the age of your business. Typically, the more claims made against a business, the higher the unemployment tax bill.

Here are four ways to help control your unemployment tax costs:

1. If your state permits it, “buy down” your unemployment tax rate.Some states allow employers to annually buy down their rate. If you’re eligible, this could save you substantial unemployment tax dollars.

2. Hire conservatively and assess candidates. Your unemployment payments are based partly on the number of employees who file unemployment claims. You don’t want to hire employees to fill a need now, only to have to lay them off if business slows. A temporary staffing agency can help you meet short-term needs without permanently adding staff, so you can avoid layoffs.

It’s often worth having job candidates undergo assessments before they’re hired to see if they’re the right match for your business and the position available. Hiring carefully can increase the likelihood that new employees will work out.

3. Train for success. Many unemployment insurance claimants are awarded benefits despite employer assertions that the employees failed to perform adequately. This may occur because the hearing officer concludes the employer didn’t provide the employee with enough training to succeed in the job.

4. Handle terminations carefully. If you must terminate an employee, consider giving him or her severance as well as outplacement benefits. Severance pay may reduce or delay the start of unemployment insurance benefits. Effective outplacement services may hasten the end of unemployment insurance benefits, because a claimant finds a new job.

If you have questions about unemployment taxes and how you can reduce them, contact us. We’d be pleased to help.

© 2019

Internal Audit 2.0: Paperless and continuous Auditing Trends

Technology is altering the traditional approach to internal audits. Instead of reviewing reams of paperwork, today’s auditor is learning to use electronic records. In turn, going paperless facilitates a concept known as “continuous auditing,” where internal auditors continually gather data to support their procedures. Here’s how your business can modernize this process.

Targeting specific areas

Not every functional area of your company lends itself to paperless and continuous auditing. To determine whether sufficient, timely and accurate electronic data exists, you’ll need to review the systems that store and generate your company’s data.

For example, if a portion of your inventory accounting processes still relies on paper, it may not present an ideal candidate for paperless and continuous auditing. Alternatively, if your accounts payable (AP) process functions entirely on electronic records, it’s logical to include AP in the continuous audit program.

Planning the program

Before you can adopt a continuous audit program, you must determine:

  • Your primary and secondary business goals, and
  • The key risks you hope to mitigate.

Then you can design your program accordingly. For example, if you plan to continuously audit the AP process and you’re concerned about occupational fraud, you may decide to put a rule in place that looks for the creation of vendors whose address matches that of an employee.

From a practical perspective, it’s important to document how often you plan to sample the data that the continuous audit program makes available. Keep in mind that a daily review of the output often generates the greatest benefit.

Ensuring accountability

To help ensure accountability, a process must exist to review and evaluate the audit output. For example, if the review of employee payroll data uncovers unusual payroll disbursements, a process must exist to investigate those discrepancies.

The individual who should be responsible for reviewing the data will depend on the size and structure of your company. It could fall to the internal audit department, someone within the fraud team or a department manager.

Time for change?

Robust internal audits help management correct operational issues quickly, which prevents money from being wasted and risks from spiraling out of control. If implemented correctly, paperless and continuous auditing can improve your company’s internal audit and oversight abilities while also reducing its costs. Contact us for help converting paper records to an electronic format, as well as planning and implementing a continuous internal audit program that targets the optimal areas of your business operations.

© 2019