Small businesses: Cash in on depreciation tax savers

As we approach the end of the year, it’s a good time to think about whether your business needs to buy business equipment and other depreciable property. If so, you may benefit from the Section 179 depreciation tax deduction for business property. The election provides a tax windfall to businesses, enabling them to claim immediate deductions for qualified assets, instead of taking depreciation deductions over time.

Even better, the Sec. 179 deduction isn’t the only avenue for immediate tax write-offs for qualified assets. Under the 100% bonus depreciation tax break, the entire cost of eligible assets placed in service in 2020 can be written off this year.

But to benefit for this tax year, you need to buy and place qualifying assets in service by December 31.

What qualifies?

The Sec. 179 deduction applies to tangible personal property such as machinery and equipment purchased for use in a trade or business, and, if the taxpayer elects, qualified real property. It’s generally available on a tax year basis and is subject to a dollar limit.

The annual deduction limit is $1.04 million for tax years beginning in 2020, subject to a phaseout rule. Under the rule, the deduction is phased out (reduced) if more than a specified amount of qualifying property is placed in service during the tax year. The amount is $2.59 million for tax years beginning in 2020. (Note: Different rules apply to heavy SUVs.)

There’s also a taxable income limit. If your taxable business income is less than the dollar limit for that year, the amount for which you can make the election is limited to that taxable income. However, any amount you can’t immediately deduct is carried forward and can be deducted in later years (to the extent permitted by the applicable dollar limit, the phaseout rule, and the taxable income limit).

In addition to significantly increasing the Sec. 179 deduction, the TCJA also expanded the definition of qualifying assets to include depreciable tangible personal property used mainly in the furnishing of lodging, such as furniture and appliances.

The TCJA also expanded the definition of qualified real property to include qualified improvement property and some improvements to nonresidential real property, such as roofs; heating, ventilation and air-conditioning equipment; fire protection and alarm systems; and security systems.

What about bonus depreciation?

With bonus depreciation, businesses are allowed to deduct 100% of the cost of certain assets in the first year, rather than capitalize them on their balance sheets and gradually depreciate them. (Before the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act, you could deduct only 50% of the cost of qualified new property.)

This tax break applies to qualifying assets placed in service between September 28, 2017, and December 31, 2022 (by December 31, 2023, for certain assets with longer production periods and for aircraft). After that, the bonus depreciation percentage is reduced by 20% per year, until it’s fully phased out after 2026 (or after 2027 for certain assets described above).

Bonus depreciation is allowed for both new and used qualifying assets, which include most categories of tangible depreciable assets other than real estate.

Important: When both 100% first-year bonus depreciation and the Sec. 179 deduction are available for the same asset, it’s generally more advantageous to claim 100% bonus depreciation, because there are no limitations on it.

Need assistance?

These favorable depreciation deductions may deliver tax-saving benefits to your business on your 2020 return. Contact us if you have questions, or you want more information about how your business can maximize the deductions.

© 2020

Preparing for the possibility of a remote audit

The coming audit season might be much different than seasons of yore. As many companies continue to operate remotely during the COVID-19 pandemic, audit procedures are being adjusted accordingly. Here’s what might change as auditors work on your company’s 2020 year-end financial statements.

Eye on technology

Fortunately, when the pandemic hit, many accounting firms already had invested in staff training and technology to work remotely. For example, they were using cloud computing, remote access, videoconferencing software and drones with cameras. These technologies were intended to reduce business disruptions and costs during normal operating conditions. But they’ve also helped firms adapt while businesses are limiting face-to-face contact to prevent the spread of COVID-19.

When social distancing measures went into effect in the United States around mid-March, many calendar-year audits for 2019 were already done. As we head into the next audit season, be prepared for the possibility that most procedures — from year-end inventory observations to management inquiries and audit testing — to be performed remotely. Before the start of next year’s audit, discuss which technologies your audit team will be using to conduct inquiries, access and verify data, and perform testing procedures.

Emphasis on high-risk areas

During a remote audit, expect your accountant to target three critical areas to help minimize the risk of material misstatement:

1. Internal controls. Historically, auditors have relied on the effectiveness of a client’s controls and testing of controls. Now, they must evaluate how transactions are being processed by employees who work remotely, rather than on-site as in prior periods. Specifically, your auditor will need to consider whether modified controls have been adequately designed and put into place and whether they’re operating effectively.

2. Fraud and financial misstatement. During fieldwork, auditors interview key managers and those charged with governance about fraud risks. These inquiries are most effective when done in person, because auditors can read body language and, if more than one person is present during an interview, judge the dynamics in a room. Auditors may request video conferences to help overcome the shortcomings of inquiries done over the phone or via email.

3. Physical inventory counts. Normally, auditors go where inventory is located and observe the counting process. They also perform independent test counts and check them against the inventory records. Depending on the COVID-19 situation at the time of an audit, auditors may be unable to travel to the company’s facilities, and employees might not be there physically to perform the counts. Drones, videoconferencing and live video feeds from a warehouse’s security cameras may be suitable alternatives to on-site observations.

Modified reports

In some cases, audit firms may be unable to perform certain procedures remotely, due to technology limitations or insufficient access to data needed to comply with all the requirements of the auditing standards. In those situations, your auditor might decide to issue a modified audit report with scope restrictions and limitations. Contact your CPA for more information about remote auditing and possible modifications to your company’s audit report.

© 2020

New business? It’s a good time to start a retirement plan

If you recently launched a business, you may want to set up a tax-favored retirement plan for yourself and your employees. There are several types of qualified plans that are eligible for these tax advantages:

  • A current deduction from income to the employer for contributions to the plan,
  • Tax-free buildup of the value of plan investments, and
  • The deferral of income (augmented by investment earnings) to employees until funds are distributed.

There are two basic types of plans.

Defined benefit pension plans

defined benefit plan provides for a fixed benefit in retirement, based generally upon years of service and compensation. While defined benefit plans generally pay benefits in the form of an annuity (for example, over the life of the participant, or joint lives of the participant and his or her spouse), some defined benefit plans provide for a lump sum payment of benefits. In certain “cash balance plans,” the benefit is typically paid and expressed as a cash lump sum.

Adoption of a defined benefit plan requires a commitment to fund it. These plans often provide the greatest current deduction from income and the greatest retirement benefit, if the business owners are nearing retirement. However, the administrative expenses associated with defined benefit plans (for example, actuarial costs) can make them less attractive than the second type of plan.

Defined contribution plans

defined contribution plan provides for an individual account for each participant. Benefits are based solely on the amount contributed to the participant’s account and any investment income, expenses, gains, losses and forfeitures (usually from departing employees) that may be allocated to a participant’s account. Profit-sharing plans and 401(k)s are defined contribution plans.

A 401(k) plan provides for employer contributions made at the direction of an employee under a salary reduction agreement. Specifically, the employee elects to have a certain amount of pay deferred and contributed by the employer on his or her behalf to the plan. Employee contributions can be made either:

  1. On a pre-tax basis, saving employees current income tax on the amount contributed, or
  2. On an after-tax basis. This includes Roth 401(k) contributions (if permitted), which will allow distributions (including earnings) to be made to the employee tax-free in retirement, if conditions are satisfied.

Automatic-deferral provisions, if adopted, require employees to opt out of participation.

An employer may, or may not, provide matching contributions on behalf of employees who make elective deferrals to the plan. Matching contributions may be subject to a vesting schedule. While 401(k) plans are subject to testing requirements, so that “highly compensated” employees don’t contribute too much more than non-highly-compensated employees, these tests can be avoided if you adopt a “safe harbor” 401(k) plan. A highly compensated employee in 2020 is defined as one who earned more than $130,000 in the preceding year.

There are other types of tax-favored retirement plans within these general categories, including employee stock ownership plans (ESOPs).

Other plans

Small businesses can also adopt a Simplified Employee Pension (SEP), and receive similar tax advantages to “qualified” plans by making contributions on behalf of employees. And a business with 100 or fewer employees can establish a Savings Incentive Match Plan for Employees (SIMPLE). Under a SIMPLE, generally an IRA is established for each employee and the employer makes matching contributions based on contributions elected by employees.

There may be other options. Contact us to discuss the types of retirement plans available to you.

© 2020

Best practices when forecasting cash flow

Money Transfer (isolated with clipping path)

Cash flow is a top concern for most businesses today. Cash flow forecasts can help you predict potential shortfalls and proactively address working capital gaps. They can also help avoid late payments, identify late-paying customers and find alternative sources of funding when cash is tight. To keep your company’s cash flow positive, consider applying these four best practices.

1. Identify peak needs

Many businesses are cyclical, and their cash flow needs may vary by month or season. Trouble can arise when an annual budget doesn’t reflect, for example, three months of peak production in the summer to fill holiday orders followed by a return to normal production in the fall.

For seasonal operations — such as homebuilders, farms, landscaping companies, recreational facilities and many nonprofits — using a one-size-fits-all approach can throw budgets off, sometimes dramatically. It’s critical to identify peak sales and production times, forecast your cash flow needs and plan accordingly.

2. Account for everything

Effective cash flow management requires anticipating and capturing every expense and incoming payment, as well as — to the greatest extent possible — the exact timing of each payable and receivable. But pinpointing exact costs and expenditures for every day of the week can be challenging.

Companies can face an array of additional costs, overruns and payment delays. Although inventorying all possible expenses can be a tedious and time-consuming exercise, it can help avoid problems down the road.

3. Seek sources of contingency funding

As your business expands or contracts, a dedicated line of credit with a bank can help meet your cash flow needs, including any periodic cash shortages. Interest rates on these credit lines can be comparatively high compared to other types of loans. So, lines of credit typically are used to cover only short-term operational costs, such as payroll and supplies. They also may require significant collateral and personal guarantees from the company’s owners.

4. Identify potential obstacles

For most companies, the biggest cash flow obstacle is slow collections from customers. Your business should invoice customers in a timely manner and offer easy, convenient ways for customers to pay (such as online bill pay). For new customers, it’s important to perform a thorough credit check to avoid delayed payments and write-offs.

Another common obstacle is poor resource management. Redundant machinery, misguided investments and oversize offices are just a few examples of poorly managed expenses and overhead that can negatively affect cash flow.

Adjusting as you grow and adapt

Your company’s cash flow needs today likely aren’t what they were three years ago — or even six months ago. And they’ll probably change as you continue to adjust to the new normal. That’s why it’s important to make cash flow forecasting an integral part of your overall business planning. We can help.

© 2020

The 2021 “Social Security wage base” is increasing

If your small business is planning for payroll next year, be aware that the “Social Security wage base” is increasing.

The Social Security Administration recently announced that the maximum earnings subject to Social Security tax will increase from $137,700 in 2020 to $142,800 in 2021.

For 2021, the FICA tax rate for both employers and employees is 7.65% (6.2% for Social Security and 1.45% for Medicare).  

For 2021, the Social Security tax rate is 6.2% each for the employer and employee (12.4% total) on the first $142,800 of employee wages. The tax rate for Medicare is 1.45% each for the employee and employer (2.9% total). There’s no wage base limit for Medicare tax so all covered wages are subject to Medicare tax.

In addition to withholding Medicare tax at 1.45%, an employer must withhold a 0.9% additional Medicare tax from wages paid to an employee in excess of $200,000 in a calendar year.

Employees working more than one job

You may have employees who work for your business and who also have a second job. They may ask if you can stop withholding Social Security taxes at a certain point in the year because they’ve already reached the Social Security wage base amount. Unfortunately, you generally can’t stop the withholding, but the employees will get a credit on their tax returns for any excess withheld.

Older employees 

If your business has older employees, they may have to deal with the “retirement earnings test.” It remains in effect for individuals below normal retirement age (age 65 to 67 depending on the year of birth) who continue to work while collecting Social Security benefits. For affected individuals, $1 in benefits will be withheld for every $2 in earnings above $18,960 in 2021 (up from $18,240 in 2020).

For working individuals collecting benefits who reach normal retirement age in 2021, $1 in benefits will be withheld for every $3 in earnings above $46,920 (up from $48,600 in 2020), until the month that the individual reaches normal retirement age. After that month, there’s no limit on earnings.

Contact us if you have questions. We can assist you with the details of payroll taxes and keep you in compliance with payroll laws and regulations.

© 2020

Avoiding conflicts of interest with auditors

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A conflict of interest could impair your auditor’s objectivity and integrity and potentially compromise you company’s financial statements. That’s why it’s important to identify and manage potential conflicts of interest.

What is a conflict of interest?

According to the America Institute of Certified Public Accountants (AICPA), “A conflict of interest may occur if a member performs a professional service for a client and the member or his or her firm has a relationship with another person, entity, product or service that could, in the member’s professional judgment, be viewed by the client or other appropriate parties as impairing the member’s objectivity.” Companies should be on the lookout for potential conflicts when:

  • Hiring an external auditor,
  • Upgrading the level of assurance from a compilation or review to an audit, and
  • Using the auditor for a non-audit purposes, such as investment advisory services and human resource consulting.

Determining whether a conflict of interest exists requires an analysis of facts. Some conflicts may be obvious, while others may require in-depth scrutiny.

For example, if an auditor recommends an accounting software to an audit client and receives a commission from the software provider, a conflict of interest likely exists. Why? While the software may suit the company’s needs, the payment of a commission calls into question the auditor’s motivation in making the recommendation. That’s why the AICPA prohibits an audit firm from accepting commissions from a third party when it involves a company the firm audits.

Now consider a situation in which a company approaches an audit firm to provide assistance in a legal dispute with another company that’s an existing audit client. Here, given the inside knowledge the audit firm possesses of the company it audits, a conflict of interest likely exists. The audit firm can’t serve both parties to the lawsuit and comply with the AICPA’s ethical and professional standards.

How can auditors prevent potential conflicts?

AICPA standards require audit firms to be vigilant about avoiding potential conflicts. If a potential conflict is unearthed, audit firms have the following options:

  • Seek guidance from legal counsel or a professional body on the best path forward,
  • Disclose the conflict and secure consent from all parties to proceed,
  • Segregate responsibilities within the firm to avoid the potential for conflict, and/or
  • Decline or withdraw from the engagement that’s the source of the conflict.

Ask your auditors about the mechanisms the firm has put in place to identify and manage potential conflicts of interest before and during an engagement. For example, partners and staff members are usually required to complete annual compliance-related questionnaires and participate in education programs that cover conflicts of interest. Firms should monitor conflicts regularly, because circumstances may change over time, for example, due to employee turnover or M&A activity.

For more information

Conflicts of interest are one of the gray areas in auditing. But it’s an issue our firm takes seriously and proactively safeguards against. If you suspect that a conflict exists, contact us to discuss the matter and determine the most appropriate way to handle it.

© 2020

The tax rules for deducting the computer software costs of your business

Do you buy or lease computer software to use in your business? Do you develop computer software for use in your business, or for sale or lease to others? Then you should be aware of the complex rules that apply to determine the tax treatment of the expenses of buying, leasing or developing computer software.

Purchased software

Some software costs are deemed to be costs of “purchased” software, meaning software that’s either:

  • Non-customized software available to the general public under a non-exclusive license or
  • Acquired from a contractor who is at economic risk should the software not perform. 

The entire cost of purchased software can be deducted in the year that it’s placed into service. The cases in which the costs are ineligible for this immediate write-off are the few instances in which 100% bonus depreciation or Section 179 small business expensing isn’t allowed or when a taxpayer has elected out of 100% bonus depreciation and hasn’t made the election to apply Sec. 179 expensing. In those cases, the costs are amortized over the three-year period beginning with the month in which the software is placed in service. Note that the bonus depreciation rate will begin to be phased down for property placed in service after calendar year 2022.

If you buy the software as part of a hardware purchase in which the price of the software isn’t separately stated, you must treat the software cost as part of the hardware cost. Therefore, you must depreciate the software under the same method and over the same period of years that you depreciate the hardware. Additionally, if you buy the software as part of your purchase of all or a substantial part of a business, the software must generally be amortized over 15 years.

Leased software

You must deduct amounts you pay to rent leased software in the tax year they’re paid, if you’re a cash-method taxpayer, or the tax year for which the rentals are accrued, if you’re an accrual-method taxpayer. However, deductions aren’t generally permitted before the years to which the rentals are allocable. Also, if a lease involves total rentals of more than $250,000, special rules may apply.

Software developed by your business

Some software is deemed to be “developed” (designed in-house or by a contractor who isn’t at risk if the software doesn’t perform). For tax years beginning before calendar year 2022, bonus depreciation applies to developed software to the extent described above. If bonus depreciation doesn’t apply, the taxpayer can either deduct the development costs in the year paid or incurred or choose one of several alternative amortization periods over which to deduct the costs. For tax years beginning after calendar year 2021, generally the only allowable treatment will be to amortize the costs over the five-year period beginning with the midpoint of the tax year in which the expenditures are paid or incurred.

If following any of the above rules requires you to change your treatment of software costs, it will usually be necessary for you to obtain IRS consent to the change.

Contact us

We can assist you in applying the tax rules for treating computer software costs in the way that is most advantageous for you.

© 2020

Gifts in kind: New reporting requirements for nonprofits

On September 17, the Financial Accounting Standards Board (FASB) issued an accounting rule that will provide more detailed information about noncash contributions charities and other not-for-profit organizations receive known as “gifts in kind.” Here are the details.

Need for change

Gifts in kind can play an important role in ensuring a charity functions effectively. They may include various goods, services and time. Examples of contributed nonfinancial assets include:

  • Fixed assets, such as land, buildings and equipment,
  • The use of fixed assets or utilities,
  • Materials and supplies, such as food, clothing or pharmaceuticals,
  • Intangible assets, and
  • Recognized contributed services.

Increased scrutiny by state charity officials and legislators over how charities use and report gifts in kind prompted the FASB to beef up the disclosure requirements. Specifically, some state legislators have been concerned about the potential for charities to overvalue gifts in kind and use the figures to prop up financial information to appear more efficient than they really are. Other worries include the potential for a nonprofit to hide wasteful use of its resources.

Enhanced transparency

Accounting Standards Update (ASU) 2020-07, Not-for-Profit Entities (Topic 958): Presentation and Disclosures by Not-for-Profit Entities for Contributed Nonfinancial Assets, aims to give donors better information without causing nonprofits too much cost to provide the information.

The updated standard will provide more prominent presentation of gifts in kind by requiring nonprofits to show contributed nonfinancial assets as a separate line item in the statement of activities, apart from contributions of cash and other financial assets. It also calls for enhanced disclosures about the valuation of those contributions and their use in programs and other activities.

Specifically, nonprofits will be required to split out the amount of contributed nonfinancial assets it receives by category and in footnotes to financial statements. For each category, the nonprofit will be required to disclose the following:

  • Qualitative information about whether contributed nonfinancial assets were either monetized or used during the reporting period and, if used, a description of the programs or other activities in which those assets were used,
  • The nonprofit’s policy (if any) for monetizing rather than using contributed nonfinancial assets,
  • A description of any associated donor restrictions,
  • A description of the valuation techniques and inputs used to arrive at a fair value measure, in accordance with the requirements in Topic 820, Fair Value Measurement, at initial recognition, and
  • The principal market (or most advantageous market) used to arrive at a fair value measurement if it is a market in which the recipient nonprofit is prohibited by donor restrictions from selling or using the contributed nonfinancial asset.

The new rule won’t change the recognition and measurement requirements for those assets, however.

Coming soon

ASU 2020-07 takes effect for annual periods after June 15, 2021, and interim periods within fiscal years after June 15, 2022. Retrospective application is required, and early application is permitted. Contact us for more information.

© 2020

Business website costs: How to handle them for tax purposes

The business use of websites is widespread. But surprisingly, the IRS hasn’t yet issued formal guidance on when Internet website costs can be deducted.

Fortunately, established rules that generally apply to the deductibility of business costs, and IRS guidance that applies to software costs, provide business taxpayers launching a website with some guidance as to the proper treatment of the costs.

Hardware or software?

Let’s start with 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 2020, the maximum Sec. 179 deduction is $1.04 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 2020 is $2.59 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.

Was the software developed internally?

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.

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

Are you paying a third party?

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.

What about 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. 

Need Help?

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

© 2020

Why face-to-face meetings with your auditor are important

Woman having video chat on laptop at at office

Remote audit procedures can help streamline the audit process and protect the parties from health risks during the COVID-19 crisis. However, seeing people can be essential when it comes to identifying and assessing fraud risks during a financial statement audit. Virtual face-to-face meetings can be the solution.

Asking questions

Auditing standards require auditors to identify and assess the risks of material misstatement due to fraud and to determine overall and specific responses to those risks. Specific areas of inquiry under Clarified Statement on Auditing Standards (AU-C) Section 240, Consideration of Fraud in a Financial Statement Audit include:

  • Whether management has knowledge of any actual, suspected or alleged fraud,
  • Management’s process for identifying, responding to and monitoring the fraud risks in the entity,
  • The nature, extent and frequency of management’s assessment of fraud risks and the results of those assessments,
  • Any specific fraud risks that management has identified or that have been brought to its attention, and
  • The classes of transactions, account balances or disclosures for which a fraud risk is likely to exist.

In addition, auditors will inquire about management’s communications, if any, to those charged with governance about the management team’s process for identifying and responding to fraud risks, and to employees on its views on appropriate business practices and ethical behavior.

Seeing is believing

Traditionally, auditors require in-person meetings with managers and others to discuss fraud risks. That’s because a large part of uncovering fraud involves picking up on nonverbal cues of dishonesty. In a face-to-face interview, the auditor can, for example, observe signs of stress on the part of the interviewee in responding to the question.

However, during the COVID-19 pandemic, in-person meetings may give rise to safety concerns, especially if either party is an older adult or has underlying medical conditions that increase the risk for severe illness from COVID-19 (or lives with a person who’s at high risk). In-person meetings with face masks also aren’t ideal from an audit perspective, because they can muffle speech and limit the interviewer’s ability to observe facial expressions.

A videoconference can help address both of these issues. Though some people may prefer the simplicity of telephone or audioconferences, the use of up-to-date videoconferencing technology can help retain the visual benefits of in-person interviews. For example, high-definition videoconferencing equipment can allow auditors to detect slight physical changes, such as smirks, eyerolls, wrinkled brows and even beads of sweat. These nonverbal cues may be critical to assessing an interviewee’s honesty and reliability.

Risky business

Evaluating fraud risks is a critical part of your auditor’s responsibilities. You can facilitate this process by anticipating the types of questions your auditor will ask and ensuring your managers and accounting personnel are all familiar with how videoconferencing technology works. Contact us for more information.

© 2020