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

Reasons Why Cash is King

Dollar Pipeline – lots of 20 Dollar Bills building a tube.

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

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

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

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 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

Should You Elect S Corporation Status?

Operating a business as an S corporation may provide many advantages, including limited liability for owners and no double taxation (at least at the federal level). Self-employed people may also be able to lower their exposure to Social Security and Medicare taxes if they structure their businesses as S corps for federal tax purposes. But not all businesses are eligible — and with changes under the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act, S corps may not be as appealing as they once were.

Compare and contrast

The main reason why businesses elect S corp status is to obtain the limited liability of a corporation and the ability to pass corporate income, losses, deductions and credits through to shareholders. In other words, S corps generally avoid double taxation of corporate income — once at the corporate level and again when it’s distributed to shareholders. Instead, tax items pass through to the shareholders’ personal returns, and they pay tax at their individual income tax rates.

But double taxation may be less of a concern today due to the 21% flat income tax rate that now applies to C corporations. Meanwhile, the top individual income tax rate is 37%. S corp owners may be able to take advantage of the qualified business income (QBI) deduction, which can be equal to as much as 20% of QBI.

In order to assess S corp status, you have to run the numbers with your tax advisor, and factor in state taxes to determine which structure will be the most beneficial for you and your business.

S corp qualifications

If you decide to go the S corp route, make sure you qualify and will stay qualified. To be eligible to elect to be an S corp or to convert, your business must:

  • Be a domestic corporation,
  • Have only one class of stock,
  • Have no more than 100 shareholders, and
  • Have only “allowable” shareholders, including individuals, certain trusts and estates. Shareholders can’t include partnerships, corporations and nonresident alien shareholders.

In addition, certain businesses are ineligible, such as financial institutions and insurance companies.

Base compensation on what’s reasonable

Another important consideration when electing S status is shareholder compensation. One strategy for paying less in Social Security and Medicare employment taxes is to pay modest salaries to yourself and any other S corp shareholder-employees. Then, pay out the remaining corporate cash flow (after you’ve retained enough in the company’s accounts to sustain normal business operations) as federal-employment-tax-free cash distributions.

However, the IRS is on the lookout for S corps that pay shareholder-employees unreasonably low salaries to avoid paying employment taxes and then make distributions that aren’t subject to those taxes.

Paying yourself a modest salary will work if you can prove that your salary is reasonable based on market levels for similar jobs. Otherwise, you run the risk of the IRS auditing your business and imposing back employment taxes, interest and penalties. We can help you decide on a salary and gather proof that it’s reasonable.

Consider all angles

Contact us if you think being an S corporation might help reduce your tax bill while still providing liability protection. We can help with the mechanics of making an election or making a conversion, under applicable state law, and then handling the post-conversion tax issues.

© 2019

2019 Q4 Tax Calendar: Key Deadlines for Businesses and Other Employers

Here are some of the key tax-related deadlines affecting businesses and other employers during the fourth quarter of 2019. Keep in mind that this list isn’t all-inclusive, so there may be additional deadlines that apply to you. Contact us to ensure you’re meeting all applicable deadlines and to learn more about the filing requirements.

October 15

  • If a calendar-year C corporation that filed an automatic six-month extension:
    • File a 2018 income tax return (Form 1120) and pay any tax, interest and penalties due.
    • Make contributions for 2018 to certain employer-sponsored retirement plans.

October 31

  • Report income tax withholding and FICA taxes for third quarter 2019 (Form 941) and pay any tax due. (See exception below under “November 12.”)

November 12

  • Report income tax withholding and FICA taxes for third quarter 2019 (Form 941), if you deposited on time (and in full) all of the associated taxes due.

December 16

  • If a calendar-year C corporation, pay the fourth installment of 2019 estimated income taxes.

© 2019

The IRS is Targeting Business Transactions in Bitcoin and Other Virtual Currencies

Cryptocurrency and blockchain. Platform creation of digital currency. Web business, analytics and management.

Bitcoin and other forms of virtual currency are gaining popularity. But many businesses, consumers, employees and investors are still confused about how they work and how to report transactions on their federal tax returns. And the IRS just announced that it is targeting virtual currency users in a new “educational letter” campaign.

The nuts and bolts

Unlike cash or credit cards, small businesses generally don’t accept bitcoin payments for routine transactions. However, a growing number of larger retailers — and online businesses — now accept payments. Businesses can also pay employees or independent contractors with virtual currency. The trend is expected to continue, so more small businesses may soon get on board.

Bitcoin has an equivalent value in real currency. It can be digitally traded between users. You can also purchase and exchange bitcoin with real currencies (such as U.S. dollars). The most common ways to obtain bitcoin are through virtual currency ATMs or online exchanges, which typically charge nominal transaction fees.

Once you (or your customers) obtain bitcoin, it can be used to pay for goods or services using “bitcoin wallet” software installed on your computer or mobile device. Some merchants accept bitcoin to avoid transaction fees charged by credit card companies and online payment providers (such as PayPal).

Tax reporting

Virtual currency has triggered many tax-related questions. The IRS has issued limited guidance to address them. In a 2014 guidance, the IRS established that virtual currency should be treated as property, not currency, for federal tax purposes.

As a result, businesses that accept bitcoin payments for goods and services must report gross income based on the fair market value of the virtual currency when it was received. This is measured in equivalent U.S. dollars.

From the buyer’s perspective, purchases made using bitcoin result in a taxable gain if the fair market value of the property received exceeds the buyer’s adjusted basis in the currency exchanged. Conversely, a tax loss is incurred if the fair market value of the property received is less than its adjusted tax basis.

Wages paid using virtual currency are taxable to employees and must be reported by employers on W-2 forms. They’re subject to federal income tax withholding and payroll taxes, based on the fair market value of the virtual currency on the date of receipt.

Virtual currency payments made to independent contractors and other service providers are also taxable. In general, the rules for self-employment tax apply and payers must issue 1099-MISC forms.

IRS campaign

The IRS announced it is sending letters to taxpayers who potentially failed to report income and pay tax on virtual currency transactions or didn’t report them properly. The letters urge taxpayers to review their tax filings and, if appropriate, amend past returns to pay back taxes, interest and penalties.

By the end of August, more than 10,000 taxpayers will receive these letters. The names of the taxpayers were obtained through compliance efforts undertaken by the IRS. The IRS Commissioner warned, “The IRS is expanding our efforts involving virtual currency, including increased use of data analytics.”

Last year, the tax agency also began an audit initiative to address virtual currency noncompliance and has stated that it’s an ongoing focus area for criminal cases.

Implications of going virtual

Contact us if you have questions about the tax considerations of accepting virtual currency or using it to make payments for your business. And if you receive a letter from the IRS about possible noncompliance, consult with us before responding.

© 2019

FAQs About CAMs

In July, the Public Company Accounting Oversight Board (PCAOB) published two guides to help clarify a new rule that requires auditors of public companies to disclose critical audit matters (CAMs) in their audit reports. The rule represents a major change to the brief pass-fail auditor reports that have been in place for decades.

One PCAOB guide is intended for investors, the other for audit committees. Both provide answers to frequently asked questions about CAMs.

What is a CAM?

CAMs are the sole responsibility of the auditor, not the audit committee or the company’s management. The PCAOB defines CAMs as issues that:

  • Have been communicated to the audit committee,
  • Are related to accounts or disclosures that are material to the financial statements, and
  • Involve especially challenging, subjective or complex judgments from the auditor.

Examples might include complex valuations of indefinite-lived intangible assets, uncertain tax positions and goodwill impairment.

Does reporting a CAM indicate a misstatement or deficiency?

CAMs aren’t intended to reflect negatively on the company or indicate that the auditor found a misstatement or deficiencies in internal control over financial reporting. They don’t alter the auditor’s opinion on the financial statements.

Instead, CAMs provide information to stakeholders about issues that came up during the audit that required especially challenging, subjective or complex auditor judgment. Auditors also must describe how the CAMs were addressed in the audit and identify relevant financial statement accounts or disclosures that relate to the CAM.

CAMs vary depending on the nature and complexity of the audit. Auditors for companies within the same industry may report different CAMs. And auditors may encounter different CAMs for the same company from year to year.

For example, as a company is implementing a new accounting standard, the issue may be reported as a CAM, because it requires complex auditor judgment. This issue may not require the same level of auditor judgment the next year, or it might be a CAM for different reasons than in the year of implementation.

When does the rule go into effect?

Disclosure of CAMs in audit reports will be required for audits of fiscal years ending on or after June 30, 2019, for large accelerated filers, and for fiscal years ending on or after December 15, 2020, for all other companies to which the requirement applies.

The new rule doesn’t apply to audits of emerging growth companies (EGCs), which are companies that have less than $1 billion in revenue and meet certain other requirements. This class of companies gets a host of regulatory breaks for five years after becoming public, under the Jumpstart Our Business Startups (JOBS) Act.

Coming soon

PCAOB Chairman James Doty has promised that CAMs will “breathe life into the audit report and give investors the information they’ve been asking for from auditors.” Contact us for more information about CAMs.

© 2019