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

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

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

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

Different approaches

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

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

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

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

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

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

Minimize taxes

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

© 2019

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

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

401(k) plan

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

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

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

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

Other tax-favored plans

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

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

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

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

Many choices

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

© 2019

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

What To Do If Your Business Receives a “No-Match” Letter

In the past few months, many businesses and employers nationwide have received “no-match” letters from the Social Security Administration (SSA). The purpose of these letters is to alert employers if there’s a discrepancy between the agency’s files and data reported on W-2 forms, which are given to employees and filed with the IRS. Specifically, they point out that an employee’s name and Social Security number (SSN) don’t match the government’s records.

According to the SSA, the purpose of the letters is to “advise employers that corrections are needed in order for us to properly post” employees’ earnings to the correct records. If a person’s earnings are missing, the worker may not qualify for all of the Social Security benefits he or she is entitled to, or the benefit received may be incorrect. The no-match letters began going out in the spring of 2019.

Why discrepancies occur

There are a number of reasons why names and SSNs don’t match. They include typographical errors when inputting numbers and name changes due to marriage or divorce. And, of course, employees could intentionally give the wrong information to employers, as is sometimes the case with undocumented workers.

Some lawmakers, including Democrats on the U.S. House Ways and Means Committee, have expressed opposition to no-match letters. In a letter to the SSA Commissioner, they wrote that, under “the current immigration enforcement climate,” employers might “mistakenly believe that the no-match letter indicates that workers lack immigration status and will fire these workers — even those who can legally work in the United States.”

How to proceed

If you receive a no-match letter telling you that an employee’s name and SSN don’t match IRS records, the SSA gives the following advice:

  • Check to see if your information matches the name and SSN on the employee’s Social Security card. If it doesn’t, ask the employee to provide you with the exact information as it is shown on the card.
  • If the information matches the employee’s card, ask your employee to check with the local Social Security office to resolve the issue.
  • Once resolved, the employee should inform you of any changes.

The SSA notes that the IRS is responsible for any penalties associated with W-2 forms that have incorrect information. If you have questions, contact us or check out these frequently asked questions from the SSA: https://bit.ly/2Yv87M6

© 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

Businesses Can Utilize The Same Information IRS Auditors Use To Examine Tax Returns

The IRS uses Audit Techniques Guides (ATGs) to help IRS examiners get ready for audits. Your business can use the same guides to gain insight into what the IRS is looking for in terms of compliance with tax laws and regulations.

Many ATGs target specific industries or businesses, such as construction, aerospace, art galleries, child care providers and veterinary medicine. Others address issues that frequently arise in audits, such as executive compensation, passive activity losses and capitalization of tangible property.

How they’re used

IRS auditors need to examine all types of businesses, as well as individual taxpayers and tax-exempt organizations. Each type of return might have unique industry issues, business practices and terminology. Before meeting with taxpayers and their advisors, auditors do their homework to understand various industries or issues, the accounting methods commonly used, how income is received, and areas where taxpayers may not be in compliance.

By using a specific ATG, an auditor may be able to reconcile discrepancies when reported income or expenses aren’t consistent with what’s normal for the industry or to identify anomalies within the geographic area in which the business is located.

For example, one ATG focuses specifically on businesses that deal in cash, such as auto repair shops, car washes, check-cashing operations, gas stations, laundromats, liquor stores, restaurants., bars, and salons. The “Cash Intensive Businesses” ATG tells auditors “a financial status analysis including both business and personal financial activities should be done.” It explains techniques such as:

  • How to examine businesses with and without cash registers,
  • What a company’s books and records may reveal,
  • How to analyze bank deposits and checks written from known bank accounts,
  • What to look for when touring a business,
  • Ways to uncover hidden family transactions,
  • How cash invoices found in an audit of one business may lead to another business trying to hide income by dealing mainly in cash.

Auditors are obviously looking for cash-intensive businesses that underreport their cash receipts but how this is uncovered varies. For example, when examining a restaurants or bar, auditors are told to ask about net profits compared to the industry average, spillage, pouring averages and tipping.

Learn the red flags

Although ATGs were created to help IRS examiners ferret out common methods of hiding income and inflating deductions, they also can help businesses ensure they aren’t engaging in practices that could raise audit red flags. Contact us if you have questions about your business. For a complete list of ATGs, visit the IRS website here: https://bit.ly/2rh7umD

© 2019