Small Business Tax briefs
Employers: Be aware (or beware) of a harsh payroll tax penalty
If federal income tax and employment taxes (including Social Security) are withheld from employees’ paychecks and not handed over to the IRS, a harsh penalty can be imposed. To make matters worse, the penalty can be assessed personally against a “responsible individual.”
If a business makes payroll tax payments late, there are escalating penalties. And if an employer fails to make them, the IRS will crack down hard. With the “Trust Fund Recovery Penalty,” also known as the “100% Penalty,” the IRS can assess the entire unpaid amount against a responsible person who willfully fails to comply with the law.
Some business owners and executives facing a cash flow crunch may be tempted to dip into the payroll taxes withheld from employees. They may think, “I’ll send the money in later when it comes in from another source.” Bad idea!
No corporate protection
The corporate veil won’t shield corporate officers in these cases. Unlike some other liability protections that a corporation or limited liability company may have, business owners and executives can’t escape personal liability for payroll tax debts.
Once the IRS asserts the penalty, it can file a lien or take levy or seizure action against a responsible individual’s personal assets.
The penalty can be assessed against a shareholder, owner, director, officer, or employee. In some cases, it can be assessed against a third party. The IRS can also go after more than one person. To be liable, an individual or party must:
- Be responsible for collecting, accounting for, and paying over withheld federal taxes, and
- Willfully fail to pay over those taxes. That means intentionally, deliberately, voluntarily and knowingly disregarding the requirements of the law.
The easiest way out of a delinquent payroll tax mess is to avoid getting into one in the first place. If you’re involved in a small or medium-size business, make sure the federal taxes that have been withheld from employees’ paychecks are paid over to the government on time. Don’t ever allow “borrowing” from withheld amounts.
Consider hiring an outside service to handle payroll duties. A good payroll service provider relieves you of the burden of paying employees, making the deductions, taking care of the tax payments and handling recordkeeping. Contact us for more information.
Hire your children this summer: Everyone wins
If you’re a business owner and you hire your children (or grandchildren) this summer, you can obtain tax breaks and other nontax benefits. The kids can gain on-the-job experience, save for college and learn how to manage money. And you may be able to:
- Shift your high-taxed income into tax-free or low-taxed income,
- Realize payroll tax savings (depending on the child’s age and how your business is organized), and
- Enable retirement plan contributions for the children.
It must be a real job
When you hire your child, you get a business tax deduction for employee wage expenses. In turn, the deduction reduces your federal income tax bill, your self-employment tax bill (if applicable), and your state income tax bill (if applicable). However, in order for your business to deduct the wages as a business expense, the work performed by the child must be legitimate and the child’s salary must be reasonable.
For example, let’s say a business owner operates as a sole proprietor and is in the 37% tax bracket. He hires his 16-year-old son to help with office work on a full-time basis during the summer and part-time into the fall. The son earns $10,000 during 2019 and doesn’t have any other earnings.
The business owner saves $3,700 (37% of $10,000) in income taxes at no tax cost to his son, who can use his 2019 $12,200 standard deduction to completely shelter his earnings.
The family’s taxes are cut even if the son’s earnings exceed his or her standard deduction. The reason is that the unsheltered earnings will be taxed to the son beginning at a rate of 10%, instead of being taxed at his father’s higher rate.
How payroll taxes might be saved
If your business isn’t incorporated, your child’s wages are exempt from Social Security, Medicare and FUTA taxes if certain conditions are met. Your child must be under age 18 for this to apply (or under age 21 in the case of the FUTA tax exemption). Contact us for how this works.
Be aware that there’s no FICA or FUTA exemption for employing a child if your business is incorporated or a partnership that includes nonparent partners.
Start saving for retirement early
Your business also may be able to provide your child with retirement benefits, depending on the type of plan you have and how it defines qualifying employees. And because your child has earnings from his or her job, he can contribute to a traditional IRA or Roth IRA. For the 2018 tax year, a working child can contribute the lesser of his or her earned income, or $6,000 to an IRA or a Roth.
Raising tax-smart children
As you can see, hiring your child can be a tax-smart idea. Be sure to keep the same records as you would for other employees to substantiate the hours worked and duties performed (such as timesheets and job descriptions). Issue your child a Form W-2. If you have any questions about how these rules apply to your situation, don’t hesitate to contact us.
Consider a Roth 401(k) plan — and make sure employees use it
Roth 401(k) accounts have been around for 13 years now. Studies show that more employers are offering them each year. A recent study by the Plan Sponsor Council of America (PSCA) found that Roth 401(k)s are now available at 70% of employer plans, up from 55.6% of plans in 2016.
However, despite the prevalence of employers offering Roth 401(k)s, most employees aren’t choosing to contribute to them. The PSCA found that only 20% of participants who have access to a Roth 401(k) made contributions to one in 2017. Perhaps it’s because they don’t understand them.
If you offer a Roth 401(k) or you’re considering one, educate your employees about the accounts to boost participation.
A 401(k) with a twist
As the name implies, these plans are a hybrid — taking some characteristics from Roth IRAs and some from employer-sponsored 401(k)s.
An employer with a 401(k), 403(b) or governmental 457(b) plan can offer designated Roth 401(k) accounts.
As with traditional 401(k)s, eligible employees can elect to defer part of their salaries to Roth 401(k)s, subject to annual limits. The employer may choose to provide matching contributions. For 2019, a participating employee can contribute up to $19,000 ($25,000 if he or she is age 50 or older) to a Roth 401(k). The most you can contribute to a Roth IRA for 2019 is $6,000 ($7,000 for those age 50 or older).
Note: The ability to contribute to a Roth IRA is phased out for upper-income taxpayers, but there’s no such restriction for a Roth 401(k).
The pros and cons
Unlike with traditional 401(k)s, contributions to employees’ accounts are made with after-tax dollars, instead of pretax dollars. Therefore, employees forfeit a key 401(k) tax benefit. On the plus side, after an initial period of five years, “qualified distributions” are 100% exempt from federal income tax, just like qualified distributions from a Roth IRA. In contrast, regular 401(k) distributions are taxed at ordinary-income rates, which are currently up to 37%.
In general, qualified distributions are those:
- Made after a participant reaches age 59½, or
- Made due to death or disability.
Therefore, you can take qualified Roth 401(k) distributions in retirement after age 59½ and pay no tax, as opposed to the hefty tax bill that may be due from traditional 401(k) payouts. And unlike traditional 401(k)s, which currently require retirees to begin taking required minimum distributions after age 70½, Roth 401(k)s have no mandate to take withdrawals.
Not for everyone
A Roth 401(k) is more beneficial than a traditional 401(k) for some participants, but not all. For example, it may be valuable for employees who expect to be in higher federal and state tax brackets in retirement. Contact us if you have questions about adding a Roth 401(k) to your benefits lineup.
What type of expenses can’t be written off by your business?
If you read the Internal Revenue Code (and you probably don’t want to!), you may be surprised to find that most business deductions aren’t specifically listed. It doesn’t explicitly state that you can deduct office supplies and certain other expenses.
Some expenses are detailed in the tax code, but the general rule is contained in the first sentence of Section 162, which states you can write off “all the ordinary and necessary expenses paid or incurred during the taxable year in carrying on any trade or business.”
In general, an expense is ordinary if it’s considered common or customary in the particular trade or business. For example, insurance premiums to protect a store would be an ordinary business expense in the retail industry.
A necessary expense is defined as one that’s helpful or appropriate. For example, let’s say a car dealership purchases an automatic defibrillator. It may not be necessary for the operation of the business, but it might be helpful and appropriate if an employee or customer suffers a heart attack.
It’s possible for an ordinary expense to be unnecessary — but, in order to be deductible, an expense must be ordinary and necessary.
In addition, a deductible amount must be reasonable in relation to the benefit expected. For example, if you’re attempting to land a $3,000 deal, a $65 lunch with a potential client should be OK with the IRS. (Keep in mind that the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act eliminated most deductions for entertainment expenses but retains the 50% deduction for business meals.)
Examples of not ordinary and unnecessary
Not surprisingly, the IRS and courts don’t always agree with taxpayers about what qualifies as ordinary and necessary expenditures.
In one case, a man engaged in a business with his brother was denied deductions for his private airplane expenses. The U.S. Tax Court noted that the taxpayer had failed to prove the expenses were ordinary and necessary to the business. In addition, only one brother used the plane and the flights were to places that the taxpayer could have driven to or flown to on a commercial airline. And, in any event, the stated expenses including depreciation expenses, weren’t adequately substantiated, the court added. (TC Memo 2018-108)
In another case, the Tax Court ruled that a business owner wasn’t entitled to deduct legal and professional fees he’d incurred in divorce proceedings defending his ex-wife’s claims to his interest in, or portion of, distributions he received from his LLC. The IRS and the court ruled the divorce legal fees were nondeductible personal expenses and weren’t ordinary and necessary. (TC Memo 2018-80)
Proceed with caution
The deductibility of some expenses is clear. But for other expenses, it can get more complicated. Generally, if an expense seems like it’s not normal in your industry — or if it could be considered fun, personal or extravagant in nature — you should proceed with caution. And keep records to substantiate the expenses you’re deducting. Consult with us for guidance.
Employee vs. independent contractor: How should you handle worker classification?
Many employers prefer to classify workers as independent contractors to lower costs, even if it means having less control over a worker’s day-to-day activities. But the government is on the lookout for businesses that classify workers as independent contractors simply to reduce taxes or avoid their employee benefit obligations.
Why it matters
When your business classifies a worker as an employee, you generally must withhold federal income tax and the employee’s share of Social Security and Medicare taxes from his or her wages. Your business must then pay the employer’s share of these taxes, pay federal unemployment tax, file federal payroll tax returns and follow other burdensome IRS and U.S. Department of Labor rules.
You may also have to pay state and local unemployment and workers’ compensation taxes and comply with more rules. Dealing with all this can cost a bundle each year.
On the other hand, with independent contractor status, you don’t have to worry about employment tax issues. You also don’t have to provide fringe benefits like health insurance, retirement plans and paid vacations. If you pay $600 or more to an independent contractor during the year, you must file a Form 1099-MISC with the IRS and send a copy to the worker to report what you paid. That’s basically the extent of your bureaucratic responsibilities.
But if you incorrectly treat a worker as an independent contractor — and the IRS decides the worker is actually an employee — your business could be assessed unpaid payroll taxes plus interest and penalties. You also could be liable for employee benefits that should have been provided but weren’t, including penalties under federal laws.
Filing an IRS form
To find out if a worker is an employee or an independent contractor, you can file optional IRS Form SS-8, “Determination of Worker Status for Purposes of Federal Employment Taxes and Income Tax Withholding.” Then, the IRS will let you know how to classify a worker. However, be aware that the IRS has a history of classifying workers as employees rather than independent contractors.
Businesses should consult with us before filing Form SS-8 because it may alert the IRS that your business has worker classification issues — and inadvertently trigger an employment tax audit.
It can be better to simply treat independent contractors so the relationships comply with the tax rules. This generally includes not controlling how the workers perform their duties, ensuring that you’re not the workers’ only customer, providing annual Forms 1099 and, basically, not treating the workers like employees.
Workers can also ask for a determination
Workers who want an official determination of their status can also file Form SS-8. Disgruntled independent contractors may do so because they feel entitled to employee benefits and want to eliminate self-employment tax liabilities.
If a worker files Form SS-8, the IRS will send a letter to the business. It identifies the worker and includes a blank Form SS-8. The business is asked to complete and return the form to the IRS, which will render a classification decision.
Defending your position
If your business properly handles independent contractors, don’t panic if a worker files a Form SS-8. Contact us before replying to the IRS. With a proper response, you may be able to continue to classify the worker as a contractor. We also can assist you in setting up independent contractor relationships that stand up to IRS scrutiny.
Deducting business meal expenses under today’s tax rules
In the course of operating your business, you probably spend time and money “wining and dining” current or potential customers, vendors and employees. What can you deduct on your tax return for these expenses? The rules changed under the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act (TCJA), but you can still claim some valuable write-offs.
No more entertainment deductions
One of the biggest changes is that you can no longer deduct most business-related entertainment expenses. Beginning in 2018, the TCJA disallows deductions for entertainment expenses, including those for sports events, theater productions, golf outings and fishing trips.
Meal deductions still allowed
You can still deduct 50% of the cost of food and beverages for meals conducted with business associates. However, you need to follow three basic rules in order to prove that your expenses are business related:
- The expenses must be “ordinary and necessary” in carrying on your business. This means your food and beverage costs are customary and appropriate. They shouldn’t be lavish or extravagant.
- The expenses must be directly related or associated with your business. This means that you expect to receive a concrete business benefit from them. The principal purpose for the meal must be business. You can’t go out with a group of friends for the evening, discuss business with one of them for a few minutes, and then write off the check.
- You must be able to substantiate the expenses. There are requirements for proving that meal and beverage expenses qualify for a deduction. You must be able to establish the amount spent, the date and place where the meals took place, the business purpose and the business relationship of the people involved.
Set up detailed recordkeeping procedures to keep track of business meal costs. That way, you can prove them and the business connection in the event of an IRS audit.
What if you spend money on food and beverages at an entertainment event? The IRS clarified in guidance (Notice 2018-76) that taxpayers can still deduct 50% of food and drink expenses incurred at entertainment events, but only if business was conducted during the event or shortly before or after. The food-and-drink expenses should also be “stated separately from the cost of the entertainment on one or more bills, invoices or receipts,” according to the guidance.
Another related tax law change involves meals provided to employees on the business premises. Before the TCJA, these meals provided to an employee for the convenience of the employer were 100% deductible by the employer. Beginning in 2018, meals provided for the convenience of an employer in an on-premises cafeteria or elsewhere on the business property are only 50% deductible. After 2025, these meals won’t be deductible at all.
As you can see, the treatment of meal and entertainment expenses became more complicated after the TCJA. Your tax advisor can keep you up to speed on the issues and suggest strategies to get the biggest tax-saving bang for your business meal bucks.
Divorcing business owners need to pay attention to tax implications
If you’re getting a divorce, you know it’s a highly stressful time. But if you’re a business owner, tax issues can complicate matters even more. Your business ownership interest is one of your biggest personal assets and your marital property will include all or part of it.
Transferring property tax-free
You can generally divide most assets, including cash and business ownership interests, between you and your soon-to-be ex-spouse without any federal income or gift tax consequences. When an asset falls under this tax-free transfer rule, the spouse who receives the asset takes over its existing tax basis (for tax gain or loss purposes) and its existing holding period (for short-term or long-term holding period purposes).
For example, let’s say that, under the terms of your divorce agreement, you give your house to your spouse in exchange for keeping 100% of the stock in your business. That asset swap would be tax-free. And the existing basis and holding periods for the home and the stock would carry over to the person who receives them.
Tax-free transfers can occur before the divorce or at the time it becomes final. Tax-free treatment also applies to postdivorce transfers so long as they’re made “incident to divorce.” This means transfers that occur within:
- A year after the date the marriage ends, or
- Six years after the date the marriage ends if the transfers are made pursuant to your divorce agreement.
Future tax implications
Eventually, there will be tax implications for assets received tax-free in a divorce settlement. The ex-spouse who winds up owning an appreciated asset — when the fair market value exceeds the tax basis — generally must recognize taxable gain when it’s sold (unless an exception applies).
What if your ex-spouse receives 49% of your highly appreciated small business stock? Thanks to the tax-free transfer rule, there’s no tax impact when the shares are transferred. Your ex will continue to apply the same tax rules as if you had continued to own the shares, including carryover basis and carryover holding period. When your ex-spouse ultimately sells the shares, he or she will owe any capital gains taxes. You will owe nothing.
Note that the person who winds up owning appreciated assets must pay the built-in tax liability that comes with them. From a net-of-tax perspective, appreciated assets are worth less than an equal amount of cash or other assets that haven’t appreciated. That’s why you should always take taxes into account when negotiating your divorce agreement.
In addition, the IRS now extends the beneficial tax-free transfer rule to ordinary-income assets, not just to capital-gains assets. For example, if you transfer business receivables or inventory to your ex-spouse in divorce, these types of ordinary-income assets can also be transferred tax-free. When the asset is later sold, converted to cash or exercised (in the case of nonqualified stock options), the person who owns the asset at that time must recognize the income and pay the tax liability.
Avoid adverse tax consequences
Like many major life events, divorce can have major tax implications. For example, you may receive an unexpected tax bill if you don’t carefully handle the splitting up of qualified retirement plan accounts (such as a 401(k) plan) and IRAs. And if you own a business, the stakes are higher. Your tax advisor can help you minimize the adverse tax consequences of settling your divorce under today’s laws.
Will leasing equipment or buying it be more tax efficient for your business?
Recent changes to federal tax law and accounting rules could affect whether you decide to lease or buy equipment or other fixed assets. Although there’s no universal “right” choice, many businesses that formerly leased assets are now deciding to buy them.
Pros and cons of leasing
From a cash flow perspective, leasing can be more attractive than buying. And leasing does provide some tax benefits: Lease payments generally are tax deductible as “ordinary and necessary” business expenses. (Annual deduction limits may apply.)
Leasing used to be advantageous from a financial reporting standpoint. But new accounting rules that bring leases to the lessee’s balance sheet go into effect in 2020 for calendar-year private companies. So, lease obligations will show up as liabilities, similar to purchased assets that are financed with traditional bank loans.
Leasing also has some potential drawbacks. Over the long run, leasing an asset may cost you more than buying it, and leasing doesn’t provide any buildup of equity. What’s more, you’re generally locked in for the entire lease term. So, you’re obligated to keep making lease payments even if you stop using the equipment. If the lease allows you to opt out before the term expires, you may have to pay an early-termination fee.
Pros and cons of buying
Historically, the primary advantage of buying over leasing has been that you’re free to use the assets as you see fit. But an advantage that has now come to the forefront is that Section 179 expensing and first-year bonus depreciation can provide big tax savings in the first year an asset is placed in service.
These two tax breaks were dramatically enhanced by the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act (TCJA) — enough so that you may be convinced to buy assets that your business might have leased in the past. Many businesses will be able to write off the full cost of most equipment in the year it’s purchased. Any remainder is eligible for regular depreciation deductions over IRS-prescribed schedules.
The primary downside of buying fixed assets is that you’re generally required to pay the full cost upfront or in installments, although the Sec. 179 and bonus depreciation tax benefits are still available for property that’s financed. If you finance a purchase through a bank, a down payment of at least 20% of the cost is usually required. This could tie up funds and affect your credit rating. If you decide to finance fixed asset purchases, be aware that the TCJA limits interest expense deductions (for businesses with more than $25 million in average annual gross receipts) to 30% of adjusted taxable income.
When deciding whether to lease or buy a fixed asset, there are a multitude of factors to consider, including tax implications. We can help you determine the approach that best suits your circumstances.
The home office deduction: Actual expenses vs. the simplified method
If you run your business from your home or perform certain functions at home that are related to your business, you might be able to claim a home office deduction against your business income on your 2018 income tax return. There are now two methods for claiming this deduction: the actual expenses method and the simplified method.
Basics of the deduction
In general, you’ll qualify for a home office deduction if part of your home is used “regularly and exclusively” as your principal place of business.
If your home isn’t your principal place of business, you may still be able to deduct home office expenses if 1) you physically meet with patients, clients or customers on your premises, or 2) you use a storage area in your home (or a separate free-standing structure, such as a garage) exclusively and regularly for your business.
Traditionally, taxpayers have deducted actual expenses when they claim a home office deduction. Deductible home office expenses may include:
- Direct expenses, such as the cost of painting and carpeting a room used exclusively for business,
- A proportionate share of indirect expenses, such as mortgage interest, property taxes, utilities, repairs and insurance, and
- A depreciation allowance.
But keeping track of actual expenses can be time consuming.
The simplified method
Fortunately, there’s a simplified method that’s been available since 2013: You can deduct $5 for each square foot of home office space, up to a maximum total of $1,500.
For example, if you’ve converted a 300-square-foot bedroom to an office you use exclusively and regularly for business, you can write off $1,500 under the simplified method (300 square feet x $5). However, if your business is located in a 600-square-foot finished basement, the deduction will still be only $1,500 because of the cap on the deduction under this method.
As you can see, the cap can make the simplified method less beneficial for larger home office spaces. But even for spaces of 300 square feet or less, taxpayers may qualify for a bigger deduction using the actual expense method. So, tracking your actual expenses can be worth the extra hassle.
Flexibility in filing
When claiming the home office deduction, you’re not locked into a particular method. For instance, you might choose the actual expense method on your 2018 return, use the simplified method when you file your 2019 return next year and then switch back to the actual expense method thereafter. The choice is yours.
Unsure whether you qualify for the home office deduction? Or wondering whether you should deduct actual expenses or use the simplified method? Contact us. We can help you determine what’s right for your specific situation.
When are LLC members subject to self-employment tax?
Limited liability company (LLC) members commonly claim that their distributive shares of LLC income — after deducting compensation for services in the form of guaranteed payments — aren’t subject to self-employment (SE) tax. But the IRS has been cracking down on LLC members it claims have underreported SE income, with some success in court.
SE tax background
Self-employment income is subject to a 12.4% Social Security tax (up to the wage base) and a 2.9% Medicare tax. Generally, if you’re a member of a partnership — including an LLC taxed as a partnership — that conducts a trade or business, you’re considered self-employed.
General partners pay SE tax on all their business income from the partnership, whether it’s distributed or not. Limited partners, however, are subject to SE tax only on any guaranteed payments for services they provide to the partnership. The rationale is that limited partners, who have no management authority, are more akin to passive investors.
(Note, however, that “service partners” in service partnerships, such as law firms, medical practices, and architecture and engineering firms, generally may not claim limited partner status regardless of their level of participation.)
Over the years, many LLC members have taken the position that they’re equivalent to limited partners and, therefore, exempt from SE tax (except on guaranteed payments for services). But there’s a big difference between limited partners and LLC members. Both enjoy limited personal liability, but, unlike limited partners, LLC members can actively participate in management without jeopardizing their liability protection.
Arguably, LLC members who are active in management or perform substantial services related to the LLC’s business are subject to SE tax, while those who more closely resemble passive investors should be treated like limited partners. The IRS issued proposed regulations to that effect in 1997, but hasn’t finalized them — although it follows them as a matter of internal policy.
Some LLC members have argued that the IRS’s failure to finalize the regulations supports the claim that their distributive shares aren’t subject to SE tax. But the IRS routinely rejects this argument and has successfully litigated its position. The courts generally have imposed SE tax on LLC members unless, like traditional limited partners, they lack management authority and don’t provide significant services to the business.
Review your situation
The law in this area remains uncertain, particularly with regard to capital-intensive businesses. But given the IRS’s aggressiveness in collecting SE taxes from LLCs, LLC members should assess whether the IRS might claim that they’ve underpaid SE taxes.
Those who wish to avoid or reduce these taxes in the future may have some options, including converting to an S corporation or limited partnership, or restructuring their ownership interests. When evaluating these strategies, there are issues to consider beyond taxes. Contact us to discuss your specific situation.