Leadership

Putting together the succession planning and retirement planning puzzle

Everyone needs to plan for retirement. But as a business owner, you face a distinctive challenge in that you must save for your golden years while also creating, updating and eventually executing a succession plan. This is no easy task, but you can put the puzzle pieces together by answering some fundamental questions:

When do I want to retire? This may be the most important question regarding your succession plan, because it’s at this time that your successor will take over. Think about a date by which you’ll be ready to let go and will have the financial resources to support yourself for your postretirement life expectancy.

How much will I need to retire? To maintain your current lifestyle, you’ll likely need a substantial percentage of your current annual income. You may initially receive an influx of cash from perhaps either the sale of your company or a payout from a buy-sell agreement.

But don’t forget to consider inflation. This adds another 2% to 4% per year to the equation. If, like many retirees, you decide to move to a warmer climate, you also need to take the cost of living in that state into consideration — especially if you’ll maintain two homes.

What are my sources of retirement income? As mentioned, selling your business (if that’s what your succession plan calls for) will likely help at first. Think about whether you’d prefer a lump-sum payment to add to your retirement savings or receive installments.

Of course, many business owners don’t sell but pass along their company to family members or trusted employees. You might stay on as a paid consultant, which would provide some retirement income. And all of this would be in addition to whatever retirement accounts you’ve been contributing to, as well as Social Security.

Am I saving enough? This is a question everyone must ask but, again, business owners have special considerations. Let’s say you’d been saving diligently for retirement, but economic or market difficulties have recently forced you to lower your salary or channel more of your own money into the company. This could affect your retirement date and, thus, your succession plan’s departure date.

Using a balance sheet, add up all your assets and debts. Heavy spending and an excessive debt load can significantly delay your retirement. In turn, this negatively affects your succession plan because it throws the future leadership of your company into doubt and confusion. As you get closer to retirement, integrate debt management and elimination into your personal financial approach so you can confidently set a departure date. We can help you identify all the different pieces related to succession planning and retirement planning — and assemble them all into a practical whole.

© 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

Some business owners can’t participate in their own companies’ HRAs

Many companies now offer Health Reimbursement Arrangements (HRAs) in conjunction with high-deductible health plans (HDHPs). HRAs offer some advantages over the perhaps better-known HDHP companion account, the Health Savings Account (HSA). If you’re considering adding an HRA, you might assume that, as a business owner, you can participate in the HRA. But this may not be the case.

Following the rules

Whether an owner can participate in his or her company’s HRA depends on several factors, including how the company is organized and the amount of the business owned by each working owner. Tax-free benefits under an HRA can be provided only to:

  • Current and former employees (including retirees), and their spouses,

  • Covered tax dependents, and

  • Children who haven’t attained age 27 by the end of the tax year.

Owners who are “self-employed individuals” within the meaning of Internal Revenue Code Section (IRC) 401(c) aren’t considered employees for this purpose and aren’t allowed to participate in an HRA on a tax-favored basis.

Defining the self-employed

Generally, a self-employed individual is someone who has net earnings from self-employment as defined in IRC Sec. 1402(a), accounting for only earnings from a trade or business in which the “personal services of the taxpayer are a material income-producing factor.” Ineligible owners include partners, sole proprietors and more-than-2% shareholders in an S corporation. Stock ownership by employees of a C corporation doesn’t preclude their tax-favored HRA participation.

The ownership attribution rules in IRC Sec. 318 apply when determining who’s a more-than-2% shareholder of an S corporation, so any employee who’s the spouse, child, parent or grandparent of a more-than-2% shareholder of an S corporation would also be unable to participate in the S corporation’s HRA on a tax-favored basis. A disqualified individual (whether because of direct or attributed ownership) could, however, be the beneficiary of a qualifying participant’s HRA coverage if he or she is the qualifying participant’s spouse, tax dependent or child under age 27.

Comparing HRAs to HSAs

Although self-employed individuals can’t receive tax-free HSA contributions through a cafeteria plan, at least they can have HSAs. This relative advantage has led some employers to favor HSA programs over HRAs.

But HRAs have other advantages for employers, including more control over how amounts are spent and typically lower costs relative to the nominal amount of benefits provided. (While the full HSA contribution must be funded with cash, HRAs typically are notional accounts that need only be funded when participants incur expenses, and not all participants will incur expenses up to the limit established by the employer.) Thus, the decision can seldom be made based on the participation rules alone.

Going in smart

Controlling costs remains a challenge for most businesses that offer health care benefits. An HRA may be a feasible solution, but make sure you know all the rules going in. Our firm can help you choose health care benefits that suit you and your employees.

© 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

Your succession plan may benefit from a separation of business and real estate

Like most businesses, yours probably has a variety of physical assets, such as production equipment, office furnishings, and a plethora of technological devices. But the largest physical asset in your portfolio may be your real estate holdings — that is, the building and the land it sits on.

Under such circumstances, many business owners choose to separate ownership of the real estate from the company itself. A typical purpose of this strategy is to shield these assets from claims by creditors if the business ever files for bankruptcy (assuming the property isn’t pledged as loan collateral). In addition, the property is better protected against claims that may arise if a customer is injured on the property and sues the business.

But there’s another reason to consider separating your business interests from your real estate holdings: to benefit your succession plan.

Ownership transition

A common and generally effective way to separate the ownership of real estate from a company is to form a distinct entity, such as a limited liability company (LLC) or a limited liability partnership (LLP), to hold legal title to the property. Your business will then rent the property from the entity in a tenant-landlord relationship.

Using this strategy can help you transition ownership of your company to one or more chosen successors, or to reward employees for strong performance. By holding real estate in a separate entity, you can sell shares in the company to the successors or employees without transferring ownership of the real estate.

In addition, retaining title to the property will allow you to collect rent from the new owners. Doing so can be a valuable source of cash flow during retirement.

You could also realize estate planning benefits. When real estate is held in a separate legal entity, you can gift business interests to your heirs without giving up interest in the property.

Complex strategy

The details involved in separating the title to your real estate from your business can be complex. Our firm can help you determine whether this strategy would suit your company and succession plan, including a close examination of the potential tax benefits or risks.

© 2019

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.

Who’s responsible?

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.

© 2019

Tax-smart domestic travel: Combining business with pleasure

Summer is just around the corner, so you might be thinking about getting some vacation time. If you’re self-employed or a business owner, you have a golden opportunity to combine a business trip with a few extra days of vacation and offset some of the cost with a tax deduction. But be careful, or you might not qualify for the write-offs you’re expecting.

Basic rules

Business travel expenses can potentially be deducted if the travel is within the United States and the expenses are:

 *   “Ordinary and necessary” and
 *   Directly related to the business.

Note: The tax rules for foreign business travel are different from those for domestic travel.

Business owners and the self-employed are generally eligible to deduct business travel expenses if they meet the tests described above. However, under the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act, employees can no longer deduct such expenses. The potential deductions discussed in this article assume that you’re a business owner or self-employed.

A business-vacation trip

Transportation costs to and from the location of your business activity may be 100% deductible if the primary reason for the trip is business rather than pleasure. But if vacation is the primary reason for your travel, generally no transportation costs are deductible. These costs include plane or train tickets, the cost of getting to and from the airport, luggage handling tips and car expenses if you drive. Costs for driving your personal car are also eligible.

The key factor in determining whether the primary reason for domestic travel is business is the number of days you spend conducting business vs. enjoying vacation days. Any day principally devoted to business activities during normal business hours counts as a business day. In addition:

 *   Your travel days count as business days, as do weekends and holidays — if they fall between days devoted to business and it wouldn’t be practical to return home.
 *   Standby days (days when your physical presence might be required) also count as business days, even if you aren’t ultimately called upon to work on those days.

Bottom line: If your business days exceed your personal days, you should be able to claim business was the primary reason for a domestic trip and deduct your transportation costs.

What else can you deduct?

Once at the destination, your out-of-pocket expenses for business days are fully deductible. Examples of these expenses include lodging, meals (subject to the 50% disallowance rule), seminar and convention fees, and cab fare. Expenses for personal days aren’t deductible.

Keep in mind that only expenses for yourself are deductible. You can’t deduct expenses for family members traveling with you, including your spouse — unless they’re employees of your business and traveling for a bona fide business purpose.

Keep good records

Be sure to retain proof of the business nature of your trip. You must properly substantiate all of the expenses you’re deducting. If you get audited, the IRS will want to see records during travel you claim was for business. Good records are your best defense. Additional rules and limits apply to travel expense deductions. Please contact us if you have questions.

© 2019

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.

© 2019

Buy vs. lease: Business equipment edition

Life presents us with many choices: paper or plastic, chocolate or vanilla, regular or decaf. For businesses, a common conundrum is buy or lease. You’ve probably faced this decision when considering office space or a location for your company’s production facilities. But the buy vs. lease quandary also comes into play with equipment.

Pride of ownership

Some business owners approach buying equipment like purchasing a car: “It’s mine; I’m committed to it and I’m going to do everything I can to familiarize myself with this asset and keep it in tip-top shape.” Yes, pride of ownership is still a thing.

If this is your philosophy, work to pass along that pride to employees. When you get staff members to buy in to the idea that this is your equipment and the success of the company depends on using and maintaining each asset properly, the business can obtain a great deal of long-term value from assets that are bought and paid for.

Of course, no “buy vs. lease” discussion is complete without mentioning taxes. The Tax Cuts and Jobs Act dramatically enhanced Section 179 expensing and first-year bonus depreciation for asset purchases. In fact, many businesses may be able to write off the full cost of most equipment in the year it’s purchased. On the downside, you’ll take a cash flow hit when buying an asset, and the tax benefits may be mitigated somewhat if you finance.

Fine things about flexibility

Many businesses lease their equipment for one simple reason: flexibility. From a cash flow perspective, you’re not laying down a major purchase amount or even a substantial down payment in most cases. And you’re not committed to an asset for an indefinite period — if you don’t like it, at least there’s an end date in sight.

Leasing also may be the better option if your company uses technologically advanced equipment that will get outdated relatively quickly. Think about the future of your business, too. If you’re planning to explore an expansion, merger or business transformation, you may be better off leasing equipment so you’ll have the flexibility to adapt it to your changing circumstances.

Last, leasing does have some tax breaks. Lease payments generally are tax deductible as “ordinary and necessary” business expenses, though annual deduction limits may apply.

Pros and cons

On a parting note, if you do lease assets this year and your company follows Generally Accepted Accounting Principles (GAAP), new accounting rules for leases take effect in 2020 for calendar-year private companies. Contact us for further information, as well as for any assistance you might need in weighing the pros and cons of buying vs. leasing business equipment.

© 2019

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.”

Basic definitions

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.

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.

© 2019

Should your health care plan be more future-focused?

The pace of health care cost inflation has remained moderate over the past year or so, and employers are trying to keep it that way. In response, many businesses aren’t seeking immediate cost-cutting measures or asking employees to shoulder more of the burden. Rather, they’re looking to “future-focused” health care plan features to encourage healthful behaviors.

This was a major finding of the 2018 National Survey of Employer-Sponsored Health Plans, an annual study issued by Mercer.

Virtual care

Among the future-focused strategies highlighted by the survey are telemedicine services. Also known as virtual care, the services streamline delivery of health care services by gathering medical data and offering interaction with health care professionals remotely via apps and the phone.

One of the promises of virtual care services is that patients will be more willing to seek medical attention when it can be delivered conveniently, and this inherent efficiency will lead to better health outcomes and reduced costs. But the study found that, though telemedicine services are widely offered, utilization rates remain low.

Specifically, the proportion of large employers (those with at least 500 employees) incorporating telemedicine into their health benefits — 80% — was up substantially from 71% in the previous year’s survey (2017) and just 18% in 2014. But utilization was only 8% of eligible employees in 2018, though that rate is up slightly from 7% the previous year.

Other trending enhancements

Here are some additional future-focused health plan design features and their prevalence among the 2,409 employers that participated in the survey:

  • Targeted support for people with chronic conditions, including diabetes and cancer: 56%.

  • Expert medical opinion services, which allow employees to get an assessment from a highly qualified specialist on a given medical issue: 51%.

  • “Enhanced care management” featuring medical personnel who provide support throughout the entire care episode and help resolve claim issues: 36%.

  • Access to “centers of excellence” for complex surgeries and other medical needs, including transplants (25%), bariatric care (14%) and oncology (10%).

These strategies “may take more time to reduce medical costs than greater employee cost-sharing, but in the process they change how plans manage care, how providers are reimbursed, and even how people behave,” according to the report.

Overall, promoting a “culture of health” was found to be a high priority for many employers. Typical tactics to achieve this goal include providing healthy food choices in cafeterias and meetings, banning smoking on the work campus, and building on-site fitness facilities. They also involve offering resources to support “financial health” and “a range of technology-based resources to engage employees in caring for their health and fitness.”

Improved experience

The design of your company’s health care plan can evolve over time to, as feasible, take advantage of features that will likely improve the experience for everyone. We can help you identify all costs associated with your plan and assess which plan design would best suit your business.

© 2019

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.

© 2019

Prepare for the worst with a business turnaround strategy

Many businesses have a life cycle that, as life cycles tend to do, concludes with a period of decline and failure. Often, the demise of a company is driven by internal factors — such as weak financial oversight, lack of management consensus or one-person rule.

External factors typically contribute, as well. These may include disruptive competitors; local, national or global economic changes; or a more restrictive regulatory environment.

But just because bad things happen doesn’t mean they have to happen to your company. To prepare for the worst, identify a business turnaround strategy that you can implement if a severe decline suddenly becomes imminent.

Warning signs

When a company is drifting toward serious trouble, there are usually warning signs. Examples include:

  • Serious deterioration in the accuracy or usage of financial measurements,

  • Poor results of key performance indicators — including working capital to assets, sales and retained earnings to assets, and book value to debt,

  • Adverse trends, such as lower margins, market share or working capital,

  • Rapid increase in debt and employee turnover, and

  • Drastic reduction in assessed business value.

Not every predicament that arises will threaten the very existence of your business. But when missteps and misfortune build up, the only thing that may save the company is a well-planned turnaround strategy.

5 stages of a turnaround

No two turnarounds are exactly alike, but they generally occur in five basic stages:

  1. Rapid assessment of the decline by external advisors,

  2. Re-evaluation of management and staffing,

  3. Emergency intervention to stabilize the business,

  4. Operational restoration to pursue or achieve profitability, and

  5. Full recovery and growth.

Each of these stages calls for a detailed action plan. Identify the advisors or even a dedicated turnaround consultant who can help you assess the damage and execute immediate moves. Prepare for the possibility that you’ll need to replace some managers and even lay off staff to reduce employment costs.

In the emergency intervention stage, a business does whatever is necessary to survive — including consolidating debt, closing locations and selling off assets. Next, restoring operations and pursuing profitability usually means scaling back to only those business segments that have achieved, or can achieve, decent gross margins.

Last, you’ll need to establish a baseline of profitability that equates to full recovery. From there, you can choose reasonable growth strategies that will move the company forward without leading it over another cliff.

In case of emergency

If your business is doing fine, there’s no need to create a minutely detailed turnaround plan. But, as part of your strategic planning efforts, it’s still a good idea to outline a general turnaround strategy to keep on hand in case of emergency. Our firm can help you devise either strategy. We can also assist you in generating financial statements and monitoring key performance indicators that help enable you to avoid crises altogether.

© 2019

How entrepreneurs must treat expenses on their tax returns

Have you recently started a new business? Or are you contemplating starting one? Launching a new venture is a hectic, exciting time. And as you know, before you even open the doors, you generally have to spend a lot of money. You may have to train workers and pay for rent, utilities, marketing and more.

Entrepreneurs are often unaware that many expenses incurred by start-ups can’t be deducted right away. You should be aware that the way you handle some of your initial expenses can make a large difference in your tax bill.

Key points on how expenses are handled

When starting or planning a new enterprise, keep these factors in mind:

  1. Start-up costs include those incurred or paid while creating an active trade or business — or investigating the creation or acquisition of one.

  2. Under the federal tax code, taxpayers can elect to deduct up to $5,000 of business start-up and $5,000 of organizational costs in the year the business begins. We don’t need to tell you that $5,000 doesn’t go far these days! And the $5,000 deduction is reduced dollar-for-dollar by the amount by which your total start-up or organizational costs exceed $50,000. Any remaining costs must be amortized over 180 months on a straight-line basis.

  3. No deductions or amortization write-offs are allowed until the year when “active conduct” of your new business commences. That usually means the year when the enterprise has all the pieces in place to begin earning revenue. To determine if a taxpayer meets this test, the IRS and courts generally ask questions such as: Did the taxpayer undertake the activity intending to earn a profit? Was the taxpayer regularly and actively involved? Has the activity actually begun?

Examples of expenses

Start-up expenses generally include all expenses that are incurred to:

  • Investigate the creation or acquisition of a business,

  • Create a business, or

  • Engage in a for-profit activity in anticipation of that activity becoming an active business.

To be eligible for the election, an expense also must be one that would be deductible if it were incurred after a business began. One example would be the money you spend analyzing potential markets for a new product or service.

To qualify as an “organization expense,” the outlay must be related to the creation of a corporation or partnership. Some examples of organization expenses are legal and accounting fees for services related to organizing the new business and filing fees paid to the state of incorporation.

An important decision

Time may be of the essence if you have start-up expenses that you’d like to deduct this year. You need to decide whether to take the elections described above. Record keeping is important. Contact us about your business start-up plans. We can help with the tax and other aspects of your new venture.

© 2019

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:

  1. 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.

  2. 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.

  3. 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.

Other considerations

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.

Plan ahead

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.

© 2019


Responding to the nightmare of a data breach

It’s every business owner’s nightmare. Should hackers gain access to your customers’ or employees’ sensitive data, the very reputation of your company could be compromised. And lawsuits might soon follow.

No business owner wants to think about such a crisis, yet it’s imperative that you do. Suffering a data breach without an emergency response plan leaves you vulnerable to not only the damage of the attack itself, but also the potential fallout from your own panicked decisions.

5 steps to take

A comprehensive plan generally follows five steps once a data breach occurs:

1. Call your attorney. He or she should be able to advise you on the potential legal ramifications of the incident and what you should do or not do (or say) in response. Involve your attorney in the creation of your response plan, so all this won’t come out of the blue.

2. Engage a digital forensics investigator. Contact us for help identifying a forensic investigator that you can turn to in the event of a data breach. The preliminary goal will be to answer two fundamental questions: How were the systems breached? What data did the hackers access? Once these questions have been answered, experts can evaluate the extent of the damage.

3. Fortify your IT systems. While investigative and response procedures are underway, you need to proactively prevent another breach and strengthen controls. Doing so will obviously involve changing passwords, but you may also need to add firewalls, create deeper layers of user authentication or restrict some employees from certain systems.

4. Communicate strategically. No matter the size of the company, the communications goal following a data breach is essentially the same: Provide accurate information about the incident in a reasonably timely manner that preserves the trust of customers, employees, investors, creditors and other stakeholders.

Note that “in a reasonably timely manner” doesn’t mean “immediately.” Often, it’s best to acknowledge an incident occurred but hold off on a detailed statement until you know precisely what happened and can reassure those affected that you’re taking specific measures to control the damage.

5. Activate or adjust credit and IT monitoring services. You may want to initiate an early warning system against future breaches by setting up a credit monitoring service and engaging an IT consultant to periodically check your systems for unauthorized or suspicious activity. Of course, you don’t have to wait for a breach to do these things, but you could increase their intensity or frequency following an incident.

Inevitable risk

Data breaches are an inevitable risk of running a business in today’s networked, technology-driven world. Should this nightmare become a reality, a well-conceived emergency response plan can preserve your company’s goodwill and minimize the negative impact on profitability. We can help you budget for such a plan and establish internal controls to prevent and detect fraud related to (and not related to) data breaches.

© 2019

Present yet unaccounted for: The problem of presenteeism

Absenteeism has typically been a thorn in the side of many companies. But there’s a flip side to employees failing to show up to work: “presenteeism.” This is when employees come in to work unwell or put in excessive overtime.

Now you probably appreciate and respect workers who are team players and go the extra mile. But employees who come to work when they aren’t operating at full physical or mental capacity may make mistakes, cause accidents, create confusion and ultimately hurt productivity. In other words, presenteeism can slowly and silently erode your bottom line unless you recognize and deal with it.

Address mental health

A common response to presenteeism is, “But we offer paid sick days.” Although paid sick days do generally help resolve incidences of a physical ailment or injury, they may not adequately address struggles with mental illness or extreme personal stress (such as a divorce or financial crisis). Some managers may raise an eyebrow at those taking a “mental health day,” so sufferers end up coming in to work when they really may need the day off.

How can you help? If you sponsor a health care plan, it likely offers coverage for mental health and substance use disorder services, including behavioral health treatment. Be sure employees are aware of this. Also, reinforce with employees that you’ll honor the sick-day provisions spelled out in your employee manual for all types of ailments (physical, mental and psychological). Train supervisors to support employees’ well-being and encourage those who need to take time off to do so if they need it.

Discourage excessive overtime

Another common cause of presenteeism is the perceived notion among many workers that they must work excessive overtime to prove themselves. Many companies still operate under an “old school” culture that says putting in extra overtime will make the boss happy and lead to quicker raises and promotions.

Generally, many managers assume that, if an employee is absent, his or her productivity must be suffering. Conversely, if that same employee is putting in extra time and skipping vacations, he or she must be highly productive. But these assumptions aren’t always true — they must be supported by a thorough, objective and analytical performance evaluation process.

You can prevent this type of presenteeism by strongly encouraging, if not strictly enforcing, vacation time. Communicate to employees your concerns about overworking and remind them to take advantage of the time off that they’ve earned. (Doing so can also deter fraud.)

Find the balance

Having a workforce full of dedicated, hard-working employees is still a goal that every business should strive for. But, at the same time, work-life balance is a concept that benefits both employers and employees. Our firm can help you analyze the numbers related to productivity that can help you make optimal decisions regarding staffing and workflow.

© 2019

An implementation plan is key to making strategic goals a reality

In the broadest sense, strategic planning comprises two primary tasks: establishing goals and achieving them. Many business owners would probably say the first part, coming up with objectives, is relatively easy. It’s that second part — accomplishing those goals — that can really challenge a company. The key to turning your strategic objectives into a reality is a solid implementation plan.

Start with people

After clearly identifying short- and long-range goals under a viable strategic planning process, you need to establish a formal plan for carrying it out. The most important aspect of this plan is getting the right people involved.

First, appoint an implementation leader and give him or her the authority, responsibility and accountability to communicate and champion your stated objectives. (If yours is a smaller business, you could oversee implementation yourself.)

Next, establish teams of carefully selected employees with specific duties and timelines under which to complete goal-related projects. Choose employees with the experience, will and energy to implement the plan. These teams should deliver regular progress reports to you and the implementation leader.

Watch out for roadblocks

On the surface, these steps may seem logical and foolproof. But let’s delve into what could go wrong with such a clearly defined process.

One typical problem arises when an implementation team is composed of employees wholly or largely from one department. Often, they’ll (inadvertently or intentionally) execute an objective in such a way that mostly benefits their department but ultimately hinders the company from meeting the intended goal.

To avoid this, create teams with a diversity of employees from across various departments. For example, an objective related to expanding your company’s customer base will naturally need to include members of the sales and marketing departments. But also invite administrative, production and IT staff to ensure the team’s actions are operationally practical and sustainable.

Another common roadblock is running into money problems. Ensure your implementation plan is feasible based on your company’s budget, revenue projections, and local and national economic forecasts. Ask teams to include expense reports and financial projections in their regular reports. If you determine that you can’t (or shouldn’t) implement the plan as written, don’t hesitate to revise or eliminate some goals.

Succeed at the important part

Strategic planning may seem to be “all about the ideas,” but implementing the specific goals related to your strategic plan is really the most important part of the process. Of course, it’s also the most difficult and most affected by outside forces. We can help you assess the financial feasibility of your objectives and design an implementation plan with the highest odds of success.

© 2019

Be vigilant about your business credit score

As an individual, you’ve no doubt been urged to regularly check your credit score. Most people nowadays know that, with a subpar personal credit score, they’ll have trouble buying a home or car, or just getting a reasonable-rate credit card.

But how about your business credit score? It’s important for much the same reason — you’ll have difficulty obtaining financing or procuring the assets you need to operate competitively without a solid score. So, you’ve got to be vigilant about it.

Algorithms and data

Business credit scores come from various reporting agencies, such as Experian, Equifax and Dun & Bradstreet. Each agency has its own algorithm for calculating credit scores. Like personal credit scores, higher business credit scores equate with lower risk (and vice versa).

Credit agencies track your business by its employer identification number (EIN). They compile data from your EIN, including the company’s address, phone number, owners’ names and industry classification code. Agencies may also search the Internet and public records for bankruptcies, judgments and tax liens. Suppliers, landlords, leasing companies and other creditors may also report payment experiences with the company to credit agencies.

Important factors

Timely bill payment is the biggest factor affecting your business credit score. But other important ones include:

Level of success. Higher net worth or annual revenues generally increase your credit score.

Structure. Corporations and limited liability companies tend to receive higher scores than sole proprietorships and partnerships because these entities’ financial identities are separate from those of their owners.

Industry. Some agencies keep track of the percentage of companies under the company’s industry classification code that have filed for bankruptcy. Participation in high-risk industries tends to lower a business credit score.

Track record. Credit agencies also look at the length and frequency of your company’s credit history. Once you establish credit, your business should periodically borrow additional money and then repay it on time to avoid the risk of being downgraded.

Best practices

Business credit scores help lenders decide whether to approve your loan request, as well as the loan’s interest rate, duration and other terms. Unfortunately, some small businesses and start-ups may have little to no credit history.

Build your company’s credit history by applying for a company credit card and paying the balance off each month. Also put utilities and leases in your company’s name, so the business is on the radar of the credit reporting agencies.

Sometimes, credit agencies base their ratings on incomplete, false or outdated information. Monitor your credit score regularly and note any downgrades. In some cases, the agency may be willing to change your score if you contact them and successfully prove that a rating is inaccurate.

Central role

Maintaining a healthy business credit score should play a central role in how you manage your company’s finances. Contact us for help in using credit to help maintain your cash flow and build the bottom line.

© 2019