No tax deductions for business entertaining

The good news is that the TCJA of 2017 lowered corporate tax rates from a graduated schedule that reached 35% to a 21% flat rate. The bad news? Many business expenses are no longer tax deductible. That list includes all outlays that might be considered entertainment or recreation.

As of 2018, tickets to sports events can’t be deducted, even if you walk away from the game with a new client or a lucrative contract. The same is true if you treat a prospect to seats at a Broadway play or take a valued vendor out for a round of golf. Those outlays will be true costs for business owners without any tax relief.

Drilling down

Does that mean that you should drop all your season tickets supporting local teams? Cancel club memberships? Pack away your putter and your tennis racquet? Before taking any actions in this area, take a breath and crunch some numbers.     

Example: In recent years, Luke Watson spent about $20,000 a year on various forms of entertainment, which his company claimed as a business expense. Indeed, these were valid expenses and helped his LW Corp. grow rapidly.     

Assume that LW Corp. paid income tax at a 34% rate. In 2017 and prior years, business entertaining was only 50% deductible. Thus, LW Corp. deducted $10,000 (half of Luke’s expenses) and saved $3,400 (34% of $10,000). With $3,400 of tax savings and $20,000 of out-of-pocket costs, Luke’s net cost for entertaining was $16,600 under the law in effect during 2017.

Now suppose that Luke has the same $20,000 of entertainment costs in 2018 and that those costs would have still been 50% tax deductible at the new 21% tax rate. His tax savings would have been only $2,100, so the net entertainment cost would have been $17,900. As it is, under the new law his actual entertainment cost would be the full $20,000 with no tax benefit.     

This example assumes that LW Corp. pays the corporate income tax on its profits. If Luke operates his business as an LLC or an S corporation, with business income passed through to his personal tax return, the calculation would be different, but the principle would be the same.   

Business entertainment has been done mainly with after-tax dollars. Under the new TCJA, you’ll entertain clients and prospects solely with after-tax dollars. You should be careful about how this money is spent and judge the expected benefit. Nevertheless, if business entertaining has paid off for your company in the past, it may still prove to be valuable even without tax breaks.

Fine points

Meal expenses associated with operating a trade or business, including employee travel meals, generally continue to be 50% tax deductible. However, keep in mind that the rules have changed for meals provided for the employer’s convenience. Previously, these were 100% deductible if they were excludible from employees’ gross income as de minimis fringe benefits. That might have been the cost of providing free drinks and snacks to employees at the workplace. Now outlays for such meals are only 50% deductible and they’re scheduled to become nondeductible after 2025.

On the bright side, the new law doesn’t affect expenses for recreation, social, or similar activities primarily for the benefit of a company’s employees, other than highly compensated employees. So, your business likely can still pay for holiday office parties with pre-tax dollars.

The new tax law will change divorce tactics

When couples divorce, financial negotiations often involve alimony. The tax rules regarding alimony were dramatically changed by the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act (TCJA) of 2017, but existing agreements have been grandfathered. In addition, the old rules remain in effect for divorce and separation agreements executed during 2018. Next year, the rules will change, and the roles will be reversed.

Under divorce or separation agreements executed in 2018, and for many years in the past, alimony payments have been tax deductible. Moreover, these deductions reduce adjusted gross income, so they may have benefits elsewhere on a tax return. While the spouse or former spouse paying the alimony gets a tax deduction, the recipient reports alimony as taxable income.

Shifting into reverse

Beginning with agreements executed in 2019, there will be no tax deduction for alimony. As an offset, alimony recipients won’t include the payments in income.

Example 1: Joe and Kim Alexander get divorced in 2018. Joe expects to be in a 35% tax bracket in the future, whereas Kim anticipates being in a 22% bracket. Suppose that the proposed agreement has Joe paying $3,500 a month ($42,000 a year) in alimony.

Joe will save $14,700 in tax (35% times $42,000), but Kim will owe $9,240 (22% times $42,000). Net, the couple will save over $5,000 per year in taxes. This type of calculation will affect the negotiations, as it has in the past. Assuming the relevant rules are followed, it may make sense to tip the agreement toward Joe paying alimony to Kim, perhaps in return for other considerations.

Example 2: Assume that the Alexanders’ neighbors, Len and Marie Baker, have identical finances. They divorce in 2019. If Len pays $42,000 a year in alimony, he will get no deduction and won’t get the $14,700 in annual tax savings that Joe did in example 1. Marie, on the other hand, will pocket $42,000, tax-free, without the $9,240 tax bill faced by Kim in example 1.
    
Moving things along

Just as people shouldn’t “let the tax tail wag the investment dog,” so taxes shouldn’t dominate divorce or separation proceedings. However, it’s also true that taxes shouldn’t be ignored. If you are in such a situation, our office can help explain to both parties the possible savings available from executing an agreement during 2018, rather than in a future year.

The new rules will be in effect beginning in 2019. With no alimony deduction and a tax exemption for alimony income, it may be desirable to consider after-tax, rather than pre-tax, income when making decisions. Speaking very generally, there may be less cash for the couple to use after-tax.

Keep in mind that, as of 2019, not all states will have alimony tax laws that conform to the new federal rule. Your state may still offer tax deductions for alimony payments and impose income tax on alimony received. That’s all the more reason to look at after-tax results when calculating a divorce or separation agreement.

Getting personal

The impact of the new TCJA on spousal negotiations may go beyond the taxation of alimony. Among other provisions to consider, the TCJA abolishes personal exemptions. As a tradeoff, the standard deduction was almost doubled (see CPA Client Bulletin, April 2018). 

In some past instances, divorcing spouses would agree that the high bracket party would claim the children’s personal exemptions, which effectively were tax deductions, in return for some other consideration. Now those exemptions don’t exist, so they shouldn’t be part of divorce negotiations. If you previously entered into an agreement that included the treatment of children’s personal exemptions, you may want to consult with counsel to see about possible revisions.

Trusted advice

Defining alimony

Payments to a spouse or former spouse must meet several requirements to be treated as alimony for tax purposes. The following are some key tests:

  • The payments are made under a divorce or separation agreement.
  • There is no liability to continue the payments after the recipient’s death.
  • The payments aren’t treated as child support or a property settlement.
  • The payments are made in cash (including checks or money orders).

TCJA changes to employee benefits tax breaks: 4 negatives and a positive

The Tax Cuts and Jobs Act (TCJA) includes many changes that affect tax breaks for employee benefits. Among the changes are four negatives and one positive that will impact not only employees but also the businesses providing the benefits.

4 breaks curtailed

Beginning with the 2018 tax year, the TCJA reduces or eliminates tax breaks in the following areas:

1. Transportation benefits. The TCJA eliminates business deductions for the cost of providing qualified employee transportation fringe benefits, such as parking allowances, mass transit passes and van pooling. (These benefits are still tax-free to recipient employees.) It also disallows business deductions for the cost of providing commuting transportation to an employee (such as hiring a car service), unless the transportation is necessary for the employee’s safety. And it suspends through 2025 the tax-free benefit of up to $20 a month for bicycle commuting.

2. On-premises meals. The TCJA reduces to 50% a business’s deduction for providing certain meals to employees on the business premises, such as when employees work late or if served in a company cafeteria. (The deduction is scheduled for elimination in 2025.) For employees, the value of these benefits continues to be tax-free.

3. Moving expense reimbursements. The TCJA suspends through 2025 the exclusion from employees’ taxable income of a business’s reimbursements of employees’ qualified moving expenses. However, businesses generally will still be able to deduct such reimbursements.

4. Achievement awards. The TCJA eliminates the business tax deduction and corresponding employee tax exclusion for employee achievement awards that are provided in the form of cash, gift coupons or certificates, vacations, meals, lodging, tickets to sporting or theater events, securities and “other similar items.” However, the tax breaks are still available for gift certificates that allow the recipient to select tangible property from a limited range of items preselected by the employer. The deduction/exclusion limits remain at up to $400 of the value of achievement awards for length of service or safety and $1,600 for awards under a written nondiscriminatory achievement plan.

1 new break

For 2018 and 2019, the TCJA creates a tax credit for wages paid to qualifying employees on family and medical leave. To qualify, a business must offer at least two weeks of annual paid family and medical leave, as described by the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA), to qualified employees. The paid leave must provide at least 50% of the employee’s wages. Leave required by state or local law or that was already part of the business’s employee benefits program generally doesn’t qualify.

The credit equals a minimum of 12.5% of the amount of wages paid during a leave period. The credit is increased gradually for payments above 50% of wages paid and tops out at 25%. No double-dipping: Employers can’t also deduct wages claimed for the credit.

More rules, limits and changes

Keep in mind that additional rules and limits apply to these breaks, and that the TCJA makes additional changes affecting employee benefits. Contact us for more details.

© 2018

A net operating loss on your 2017 tax return isn’t all bad news

When a company’s deductible expenses exceed its income, generally a net operating loss (NOL) occurs. If when filing your 2017 income tax return you found that your business had an NOL, there is an upside: tax benefits. But beware — the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act (TCJA) makes some significant changes to the tax treatment of NOLs.

Pre-TCJA law

Under pre-TCJA law, when a business incurs an NOL, the loss can be carried back up to two years, and then any remaining amount can be carried forward up to 20 years. The carryback can generate an immediate tax refund, boosting cash flow.

The business can, however, elect instead to carry the entire loss forward. If cash flow is strong, this may be more beneficial, such as if the business’s income increases substantially, pushing it into a higher tax bracket — or if tax rates increase. In both scenarios, the carryforward can save more taxes than the carryback because deductions are more powerful when higher tax rates apply.

But the TCJA has established a flat 21% tax rate for C corporation taxpayers beginning with the 2018 tax year, and the rate has no expiration date. So C corporations don’t have to worry about being pushed into a higher tax bracket unless Congress changes the corporate rates again.

Also keep in mind that the rules are more complex for pass-through entities, such as partnerships, S corporations and limited liability companies (if they elected partnership tax treatment). Each owner’s allocable share of the entity’s loss is passed through to the owners and reported on their personal returns. The tax benefit depends on each owner’s particular tax situation.

The TCJA changes

The changes the TCJA made to the tax treatment of NOLs generally aren’t favorable to taxpayers:

  • For NOLs arising in tax years ending after December 31, 2017, a qualifying NOL can’t be carried back at all. This may be especially detrimental to start-up businesses, which tend to generate NOLs in their early years and can greatly benefit from the cash-flow boost of a carried-back NOL. (On the plus side, the TCJA allows NOLs to be carried forward indefinitely, as opposed to the previous 20-year limit.)

  • For NOLs arising in tax years beginning after December 31, 2017, an NOL carryforward generally can’t be used to shelter more than 80% of taxable income in the carryforward year. (Under prior law, generally up to 100% could be sheltered.)

The differences between the effective dates for these changes may have been a mistake, and a technical correction might be made by Congress. Also be aware that, in the case of pass-through entities, owners’ tax benefits from the entity’s net loss might be further limited under the TCJA’s new “excess business loss” rules.

Complicated rules get more complicated

NOLs can provide valuable tax benefits. The rules, however, have always been complicated, and the TCJA has complicated them further. Please contact us if you’d like more information on the NOL rules and how you can maximize the tax benefit of an NOL.

© 2018

3 ways to supercharge your supervisors

The attitudes and behaviors of your people managers play a critical role in your company’s success. When your managers are putting forth their best effort, the more likely it is that you’ll, in turn, get the best performances out of the rest of your employees. Here are three ways to supercharge your supervisors:

1. Transform them into teachers. Today’s people managers must be more than team leaders — they must also be teachers. Attentive managers look for situations that will help subordinates learn how to work smarter and more efficiently.

Typically, learning occurs most readily when rewards are applied as close to the intended behavior’s occurrence as possible. Thus, train managers to look for moments when employees are being successful and to immediately recognize those efforts. Managers should praise them in the presence of others and regularly. Low-cost rewards such as the occasional free lunch or gift card can also be highly motivational.

2. Turbo-boost their reaction times. Be sure people managers address problems right away. The operative word there is “address,” and its meaning may vary depending on the nature of the trouble.

For minor difficulties, just leaving a friendly voice mail or carefully worded email may do the trick. But for more serious conflicts or dilemmas, a thorough investigation is important, followed by face-to-face meetings documented in writing. In either case, it’s imperative not to let problems fester.

3. Turn off their micromanagement switch. While people managers need to keep an eye out for good and bad behavior, they shouldn’t micromanage. Those who perch atop employees’ shoulders, checking every detail of their work, are as bad for a business as rude customer service or defective products.

Why? Because the more people managers micromanage, the more they communicate the wrong message — that they don’t believe employees can get the job done. Micromanaging not only lowers morale, but also hinders efficiency, as the manager is basically spending valuable time doing the employee’s job rather than his or her own.

In the day-to-day grind of keeping a business running, people managers can understandably get worn down. If yours need a lift, consider reinforcing the points above in training sessions or during performance evaluations. For further information and other ideas, contact us.

© 2018

The Importance of a Quality Plan Audit

Federal law requires employee benefit plans with 100 or more participants to have an audit as part of their obligation to file an annual return/report (Form 5500 Series).

A quality audit will help protect the assets and the financial integrity of your employee benefit plan and help you determine whether the necessary funds will be available to pay retirement, health, and other promised benefits to your employees. The higher the quality of a plan’s financial statement audit, the more reliable the information used to manage and administer the plan.

A quality audit also will help you carry out your legal responsibility to file a complete and accurate annual return/report for your plan each year. As such, selection of an experienced and reliable auditor is very important.

Recent Department of Labor (DOL) studies of audit quality have identified significant deficiencies in plan audits. Accordingly, the DOL has implemented various enforcement strategies with respect to audit deficiencies. The penalties for such audit failures can be substantial. The DOL can assess penalties on plan sponsors of up to $1,100 a day capped at $50,000 per annual report filing where the required auditor’s report is missing or deficient.

Independent audits of employee benefit plan financial statements are an important accountability mechanism. If your employee benefit plan is required to have an audit, it is the plan administrator’s duty to hire an independent qualified public accountant, and to ensure that the plan has obtained a quality audit in accordance with Employee Retirement Income Security Act of 1974 (ERISA) and U.S. Department of Labor (DOL) requirements. The sponsor of the plan is the plan administrator under the law unless another individual or entity is specifically designated to assume this responsibility.

Plan administrators should use the same care and prudence in hiring a plan auditor that they use when hiring any individual or entity that provides services to the plan. Plan sponsors should make the selection of the plan auditor a high priority and exercise due care during every phase of the auditor selection process.

FMD can help with your Employee Benefit Plan Audit. 

 

What to Look for When Hiring an Employee Benefit Plan Auditor?

When a plan sponsor hires one or more service organizations to handle plan administration functions, the agreement typically establishes that the service organization(s) assumes liability for its performance of those functions. The employer is required to periodically monitor the service organization to ensure it is handling the plan’s investments prudently. Prudence focuses on the process for making fiduciary decisions; therefore, it is wise to document decisions and the basis for those decisions, including an employer’s selection and monitoring processes.

The Department of Labor (DOL) provides the following tips as a starting point for plan sponsors hiring service organizations:

  • Information about the firm itself (e.g., financial condition and experience with retirement plans of similar size and complexity)
  • The quality of the firm’s services (e.g., the identity, experience and qualifications of professionals who will be handling the plan’s account; any recent litigation or enforcement action taken against the firm; and the firm’s experience or performance record)
  • A description of business practices (e.g., how plan assets will be invested if the firm will manage plan investments or how participant investment directions will be handled; the proposed fee structure; and whether the firm has fiduciary liability insurance)
  • Document the hiring process
  • Ensure the service organization is clear about the extent of its fiduciary responsibilities
  • Obtain a fidelity bond for individuals handling plan funds or other plan property
  • Monitor the plan’s service organizations

Other important points to consider when hiring a service organization are the ability to access data maintained by the service organization on both a daily and annual basis, and whether the service organization agrees to obtain a Service Organization Controls (SOC 1) report. And finally, you should ensure that a service organization hired to prepare the plan’s financial statements will provide you with the support you need to understand those financial statements.

FMD can help with your Employee Benefit Plan Audit. 

 

How Are You Preparing for Your Employee Benefit Plan Audit?

Employee benefit plans are a complex area that require intimate knowledge of plan design as well as performance.

When considering an auditor for your plan, be sure to ask the following questions:

  • Is your auditor looking at your plan’s operations, documents, and amendments?
  • Does your auditor understand the difference between the requirements for the financial statements and your Form 5500?
  • Does your auditor invest in training to keep up-to-date on the latest issues?
  • Is your auditor a member of the AICPA Employee Benefit Plan Audit Quality Center?
  • Does your auditor assign an experienced benefit plan auditor to service your account?
  • Do you understand that the plan fiduciary is responsible for the work performed by auditors

At Fenner, Melstrom & Dooling, PLC, we realize that one of the most important factors in choosing an auditor is feeling comfortable with the people you will be working with. Our ongoing commitment to provide financial and business wisdom, means we are continuously broadening our knowledge, honing our skills, and sharing valuable insights with our clients.

FMD can help with your employee benefit plan audit. 

 

Defer Tax with a Section 1031 Exchange, but New Limits Apply this Year

Normally when appreciated business assets such as real estate are sold, tax is owed on the appreciation. But there’s a way to defer this tax: a Section 1031 “like kind” exchange. However, the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act (TCJA) reduces the types of property eligible for this favorable tax treatment.

What is a like-kind exchange?

Section 1031 of the Internal Revenue Code allows you to defer gains on real or personal property used in a business or held for investment if, instead of selling it, you exchange it solely for property of a “like kind.” Thus, the tax benefit of an exchange is that you defer tax and, thereby, have use of the tax savings until you sell the replacement property.

This technique is especially flexible for real estate, because virtually any type of real estate will be considered to be of a like kind, as long as it’s business or investment property. For example, you can exchange a warehouse for an office building, or an apartment complex for a strip mall.

Deferred and reverse exchanges

Although a like-kind exchange may sound quick and easy, it’s relatively rare for two owners to simply swap properties. You’ll likely have to execute a “deferred” exchange, in which you engage a qualified intermediary (QI) for assistance.

When you sell your property (the relinquished property), the net proceeds go directly to the QI, who then uses them to buy replacement property. To qualify for tax-deferred exchange treatment, you generally must identify replacement property within 45 days after you transfer the relinquished property and complete the purchase within 180 days after the initial transfer.

An alternate approach is a “reverse” exchange. Here, an exchange accommodation titleholder (EAT) acquires title to the replacement property before you sell the relinquished property. You can defer capital gains by identifying one or more properties to exchange within 45 days after the EAT receives the replacement property and, typically, completing the transaction within 180 days.

Changes under the TCJA

There had been some concern that tax reform would include the elimination of like-kind exchanges. The good news is that the TCJA still generally allows tax-deferred like-kind exchanges of business and investment real estate.

But there’s also some bad news: For 2018 and beyond, the TCJA eliminates tax-deferred like-kind exchange treatment for exchanges of personal property. However, prior-law rules that allow like-kind exchanges of personal property still apply if one leg of an exchange was completed by December 31, 2017, but one leg remained open on that date. Keep in mind that exchanged personal property must be of the same asset or product class.

Complex rules

The rules for like-kind exchanges are complex, so these arrangements present some risks. If, say, you exchange the wrong kind of property or acquire cash or other non-like-kind property in a deal, you may still end up incurring a sizable tax hit. If you’re exploring a like-kind exchange, contact us. We can help you ensure you’re in compliance with the rules.

© 2018