February 10, 2020
Many business owners ask: How can I avoid an IRS audit? The good news is that the odds against being audited are in your favor. In fiscal year 2018, the IRS audited approximately 0.6% of individuals. Businesses, large corporations and high-income individuals are more likely to be audited but, overall, audit rates are historically low.
There’s no 100% guarantee that you won’t be picked for an audit, because some tax returns are chosen randomly. However, completing your returns in a timely and accurate fashion with our firm certainly works in your favor. And it helps to know what might catch the attention of the IRS.
Audit red flags
A variety of tax-return entries may raise red flags with the IRS and may lead to an audit. Here are a few examples:
- Significant inconsistencies between previous years’ filings and your most current filing,
- Gross profit margin or expenses markedly different from those of other businesses in your industry, and
- Miscalculated or unusually high deductions.
Certain types of deductions may be questioned by the IRS because there are strict recordkeeping requirements for them • for example, auto and travel expense deductions. In addition, an owner-employee salary that’s inordinately higher or lower than those in similar companies in his or her location can catch the IRS’s eye, especially if the business is structured as a corporation.
How to respond
If you’re selected for an audit, you’ll be notified by letter. Generally, the IRS won’t make initial contact by phone. But if there’s no response to the letter, the agency may follow up with a call.
Many audits simply request that you mail in documentation to support certain deductions you’ve taken. Others may ask you to take receipts and other documents to a local IRS office. Only the harshest version, the field audit, requires meeting with one or more IRS auditors. (Note: Ignore unsolicited email messages about an audit. The IRS doesn’t contact people in this manner. These are scams.)
Keep in mind that the tax agency won’t demand an immediate response to a mailed notice. You’ll be informed of the discrepancies in question and given time to prepare. You’ll need to collect and organize all relevant income and expense records. If any records are missing, you’ll have to reconstruct the information as accurately as possible based on other documentation.
If the IRS chooses you for an audit, our firm can help you:
- Understand what the IRS is disputing (it’s not always crystal clear),
- Gather the specific documents and information needed, and
- •Respond to the auditor’s inquiries in the most expedient and effective manner.
Don’t panic if you’re contacted by the IRS. Many audits are routine. By taking a meticulous, proactive approach to how you track, document and file your company’s tax-related information, you’ll make an audit much less painful and even decrease the chances that one will happen in the first place.
February 10, 2020
Fewer people currently are subject to transfer taxes than ever before. But gift, estate and generation-skipping transfer (GST) taxes continue to place a burden on families with significant amounts of wealth tied up in illiquid closely held businesses, including farms.
Fortunately, Internal Revenue Code Section 6166 provides some relief, allowing the estates of family business owners to defer estate taxes and pay them in installments if certain requirements are met.
Sec. 6166 benefits
For families with substantial closely held business interests, an election to defer estate taxes under Sec. 6166 can help them avoid having to sell business assets to pay estate taxes. It allows an estate to pay interest only (at modest rates) for four years and then to stretch out estate tax payments over 10 years in equal annual installments. The goal is to enable the estate to pay the taxes out of business earnings or otherwise to buy enough time to raise the necessary funds without disrupting business operations.
Be aware that deferral isn’t available for the entire estate tax liability. Rather, it’s limited to the amount of tax attributable to qualifying closely held business interests.
Sec. 6166 requirements
Estate tax deferral is available if 1) the deceased was a U.S. citizen or resident who owned a closely held business at the time of his or her death, 2) the value of the deceased’s interest in the business exceeds 35% of his or her adjusted gross estate, and 3) the estate’s executor or other personal representative makes a Sec. 6166 election on a timely filed estate tax return.
To qualify as a “closely held business,” an entity must conduct an active trade or business at the time of the deceased’s death (and only assets used to conduct that trade or business count for purposes of the 35% threshold). Merely managing investment assets isn’t enough.
In addition, a closely held business must be structured as:
- A sole proprietorship,
- A partnership (including certain limited liability companies taxed as partnerships), provided either 1) 20% or more of the entity’s total capital interest is included in the deceased’s estate, or 2) the entity has a maximum of 45 partners, or
- A corporation, provided either 1) 20% or more of the corporation’s voting stock is included in the deceased’s estate, or 2) the corporation has a maximum of 45 shareholders.
Several special rules make it easier to satisfy Sec. 6166’s requirements. For example, if an estate holds interests in multiple closely held businesses, and owns at least 20% of each business, it may combine them and treat them as a single closely held business for purposes of the 35% threshold. In addition, the section treats stock and partnership interests held by certain family members as owned by the deceased.
On the other hand, the interests owned by corporations, partnerships, estates and trusts are attributed to the underlying shareholders, partners or beneficiaries. This can make it harder to stay under the 45-partner/shareholder limit.
Contact us with questions.
February 10, 2020
These days, most businesses need a website to remain competitive. It’s an easy decision to set one up and maintain it. But determining the proper tax treatment for the costs involved in developing a website isn’t so easy.
That’s because the IRS hasn’t released any official guidance on these costs yet. Consequently, you must apply existing guidance on other costs to the issue of website development costs.
Hardware and software
First, let’s look at the hardware you may need to operate a website. The costs involved fall under the standard rules for depreciable equipment. Specifically, once these assets are up and running, you can deduct 100% of the cost in the first year they’re placed in service (before 2023). This favorable treatment is allowed under the 100% first-year bonus depreciation break.
In later years, you can probably deduct 100% of these costs in the year the assets are placed in service under the Section 179 first-year depreciation deduction privilege. However, Sec. 179 deductions are subject to several limitations.
For tax years beginning in 2019, the maximum Sec. 179 deduction is $1.02 million, subject to a phaseout rule. Under the rule, the deduction is phased out if more than a specified amount of qualified property is placed in service during the year. The threshold amount for 2019 is $2.55 million.
There’s also a taxable income limit. Under it, your Sec. 179 deduction can’t exceed your business taxable income. In other words, Sec. 179 deductions can’t create or increase an overall tax loss. However, any Sec. 179 deduction amount that you can’t immediately deduct is carried forward and can be deducted in later years (to the extent permitted by the applicable limits).
Similar rules apply to purchased off-the-shelf software. However, software license fees are treated differently from purchased software costs for tax purposes. Payments for leased or licensed software used for your website are currently deductible as ordinary and necessary business expenses.
Software developed internally
If your website is primarily for advertising, you can also currently deduct internal website software development costs as ordinary and necessary business expenses.
An alternative position is that your software development costs represent currently deductible research and development costs under the tax code. To qualify for this treatment, the costs must be paid or incurred by December 31, 2022.
A more conservative approach would be to capitalize the costs of internally developed software. Then you would depreciate them over 36 months.
Third party payments
Some companies hire third parties to set up and run their websites. In general, payments to third parties are currently deductible as ordinary and necessary business expenses.
Before business begins
Start-up expenses can include website development costs. Up to $5,000 of otherwise deductible expenses that are incurred before your business commences can generally be deducted in the year business commences. However, if your start-up expenses exceed $50,000, the $5,000 current deduction limit starts to be chipped away. Above this amount, you must capitalize some, or all, of your start-up expenses and amortize them over 60 months, starting with the month that business commences.
We can help
We can determine the appropriate treatment for these costs for federal income tax purposes. Contact us if you have questions or want more information.
February 10, 2020
Traditionally, trusts used in estate planning contain “Crummey” withdrawal powers to ensure that contributions qualify for the annual gift tax exclusion. Today, the exclusion allows you to give up to $15,000 per year ($30,000 for married couples) to any number of recipients.
Now that the gift and estate tax exemption has reached an inflation-adjusted $11.4 million, fewer people have to worry about gift and estate taxes. But, for many affluent people, the annual exclusion continues to be an important estate planning strategy. Thus, Crummey powers continue to be relevant.
Reasons to make annual exclusion gifts
Despite the record-high exemption, there are two important reasons to make annual exclusion gifts. First, if your wealth exceeds the exemption amount, an annual gifting program can reduce or even eliminate your liability for gift and estate taxes.
Second, even if your wealth is well within the exemption, annual gifting guarantees that the amounts you give are permanently removed from your taxable estate. If you rely on the exemption, keep in mind that there’s no guarantee that Congress won’t reduce the amount in the future, exposing your estate to tax liability.
Crummey powers explained
The annual exclusion is available only for gifts of “present interests.” But a contribution to a trust is, by definition, a gift of a future interest. To get around this obstacle, trusts typically provide beneficiaries with Crummey withdrawal powers. By giving them the right to withdraw trust contributions for a limited period of time (usually 30 to 60 days), it’s possible to convert a future interest into a present interest, even if the withdrawal rights are never exercised.
For Crummey powers to work, the trust must give beneficiaries real withdrawal rights. Generally, that means you can’t have an agreement with your beneficiaries — expressed or implied — that they won’t exercise their withdrawal rights (although it’s permissible to discuss with them the advantages of keeping assets in the trust).
It also means that the trust should contain sufficient liquid assets so that beneficiaries can exercise their withdrawal rights if they choose to.
Notifying beneficiaries of withdrawal rights is critical
The IRS has long taken the position that a trust contribution isn’t a present-interest gift — and, therefore, is ineligible for the annual exclusion — unless beneficiaries receive actual notice of their withdrawal rights and a “reasonable opportunity” to exercise those rights. To avoid an IRS challenge, it’s prudent to provide beneficiaries with written notice of their withdrawal rights, preferably via certified mail.
There’s no specific requirement regarding the amount of time that constitutes a “reasonable opportunity.” The IRS has indicated in private rulings, however, that 30 days is sufficient, while three days isn’t. Common practice is to give beneficiaries between 30 and 60 days to exercise their withdrawal rights.
If you wish to make annual exclusion gifts to a trust, be sure the trust provides the beneficiaries with Crummey withdrawal powers. Contact us with questions.
February 10, 2020
Do you want to withdraw cash from your closely held corporation at a low tax cost? The easiest way is to distribute cash as a dividend. However, a dividend distribution isn’t tax-efficient, since it’s taxable to you to the extent of your corporation’s “earnings and profits.” But it’s not deductible by the corporation.
Fortunately, there are several alternative methods that may allow you to withdraw cash from a corporation while avoiding dividend treatment. Here are five ideas:
1. Capital repayments. To the extent that you’ve capitalized the corporation with debt, including amounts that you’ve advanced to the business, the corporation can repay the debt without the repayment being treated as a dividend. Additionally, interest paid on the debt can be deducted by the corporation. This assumes that the debt has been properly documented with terms that characterize debt and that the corporation doesn’t have an excessively high debt-to-equity ratio. If not, the “debt” repayment may be taxed as a dividend. If you make cash contributions to the corporation in the future, consider structuring them as debt to facilitate later withdrawals on a tax-advantaged basis.
2. Salary. Reasonable compensation that you, or family members, receive for services rendered to the corporation is deductible by the business. However, it’s also taxable to the recipient. The same rule applies to any compensation (in the form of rent) that you receive from the corporation for the use of property. In either case, the amount of compensation must be reasonable in relation to the services rendered or the value of the property provided. If it’s excessive, the excess will be nondeductible and treated as a corporate distribution.
3. Loans. You may withdraw cash from the corporation tax-free by borrowing money from it. However, to avoid having the loan characterized as a corporate distribution, it should be properly documented in a loan agreement or a note and be made on terms that are comparable to those on which an unrelated third party would lend money to you. This should include a provision for interest and principal. All interest and principal payments should be made when required under the loan terms. Also, consider the effect of the corporation’s receipt of interest income.
4. Fringe benefits. Consider obtaining the equivalent of a cash withdrawal in fringe benefits that are deductible by the corporation and not taxable to you. Examples are life insurance, certain medical benefits, disability insurance and dependent care. Most of these benefits are tax-free only if provided on a nondiscriminatory basis to other employees of the corporation. You can also establish a salary reduction plan that allows you (and other employees) to take a portion of your compensation as nontaxable benefits, rather than as taxable compensation.
5. Property sales. You can withdraw cash from the corporation by selling property to it. However, certain sales should be avoided. For example, you shouldn’t sell property to a more than 50% owned corporation at a loss, since the loss will be disallowed. And you shouldn’t sell depreciable property to a more than 50% owned corporation at a gain, since the gain will be treated as ordinary income, rather than capital gain. A sale should be on terms that are comparable to those on which an unrelated third party would purchase the property. You may need to obtain an independent appraisal to establish the property’s value.
If you’re interested in discussing any of these ideas, contact us. We can help you get the maximum out of your corporation at the minimum tax cost.