Encourage sales staff to walk an ethical line

When market competition heats up, you might provide extra incentives for your sales staff to perform. But be careful: Some employees may step over the line — to earn bigger bonuses or out of enthusiasm for the challenge — and use unethical sales tactics. Take steps to ensure your salespeople always operate with integrity.

Make a commitment to honesty

Culture starts at the top. If you clearly demonstrate, through both words and behavior, your commitment to honesty, your sales team will get the message. Your customers will too.

Try to anticipate the challenges your sales force may face as they attempt to meet sales goals. The temptation to sell more than your company can deliver, for example — or to recommend a product they know isn’t the best solution for a customer’s problem — may be strong. Those and similar sales strategies may land the account, but they do nothing to build the trust and credibility your business needs to keep that account over the long haul.

It’s also important that your company and salespeople don’t try to slip through loopholes when a situation requires taking responsibility. For example, some insurance companies that wrote coverage on homes and businesses damaged during Hurricane Katrina, Superstorm Sandy, and Hurricane Harvey lost goodwill by quibbling over what damage was covered. Ensuing legal battles and negative publicity have done nothing to raise consumer confidence in the insurance industry.

Promote lasting relationships

When your salespeople make a sale, require them to be clear about what the sale includes and what it doesn’t. Reiterate that their job isn’t simply to make sales, but to build lasting customer relationships. To do that, they must always keep the customers’ best interests in mind. To make sure the message gets heard, consider tying compensation to customer satisfaction and repeat business, in addition to sales revenue quotas.

That may mean acknowledging, for example, that one of your products won’t do everything the customer needs it to do. If a customer asks about a feature your product doesn’t have, your sales reps shouldn’t imply that it does. Instead, they should work with the customer to determine whether the desired feature is necessary and emphasize your product’s other features and benefits. Ultimately, however, they must be honest about any limitations.

Your sales force doesn’t need to steer customers to competitors, but they shouldn’t disparage the competition, either. And incentivizing customers to load up on unneeded products during promotions may boost the bottom line, but it won’t do much to build trust.

Shift priorities

Too often sales staffs are encouraged to focus on short-term goals, which makes them more likely to do “whatever it takes” to get a sale. It’s up to you and your managers to prioritize the kind of ethical behavior that’s crucial to your company’s long-term success.

© 2019

The tax implications of a company car

The use of a company vehicle is a valuable fringe benefit for owners and employees of small businesses. This benefit results in tax deductions for the employer as well as tax breaks for the owners and employees using the cars. (And of course, they get the nontax benefits of driving the cars!) Even better, recent tax law changes and IRS rules make the perk more valuable than before.

Here’s an example

Let’s say you’re the owner-employee of a corporation that’s going to provide you with a company car. You need the car to visit customers, meet with vendors and check on suppliers. You expect to drive the car 8,500 miles a year for business. You also expect to use the car for about 7,000 miles of personal driving, including commuting, running errands and weekend trips with your family. Therefore, your usage of the vehicle will be approximately 55% for business and 45% for personal purposes. You want a nice car to reflect positively on your business, so the corporation buys a new luxury $50,000 sedan.

Your cost for personal use of the vehicle will be equal to the tax you pay on the fringe benefit value of your 45% personal mileage. By contrast, if you bought the car yourself to be able to drive the personal miles, you’d be out-of-pocket for the entire purchase cost of the car.

Your personal use will be treated as fringe benefit income. For tax purposes, your corporation will treat the car much the same way it would any other business asset, subject to depreciation deduction restrictions if the auto is purchased. Out-of-pocket expenses related to the car (including insurance, gas, oil and maintenance) are deductible, including the portion that relates to your personal use. If the corporation finances the car, the interest it pays on the loan would be deductible as a business expense (unless the business is subject to business-interest limitation under the tax code).

In contrast, if you bought the auto yourself, you wouldn’t be entitled to any deductions. Your outlays for the business-related portion of your driving would be unreimbursed employee business expenses that are nondeductible from 2018 to 2025 due to the suspension of miscellaneous itemized deductions under the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act. And if you financed the car yourself, the interest payments would be nondeductible.

And finally, the purchase of the car by your corporation will have no effect on your credit rating.

Administrative tasks

Providing an auto for an owner’s or key employee’s business and personal use comes with complications and paperwork. Personal use will have to be tracked and valued under the fringe benefit tax rules and treated as income. This article only explains the basics.

Despite the necessary valuation and paperwork, a company-provided car is still a valuable fringe benefit for business owners and key employees. It can provide them with the use of a vehicle at a low tax cost while generating tax deductions for their businesses. We can help you stay in compliance with the rules and explain more about this prized perk.

© 2019

Take a closer look at home office deductions

Working from home has its perks. Not only can you skip the commute, but you also might be eligible to deduct home office expenses on your tax return. Deductions for these expenses can save you a bundle, if you meet the tax law qualifications.

Under the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act, employees can no longer claim the home office deduction. If, however, you run a business from your home or are otherwise self-employed and use part of your home for business purposes, the home office deduction may still be available to you.

If you’re a homeowner and use part of your home for business purposes, you may be entitled to deduct a portion of actual expenses such as mortgage, property taxes, utilities, repairs and insurance, as well as depreciation. Or you might be able to claim the simplified home office deduction of $5 per square foot, up to 300 square feet ($1,500).

Requirements to qualify

To qualify for home office deductions, part of your home must be used “regularly and exclusively” as your principal place of business. This is defined as follows:

1. Regular use. You use a specific area of your home for business on a regular basis. Incidental or occasional business use isn’t considered regular use.

2. Exclusive use. You use a specific area of your home only for business. It’s not required that the space be physically partitioned off. But you don’t meet the requirements if the area is used for both business and personal purposes, such as a home office that you also use as a guest bedroom.

Your home office will qualify as your principal place of business if you 1) use the space exclusively and regularly for administrative or management activities of your business, and 2) don’t have another fixed location where you conduct substantial administrative or management activities.

Examples of activities that meet this requirement include:

  • Billing customers, clients or patients,
  • Keeping books and records,
  • Ordering supplies,
  • Setting up appointments, and
  • Forwarding orders or writing reports.

Other ways to qualify

If your home isn’t your principal place of business, you may still be able to deduct home office expenses if you physically meet with patients, clients or customers on the premises. The use of your home must be substantial and integral to the business conducted.

Alternatively, you may be able to claim the home office deduction if you have a storage area in your home — or in a separate free-standing structure (such as a studio, workshop, garage or barn) — that’s used exclusively and regularly for your business.

An audit target

Be aware that claiming expenses on your tax return for a home office has long been a red flag for an IRS audit, since many people don’t qualify. But don’t be afraid to take a home office deduction if you’re entitled to it. You just need to pay close attention to the rules to ensure that you’re eligible — and make sure that your recordkeeping is complete.

The home office deduction can provide a valuable tax-saving opportunity for business owners and other self-employed taxpayers who work from home. Keep in mind that, when you sell your house, there can be tax implications if you’ve claimed a home office. Contact us if you have questions or aren’t sure how to proceed in your situation.

© 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

The “nanny tax” must be paid for more than just nannies

You may have heard of the “nanny tax.” But even if you don’t employ a nanny, it may apply to you. Hiring a housekeeper, gardener or other household employee (who isn’t an independent contractor) may make you liable for federal income and other taxes. You may also have state tax obligations.

If you employ a household worker, you aren’t required to withhold federal income taxes from pay. But you may choose to withhold if the worker requests it. In that case, ask the worker to fill out a Form W-4. However, you may be required to withhold Social Security and Medicare (FICA) taxes and to pay federal unemployment (FUTA) tax.

FICA and FUTA tax

In 2019, you must withhold and pay FICA taxes if your household worker earns cash wages of $2,100 or more (excluding the value of food and lodging). If you reach the threshold, all the wages (not just the excess) are subject to FICA.

However, if a nanny is under age 18 and child care isn’t his or her principal occupation, you don’t have to withhold FICA taxes. So, if you have a part-time babysitter who is a student, there’s no FICA tax liability.

Both an employer and a household worker may have FICA tax obligations. As an employer, you’re responsible for withholding your worker’s FICA share. In addition, you must pay a matching amount. FICA tax is divided between Social Security and Medicare. The Social Security tax rate is 6.2% for the employer and 6.2% for the worker (12.4% total). Medicare tax is 1.45% each for both the employer and the worker (2.9% total).

If you want, you can pay your worker’s share of Social Security and Medicare taxes. If you do, your payments aren’t counted as additional cash wages for Social Security and Medicare purposes. However, your payments are treated as additional income to the worker for federal tax purposes, so you must include them as wages on the W-2 form that you must provide.

You also must pay FUTA tax if you pay $1,000 or more in cash wages (excluding food and lodging) to your worker in any calendar quarter. FUTA tax applies to the first $7,000 of wages paid and is only paid by the employer.

Reporting and paying

You pay household worker obligations by increasing your quarterly estimated tax payments or increasing withholding from wages, rather than making an annual lump-sum payment.

As a household worker employer, you don’t have to file employment tax returns, even if you’re required to withhold or pay tax (unless you own your own business). Instead, employment taxes are reported on your tax return on Schedule H.

When you report the taxes on your return, you include your employer identification number (not the same as your Social Security number). You must file Form SS-4 to get one.

However, if you own a business as a sole proprietor, you include the taxes for a household worker on the FUTA and FICA forms (940 and 941) that you file for your business. And you use your sole proprietorship EIN to report the taxes.

Keep careful records

Keep related tax records for at least four years from the later of the due date of the return or the date the tax was paid. Records should include the worker’s name, address, Social Security number, employment dates, dates and amount of wages paid and taxes withheld, and copies of forms filed.

Contact us for assistance or questions about how to comply with these employment tax requirements.

© 2019

The tax implications of being a winner

If you’re lucky enough to be a winner at gambling or the lottery, congratulations! After you celebrate, be ready to deal with the tax consequences of your good fortune.

Winning at gambling

Whether you win at the casino, a bingo hall, or elsewhere, you must report 100% of your winnings as taxable income. They’re reported on the “Other income” line on Schedule 1 of your 1040 tax return. To measure your winnings on a particular wager, use the net gain. For example, if a $30 bet at the race track turns into a $110 win, you’ve won $80, not $110.

You must separately keep track of losses. They’re deductible, but only as itemized deductions. Therefore, if you don’t itemize and take the standard deduction, you can’t deduct gambling losses. In addition, gambling losses are only deductible up to the amount of gambling winnings. So you can use losses to “wipe out” gambling income but you can’t show a gambling tax loss.

Maintain good records of your losses during the year. Keep a diary in which you indicate the date, place, amount and type of loss, as well as the names of anyone who was with you. Save all documentation, such as checks or credit slips.

Winning the lottery

The chances of winning the lottery are slim. But if you don’t follow the tax rules after winning, the chances of hearing from the IRS are much higher.

Lottery winnings are taxable. This is the case for cash prizes and for the fair market value of any noncash prizes, such as a car or vacation. Depending on your other income and the amount of your winnings, your federal tax rate may be as high as 37%. You may also be subject to state income tax.

You report lottery winnings as income in the year, or years, you actually receive them. In the case of noncash prizes, this would be the year the prize is received. With cash, if you take the winnings in annual installments, you only report each year’s installment as income for that year.

If you win more than $5,000 in the lottery or certain types of gambling, 24% must be withheld for federal tax purposes. You’ll receive a Form W-2G from the payer showing the amount paid to you and the federal tax withheld. (The payer also sends this information to the IRS.) If state tax withholding is withheld, that amount may also be shown on Form W-2G.

Since your federal tax rate can be up to 37%, which is well above the 24% withheld, the withholding may not be enough to cover your federal tax bill. Therefore, you may have to make estimated tax payments — and you may be assessed a penalty if you fail to do so. In addition, you may be required to make state and local estimated tax payments.

We can help

If you’re fortunate enough to hit a sizable jackpot, there are other issues to consider, including estate planning. This article only covers the basic tax rules. Different rules apply to people who qualify as professional gamblers. Contact us with questions. We can help you minimize taxes and stay in compliance with all requirements.

© 2019

“Innocent spouses” may get relief from tax liability

When a married couple files a joint tax return, each spouse is “jointly and severally” liable for the full amount of tax on the couple’s combined income. Therefore, the IRS can come after either spouse to collect the entire tax — not just the part that’s attributed to one spouse or the other. This includes any tax deficiency that the IRS assesses after an audit, as well as any penalties and interest. (However, the civil fraud penalty can be imposed only on spouses who’ve actually committed fraud.)

Innocent spouses

In some cases, spouses are eligible for “innocent spouse relief.” This generally involves individuals who were unaware of a tax understatement that was attributable to the other spouse.

To qualify, you must show not only that you didn’t know about the understatement, but that there was nothing that should have made you suspicious. In addition, the circumstances must make it inequitable to hold you liable for the tax. This relief is available even if you’re still married and living with your spouse.

In addition, spouses may be able to limit liability for any tax deficiency on a joint return if they’re widowed, divorced, legally separated or have lived apart for at least one year.

Election to limit liability

If you make this election, the tax items that gave rise to the deficiency will be allocated between you and your spouse as if you’d filed separate returns. For example, you’d generally be liable for the tax on any unreported wage income only to the extent that you earned the wages.

The election won’t provide relief from your spouse’s tax items if the IRS proves that you knew about the items when you signed the return — unless you can show that you signed the return under duress. Also, the limitation on your liability is increased by the value of any assets that your spouse transferred to you in order to avoid the tax.

An “injured” spouse

In addition to innocent spouse relief, there’s also relief for “injured” spouses. What’s the difference? An injured spouse claim asks the IRS to allocate part of a joint refund to one spouse. In these cases, an injured spouse has all or part of a refund from a joint return applied against past-due federal tax, state tax, child or spousal support, or a federal nontax debt (such as a student loan) owed by the other spouse. If you’re an injured spouse, you may be entitled to recoup your share of the refund.

Whether, and to what extent, you can take advantage of the above relief depends on the facts of your situation. If you’re interested in trying to obtain relief, there’s paperwork that must be filed and deadlines that must be met. We can assist you with the details.

Also, keep “joint and several liability” in mind when filing future tax returns. Even if a joint return results in less tax, you may choose to file a separate return if you want to be certain of being responsible only for your own tax. Contact us with any questions or concerns.

© 2019