You’ve likely spent a lot of time working with your advisor to plan your estate. While documents such as your will, various trusts and a power of attorney are essential, consider adding a “road map” to your plan.

Plot it out

Essentially, the road map is an informal letter or other document that guides your family in understanding and executing your estate plan and ensuring that your wishes are carried out.

Your road map should include, among other things:

  • The location of your will, living and other trusts, tax returns and records, powers of attorney, insurance policies, deeds, automobile titles, and other important documents,
  • A personal financial statement that lists stocks, bonds, real estate, bank accounts, retirement plans, vehicles and other assets, as well as information about mortgages, credit cards and other debts,
  • An inventory of digital assets — such as email accounts, online bank and brokerage accounts, online photo galleries, digital music and book collections, and social media accounts — including login credentials or a description of arrangements made to provide your representative with access,
  • The location of family heirlooms or other valuable personal property,
  • A list of important professional contacts, including your estate planning attorney, accountant, insurance agent and financial advisors,
  • Computer passwords and home security system codes,
  • Safe combinations and the location of any safety deposit boxes and keys, and
  • Information about funeral arrangements or burial wishes.

Explain your thinking

The road map may also be a good place to explain to your loved ones the reasoning behind certain estate planning decisions. Perhaps you’re distributing your assets unequally, distributing specific assets to specific heirs or placing certain restrictions on an heir’s entitlement to trust distributions. There are many good reasons for using these strategies, but it’s important for your family to understand your motives to avoid hurt feelings or disputes.

Finally, like other estate planning documents, your road map won’t be effective unless your family knows where to find it, so it’s a good idea to leave it with a trusted advisor and a copy in a place where your heirs will likely find it.

© 2021 Covenant CPA

For many business owners, putting together a succession plan may seem like an overwhelming task. It might even seem unnecessary for those who are relatively young and have no intention of giving up ownership anytime soon.

But if the past year or so have taught us anything, it’s that anything can happen. Owners who’ve built up considerable “sweat equity” in their companies shouldn’t risk liquidation or seeing the business end up in someone else’s hands only because there’s no succession plan in place.

Variations on a theme

To help you get your arms around the concept of succession planning, you can look at it from three different perspectives:

1. The long view. If you have many years to work with, use this gift of time to identify one or more talented individuals who share your values and have the aptitude to successfully run the company. This is especially important for keeping a family-owned business in the family.

As soon as you’ve identified a successor, and he or she is ready, you can begin mentoring the incoming leader to competently run the company and preserve your legacy. Meanwhile, you can carefully identify how to best fund your retirement and structure your estate plan.

2. An imminent horizon. Many business owners wake up one day and realize that they’re almost ready to retire, or move on to another professional endeavor, but they’ve spent little or no time putting together a succession plan. In such a case, you may still be able to choose and train a successor. However, you’ll likely also want to explore alternatives such as selling the company to a competitor or other buyer. Sometimes even liquidation is the optimal move financially.

In any case, the objective here is less about maintaining the strategic direction of the company and more about ensuring you receive an equitable payout for your ownership share. If you’re a co-owner, a buy-sell agreement is highly advisable. It’s also critical to set a firm departure date and work with a qualified team of advisors.

3. A sudden emergency. The COVID-19 pandemic has brought renewed attention to emergency succession planning. True to its name, this approach emphasizes enabling the business to maintain operations immediately after an unforeseen event causes the owner’s death or disability.

If your company doesn’t yet have an emergency succession plan, you should probably create one before you move on to a longer-term plan. Name someone who can take on a credible leadership role if you become seriously ill or injured. Formulate a plan for communicating and delegating duties during a crisis. Make sure everyone knows about the emergency succession plan and how it will affect day-to-day operations, if executed.

Create the future

As with any important task, the more time you give yourself to create a succession plan, the fewer mistakes or oversights you’re likely to make. Our firm can help you create or refine a plan that suits your financial needs, personal wishes and vision for the future of your company.

© 2021 Covenant CPA

Estate planning in the FAST lane

Traditionally, estate planning has focused on more technical objectives, such as minimizing gift and estate taxes and protecting assets against creditors’ claims or lawsuits. These goals are still important, but affluent families are increasingly turning their attention to “softer,” yet equally critical, aspirations, such as educating the younger generation, preparing them to manage wealth responsibly, promoting shared family values and encouraging charitable giving. To achieve these goals, many are turning to a family advancement sustainability trust (FAST).

Decision-making process

Typically, FASTs are created in states that 1) allow perpetual, or “dynasty,” trusts that benefit many generations to come, and 2) have directed trust statutes, which make it possible to appoint an advisor or committee to direct the trustee with regard to certain matters. A directed trust statute makes it possible for both family members and trusted advisors with specialized skills to participate in governance and management of the trust.

A common governance structure for a FAST includes four decision-making entities:

  1. An administrative trustee, often a corporate trustee, that deals with administrative matters but doesn’t handle investment or distribution decisions,
  2. An investment committee — consisting of family members and an independent, professional investment advisor — to manage investment of the trust assets,
  3. A distribution committee — consisting of family members and an outside advisor — to help ensure that trust funds are spent in a manner that benefits the family and promotes the trust’s objectives, and
  4. A trust protector committee — typically composed of one or more trusted advisors — which stands in the shoes of the grantor after his or her death and makes decisions on matters such as appointment or removal of trustees or committee members and amendment of the trust document for tax planning or other purposes.

Funding options

It’s a good idea to establish a FAST during your lifetime. Doing so helps ensure that the trust achieves your objectives and allows you to educate your advisors and family members on the trust’s purpose and guiding principles.

FASTs generally require little funding when created, with the bulk of the funding provided upon the death of the older generation. Although funding can come from the estate, a better approach is to fund a FAST with life insurance or a properly structured irrevocable life insurance trust (ILIT). Using life insurance allows you to achieve the FAST’s objectives without depleting the assets otherwise available for the benefit of your family.

A flexible tool

A FAST is a flexible tool that can be designed to achieve a variety of goals. How you use one depends on your family’s needs and characteristics. Properly designed and implemented, a FAST can help prepare your heirs to receive wealth, educate them about important family values and financial responsibility, and maximize the chances that they’ll reach their potential. Contact us for additional details.

© 2021 Covenant CPA

The world’s largest meat production company was recently sidelined by a ransomware attack. The hack forced the company to temporarily shutter plants in the United States, Canada and Australia, affecting the U.S. meat supply and even hurting commodity prices.

If it seems like cybercriminals often target manufacturing (including food processing) and distribution companies, that’s because they do. According to software company Varonis, manufacturers account for nearly a quarter of all ransomware attacks — more than any other industry. To prevent your company from becoming another statistic, learn about security breaches and protect your network. 

A high price

It’s only natural that manufacturers fear data breaches — and unfortunately hackers often can use that fear to cripple organizations through ransomware. This type of malware is installed on a computer or network without the user’s consent. Hackers subsequently demand that the company pay a ransom to regain control of its data.

Cyberattacks can harm a manufacturer or distributor by causing safety issues, negative publicity, lost productivity, and compromised personal and corporate data. IBM reports that the average cost of a company data breach was approximately $4 million in 2020.

Role of employees 

Employees are a manufacturer’s first line of defense against hackers. But your workers can also be a liability if they aren’t vigilant and knowledgeable about cyberthreats. It’s critical to provide training about the latest scams and encourage employees to report suspicious emails immediately to your IT department.

Many hackers look for easy targets, so even the simplest security measure will deter some cyberbreaches. For example, you can use relatively inexpensive encryption software and phishing filters to make it harder for hackers to get inside your network. Probably the most important simple step you can take is to update security software as soon as updates and patches become available.

On the safe side

To minimize losses if a breach occurs or a ransom demand is made, think about purchasing cyber insurance to cover direct losses and the associated costs of responding to breaches. Your traditional business liability policy probably doesn’t include such coverage.

Also consider assembling a breach response team. The team should be responsible for making a response plan, identifying potential weaknesses in your network and conducting breach response drills. Include cybersecurity, financial, legal and public relations experts on your response team. They’ll be essential in the event a criminal demands ransom and your company must weigh the difficult decision about whether to pay it.

More to lose

No company can afford a cyberattack, but manufacturers that rely on automation, robotics and network connections may have more to lose than businesses in other industries. Contact us for help protecting your assets from fraud.

© 2021 Covenant CPA

If you’re claiming deductions for business meals or auto expenses, expect the IRS to closely review them. In some cases, taxpayers have incomplete documentation or try to create records months (or years) later. In doing so, they fail to meet the strict substantiation requirements set forth under tax law. Tax auditors are adept at rooting out inconsistencies, omissions and errors in taxpayers’ records, as illustrated by one recent U.S. Tax Court case.

Facts of the case

In the case, the taxpayer ran a notary and paralegal business. She deducted business meals and vehicle expenses that she allegedly incurred in connection with her business.

The deductions were denied by the IRS and the court. Tax law “establishes higher substantiation requirements” for these and certain other expenses, the court noted. No deduction is generally allowed “unless the taxpayer substantiates the amount, time and place, business purpose, and business relationship to the taxpayer of the person receiving the benefit” for each expense with adequate records or sufficient evidence.

The taxpayer in this case didn’t provide adequate records or other sufficient evidence to prove the business purpose of her meal expenses. She gave vague testimony that she deducted expenses for meals where she “talked strategies” with people who “wanted her to do some work.” The court found this was insufficient to show the connection between the meals and her business.

When it came to the taxpayer’s vehicle expense deductions, she failed to offer credible evidence showing where she drove her vehicle, the purpose of each trip and her business relationship to the places visited. She also conceded that she used her car for both business and personal activities. (TC Memo 2021-50)

Best practices for business expenses

This case is an example of why it’s critical to maintain meticulous records to support business expenses for meals and vehicle deductions. Here’s a list of “DOs and DON’Ts” to help meet the strict IRS and tax law substantiation requirements for these items:

DO keep detailed, accurate records. For each expense, record the amount, the time and place, the business purpose, and the business relationship of any person to whom you provided a meal. If you have employees who you reimburse for meals and auto expenses, make sure they’re complying with all the rules.

DON’T reconstruct expense logs at year end or wait until you receive a notice from the IRS. Take a moment to record the details in a log or diary or on a receipt at the time of the event or soon after. Require employees to submit monthly expense reports.

DO respect the fine line between personal and business expenses. Be careful about combining business and pleasure. Your business checking account shouldn’t be used for personal expenses.

DON’T be surprised if the IRS asks you to prove your deductions. Meal and auto expenses are a magnet for attention. Be prepared for a challenge.

With organization and guidance from us, your tax records can stand up to scrutiny from the IRS. There may be ways to substantiate your deductions that you haven’t thought of, and there may be a way to estimate certain deductions (“the Cohan rule”), if your records are lost due to a fire, theft, flood or other disaster. 

© 2021 Covenant CPA

Fraud perpetrators take whatever they can get their hands on. But they generally prefer cash because it’s virtually untraceable. Fortunately, fraud experts have the expertise and tools to trace even cash-based theft.

Multiple opportunities

According to the Association of Certified Fraud Examiners, there are three main categories of cash fraud, which includes checks because they’re easily converted to cash: 1) theft of cash on hand, 2) theft of cash receipts and 3) fraudulent disbursements. Fraudulent disbursements comprise many of the most frequently executed schemes, such as overbilling and “ghost” employee schemes.

Overbilling vendors usually submit inflated invoices by overstating the price per unit or the quantity delivered. A dishonest vendor also might submit a legitimate invoice several times. Overbilling may involve collusion with employees of the victim organization, who typically receive kickbacks for their assistance.

Employees also can conduct billing fraud on their own, submitting bogus invoices payable to a fictitious vendor and diverting the payments to themselves. Similarly, an employee might set up payroll disbursements to nonexistent employees.

Suspicious signs

Cash can be difficult to trace once it’s in the hands of a thief. But forensic experts usually are able to trace the path that stolen cash took before the fraudster pocketed it. This includes who “touched” the cash and what prompted its flow out of the organization.

Inflated invoices, for example, often leave a trail of red flags. Experts look for invoices that bill for “extra” or “special” charges with no explanation. Other suspicious signs may include:

  • Round dollar amounts
  • Amounts just below the threshold that requires management’s sign-off, and
  • Discrepancies between invoice amounts and purchase orders, contracts or inventory counts.

If forensic experts suspect that fictitious billing has occurred, they often investigate accounts with no tangible deliverables — such as those for consulting, commissions and advertising — and check vendor addresses against employee addresses. Invoices with consecutive numbers or payable to post office boxes receive extra scrutiny.

Other avenues to explore

Returned checks can supply useful information, too. Fraud perpetrators are more likely to cash checks, whereas legitimate businesses typically deposit them and rarely endorse checks to third parties.

To trace ghost employee schemes, experts examine payroll lists, withholding forms, employment applications, personnel files and other documents. The information collected from these sources may provide vital links between actual and ghost employees that wouldn’t otherwise be apparent.

Don’t waste time

If you suspect that any of these fraud schemes are underway in your business, contact us immediately. The best way to prevent significant losses is to catch the thief as quickly as possible. We can also help you implement internal controls to help prevent such fraud in the future.

© 2021 Covenant CPA

High-income taxpayers face a 3.8% net investment income tax (NIIT) that’s imposed in addition to regular income tax. Fortunately, there are some steps you may be able to take to reduce its impact.

The NIIT applies to you only if modified adjusted gross income (MAGI) exceeds:

  • $250,000 for married taxpayers filing jointly and surviving spouses,
  • $125,000 for married taxpayers filing separately,
  • $200,000 for unmarried taxpayers and heads of household.

The amount subject to the tax is the lesser of your net investment income or the amount by which your MAGI exceeds the threshold ($250,000, $200,000, or $125,000) that applies to you.

Net investment income includes interest, dividend, annuity, royalty, and rental income, unless those items were derived in the ordinary course of an active trade or business. In addition, other gross income from a trade or business that’s a passive activity is subject to the NIIT, as is income from a business trading in financial instruments or commodities.

There are many types of income that are exempt from the NIIT. For example, tax-exempt interest and the excluded gain from the sale of your main home aren’t subject to the tax. Distributions from qualified retirement plans aren’t subject to the NIIT. Wages and self-employment income also aren’t subject to the NIIT, though they may be subject to a different Medicare surtax.

It’s important to remember the NIIT applies only if you have net investment income and your MAGI exceeds the applicable thresholds above. But by following strategies, you may be able to minimize net investment income.

Investment choices 

If your income is high enough to trigger the NIIT, shifting some income investments to tax-exempt bonds could result in less exposure to the tax. Tax-exempt bonds lower your MAGI and avoid the NIIT.

Dividend-paying stocks are taxed more heavily as a result of the NIIT. The maximum income tax rate on qualified dividends is 20%, but the rate becomes 23.8% with the NIIT.

As a result, you may want to consider rebalancing your investment portfolio to emphasize growth stocks over dividend-paying stocks. While the capital gain from these investments will be included in net investment income, there are two potential benefits: 1) the tax will be deferred because the capital gain won’t be subject to the NIIT until the stock is sold and 2) capital gains can be offset by capital losses, which isn’t the case with dividends.

Qualified plans 

Because distributions from qualified retirement plans are exempt from the NIIT, upper-income taxpayers with some control over their situations (such as small business owners) might want to make greater use of qualified plans.

These are only a couple of strategies you may be able to employ. You also may be able to make moves related to charitable donations, passive activities and rental income that may allow you to minimize the NIIT. If you’re subject to the tax, you should include it in your tax planning. Consult with us for tax-planning strategies.

© 2021 Covenant CPA

If you’re a business owner and you hire your children this summer, you can obtain tax breaks and other nontax benefits. The kids can gain on-the-job experience, spend time with you, 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.

A legitimate job

If 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 you operate as a sole proprietor and you’re in the 37% tax bracket. You hire your 16-year-old daughter to help with office work on a full-time basis during the summer and part-time into the fall. Your daughter earns $10,000 during 2021 and doesn’t have any other earnings.

You save $3,700 (37% of $10,000) in income taxes at no tax cost to your daughter, who can use her 2021 $12,550 standard deduction to completely shelter her earnings.

Your family’s taxes are cut even if your daughter’s earnings exceed her standard deduction. Why? The unsheltered earnings will be taxed to the daughter beginning at a rate of 10%, instead of being taxed at your 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. And payments for the services of your child are subject to income tax withholding, regardless of age, no matter what type of entity you operate.

Begin saving for retirement

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 and begin to build a nest egg. For the 2021 tax year, a working child can contribute the lesser of his or her earned income, or $6,000, to an IRA or a Roth.

Keep accurate records 

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. Contact us if you have questions about how these rules apply to your situation.

© 2021 Covenant CPA

Eligible parents will soon begin receiving payments from the federal government. The IRS announced that the 2021 advance child tax credit (CTC) payments, which were created in the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA), will begin being made on July 15, 2021.

How have child tax credits changed?

The ARPA temporarily expanded and made CTCs refundable for 2021. The law increased the maximum CTC — for 2021 only — to $3,600 for each qualifying child under age 6 and to $3,000 per child for children ages 6 to 17, provided their parents’ income is below a certain threshold.

Advance payments will receive up to $300 monthly for each child under 6, and up to $250 monthly for each child 6 and older. The increased credit amount will be reduced or phased out, for households with modified adjusted gross income above the following thresholds:

  • $150,000 for married taxpayers filing jointly and qualifying widows and widowers;
  • $112,500 for heads of household; and
  • $75,000 for other taxpayers.

Under prior law, the maximum annual CTC for 2018 through 2025 was $2,000 per qualifying child but the income thresholds were higher and some of the qualification rules were different.

Important: If your income is too high to receive the increased advance CTC payments, you may still qualify to claim the $2,000 CTC on your tax return for 2021.

What is a qualifying child?

For 2021, a “qualifying child” with respect to a taxpayer is defined as one who is under age 18 and who the taxpayer can claim as a dependent. That means a child related to the taxpayer who, generally, lived with the taxpayer for at least six months during the year. The child also must be a U.S. citizen or national or a U.S. resident.

How and when will advance payments be sent out?

Under the ARPA, the IRS is required to establish a program to make periodic advance payments which in total equal 50% of IRS’s estimate of the eligible taxpayer’s 2021 CTCs, during the period July 2021 through December 2021. The payments will begin on July 15, 2021. After that, they’ll be made on the 15th of each month unless the 15th falls on a weekend or holiday. Parents will receive the monthly payments through direct deposit, paper check or debit card.

Who will benefit from these payments and do they have to do anything to receive them? 

According to the IRS, about 39 million households covering 88% of children in the U.S. “are slated to begin receiving monthly payments without any further action required.” Contact us if you have questions about the child tax credit.

© 2021 Covenant CPA

To generate revenue and foster customer loyalty, many businesses, including retailers, airlines and credit card companies, create loyalty and reward programs. Such programs can help companies attract and retain customers, but they may also be subject to fraud and abuse.

ATO risk

Loyalty programs are particularly vulnerable to account takeovers (ATOs). In these schemes, a criminal assumes control of a customer’s loyalty or rewards account and monetizes it. The thief redeems points for goods and services for personal use or sells them on the black market. These days, the information usually ends up on the dark web.

ATOs often are successful because many loyalty programs lack the robust fraud controls and dedicated teams of investigators to prevent and investigate them. Often, companies don’t understand the extent of fraud and abuse taking place in their programs to justify the investment.

3 steps

To help minimize fraud risk and limit financial losses, consider taking the following steps:

  1. Conduct a risk assessment. Review your loyalty program’s terms and conditions, structure, and activity to ascertain the potential for fraud and abuse. Think about engaging a suitably qualified fraud professional with experience evaluating loyalty programs to guide your efforts. 
  2. Gather and analyze historical losses. Establish a central location for employees to report fraud and abuse. Dissect each loss to identify its root causes and develop a list of potential control failings for remediation. And, if you don’t already have one, establish an anonymous hotline for employees and customers to report suspected fraud.
  3. Evaluate technology solutions. Use the results of your risk assessment and historical analysis of losses to pinpoint potential weaknesses for technology to address. For example, technology can help authenticate customers to prevent ATOs. It can also monitor transactions for activity indicative of fraud. 

Watch your customers

Although ATO schemes involving criminals are common, your company can’t overlook the potential for legitimate customers to abuse your loyalty program. For example, customers may redeem points, then deny doing so and ask you to credit their accounts. Sometimes unethical customers sell their points to online brokers and deny having done so when challenged. Customers could also open multiple accounts under their own or assumed identities to receive new account sign-up bonuses.

Finally, don’t overlook the fact that employees may compromise loyalty accounts. Make sure managers are aware of the possibility and keep an eye on workers with access to the accounts.

Maintain strong security

Contact us for help assessing the security of your loyalty program. If you suspect a widespread fraud problem, we can devise controls to limit thefts and losses.

© 2021 Covenant CPA