One benefit of the current federal gift and estate tax exemption amount ($11.7 million in 2021) is that it allows most people to focus their estate planning efforts on asset protection and other wealth preservation strategies, rather than tax minimization. (Although, be aware that President Biden has indicated that he’d like to roll back the exemption to $3.5 million for estate taxes. He proposes to exempt $1 million for the gift tax and impose a top estate tax rate of 45%. Of course, any proposals would have to be passed in Congress.)

If you’re currently more concerned about personal liability, you might consider an asset protection trust to shield your hard-earned wealth against frivolous creditors’ claims and lawsuits. Foreign asset protection trusts offer the greatest protection, although they can be complex and expensive. Another option is to establish a domestic asset protection trust (DAPT).

DAPT vs. hybrid DAPT

The benefit of a standard DAPT is that it offers creditor protection even if you’re a beneficiary of the trust. But there’s also some risk involved: Although many experts believe they’ll hold up in court, DAPTs haven’t been the subject of a great deal of litigation, so there’s some uncertainty over their ability to repel creditors’ claims.

A “hybrid” DAPT offers the best of both worlds. Initially, you’re not named as a beneficiary of the trust, which virtually eliminates the risk described above. But if you need access to the funds in the future, the trustee or trust protector can add you as a beneficiary, converting the trust into a DAPT.

Before you consider a hybrid DAPT, determine whether you need such a trust at all. The most effective asset protection strategy is to place assets beyond the grasp of creditors by transferring them to your spouse, children or other family members, either outright or in a trust, without retaining any control. If the transfer isn’t designed to defraud known creditors, your creditors won’t be able to reach the assets. And even though you’ve given up control, you’ll have indirect access to the assets through your spouse or children (provided your relationship with them remains strong).

If, however, you want to retain access to the assets later in life, without relying on your spouse or children, a DAPT may be the answer.

Setting up a hybrid DAPT

A hybrid DAPT is initially created as a third-party trust — that is, it benefits your spouse and children or other family members, but not you. Because you’re not named as a beneficiary, the trust isn’t a self-settled trust, so it avoids the uncertainty associated with regular DAPTs.

There’s little doubt that a properly structured third-party trust avoids creditors’ claims. If, however, you need access to the trust assets in the future, the trustee or trust protector has the authority to add additional beneficiaries, including you. If that happens, the hybrid account is converted into a regular DAPT subject to the previously discussed risks.

If you have additional questions regarding a DAPT, a hybrid DAPT or other asset protection strategies, please don’t hesitate to contact us.

© 2021 Covenant CPA

The days of the Rolodex are long gone. To connect with customers and prospects, many businesses now rely on customer relationship management (CRM) software. These solutions give users easy access to comprehensive information — including detailed notes on existing connections with targeted individuals and companies — that can enhance marketing efforts and boost sales.

CRM software also typically includes categorized lists of customers, prospects and other valuable contacts. It goes beyond the standard contact info to collect biographical data, track interactions over time and map connections. You and your employees can use it to prompt, craft and automate communications.

Whether you’re just now shopping for CRM software, or already have a system in place, you can and should take various steps to ensure you get max value out of this technological investment.

Keys to success

For starters, make a point of aligning CRM usage with your company’s overall strategic objectives. For example, if one of your goals is to grow revenue in a certain market by 20%, you could make developing customer/prospect profile reports on the CRM system a stated and measured objective.

As is often the case with technology solutions, some employees may be skeptical about the value of the software while others will be enthusiastic supporters. Encourage “CRM champions” to share their success stories from using the solution with others. This will be more convincing than having someone from IT describe the software’s features and how they might help. As the saying goes, show — don’t tell.

Training is another important factor in successfully implementing CRM software. Introduce (or reintroduce) your employees to the solution’s benefits by embedding CRM lessons in meetings or training sessions about other topics, such as billing or revenue building.

You may be able to rely on webinars produced by (or in association with) the software provider to train many employees. You could also offer “lunch and learn” sessions on topics such as how to best conduct customer interviews and input that information into the CRM system to enhance the relationship. If necessary, certain employees — particularly those in sales and marketing — should receive personalized one-on-one sessions with a trainer to ensure they’ve truly mastered the software.

It takes time

For many businesses, the introduction of CRM software means not only a transformation of how work is accomplished, but also a change in culture. Busting out of “information silos” and getting everyone to share customer insights and data doesn’t happen overnight.

So, if you have a CRM solution in place, don’t give up on its potential. And if you’re just implementing one now, exercise patience and diligence when training employees to use it. We can help you set a reasonable budget for technology purchases such as CRM software and measure your return on investment.

© 2021 Covenant CPA

Even after your 2020 tax return has been successfully filed with the IRS, you may still have some questions about the return. Here are brief answers to three questions that we’re frequently asked at this time of year.

Are you wondering when you will receive your refund?

The IRS has an online tool that can tell you the status of your refund. Go to irs.gov and click on “Get Your Refund Status.” You’ll need your Social Security number, filing status and the exact refund amount.

Which tax records can you throw away now? 

At a minimum, keep tax records related to your return for as long as the IRS can audit your return or assess additional taxes. In general, the statute of limitations is three years after you file your return. So you can generally get rid of most records related to tax returns for 2017 and earlier years. (If you filed an extension for your 2017 return, hold on to your records until at least three years from when you filed the extended return.)

However, the statute of limitations extends to six years for taxpayers who understate their gross income by more than 25%.

You should hang on to certain tax-related records longer. For example, keep the actual tax returns indefinitely, so you can prove to the IRS that you filed legitimate returns. (There’s no statute of limitations for an audit if you didn’t file a return or you filed a fraudulent one.)

When it comes to retirement accounts, keep records associated with them until you’ve depleted the account and reported the last withdrawal on your tax return, plus three (or six) years. And retain records related to real estate or investments for as long as you own the asset, plus at least three years after you sell it and report the sale on your tax return. (You can keep these records for six years if you want to be extra safe.)

If you overlooked claiming a tax break, can you still collect a refund for it?

In general, you can file an amended tax return and claim a refund within three years after the date you filed your original return or within two years of the date you paid the tax, whichever is later.

However, there are a few opportunities when you have longer to file an amended return. For example, the statute of limitations for bad debts is longer than the usual three-year time limit for most items on your tax return. In general, you can amend your tax return to claim a bad debt for seven years from the due date of the tax return for the year that the debt became worthless.

Year-round tax help

Contact us if you have questions about retaining tax records, receiving your refund or filing an amended return. We’re not just here at tax filing time. We’re available all year long.

© 2021 Covenant CPA

If your business is organized as a sole proprietorship or as a wholly owned limited liability company (LLC), you’re subject to both income tax and self-employment tax. There may be a way to cut your tax bill by conducting business as an S corporation.

Fundamentals of self-employment tax

The self-employment tax is imposed on 92.35% of self-employment income at a 12.4% rate for Social Security up to a certain maximum ($142,800 for 2021) and at a 2.9% rate for Medicare. No maximum tax limit applies to the Medicare tax. An additional 0.9% Medicare tax is imposed on income exceeding $250,000 for married couples ($125,000 for married persons filing separately) and $200,000 in all other cases.

What if you conduct your business as a partnership in which you’re a general partner? In that case, in addition to income tax, you’re subject to the self-employment tax on your distributive share of the partnership’s income. On the other hand, if you conduct your business as an S corporation, you’ll be subject to income tax, but not self-employment tax, on your share of the S corporation’s income.

An S corporation isn’t subject to tax at the corporate level. Instead, the corporation’s items of income, gain, loss and deduction are passed through to the shareholders. However, the income passed through to the shareholder isn’t treated as self-employment income. Thus, by using an S corporation, you may be able to avoid self-employment income tax.  

Keep your salary “reasonable”

Be aware that the IRS requires that the S corporation pay you reasonable compensation for your services to the business. The compensation is treated as wages subject to employment tax (split evenly between the corporation and the employee), which is equivalent to the self-employment tax. If the S corporation doesn’t pay you reasonable compensation for your services, the IRS may treat a portion of the S corporation’s distributions to you as wages and impose Social Security taxes on the amount it considers wages.

There’s no simple formula regarding what’s considered reasonable compensation. Presumably, reasonable compensation is the amount that unrelated employers would pay for comparable services under similar circumstances. There are many factors that should be taken into account in making this determination.

Converting from a C corporation 

There may be complications if you convert a C corporation to an S corporation. A “built-in gains tax” may apply when you dispose of appreciated assets held by the C corporation at the time of the conversion. However, there may be ways to minimize its impact.

Many factors to consider

Contact us if you’d like to discuss the factors involved in conducting your business as an S corporation, and how much the business should pay you as compensation.

© 2021 Covenant CPA

Although auto sales plunged at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, they’ve since rebounded. In fact, some dealerships are reporting record sales in 2021. Problems remain — including supply bottlenecks. Also, your dealership may be more vulnerable to fraud. Factors such as employees working from home, new vendors and even booming sales, can put your business at risk. Here’s how to prevent fraud from cutting into profits.

Focus on accounting

Fraud prevention starts with strong internal controls. For example, good controls generally require a dealership’s accounting department to post transactions daily, including new and used vehicle sales, repair orders, invoice payments, payroll and cash receipts.

By 1 p.m. on any given day, you should have access to real-time checkbook balances and other accounting information effective as of 5 p.m. the day before. Timeliness makes it easier for you to spot the first signs of fraud and use the data to catch a perpetrator before he or she gets away with theft.

Protections that work

Complex computer passwords that must be changed frequently, background checks on employees and vendors, and security cameras are also essential to preventing fraud. But these protections may have fallen by the wayside during the pandemic. Review your safeguards now and ensure they’re being used.

Your business should always “segregate” duties. Generally, this means that certain tasks, such as managing payroll, are broken into pieces and performed by more than one employee. This limits opportunities to perpetrate fraud and cover up the crime. If you don’t have enough workers to properly segregate duties, consider outsourcing one or more accounting functions to a third-party service.

Loose controls lead to losses

To understand how loose controls can facilitate theft, consider the real-life example of a parts manager who stole $70,000 by selling his employer’s parts and pocketing the cash. If the dealership’s owner had performed random inventory counts throughout the year, rather than waiting for his CPA to physically verify inventories at year end, he could have prevented or limited losses.

In another case, a dealership caught its cashier stealing by voiding service orders and falsifying deposit slips. The cashier’s responsibilities included collecting cash, issuing receipts to customers, preparing the daily deposit slip and reconciling the daily cash report. A loss of $16,000 might have been prevented if the dealership had segregated these duties.

Back to normal

The pandemic is waning. But that doesn’t mean you can afford to relax fraud protections. If you didn’t get a chance to properly vet new workers or vendors in the past year or haven’t kept up with inventory checks, get back to your usual controls as soon as possible. Contact us if you need help or if you suspect fraud in your dealership.

© 2021 Covenant CPA

For businesses, so much has changed over the past year or so. The COVID-19 pandemic hit suddenly and companies were forced to react quickly — sending many employees home to work remotely and making myriad other tweaks and revisions to their processes.

Understandably, you may not have fully documented all the changes you’ve made. But you should; and among the ideal places to do so is in your employee handbook. Now that optimism is rising for a return to relative normalcy, why not look at your handbook with fresh eyes and ensure it accurately represents your company’s policies and procedures.

Legal considerations

Among the primary reasons companies create employee handbooks is protection from legal challenges. Clearly written HR policies and procedures will strengthen your defense if an employee sues. Don’t wait to test this theory in court: Ask your attorney to review the legal soundness of your handbook and make all recommended changes.

Why is this so important? A supervisor without a legally sound and updated employee handbook is like a coach with an old rulebook. You can’t expect supervisors or team members to play by the rules if they don’t know whether and how those rules have changed.

Make sure employees sign a statement acknowledging that they’ve read and understood the latest version of your handbook. Obviously, this applies to new hires, but also ask current employees to sign a new statement when you make major revisions.

Motivational language

Employee handbooks can also communicate the total value of working for your company. Workers don’t always appreciate the benefits their employers provide. This is often because they, and maybe even some managers, aren’t fully aware of those offerings.

Your handbook should express that you care about employees’ welfare — a key point to reinforce given the events of the past year. It also should show precisely how you provide support.

To do so, identify and explain all employee benefits. Don’t stop with the obvious descriptions of health care and retirement plans. Describe your current paid sick time and paid leave policies, which have no doubt been transformed by federal COVID relief measures, as well as any work schedule flexibility and fringe benefits that you offer.

Originality and specificity

One word of caution: When updating their handbooks, some businesses acquire a “best in class” example from another employer and try to adopt it as their own. Doing so generally isn’t a good idea. That other handbook’s tone may be inappropriate or at least inconsistent with your industry or organizational culture.

Similarly, be careful about downloading handbook templates from the Internet. Chances are you’ll have no idea who wrote the original, let alone if it complies with current laws and regulations.

Document and guide

Your employee handbook should serve as a clearly written document for legal purposes and a helpful guide for your company’s workforce. Our firm can help you track your employment costs and develop solutions to any challenges you face.

© 2021

If you and your spouse have similar irrevocable trusts that benefit each other, it’s important to know that the trusts might be subject to the “reciprocal trust” doctrine. In a nutshell, the doctrine prohibits tax avoidance through trusts that are interrelated and place both spouses in the same economic position as if they’d each created trusts naming themselves as life beneficiaries.

Avoid this scenario

Let’s suppose that your and your spouse’s estates will trigger a substantial tax bill when you die. You transfer your assets to an irrevocable trust that provides your spouse with an income interest for life, access to principal at the trustee’s discretion and a testamentary, special power of appointment to distribute the trust assets among your children.

Ordinarily, assets transferred to an irrevocable trust are removed from your taxable estate (though there may be gift tax implications). But let’s say that two weeks later, your spouse establishes a trust with a comparable amount of assets and identical provisions, naming you as life beneficiary. This arrangement would violate the reciprocal trust doctrine, so for tax purposes the transfers would be undone by the IRS and the value of the assets you transferred would be included in your respective estates.

In this example, the intent to avoid estate tax is clear: Each spouse removes assets from his or her taxable estate but remains in essentially the same economic position by virtue of being named life beneficiary of the other spouse’s estate.

Create two substantially different trusts

There are many ways to design trusts to avoid the reciprocal trust doctrine, but essentially the goal is to vary factors related to each trust, such as the trust assets, terms, trustees, beneficiaries or creation dates, so that the two trusts aren’t deemed “substantially similar” by the IRS. Contact us to learn more.

© 2021 Covenant CPA

Before the COVID-19 pandemic hit, the number of people engaged in the “gig” or sharing economy had been growing, according to several reports. And reductions in working hours during the pandemic have caused even more people to turn to gig work to make up lost income. There are tax consequences for the people who perform these jobs, which include providing car rides, delivering food, walking dogs and providing other services.

Bottom line: If you receive income from freelancing or from one of the online platforms offering goods and services, it’s generally taxable. That’s true even if the income comes from a side job and even if you don’t receive an income statement reporting the amount of money you made.

Basics for gig workers

The IRS considers gig workers as those who are independent contractors and conduct their jobs through online platforms. Examples include Uber, Lyft, Airbnb and DoorDash.

Unlike traditional employees, independent contractors don’t receive benefits associated with employment or employer-sponsored health insurance. They also aren’t covered by the minimum wage or other protections of federal laws and they aren’t part of states’ unemployment insurance systems. In addition, they’re on their own when it comes to retirement savings and taxes.

Pay taxes throughout the year

If you’re part of the gig or sharing economy, here are some tax considerations.

  • You may need to make quarterly estimated tax payments because your income isn’t subject to withholding. These payments are generally due on April 15, June 15, September 15 and January 15 of the following year. (If a due date falls on a Saturday or Sunday, the due date becomes the next business day.)
  • You should receive a Form 1099-NEC, Nonemployee Compensation, a Form 1099-K or other income statement from the online platform.
  • Some or all of your business expenses may be deductible on your tax return, subject to the normal tax limitations and rules. For example, if you provide rides with your own car, you may be able to deduct depreciation for wear and tear and deterioration of the vehicle. Be aware that if you rent a room in your main home or vacation home, the rules for deducting expenses can be complex.

Keeping records

It’s important to keep good records tracking income and expenses in case you are audited by the IRS or state tax authorities. Contact us if you have questions about your tax obligations as a gig worker or the deductions you can claim. You don’t want to get an unwanted surprise when you file your tax return.

© 2021 Covenant CPA

Fending off “friendly” fraud

Fraudulent behavior isn’t necessarily perpetuated by people hiding their identities. For example, legitimate customers sometimes use the credit card chargeback process to their advantage — and to the disadvantage of merchants. Others routinely abuse chargebacks to steal merchandise. Here’s how to protect your business from these types of “friendly” and sometimes dishonest fraud.

Chargeback mechanics

Friendly fraud pivots on a customer’s failure to communicate with a merchant. Instead of contacting a seller to discuss a problem with a good or service, some customers immediately dispute a charge with their bank or credit card company. They generally provide plausible reasons for the dispute and don’t mask their identify at any phase of the process.

A chargeback takes time and effort to resolve. And if the bank or credit card company honors a customer’s dispute (which they often do), the merchant must assume the loss.

4 steps

To prevent such chargebacks from harming your bottom line:

1. Track shipments. Keep an “eye” on orders from the moment they leave your facility to their arrival at a customer’s location. For shipments worth more than a certain amount, consider requiring the customer’s signature to release it from the shipper’s possession. With a robust document trail, you’ll be able to support your denial of a chargeback — even if a customer claims he or she didn’t receive the goods.

2. Communicate your refund policy. Create a detailed refund policy and communicate it to customers throughout the shopping process and when the sale is made. For example, post signs in your store or notices on item pages of your website. Just keep in mind that an overly restrictive refund policy may create an incentive for customers to go directly to their credit card companies to dispute a transaction.

3. Invest in customer service. Some customers resort to chargeback requests because they’ve had trouble contacting or reaching a resolution with the merchant. Make sure you provide customers with multiple support channels, such as phone, email, and instant message. Additionally, give customer service personnel the authority to resolve disputes quickly — including to issue refunds or credits without supervisory approval.  

4. Watch customer activity. Collecting and analyzing customer data can deepen your company’s understanding of purchasers’ behavior and help detect anomalies. For example, if a customer frequently checks the status of his order and then denies placing the order, you may be able to use this fact when disputing a chargeback. 

Play defense

It’s important to understand that not all chargeback requests are hostile or intentionally fraudulent. But you also need to protect your business from bad actors. Contact us for more information on “friendly” fraud.

© 2021 Covenant CPA