When creating or updating your strategic plan, you might be tempted to focus on innovative products or services, new geographic locations, or technological upgrades. But, what about your customers? Particularly if you’re a small to midsize business, focusing your strategic planning efforts on them may be the most direct route to a better bottom line.

Do your ABCs

To get started, pick a period — perhaps one, three or five years — and calculate the profitability contribution level of each major customer or customer unit based on sales numbers and both direct and indirect costs. (We can help you choose the ideal metrics and run the numbers.)

Once you’ve determined the profitability contribution level of each customer or customer unit, divide them into three groups: 1) an A group consisting of highly profitable customers whose business you’d like to expand, 2) a B group comprising customers who aren’t extremely profitable, but still positively contribute to your bottom line, and 3) a C group that includes customers who are dragging down your profitability, perhaps because of constant late payments or unreasonably high-maintenance relationships. These are the ones you can’t afford to keep.

Devise strategies

Your objective with A customers should be to strengthen your rapport with them. Identify what motivates them to buy, so you can continue to meet their needs. Is it something specific about your products or services? Is it your customer service? Developing a good understanding of this group will help you not only build your relationships with these critical customers, but also target sales and marketing efforts to attract other, similar ones.

As mentioned, Category B customers have some profit value. However, just by virtue of sitting in the middle, they can slide either way. There’s a good chance that, with the right mix of sales, marketing and customer service efforts, some of them can be turned into A customers. Determine which ones have the most in common with your best customers, then focus your efforts on them and track the results.

Finally, take a hard look at the C group. You could spend a nominal amount of time determining whether any of them might move up the ladder. It’s likely, though, that most of your C customers simply aren’t a good fit for your company. Fortunately, firing your least desirable customers won’t require much effort. Simply curtail your sales and marketing efforts, or stop them entirely, and most will wander off on their own.

Brighten your future

As the calendar year winds down, examine how your customer base has changed over the past months. Ask questions such as: Have the evolving economic changes triggered (at least in part) by the pandemic affected who buys from us and how much? Then tailor your strategic plan for 2022 accordingly.

Please contact our firm for help reviewing the pertinent data and developing a customer-focused strategic plan that brightens your company’s future.

© 2021 Covenant CPA

Don’t choose your executor too hastily

Haste makes waste. Or, in the case of estate planning, it can lead to other problems and, possibly, financial loss. Notably, if you don’t take enough time to choose the best executor for your estate, this “wrong call” can cost your family.

Many responsibilities

You may think that there’s not much to the job, but an executor’s responsibilities are extensive. As your personal representative, he or she will be entrusted with several significant duties, including collecting, protecting and taking inventory of your estate’s assets; filing the estate’s tax return and paying its taxes; handling creditors’ claims and the estate’s claims against others; making investment decisions; distributing property to beneficiaries; and liquidating assets, if necessary.

Whom should you choose as executor? Usually, it comes down to a decision between a family member or close friend and a professional.

Your first thought might be to choose a family member or a trusted friend. But this may be a mistake for one of these reasons:

  • The person may be too grief-stricken to function effectively,
  • If the executor stands to gain from the will, there may be a conflict of interest — real or perceived — which can lead to will contests or other disputes by disgruntled family members,
  • The executor may lack the financial acumen needed for the position, or
  • The executor may hire any necessary professionals, but they might not be the professionals you’d hire.

To avoid these risks, you might instead consider choosing an independent professional as executor, particularly if the professional is familiar with your financial affairs.

Form a team of executors

Finally, it’s common to appoint co-executors — one person who knows the family and understands its dynamics and an independent executor with the requisite expertise. Whether you decide to use co-executors or only one, be sure to designate at least one backup to serve in the event that your first choice is unable to do so.

© 2021 Covenant CPA

If your estate includes significant real estate investments, the manner in which you own these assets can have a dramatic effect on your estate plan. One versatile estate planning option to consider is tenancy-in-common (TIC) ownership.

What is tenancy-in-common?

A TIC interest is an undivided fractional interest in property. Rather than splitting the property into separate parcels, each owner has the right to use and enjoy the entire property.

An individual TIC owner can’t sell or lease the underlying property, or take other actions with respect to the property as a whole, without the other owners’ consent. But each owner has the right to sell, mortgage or transfer his or her TIC interestThis includes the right to transfer the interest, either directly or in trust, to his or her heirs or other beneficiaries.

Someone who buys or inherits a TIC interest takes over the original owner’s undivided fractional interest in the property, sharing ownership with the other tenants in common. Each TIC interest holder has a right of “partition.” That is, in the event of a dispute among the co-owners over management of the property, an owner can petition a court to divide the property into separate parcels or to force a sale and divide the proceeds among the co-owners.

How is it used in estate planning?

Here are two ways TIC interests can be used to accomplish your estate planning goals:

Distributing your wealthIf real estate constitutes a significant portion of your estate, dividing it among your heirs can be a challenge. If you transfer real estate to your children, for example — as joint tenants — their options for dealing with the property individually will be limited. What if one child wants to hold on to the real estate, but the other two want to cash out? Transferring TIC interests can avoid disputes by giving each heir the power to dispose of his or her interest without forcing a sale of the underlying property.

Reducing gift and estate taxesFractional interests generally are less marketable than whole interests. Plus, because an owner must share management with other co-owners, they provide less control. As a result, TIC interests may enjoy valuation discounts for gift and estate tax purposes.

Get an appraisal

If you’re considering using TIC interests as part of your estate plan, it’s critical to obtain an appraisal to support your valuation of these interests. Keep in mind that appraising a TIC interest is a two-step process: an appraisal of the real estate as a whole, followed by an appraisal of the fractional interest. In some cases, it may be desirable to use two appraisers: a real estate appraiser for the underlying property and a business valuation expert to quantify and support any valuation discounts you claim. Contact us with questions.

© 2021 Covenant CPA

As many states continue to struggle with the current surge in COVID-19 cases, the “new normal” demands continued social distancing in many areas of life. What does this mean for estate planning? Clearly, estate planning is as important today — or arguably more important — than ever. But how do you plan your estate and execute critical documents if you’re uncomfortable with face-to-face meetings or are required to self-quarantine?

Fortunately, many estate planning activities may be able to be done from the safety of your own home. Here are some options to consider, but keep in mind that requirements vary significantly from state to state, so it’s important to discuss your plans with your estate planning advisor.

Most planning can be done remotely

There are definite advantages to meeting with your advisor in person to talk about creating or updating your estate plan. But these discussions can be conducted in video conferences or phone calls, and document drafts can be transmitted and reviewed via email, secure online portals or even “snail mail.”

Traditionally, estate planning documents are executed in an attorney’s office in the presence of witnesses and a notary public. In-office document signings may still be possible with appropriate precautions, but there are other options that may allow you to avoid traveling to an attorney’s office.

The options available depend in part on the type of document being signed:

Wills. In most states, a typewritten will (as well as a modification or codicil to an existing will) must be signed in the physical presence of at least two witnesses. Typically, those witnesses must be disinterested — that is, they don’t stand to inherit or otherwise benefit under the will. But some states permit family members or other interested parties to serve as witnesses. In those states, it may be possible to conduct a will signing at home (with instructions from your attorney) and have members of your household witness it.

What about notarization? Wills are usually notarized as a best practice, but in most states it’s not required. However, wills are often accompanied by a self-proving affidavit, which must be notarized.

Another option in some states is a “holographic,” or handwritten, will, which generally doesn’t require witnesses or notarization.

Trusts. In many states, you can sign a trust document without witnesses or notarization, and it may even be possible to sign it electronically. One potential strategy for avoiding traditional will-signing requirements is to sign a holographic “pour over” will that transfers all assets to a revocable trust, which can accomplish many of the same objectives as a traditional will.

Monitor legal developments

Requirements for signing estate planning documents have been evolving in recent years, and the COVID-19 pandemic may accelerate the process more. A few states permit electronic wills (e-wills) and online notarization, which makes it possible to execute these documents without the need for physical interaction with anyone. These technologies are still in their infancy, but they’re being considered by lawmakers in many states. Contact us with any questions regarding your estate planning documents.

© 2021 Covenant CPA

When it comes to estate planning, trusts are appealing for many reasons. They can enable you to hold and transfer assets for beneficiaries, avoid probate and reduce estate tax exposure. But they can be complicated to set up. One of the major decisions you’ll need to make when establishing a trust is who will act as your trustee. As the name implies, this individual or financial institution must be above reproach. But that’s just one quality of many that your trustee requires.

Both mundane and significant duties

Trustees have significant legal responsibilities, primarily related to administering the trust for the benefit of beneficiaries according to the terms of the trust document. But the role can require many different types of tasks. For example, even if a tax expert is engaged to prepare tax returns, the trustee is responsible for ensuring that they’re completed and filed correctly and on time.

One of the more challenging trustee duties is to accurately account for investments and distributions. When funds are distributed to cover a beneficiary’s education expenses, for example, the trustee should record both the distribution and the expenses covered by it. Beneficiaries are allowed to request an accounting of the transactions at any time.

The trustee needs to invest assets within the trust reasonably, prudently and for the long-term benefit of beneficiaries. And trustees must avoid conflicts of interest — that is, they can’t act for personal gain when managing the trust.

Finally, trustees must be impartial. They may need to decide between competing interests, while still acting within the terms of the trust document.

A tall order

Several qualities help make someone an effective trustee, including:

  • A solid understanding of tax and trust law,
  • Investment management experience,
  • Bookkeeping skills,
  • Integrity and honesty, and
  • The ability to work with all beneficiaries objectively and impartially.

And because some trusts continue for generations, trustees may need to be available for an extended period. For this reason, many people name a financial institution or professional advisor, rather than a friend or family member, as trustee.

Naming a friend or family member as a trustee may seem appealing because it appears to be a way to reduce or avoid the fees associated with an institutional trustee. But it’s important to recognize that taking on the responsibilities of a trustee requires an investment of time, energy and expertise, and that trustees deserve compensation. Even if trust documents don’t provide a fee for the trustee, many states allow for a “reasonable fee.” Before engaging a trustee, make sure you understand what services are included in the fee. But it’s generally not a good idea to try to avoid paying a trustee fee.

Consider all options

Naming a trustee is an important decision, as this person or institution will be responsible for carrying out the terms outlined in the trust documents. We can help you weigh the options available to you.

© 2019 Covenant CPA

Estate planning aims to help individuals achieve several important goals — primary among them, transferring wealth to loved ones at the lowest possible tax cost. However, if you have creditors, you need to be aware of how fraudulent transfer laws can affect your estate plan. Creditors could potentially challenge your gifts, trusts or other estate planning strategies as fraudulent transfers.

Creditor challenges

Most states have adopted the Uniform Fraudulent Transfer Act (UFTA). The act allows creditors to challenge transfers involving two types of fraud.

The first is actual fraud. This means making a transfer or incurring an obligation “with actual intent to hinder, delay or defraud any creditor,” including current creditors and probable future creditors.

The second type is constructive fraud. This is a more significant risk for most people because it doesn’t involve intent to defraud. Under UFTA, a transfer or obligation is constructively fraudulent if you made it without receiving a reasonably equivalent value in exchange for the transfer or obligation and you either were insolvent at the time or became insolvent as a result of the transfer or obligation.

“Insolvent” means that the sum of your debts is greater than all of your assets, at a fair valuation. You’re presumed to be insolvent if you’re not paying your debts as they become due. Generally, constructive fraud rules protect only present creditors — those whose claims arose before the transfer was made or obligation incurred.

Avoid mistakes

When it comes to actual fraud, just because you weren’t purposefully trying to defraud creditors doesn’t mean you’re safe. A court can’t read your mind, and it will consider the surrounding facts and circumstances to determine whether a transfer involves fraudulent intent. So before you make gifts or place assets in a trust, consider how a court might view the transfer.

Constructive fraud is risky because of the definition of insolvency and the nature of making gifts. When you make a gift, either outright or in trust, you don’t receive reasonably equivalent value in exchange. So if you’re insolvent at the time, or the gift you make renders you insolvent, you’ve made a constructively fraudulent transfer. This means a creditor could potentially undo the transfer.

To avoid this risk, calculate your net worth carefully before making substantial gifts. We can help you do this. Even if you’re not having trouble paying your debts, it’s possible you might meet the technical definition of insolvency.

Finally, remember that fraudulent transfer laws vary from state to state. So you should consult an attorney about the law where you live. Call us today at 205-345-9898.

© 2018 Covenant CPA

With the dawn of 2019 on the near horizon, here’s a quick list of tax and financial to-dos you should address before 2018 ends:

Check your FSA balance. If you have a Flexible Spending Account (FSA) for health care expenses, you need to incur qualifying expenses by December 31 to use up these funds or you’ll potentially lose them. (Some plans allow you to carry over up to $500 to the following year or give you a 2½-month grace period to incur qualifying expenses.) Use expiring FSA funds to pay for eyeglasses, dental work or eligible drugs or health products.

Max out tax-advantaged savings. Reduce your 2018 income by contributing to traditional IRAs, employer-sponsored retirement plans or Health Savings Accounts to the extent you’re eligible. (Certain vehicles, including traditional and SEP IRAs, allow you to deduct contributions on your 2018 return if they’re made by April 15, 2019.)

Take RMDs. If you’ve reached age 70½, you generally must take required minimum distributions (RMDs) from IRAs or qualified employer-sponsored retirement plans before the end of the year to avoid a 50% penalty. If you turned 70½ this year, you have until April 1, 2019, to take your first RMD. But keep in mind that, if you defer your first distribution, you’ll have to take two next year.

Consider a QCD. If you’re 70½ or older and charitably inclined, a qualified charitable distribution (QCD) allows you to transfer up to $100,000 tax-free directly from your IRA to a qualified charity and to apply the amount toward your RMD. This is a big advantage if you wouldn’t otherwise qualify for a charitable deduction (because you don’t itemize, for example).

Use it or lose it. Make the most of annual limits that don’t carry over from year to year, even if doing so won’t provide an income tax deduction. For example, if gift and estate taxes are a concern, make annual exclusion gifts up to $15,000 per recipient. If you have a Coverdell Education Savings Account, contribute the maximum amount you’re allowed.

Contribute to a Sec. 529 plan. Sec. 529 prepaid tuition or college savings plans aren’t subject to federal annual contribution limits and don’t provide a federal income tax deduction. But contributions may entitle you to a state income tax deduction (depending on your state and plan).

Review withholding. The IRS cautions that people with more complex tax situations face the possibility of having their income taxes underwithheld due to changes under the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act. Use its withholding calculator (available at irs.gov) to review your situation. If it looks like you could face underpayment penalties, increase withholdings from your or your spouse’s wages for the remainder of the year. (Withholdings, unlike estimated tax payments, are treated as if they were paid evenly over the year.)

For assistance with these and other year-end planning ideas, please contact us at 205-345-9898.

© 2018 Covenant CPA