No disaster scammer is safe from the NCDF

What do COVID-19, major hurricanes and West Coast wildfires have in common? All three have attracted scam artists, who have bilked disaster victims, charitable donors, insurance companies and government agencies out of billions of dollars. Also, all of these disasters — and the criminals who take advantage of them — are the focus of The National Center for Disaster Fraud (NCDF). Let’s take a look at what this partnership between the U.S. Justice Department and various law enforcement and regulatory agencies does to investigate and prevent fraud.

Investigate and prevent

The NCDF was established in 2005 after Hurricane Katrina to combat the massive fraud schemes that emerged as financial aid poured into the Gulf region. The agency now coordinates investigations into all kinds of natural and manmade disaster fraud. It also helps to prevent perpetrators from finding victims.

Recently, the NCDF posted on its website tips for charitable donors who want to help victims of Hurricane Ida (justice.gov/disaster-fraud). For example, the agency urges people to avoid making cash donations, writing checks to individuals or donating via wire transfer.

COVID and other opportunities

COVID-19-related fraud — including dishonest Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) loan requests and phishing schemes offering fake “miracle” drugs — makes up the bulk of current NCDF complaints. In recent weeks, the Justice Department has announced the indictment and sentencing of a roster of COVID criminals.

This includes a Georgia woman who pleaded guilty to bank fraud after seeking $7.9 million in PPP loans for four medical practices she controlled. In another ambitious scheme, a Texas man submitted 15 fraudulent PPP applications to eight different lenders, seeking a total of $24.8 million.

Of course, criminals will capitalize on any opportunity. A California man received $26,000 in relief funds from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) after falsely claiming a trailer burned in the Camp Fire was his primary residence. Earlier this year, a Florida woman was sentenced to more than six years in prison for using stolen identities to file five applications for FEMA disaster assistance that was intended for actual victims of Hurricane Irma.

Calls for help

Agencies investigating disaster fraud depend on tips from ordinary people who’ve witnessed or are victims of these crimes. The NCDF hosts a 24/7 telephone hotline (866-720-5721) and accepts Web form complaints at justice.gov/DisasterComplaintForm. Also, if you believe disaster fraud has delivered a double whammy to you or family members, contact us for more information on how to fight back.

© 2021 Covenant CPA

The U.S. Department of Labor (DOL) recently issued EBSA Disaster Relief Notice 2021-01, which is of interest to employers. It clarifies the duration of certain COVID-19-related deadline extensions that apply to health care benefits plans.

Extensions to continue

The DOL and IRS issued guidance last year specifying that the COVID-19 outbreak period — defined as beginning March 1, 2020, and ending 60 days after the announced end of the COVID-19 national emergency — should be disregarded when calculating various deadlines under COBRA, ERISA and HIPAA’s special enrollment provisions.

The original emergency declaration would have expired on March 1, 2021, but it was recently extended. Although the agencies defined the outbreak period solely by reference to the COVID-19 national emergency, they relied on statutes allowing them to specify disregarded periods for a maximum of one year. Therefore, questions arose as to whether the outbreak period was required to end on February 28, 2021, one year after it began.

Notice 2021-01answers those questions by providing that the extensions have continued past February 28 and will be measured on a case-by-case basis. Specifically, applicable deadlines for individuals and plans that fall within the outbreak period will be extended (that is, the disregarded period will last) until the earlier of:

  • One year from the date the plan or individual was first eligible for outbreak period relief, or
  • The end of the outbreak period.

Once the disregarded period has ended, the timeframes that were previously disregarded will resume. Thus, the outbreak period will continue until 60 days after the end of the COVID-19 national emergency, but the maximum disregarded period for calculating relevant deadlines for any individual or plan cannot exceed one year.

Communication is necessary

The DOL advises plan sponsors to consider sending notices to participants regarding the end of the relief period, which may include reissuing or amending previous disclosures that are no longer accurate. Sponsors are also advised to notify participants who are losing coverage of other coverage options, such as through the recently announced COVID-19 special enrollment period in Health Insurance Marketplaces (commonly known as “Exchanges”).

Notice 2021-01 acknowledges that the COVID-19 pandemic and other circumstances may disrupt normal plan operations. The DOL reassures fiduciaries acting in good faith and with reasonable diligence that enforcement will emphasize compliance assistance and other relief. The notice further states that the IRS and U.S. Department of Health and Human Services concur with the guidance and its application to laws under their jurisdiction.

Challenges ahead

Plan sponsors and administrators will likely welcome this clarification but may be disappointed in its timing and in how it interprets the one-year limitation. Determinations of the disregarded period that depend on individual circumstances could create significant administrative challenges.

In addition to making case-by-case determinations, plan sponsors and administrators must quickly develop a strategy for communicating these complex rules to participants. Contact us for further information and updates.

© 2021 Covenant CPA

Taxpayers now have more time to file their tax returns and pay any tax owed because of the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic. The Treasury Department and IRS announced that the federal income tax filing due date is automatically extended from April 15, 2020, to July 15, 2020.

Taxpayers can also defer making federal income tax payments, which are due on April 15, 2020, until July 15, 2020, without penalties and interest, regardless of the amount they owe. This deferment applies to all taxpayers, including individuals, trusts and estates, corporations and other non-corporate tax filers as well as those who pay self-employment tax. They can also defer their initial quarterly estimated federal income tax payments for the 2020 tax year (including any self-employment tax) from the normal April 15 deadline until July 15.

No forms to file

Taxpayers don’t need to file any additional forms to qualify for the automatic federal tax filing and payment relief to July 15. However, individual taxpayers who need additional time to file beyond the July 15 deadline, can request a filing extension by filing Form 4868. Businesses who need additional time must file Form 7004. Contact us if you need assistance filing these forms.

If you expect a refund

Of course, not everybody will owe the IRS when they file their 2019 tax returns. If you’re due a refund, you should file as soon as possible. The IRS has stated that despite the COVID-19 outbreak, most tax refunds are still being issued within 21 days.

New law passes, another on the way

On March 18, 2020, President Trump signed the “Families First Coronavirus Response Act,” which provides a wide variety of relief related to COVID-19. It includes free testing, waivers and modifications of Federal nutrition programs, employment-related protections and benefits, health programs and insurance coverage requirements, and related employer tax credits and tax exemptions.

If you’re an employee, you may be eligible for paid sick leave for COVID-19 related reasons. Here are the specifics, according to the IRS:

  • An employee who is unable to work because of a need to care for an individual subject to quarantine, to care for a child whose school is closed or whose child care provider is unavailable, and/or the employee is experiencing substantially similar conditions as specified by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services can receive two weeks (up to 80 hours) of paid sick leave at 2/3 the employee’s pay.
  • An employee who is unable to work due to a need to care for a child whose school is closed, or child care provider is unavailable for reasons related to COVID-19, may in some instances receive up to an additional ten weeks of expanded paid family and medical leave at 2/3 the employee’s pay.

As of this writing, Congress was working on passing another bill that would provide additional relief, including checks that would be sent to Americans under certain income thresholds. We will keep you updated about any developments. In the meantime, please contact us with any questions or concerns about your tax or financial situation.

© 2020 Covenant CPA

Fewer people currently are subject to transfer taxes than ever before. But gift, estate and generation-skipping transfer (GST) taxes continue to place a burden on families with significant amounts of wealth tied up in illiquid closely held businesses, including farms.

Fortunately, Internal Revenue Code Section 6166 provides some relief, allowing the estates of family business owners to defer estate taxes and pay them in installments if certain requirements are met.

Sec. 6166 benefits

For families with substantial closely held business interests, an election to defer estate taxes under Sec. 6166 can help them avoid having to sell business assets to pay estate taxes. It allows an estate to pay interest only (at modest rates) for four years and then to stretch out estate tax payments over 10 years in equal annual installments. The goal is to enable the estate to pay the taxes out of business earnings or otherwise to buy enough time to raise the necessary funds without disrupting business operations.

Be aware that deferral isn’t available for the entire estate tax liability. Rather, it’s limited to the amount of tax attributable to qualifying closely held business interests.

Sec. 6166 requirements

Estate tax deferral is available if 1) the deceased was a U.S. citizen or resident who owned a closely held business at the time of his or her death, 2) the value of the deceased’s interest in the business exceeds 35% of his or her adjusted gross estate, and 3) the estate’s executor or other personal representative makes a Sec. 6166 election on a timely filed estate tax return.

To qualify as a “closely held business,” an entity must conduct an active trade or business at the time of the deceased’s death (and only assets used to conduct that trade or business count for purposes of the 35% threshold). Merely managing investment assets isn’t enough.

In addition, a closely held business must be structured as:

  • A sole proprietorship,
  • A partnership (including certain limited liability companies taxed as partnerships), provided either 1) 20% or more of the entity’s total capital interest is included in the deceased’s estate, or 2) the entity has a maximum of 45 partners, or
  • A corporation, provided either 1) 20% or more of the corporation’s voting stock is included in the deceased’s estate, or 2) the corporation has a maximum of 45 shareholders.

Several special rules make it easier to satisfy Sec. 6166’s requirements. For example, if an estate holds interests in multiple closely held businesses, and owns at least 20% of each business, it may combine them and treat them as a single closely held business for purposes of the 35% threshold. In addition, the section treats stock and partnership interests held by certain family members as owned by the deceased.

On the other hand, the interests owned by corporations, partnerships, estates and trusts are attributed to the underlying shareholders, partners or beneficiaries. This can make it harder to stay under the 45-partner/shareholder limit.

Contact us with questions.

© 2019 Covenant CPA