Thursday, August 17, 2017

Back-to-school marketing ideas for savvy business owners


August is back-to-school time across the country. Whether the school buses are already rumbling down your block, or will be soon, the start of the school year brings marketing opportunities for savvy business owners. Here are some examples of ways companies can promote themselves.

A virtual “brag book”

A creative agency posts on social media a vibrant photographic slideshow of employees and their children on the first day of school. It gives the parents an opportunity to show off their kids — and creates a buzz on the agency’s Facebook page.

The brag book’s innovative design also demonstrates the agency’s creative skills in a fun, personal way. And it helps attract talent by showcasing the company’s fun, family-friendly atmosphere.

Promos for parents

In August, many parents are in the midst of desperately trying to complete checklists of required school supply purchases. To help them cope, a home remodeling / landscape business offers free school supplies with every estimate completed during the month.

Customers receive colorful bags containing relatively inexpensive items such as pencils, pens, pads of paper and glue sticks all stamped with the company’s logo. And even though every estimate won’t result in a new job, completing more estimates helps create an uptick in fall projects.

Freebies for students

During the first week of school, a suburban burger joint offers students a free milkshake with the purchase of a burger. Kids love milkshakes and, because the freebie is associated with a purchase, the business preserves its profitability.

Meanwhile, the promotion brings entire families into the restaurant — widening the customer base and adding revenue. The campaign creates goodwill in the community by nurturing students’ enthusiasm for the beginning of the school year, too.

Determine what’s right for you

Obviously, these examples are industry-specific. But we hope you find them informative and inspirational. Our firm can help you leverage smart marketing moves to strengthen profitability and add long-term value to your business.

© 2017

Tuesday, August 15, 2017

How to determine if you need to worry about estate taxes


Among the taxes that are being considered for repeal as part of tax reform legislation is the estate tax. This tax applies to transfers of wealth at death, hence why it’s commonly referred to as the “death tax.” Its sibling, the gift tax — also being considered for repeal — applies to transfers during life. Yet most taxpayers won’t face these taxes even if the taxes remain in place.

Exclusions and exemptions

For 2017, the lifetime gift and estate tax exemption is $5.49 million per taxpayer. (The exemption is annually indexed for inflation.) If your estate doesn’t exceed your available exemption at your death, then no federal estate tax will be due.

Any gift tax exemption you use during life does reduce the amount of estate tax exemption available at your death. But every gift you make won’t use up part of your lifetime exemption. For example:

  • Gifts to your U.S. citizen spouse are tax-free under the marital deduction. (So are transfers at death — that is, bequests.)
  • Gifts and bequests to qualified charities aren’t subject to gift and estate taxes.
  • Payments of another person’s health care or tuition expenses aren’t subject to gift tax if paid directly to the provider.
  • Each year you can make gifts up to the annual exclusion amount ($14,000 per recipient for 2017) tax-free without using up any of your lifetime exemption.

What’s your estate tax exposure?

Here’s a simplified way to project your estate tax exposure. Take the value of your estate, net of any debts. Also subtract any assets that will pass to charity on your death.

Then, if you’re married and your spouse is a U.S. citizen, subtract any assets you’ll pass to him or her. (But keep in mind that there could be estate tax exposure on your surviving spouse’s death, depending on the size of his or her estate.) The net number represents your taxable estate.

You can then apply the exemption amount you expect to have available at death. Remember, any gift tax exemption amount you use during your life must be subtracted. But if your spouse predeceases you, then his or her unused estate tax exemption, if any, may be added to yours (provided the applicable requirements are met).

If your taxable estate is equal to or less than your available estate tax exemption, no federal estate tax will be due at your death. But if your taxable estate exceeds this amount, the excess will be subject to federal estate tax.

Be aware that many states impose estate tax at a lower threshold than the federal government does. So you could have state estate tax exposure even if you don’t need to worry about federal estate tax.

If you’re not sure whether you’re at risk for the estate tax or if you’d like to learn about gift and estate planning strategies to reduce your potential liability, please contact us. We also can keep you up to date on any estate tax law changes.

© 2017

Put your audit in reverse to save sales and use tax


It’s a safe bet that state tax authorities will let you know if you haven’t paid enough sales and use taxes, but what are the odds that you’ll be notified if you’ve paid too much? The chances are slim — so slim that many businesses use reverse audits to find overpayments so they can seek refunds.

Take all of your exemptions

In most states, businesses are exempt from sales tax on equipment used in manufacturing or recycling, and many states don’t require them to pay taxes on the utilities and chemicals used in these processes, either. In some states, custom software, computers and peripherals are exempt if they’re used for research and development projects.

This is just a sampling of sales and use tax exemptions that might be available. Unless you’re diligent about claiming exemptions, you may be missing out on some to which you’re entitled.

Many businesses have sales and use tax compliance systems to guard against paying too much, but if you haven’t reviewed yours recently, it may not be functioning properly. Employee turnover, business expansion or downsizing, and simple mistakes all can take their toll.

Look back and broadly

The audit should extend across your business, going back as far as the statute of limitations on state tax reviews. If your state auditors can review all records for the four years preceding the audit, for example, your reverse audit should encompass the same timeframe.

What types of payments should be reviewed? You may have made overpayments on components of manufactured products as well as on the equipment you use to make the products. Other areas where overpayments may occur, depending on state laws, include:

  • Pollution control equipment and supplies,
  • Safety equipment,
  • Warehouse equipment,
  • Software licenses,
  • Maintenance fees,
  • Protective clothing, and
  • Service transactions.

When considering whether you may have overpaid taxes in these and other areas, a clear understanding of your operations is key. If, for example, you want to ensure you’re receiving maximum benefit from industrial processing exemptions, you must know where your manufacturing process begins and ends.

Save now and later

Reverse audits can be time consuming and complicated, but a little pain can bring significant gain. Use your reverse audit not only to reap tax refund rewards now but also to update your compliance systems to help ensure you don’t overpay taxes in the future.

Rules and regulations surrounding state sales and use tax refunds are complicated. We can help you understand them and ensure your refund claims are properly prepared before you submit them.
© 2017

Monday, August 14, 2017

Rev up retirement offerings with an NQDC plan


Many business owners and executives would like to save more money for retirement than they’re allowed to sock away in their 401(k) plan. For 2017, the annual elective deferral contribution limit for a 401(k) is just $18,000, or $24,000 if you’re 50 years of age or older.

This represents a significantly lower percentage of the typical owner-employee’s or executive’s salary than the percentage of the average employee’s salary. Therefore, it can be difficult for these highly compensated employees to save enough money to maintain their current lifestyle in retirement. That’s where a nonqualified deferred compensation (NQDC) plan comes in.

Future compensation

NQDC plans enable owner-employees, executives and other highly paid key employees to significantly boost their retirement savings without running afoul of the nondiscrimination rules under the Employee Retirement Income Security Act of 1974 (ERISA). These rules apply to qualified plans, such as 401(k)s, and prevent highly compensated employees from benefiting disproportionately in comparison to rank-and-file employees.

NQDC plans are essentially agreements that the business will pay out at some future time, such as at retirement, compensation that participants earn now. Not only do such plans not have to comply with ERISA nondiscrimination rules, but they aren’t subject to the IRS contribution limits and distribution rules that apply to qualified retirement plans. So businesses can tailor benefit amounts, payment terms and conditions to the participants’ specific needs.

Various types

There are several types of NQDC plans. Among the most common are:

  • Excess benefit plans,
  • Wraparound 401(k) plans,
  • Supplemental executive retirement plans (SERPs),
  • Section 162 executive bonus plans, and
  • Salary-reduction plans.

The key to an NQDC plan: Because the promised compensation hasn’t been transferred to the participants, it’s not yet counted as earned income — and therefore it isn’t currently taxed. This allows the compensation to grow tax-deferred.

Further details

Naturally, there are challenges to consider. NQDC plans are subject to strict rules under Internal Revenue Code Sections 409A and 451, and plan loans generally aren’t allowed. But attracting and retaining top executive talent is a business imperative, and an NQDC plan can help you win the talent race with a powerful benefits package. Please contact our firm for further details.

© 2017

Will Congress revive expired tax breaks?


Most of the talk about possible tax legislation this year has focused on either wide-sweeping tax reform or taxes that are part of the Affordable Care Act. But there are a few other potential tax developments for individuals to keep an eye on.

Back in December of 2015, Congress passed the PATH Act, which made a multitude of tax breaks permanent. However, there were a few valuable breaks for individuals that it extended only through 2016. The question now is whether Congress will extend them for 2017.

An education break

One break the PATH Act extended through 2016 was the above-the-line deduction for qualified tuition and related expenses for higher education. The deduction was capped at $4,000 for taxpayers whose adjusted gross income (AGI) didn’t exceed $65,000 ($130,000 for joint filers) or, for those beyond those amounts, $2,000 for taxpayers whose AGI didn’t exceed $80,000 ($160,000 for joint filers).

You couldn’t take the American Opportunity credit, its cousin the Lifetime Learning credit and the tuition deduction in the same year for the same student. If you were eligible for all three breaks, the American Opportunity credit would typically be the most valuable in terms of tax savings.

But in some situations, the AGI reduction from the tuition deduction might prove more beneficial than taking the Lifetime Learning credit. For example, a lower AGI might help avoid having other tax breaks reduced or eliminated due to AGI-based phaseouts.

Mortgage-related tax breaks

Under the PATH Act, through 2016 you could treat qualified mortgage insurance premiums as interest for purposes of the mortgage interest deduction. The deduction phased out for taxpayers with AGI of $100,000 to $110,000.

The PATH Act likewise extended through 2016 the exclusion from gross income for mortgage loan forgiveness. It also modified the exclusion to apply to mortgage forgiveness that occurs in 2017 as long as it’s granted pursuant to a written agreement entered into in 2016. So even if this break isn’t extended, you might still be able to benefit from it on your 2017 income tax return.

Act now

Please check back with us for the latest information. In the meantime, keep in mind that, if you qualify and you haven’t filed your 2016 income tax return yet, you can take advantage of these breaks on that tax return. The deadline for individual extended returns is October 16, 2017.

© 2017

Material participation key to deducting LLC and LLP losses


If your business is a limited liability company (LLC) or a limited liability partnership (LLP), you know that these structures offer liability protection and flexibility as well as tax advantages. But they once also had a significant tax disadvantage: The IRS used to treat all LLC and LLP owners as limited partners for purposes of the passive activity loss (PAL) rules, which can result in negative tax consequences. Fortunately, these days LLC and LLP owners can be treated as general partners, which means they can meet any one of seven “material participation” tests to avoid passive treatment.

The PAL rules

The PAL rules prohibit taxpayers from offsetting losses from passive business activities (such as limited partnerships or rental properties) against nonpassive income (such as wages, interest, dividends and capital gains). Disallowed losses may be carried forward to future years and deducted from passive income or recovered when the passive business interest is sold.

There are two types of passive activities: 1) trade or business activities in which you don’t materially participate during the year, and 2) rental activities, even if you do materially participate (unless you qualify as a “real estate professional” for federal tax purposes).

The 7 tests

Material participation in this context means participation on a “regular, continuous and substantial” basis. Unless you’re a limited partner, you’re deemed to materially participate in a business activity if you meet just one of seven tests:

  1. You participate in the activity at least 500 hours during the year.
  2. Your participation constitutes substantially all of the participation for the year by anyone, including nonowners.
  3. You participate more than 100 hours and as much or more than any other person.
  4. The activity is a “significant participation activity” — that is, you participate more than 100 hours — but you participate less than one or more other people yet your participation in all of your significant participation activities for the year totals more than 500 hours.
  5. You materially participated in the activity for any five of the preceding 10 tax years.
  6. The activity is a personal service activity in which you materially participated in any three previous tax years.
  7. Regardless of the number of hours, based on all the facts and circumstances, you participate in the activity on a regular, continuous and substantial basis.

The rules are more restrictive for limited partners, who can establish material participation only by satisfying tests 1, 5 or 6.

In many cases, meeting one of the material participation tests will require diligently tracking every hour spent on your activities associated with that business. Questions about the material participation tests? Contact us.

© 2017

Thursday, August 3, 2017

4 tough questions to ask before expanding to a new location


Is business going so well that you’re thinking about adding another location? If this is the case, congratulations! But before you start planning the ribbon-cutting ceremony, take a step back and ask yourself some tough questions about whether a new location will grow your company — or stretch it too thin. Here are four to get you started:

1. What’s driving your interest in another location? It’s important to articulate specifically how the new location will help your business move toward its long-term goals. Expanding simply because the time seems right isn’t a compelling enough reason to take on the risk.

2. How solidly is your current location performing? Your time and attention will be diverted while you get the second location up and running. Yet you’ll need to maintain the revenue your first location is generating — especially until the second one is earning enough to support itself. So your original operation needs to be able to operate well with minimal management guidance.

3. How strong is the location you’re considering? Just as you presumably did with your first location, ensure the surrounding market is strong enough to support your company. The setting should complement your business, not pose potentially insurmountable challenges.

Also consider proximity to competitors. In some cases, such as a cluster of restaurants in a small downtown, proximity can help. The area becomes known as a destination for those seeking a night out. But too many competitors could leave you fighting with multiple other businesses for the same small group of customers.

4. Can you expand in other ways that are less costly and risky? You might be able to boost sales by adding inventory or extending hours at your current location. Another option is to revamp your website or mobile app to encourage more online sales.

Investments such as these would likely require a fraction of the dollars needed to open another physical location. Then again, a successful new site could mean a substantial inflow of revenue and additional market visibility. Let us help you crunch the numbers that will lead you to the right decision.

© 2017