After years of low examination rates, the IRS announced it will increase audits of small businesses by 50 %. This news comes during a time when complex tax law changes and economic stimulus programs, in response to COVID-19, have made businesses’ books even more complicated than usual.
The Illinois CPA Society cautions this could lead to audits and enforcement actions against many different businesses. These businesses range from long-held family-owned operations to the many online businesses launched as the pandemic drags on.
With the IRS planning to hire more specialized auditors to begin strengthening its enforcement efforts, ICPAS offers the following tips to safeguard your business interests and help avoid an audit:
Keep Clear Records
Accurately and honestly reporting all income, deductions, credits, expenses, and other figures can help keep an audit at bay. Make sure you have adequate documentation to support the figures reported on your business’ information return. This will make your individual tax return less likely to be have errors or be audited.
Mind your deductions
Unusual itemized deductions raise red flags for auditors, especially now that most taxpayers only claim the standard deduction. If your small business is driving you to seek unique deductions or report business losses, enlist the help of a CPA to guide you. Reporting losses for three years or more could increase your risk of an examination into whether you’re actually in business.
Make your estimated tax payments
If you anticipate owing more than $500 in taxes for your business entity throughout the year, you should be making quarterly estimated tax payments. Failing to make these payments raises your risk of an audit and/or penalties.
Today’s bookkeeping software utilizes tools to keep your records accurate and secure. This helps your CPA electronically prepare and file your tax returns—the best method for preventing the filing of erroneous returns that might trigger an audit.
Read up on the rules
Since many small businesses are formed as partnerships, it’s important to determine if yours is subject to the Centralized Partnership Audit Regime, which dramatically changed IRS partnership audit procedures.
If you’re starting to fret about your 2019 tax bill, there’s good news — you may still have time to reduce your liability if you do your tax return preparation carefully. Three strategies are available that may help you cut your taxes before year-end, including:
1. Accelerate deductions/defer income. Certain tax deductions are claimed for the year of payment, such as the mortgage interest deduction. So, if you make your January 2020 payment this month, you can deduct the interest portion on your 2019 tax return (assuming you itemize).
Pushing income into the new year also will reduce your taxable income. If you’re expecting a bonus at work, for example, and you don’t want the income this year, ask if your employer can hold off on paying it until January. If you’re self-employed, you can delay your invoices until late in December to divert the revenue to 2020.
You shouldn’t pursue this approach if you expect to land in a higher tax bracket next year. Also, if you’re eligible for the qualified business income deduction for pass-through entities, you might reduce the amount of that deduction if you reduce your income.
2. Maximize your retirement contributions. What could be better than paying yourself instead of Uncle Sam? Federal tax law encourages individual taxpayers to make the maximum allowable contributions for the year to their retirement accounts, including traditional IRAs and SEP plans, 401(k)s and deferred annuities.
For 2019, you generally can contribute as much as $19,000 to 401(k)s and $6,000 for traditional IRAs. Self-employed individuals can contribute up to 25% of your net income (but no more than $56,000) to a SEP IRA.
3. Harvest your investment losses. Losing money on your investments has a bit of an upside — it gives you the opportunity to offset taxable gains. If you sell under-performing investments before the end of the year, you can offset gains realized this year on a dollar-for-dollar basis.
If you have more losses than gains, you generally can apply up to $3,000 of the excess to reduce your ordinary income. Any remaining losses are carried forward to future tax years.
We can help
The strategies described above are only a sampling of strategies that may be available. Contact us if you have questions about these or other methods for minimizing your tax liability for 2019.
We all know the cost of college is expensive. The latest figures from the College Board show that the average annual cost of tuition and fees was $10,230 for in-state students at public four-year universities — and $35,830 for students at private not-for-profit four-year institutions. These amounts don’t include room and board, books, supplies, transportation and other expenses that a student may incur.
Two tax credits
Fortunately, the federal government offers two sizable tax credits for higher education costs that you may be able to claim:
1. The American Opportunity credit. This tax break generally provides the biggest benefit to most taxpayers. The American Opportunity credit provides a maximum benefit of $2,500. That is, you may qualify for a credit equal to 100% of the first $2,000 of expenses for the year and 25% of the next $2,000 of expenses. It applies only to the first four years of postsecondary education and is available only to students who attend at least half time.
Basically, tuition, course materials and fees qualify for this credit. The credit is per eligible student and is subject to phaseouts based on modified adjusted gross income (MAGI). For 2019, the MAGI phaseout ranges are:
Between $80,000 and $90,000 for unmarried individuals, and
Between $160,000 and $180,000 for married joint filers.
2. The Lifetime Learning credit. This credit equals 20% of qualified education expenses for up to $2,000 per tax return. There are fewer restrictions to qualify for this credit than for the American Opportunity credit.
The Lifetime Learning credit can be applied to education beyond the first four years, and qualifying students may attend school less than half time. The student doesn’t even need to be part of a degree program. So, the credit works well for graduate studies and part-time students who take a qualifying course at a local college to improve job skills. It applies to tuition, fees and materials.
It’s also subject to phaseouts based on MAGI, however. For 2019, the MAGI phaseout ranges are:
Between $58,000 and $68,000 for unmarried individuals, and
Between $116,000 and $136,000 for married joint filers.
Note: You can’t claim either the American Opportunity Credit or the Lifetime Learning Credit for the same student or for the same expense in the same year.
Credit for what you’ve paid
So which higher education tax credit is right for you? A number of factors need to be reviewed before determining the answer to that question. Contact us for more information about how to take advantage of tax-favored ways to save or pay for college.
The IRS opened the 2018 income tax return filing season on January 28. Even if you typically don’t file until much closer to the April 15 deadline, this year consider filing as soon as you can. Why? You can potentially protect yourself from tax identity theft — and reap other benefits, too.
What is tax identity theft?
In a tax identity theft scheme, a thief uses your personal information to file a fraudulent tax return early in the tax filing season and claim a bogus refund.
You discover the fraud when you file your return and are informed by the IRS that the return has been rejected because one with your Social Security number has already been filed for the same tax year. While you should ultimately be able to prove that your return is the legitimate one, tax identity theft can cause major headaches to straighten out and significantly delay your refund.
Filing early may be your best defense: If you file first, it will be the tax return filed by a would-be thief that will be rejected — not yours.
What if you haven’t received your W-2s and 1099s?
To file your tax return, you must have received all of your W-2s and 1099s. January 31 was the deadline for employers to issue 2018 Form W-2 to employees and, generally, for businesses to issue Form 1099 to recipients of any 2018 interest, dividend or reportable miscellaneous income payments.
If you haven’t received a W-2 or 1099, first contact the entity that should have issued it. If that doesn’t work, you can contact the IRS for help.
What are other benefits of filing early?
Besides protecting yourself from tax identity theft, the most obvious benefit of filing early is that, if you’re getting a refund, you’ll get that refund sooner. The IRS expects more than nine out of ten refunds to be issued within 21 days.
But even if you owe tax, filing early can be beneficial. You still won’t need to pay your tax bill until April 15, but you’ll know sooner how much you owe and can plan accordingly. Keep in mind that some taxpayers who typically have gotten refunds in the past could find themselves owing tax when they file their 2018 return due to tax law changes under the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act (TCJA) and reduced withholding from 2018 paychecks.
If you have questions about tax identity theft or would like help filing your 2018 return early, please contact us. While the new Form 1040 essentially does fit on a postcard, many taxpayers will also have to complete multiple schedules along with the form. And the TCJA has changed many tax breaks. We can help you ensure you file an accurate return that takes advantage of all of the breaks available to you.
The IRS has some good news for certain taxpayers — it’s waiving underpayment penalties for those whose 2018 federal income tax withholding and estimated tax payments came in under their actual tax liabilities for the year. The waiver recognizes that the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act’s (TCJA’s) overhaul of the federal income tax regime made it difficult for some taxpayers to determine the proper amount to have withheld from their paychecks or include in their quarterly estimated tax payments for 2018.
The new tax system
Many taxpayers started seeing more money in their paychecks in February 2018, after their employers made adjustments based on the IRS’s updated withholding tables. The revised tables reflected the TCJA’s increase in the standard deduction, suspension of personal exemptions, and changes in tax rates and brackets.
The TCJA roughly doubles the 2017 standard deduction amounts to $12,000 for single filers and $24,000 for joint filers in 2018. It also eliminates personal exemptions, which taxpayers previously could claim for themselves, their spouses and any dependents. In addition, it adjusts the taxable income thresholds and tax rates for the seven income tax brackets.
But, as the IRS cautioned when it released the revised withholding tables, some taxpayers could find themselves hit with larger income tax bills for 2018 than they faced in the past. This is because of some of the changes described above, as well as the reduction or elimination of many popular tax deductions. The tables didn’t account for the reduced availability of itemized deductions (or the suspension of personal exemptions).
For example, taxpayers who itemize can deduct no more than $10,000 for the aggregate of their state and local property taxes and income or sales taxes. Itemizing taxpayers also can deduct mortgage interest only on debt of $750,000 ($1 million for mortgage debt incurred on or before December 15, 2017) and can’t deduct interest on some home equity debt.
The higher standard deduction and expansion of family tax credits may offset the loss of some deductions and the personal exemptions. Indeed, the IRS predicts that most 2018 tax filers will receive refunds.
Taxpayers, however, generally can’t be certain how the numerous TCJA changes will play out for them, putting them at risk of underpayment penalties for 2018. The Government Accountability Office last year estimated that almost 30 million taxpayers will owe money when they file their 2018 personal income tax returns due to under-withholding. Those particularly at risk include taxpayers who itemized in the past but are now taking the standard deduction, two-wage-earner households, employees with non-wage sources of income and taxpayers with complex tax situations.
The tax code imposes a penalty (known as a Section 6654 penalty) if taxpayers don’t pay enough in taxes during the year. The penalty generally doesn’t apply if a person’s tax payments were:
At least 90% of the tax liability for the year, or
At least 100% of the prior year’s tax liability. (The 100% threshold rises to 110% if a taxpayer’s adjusted gross income is more than $150,000, or $75,000 if married and filing a separate return.)
Taxpayers generally can also avoid the underpayment penalty if they owe less than $1,000 in additional tax after subtracting their withholding and refundable credits.
The 2018 waiver
The IRS’s waiver lowers the 90% threshold to 85% — the IRS won’t penalize taxpayers who paid at least 85% of their total 2018 tax liability. For those who paid less than 85%, the IRS will calculate the penalty as it normally would.
To request the waiver, a taxpayer must file Form 2210, “Underpayment of Estimated Tax by Individuals, Estates, and Trusts,” with his or her 2018 federal income tax return.
The IRS already has indicated that it will issue refunds despite the government shutdown that has furloughed about 800,000 federal workers. The IRS is recalling some of its furloughed employees and plans to have about 46,000 of its employees back on the job in the coming days. Those employees represent only about 57% of its total workforce. These employees will be using newly updated systems and forms, which could result in further delays. In addition, they could face an onslaught of questions from taxpayers confused by the TCJA changes.
Moreover, the recalled employees won’t be paid during the shutdown, and declines in morale may hurt productivity. Unpaid workers at other federal agencies have called in sick at higher rates than usual since the government’s partial closure, and the union that represents IRS employees has sued the Trump administration over the pay issue.
Act now for 2019 taxes
The underpayment penalty waiver is effective only for 2018. The IRS is urging taxpayers to review their withholding now to ensure that the proper amount is withheld for 2019, especially taxpayers who end up owing more than expected this year. If you have questions regarding the waiver, please don’t hesitate to call us.
We provide services to a variety of industries, clients operating in multiple states, and internationally. A client doesn’t have to reside in Southern California for us to be effective. With our technology and experience, we are able to assist clients located throughout the United States.