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If charitable giving is part of your estate plan, consider a donor-advised fund

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Do you make sizable gifts to charitable causes? If you’re fortunate enough to afford it, you can realize personal rewards from your generosity and may be able to claim a deduction on your tax return. But once you turn over the money or assets, you generally have no further say on how they’re used. You can exercise greater control over your charitable endeavors using a donor-advised fund (DAF). Bear in mind that under the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act, you must itemize to benefit from the charitable contributions deduction.

Setting up a DAF

As the name implies, your recommendations are integral to a DAF. First, you contribute to a fund typically managed by an independent sponsoring organization or an arm of a reputable financial institution. The minimum contribution generally is $5,000. In exchange for handling the management of the fund, the financial institution or organization usually charges an administrative fee based on a percentage of the deposit.

Next, you make recommendations as to how the DAF should distribute the assets to your favorite charities. Though technically you no longer have control of the money that has been contributed, the fund administrator will generally follow your advice. While you’re deciding which charities to support, your contribution is invested and grows tax-free. Then, your charitable choices are vetted by the organization to ensure that the recipients are qualified charitable organizations. Finally, the administrator cuts the checks and the funds are distributed to the charities.

DAF pros and cons

The advantages of using a DAF include an immediate tax deduction. Your contribution to the DAF is deductible in the tax year in which the initial contribution is made. You don’t have to wait until the fund makes distributions to the designated recipient. In addition, if you contribute appreciated property such as securities, there’s no capital gains tax on the appreciation in value. It remains untaxed forever. Moreover, contributions to a DAF aren’t subject to estate tax or the probate process, and the amounts contributed to the fund are invested and can grow without any tax erosion.

Conversely, despite some misconceptions, contributors to DAFs have effectively no control over how the money is spent once it’s disbursed to charities. Donors can’t benefit personally. For instance, you can’t direct that the money be used to buy tickets to a local fundraiser. In addition, detractors have complained about high administrative fees.

If you believe a DAF is the right charitable funding vehicle for you, be sure to shop around. Fund requirements — such as minimum contributions, minimum grant amounts and investment options — vary from fund to fund, as do the fees they charge. Contact us to help you find a fund that meets your needs.

© 2018

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Can you deduct business travel when it's combined with a vacation?

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At this time of year, a summer vacation is on many people’s minds. If you travel for business, combining a business trip with a vacation to offset some of the cost with a tax deduction can sound appealing. But tread carefully, or you might not be eligible for the deduction you’re expecting.

General rules

Business travel expenses are potentially deductible if the travel is within the United States and the expenses are “ordinary and necessary” and directly related to the business. (Foreign travel expenses may also be deductible, but stricter rules apply than are discussed here.)

Currently, business owners and the self-employed are potentially eligible to deduct business travel expenses. Under the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act, employees can no longer deduct such expenses. The potential deductions discussed below assume that you’re a business owner or self-employed.

Business vs. pleasure

Transportation costs to and from the location of your business activity may be 100% deductible if the primary reason for the trip is business rather than pleasure. But if vacation is the primary reason for your travel, generally none of those costs are deductible.

The number of days spent on business vs. pleasure is the key factor in determining whether the primary reason for domestic travel is business:

  • Your travel days count as business days, as do weekends and holidays — if they fall between days devoted to business and it would be impractical to return home.
  • Standby days (days when your physical presence is required) also count as business days, even if you aren’t called upon to work those days.
  • Any other day principally devoted to business activities during normal business hours also counts as a business day.

You should be able to claim business was the primary reason for a domestic trip if business days exceed personal days.

Deductible expenses

What transportation costs can you deduct? Travel to and from your departure airport, airfare, baggage fees, tips, cabs, etc. Costs for rail travel or driving your personal car are also eligible.

Once at the destination, your out-of-pocket expenses for business days are fully deductible. Examples of these expenses include lodging, meals (subject to the 50% disallowance rule), seminar and convention fees, and cab fare. Expenses for personal days aren’t deductible.

Keep in mind that only expenses for yourself are deductible. You can’t deduct expenses for family members traveling with you — unless they’re employees of your business and traveling for a bona fide business purpose.

Substantiation is critical

Be sure to accumulate proof of the business nature of your trip and keep it with your tax records. For example, if your trip is made to attend client meetings, log everything on your daily planner and copy the pages for your tax file. If you attend a convention or seminar, keep the program and take notes to show you attended the sessions. You also must properly substantiate all of the expenses you’re deducting.

Additional rules and limits apply to the travel expense deduction. Please contact us if you have questions.

© 2018

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Your original will: Does your family know where to locate it?

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In a world that’s increasingly paperless, you’re likely becoming accustomed to conducting a variety of transactions digitally. But when it comes to your last will and testament, only an original, signed document will do.

A photocopy isn’t good enough

Many people mistakenly believe that a photocopy of a signed will is sufficient. In fact, most states require that a deceased’s original will be filed with the county clerk and, if probate is necessary, presented to the probate court. If your family or executor can’t find your original will, there’s a presumption in most states that you destroyed it with the intent to revoke it. That means the court will generally administer your estate as if you’d died without a will.

It’s possible to overcome this presumption — for example, if all interested parties agree that a signed copy reflects your wishes, they may be able to convince a court to admit it. But to avoid costly, time-consuming legal headaches, it’s best to ensure that your family can locate your original will when they need it.

Storage options

There isn’t one right place to keep your will — it depends on your circumstances and your comfort level with the storage arrangements. Wherever you decide to keep your will, it’s critical that 1) it be stored safely, and 2) your family know how to find it. Options include:

  • Having your accountant, attorney or another trusted advisor hold your will and making sure your family knows how to contact him or her, or
  • Storing your will at your home or office in a fireproof lockbox or safe and ensuring that someone you trust knows where it is and how to retrieve it.

Storing your original will and other estate planning documents safely — and communicating their location to your loved ones — will help ensure that your wishes are carried out. Contact us if you have questions about other ways to ensure that your estate plan achieves your goals.

© 2018

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IRS Audit Techniques Guides provide clues to what may come up if your business is audited

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IRS examiners use Audit Techniques Guides (ATGs) to prepare for audits — and so can small business owners. Many ATGs target specific industries, such as construction. Others address issues that frequently arise in audits, such as executive compensation and fringe benefits. These publications can provide valuable insights into issues that might surface if your business is audited.

What do ATGs cover?

The IRS compiles information obtained from past examinations of taxpayers and publishes its findings in ATGs. Typically, these publications explain:

  • The nature of the industry or issue,
  • Accounting methods commonly used in an industry,
  • Relevant audit examination techniques,
  • Common and industry-specific compliance issues,
  • Business practices,
  • Industry terminology, and
  • Sample interview questions.

By using a specific ATG, an examiner may, for example, be able to reconcile discrepancies when reported income or expenses aren’t consistent with what’s normal for the industry or to identify anomalies within the geographic area in which the taxpayer resides.

What do ATGs advise?

ATGs cover the types of documentation IRS examiners should request from taxpayers and what relevant information might be uncovered during a tour of the business premises. These guides are intended in part to help examiners identify potential sources of income that could otherwise slip through the cracks.

Other issues that ATGs might instruct examiners to inquire about include:

  • Internal controls (or lack of controls),
  • The sources of funds used to start the business,
  • A list of suppliers and vendors,
  • The availability of business records,
  • Names of individual(s) responsible for maintaining business records,
  • Nature of business operations (for example, hours and days open),
  • Names and responsibilities of employees,
  • Names of individual(s) with control over inventory, and
  • Personal expenses paid with business funds.

For example, one ATG focuses specifically on cash-intensive businesses, such as auto repair shops, check-cashing operations, gas stations, liquor stores, restaurants and bars, and salons. It highlights the importance of reviewing cash receipts and cash register tapes for these types of businesses.

Cash-intensive businesses may be tempted to underreport their cash receipts, but franchised operations may have internal controls in place to deter such “skimming.” For instance, a franchisee may be required to purchase products or goods from the franchisor, which provides a paper trail that can be used to verify sales records.

Likewise, for gas stations, examiners must check the methods of determining income, rebates and other incentives. Restaurants and bars should be asked about net profits compared to the industry average, spillage, pouring averages and tipping.

Avoiding red flags

Although ATGs were created to enhance IRS examiner proficiency, they also can help small businesses ensure they aren’t engaging in practices that could raise red flags with the IRS. To access the complete list of ATGs, visit the IRS website. And for more information on the IRS red flags that may be relevant to your business, contact us.

© 2018

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Do you need to adjust your withholding?

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If you received a large refund after filing your 2017 income tax return, you’re probably enjoying the influx of cash. But a large refund isn’t all positive. It also means you were essentially giving the government an interest-free loan.

That’s why a large refund for the previous tax year would usually indicate that you should consider reducing the amounts you’re having withheld (and/or what estimated tax payments you’re making) for the current year. But 2018 is a little different.

The TCJA and withholding

To reflect changes under the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act (TCJA) — such as the increase in the standard deduction, suspension of personal exemptions and changes in tax rates and brackets — the IRS updated the withholding tables that indicate how much employers should hold back from their employees’ paychecks, generally reducing the amount withheld.

The new tables may provide the correct amount of tax withholding for individuals with simple tax situations, but they might cause other taxpayers to not have enough withheld to pay their ultimate tax liabilities under the TCJA. So even if you received a large refund this year, you could end up owing a significant amount of tax when you file your 2018 return next year.

Perils of the new tables

The IRS itself cautions that people with more complex tax situations face the possibility of having their income taxes underwithheld. If, for example, you itemize deductions, have dependents age 17 or older, are in a two-income household or have more than one job, you should review your tax situation and adjust your withholding if appropriate.

The IRS has updated its withholding calculator (available at irs.gov) to assist taxpayers in reviewing their situations. The calculator reflects changes in available itemized deductions, the increased child tax credit, the new dependent credit and repeal of dependent exemptions.

More considerations

Tax law changes aren’t the only reason to check your withholding. Additional reviews during the year are a good idea if:

  • You get married or divorced,
  • You add or lose a dependent,
  • You purchase a home,
  • You start or lose a job, or
  • Your investment income changes significantly.

You can modify your withholding at any time during the year, or even multiple times within a year. To do so, you simply submit a new Form W-4 to your employer. Changes typically will go into effect several weeks after the new Form W-4 is submitted. (For estimated tax payments, you can make adjustments each time quarterly payments are due.)

The TCJA and your tax situation

If you rely solely on the new withholding tables, you could run the risk of significantly underwithholding your federal income taxes. As a result, you might face an unexpectedly high tax bill when you file your 2018 tax return next year. Contact us for help determining whether you should adjust your withholding. We can also answer any questions you have about how the TCJA may affect your particular situation.

© 2018

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Individual tax calendar: Important deadlines for the remainder of 2018

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While April 15 (April 17 this year) is the main tax deadline on most individual taxpayers’ minds, there are others through the rest of the year that you also need to be aware of. To help you make sure you don’t miss any important 2018 deadlines, here’s a look at when some key tax-related forms, payments and other actions are due. Keep in mind that this list isn’t all-inclusive, so there may be additional deadlines that apply to you.

Please review the calendar and let us know if you have any questions about the deadlines or would like assistance in meeting them.

June 15

  • File a 2017 individual income tax return (Form 1040) or file for a four-month extension (Form 4868), and pay any tax and interest due, if you live outside the United States.
  • Pay the second installment of 2018 estimated taxes, if not paying income tax through withholding (Form 1040-ES).

September 17

  • Pay the third installment of 2018 estimated taxes, if not paying income tax through withholding (Form 1040-ES).

October 1

  • If you’re the trustee of a trust or the executor of an estate, file an income tax return for the 2017 calendar year (Form 1041) and pay any tax, interest and penalties due, if an automatic five-and-a-half month extension was filed.

October 15

  • File a 2017 income tax return (Form 1040, Form 1040A or Form 1040EZ) and pay any tax, interest and penalties due, if an automatic six-month extension was filed (or if an automatic four-month extension was filed by a taxpayer living outside the United States).
  • Make contributions for 2017 to certain retirement plans or establish a SEP for 2017, if an automatic six-month extension was filed.
  • File a 2017 gift tax return (Form 709) and pay any tax, interest and penalties due, if an automatic six-month extension was filed.

December 31

  • Make 2018 contributions to certain employer-sponsored retirement plans.
  • Make 2018 annual exclusion gifts (up to $15,000 per recipient).
  • Incur various expenses that potentially can be claimed as itemized deductions on your 2018 tax return. Examples include charitable donations, medical expenses and property tax payments.

But remember that some types of expenses that were deductible on 2017 returns won’t be deductible on 2018 returns under the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act, such as unreimbursed work-related expenses, certain professional fees, and investment expenses. In addition, some deductions will be subject to new limits. Finally, with the nearly doubled standard deduction, you may no longer benefit from itemizing deductions.

© 2018

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Provide for your spouse, then your kids, with a QTIP trust

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If you want to preserve as much wealth as possible for your children, but you leave property to your spouse outright, there’s no guarantee your objective will be met. This may be a concern if your spouse has poor money management skills or if you two don’t see eye to eye on how assets should be distributed to your children. In both of these situations, a properly designed qualified terminable interest property (QTIP) trust may be the answer.

How does it work?

A QTIP trust provides your spouse with income for life while preserving the trust principal for your children. By appointing a qualified trustee, you can have greater confidence that the assets will be invested and managed wisely. And the trust documents will ensure that, upon your spouse’s death, the trust assets will be distributed to your children according to your wishes.

What are the estate tax advantages?

Unlike most other trusts, a QTIP trust is eligible for the unlimited marital deduction. This deduction allows you to transfer any amount of property to your U.S. citizen spouse — either during your life or at death — free of gift and estate taxes.

Ordinarily, to qualify for the marital deduction, you must transfer property to your spouse outright or through a trust in which your spouse’s interest cannot terminate for any reason. A QTIP trust is an exception to this rule: It allows you to provide your spouse with a “terminable interest” in the trust while still qualifying for the marital deduction. The assets will, however, be included in your spouse’s taxable estate.

Harness the power

There are many ways you can provide for your spouse and children after you die. But harnessing the power of a QTIP trust might just be right for your situation. We can help you determine the best tools to ensure your estate is distributed as you desire while keeping taxes to a minimum.

© 2018

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Get started on 2018 tax planning now!

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With the April 17 individual income tax filing deadline behind you (or with your 2017 tax return on the back burner if you filed for an extension), you may be hoping to not think about taxes for the next several months. But for maximum tax savings, now is the time to start tax planning for 2018. It’s especially critical to get an early start this year because the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act (TCJA) has substantially changed the tax environment.

Many variables

A tremendous number of variables affect your overall tax liability for the year. Looking at these variables early in the year can give you more opportunities to reduce your 2018 tax bill.

For example, the timing of income and deductible expenses can affect both the rate you pay and when you pay. By regularly reviewing your year-to-date income, expenses and potential tax, you may be able to time income and expenses in a way that reduces, or at least defers, your tax liability.

In other words, tax planning shouldn’t be just a year-end activity.

Certainty vs. uncertainty

Last year, planning early was a challenge because it was uncertain whether tax reform legislation would be signed into law, when it would go into effect and what it would include. This year, the TCJA tax reform legislation is in place, with most of the provisions affecting individuals in effect for 2018–2025. And additional major tax law changes aren’t expected in 2018. So there’s no need to hold off on tax planning.

But while there’s more certainty about the tax law that will be in effect this year and next, there’s still much uncertainty on exactly what the impact of the TCJA changes will be on each taxpayer. The new law generally reduces individual tax rates, and it expands some tax breaks. However, it reduces or eliminates many other breaks.

The total impact of these changes is what will ultimately determine which tax strategies will make sense for you this year, such as the best way to time income and expenses. You may need to deviate from strategies that worked for you in previous years and implement some new strategies.

Getting started sooner will help ensure you don’t take actions that you think will save taxes but that actually will be costly under the new tax regime. It will also allow you to take full advantage of new tax-saving opportunities.

Now and throughout the year

To get started on your 2018 tax planning, contact us. We can help you determine how the TCJA affects you and what strategies you should implement now and throughout the year to minimize your tax liability.

© 2018

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A review of significant TCJA provisions affecting small businesses

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Now that small businesses and their owners have filed their 2017 income tax returns (or filed for an extension), it’s a good time to review some of the provisions of the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act (TCJA) that may significantly impact their taxes for 2018 and beyond. Generally, the changes apply to tax years beginning after December 31, 2017, and are permanent, unless otherwise noted.

Corporate taxation

  • Replacement of graduated corporate rates ranging from 15% to 35% with a flat corporate rate of 21%
  • Replacement of the flat personal service corporation (PSC) rate of 35% with a flat rate of 21%
  • Repeal of the 20% corporate alternative minimum tax (AMT)

Pass-through taxation

  • Drops of individual income tax rates ranging from 0 to 4 percentage points (depending on the bracket) to 10%, 12%, 22%, 24%, 32%, 35% and 37% — through 2025
  • New 20% qualified business income deduction for owners — through 2025
  • Changes to many other tax breaks for individuals — generally through 2025

New or expanded tax breaks

  • Doubling of bonus depreciation to 100% and expansion of qualified assets to include used assets — effective for assets acquired and placed in service after September 27, 2017, and before January 1, 2023
  • Doubling of the Section 179 expensing limit to $1 million and an increase of the expensing phaseout threshold to $2.5 million (these amounts will be indexed for inflation after 2018)
  • New tax credit for employer-paid family and medical leave — through 2019

Reduced or eliminated tax breaks

  • New disallowance of deductions for net interest expense in excess of 30% of the business’s adjusted taxable income (exceptions apply)
  • New limits on net operating loss (NOL) deductions
  • Elimination of the Section 199 deduction, also commonly referred to as the domestic production activities deduction or manufacturers’ deduction — effective for tax years beginning after December 31, 2017, for noncorporate taxpayers and for tax years beginning after December 31, 2018, for C corporation taxpayers
  • New rule limiting like-kind exchanges to real property that is not held primarily for sale (generally no more like-kind exchanges for personal property)
  • New limitations on excessive employee compensation
  • New limitations on deductions for certain employee fringe benefits, such as entertainment and, in certain circumstances, meals and transportation

Don’t wait to start 2018 tax planning

This is only a sampling of some of the most significant TCJA changes that will affect small businesses and their owners beginning this year, and additional rules and limits apply. The combined impact of these changes should inform which tax strategies you and your business implement in 2018, such as how to time income and expenses to your tax advantage. The sooner you begin the tax planning process, the more tax-saving opportunities will be open to you. So don’t wait to start; contact us today.

© 2018

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Tax record retention guidelines for individuals

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What 2017 tax records can you toss once you’ve filed your 2017 return? The answer is simple: none. You need to hold on to all of your 2017 tax records for now. But it’s the perfect time to go through old tax records and see what you can discard.

The 3-year and 6-year rules

At minimum, keep tax records for as long as the IRS has the ability to audit your return or assess additional taxes, which generally is three years after you file your return. This means you potentially can get rid of most records related to tax returns for 2014 and earlier years. (If you filed an extension for your 2014 return, hold on to your records at least until the three-year anniversary of when you filed your extended return.)

However, the statute of limitations extends to six years for taxpayers who understate their adjusted gross income by more than 25%. What constitutes an understatement may go beyond simply not reporting items of income. So a common rule of thumb is to save tax records for six years from filing, just to be safe.

What to keep longer

You’ll need to hang on to certain tax-related records beyond the statute of limitations:

  • Keep tax returns themselves forever, so you can prove to the IRS that you actually filed a legitimate return. (There’s no statute of limitations for an audit if you didn’t file a return or you filed a fraudulent one.)
  • Hold on to W-2 forms until you begin receiving Social Security benefits. Questions might arise regarding your work record or earnings for a particular year, and your W-2 could provide the documentation needed.
  • Retain records related to real estate or investments as long as you own the asset, plus at least three years after you sell it and report the sale on your tax return (or six years if you want to be extra safe).
  • Keep records associated with retirement accounts until you’ve depleted the account and reported the last withdrawal on your tax return, plus three (or six) years.

Other documents

We’ve covered retention guidelines for some of the most common tax-related records. If you have questions about other documents, please contact us.

© 2018

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